A Gloss on Seth Godin’s “Abundant Systems”

The phrases “there are too many flutists today”, and “conservatories are producing too many flutists for too few jobs” really sadden me. And piss me off, if I really admit. It has been hard to put my finger on exactly why, but when a friend posted Seth Godin‘s “Toward abundant systems“, it helped me to put my thoughts in order.

Industrialism is based on scarcity. So is traditional college admissions. In fact, much of the world as we know it is based on hierarchies, limited shelf space, and resources that are difficult to share.

These are his opening words. He goes on to describe which systems thrive on abundance rather than scarcity (language, for example). Then he makes a convincing argument that we need to realize education as an abundant system too, rather than the scarce one that it is today.

He sees this realization as a cultural turning point. I would also like to see a turning point in our musical culture, and its education, as we realize that music, and in my personal argument, flute playing (and by implication earning a living as a flutist) as an abundant system. That means a turning away from the narrow training on offer at most music schools. I believe this narrowness is at the root of “too many flutists”, not the lack of orchestral jobs. Yes, there are too many flutists for too few orchestral jobs.

What lies behind this “too many flutists” statement is the arrogant implication that “in order to be a good flutist, you must win an orchestral audition”. This may be unconsciously arrogant, but nevertheless it is unsupportable. Even more perfidious are those individuals and institutions that attempt to capitalize on the scarcity of orchestral jobs by setting themselves as the elite arbiters of what is the right way or wrong way to play.

Being an orchestral player has a status in its own right. We should refuse to let scarcity define this status.

Yes, aspiring orchestral players need top trainers. But as I have written elsewhere, young players need more.

In closing, I paraphrase Godin’s words: if we can break [musical] education out of the scarcity mindset and instead focus on learning that happens despite status not because of it, then we can begin to shift many of the other power structures in our society.

A shift of power structures means a shift of resources, and that is definitely what the Arts need now!


Contemporary Music Pedagogy, and Benefits of Teaching Extended Techniques

[This is an excerpt from a questionaire sent to me by Lorenzo Diaz for research purposes. The answers represent my opinions only.]

Do you think conservatoires and schools of music really attach importance to contemporary music education?

My short answer to your question is not reallybecause I think a Comtemporary Music Educationshould require not only teaching contemporary repertoire and its extended techniques, but should also require learning extended use of rhythms, different tuning systems, composition (especially for the performers) and improvisation.

Here is a longer answer: An increasing number of schools do attach importance, at least formally. In Europe, the Bologna process has helped by offering specialized Masters programs such as Masters in Contemporary music. The appearance of prestigious Academies and Festivals such as the Lucerne Festival, the academies of Ensemble Intercontemporain and Ensemble Moderne has helped to draw conservatory students’ (and their Professors’) interest.

I am not sure if this is happening outside of Northwestern Europe, but here there is a trend, usually initiated by Composition Departments (not Instrumentalists!), to create formal student Contemporary Music Ensembles, and hire personnel (part-time) to run it. This is a great thing, it creates jobs, gives the student composers an outlet for performances, and gives instrumentalists a chance to play contemporary music and receive formal credit.

These are formal, structural changes that I have witnessed in the past 20 years.

Although I have listed positive changes above, I think still in many schools there is a lack of integration of repertoire from the late 20th/early 21st Centuries. Personally, I would like to see Composition Departments taking even more responsibility and action to help make the needed changes. It can’t come from instrumentalists alone. Composition teachers could do this by focusing more on teaching the basics of Instrumentation/Orchestration, which is becoming a lost art. This would avoid basic mistakes and misunderstandings that can lead to distrust. They could encourage more programs or situations that encourage collaboration between student composers and instrumentalists. (Such as creating, taking part in or seeking funds for programs like Composer Collider Europe.) When a piece of contemporary music does not go over well with a student, they and their teacher are likely to criticize the music or the composer, rather than to criticize the situation that provides little opportunity for collaboration, preparation and practice.


In your opinion, is teaching extended techniques really necessary in the academic environment?

I think it is necessary to be able to offer them. They are part of some required repertoire for competitions, and can assist in embouchure development and control of the air stream. However, there are great flutists today who have never utilized extended techniques. I would not say it is absolutely necessary, but it is practical.

