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!




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.

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!


Singing and playing

Some time ago I decided to devote at least a few minutes of my flute practice time to singing. Long story as to why, I won’t go in to that here. But the decision to sing, and the upcoming workshop I am giving at the Adams Flute Festival on Sunday April 15, 2012 inspired me to put together these ideas.

Throat tuning is the best basic application of singing and playing. Tuning your throat to a pitch you want to play will help you to achieve maximum resonance. You can find a more detailed explanation in Robert Dick’s you tube videos and his exercises from Tone Development Through Extended Techniques. Here one of the exercises he demonstrates. This exercise is also much loved by Peter Lloyd:

You can start with Taffanel & Gaubert’s first daily exercise in any key. I have chosen B-flat because it falls easily in my range. You can also choose any octave you wish. In case the musical example is not clear, here is what you do: 1. play the first 5-note pattern, 2. sing the 5-note pattern while silently fingering the notes on the flute, 3. sing and play together, 4. play only, but keep the feeling and resonance as if you were singing and playing. You may notice a big change in your resonance.

Another application of singing and playing that I like to utilize is to use singing as a check-point for keeping a relaxed throat while playing high notes. If you can sing a low note while playing a high one, then likely you are using your embouchure and support correctly. If you can’t produce a low note while playing high, you are likely squeezing your throat in order to “help” the high notes out. That’s the easy way out! A good high register, though, has its support down below, and the lips do the work of narrowing the passage of air, not the throat.

To experiment, play a high note (any will do, I have G here, but you can go higher or lower) and see how high and especially how low you can sing while holding that note.

 You will hear many strange difference tones while doing this; as your voice goes up, you may hear a “ghost” glissando going down, and vise versa. Being able to create this effect is application I love about singing and playing. Some composers use it effectively, and it also comes in handy when improvising.

Now, back to the point about keeping the voice low: try playing octaves and keeping the voice in the lower octave. Keep the voice steady on pitch. Again, you can choose any key and any octave:

 A bit trickier is to keep the voice on a single low pitch while blowing through the harmonic series. If you aren’t familiar with the harmonic series, better to begin without singing. Don’t worry about getting the highest notes at first. Work your way slowly up.

C is a good note to start on, but you can choose another. Also, don’t be discouraged if you can’t produce the highest harmonics while singing at first, just work on getting them one at a time, no vocal glissandi allowed here!

And just because I am a bit fanatical, I wrote a vocalise to one of Reichart’s daily exercises. The voice sings the top line:

If anyone wants the whole exercise, I can send it as a Finale or pdf file (thank you Cutepdf!). Just send me an email at hbledsoe at helenbledsoe dot com.


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?


Newsflash for Teachers: Being an Asshole is Ineffective

Every time I pick up a science news magazine or book I end up smacking my head in disbelief that science goes to such lengths to prove what everybody else knows already. So being an Asshole is an ineffective approach to teaching. Really, a Nobel Prizewinning scientist said so!  I read it in a random book on randomness: The Drunkard’s Walk by Leonard Mlodinow. The author tells the story of Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist who won the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics (!). I’ll retell this because here is an interesting twist on “what everybody else knows already”.

While working as a psychology professor at Hebrew University in the 1960s, Kahneman lectured  a group of Israeli air force flight instructors on behavior modification. As a well-read mother of an almost-three year old, I know about behavior modification: rewarding positive behavior works, but punishing mistakes does not. Almost every other parenting book will tell you this. My husband does not agree, but that is another story.

