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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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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Shiri Sivan Masterclass, Mental Preparation


On May 24, 2012 Shiri Sivan, principal flutist of the Bremer Philharmoniker (Bremen Philharmonic) gave a masterclass for our flute studio at the conservatory in Bremen. This semester our students played a project as guests with the Bremer Philharmoniker and came back with glowing reports of the young new principal, recently graduated from the Von Karajan Academy of the Berlin Philharmonic. It was very motivating for them to play next to a player of such high caliber who was roughly the same age, so I immediately invited her to give an informal masterclass on orchestral repertoire.

I want to focus here on her talk about mental preparation, but first I will mention several points she made about technique during the lessons.

A general observation of hers is that our students don’t use the flow of their air to carry their phrases.  She also encouraged them to let the air flow work and use less movement of the embouchure and jaw to reach intervals and register changes (not to the point of inflexibility, of course). And because modern-day flutes are so well made, if you use good air flow, and focus the air into a good sound, your intonation will automatically be very near the mark without having to make excess movement. This was nice to hear in light of the recent hoopla about flute intonation and tone-hole placement.

An interesting point about articulation: her strategy to achieve lightness is to practice single tonguing rapidly, working your way up to sixteenth notes at 132. In real life, you would double tongue passages that quick, but if you practice short passages with super fast single tonguing, say, a one-octave scale up and down, your tongue can’t help but move lightly. It can’t move quickly in a heavy way. Then try to transfer this lightness to double tonguing.

Her talk on mental preparation for auditions was based on her own recent experiences. Listening to her, I wondered if she had done a lot of reading research, since what she said resonated with what I have read over the years. But in fact, she said she had done little or no reading. Here is a synopsis:

Long-term preparation
1. Gain good experiences, not necessarily through major concerts or auditions, but any positive performance. Oscar Wilde said “Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes”. You can learn from mistakes but it is absolutely essential for our confidence building to learn from your successes, what were you doing right?

2. The journey of self-acceptance. Some of those with a strong sense of profession and passion may have   defined themselves in terms of what they do at an early stage, and missed the adolescent self-searching phase of asking “Who am I”? But if you know and accept yourself you have an unlimited source of power. Know that you are a worthy human being, no matter how well you play the flute. Judge yourself harshly on your effort, but never on your result! This is the most complicated and important topic in this context, because your peace and happiness as a person is also important.

3. Keeping in proportions. Think big, looking for an orchestral job may be a journey, either short or long, but it is a phase (like your studies at school) and must pack a lot of positivity and patience. No audition is crucial!! It is a process of learning and gaining experience which will end in the right place when you are ready for it.

Mid-term preparation
1. Mental readiness. This should start as soon as the audition raises your stress levels when you think realistically about it, it may be six months or two weeks ahead. There is no reason why the performance should be any different from in your imagination, imagining it negatively is not a good sign.
Try to imagine the situation as specifically as possible, every piece of information, the hall acoustics, the jury members, the pieces, your clothing. The twist is: you need to imagine the situation as accurately as possible, but also positively. Maybe in the beginning it will be hard, but with persistence it will change slowly. Stick to those positive feelings. Remember them from past performances where you played well, and make it part of your daily practice. Run-throughs are important, but take them at a distance of one week from the audition, so you have time to draw conclusions and get emotionally detached from the positive or negative experience.

2. Keep positive. Words have more power than we think. When we make excuses like “I am not ready”, “only the students of …….. can win”, “I’m just doing this for practice”, etc. we think that we are reducing the expectations from outside and inside, but actually, we are unconsciously convincing ourselves of failure. We are doing a mental preparation for a bad performance. Mantras can influence our consciousness if you really stick to them, even when you don’t believe in them. Actually, a mantra would be quite useless if you already do believe in it. Just find one and repeat it again and again, as stupid as it sounds.  It will be your immune system for negative, “what if” thoughts or expectations. Another important point is belief, belief that you are worthy of the position, and to accept success as an option.

3. Did I mention be well prepared?

Short-term preparation
1. The obvious: Sleep. Eat. Rest. Put the flute in its case 24 hours before the audition. On the day of the audition, make sure to organize yourself so that you have enough time to warm up before the audition. Wear something you feel comfortable in.

2. You may find yourself warming up in a room with 20 other flutists, which is tiring, distracting, stressful and unhelpful for your sound and mood. If you have a long time to wait, it is better to keep your energy and find a quiet place to rest. The most important thing in auditions is concentration. It cannot be achieved in a second, it must be achieved with some kind of meditation. Find a way to make your body run slowly, and to let your mind focus on one thing. Find a place of silence, even if it means that you close yourself in the toilets 10 minutes before your audition. Go through your difficult parts slowly in your mind, breathe deeply, move slowly, do stretches, don’t talk to anyone, and don’t play with your iphone. Concentration is the best antidote for stress, it routes your mind to the right place. If in the audition you don’t manage to concentrate on the music, concentrate on being concentrated. Knowledge reduces the levels of stress, gives confidence and the ability to talk to ourselves during the performance, to be our own teacher. If we have in mind a clear image of how we want to sound, and how we want to achieve it, this inner discussion will not only provide good results, but will also take the focus away from the stress factors.

Stress is good
Having said all this about managing stress, I believe it is an integral, important part of our profession. It is a motivating factor, and in the moment of performance can keep us alert and concentrated. It is only a matter of proportion. The key is not to eliminate fear, but to gain some control over it.

Finale
An audition is a concert. If you don’t have fun, no one will. The jury has heard 100 flutists (less fun for them) and they just want to enjoy your performance, they want you to succeed. The jury is not looking or mistakes, and no one loses an audition because of making one. Of course the jury is looking for a good flutist, but mainly for a musician who suits their personal taste, and who they believe would suit the orchestra well. And that is not something you can control, so just do your best.

 Thank you, Shiri!

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