Preparation for Expression


This summer, for better or worse, I find myself without paid work for a whole month, so I have flown off to St. Petersburg with my family to enjoy the last of the White Nights. With one week left, I spend my vacation practice mentally preparing that which I have to play from memory, and mulling over thoughts about what is actually involved in creating musical expression. Once again, I have no particular point in this entry, just an accumulation of thoughts.

One of my goals this summer is to read Constantin Stanislawski’s “An Actor Prepares” in the original Russian. It’s very slow going, which is good in a way, since sometimes I tend to read too fast and not retain things. Theatrical, artistic expression is a big topic (so far) in the book, but I am wondering whether it is worthwhile to draw parallels to musical expression.

AnactorpreparesPlaying a solo part has obvious parallels to playing a role in a theatrical work, but is it useful for musicians to really experience the emotions we are trying to convey, as an actor is encouraged to do? Stanislawski himself points out that experiencing the emotions is not enough. There has to be technical control over the use of one’s body and voice above and beyond feeling. I think that is the crux for musicians.

Here’s something that probably happens to most of us: I can really “go for it” in a high, ecstatic, fortissimo passage, passionate, all systems going full steam.  However, if I really do that, my heart will be racing, and my center of energy and balance will be too high. If there is a sudden dynamic shift, I am up a creek, breathless, heart thumping, out of focus. Even in the moment of passion, there has to be a part of yourself that stays sober and reminds you to stay down, open and be ready for what’s coming. That part, I guess, is our technique. It is the balance of that sober part to our ecstatic part that makes our practice and performance so exciting.

I remember one thing Robert Dick told me. In abstract contemporary music, we often can’t rely on the use of recognizable rhetoric, or the Affects we learn about in Early Music. Sometimes we can’t even rely on the expression of anything recognizably human e.g., sad, happy, sensuous, hideous. However, what the audience will recognize is energy. That is what we must aspire to conjure. It may be that your energy will not be interpreted as you intended. I can’t tell you how many times this has happened to me, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.

I’ll leave off by sharing a video with Barbara Hannigan, who talks about her preparation for the role of Alban Berg’s Lulu. Few of us have the luxury of this deep level of preparation, but I found her dedication very uplifting.

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Circular Breathing on the Modern Flute


This entry is cross posted on the musikFabrik blog
In 1992, while in residence at the Banff Centre, Canada, I spent eleven weeks learning to circular breathe so that I could perform Flames Must Not Encircle Sides by Robert Dick. I figured if I could do it at 1.500 meters (ca. 5000 feet) above sea level, in the dryness of the mountain air, I could do it anywhere. I won’t forget that first performance so easily! Flutist Aurèle Nicolet was also performing in that concert, so the pressure to perform well was intense.
There is one correction to make on this video: at ca. 01:04 I say “beneath the tongue” when I should have said “towards the base of the tongue”.
Michel Debost points out that Circular Breathing should be properly called Circular Blowing. I do believe he is right, but for the sake of consistency and electronic searches, I will keep the term Circular Breathing.
For more about the details and history of circular breathing I can recommend:
Michel Debost, The Simple Flute
Online

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Small-Interval Multiphonics


On the occasion of the publication of my article on Kazuo Fukushima’s Shun-San in Flute Talk May/June 2010 and Robert Dick’s upcoming masterclass in Bremen (July 6, 2010), I’d like to elucidate some ideas about multiphonics.

Working on Shun-San got me thinking about small-interval multiphonics (those with an interval of an augmented second or less). The first line of advice on how to produce these comes from Robert himself, and can be viewed here. His advice is fantastic, spot-on and humorful, I recommend viewing it.*
*Although I don’t agree with what Robert says in regard to offset G flutes or doing sit-ups, but that’s another story.

In my Flute Talk article, I touch on the subject of small-interval multiphonics. This passage has elicited some raised eyebrows and questions. To begin, I’ll site the passage:

Flutists often encounter difficulty with small-interval multiphonics because they are hung up on trying to produce a focus immediately. That is difficult to do when you are blowing in two directions at once. The irony of these small-interval multiphonics is, at first, you have to unfocus to get the sense of focus. Open up the embouchure hole and let both notes in. Initially there will be a lot of air, but with practice you can refine them. They will sound focused and rich because of the very low difference tone caused by a close interval. When you get the hang of playing these small intervals, it may help to focus on producing this difference tone rather than the individual notes themselves. That may seem strange but sometimes it works.

The first point of confusion may arise in that I assume the reader is already familiar with Robert Dick’s advice: get to know the dynamic range of each note first. Then, keeping a constant airspeed, use the angle of the air to find both notes. If you don’t research the gamut of air speed for each note, you’ll never find the small range of speed that overlaps and works for both.

This is what I meant by having to unfocus to get the sense of focus. You need a constant airspeed and a wide angle at first that will let both notes in. LinkLinkPlease forgive my artistic crudeness, but here hopefully you can see where the angles overlap. If your focus is too narrow at first, you may miss the range where the angles overlap.

Now, to explain that bit about the low difference tone. An explanation of difference tones can be found in Wiki. Often is is not an actual, distinct tone that I hear. Rather, it is just a low sort of humming sound, or it’s as if something opens acoustically at the bottom – a feeling rather than a sound.

I hope this has been of help. Some of those multiphonics in Shun-San are hair-raising! Even someone like me who has been familiar with them for years needs to put in serious practice time on them. It is a good refresher!

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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!

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