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!


Shiri Sivan Masterclass, Mental Preparation

On May 24, 2012 Shiri Sivan, principal flutist of the Bremer Philharmoniker (Bremen Philharmonic) gave a masterclass for our flute studio at the conservatory in Bremen. This semester our students played a project as guests with the Bremer Philharmoniker and came back with glowing reports of the young new principal, recently graduated from the Von Karajan Academy of the Berlin Philharmonic. It was very motivating for them to play next to a player of such high caliber who was roughly the same age, so I immediately invited her to give an informal masterclass on orchestral repertoire.

I want to focus here on her talk about mental preparation, but first I will mention several points she made about technique during the lessons.

A general observation of hers is that our students don’t use the flow of their air to carry their phrases.  She also encouraged them to let the air flow work and use less movement of the embouchure and jaw to reach intervals and register changes (not to the point of inflexibility, of course). And because modern-day flutes are so well made, if you use good air flow, and focus the air into a good sound, your intonation will automatically be very near the mark without having to make excess movement. This was nice to hear in light of the recent hoopla about flute intonation and tone-hole placement.

An interesting point about articulation: her strategy to achieve lightness is to practice single tonguing rapidly, working your way up to sixteenth notes at 132. In real life, you would double tongue passages that quick, but if you practice short passages with super fast single tonguing, say, a one-octave scale up and down, your tongue can’t help but move lightly. It can’t move quickly in a heavy way. Then try to transfer this lightness to double tonguing.

Her talk on mental preparation for auditions was based on her own recent experiences. Listening to her, I wondered if she had done a lot of reading research, since what she said resonated with what I have read over the years. But in fact, she said she had done little or no reading. Here is a synopsis:

Long-term preparation
1. Gain good experiences, not necessarily through major concerts or auditions, but any positive performance. Oscar Wilde said “Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes”. You can learn from mistakes but it is absolutely essential for our confidence building to learn from your successes, what were you doing right?

2. The journey of self-acceptance. Some of those with a strong sense of profession and passion may have   defined themselves in terms of what they do at an early stage, and missed the adolescent self-searching phase of asking “Who am I”? But if you know and accept yourself you have an unlimited source of power. Know that you are a worthy human being, no matter how well you play the flute. Judge yourself harshly on your effort, but never on your result! This is the most complicated and important topic in this context, because your peace and happiness as a person is also important.

3. Keeping in proportions. Think big, looking for an orchestral job may be a journey, either short or long, but it is a phase (like your studies at school) and must pack a lot of positivity and patience. No audition is crucial!! It is a process of learning and gaining experience which will end in the right place when you are ready for it.

Mid-term preparation
1. Mental readiness. This should start as soon as the audition raises your stress levels when you think realistically about it, it may be six months or two weeks ahead. There is no reason why the performance should be any different from in your imagination, imagining it negatively is not a good sign.
Try to imagine the situation as specifically as possible, every piece of information, the hall acoustics, the jury members, the pieces, your clothing. The twist is: you need to imagine the situation as accurately as possible, but also positively. Maybe in the beginning it will be hard, but with persistence it will change slowly. Stick to those positive feelings. Remember them from past performances where you played well, and make it part of your daily practice. Run-throughs are important, but take them at a distance of one week from the audition, so you have time to draw conclusions and get emotionally detached from the positive or negative experience.

2. Keep positive. Words have more power than we think. When we make excuses like “I am not ready”, “only the students of …….. can win”, “I’m just doing this for practice”, etc. we think that we are reducing the expectations from outside and inside, but actually, we are unconsciously convincing ourselves of failure. We are doing a mental preparation for a bad performance. Mantras can influence our consciousness if you really stick to them, even when you don’t believe in them. Actually, a mantra would be quite useless if you already do believe in it. Just find one and repeat it again and again, as stupid as it sounds.  It will be your immune system for negative, “what if” thoughts or expectations. Another important point is belief, belief that you are worthy of the position, and to accept success as an option.

3. Did I mention be well prepared?

Short-term preparation
1. The obvious: Sleep. Eat. Rest. Put the flute in its case 24 hours before the audition. On the day of the audition, make sure to organize yourself so that you have enough time to warm up before the audition. Wear something you feel comfortable in.

