The Radiant, Gradient Way: Color Practice

No one can watch the inside of your mouth when you play the flute, thank goodness. However, when talking to students about color changes, an X-Ray machine might come in handy. You could demonstrate how the position of the tongue, the jaw, and so many things come into play when you change the sound of the flute from loud to soft, harsh to light, bright to dark. Using such words is usually the best we can do when trying to describe musical timbres. That can be tricky though, one flutist’s dark can be another’s bright. Words are not always sufficient.

Thank goodness for imagery. Here is a collection of ideas to help stimulate the aural imagination. I was inspired by Photo Shop’s gradient tool to make the following images.

Let’s take one note and see what kind of spectrum can be produced. I chose B natural because it is the Moyse thing to do, but choose a note that is good for you. The purpose is to take a full breath, play a single note while going from one aural extreme to another. What happens in the middle can be quite interesting, I find. You can also practice these exercises backwards.

Some people work well with color imagery, so an exercise like this might work:
Another exercise could be to imagine a trumpet-like sound, then go to the extreme of complete air noise. I thank Harrie Starreveld for this suggestion.

You can also consciously control the position of your tongue by producing different vowel sounds. For example thinking a deep, open O sound, to a rather closed I (think of the word “eye”). I spelled it “aye” in the example. In preparation for this, I like to sing the exercise first to get a feel for how the tongue moves and how it changes the harmonic components of the sound.

Peter Lukas Graf also has an interesting approach. He describes different categories of sounds starting with those that are rich in overtones, think of the opening of the second movement of Cesar Franck’s Sonata in A, to those that are poor in overtones, think of the opening of Debussy’s L’Apres Midi. Of course it is a simplification, the music of Franck and Debussy require a variety of colors, but these are the associations that stick. If such imagery is useful, here is an illustration:

Any other ideas?


Bring in the Clones

Read an interview by almost any famous flute teacher today from our Western culture and you will notice they share similar ideals. The development of a student’s individuality is given high priority. Their students are encouraged to find their own musical identities; they don’t want clones or sound-alikes.

Nor do I. But what I’m about to say will at first seem like a contradiction. I am aware that I am in a different position than the stellar players and teachers of our time. I don’t have a bunch of sycophants and wannabees trailing in my wake. Therefore, I can enjoy a bit of skepticism in the face of this idealistic individualism.

Peter Lloyd, with whom I studied for 4 years, shared this ideal, and took it to an extreme. Even when he was still playing (as he was when I studied with him 1988 – 1992), he would not play for us in lessons. He didn’t want us sounding like him. I asked him why not, since we came out of our lessons talking like him (joking, of course. He has a great posh accent.) His reply: “Good, you’re finally learning to speak properly!” This humor as well as his patience saved me, nurturing and bringing back to life what was left of me after my dismal undergraduate years. I have much thank him for. However, since I was so good at hiding my real problems, my playing still left much to be desired when I left Indiana. And I still didn’t have a clue who I was as a musician. I was too confused to even have a clear ideal of sound, I wanted to sound French, but with American verve, and English full-bodiedness. One thing was clear, I was sure I could find it by following the Contemporary Music path, not the Early Music or orchestral path. Perhaps I sympathized with late 20th century Modernism; it was striving to find itself as much as I was.

Harrie Starreveld

That path led to Amsterdam, where I studied flute with  Harrie Starreveld and classical South Indian music with Rafael Reina and Jahnavi Jayaprakash. Harrie does not have any particular philosophy regarding playing in lessons, but most of what I learned came from listening to him and playing with him, often in an apprentice-type situation with the Nieuw Ensemble. That is what it took for me. No one would even say that I sound at all like Harrie: I don’t, but I cannot stress how much this experience helped me to find my voice.

Four years after my studies with Harrie I went to India for two and a half weeks to work with Jahnavi Jayaprakash privately in Bangalore, and the scales seemed to fall from my eyes. I wondered if our Western musical education was not entirely bass-ackwards. Everything we learn seems to be from the top down, instead of the bottom up. In India, the idea that you can learn music by verbal explanation only and hope to develop a musical spirit in a vacuum of abstract ideas is ludicrous. That one can study without the rote learning which frees one technically and enables inspiration to soar – also ridiculous!

But rote learning is BAD, a well-known European flute teacher told me recently. I’m tending to disagree. Rote learning without any understanding at all is bad, but I think we tend to throw the baby out with the bath water.

Jahnavi Jayaprakash

Indian classical music education does not eschew the technical, analytical or theoretical, but as I understand, it comes when one has already mastered one’s voice or instrument. My teacher Jahnavi had her Doctorate from an Indian University in music and could explain the intricacies of each nuance of a Raga for Westerners like me. But that was not how she normally taught. Mastering music means learning the language of music and all its subtleties not only through the intellect, but through the ear and the heart, by method of imitation. It is a somatic as well as an intellectual process. The great diversity among South Indian flute players is a living testament to individuality despite the massive rote learning and imitative method of their studies.

