No More Tears – Breath as a Leit Motif

For the past year, my colleagues and I have been working with a wonderful vocal coach, Martin Lindsay. His sessions are structured in a way that got me thinking. We start with light stretching and breathing exercises, just enough to activate the abdominal muscles and diaphragm. I won’t go into detail about what these exercises entail because I want to focus on the how not the what. The successful how is that these exercises become a leit motif throughout the session; we come back to them regularly, if only briefly. This is such a wonderful way to come back to basics, especially after a difficult passage where tension may have built up. For years I have been thinking of this but using it only haphazardly in my teaching and practice. Wouldn’t it make sense for all of us to use breath awareness as a leit motif on a more regular basis? Imagine how many physical and psychological injuries may be avoided!

I am reminded of a masterclass I attended some years ago given by a high profile flute teacher. The lesson started with a focused breathing session and an intelligent discussion of the breathing process. Then as the student played, she stumbled on a technical passage, over and over again. The teacher, instead of bringing her back to the relaxed and focused state she had at the beginning, continued to berate her for not being prepared. In the end, she was in tears, and I thought, what a shame! Perhaps she didn’t practice enough, but perhaps she didn’t practice well enough? Isn’t it also our job as teachers to address the issue of how to practice? Breathing awareness (whether you do actual exercises or not) should not be just an item on our checklist to be crossed off at the beginning of our session. We have to incorporate our awareness of good breathing in the literal sense of the word: to absorb it into our bodies. This will include repetition just as the development of a difficult passage, or the development of any good habit, will include repetition. To make any practice successful, whether musical, spiritual or the latest diet, it is not enough to just pay lip service. I pledge to make breathing awareness my leit motif.

Composing Articulation for Winds – Tell Me What To Say


This is an imaginary passage I have composed that has annoying and confusing articulation marks.

If you are not a wind player, the fact that this is annoying may puzzle you. It’s like this: as a wind player, from the very beginning you receive strict instructions on the use of the tongue. If there is no slur mark over a note, you initiate the note with the tongue, if it is under a slur mark, you don’t. Simple as that, a digital, on – off situation. The passage above, as written, contains too many possibilities for easy reading. It involves guesswork, and that involves time. In some cases, a composer may want to leave the details of articulation up to the player, and that is fine. I enjoy 18th Century repertoire for this reason, and it is perhaps worthwhile for composers to familiarize themselves with what J. J.  Quantz has to say about the possibilities of articulation in his treatise “On Playing the Flute”.  (If for nothing else than to understand the weight of history that flutists bear.)

Time spent on interpretive decisions is interesting time. Time spent on guesswork is not.

This is the 21st Century, and when I see music that is exactly notated, I want to play it exactly and I want to know what it is I have to say, and how I should say it. Because that is what articulation is all about: how you pronounce your phrase. I want to think that the composer has put some thought into this, as I am putting some practice time into his or her piece.

And, dear composers, please don’t say about a slur: “oh, it’s just a phrase mark.” Really? I am a musician, I make phrases for a living. I don’t need to be told to make one. But I do need to know when to use my tongue and when to hold it. And please don’t just say “oh, play that legato.” It doesn’t answer my question because I can articulate legato as well as slur something legato. Which should I do?

So if I haven’t pissed you off yet and you really want to see the possibilities for articulating the above passage, here they are.

The first two staccato B-flats are probably meant to be played:



but perhaps the composer meant:


I would really like to be sure.

Now, the two E’s, the second one having a staccato, could be played:


But did the composer mean: Articulationwell, maybe not, but how can I be sure? So I interrupt practice to contact him or her, or interrupt the rehearsal time to ask, or take time out of the rehearsal break in which I have twenty other things to get done.

Several years ago I was working intensely on solo improvisation. I kept a notebook with comments on segments I had recorded. The words “Say something, dammit!” were written in block notes at one point. When you listen to music, if it articulates nothing, it says nothing.


Wish List

Things I wish I had spent more time on as a student:

  • Sight reading
  • Scales in intervals of a sixth – and sevenths and ninths! There are too many of those intervals flying around in contemporary music.
  • Improving my writing skills
  • Yoga or sports
  • Learning acoustics. I wasted a lot of time trying to blow, blow, blow in order to play loudly. A little studying to understand how the flute sound is produced and travels will really help.
  • Practicing piano or harpsichord to keep up my keyboard skills. They do come in handy, especially for arranging and teaching.

Oh dear, this list could go on if I list everything I wish I had studied more of (traverso, Jazz), and it will lose the thread of attempting to make a sort of temporal commentary on my past, hopefully with some relevance to students of the present. Besides, one does not have to be a student to study these things.

