Melbourne lessons

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Also while in Melbourne, I was fortunate enough to have four lessons with four different teachers. Whenever I have lesson after lesson with different people like this, it’s the common remarks that tend to shine through – in fact it is really quite useful for this reason, and it challenges me to confront the comments that I am clearly brushing off but which return time and again, not just from one observer but from many.

The really persistent point that carried right through these four lessons was to do with tone colour. This was especially interesting, as I played different repertoire to each one of them! Each teacher identified that I was not doing near enough with colours, and this despite the fact that I already had the ability to vary them. Each teacher also had a very different way of describing what these colours were and how to achieve distinctions.

Derek Jones’ focus was on vibrato as the tool of colour changes – this was actually the approach of my undergrad teacher at QCGU, Gerhard Mallon. Using vibrato you can move from a cold sound (no vibrato) through to a warm sound (rich with vibrato). I played orchestral excerpts for Derek (on Patrick’s suggestion): Debussy’s L’apres Midi, Brahms 4 & Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. He relayed the advice of his teacher, Andreas Blau (at that time principal of Berlin Phil), for how the Debussy should be played: starting the C# without vibrato and slowly colouring the note increasing warm, spinning vibrations until reaching the G# where the waves are at their largest, at this point you reduce to a cold, straight tone as you return to the C#; repeat this with greater intensity the second time, arching over the wider leaps and tailing to straight at the end. He also marked Blau’s dynamics into my score of Brahms.

He was full of practical advice: for the move from C#-D# set the embouchure on the C# increasing the air on the D# without changing lips too much; downbeats like a singer, sink into them, don’t jump on them; practise articulation 3 days on, 1 off (single, double, triple), and use fluttertongue to help air moving through lengthy double-tongued passages. He pointed out that I drop my head forward significantly when I play – I have big letters scribbled into my notebook at this point reading ‘USE OF NECK’ – his suggestion is to try playing while sitting on a balance ball and to ensure the stand height is always suitable.

My lesson later that same day with Mardi McSullea was by far the most confronting I had in Melbourne. It really threw some things into question for me, to do with my approach to learning and polishing pieces (and especially contemporary works). This was not so much because of her, but because of my reaction to the comments she made. I played Saariaho’s Laconisme for her – she has spent some time studying Saariaho’s music and I was really keen to hear what she thought. Her immediate reaction was that I needed to apply my ‘best Classical or Romantic sound’ to the work, and I resisted like hell!

My reaction might be because she is not the first person to say this (and all the things that go with it – for example, shaping phrases, finding best sound, letting the extended techniques be colouration and not sound effects, etc.) to me about this specific work. I have actually had lessons with a very large number of teachers on this work: Janet McKay, Tim Munro, Patrick, Geoff Collins, Harrie Starreveld, Camilla Hoitenga, Carin Levine, and now Mardi. Some of these are the pre-eminent contemporary flautists of our time! Camilla Hoitenga worked with Saariaho as she composed the work – she edited the published score, and at my lesson with her in Cologne she showed me the original hand-written copy! Many of these people have said the same things to me, and yet I’m obviously not getting it right.

I did a lot of thinking after this lesson, and the conclusions I came to were:

  1. I do separate Classical/Romantic-style compositions and 20th century works distinctly in my learning approach, I’m more detached and systematic towards the latter, yet without proper attention to phrasing and sound.
  2. I haven’t been paying enough attention to the sound produced in every moment of these works – my focus is too much on ‘flexibility’ (playing ‘wide’) at the detriment of my tone. I need to be aiming for richness and resonance, making conscious sound (colour) choices, and absolutely focussing on the physical, what needs to be in place to produce that sound.
  3. 20th century works are also more revealing than earlier works of a generic flaw in my working: I don’t know how to approach repertoire learning in a productive, structured way.

These are not particularly happy thoughts, but thankfully the later lessons shed some light on where I might go from here. But before I get to that…

Mardi’s colour suggestions were to do with imitating the sound you would make to play Romantic orchestral music – this line with your best Brahms tone, this one moving from Debussy through to Strauss. This was also the description Tim Munro used when I played the Murail for him, he wanted me to use a Brahms sound (complete with a ringing vibrato) to emphasise the big phrases. It does create a useful visualisation for the sound to be produced, but perhaps it is not quite a clear enough description – it gives very little instruction for the physical requirements, or the specifics of the sound being made.

