Perfection and Procrastination in Daily Practice

Recently I have spent most of my practice sessions “warming up” and playing exercises. The repertoire I am working on is singularly uninspiring, so this is mostly a maneuver in procrastination.

But it’s great: taking the time to do and re-do an exercise while focusing your awareness of what’s going on under your skin is never boring. Did I miss that high A? Yes, great, have to do it again. This time keep the air going. The high A takes care of itself. Missed the triplet arpeggio? Good, have to do it again, this time don’t loose connection to left arm. Damn, time to do repertoire….just one more exercise, though.

I remember Pat Morris, piccolo and Feldenkreis teacher, setting the shoulders of a student to rights. After the student played again she said, “see, you improved without having to practice!”  As followers of the Alexander Technique rightly point out, it is the opposite of “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again”. Instead: “If at first you don’t succeed, never try again, at least not in the same way”. That is what I like to think what I am doing with my exercises. Sometimes I play without a mistake, but it is not perfection I am after.

In know, I know, I should carry this attitude into the repertoire-learning part of my practice. To comfort myself (and further procrastinate) I carry a book with me to practice sessions: Pedro de Alcantara’s “Indirect Procedures – a Musician’s Guide to the Alexander Technique”.

The objective of daily practice should be to cultivate the best possible use of the self on a general basis, and to apply it correctly on a specific basis …In other words, working on right living should take precedence over working on right playing.


 Patanjali (author of the Yoga Sutra) would probably agree, and he would have certainly something to say about my procrastination. Most wisdom traditions teach the concept of non-attachment (which I suck at). What often gets missed is that they also teach one to practice non-aversion (which I have a slightly better chance at). In the end, it might be the approach of the concert date which changes my attitude. So much for wisdom.

One last quote from Pedro de Alcantara:

I believe there are four separate but interrelated factors … in achieving truly free action: giving up trying, giving up judging, ridding yourself of hesitation and eagerness, and timing your actions precisely.

Here I have a chance in hell of making some sort of progress :-)




Crowd-Source Question, What Are the Difficulties Performing Mircotonal Music?

This is a bit unusual for me, but I would like to informally survey performer’s thoughts on performing mircotonal music. Not thoughts about microtonal music in general, but the issues, problems, difficulties or joys of actually playing or singing the stuff. Which notations are best? Are the difficulties worth the acoustic result? Are the acoustic results hear-able, worth the effort?

I realize there are as many uses of microtonality as there are composers who use it, but if there are especially good or bad examples, I would be interested in knowing who and why.



Notating New Sounds – Rewrite?

I love it when a composer takes the flute in hand and explores its sounds while writing for flute. It shows more dedication and curiosity than just looking up techniques in a book (not to disparage the good books about writing for flute).  Sometimes, it can produce an original sound, but sometimes it re-invents the wheel. Which is fine, but the wheel may come with a new symbol and complicated instructions. I have seen this cause frustration, esp. when the instructions are lengthy and not in your language. Once you reach understanding: “ah ha, so it is ____(fill in known technique)” it may be easy to adjust to a new notation. If not, then I am faced with the question, do I spend time re-notating, or visually re-adjusting to the score? This is something I will come back to.

In no way do I wish to discourage composers from exploring flute sounds themselves. However, be aware that today there are not only books, but a rash of flutist composers out there who have spent decades thinking about how to write new sounds in ways that flutists can easily understand. So if you really want to delve into the world of new sounds, check out these composers and their written scores: (Feel free to add to this list in the comments, but please keep it to composers who use extended sounds.)

It might interest you to look at the late flute works of Karlheinz Stockhausen. Thanks to his collaborator, Kathinka Pasveer, everything is 100 % playable and extremely well notated. Xi, Flautina and Kathinka’s Gesang are several examples of well-notated techniques.

You will see that even among flutist composers there is no standardization of extended techniques. However if you study them, you get a feel for what is accepted and what the players are used to reading. So take your pick; if the player has questions, you can always refer back to the piece or composer from which you took the notation.

