Lessons in Europe

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While I’ve been over in Europe I’ve only had lessons with three flautists – I had some more lined up but they fell through. Still, the few I’ve had have been really wonderful and worthwhile, as I’ll outline in a moment. I was also lucky enough to sit in on flute classes at the Paris Conservatoire (with Intercontemporain’s Sophie Cherrier – the link doesn’t go directly to her bio, but she’s the 2nd last picture down the bottom) and the Hochschule für Musik in Cologne (with previous Royal Philharmonia principal Robert Winn) as well as participate in the class in Bremen (with musikFabrik’s Helen Bledsoe), and I’ll write a few observations on those too.

(I’ll also include a quick note to apologise, quite likely more to myself than any potential readers, for my neglect of this blog over the past months. As with most of the things that sit in my to-do list for such lengths of time, this laxity is evidence of determined self-distraction from the terror of really engaging with myself and/or something I really want to do. Anyhow, I’ve accumulated a pile of incomplete draft posts and I’m determined that this doesn’t become one of them. The others are unlikely to ever see completion, but never mind.)

I played Takemitsu’s Voice for Camilla Hoitenga across two lessons – actually I stayed with her for 3 days in Cologne, which was a truly wonderful experience! She was really lovely to me, and it was great to get the opportunity to hear about her study with Moyse, her new Mancke headjoint (I think it was a Mancke! I’m really not good at paying attention to such things – someone asked me what my flute was the other day and I totally forgot what make my headjoint was … just opening my case now I can see it’s a David Williams), her travels around Europe, and the work she’s doing with Saariaho. We talked a lot about my future study options too, and in particular about the contemporary music masters at the Basel Musik Akademie that I’m interested in and that she is one of many adjunct teachers for. Increasingly this sounds like the best option for me I think. You essentially are assigned a “tutor” (Jürg Henneberger, Mike Svoboda, or Marcus Weiss – I’m not linking, so google them!) for the 2-year degree and then are given funds for lessons, which you can take with whoever you want, so you can travel around and have lessons with a bunch of awesome people – meanwhile you work intensively in the ensemble of other students in the course playing really fantastic repertoire (I went and saw their final exam in early June and this is what they played!).

Me and Camilla at her place in Cologne

But back to my lessons! Camilla’s essential point, although there was a great deal of very useful detail I’m brushing over here, was that this is a work of the early 70s and it is meant to be shocking. The air accents, the tongue slaps, the voice, the shrieking high pitches – all of it is full on and in your face. She has studied Japanese music quite a bit and has a Noh flute, which she showed me and let me play, and boy do you have to blow like hell! It only plays loud and you have to work hard, and this is the kind of attack Takemitsu is calling for in this work. It’s different from his later pieces – AirItinerant – there’s more Debussy in those works. I was putting too much Debussy in this one, trying to create phrases by playing legato through long lines when that’s not what was notated. This work comes off the back of the Berio Sequenza, and it still needs to have an edge of avant garde when played today (it can!).

Some notes I took in the lesson, as evidence of this:

  • blocks of sound (think electronic music), intensity
  • calibrate dynamics – get really loud, know exactly where sfffz is in all registers
  • really imitating Japanese sound – gather energy, really prepare before first (and every) note
  • always ask “why” with notational variations
  • landings! pillow? metal? wood? (by this I mean variations in attacks)

We also played lots of duets together (actually I performed with her and her young students on the day I arrived at the old persons’ home across the road from her – so I guess I had my Cologne debut, playing duets with Camilla Hoitenga!), and the German habit of playing at 443 threw me a little – I was often flat in the high register, odd because I’m used to being too sharp. We worked a bit at my intonation and sound production too. “You’re a good player,” she said to me, “but now you really need to be working on all the details, pulling everything together.”

I also played Voice for Helen Bledsoe (who’ve I linked to above), which gave me a chance to test out some of the stuff I’d worked on with Camilla. She further refined my interpretation of the work, often questioning how I read a certain notation or how I approached a tricky passage, and also solved a few of the problems I was having creating the sounds I wanted. Helen is great for all the little tricks that create impressive sounds without having to change everything about the way you play the flute – like putting your tongue in the way to give a great big whooshy air accent that transitions perfectly into a low E, or creating a perfectly poppy tongue slap by changing the shape inside your mouth. The result of that lesson is that my Voice score is littered with more little pencil markings than ever before!

The next day I participated in Helen’s flute class at the Hochschule in Bremen, playing Murail’s Unanswered Questions to demonstrate extended techniques to some of the undergraduate students as well as her group intonation and articulation exercises. They were great! She went through a bunch more contemporary repertoire, outlining a number of pieces that are good stepping stones into playing new music, and it’s great to note those I haven’t yet played (I’m gradually compiling a list of contemporary “standards” that I need to get under my belt in the coming year/s) – Dinescu, Yun, Aitken, etc.

