Challenging Lesson


My lesson today was one of those confronting and challenging ones, the type where the teacher seems to constantly demand things that I feel are out of my reach and make suggestions that directly contradict decisions I’ve made or that highlight the work I know I have yet to do. The type where I actually have to bite back tears a bit. Freaking hard, but ultimately good for me. And anyway, I’m a week out from the recital, so I was due a flip out, and as usual I have a lot of work to do in order to get the pieces performance polished for next Sunday. (By the way, the fairly positive outlook I’m displaying here has been pretty elusive for me all day – it’s one of the reasons blogging is so good, I feel the need to put a positive spin on just about everything!)

So what went wrong? Well, a good many things, but one of the primary problems was that it was an early morning lesson (9.45am) and I’d only had about 40mins of warm-up, which I didn’t manage especially well. When I have a limited warm-up time like that, I tend to just run through a few exercises that seemed to have worked in the past, relying on the exercise itself to set my embouchure up right and only consciously adjusting every now and then. This is to avoid frustration, as I struggle to find my sound – and it is frustrating, terribly so, but the result was that even though I’d kind of got a fairly good sound going, when I started playing in my lesson my control, clarity, richness, etc. seemed to evaporate and I didn’t have the right instructions at hand to correct things.

Obviously the second problem was underpreparedness (if that’s a word) – I was playing the Dean, and I haven’t had a full performance of it for anyone before, I’ve only bashed through parts of it in flute class last week and for Kathleen. I’m still getting my head around rhythms and details. That, along with the sound struggle, meant that once again thinking through lines or trying to do anything interesting (worth listening to) was beyond my capacity. I knew very much that this problem was my own doing, so was already beating myself up over it a few bars into the piece. Not exactly the kinds of thoughts that help in a situation like that. And they lead to frustration and defensiveness, and a bit of despair, when criticisms by a teacher are made.

Ultimately the lesson probably wasn’t very good for me, and I might have better spent the time using what I’d gotten out of Kathleen’s lesson – getting it into my body, out of my head. Still, Melissa made some very important points that I’d be worse off without: singing-playing can be very smooth if you think of your voice coming through your nose and your flute sound from your mouth (especially good for the harmonising sections, but it even makes the rougher “helicopter” sections easier); blow down but turn the flute out more to get low flutters, such as the B and C# on the third page; feel as though you’re blowing around all of the notes in a multiphonic, rather than through the middle of them (that’s been my method); finding the place to break and re-set your embouchure as it gets mutilated by all the banging about on a high D; varying the colours, not just the fingers, on the repeated Ds; etc.

But it was really hard for me to hear that I needed to get on top of the rhythms a bit more, that I should shorten these notes and play through this phrase, that I need to add a bit more front to these very low accented notes, that I should maintain the low C sound through the gliss and fluttertongue. I felt like screaming I’VE ONLY GOT ONE WEEK AND I’M BEHIND, PROBABLY IT WILL NEVER GET THERE. AND LISTEN TO YOU, YOU HAVE NO TROUBLE CONTROLLING THESE SOUNDS, YOU CAN ACTUALLY PLAY LOUD AND I’M ALL LIMP AND FLUFFY. Luckily I kept it together (mostly) and just whined a bit about how hard I was finding it.

I’ve had several experiences like this before – some are documented on this blog I believe. A lesson with Mardi McSullea in Melbourne on Saariaho’s Laconisme, with Kathleen earlier this year on the Hurel, and some of those I had overseas. In each case, I wasn’t on top of the piece or its interpretation and because of that I felt frustrated at the things asked of me that I just couldn’t yet do, and became angry, oversensitive and hurt. After the lesson today I went home and had a bit of a cry, then tried to practise a bit in the afternoon, in little chunks. That little weight of “you’ve failed … again” hangs heavy on my shoulders.

But hey, there is still time. It’s not ideal, none of the books on being a good musician recommend it, but tomorrow I’m going to have a bit of a marathon day – 5 hours of practise, and see if I can’t really get on top of this Dean, and also the Hurel (maybe a bit of Takemitsu too). This could be really quite a worthwhile recital, but I need to do some serious work. So big day of practise tomorrow, followed up with focussed sessions, rehearsals and practise performances, and next Sunday might not be a complete disaster.


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