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: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EVN4dShaZWk.)

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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.

 

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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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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.

 

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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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Effective Use (or not) of percussive sounds


I have already written a lot on the subject of percussive sounds, but here I would like to add a few subtleties of usage.

We will be performing Grisey’s Talea soon, and preparing the score, I am struck by how fantastic the piece is, yet how awkwardly some of the percussive effects are used. My goal is not to fault Grisey, but since there are composers who may emulate him (and why not? he was a wonderful composer!), I want to smooth the way. It seems to me Grisey and many other composers have a misconception of what these effects can actually achieve.

A tongue or lip pizzicato does not add volume to a note (especially in an ensemble context), and is never louder than an ordinario note played at the same volume. It is a misconception to think that starting a note with a pizz will intensify its initial volume. A really forceful accent with the airstream, or with the langue sorté, will do the job better. In a solo work, a pizz will give a satisfying pop, and is an effective way to vary articulation. This pop is produced by closing off the resonance of chest cavity and most of the flute tube (since there is minimal air traveling down it), and is not compensated by the meager resonance inside the mouth.There is no air stream to project the sound. This is why I am frustrated by the following passages, where if I play a true pizz, I get a lessening of volume and intensity – just the opposite of what is musically called for:

This next sample shows a similar volume difficulty with the tongue ram at the end of a crescendo on the downbeat of 26, along with the difficulty of switching quickly from closed embouchure position to open in the two bars after 26. And I have to ask, who the hell is going to hear those key clicks? This is why they fall so often into my “why bother” category of techniques. Great use of pizzicato here, though.

Why am I bothering with such small things? The musical intentions of the composer are clear, and one can easily perform the gesture with alternatives.  However, students of flute and composition are getting younger and younger. Our youth ensemble is tackling repertoire I never dreamed of when I was in my teens. They may not have the experience to immediately grasp what is needed musically. They will, at first, take the score literally, thus getting frustrated. If their teacher is also inexperienced, there will be a double frustration and the trust between composer (alive or dead) and performer damaged.

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Tongue Trippin’ in Munich 3 – a Quetzalcoatlus Dances


Rehearsal photo of Zungenspitzentanz from Luzifers Tanz. Photo A. Ackermann

When you perform a theatrical piece like Stockhausen’s Zungenspitzentanz for the first time, you may have that need of, just, please, one more rehearsal, one more run-through, just so I don’t mess this up!  Immediately after that first performance you may still want to ask: Could I just try that again? Now?

At least that was how it was with me. I have performed this piece before, but this was the first time with orchestra and conductor – an entirely different animal, I can assure you. The afternoon before the first performance I lay in my hotel room in complete disbelief and denial that tonight was the night. Perhaps because it took so much force to pull myself together, I managed to keep myself together.

I want to mention a few things that helped me to manage and keep my nerve during this project.

One was filming myself daily. This may sound strange, but watching myself helped me get used to the idea that this is what people see when they look at me. It doesn’t mean that I liked what I saw, I am super critical when it comes to myself. However, watching seemed to de-mystify things. I know my brow-ridge looks too harsh and Neanderthal-like from a certain angle, I know that this move shows the tendons in my neck like a turkey, and so on. For me it was less about accepting and loving yourself, as the self-help books say, and more about getting used to yourself and getting over yourself. I seem to remember a Zen saying that goes something like: “To know yourself is to forget yourself”.

Something else that helped was balance exercises. Several years ago I discovered this while taking a yoga class. If I can do balance poses, in a class or at home, and really focus on them, I find I am less distracted by nerves. Good balance gives you physical confidence. There is probably some scientific literature out there on the subject, someday I will research it. This leads me to my next item:

The Quetzalcoatlus effect. My musical preparations have been accompanied by intensive research into Mesozoic reptiles and dinosaurs. My son demands a story about them daily, and the more he learns, the more he wants to hear about them. So after watching this 10 minute video about Pterosaurs and their incredible brains wired for flight, quick maneuvering and, again, balance, I faced my relatively meager human abilities. But we have better instincts that we realize, if we can get out of their way. When I started to feel uptight during this project, I would think of the Quetzalcoatlus, ungainly on the ground, huge as a giraffe, weighing hundreds of pounds. Yet that sucker could fly!

With flutist Natalie Schwaabe after the concert.

So to recap the two performances in Munich: During the first one, it took me about three minutes to settle in, but I think considering my mental state it went very well. For the second one, I was much more relaxed and focused, but the conductor went much faster! Nontuplets at a quarter-note = 80 are challenging enough, but it felt like he was approaching 90 that evening, so there was less accuracy to be sure.  The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra was great! To top that off, they were all so nice! Nor was I the only soloist that evening: Michael Leibundgut sang Luzifer and Marco Blaauw rocked on the trumpet. Both were an inspiration and a pleasure to hear.

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Tongue Trippen’ in Munich 2


If I were to write my memoirs,  I would refer to this summer as the Siberian Summer. It is astonishingly cold here in Munich; however, our tiny hotel room accommodates us well, and we keep each other warm. On stage, with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra,  the spotlights blaze and the astonishing playing,  especially from the brass section, generates its own heat.

My first rehearsal was a sectional with groups 9 and 10 from Stockhausen’s Luzifers Tanz – piccolo, euphoniums, tubas, synthesizer and percussion. I had expected it to be a disaster as far as playing together goes, and so it was. We had no staging rehearsals, nor purely musical ones, so everything had to be put together on the spot. How was I to turn around in circles and stay with the conductor, especially in the sections with ritardandi and fermati? Monitors were also not realistic. I made some comprimises by not going full circle for at least one of the sections. We also spent a bit of time puzzling over a tempo discrepency in bar 933 between the full score and the solo and chamber music versions. Along with Kathinka, we decided that the solo version of the tempo was correct.

The next rehearsal was with full brass and percussion. When I say full, I do mean full! I never thought I would need amplification while playing piccolo,  but I am now very grateful.

The first tutti rehearsal went better than I expected.  I have come to terms with the fact that we will not achieve 100 % ensemble togetherness (that would require an additional rehearsal phase), so I focus on sounding as good as possible and making the movements as well as possible.

Will write more,  probably when I have my laptop again.  This thumb typing drives me nuts!

Brass and percussion for Zungenzpspitzentanz

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Tongue Trippin’ in Munich


This is the first of what I hope to be a series of entries about my preparation for Zungenspitzentanz in the Munich Biennale with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra . Bear with me, I am typing with my thumbs, a technique I have yet to master.

My biggest help has been this Smart phone, which has many hours of video saved of my attempts to move gracefully and play murderous pasages while kneeling on the ground.

Some other things that have helped my preparation:
Le Freq (will insert link later). These little pieces of brass help the response of my piccolo’s low D, a crucial note in this piece.

The articulation exercises from Paul Edmund-Davies’ Warm up book (link to follow), and Moyse’s exercises “pour les sons graves”.

Of course, Kathinka Pasveer, and colleagues and students who have been willing to listen.

My next entry may be bizarre, I have had some unlikely and exotic sources of inspiration that I want to share.

Reheasal reports to follow as well.

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