Now, about re-writing, or rather, re-notating. When the question comes whether to spend my time re-notating or to spend time learning a tricky or non-intuitive (for me) notation, I almost always choose to re-notate. This might be to more easily read the notation of an extended technique, microtones, or rhythm, etc. Please note this is a last-resort solution. I am already comfortable with many variations of key-click, tongue pizz, air sound, and multiphonic notations. However, when the score presents a real visual problem for me, I decide to re-notate. This has the following advantages:

  • I get to know the music really well away from the instrument
  • While practicing, I can easily and more directly process the composer’s intent (i.e. the music)
  • In concert, I feel more secure. When under pressure, there is enough extraneous sensory information and certainly there are enough extraneous emotions to deal with. If you are not playing from memory, the score is your anchor. It has to be solid.

In the olden days, copying scores was one way students learned music. There is a lot to be said for this method, but I don’t recommend subjecting 21st century ensemble players to it. Solo pieces are different matter. However, if your piece is being work-shopped along with six other pieces in the course of one day, your piece will stand out, but not in the way you hoped :)



Are intervals born of air or lips? Let the leopard decide.

On forums and in masterclasses there has been a lot of discussion about which element plays a more important role in producing intervals on the flute. Aside from the change of fingering, do we change more with the lips, with the air speed, or with air volume?

Take the fingering element out of the equation and try playing through the harmonic series on low C or D. How do you produce the upper partials?

The trend these days is to say the air makes the changes. Emily Beynon makes a good example and case for air speed:

In this (long) masterclass series, Phillipe Bernold has a student start the day on a rising dominant 7 chord. Here he suggests the most important thing to start the day is to wake up the air column. There should be a natural increase of both volume and speed of air as you ascend. The lips stay neutral. This is very important for legato.

Here is why I agree that the air, either volume or speed, rather than the lips should play the major role in interval moving. Please note I do not deny that the lips must remain flexible, and that exercises for suppleness also include playing intervals and harmonics (at least some of mine do).

As humans, which is more necessary for survival, fast reflexes of our breathing apparatus, or of our facial muscles? Imagine a pre-historic flutist out strolling, searching for good material to build the perfect bone or wood flute. She is set upon by a leopard. She screams and runs. The lightning-quick reflexes of that sharp intake of breath to make sound and to get enough oxygen for the muscles to run is what saves her life. Fast-talking a leopard has been a known fail.

A Cro Magnon Bone Kingma-System, gimme gimme!!

“A Cro Magnon Bone Kingma-System, gimme gimme!!”

So it is my unscientific opinion that the muscles controlling the breathing apparatus, including the diaphragm, have much quicker reflexes, thus can make quicker adjustments than the facial muscles used in the embouchure. Of course, we all know some fast talkers, but they are a scientific law unto themselves!

Wildlife disclaimer: when stalked by a predator in real life, do not act like a prey animal and run. You will be chased. And caught. Unless they are bees.



Scale Practice – Superlocrian!

If you are a diligent scale and arpeggio practicer, you might get tired of the major-minor-chromatic (and seconds, thirds, fourths, etc) routine. I want to share my enthusiasm for my scale of choice this week: the Superlocrian. If you have studied jazz, it won’t be new to you. This scale goes my many names. I actually prefer the term Diminished-Whole Tone, because that is what it is (see below). According to the Wikipedia entry, other names for it are Altered, Dominant Whole-Tone and Locrian flat four.

First you take the melodic minor scale but don’t alter it coming down. (Yes, you are allowed to do that in jazz!) The modes of this scale are a gold mine for other jazz scales, but that will be another post.


Now, start on the 7th degree of the scale, and presto:DWTb

The first 4 notes are a diminished scale (alternating half and whole steps), the remaining notes form a whole tone scale. How cool is that? Plug this in to Taffanel-Gaubert no. 4 and you have a new flavor for your routine and scale games. There are a number of books for jazz flutists that may have other exercises, but I have not surveyed this literature yet. Any suggestions?

For more information on the web, especially about the chords that this scale generates, here are some links.

How to use the diminished whole tone scale by Pete Swiderski

Reverse engineering our dominant scales by Anton Schwartz (great graphics)

A diminished whole tone lick by Bob Hartig



Inharmonicity of hearing

In a previous post on flutonation I admitted my tendency to play melodic octaves too wide. Re-reading Doris Geller‘s super book Praktische Intonationslehre  I realize this is a universal phenomenon, which she describes as the “inharmonicity of hearing” or perhaps “inharmonicity of the ear”. (original: Inharmonizität des Gehörs).

