No More Tears – Breath as a Leit Motif

For the past year, my colleagues and I have been working with a wonderful vocal coach, Martin Lindsay. His sessions are structured in a way that got me thinking. We start with light stretching and breathing exercises, just enough to activate the abdominal muscles and diaphragm. I won’t go into detail about what these exercises entail because I want to focus on the how not the what. The successful how is that these exercises become a leit motif throughout the session; we come back to them regularly, if only briefly. This is such a wonderful way to come back to basics, especially after a difficult passage where tension may have built up. For years I have been thinking of this but using it only haphazardly in my teaching and practice. Wouldn’t it make sense for all of us to use breath awareness as a leit motif on a more regular basis? Imagine how many physical and psychological injuries may be avoided!

I am reminded of a masterclass I attended some years ago given by a high profile flute teacher. The lesson started with a focused breathing session and an intelligent discussion of the breathing process. Then as the student played, she stumbled on a technical passage, over and over again. The teacher, instead of bringing her back to the relaxed and focused state she had at the beginning, continued to berate her for not being prepared. In the end, she was in tears, and I thought, what a shame! Perhaps she didn’t practice enough, but perhaps she didn’t practice well enough? Isn’t it also our job as teachers to address the issue of how to practice? Breathing awareness (whether you do actual exercises or not) should not be just an item on our checklist to be crossed off at the beginning of our session. We have to incorporate our awareness of good breathing in the literal sense of the word: to absorb it into our bodies. This will include repetition just as the development of a difficult passage, or the development of any good habit, will include repetition. To make any practice successful, whether musical, spiritual or the latest diet, it is not enough to just pay lip service. I pledge to make breathing awareness my leit motif.

Composing Articulation for Winds – Tell Me What To Say


This is an imaginary passage I have composed that has annoying and confusing articulation marks.

If you are not a wind player, the fact that this is annoying may puzzle you. It’s like this: as a wind player, from the very beginning you receive strict instructions on the use of the tongue. If there is no slur mark over a note, you initiate the note with the tongue, if it is under a slur mark, you don’t. Simple as that, a digital, on – off situation. The passage above, as written, contains too many possibilities for easy reading. It involves guesswork, and that involves time. In some cases, a composer may want to leave the details of articulation up to the player, and that is fine. I enjoy 18th Century repertoire for this reason, and it is perhaps worthwhile for composers to familiarize themselves with what J. J.  Quantz has to say about the possibilities of articulation in his treatise “On Playing the Flute”.  (If for nothing else than to understand the weight of history that flutists bear.)

Time spent on interpretive decisions is interesting time. Time spent on guesswork is not.

This is the 21st Century, and when I see music that is exactly notated, I want to play it exactly and I want to know what it is I have to say, and how I should say it. Because that is what articulation is all about: how you pronounce your phrase. I want to think that the composer has put some thought into this, as I am putting some practice time into his or her piece.

And, dear composers, please don’t say about a slur: “oh, it’s just a phrase mark.” Really? I am a musician, I make phrases for a living. I don’t need to be told to make one. But I do need to know when to use my tongue and when to hold it. And please don’t just say “oh, play that legato.” It doesn’t answer my question because I can articulate legato as well as slur something legato. Which should I do?

So if I haven’t pissed you off yet and you really want to see the possibilities for articulating the above passage, here they are.

The first two staccato B-flats are probably meant to be played:



but perhaps the composer meant:


I would really like to be sure.

Now, the two E’s, the second one having a staccato, could be played:


But did the composer mean: Articulationwell, maybe not, but how can I be sure? So I interrupt practice to contact him or her, or interrupt the rehearsal time to ask, or take time out of the rehearsal break in which I have twenty other things to get done.

Several years ago I was working intensely on solo improvisation. I kept a notebook with comments on segments I had recorded. The words “Say something, dammit!” were written in block notes at one point. When you listen to music, if it articulates nothing, it says nothing.


