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 :-)

 

 

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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

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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.

DWT1a

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

 

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Paul Edmund-Davies: 28 Day Warm Up Book


Recently I have enjoyed working from Paul Edmund-Davies “The 28 Day Warm Up Book, for all flutists…..eventually!”. Its (English-only) text is extremely clear, with touches of humor that engage the reader from the start. His approach is extremely practical and humane. There is advice on how to approach your practice, how to structure it, and the empty staff paper at the end of each section encourages further thought and creativity for your own exercises.

The daily exercises cover four areas: sonority, fingers, articulation and intervals. I felt compelled to write about my experience with these exercises because it is a lesson in humility. With several decades of professional playing under my belt, I took a look at some of the pages and thought “how simplistic, I don’t need that stuff”. But playing them, I realized that they were quite challenging. So I got to work. And they sound nice! My family particularly likes to hear me practice Articulaton no. 7.

A number of exercises I find useful for piccolo practice. Intervals no. 2 is not only good for intervals, but makes a great intonation study if played with a drone from a tuner or computer. (How I wish I had a live tambura player to assist me :-) ). Articulation no 6, with its combination of repeated and moving notes, is especially good for controlling the sometimes tricky middle register of the piccolo.

The section on fingers I find very practical. He points out that scales are all well and good, but they don’t really train the fingers to lift and close with swift independence. The exercises, some of which are based on Taffanel & Gaubert, reinforce this idea. Because its familiarity makes for easy memorization, I am a great adapter of T&G myself, and am always happy to learn other approaches.

Here on YouTube, you can watch Paul Edmund-Davies demonstrate some of his exercises in the context of learning Anderson’s Op. 15.

For those who are interested, my complete warm-up these days goes as follows:

  • harmonic studies, with and without articulation, add trills
  • finger and articulation exercises, including scales and written exercises from this book. As I have written elsewhere, I find Peter Lloyd’s approach works well with me: Get really warmed up first, and then do sonority work.
  • combined melodic sonority/intonation/interval exercises from this book and others

You see, I have gotten away a bit from long tones. They can be useful, and I may come back to them at another point. But for now, I find melodic studies and other exercises from “de la Sonorite” more useful. Gotta do what works!

 

 

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Extended Techniques – a Do It Yourself Handout


Here is a 14 page booklet I put together on how to do the basics of some extended techniques:

  • Harmonics
  • Multiphonics
  • Singing and Playing
  • Whistle Tones
  • Percussive Effects
  • Circular Breathing
  • List of Studies for Further Practice
  • Selected Repertoire for unaccompanied flute

Here is the link. You may pass it on but please give credit where it is due. Any further suggestions are welcome.

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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?

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Finger Exercises Based on Tai Chi


 This entry is cross posted on the musikFabrik blog
 

Anyone who works with their hands can benefit from the energy flow these exercises provide. I am no expert or student of Tai Chi, but I have had to work a lot at injury prevention. You can do them at the beginning of your warm up, then as necessary during the breaks. Breaks are very important in injury prevention. Any exercise that stretches or gets the energy flowing during your break will allow you to practice more in the long run, and keep your money in your own pocket and not the doctor’s.

I don’t mention the pacing of the exercises in the video. For me, they take four to five minutes to complete. This is a good investment of time when I have a long practice session, especially if there’s much to be done on alto or bass flute. Enjoy!

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