No More Tears – Breath as a Leit Motif

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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.

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Composing Articulation for Winds – Tell Me What To Say

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Articulation

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:

Articulation

 

but perhaps the composer meant:

Articulation

I would really like to be sure.

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

Articulation

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.

 

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Wish List

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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.

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