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.

Photo: bigkitten.com

Share

Should I Study Flute with Karl Marx?


The short answer is no. Dialectical materialism* has no place in the music room.

Although his beard may have been bushier than Monsieur Taffanel’s.

The long answer is more complicated. I am no expert on the works of Marx, and realize I am using his image for exaggerated effect. My real argument is anti-materialist and I could have just as easily picked on the Bourgeoisie. Read the comments below for quotes on Marx’s ideas on creativity. At the end of the day, we may have a lot in common.

I approach the subject of materialism and economics with some humility and trepidation.  For many of my colleagues in the Netherlands and the USA, economic determinism has reared its ugly head. Many orchestral musicians have lost their source of income and teaching staff have been severely reduced in many music schools and conservatories. The latter has hit me as well. This has made me think more than ever about my teaching responsibilities and, as usual when I have conflicting emotions, spurred a belated adolescent rebelliousness.

Rebelliousness against whom? Against those who teach the lie: “there is a right way and a wrong way to play”, “play it my way because I have a job and a house (or a yacht or whatever), “work hard and you will be rewarded with_____”.

Materialistic success is dangled before the student like a carrot before a donkey. Even worse, the materialistic success of the teacher creates in some cases an arrogant sort of authority. Granted, this may do the trick for some students. A clever teacher will latch on to whatever motivates the student and use it accordingly.

Yet doesn’t it make more sense to train whole musicians? Performers who improvise and compose. Composers who perform (rather than sit at the computer or synthesizer, which then spits out the parts).

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say the opposite of what seems to be the majority opinion. Despite the dwindling opportunities for orchestra work and reduced funding for the arts, this is as good a time as ever for young musicians who have something unique to say. With the internet, the world is your oyster. With the big institutions dying out, this is the time for small enterprises to fill the niches. Finding an orchestra job may be a quicker way to material success, but it is not a given these days. Nor does an orchestra job (or any material success) necessarily equal musical satisfaction or personal happiness. Having a job is hard work. I can vouch for that as a former orchestral player and as a full-time ensemble player. If finances are the only thing keeping you at your job, that is the quickest way to burn-out and bitterness. When things are getting grim for me, I can turn my attention to improvisation, or listen with knowledge and pleasure to Jazz or Carnatic music. Then I thank my former teachers who exposed me to these wonderful things!

This is why I think it is important for students to be exposed to as many ways of making music as possible. How else can you find out what it is you want to express and the best medium for expressing it?

Human beings are not going to stop listening to music entirely. Music will always be there in some form or another, in the background, in the foreground, live in concert or through ear buds. Take heart that you can make music, and get paid for it, if you are courageous, persistent, and seek inspiration. The path may be long or it may be short, but if you want to be heard, you will be! There is no excuse not to be heard, these days.

*Footnote: From my reading I gather that Marx did not coin or make particular use of the term dialectical materialism. It was popularized in a Marxist context  by Stalin in his 1938 paper Dialectical and Historical Materialism. I definitely would not have wanted to study with Stalin.

Share

Newsflash for Teachers: Being an Asshole is Ineffective


Every time I pick up a science news magazine or book I end up smacking my head in disbelief that science goes to such lengths to prove what everybody else knows already. So being an Asshole is an ineffective approach to teaching. Really, a Nobel Prizewinning scientist said so!  I read it in a random book on randomness: The Drunkard’s Walk by Leonard Mlodinow. The author tells the story of Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist who won the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics (!). I’ll retell this because here is an interesting twist on “what everybody else knows already”.

While working as a psychology professor at Hebrew University in the 1960s, Kahneman lectured  a group of Israeli air force flight instructors on behavior modification. As a well-read mother of an almost-three year old, I know about behavior modification: rewarding positive behavior works, but punishing mistakes does not. Almost every other parenting book will tell you this. My husband does not agree, but that is another story.