2. You may find yourself warming up in a room with 20 other flutists, which is tiring, distracting, stressful and unhelpful for your sound and mood. If you have a long time to wait, it is better to keep your energy and find a quiet place to rest. The most important thing in auditions is concentration. It cannot be achieved in a second, it must be achieved with some kind of meditation. Find a way to make your body run slowly, and to let your mind focus on one thing. Find a place of silence, even if it means that you close yourself in the toilets 10 minutes before your audition. Go through your difficult parts slowly in your mind, breathe deeply, move slowly, do stretches, don’t talk to anyone, and don’t play with your iphone. Concentration is the best antidote for stress, it routes your mind to the right place. If in the audition you don’t manage to concentrate on the music, concentrate on being concentrated. Knowledge reduces the levels of stress, gives confidence and the ability to talk to ourselves during the performance, to be our own teacher. If we have in mind a clear image of how we want to sound, and how we want to achieve it, this inner discussion will not only provide good results, but will also take the focus away from the stress factors.

Stress is good
Having said all this about managing stress, I believe it is an integral, important part of our profession. It is a motivating factor, and in the moment of performance can keep us alert and concentrated. It is only a matter of proportion. The key is not to eliminate fear, but to gain some control over it.

An audition is a concert. If you don’t have fun, no one will. The jury has heard 100 flutists (less fun for them) and they just want to enjoy your performance, they want you to succeed. The jury is not looking or mistakes, and no one loses an audition because of making one. Of course the jury is looking for a good flutist, but mainly for a musician who suits their personal taste, and who they believe would suit the orchestra well. And that is not something you can control, so just do your best.

 Thank you, Shiri!


Improvisation: Freedom and Responsibility

Maggie Nicols

On Sunday, May 20th I took part in a vocal improvisation workshop led my Maggie Nicols in Cologne. My husband is a huge fan, and signed me up in absentia while I was on tour in the US. There were about 25 of us, professional singers, lay singers, theater people, and professional instrumentalists. Some were seasoned improvisors who had taken part in Phil Minton’s Feral Choir Project, which I am deeply sorry to have missed. I absolutely love Phil Minton’s vocals, he is wonderful and grotesque, often stirring up something unrecognized and stagnant within.

I wanted to write this in order to remember several of Maggie Nicols’ exercises that stuck with me. I thought they were great ways to introduce controlled improvisation to a group.

One is to start with only a short sound, a single syllable at any pitch or dynamic (we all sang the syllable “bop”). In the beginning there is silence, then anyone is free to give a starting impulse by singing  his/her “bop”. All immediately follow, singing their own short “bop”. It will (and should) sound like a scattered cloud of notes. Then silence, then someone else (anyone) starts the second cloud of short sounds. This goes on, someone giving an impulse, others following, always with silence afterwards. After the fifth impulse there can be more freedom to develop, let things happen, sing longer notes, lose the silence, etc.

Since you have a parameter of  one syllable there is no worry “oh, what am I going to sing!?” It’s just “bop”. Hooray!

For this next exercise we split into trios. We were all free to sing and vocalise what we wanted, the only rule was that if someone stopped, we had to stop too. A wonderful way to exercise absolute freedom combined with the responsibility of listening carefully.

Some of the social implications of these exercises interested me, since I am often bothered by the line between strong individualism and social consciousness. Maggie Nicols pointed out the importance of allowing absolute freedom of expression. If it is withheld, the repressed start to look cattily at those who express themselves freely. No one needs that.

How do you exercise responsibility within this freedom? Well, in music, it is relatively easy, just listen


Seminar with Brian Ferneyhough 25 March, 2009

Almost didn’t get out of bed that day. I was under the weather, and a warm blanket, but I managed to hop on the train to Amsterdam in time for Ferneyhough’s seminar on his flute pieces, which was organized by Joel Bons (artistic director of the Nieuw Ensemble) and Harrie Starreveld.

Harrie kicked off by playing a bit of Mnemosyne for bass flute and tape (or- and this I’d forgotten – 9 live players. I’d just love to be part of that someday!). He discussed how he learned and practiced the piece. Nowadays, you can put the notes into the computer and play them back, at all speeds. This would function as a kind of mnemonic learning device for the rhythm, but only an additional device, you would still need a click track to stay together with the tape. Ferneyhough highly recommends using a click track. Some players have tried without and not succeeded. The problem with getting out of sync with the tape is that the harmonies, which play a crucial role, will be all wrong.