To be completely honest, I think that to be a contemporary musician, on the technical level it is of first importance to learn the complexities of modern rhythm (polyrhythms, odd time signatures, etc.) and intonation (microtonal, spectral tuning, etc.). This will strengthen a student’s sense of rhythm and intonation, skills that are necessary to find a job in an orchestra, ensemble or theater. Learning to improvise and compose (just so you have experienced the process that a composer goes through) are the next most important things, to make one more completely rounded. Where do extended techniques come in? Again, I think it depends on the student, if and when they need it for embouchure development, or to play certain repertoire, or to expand their improvisational vocabulary.

Do you think conservatoires should include more musical works using these resources in their academic programs?

I think that more exposure to works with extended techniques should be encouraged. Repertoire with these techniques is becoming standard for auditions and admissions to festivals, competitions and places of study.

In the case you reckon that the study of these techniques in students of elementary and professional level is possible, which technique (or techniques) would be preferable to apply from the beginning? Is there any one in particular that would be rather applied later on?

It really depends on the student. If there is already the range of an octave, and the student has a good understanding of how to coordinate the air and embouchure, then harmonics can be introduced (we need the technique of overblowing anyway to play notes in the second octave). Circular breathing can be introduced as a concept from the beginning through the use of a glass of water and a straw, or the use of an end-blown tube like the didgeridoo. Application to the flute would come later, once the student has developed a good concept of embouchure and is flexible enough to come back to it after the modifications necessary for circular breathing.

Is there any technique in particular that has proven to be more effective throughout your study?

Harmonics are the most basic, I always turn to them in times of trouble.

Do you usually request your students to study some effect on a daily routine, just as well as any other given technical exercise? If so, which one?

Again it depends on the student. Harmonics are good for anyone, and I encourage all students to practice them daily.

The “trumpet sound” has aroused controversy regarding its use; flautists as R. Dick would rather it not be written in order to avoid a counterproductive effect in the lips, do you agree with this?

The counterproductive effect is only temporary. I use this effect in improvisation, however I discourage composers from using it. I have little faith that it will be written in a context where it will be appreciated acoustically or in a way that will avoid the counterproductive effect.

Do you usually use any of the following extended techniques, both on your study and with your students (daily, at any given time…)

Air: Yes sometimes. In a conversation with Sophie Cherrier, I got the idea to spend 10 minutes a day on loud air sounds in order to get the air column working. Of course, she does not recommend doing this with students who already have too much air in the sound, but for those who are too tight or too focused, this really works. I do it myself when I remember.

Voice: Yes, I recommend this to my students and have exercises for it.

Whistle tones: I teach these as needed. There was a time that I played these every day in order to play the first octave whistle tones down to low C. That was hard, but once I could do it I don’t need to do it every day.

Bamboo: Only on request or as needed in the repertoire.

Flutter tongue: Sometimes I recommend this as part of articulation training. Aurele Nicolet recommended that fast, articulated passages should be practiced legato and with fluttertongue.

Pizzicato: Only on request or as needed in the repertoire.

Key clicks: No.  I try to discourage composers from using it. Pizzicato is much more effective.

Jet whistle: as needed, some players think it opens up the sound of the flute.

Circular Breathing: I teach sometimes, on request. Benefits can be as a checkpoint for resonance. When I am warming up or just about to go onstage, I check my circular breathing regardless if it is required in the piece I am about to play. This is a sure-fire test to see if either of my nostrils or the back of my throat is blocked. If I am clear enough to circular breathe then I should be able to play with maximum resonance.

Tongue Ram: In conversation with Sophie Cherrier she mentions that she sometimes teaches Tongue Ram in order to get a student to activate the abdominal muscles. This is something I plan on doing, should I have a student who needs this. I have tried it myself, not something I do every day, but occasionally it is a good activator.

For more information about the benefits of extended techniques, please see this handout.


More on Circular Breathing

On April 8th this year, I will be in Krakow giving a workshop on circular breathing and performing Robert Dick’s legendary Flames must not encircle sides. About seven years ago I made the tutorial video below, but have been considering a re-make of late. More for clarity, rather than content. And I have learned a few things along the way since then.

Just quickly, here are a few.

Some players feel more comfortable starting on the head-joint. I didn’t do this myself, but can understand why.

Another thing that helps is to embrace the bump that happens while expelling the air and re-taking the breath. Ride it, even. It is normal to experience it and will get better with time, if you persist. So many flutists give up when they hear the horrible gap for the first time.

Note to self: write a practice guide to Flames must not encircle sides. This piece is so cool!

Here is the circular breathing tutorial, if you haven’t seen it already: