A few thoughts after some days of intensive practice. My focus has been awareness of tension, since I have a few sore points on my hands due to an old injury. One concept from yoga has helped me. According to what I have learned, the arm structure is considered an open system, whereas the legs are a closed system due to the fact that they end with the feet on the ground (at least when standing). In flute playing, the arms are also sort of closed system; they end with the fingers on the flute. But I like to imagine that in spite of that, they are open systems. Just that feeling that they could continue to extend if they wanted. Same with the legs while performing, even though they are grounded, I like the idea of them being an entire structure that could extend if needed.
It is very important for me to think of extension not only as motion away, but with a twist. Pretend you have a knob that’s straight in front of you and just beyond your reach. Bring your right arm out to reach for the knob. Bring your shoulder blade from the back with you while reaching out, but make sure the shoulders are not raised. Rotate the entire arm outwards (as if you want to turn the knob to the right with your whole arm). Then, leaving your upper arm (the part nearest the shoulder above the elbow) as is, rotate only the lower arm and your palms in (as if turning that knob back to the left). Then bring the arm into playing position (let the shoulder blade come back with the arm). When I do this, I have a better feeling of security and freedom. Repeat with the left arm, first turning the knob to the left with the entire arm, then back to the right with only the lower arm.
The other thing I have to tell myself is not to get tense about tension. If at the end of a phrase I notice my leg is stiff, so what? Just unstiffen it and get on with it. The point is, I noticed it. I have to remind myself this is a process. If there is time, repeat the passage with better awareness, to find out which action made me try to support with my leg. And then hopefully laugh at my ridiculous notion that a locked knee can help with my high note. Better than beating yourself up.
And Mula bandha really helps! (It is NOT the squeezing of those other cheeks that some refer to.) Awareness of the pelvic floor is a positive way to exercise awareness, to get away from being too vigilant about the negative or unproductive things. I once had a male flutist tell me “but I don’t have a pelvic floor” and I was gullible enough for a microsecond to actually look down to see if his insides had spilled out onto the ground from between his legs. Guys, you do have pelvic floors. It is part of the blueprint for human anatomy.
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.
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.