Harrie played a recording of a computer realization of one bar to show how one could slow it down to learn the rhythms mnemonically


….a computer-like rendering with literal-minded exactitude is not the point of this piece (or any of Ferneyhough’s music). Each of the three lines of the solo part has its own character. Indeed, that is one reason they are notated on separate staves. There is a play of interruptive polyphony between them. He also went on to say that his music is consideredcomplex because conservatory training in rhythm is only basic. The focus in ear training is on interval recognition, rather than rhythmic recognition.How does the human element come into play in this piece? One way: the performer is observing him/herself learn. There are the 3 textures/voices, the performer has to choose which one is primary at a given time. However, he cautioned against mere approximation: approximation is the negative side of interpretation.Harrie remarked that the end result sounds very flexible. This led Ferneyhough to remark that when you hear a performance of Beethoven, you don’t hear a reading of the score: you hear a translation of tradition. The vernacular of music is evident in Beethoven, it is not in contemporary music.

To me, personally, this is an added human element to a performance of his music. This contemporary vernacular is yet-to-be defined, and seeking it is part of the creative process. Maybe this is also what he means by the performer observing his/herself learn?

Next our student Daisuke played Cassandra’s Dream Song. One part of the opening passage was the best Ferneyhough had heard it to date. Way to go Daisuke! The opening strophe Ferneyhough described thus: the first half is “effort rhythm” then “precise rhythm”. It is a building up of energies, a somatic crescendo, then releasing. This is to engage the body from the very first moment of the piece. The flute as an extension of the body is how he thinks of this piece.

I didn’t know that the original idea was to improvise the order of the strophes during performance. However, Ferneyhough has gotten away from this idea. One has to find a way to intersect the two pages and create chains of continuity.

He touched on several of the techniques, the different vibrati/smorzato, and the section with voice. A male flutist should, ideally, sing falsetto. If not possible, you need to add the beating effect, as this passage should sound like two weaving sine waves. He is not sure if the fingering of the multiphonic with the high F# is a good one. He didn’t have an open-holed flute to work with, so was wondering if someone would come up with a better fingering.
While discussing notation at one point he said: you don’t choose notation, it chooses you.

Then a brave lady [must find out name, anyone?] played Superscriptio. This turns out to be not the first piece with irrational meters (1/10, 3/12). It was first done by Henry Cowell, then by Dieter Schnebel in the 1950′s. (See also my post on irrational meters.)

He admits that the opening page and a half is cruel. However, that is not the intention. This piece opens his entire Carceri cycle: a single instrument – high and very light. The opening section is not meant to be “musical” – rather, it is coming to terms with ways of contrapuntal thinking. Later on, the material becomes “musical”. Harrie commented that the opening is however quite melodic, like a children’s ditty. He even performed it as such for a radio broadcast.

The next section needs attention to the speed of articulated passages. They are at uncomfortable speeds, sometimes slower than expected. This is important, otherwise one can get carried away and go with the vertige, but then it ends up sounding like any other contemporary piccolo piece.

There is a famous passage in this piece with repeated C’s that are notated differently, but performed at the same speed. This is because he has several systems running simultaneously. When things like this happen, OK. Even if his system comes up with something tonal like a reference to a major triad: so be it. The performer needs to be aware when this happening, but doesn’t need to show it to the audience.

Further, he explained the meaning of the title “Superscriptio”. It’s part of an emblem (usually found in collections called emblem books). This was a 16th century form of learned entertainment – a combination of texts and images . Above the image a short motto (lemma, inscriptio [superscriptio - because it is above] ) is scratched or handwritten introducing the theme or subject, which is symbolically bodied in the picture itself (icon, pictura); the picture is then described and elucidated by an epigram ( subscriptio ) or short prose text.

Here is an example of two French emblems

This is not a complete reporting of my notes from the seminar, only some of the things I was able to jot down while also taking photos!


Robert Dick, 22 March 2009

Left to right: Charlotte, Johanna, Nozomi, Robert, Wan, Kanae

Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending, albeit briefly, Robert’s masterclass in Wuppertal, Germany. It was great to see him! The last time I saw him, he was walking out on a concert I gave at the BAM in New York! Not because of me though. Our group was playing very loud minimalistic music, not his (or my) cup of tea. At least I got to wear earplugs. Since then, we’ve both become parents, so we had a good exchange on the joys and difficulties of juggling children and career. We’re both “older” parents, and are on our own as far as having no near relatives or live-in help to give us a hand.

Be that as it may, I got a good dose of inspiration. He began Sunday morning chatting about singing and playing, and the importance of singing in general. There’s nothing like it to get you listening. He said that if he were to teach a beginner, he would start with singing. This resonates with what I have been thinking these years, esp. after having studied in India. There, one learns to sing or use the voice first, even in training to be a percussionist! I think we are a strange musical culture, that puts some object into a kid’s hand and says, now make music out of it! Someday, I must put my India notes on blog.
Anyhow, back to Robert.