I’ve had quite a number of lessons now with Melissa Doecke – she was previously a student of Patrick’s, but later studied with Vernon Hill and Virginia Taylor at ANU and then Michael Cox in the UK. Her approach to tone colour was therefore very similar to the points I outlined from my lesson with Patrick just under two weeks ago. She spoke of warming up, and thoroughly recommended Moyse’s 24 Little Melodic Studies for this purpose, as well as Galway’s exercises. She really emphasised that I need to be able to separate sound and dynamic – that each vowel shape (A E I O U as a base, but really more like AH EH EE OHR Ü) can be applied in many dynamic ranges. She recommended having diminuendo competitions with a clarinettist (“you’ll always lose, but it’s a great challenge!”). The other point was to listen to the undertone of a note (middle reg and higher), and make sure you’re in tune with it – this instantly makes that undertone seem less obvious, the note seem better in tune, and also clearer with a real ring on it! Magic! I played the Schubert ‘Apeggione’ Sonata for her and we talked about how to apply the tone colour information to the work in a fairly systematic way, which was most useful.

My final lesson was with Margaret Crawford (I was supposed to have one further lesson with Thomas Pinschof, but I cancelled it as I was feeling completely exhausted by that stage, and indeed I fell quite ill that same evening). Margaret is a brilliant teacher, perhaps the only match I’ve yet found to Patrick. Unlike Patrick she has a definite and likely fixed ‘system’ of sorts, and I get the feeling that learning from her would mean learning her system and how to apply it. Not quite the Ignorant Schoolmaster, but very helpful nonetheless. Her tone colour descriptions were not aligned with vowel shapes, specific playing styles or with vibrato – they were simply imitations of different instrumental tones. The five colours according to Margaret are:

  • Basic flute tone – pure, crystalline sound; clear core the major feature of the sound
  • Oboe tone – edgier, slightly harsher, direct tone; full of upper partials
  • Clarinet tone – hollow but clear; lacking in upper parials
  • Fluff tone – very open embouchure and a lot of air; still a strong core but a generous airiness (very soft)
  • Indian flute tone – this she identified as my regular sound; more airy through the core of the sound, with rather a lot of what she called ‘pollution’, but beautiful nonetheless

These descriptions of basic tone colours (which can then endure subtle variations through vowel shape and also dynamic) are, I think, excellent. They give you an absolute clarity for pre-visualising the sound you are wanting to make (you literally visualise the sound of the instrument in question), as well as physical cues to help you achieve that.

I actually played the Fétis concerto, which I’d played for the ANAM audition, for Margaret (who is the flute teacher at ANAM). She was both encouraging and highly critical! She thought the Fétis wasn’t a particularly good choice for the audition – as Patrick had warned me, it’s the kind of piece that requires absolute technical accuracy, which I have not yet achieved. She thought the C.P.E. Bach D minor concerto might have suited me better, or a number of others. She pointed out a good long list of my faults revealed by the Fétis (unevenness in arpeggios, lack of control through octave leaps, tightness as I come back to softs, etc. etc.), but also said that it was a marvelous piece for improving one’s flute playing because of this. She also grumbled and groaned about not having a wind player on the panel for that audition and said she would very much like to see me again … which I suppose means she liked me at least a little?

Anyway, the focus of the lesson was very much on sound. We spoke of tone exercises – the Moyse De la Sonorite she said were already too difficult! Two notes is too many – play just one! Tonguing the note interrupts the flow of air – don’t tongue! Vibrato is another interruption – play a straight clear tone! Do this until the note is as clear as you’ve ever played, then add vibrato halfway through, then add vibrato from the beginning, then add the tongue. Play a descending C Major scale slowly in this way.

Her other exercise was for embouchure formation – called ‘Haffar’ because this is exactly the sound you make, forming a very loose embouchure for the ‘ff’ sound, then reopening the mouth and letting the air flow freely the whole time. The variations on this included breaking ‘Haffar’ into ‘Haff’ and ‘Ffar’ then moving slowly with little gasps of air forming the embouchure gradually (and not re-forming it): ‘H ha ha a ah aff ff ff ffa a ah ah h’.

This is great! I can now really clearly and rigorously set up my own daily tone workout, and add more structure to my tone work in pieces. In this way I’ll better address the problems that I realised in my lesson with Mardi – I’ll have a new approach to practising repertoire with more clarity than ever before, so that I can actually outline what I want to achieve beforehand and then put down the work the work to make it happen. So my aim over the coming few days is to create such a plan (while I am bedridden with the flu, as I have been since Saturday).

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