Things I wish I had spent less time on:

  • Worrying
  • Studying for academic stuff that would go in and out of my short-term memory. (OK, grades are important for academic scholarships and grants, or if you are going to continue studying. But if getting a playing job is your next step, consider signing up for something physical instead of academic.) Nobody looking to hire me as a flutist has given a crap that I graduated summa cum laude from the University of Pittsburgh way back in the 20th Century.
  • Soliciting criticism at random. It’s great to play for as many people as possible and to be exposed to many points of view, but the earlier you can choose people you trust to be honest and constructively critical about your abilities, the better.

These lists will probably grow as my experiences sift through time.

Looking Inward

Samir_ChatterjeeHere are some notes from a tabla workshop I attended, given by Samir Chatterjee. Like my former teacher, Chatterjee is one of the few Indian musicians who has a clear understanding of the Western education system and is able to teach non-Indians by verbal communication, i.e., someone who can explain his music in a way that makes sense to us.

I won’t get into the technical things we learned, you can find explanations for basic tabla bols here, for example. Or better, from Chatterjee’s Book A Study of Tabla. I’ll only share the personal stuff.

One thing that gave me hope: he said you don’t really become a musician until you are over fifty. Before that you are too busy with yourself. And if you have had a near-death experience, even better!

The Hindustani practice of chilla-khana intrigues me. You are shut in seclusion for 40 days with your instrument for intense study. Breaks are only for bathroom, naps and snacking. The room is darkened and there is no contact with the outside world; however, the process must be monitored by a guru. He talked about the emotions experienced, you might cry for a whole day, then find yourself laughing for no reason. Certainly, the person coming out is very different from the person who went in!

Our senses were created to perceive and make sense of the outside world. Chatterjee mentioned that one aspect of the philosophy of the Vedas is to turn these attentions inward. What happens when we direct these senses inside?

He also spoke of his relationship to his instruments, and the relationship we all develop with our instruments. He maintains that his tablas can speak to him. If I start thinking this is strange, I have to remind myself that it is exactly this I am striving for when improvising or interpreting. How can I speak through my instrument if it is completely stumm? 

And speaking of aging, he told how after a concert he encountered a renowned musician weeping inconsolably. Perhaps someone died? No, this musician, at the age of ninety-five, was finally able to play something he’d been working on his whole life. So if you see me crying after a concert someday, don’t worry!

Harmonic Exercises, with Articulation too!

When playing through the harmonic series, the second overtone (a twelth above the fundamental) is a great check point. When students begin learning harmonics, this one often proves elusive because of the tendency to cover too much of the embouchure hole. By rolling out a bit and blowing down, it usually speaks. The following exercise I find useful because it begins by alternating between the normal fingerings and the harmonic fingerings. For those new to harmonic exercises, it provides a good anchor.


The next page gives a workout for the lips, and introduces articulation to harmonics, although it is also useful to practice legato in bars 13 to 38. I find articulation exercises with harmonics, such as those in Trevor Wye’s book, to be great stabilizers and strengtheners for the embouchure.



Continuing with articulation, I am further inspired by Paul Edmund-Davies’ “The 28 Day Warm Up Book”. His articulation exercises are a mainstay of my warm up, and I decided to go one further and translate some into harmonic exercises. (Read my review of this book here.) This first exercise strengthens the elusive second overtone:



This next one overblows the third overtone. It is for those already strong in this area; please don’t over do it, or any of these exercises. It is useful to combine these variations with Edmund-Davies’ original.



Composing Dynamics

In composition workshops, the question sometimes arises: in an ensemble or orchestral situation, how does one write dynamics for individual instruments? For example, if you want a balanced forte among winds and brass, does one write forte for the winds (assuming they are not playing in the altissimo register) but mezzo forte for the brass? Or does one just write forte for all instruments and expect the musicians (or conductor) to balance things out?

In spite of the wonderful composers (Ligeti among them) who have taken trouble to relativize dynamics for us, I would say: Write what you want to hear, not what you think we can play. Trust me. Let us do the musical work (or at least give the conductor something to do :-) ).

Other considerations: instrument building and playing techniques change over time. Abilities among players vary considerably. I can think of flute players who can drown out a brass section. If I were one of them, I would feel patronized by relative dynamics. Sadly, I am not, but I still feel sometimes annoyed by assumptions made by composers. For example, some composers assume a flute tone in the 3rd octave will be loud, so he or she will write pp for every passage in that register. Sometimes it’s obvious that is going on, sometimes it isn’t. What to do? Do you want your future performers spending their rehearsal time on your piece arguing with each other or putting your piece together?