Wish List

Things I wish I had spent more time on as a student:

  • Sight reading
  • Scales in intervals of a sixth – and sevenths and ninths! There are too many of those intervals flying around in contemporary music.
  • Improving my writing skills
  • Yoga or sports
  • Learning acoustics. I wasted a lot of time trying to blow, blow, blow in order to play loudly. A little studying to understand how the flute sound is produced and travels will really help.
  • Practicing piano or harpsichord to keep up my keyboard skills. They do come in handy, especially for arranging and teaching.

Oh dear, this list could go on if I list everything I wish I had studied more of (traverso, Jazz), and it will lose the thread of attempting to make a sort of temporal commentary on my past, hopefully with some relevance to students of the present. Besides, one does not have to be a student to study these things.

Things I wish I had spent less time on:

  • Worrying
  • Studying for academic stuff that would go in and out of my short-term memory. (OK, grades are important for academic scholarships and grants, or if you are going to continue studying. But if getting a playing job is your next step, consider signing up for something physical instead of academic.) Nobody looking to hire me as a flutist has given a crap that I graduated summa cum laude from the University of Pittsburgh way back in the 20th Century.
  • Soliciting criticism at random. It’s great to play for as many people as possible and to be exposed to many points of view, but the earlier you can choose people you trust to be honest and constructively critical about your abilities, the better.

These lists will probably grow as my experiences sift through time.

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!

Harmonic Exercises, with Articulation too!

When playing through the harmonic series, the second overtone (a twelth above the fundamental) is a great check point. When students begin learning harmonics, this one often proves elusive because of the tendency to cover too much of the embouchure hole. By rolling out a bit and blowing down, it usually speaks. The following exercise I find useful because it begins by alternating between the normal fingerings and the harmonic fingerings. For those new to harmonic exercises, it provides a good anchor.


The next page gives a workout for the lips, and introduces articulation to harmonics, although it is also useful to practice legato in bars 13 to 38. I find articulation exercises with harmonics, such as those in Trevor Wye’s book, to be great stabilizers and strengtheners for the embouchure.



Continuing with articulation, I am further inspired by Paul Edmund-Davies’ “The 28 Day Warm Up Book”. His articulation exercises are a mainstay of my warm up, and I decided to go one further and translate some into harmonic exercises. (Read my review of this book here.) This first exercise strengthens the elusive second overtone:



This next one overblows the third overtone. It is for those already strong in this area; please don’t over do it, or any of these exercises. It is useful to combine these variations with Edmund-Davies’ original.



Ligeti Piano Concerto, Practice Notes to Self

ligetiThe following are suggestions for practice in preparation for the flute and piccolo passages of (my favorite ensemble piece!) the Ligeti Piano Concerto. They are my own ideas, not authentic or especially original – except for one remark on the piccolo solo in the second movement that Ligeti gave me during the recording session with the ASKO Ensemble and Pierre-Laurent Aimard. I am also writing this for myself, should I lose my notes.

The harmonics in the first passage I finger an octave and a fifth below, mostly. The notes above G# I use special fingerings, not “real” harmonics. (See my entry When Is a Harmonic Not a Harmonic?) I give no fingerings for these notes, because they change from performance to performance, depending on the intonation of my colleagues and my own condition. In spite of the cross-rhythm going on, these passages should be played smoothly and evenly. I like to practice them like this:Ligeti_Piano1

The piccolo solo at “O”, though marked poco leggiero, should not be played staccato, the eighths should sound full. The lightness is in the rhythmic inflection.

In the second movement at “A”, Ligeti told me to forget the rests, the eighth notes should be longer than notated. I play this passage with very little vibrato, although this is a personal decision. Ligeti had no opinion on the matter. My goal is that the listener should not really know what instrument is playing – just some sort of haunting sound similar to the ocarinas that come in later. It is good not to play too quietly before the bassoon entry. The bassoon enters in its altissimo register, and can be very difficult to control.

In the third movement, the harmonics at “M” I finger two octaves below. For the high A, I add the G# key, and for that high B at 2 bars before “N”,  I don’t play a harmonic – just use the normal fingering.