When I read the following passage though, my first connection was not to my son, dear as he is, but to teaching flute. I listen to some teachers brag about how tough they are, and now believe they are driven by a misconception. Perhaps more importantly, this will give us a lesson on how not to talk to ourselves, as we practice for hours on end, give concerts, and play auditions.  I’ll begin quoting from page 7, just mentally replace the word “flight” with “flute”:

Kahneman drove home the point that rewarding positive behavior works but punishing mistakes does not. One of [the pilot instructors] interrupted,…”I’ve often praised people warmly for beautifully executed maneuvers, and the next time they do worse,” the flight instructor said. “And I’ve screamed at people for badly executed maneuvers, and by and large the next time they improve. Don’t tell me that reward works and punishment doesn’t work. My experience contradicts it.” The other flight instructors agreed. To Kahneman the flight instructor’s experiences rang true. On the other hand, Kahneman believed in the animal experiments that demonstrated that reward works better than punishment. [...] And then it struck him: the screaming preceded the improvement, but contrary to appearances it did not cause it.

How can that be? The answer lies in a phenomenon called regression toward the mean. That is, in any series of random events an extraordinary event is most likely to be followed, due purely to chance, by a more ordinary one. Here is how it works: The student pilots all had a certain personal ability to fly fighter planes. Raising their skill level involved many factors and required extensive practice, so although their skill was slowly improving through flight training, the change wouldn’t be noticeable from one maneuver to the next. Any especially good or especially poor performance was thus mostly a matter of luck. So if a pilot made an exceptionally good landing – one far above his normal level of performance – then the odds would be good that he would perform closer to his norm – that is, worse – the next day. And if
his instructor had praised him, it would appear that the praise had done no good. But if a pilot made an exceptionally bad landing – [...] then the odds would be good that the next day he would perform closer to his norm – that is, better. And if his instructor had a habit of screaming “you clumsy ape” when the student performed poorly, it would appear that his criticism did some good. In this way an apparent pattern would emerge: student performs well, praise does no good; student performs poorly, instructor compares student to lower primate at high volume, student improves. The instructors in Kahneman’s class had concluded that their screaming was a powerful educational tool. In reality it made no difference at all.

So the next time you or anyone else crash and burn, it’s fine to mull it over and figure out what went wrong, but it doesn’t pay to be an asshole about it – especially to yourself. And besides, apes are higher primates, not lower primates.

but I was going for that high D!


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!


Why Augmented Scales Kick Butt

Because of the seemingly innocuous combination of half-steps and minor thirds!
It’s one of those symmetrical scales that I just love, although I know nature abhors perfect symmetry, and true beauty (like those lovely Japanese gardens) operates on the principle of slight asymmetry. But for composers, symmetry in the context of tonality is very useful when you don’t want the pull of a tonal center. It frees you up to think of other ways to pull in the audience.

Most of us flutists know some symmetrical scales:
1) Chromatic = half steps repeated
2) Whole Tone = whole steps repeated

Then you may know, especially if you have studied Jazz:
3) Octatonic (a.k.a. Diminished) = either repeating half step/whole step or whole step/half step

And the subject of this blog entry:
4) Augmented scales = either repeating half step/minor third or minor third/half step

You find these scales in music by Dutilleux, Gaubert and if I’m not mistaken Jolivet. That minor third makes things sound sort of “harmonic minor-ey”, pentatonic or bluesy, depending on the context.

But my point is not that they just sound cool, they kick butt because they are seriously challenging to play smoothly! Why?
1) The half steps go naturally quicker than the minor thirds
2) The scales with A#/Bb also have F#/Gb, so you can’t use the Bb thumb with good conscience!

Just try them out!
(3 pages, pdf)


Practice Motto: Amongst Our Weaponry Are….

Surprise, fear, ruthless efficiency and a fanatical devotion to the— wait a minute —– that’s not my practice motto, that’s The Spanish Inquisition skit from Monty Python!

Hmm, well, surprise and fear do come into play now and then. It’s the term ruthless efficiency that’s been running through my head recently. Ruthlessness seems to be the rule, given minimal practice time these days in which to prepare for May’s difficult ensemble concert and July’s solo concert. It’s a tough juggle, my husband is working almost round-the-clock to make a deadline, and my 7-month-old son could care less about my piddling artistic/flutey problems. So practice moments need to be cunningly snatched. Linked with my policy of brutal honesty, which involves keeping the tuner by my side, I seem to have a very pugnacious attitude in the practice room these days. It’s a place where “no one expects the Spanish Inquisition!” But guess what? It’s paying off!