When I read the following passage though, my first connection was not to my son, dear as he is, but to teaching flute. I listen to some teachers brag about how tough they are, and now believe they are driven by a misconception. Perhaps more importantly, this will give us a lesson on how not to talk to ourselves, as we practice for hours on end, give concerts, and play auditions.  I’ll begin quoting from page 7, just mentally replace the word “flight” with “flute”:

Kahneman drove home the point that rewarding positive behavior works but punishing mistakes does not. One of [the pilot instructors] interrupted,…”I’ve often praised people warmly for beautifully executed maneuvers, and the next time they do worse,” the flight instructor said. “And I’ve screamed at people for badly executed maneuvers, and by and large the next time they improve. Don’t tell me that reward works and punishment doesn’t work. My experience contradicts it.” The other flight instructors agreed. To Kahneman the flight instructor’s experiences rang true. On the other hand, Kahneman believed in the animal experiments that demonstrated that reward works better than punishment. [...] And then it struck him: the screaming preceded the improvement, but contrary to appearances it did not cause it.

How can that be? The answer lies in a phenomenon called regression toward the mean. That is, in any series of random events an extraordinary event is most likely to be followed, due purely to chance, by a more ordinary one. Here is how it works: The student pilots all had a certain personal ability to fly fighter planes. Raising their skill level involved many factors and required extensive practice, so although their skill was slowly improving through flight training, the change wouldn’t be noticeable from one maneuver to the next. Any especially good or especially poor performance was thus mostly a matter of luck. So if a pilot made an exceptionally good landing – one far above his normal level of performance – then the odds would be good that he would perform closer to his norm – that is, worse – the next day. And if
his instructor had praised him, it would appear that the praise had done no good. But if a pilot made an exceptionally bad landing – [...] then the odds would be good that the next day he would perform closer to his norm – that is, better. And if his instructor had a habit of screaming “you clumsy ape” when the student performed poorly, it would appear that his criticism did some good. In this way an apparent pattern would emerge: student performs well, praise does no good; student performs poorly, instructor compares student to lower primate at high volume, student improves. The instructors in Kahneman’s class had concluded that their screaming was a powerful educational tool. In reality it made no difference at all.

So the next time you or anyone else crash and burn, it’s fine to mull it over and figure out what went wrong, but it doesn’t pay to be an asshole about it – especially to yourself. And besides, apes are higher primates, not lower primates.

but I was going for that high D!

Share

Practice Motto: Amongst Our Weaponry Are….


Surprise, fear, ruthless efficiency and a fanatical devotion to the— wait a minute —– that’s not my practice motto, that’s The Spanish Inquisition skit from Monty Python!

Hmm, well, surprise and fear do come into play now and then. It’s the term ruthless efficiency that’s been running through my head recently. Ruthlessness seems to be the rule, given minimal practice time these days in which to prepare for May’s difficult ensemble concert and July’s solo concert. It’s a tough juggle, my husband is working almost round-the-clock to make a deadline, and my 7-month-old son could care less about my piddling artistic/flutey problems. So practice moments need to be cunningly snatched. Linked with my policy of brutal honesty, which involves keeping the tuner by my side, I seem to have a very pugnacious attitude in the practice room these days. It’s a place where “no one expects the Spanish Inquisition!” But guess what? It’s paying off!

I will share some of my weaponry that inflicts ruthless efficiency:

  • a daily task list and
  • a projected schedule of when I will practice each piece

Since it is impossible to practice every piece every day, I take what is difficult from each piece and work it into my daily practice. Some things on my list now are: the multiphonics found in Berio Sequenza and Takemitsu Voice, double tonguing as fast as possible….

The projected schedule is something I make when it seems there are too many pieces and too little time. I start from the first day and project up to the concert day(s). I figure out how much practice each piece will need, and assign one or more pieces to practice in detail each day. That way, I don’t have to worry about practicing each piece every day. It keeps me from panicking, and importantly, from procrastinating. If it’s my day to practice that difficult trio I was dreading, just do it. Put the other pieces aside – the items on the daily task list will keep me up-to-date, in shape and on top of them.

I do seem to be making headway, and watching Monty Python for a laugh now and then does help!

Share