Doris Geller

Doris Geller

Here is my paraphrased translation of what she has to say (original German below):

The ear seems to naturally favor tones whose harmonics are spread, as those of a piano are. [Read about this in my previous blog entry here.] This preference is most strongly expressed when we hear successive tones: we find jumps of octaves, fifths, and fourths ideal when they are slightly wider than  justly tuned.

And not only these intervals! In a small-scale study she shows the range and average of what students and teachers considered to be an ideal-sounding melodic, linear interval (as opposed to a chordal, vertical interval) relative to equal temperment:geller

The vertical lines for each interval show the range in which the test subjects found the interval to be ideal. The short horizontal dashes (which may look more like a dots in this picture) through these lines show the average. The 0 line is the interval at equal temperment. The intervals are referred to by number (8= Octave), “kl.” means minor, “gr.” means major.

This really shows how subjective listening can be.  3rds, 6ths, 2nds and 7ths can bear a fairly wide range of variation: they are often context-dependent on their environment. It is no surprise that, out of context, listeners will find their own comfort zone.

I paraphrase from page 84:

The largest diversions at 5.6 cents are quite small, but this can add up. If for example you play these wide fifths or fourths in succession, the third note will produce an octave 8 cents too wide. A whole tone scale with these “ideal” seconds would produce and octave 30 cents too high! However, in solo playing, our pitch memory keeps us from making these mistakes, since temporary overall pitch relationships and the relation to the tonic of the key keep us in line.

Hopefully, when playing an unaccompanied, tonal solo piece, your intonational “snap to grid” function is checked!

Since we get more than the lion’s share of melodic roles, and we have a fantastic body of unaccompanied literature, the expressive and tasteful use of intonation is an important tool for flutists. I am fascinated by the possibilities, and the different practices of vertical (chordal) and linear (melodic) intonation. You will probably be hearing more from me about this as I continue to re-read. It is a pity that Ms. Geller’s book has not been translated into English.


original German from page 83:

Das Gehör scheint von Natur aus Klänge zu bevorzugen, deren Teiltöne als etwas gespreizt liegen, änlich wie es beim Klavierton der Fall ist. … Noch stärker äußert siche diese Vorliebe aber bei nacheinander erklingenden Tönen. Wir empfinden einen Oktav-, Quint- oder Quartsprung erst dann als ideal, wenn er im Vergleich zur reinen Stimmung etwas zu weit ist.

page 84:

Die Abweichungen sind mit maximal 5,6c zwar gering, doch können sie sich bei Aneinanderreihung in einer Richtung erheblich aufsummieren. Wenn man z.B. Quinte und Quarte in ihrer erweiterten Form in einer Richtung hintereinander spielt, gelangt man beim dritten Ton zu einer um 8c erweiterten Oktave. Und würde man eine Ganztonleiter ausschließlich aus “Idealsekunden” spielen, so wäre die Oktave am Schluß um 30c zu hoch! …In der Einstimmigkeit bewahrt unsunser Tonhöhengedächtnis vor derartigen Intonationsfehlern, denn auch die zeitlich übergreifenden Tonbeziehungen sowie die Beziehungen zum Grundton der gerade herrschenden Tonart werden zur Intonationskontrolle mit herangezogen.


You can’t escape yourself

moonI made myself laugh while doing Moon Salutations (yoga exercises similar to the Sun Salutations) last night. The thought came to me: if I were to suddenly become an enlightened being, I would frighten myself. The thought really amused me and I got to thinking about the idea of self, escape, and whether there is a separate self from which we can escape. These questions are not within the scope of my flute blog.

But wait, if there is no escape, can’t we at least as artists live in ways which allow growth and re-definition?

Yes, to a degree. I have “escaped” the person I could have been, had I not become a musician. However, there are basic formats I can’t escape, reminders of which never cease. In a post from 2009, I recounted the sexist attitudes of an old-world, now-deceased teacher who, by his own admission, gave more professional attention his male students. Later that same year, I met a teacher of my own generation who, in front of his class of female students, said he would take any male student no matter how he played just to escape drowning in a sea of estrogen. OK, the drowning-in-estrogen part I made up, but he may as well have said it.