Back in Paris (via a visit to Hamburg with Liam to see the wonderful Nate and Roland), and I had a lesson with Emmanuelle Orphèle (the other flautist member of Ensemble Intercontemporain – once again if you click on the link you have to select her photo, which is the first of the 2nd row). She doesn’t speak a whole lot of English, and I speak no French, but we managed to communicate quite well given those circumstances! I didn’t just play one for her – I played the Bach Partita, Messian’s Le Merle Noir, Takemitsu again, and Murail’s Unanswered Questions (I wish I’d been more on top of Boulez’ Derive I flute part, so I could have taken that to her! She did talk a little about the solo at the end and played it by memory – in particular she said “make it heard!”, the flute often gets a little drowned out in that piece). Having sat in on Sophie Cherrier’s flute class at the Conservatoire a little over a week earlier, I was nervous about playing for a French flautist, as they’re just so freaking good! But that in itself made it an experience – I was ten times more aware of every flaw in my playing, and everything I would like to improve. If I could listen like that when I was practising, I’d certainly be a better player! So maybe I just need to pretend I’m playing for her or Sophie more often…

She was, however, really encouraging, exclaiming “Très bien! Très, très bien! Superbe!” every time I finished playing through a work. The major criticisms came with my turning in too much in the high register (perhaps the cause of my flatness when playing with Camilla) and not getting a big, full sound up there. She took my flute and had a play to demonstrate, and I’ll be damned if the thing has ever sounded that good before! On the pieces: the Bach she liked, although “in France we play this all detaché” (i.e. tongued). In the Messiaen, she changed the speed of some parts of my cadenzas, called for more attention to the colour (and especially vibrato use) in the melodic passages, and we talked a bit about my tongue position for accents. Takemitsu was once again about making everything a little more striking, and even the few passages Camilla had allowed a bit of a Debussy-esque melodic line she wanted something altogether more haunting and cold. It was breathtaking when she played it! Evidently I did an okay job with Unanswered Questions as she said “Very Murail, very poetic” – but then once again she was after more dynamic contrast, especially reaching louds more easily.

Okay, this is turning into a looooooooong post, but just a few final words on the flute classes of Sophie Cherrier and Robert Winn. This first (a class of just one flute student) was of course conducted in French, but I picked up enough from the playing and the physical demonstrations to take the following notes:

  • warm-up with T-G #4 (3? whichever one is the scale exercise like Wye uses in his ‘expressive scales’, similar to Gerhard’s) playing an octave up and down and handing over teacher to student and back, with variations (rhythmic, articulations, dynamics)
  • when something was problematic for the student Sophie would stop and they would work at it
  • all of this was naturally by memory, and then was a lot of attention paid to clarity/legato/good sound over the breaks as well as hard staccato
  • tongue rams were used to create sensation of acute detaché attack – playing up and down the scales
  • there was also a lot of focus on posture, holding the flute out straight in front of you and letting it float up to meet the body
  • the student played Debussy’s Syrinx, a virtuosic French sounding work I didn’t know, and Marais’ Les Folies d’Espagne – even with Syrinx, a piece his technical ability greatly exceeded, Sophie had a great deal to say (looking at the ends of phrases, playing tensions using rubato and dynamics, feeling impulses deep in the abdomen, stage presence, etc. etc.)
  • for the Marais, the most important thing seemed to be to find individual characters for each variation and bringing those out without interrupting the feeling of perpetuum mobile created by the cyclic harmonic progression

The standard of playing was unspeakably high. This student had a sound like liquid wax that settled perfectly into shape with every phrase, and I can’t even think of a suitable metaphor to describe his finger facility – just wow.

In Robert Winn’s class in Cologne the standard was also high, but the style was very different, and not in a way that especially resonates with me. Winn is a very full-on personality, and it was interesting to see how the different students dealt with his confronting teaching style. But boy, I have never heard any flautists play louder – he was loudest, but his students were not far behind. That really intense British sound, blowing the hell out of the instrument and very edgy. I wish I could do that sometimes, but I don’t know about it being an all-the-time thing. Still, his students are getting jobs in Europe and their playing is very impressive (the repertoire was less so, with the exception of Isang Yun’s Garek played by a Korean student). Overall, I didn’t quite get the attention on music-making that Sophie gave, but certainly I’d do well to try and imitate that sound production a bit – then I might be able to shock people with my Takemitsu!

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