This is not a “grass is greener” essay. I don’t think if I had learned the Indian way from the beginning it would have completely solved all my problems. I do enjoy analysis, and was good at theory, and was glad to learn it young. But I do wish I had had someone to sonically follow in my earliest years.

Teacher: “Could you play that more legato?”

Me, saying: “Oh, OK.”

Me, thinking: “huh, how? Wasn’t that legato?”

Having someone to just play for me might have avoided crisis and saved me a lot of time, but maybe I was destined to have such a long and hurdle-ridden path. For many young players today this from-the-top-down musical education is less of a problem, thanks to the proliferation of Suzuki teachers. I am speaking only on behalf of those like myself, who come from the traditional marching- or wind-band school education.

I do not want my students to slavishly follow me, and I certainly don’t wish my bad habits on them. However, I do play for them whenever possible, and expect them to strive to my standards, and higher. There is of course the danger that my students might superficially sound like me, but I am fully convinced they will get over it.

photo credits:
Dolly: Stephen Ferry/Getty Images
Harrie Starreveld and Jahnavi Jayaprakash, unknown


Contemporary Music : Express!

Classical Contemporary Music which is abstract, atonal or just plain impenetrable may demand something beyond the traditional idea of instrumantal expression we are taught as flutists (the use of vibrato, tonal colors, dynamics and so on). Here are some random tips on how to tap into other sources for musical ideas.

Studying works that are outside the tradition of virtuosity can help you to focus on producing expression and dramatic impact. Extreme minimalist music or graphically notated music, for example, is divorced from ideas of technical wizardry; therefore one has to concentrate on aspects of timing, bodily movement, manner of breathing, and concentration. The difficulty is to find a way of generating intensity and maintaining interest throughout a work that may be nothing but a series of bizarre noises. Some examples of this type of music are certain works by John Cage (solos from Song Books, the flute part to Concert for Piano, which can be played as a solo or in conjunction with other works by Cage), Earle Brown (December 1958) or Cornelius Cardew (Treatise). Finding expressive solutions to these scores is a good exercise for stretching your musical imagination. Having travelled to this strange land of extremes can give you great perspective upon return.

To capture the particular expressive and dramatic style of the composer, I often rely on a practice idea that I picked up from Robert Dick: Play a passage of the piece you are working on, then turn the music away from you and improvise a passage in the same style, using the same range, dynamic inflections, length of phrases, etc. Once you’ve put yourself through this creative process, go back to the written passage. I always find something fresh to consider – perhaps a new inflection, a different color progression, or maybe a new sense of rhythmic clarity.

When searching for expressive solutions, the world of the visual arts can sometimes provide interesting insights. Here is one example of how visits to museums helped me to solve an expressive problem: While working on the Berio Sequenza from memory I started to wonder, what does one actually do with the mind while performing? Some performers may have a photographic memory and are able to visualize the score during performance. Not having this ability, I needed something to focus on, to keep my visual area from being distracted by the audience. (Playing with your eyes closed is not a good option when trying to communicate).

I do see this as a problem of expression: from the point of stage choreography, playing solos from memory is a challenge for flutists. Pianists are in profile, violinists are also a bit angled so their f-holes are facing the audience. Even clarinetists can pretend to look down at their fingers. And unlike singers, we do not have total facial freedom, nor can we hide behind a mask of facial expression (the bottom half of our face being otherwise engaged). We also do not have the words to carry the expression. Since we face the audience directly, we need a special courage and a strong method of focus. Of course, you can focus on the “exit” sign at the back of the hall, but still, what are you doing with your mind? I don’t want to be thinking of the “exit” sign!

One tells children to “think up a story” as an aid to performance. However, that hardly seemed appropriate for a work such as the Sequenza, and could prove even more distracting than the audience. What helped in the end was to allow abstract images to form on their own, inspired and dependent on the sounds I produced during performance. This allowed me to concentrate on the actual sounds I was producing and not be distracted by any preconceived, representational, artificially imposed images or thoughts.

These images that I formed were inspired by visits to the Stedelijk and Van Gogh museums in Amsterdam, where I was living at the time. I was also able to think of a color scheme and progression that helped me through the opening of Franco Donatoni’s Midi, which can otherwise seem like a salad of endless noodles.

In yoga, the focus of your eyes is called drishti. Sometimes it is straight ahead, sometimes the tip of your nose, sometimes your belly button (not recommended for flutists!). Do whatever it takes to develop your own drishti. Be relaxed in the focus of your eyes, this will help you to concentrate.