This is not going to be a feminist rant, I promise, but allow me one more example, hopefully more universal. A student of mine played brilliantly for a final exam. During the critique and pep-talk, one professor, who I have long known to be a decent person, said to her: you are a great player, but you need to project yourself, your musical presence (not meaning the sound, it was huge) more strongly on stage if you want to get anywhere because you are a small Asian woman. I thought of what might happen if this were an American institution, the hue and cry of sexism and racism it would incite. However, I know this person, he was sincerely trying to be helpful. He was just very direct and personal, which Germans tend to be (although the Russians certainly give them a run for their money).

Two deductions I can make of all this: 1) Flutistic reality can be seen as liberating. When I was younger, I thought ability and accomplishment were the answers to everything, and I was a prisoner to the idea that I was my flute playing. When it comes to being in the profession, though, any flutist in the running is awesome, so it is you, your musicianship, your attitudes, your person, who ends up with the job. Or not. However, if you were in the running, you are still awesome and still you, if you have ever taken time to cultivate a you. Perhaps not everyone’s idea of liberty, but for me works.

2) There is no escape from who you are, neither should there be a need for escape. In a perfect world. The world does need changing, but I am not a fan of revolution, it usually brings back the same mess in a different guise. I believe more in the permanent, although maddeningly slow, changes that evolution brings. What can one do except work towards being a kick-ass flutist and kick-ass person? Many things, I suppose, but those are the things I have chosen.
Photo credit: Maxim Senin


Harry Partch’s Yankee Doodle, and my tin oboe doodlings

Tony Dixon cylindrical bore aluminum whistle

Harry Partch’s Yankee Doodle Fantasy is scored for soprano, flex-a-tones, tin flute(s), tin oboe and chromelodeon. The tin flutes were easy enough to aquire, thanks to the folks at  For the tin flute, I played a Tony Dixon in E (transposing the part). For the two whistles part, I added a Clarke in D, pulled out to where it almost reached a C#. This gave me the needed minor third between the whistles.

Clarke tin whistle with a conical bore

For the tin oboe I found no good solution and ended up playing the part on chalumeau (an early single reed instrument), borrowed from my esteemed colleague Carl Rosman.  My research and asking around didn’t come up with anyone living who had heard or performed the piece with an actual tin oboe. Henry Brant, who played the premiere with Partch, passed away in 2008 and to my knowledge did not leave a recording. After the premiere Yankee Doodle was recorded with oboe ordinario.

Therefore I began my experiments with tin whistles in order to make a tin oboe. You need a whistle with a removable mouthpiece. Then I used a soft oboe reed with a plug of beeswax that I softened, formed onto the whistle and allowed to harden. Then the quacking started. Given the conical nature of the oboe, it is no surprise that I had no luck with the cylindrical  Dixon whistles, so I then attempted the conical-bored Clarkes. However, they are conical the wrong way around, so I put the oboe reed on the “wrong” end and did manage to get some interesting notes. However, I couldn’t manage to get the actual pitches or the range needed for the piece (d-minor pentatonic scale, one octave). At least that gave me the hint as to how Henry Brant may have built his tin oboe. Had I the time and funds to buy and try out numerous conical whistles, or if I were handy working with metal, this is the direction I which I would have gone. Still, how one can achieve an entire octave on such an instrument is a mystery to me, but maybe it is my lack of skills that held me back.

I also tried a large duduk that we had lying around the musikFabrik from Benedict Mason’s the Neurons…, but the range was not covered. I also considered modifying one of Wolf’s Kinderoboes. K1 is basically a conical-bored recorder with an oboe reed, but pitched too high. K2/2 was too expensive. Had I the funds and wherewithal to work with wood, I perhaps could have modified K1.

The chalumeau presented the easiest solution, it covered the range, it is still a reed instrument albeit a single reed, and to our tastes, it gave the right sort of “exotic” sound that fit the music and text.