In the fourth movement after “Y” the texture becomes very complex due to several rhythmic layers. You have eighth-note triplet movement (always with displaced accents in groups of 2 or 3) and sixteenth-note movement (always in accented groups of 2 or 3). The base tempo is quarter-note = 138, so I like to play around shifting between regular triplets at this speed, then playing the sixteenth note passages that have accents in groups of 3 as triplets, but at tempo 184. For example, the second bar of “Y”, starting the third beat, would look like this in my exercise:


There are two clarifications to the part: 1)”DD”, the third note (A) should be a sixteenth-note. 2)There should be a rallentando from “EE”.

The fifth movement has That Lick at “C”. I find it useful to keep the C key down for the whole thing, even the beginning, since I have a B-foot. That works better than the gizmo-key in this situation, for me. I also leave out the trill key on the high B-flats, and use the following harmonics to facilitate fingering:


An important note on the rhythm. The time signatures in this piece function as a grid on which many networks of cross rhythms are laid. Therefore, in the indivudual parts, it is important to not interpret the rhythms in a traditional agogic manner; that is, with stronger beats on the 1 and 3, weaker beats on the 2 and 4. In other words, there is no traditional hierarchy of beats within a measure. Ligeti has carefully written accents where they should be. In light of this, it is also important that synchopations are not played as synchopations (with a playful “kick” on the off-beat). Your off-beat might not be an off-beat in the grand scheme of cross rhythms.

Clement Power, who will be conducting our next performance with Ensemble Musikfabrik on April 19th, has come up with the following exercises based on the opening of the piece, which I find quite useful:



I’d be curious about other’s experience with this piece, so please feel free to comment.

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. (ed. – In case you don’t make it to the comments section, here is another recommended video with Stephen Fry discussing the visceral experience of opera:

Atonal Intonation in Light of Berio’s Sequenzas

Luciano Berio‘s Sequenza no.1 for flute is one of my favorite pieces. I also love teaching it; it has so much to offer in terms of technique (especially articulation!), style and presentation. There is an unwritten book inside me about this work, but for now I would like to consider one aspect of the work that often gets ignored: Intonation.

This is one reason it is not my favorite piece to listen to. If you know me, you know I don’t have perfect pitch, or even flawless intonation. Nevertheless, neither you nor I can assume that a work without a traditional tonal center and without traditional harmonic relationships is devoid of centers and relationships entirely. I would argue that in this context, these matters require even more consideration. I’d like to address this generally and specifically, not as a how-to guide, but as food for thought in your own practicing.

In general, there are rules of thumb for atonal solo works. Here I quote Doris Geller’s “Praktische Intonationslehre“, page 117 (my translation):*

In free-tonal music there is also a hierarchy of intervals, the most important points of orientation being the prime intervals (octaves, fifths, fourths), especially when they form tones that draw attention to themselves. These could be, for example, long, held-out notes or notes that follow a rest.

Here she is referring to Debussy‘s Syrinx, and gives specific examples. However,  these words and her further advice to analyze goal notes, high points, low points, and melodic turning points can apply to all solo works. Edgar Varèse‘s Density 21.5 especially offers the same points of consideration.

Specifically for the Sequenza, I consider the soul of the work to be in the long, held-out notes. If you listen to the other Sequenzas of Berio,  you will hear this particular pattern of drawing the listener in. Often there are rapid, virtuosic passages punctuated by the stillness of a single note, where the quality of sound and the relationship to its environment are of utmost importance.

*In a previous entry, I write more about Doris Geller and the intonation of melodic intervals.


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 :-)



Crowd-Source Question, What Are the Difficulties Performing Mircotonal Music?

This is a bit unusual for me, but I would like to informally survey performer’s thoughts on performing mircotonal music. Not thoughts about microtonal music in general, but the issues, problems, difficulties or joys of actually playing or singing the stuff. Which notations are best? Are the difficulties worth the acoustic result? Are the acoustic results hear-able, worth the effort?

I realize there are as many uses of microtonality as there are composers who use it, but if there are especially good or bad examples, I would be interested in knowing who and why.