I will share some of my weaponry that inflicts ruthless efficiency:

  • a daily task list and
  • a projected schedule of when I will practice each piece

Since it is impossible to practice every piece every day, I take what is difficult from each piece and work it into my daily practice. Some things on my list now are: the multiphonics found in Berio Sequenza and Takemitsu Voice, double tonguing as fast as possible….

The projected schedule is something I make when it seems there are too many pieces and too little time. I start from the first day and project up to the concert day(s). I figure out how much practice each piece will need, and assign one or more pieces to practice in detail each day. That way, I don’t have to worry about practicing each piece every day. It keeps me from panicking, and importantly, from procrastinating. If it’s my day to practice that difficult trio I was dreading, just do it. Put the other pieces aside – the items on the daily task list will keep me up-to-date, in shape and on top of them.

I do seem to be making headway, and watching Monty Python for a laugh now and then does help!


How To Get Pregnant – Even If….

Even if you are a man! There’s a man behind this idea – sax player Ned Rothenberg, to be exact. He described his practicing as “getting pregnant” creatively. Here is the article where he mentions it.

I really admire his improvisations. He must spend a lot of the time pregnant! His CD “Amulet” with Tuvan singer Sainkho Namchulak is something else.

I drew great inspiration from it when preparing for my trip to Tuva in 2004. It was my first solo appearance only improvising, and I was happy that it was in a far and distant land. Although I don’t think the concert went well, it was a very fruitful time for me – I really practiced a lot to prepare for it and took some practice notes which I use to this day. Someday I’ll post about my adventures in Tuva!

Although from time to time it is part of my job, I just hate being an assembly – line flutist. Piece gets on the stand, practiced, performed, basta. Next. And so on. Although I learn pieces fairly quickly, I really don’t like to. It’s one thing I really can’t stand about the contemporary music business. I’m also at a point in my life where I really enjoy contemplation, it would be great to spend time on my instrument pondering different interpretations of Bach, or any great composer for that matter. Or deepening my understanding of tone production and discovering new sounds. But often it’s monkey-work. By that, I mean spending time churning through pages littered with excessive black dots, my trusty metronome by my side, starting half-speed and inching ever upwards.

My ideal is that I have enough time to live with a piece of music, or for it to become a part of me. This is also why I like practicing. I remember my school days in Amsterdam, practicing in my then-boyfriend’s attic. He would tell me: why do you practice so much? you don’t really need to! Well, I was getting pregnant. I get full of the music and then and only then am I ready to fling it out.

Lucky for us (flutists)! We now have modern “classics”. I have lived with the Berio Sequenza ca. 15 years, Ferneyhough’s Carceri for 12 years, Varese Density 21.5 for 10 (learned that one late!). My next solo concert (5 July) I hope to make a mostly “classical” one, along with two new pieces by younger composers. What luxury! Now to juggle time for practice, rehearsals, teaching, cuddling (baby and husband), household stuff and blogging. Dang it, I wish I had a maid, now that would really be luxury….


The Value of Time

I’d like to keep a running blog, something I can keep coming back to, on just how long it takes to do stuff. Especially practice things. We are all told – do your Moyse long tones! do your scales! etc. However, I notice that with my students and myself, under the gun and with a stack of notes to learn, basics fall way by the wayside. “I have so many notes to learn I just don’t have time for the basics!!”

Well, here is a starter:
breathing exercise = 2 min.
finger tai-chi exercise 2 min.
a movement from a Bach or Telemann Sonata (an everyday absolute for me!) = under 5 min.
Moyse “pour les tons graves” = 11 min.
my scale exercises = ca. 4 min.
my harmonic trill exercise = 3 min

I’ll get back to this as time goes on!