A word on the microtonality. I admit to playing the tin whistles and the chalumeau tempered, and not making any adjustments with putty or tape over the holes in order to exactly match the chromelodeon notes. Doing so  would have given me a “good” first octave, but would have wreaked (unwanted) havoc on  the second and third octaves. Since the part is so virtuosic and requires a range of 2 and a half octaves, I decided to leave it.  I did do quite a lot of hole-taping when I put the two tin whistles together to make Partch’s so-called Bolivian Double Flute for Delusion of the Fury. That will be the subject of a later entry!




Effective Use (or not) of percussive sounds

I have already written a lot on the subject of percussive sounds, but here I would like to add a few subtleties of usage.

We will be performing Grisey’s Talea soon, and preparing the score, I am struck by how fantastic the piece is, yet how awkwardly some of the percussive effects are used. My goal is not to fault Grisey, but since there are composers who may emulate him (and why not? he was a wonderful composer!), I want to smooth the way. It seems to me Grisey and many other composers have a misconception of what these effects can actually achieve.

A tongue or lip pizzicato does not add volume to a note (especially in an ensemble context), and is never louder than an ordinario note played at the same volume. It is a misconception to think that starting a note with a pizz will intensify its initial volume. A really forceful accent with the airstream, or with the langue sorté, will do the job better. In a solo work, a pizz will give a satisfying pop, and is an effective way to vary articulation. This pop is produced by closing off the resonance of chest cavity and most of the flute tube (since there is minimal air traveling down it), and is not compensated by the meager resonance inside the mouth.There is no air stream to project the sound. This is why I am frustrated by the following passages, where if I play a true pizz, I get a lessening of volume and intensity – just the opposite of what is musically called for:

This next sample shows a similar volume difficulty with the tongue ram at the end of a crescendo on the downbeat of 26, along with the difficulty of switching quickly from closed embouchure position to open in the two bars after 26. And I have to ask, who the hell is going to hear those key clicks? This is why they fall so often into my “why bother” category of techniques. Great use of pizzicato here, though.

Why am I bothering with such small things? The musical intentions of the composer are clear, and one can easily perform the gesture with alternatives.  However, students of flute and composition are getting younger and younger. Our youth ensemble is tackling repertoire I never dreamed of when I was in my teens. They may not have the experience to immediately grasp what is needed musically. They will, at first, take the score literally, thus getting frustrated. If their teacher is also inexperienced, there will be a double frustration and the trust between composer (alive or dead) and performer damaged.


Writing Harmonics for Flute – when is a harmonic not a harmonic?

Harmonics are great! I love playing them, but I want to mention several common mistakes composers make when using them for flute. Here is the most prevalent – writing harmonics that are too low:

The same is true for piccolo too.

Another issue,  I will call it a misuse rather than a mistake, is writing quiet harmonics in the upper half of the 3rd octave up to the 4th octave. I suspect when composers write high quiet harmonics, they are imagining a sort of color that a violin harmonic can produce in that register: thin, ethereal, a bit breathy, maybe just slightly (and only slightly) out-of-tune. Or perhaps they might believe that a high quiet harmonic is easier to produce than a high quiet regular note. Well, folks, it doesn’t work like that. To get the upper partials on a flute, you have to blow like hell if you want to produce notes with more than 4 ledger lines above the staff. (Someday I will make a funny video on the subject for your amusement.)

Now if you have done this as a composer, you are in good company. Berio did it in the Sequenza. Generations of flutists have tossed around different solutions, alternate fingerings, whistle tones, anything to avoid playing a real harmonic fingering!

Wolfgang Rihm has done this too. Here are two examples from Nach-Schrift. Once again, the Bb. The D proceeding it works well as a G harmonic.

The following G# harmonic is borderline because it starts loudly, then one can change to the normal fingering. The G after that is also borderline.  You can see that my predecessor overblew it as a C, but for me that would be too flat.

If you have read this far in order to get a hard-and-fast rule, I must disappoint you.  I think the 4-ledger-line rule (as seen in the high G above) is a good guideline for my abilities, but there might be other opinions out there. Just please be aware that very high, quiet harmonics on the flute can not match the delicacy of a violin. An experienced player can indeed match such a sound, but will do so not by overblowing a resistant lower partial, but by using a fingering that adds ventilation and reduces resistance.