basics practice

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!

Prokofiev Flute Sonata

Thoughts on Prokofiev Flute Sonata

Several times I’ve been asked by students “so how do I play Russian music?”
This is always within the context of the Prokofiev Sonata. The history of this piece is quite well known now, especially since Patricia Harper’s article (DFG 4/2008) has been published in the US and Germany (and elsewhere, for all I know). I had learned this history while teaching a private masterclass to students from Moscow. However, Ms. Harper brought some interesting facts to light which I did not know, and which vindicate a suspicion I’ve always had about Prokofiev’s music, and particularly about the flute sonata.

I’ve always been suspicious about a heavy, brutal, rough, even crass interpretation of this piece. Some flutists, even famous ones perform it this way: overblowing the low register, ignoring the refinements of articulation, heavily accenting where no accents are written. Why? I guess they think it’s more authentic. After all – it is Russian Music – whatever that means. Gypsy influences? Peasants stomping heavily in their rough white shirts, kicking up their heels in a macho display? Stereotypical BS, if you ask me. The piece – the music – just doesn’t seem to warrant it. Think about the Russian players of the time, especially the ones Prokofiev admired, like David Oistrakh (yes, I know the Flute Sonata was not written for him!). Oistrakh played with passion and verve, but I suspect the guy did not have a crass bone in his body. Full blooded and full bodied, but never out of control. Why should we not play the Flute Sonata with the finesse of the great players of Prokofiev’s day?

Today we seek “authenticity”; we ask ourselves what was the flute sound he had in mind? Who were the flutists of his day? It turns out, as I learned from Ms. Harper’s article, that the flutist that most impressed him was Georges Barrere! The Oistrakh of flutists! And not a Russian, but a Frenchman exported to America.

I don’t have a clear point in this post, I realize. Maybe only this: we can go overboard with interpretation. Prokofiev was a cosmopolitan figure, and a lover of the Classics. He carefully notated exactly what he wanted and all we have to do is go for it with our minds and hearts open to the music.

Advice for Composers instrumentation pet peeves

Pet Peeves for composers

This is going to be a work in progress.

To all composers – here is one musician’s (of the flutist persuasion) list of pet peeves:
There is a compositional tradition which I would like to ask composers to please avoid, especially when writing for wind players. This is using a comma (which looks to a wind player like a breath mark) at the end of a note to indicate that the player should maintain the intensity of the dynamic and end the note abruptly, without tapering:

A wind player’s instinct on seeing this mark is to make a quick inhalation – not the effect desired. A preferable solution would be to make a stylistic indication at the beginning of the work, or to indicate the dynamic graphically:

A short list of other pet peeves:

  • Using empty note heads to indicate air or aeolian sounds. Please see my tips on this subject.
  • Bass flute together with bass clarinet. Neither their ranges nor sonorities match. IMO the bass flute is better paired with the A-clarinet. The bass clarinet is a different animal altogether, with a much broader range, more scope for dynamics, than the bass flute. Just because they are both labeled “bass” (incorrectly, as it turns out for the bass flute, but that’s another story altogether) doesn’t mean they belong together.
  • piccolo and E-flat clarinet ditto. Cliche. Why bother? Unless you want to sound like a screeching street band. Maurico Kagel was able to get away with it.
  • Fluttertongue. It’s also cliche. Give it a rest please. (And it’s not a given that every flutist can do it – Asian flutists have a more difficult time. I myself cannot do the forward version, but have to resort to the Parisian Gargle) And it’s often imprecisely notated, esp. when it comes to mixing the flute and voice. When written together, why are they sometimes written differently? If one does a fluttertongue, the other will automatically do it too – it would be nice to have it reflected in the notation.
  • Extended techniques stacked up on top of one another. This is something some resort to thinking that it will make the sound more interesting and intense. Well, some techniques cancel each other out and just muddy the waters. Better to pick a few that work acoustically well together.
  • Difficulty for difficulty’s sake. OK, Ferneyhough made it part of the esthetic of Cassandra’s Dream Song – to make the struggle an intrinsic part of the music. But this is a rare case of it actually working (IMHO), I do love this piece but I haven’t come across another that successfully uses this scheme.