This bears repeating:

Write what you want to hear, not what you think we can play.

Thank you for reading.




Thoughts on Improvisation: Confessions of Cardew and Tolstoy

In preparation for a masterclass at the St. Petersburg School of Improvisation, I have been re-reading Cornelius Cardew‘s Treatise Handbook and Towards an Ethic of Improvisation. So many of his words tie in to what has been going on in the background of my life: the press and forum debates over the recent Geneva Competition (two second prizes awarded, no first), my reading Nabokov’s Lectures on Russian Literature, and Tolstoy’s Confession.

Let’s start with the Geneva Competition debate of technical mastery vs. artistic mastery. I find this argument to be rather old hat, so didn’t contribute to the forum fury it unleashed. However, I was touched by how Cardew tied this matter in with eroticism (mention sex, and you immediately have my attention) and the heaviest question (according to Tolstoy) that plagues us: what is the point of life?

From Cardew’s Towards an Ethic of Improvisation:

Postulate that the true appreciation of music consists in emotional surrender, and the expression music-lover becomes graphically clear and literally true. Anyone familiar with the basis of much near-eastern music will require no further justification for the assertion that music is erotic. Nevertheless, decorum demands that the erotic aspect of music be approached with circumspection and indirectly. That technical mastery is of no intrinsic value in music (or love) should be clear to anyone with a knowledge of musical history. […] Elaborate forms and a brilliant technique conceal a basic inhibition, a reluctance to directly express love, a fear of self-exposure. […]

Love is a dimension like time, not some small thing that has to be made more interesting by elaborate preamble. The basic dream – of both love and music – is of a continuity, something that will live forever. The simplest practical attempt at realising this dream is the family. In music we try to eliminate time psychologically – to work in time in such a way that it loses its hold on us, relaxes its pressure. Quoting Wittgenstein again: “If by eternity is understood not endless temporal duration but timelessness, then he lives eternally who lives in the present”.

Eternity, infinity – here lies the connection to the everlasting question of Tolstoy, one that plagued him and drove him (and drives many others) to deep depression: “Why should I live, that is to say, what real, permanent result will come out of my illusory transitory life–what meaning has my finite existence in this infinite world?”

The question of connecting the finite to the infinite lies in the practices of religion, yoga and many other philosophies that lie outside my area of expertise. It raises the question of faith, a non-rational subject on which Tolstoy writes very sensitively and rationally. But what if we take Cardew’s suggestion, as quoted by Wittgenstein, by working within time and not viewing the eternal (infinite) as endless, but timeless. Improvised music, created on the spot, is eternally in the present. Cardew writes:

From a certain point of view improvisation is the highest mode of musical activity, for it is based on the acceptance of music’s fatal weakness and essential and most beautiful characteristic – its transcience. The desire always to be right is an ignoble taskmaster, as is the desire for immortality. The performance of any vital action brings us closer to death; if it didn’t it would lack vitality.

Arguable, but food for thought. For further reading, see also Sketches Towards a Performance of Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise by Alex South and Richard Craig.

Ligeti Piano Concerto, Practice Notes to Self

ligetiThe following are suggestions for practice in preparation for the flute and piccolo passages of (my favorite ensemble piece!) the Ligeti Piano Concerto. They are my own ideas, not authentic or especially original – except for one remark on the piccolo solo in the second movement that Ligeti gave me during the recording session with the ASKO Ensemble and Pierre-Laurent Aimard. I am also writing this for myself, should I lose my notes.

The harmonics in the first passage I finger an octave and a fifth below, mostly. The notes above G# I use special fingerings, not “real” harmonics. (See my entry When Is a Harmonic Not a Harmonic?) I give no fingerings for these notes, because they change from performance to performance, depending on the intonation of my colleagues and my own condition. In spite of the cross-rhythm going on, these passages should be played smoothly and evenly. I like to practice them like this:Ligeti_Piano1

The piccolo solo at “O”, though marked poco leggiero, should not be played staccato, the eighths should sound full. The lightness is in the rhythmic inflection.

In the second movement at “A”, Ligeti told me to forget the rests, the eighth notes should be longer than notated. I play this passage with very little vibrato, although this is a personal decision. Ligeti had no opinion on the matter. My goal is that the listener should not really know what instrument is playing – just some sort of haunting sound similar to the ocarinas that come in later. It is good not to play too quietly before the bassoon entry. The bassoon enters in its altissimo register, and can be very difficult to control.

In the third movement, the harmonics at “M” I finger two octaves below. For the high A, I add the G# key, and for that high B at 2 bars before “N”,  I don’t play a harmonic – just use the normal fingering.

In the fourth movement after “Y” the texture becomes very complex due to several rhythmic layers. You have eighth-note triplet movement (always with displaced accents in groups of 2 or 3) and sixteenth-note movement (always in accented groups of 2 or 3). The base tempo is quarter-note = 138, so I like to play around shifting between regular triplets at this speed, then playing the sixteenth note passages that have accents in groups of 3 as triplets, but at tempo 184. For example, the second bar of “Y”, starting the third beat, would look like this in my exercise:


There are two clarifications to the part: 1)”DD”, the third note (A) should be a sixteenth-note. 2)There should be a rallentando from “EE”.

The fifth movement has That Lick at “C”. I find it useful to keep the C key down for the whole thing, even the beginning, since I have a B-foot. That works better than the gizmo-key in this situation, for me. I also leave out the trill key on the high B-flats, and use the following harmonics to facilitate fingering:


An important note on the rhythm. The time signatures in this piece function as a grid on which many networks of cross rhythms are laid. Therefore, in the indivudual parts, it is important to not interpret the rhythms in a traditional agogic manner; that is, with stronger beats on the 1 and 3, weaker beats on the 2 and 4. In other words, there is no traditional hierarchy of beats within a measure. Ligeti has carefully written accents where they should be. In light of this, it is also important that synchopations are not played as synchopations (with a playful “kick” on the off-beat). Your off-beat might not be an off-beat in the grand scheme of cross rhythms.

Clement Power, who will be conducting our next performance with Ensemble Musikfabrik on April 19th, has come up with the following exercises based on the opening of the piece, which I find quite useful:



I’d be curious about other’s experience with this piece, so please feel free to comment.

Ligeti Hamburg Concerto (Horn Concerto)

I thought it would be a nice segue from my last post on the True Range of the Flute to a work that, great as it is, has serious issues regarding range. Composers, if you have overstepped the bounds of the flute’s range, you are in good company.

Gyorgi Ligeti is just about my favorite composer. However, the fourth movement of his Hamburg Concerto poses serious problems. The first flute, playing flute, not piccolo, has to contend with this, at tempo dotted-quarter = 120:

Hamburgisches Konzert - Flöte 1-24B

I have heard this played on flute, the 1st player just ignoring the octave indication. If I’m not mistaken, this was the solution on the recording that was made with Ligeti. I did not work with Ligeti on this piece, but have played under conductors who have experience with the piece. What I did was play this passage on piccolo, but that poses another problem later on since there is no time to change back to flute. Our solution was this: 1st player plays piccolo until “l”, leaving out low D-flats and E-flats (they are doubled anyway). Have the 2nd flute play “l” through “m” while 1st changes to flute, then 1st resumes playing at “m”.

Earlier on in this movement, the 1st player has the following passage. The Notes after “V” are possible, but when played on flute, it throws the dynamic balance of the ensemble totally off:

Hamburgisches Konzert - Flöte 1-2(1)3A

I solved it by changing to piccolo at “U”. The last time I played it, I thought “what the hey”, and just played from the beginning of the movement on piccolo (transposing the written part down an octave, of course). It makes for better dynamics at “T” (not that it is impossible on flute). The only note you have to leave out is the B in the third bar of “T”. I don’t present this as an authentic or brilliant solution, it was just a whim and the conductor went with it.

I hope this helps future flutists working on this cool piece (including myself, just so I remember what we did)! If you know of other solutions, I am all ears.

The True Range of the C Flute

Back in the USSR, when information was really suppressed, many people were hungry for the truth. Now governments hide the truth from us under a deluge of information. I think composers suffer from this deluge, but it is not a government conspiracy.

The true range of the concert C flute is a matter of public domain, published in text books, on the internet, and God knows where else as a cold, hard fact. It is neither a state secret nor rocket science. Yet why is it ignored?

Sometimes I can understand why. We often work with composers of electronic music who transfer their sound world into “scores” and leave the instrumentation up to us. There are also arrangers who don’t sweat the details of register, and tell me up-front that I am free to choose which size flute I want to use when. That’s cool.

But when that’s not the case, how to bring this issue out from under the deluge information? I considered several options. Swear words, Russell Brand revolutionary rhetoric, sexing-up – what can I do to get your attention?

Here is my first attempt. Download it here as a PDF, or view it here. Suggestions are welcome, but please keep it family-friendly.