Advice for Composers contemporary music extended techniques injury prevention pet peeves temperature

Which extended techniques are harmful to flutes?

During composer workshops, I am sometimes pleased to hear the question: “What are some techniques we should definitely not use because they may harm your instrument?”

So I will keep a running list here.

  • Slamming your hands onto the keywork. A snap of the finger for a key click is one thing (and not all flutists like to do this, including myself), but once I was actually asked to raise my arm above my head and bring my hand down full force on the keywork. Repeatedly. For some reason, I had trouble convincing this particular composer that this might actually break or bend the posts and rods holding the keys in place.
  • Immersing part of the flute in water. If water, even a tiny drop, gets onto the key pads, the pad can swell up and not seal properly (and it may need to be replaced). The same can happen when pads are exposed to excess moisture, which is why I do not like to play out of doors, but that can’t be helped sometimes.
  • Putting your mouth directly on wooden lip plates. This is why I get out my plastic piccolo if I have to do a tongue ram or any percussive effect that requires me to close the embouchure hole with my mouth. Salivation is the first stage of digestion, and I don’t want the result of those chemical processes on finely carved wood.
  • (Not an extended technique, but please bear in mind.) Extreme temperatures. With metal flutes, key pads and the mechanism might go out of adjustment. With wooden instruments, it can be fatal! Some insurance companies will not even pay out if damage occurred while the instrument was below or above certain temperatures.

I am sure I have forgotten something!

Cologne Cathedral intonation temperature

Intonation II: “Gimme That Ol’ Time Religion”

Here’s a still from the TV broadcast of us playing Henze’s Requiem
in the Cathedral of Cologne, April 2009

Our latest concert presented quite a challenge! The Cathedral of Cologne has an evening temperature (this time of year) of 15.3˚ C (59.4˚ F). That was with spotlights and extra spots from the television crew.

As we bundled up to play Hans Werner Henze’s Requiem, we took great care in tuning. Actually, it wasn’t too bad, all things considered.

Here’s what we had to consider:

From one equal-tempered semitone to the next there is a 6% increase in frequency.

A 10˚C change in temperature is equal to a 2% change in pitch frequency. That’s a whole third of a semitone!
[From “The Musician’s Guide to Acoustics” by Murray Campbell, p. 201]

The Cathedral air was not a whole 10 degrees below room temperature (22˚C) but it was enough to make things really tricky.

So what was it like playing in one of the world’s tallest cathedrals? The acoustics of the choir area (on the east end, behind the altar) are not bad. The choir of Cologne Cathedral, measured between the piers, holds the distinction of having the largest height to width ratio of any Medieval church, 3.6:1. [info from Wiki] The whole cathedral is so large and so high that it is almost like playing outdoors, you don’t get that “churchy” acoustic. The nave is 43.35 meters high (144.22 feet) – the 4th highest in the world. Only when you stop playing, do you hear a long, long, decay of the sound.

When I stepped into the interior of the Cathedral for the first time in the summer of 1995 I almost cried, it was that moving and impressive. I am used to tall buildings, I’ve even been up the Sears tower in Chicago, but being inside such a vast structure is awe-inspiring. Imagine the impression it made on the pre-modern psyche!

Back to our intonation question:
How to stay on top of these extreme situations, hot or cold?
*keep flexible by practicing note bends – both ways. I find this absolutely crucial in piccolo playing.
*know alternate fingerings
*know the tendencies of other instruments under these extremes (strings go sharp in the cold, not like us!)