5 of our (Harrie Starreveld’s and my) students, past and present, took part. I was very impressed with what Robert had to say about Mozart and Kuhlau. This was the first time I had heard him coach the classical and romantic repertoire; his keen musicality and vivid imagination made for very good lessons.

We did touch on learning harmonic multiphonics, in the context of Fukushima’s Mei. This applies to Berio Sequenza as well. [The 1st days of the masterclass went into extended techniques in detail - I unfortunately missed them.] When it comes to the harmonic multiphonics that are found in these two pieces, it pays to put in some serious time in studying them before learning the piece. You don’t learn the sonority in the piece, just like you don’t learn the D major scale by playing Mozart!

He described it thus: by not practicing the sonorities first and just hoping they come in the concert – it is as if you walk down to the sea and just happen to reach in the water and pick out the exact fish you wanted!

How to go about preparing harmonic multiphonics:
Practice octaves, fifths, and fourths – in that order.
With octaves, it is easiest to begin where the flute has a short tube: C2 – C3. then work your way down.
With fifths and fourths, begin where the flute is longest, low C or B and work your way up.
Suggested practice time devoted to this: 15 min each day.

The benefit of this is not only to learn these sonorities, but to make the lips fit. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. This is the practice pathway up the mountain!


Notes from Patricia Morris, Oxford ’06

A few posts back, I suggested the guideline “the ears are more intelligent than the lips”. Now I’m reading my masterclass notes from Patricia Morris (Oxford, 2006). I noticed one of her points: “Your lips learn from your ears”. Exactly! She put it more succinctly.

Her class on piccolo playing was full of these great ideas. Her experience with Feldenkreis made things all the more intereting. The piccolo can be hard on the body!

  • In general, try placing the piccolo higher on the lower lip than the flute, and keep it turned out.
  • Tensing your shoulders is like jumping in water and hoping you’ll swim! If you untense your shoulders, you will improve without having practiced.
  • The key to playing piccolo in the top register: increase the air speed without blowing more. You can keep the air speed fast by: 1) making the embouchure hole smaller and 2)putting more pressure behind the embouchure.
  • You don’t need to practice hours and hours on the piccolo. Thoughtful, sensible transferrence of flute technique to piccolo every day regularly instead.
  • Ascending crescendos: build sound up at bottom, then let it alone. High notes are naturally loud.
  • For low notes, you need to be able to lift the top of the lip. It helps to use the inside of the top lip, instead of having the top lip always rammed down. Don’t let bottom lip drop. To apply this to the low register: think of starting low notes from lifted upper lip.
  • Practice Moyse Tone Development through Interpretation on the piccolo.

Her recommendations about taking the repeats in the Vivaldi Concerto at auditions:
You may ask if they want the repeats. If you are shy about asking, repeat the 1st section, then immediately play the ornamented version of the 2nd half.

I wish I could attend more of her classes! Years ago I bought her Piccolo Practice Book, but gave it away. Pretty silly, but I hope whoever has it is getting a lot of use.


Peter-Lukas Graf on Articulation

A few days ago I received my quarterly publication from the German Flute Society that featured a tribute to Peter-Lukas Graf, on the occasion of his 80th birthday.

I thought I would use this occasion as well. Last May I attended his masterclass at the Conservatory in Amsterdam. What he had to say, especially about articulation, bears repeating. I find myself using these ideas with my students all the time.

Here goes:
Articulation is a matter of embouchure and air = quality of sound. During articulated passages, keep the tongue as if saying the “y” in “year”. The tongue is always piano.

There are 4 kinds of articulation:

  1. Portato. Sustained articulation, using only enough of the tongue in order to repeat the note. There is a tiny little diminuendo at the end of each note.
  2. Detache. Here there is also a little diminuendo at the end of each note, and a little interruption between each note.
  3. Staccato. A short note with a big interruption. Personally, I like to keep the idea of the diminuendo – even if it is a nano second. That way, it gives each note a kind of “lift”.
  4. Marcato/Martellato. Strong accent. The accent can’t be done with the tongue (tongue must always be piano!), it must come from the air. You can practice it without the tongue by saying “ha-ha-ha-”, moving the abdominal muscles. This articulation can’t be done very fast.

I love the idea of staccato as something that you can practice in slow motion (i.e. detache and portato are slowed down staccati!)

There is also the Langue Sorte as Moyse describes in de la Sonorite – this is used for special notes and is also not a quick-type of articulation.

In Graf’s Check-Up; 20 Basic Studies for Flutists you can find articulation exercises in ex. no. 15.