Muscles

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Well, muscles are fine really (necessary, even). I just seem to do too much with mine so that they get in the way.

I have been having some lessons with Alexis Kenny (principal flute of QSO) on repertoire I am preparing for the first round of the Australian Flute Festival competition. The main gist of all my lessons with her has been “less is more” – as in, use as little tension as possible for greatly improved sound and (counter-intuitively) control. The results are amazing! In my lessons, suddenly I can feel whole groups of muscles switching off, freeing up the space to use the muscles that I actually need. I’m yet to emulate this in my home practice…

This is in keeping with some other work I have been doing to address problems of long-term tension build up, particularly in my neck and upper back, leading to terrific pain and my right shoulder seizing up in early May. I’ve found a great masseuse who happens to practice just around the corner from my house, and who specialises in musicians’ health. In addition I’m renewing my commitment to yoga. But while these things are helping, it would seem that I actually have to take further action to address my addiction to bodily tension in my daily life, and especially when playing the flute.

It is the curse of flute players (and many other instrumentalists) that the body develops muscles and posture asymmetrically – in particular there is a tendency for the right shoulder to roll in and that shoulder blade to move up, along with the problems that go with having your head turned to the left for such long periods. My neck muscles had locked up so bad they were basically like rocks, and I had one particularly calcified muscle behind that right shoulder blade. Fun times!

But when I’m playing or otherwise breathing (in yoga especially), I tend to ignore the pain problems and instead struggle to release muscles further down, around my ribs and below my sternum. Sometimes I feel like there’s a great big band around my sides. It’s one of the reasons I look at girls playing flute in tight high waisted skirts and think ‘there’s no way you’re supporting your air correctly’. I need freedom and expansion through my ribs and lift and support from my lower abdominals and mula bandha.

Cassandra with Jane

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This morning I had a skype chat with American flautist (flutist!) Jane Rigler about learning Cassandra’s Dream Song by Brian Ferneyhough. The score is a little intimidating: two pages of tiny black notes, fingerings, rhythms (nested tuplets, argh!), techniques, articulations, and directions. There is an element of performer choice incorporated into the work, in terms of ordering the material on the 2nd page, which alternates with the pre-ordered lines on the 1st. Because of this, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done prior to picking up the flute and starting to learn to play the piece.

I had a number of specific queries for Jane (who so generously offered her time to discuss this with me! New music flute-players are so lovely!), to do with the decisions she made prior to learning the work and how she went about ingraining it. She was learning it at the same time as Ellen Waterman, who wrote an article that I found really inspiring and exciting, weaving a feminist literary reading of the Cassandra myth into her interpretation of Ferneyhough’s piece. While they came to their orderings separately, they influenced and inspired one another, and ended up making similar choices. Both of them came to an ordering drastically different to the majority of other recordings I’ve listened to (virtually all of which have been made by male flautists), perhaps due to a different understanding of what the piece can convey. Jane’s order was E A C B D, Ellen’s was A E C B D. (I might also say that Ellen’s article is strongly recommended reading for all performers interested in delving as far as possible into their own personal interpretation of a piece. There isn’t enough of this kind of performer-based interpretation being written.)

In terms of starting the learning process, Jane recommended finding those lines that are most ‘flutey’ – for which the practise procedure is most clear – for example line 5 (1st page). Some other lines also jump out as being more initially accessible, mostly on the 2nd page – A, B, and C in particular. The ones to avoid at first are those with a lot of unusual fingerings marked in and with severe rhythmic difficulty.

Line C (2nd page) itself includes an ordering choice, which both Jane and Ellen have suggested experimenting with leaving the exact decision to the moment in performance, although Jane cautioned that you need to feel super comfortable with the material to do that. In fact, she said that while she never played the work from memory, it did need to be virtually entirely memorised for a fully engaged performance. Her choice to play from the score was partly choreographical – it’s exciting to see the flautist sweep from one stand to another to change between lines, and it also indicates the change of character (a bit of a split personality!) – and partly to avoid this intensely complex and difficult music being dismissed by “she’s just making that up”.

Once I make it to the more difficult lines (4 and 1, 1st page, for example), she suggests learning the finger patterns first, and then learning the rhythmic patterns relative to one another, and just in small phrase sections that then fit into the bigger line.

All this gives me a really good toe into this piece. While continuing listening and interpretative mapping, I’ll start learning some note patterns in line 5. At the same time, I’ll step up practise of articulation (there’s a fair bit of getting-as-fast-as-possible-then-breaking-into-flutter stuff), throat flutter … and circular breathing! It will take me a bit of time to decide on my own ordering, but I will continue to listen to every recording I can get my hands on (there’s quite a few actually) and to read Christa Wolf’s novel Cassandra for inspiration.

Bugger of an instrument

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Making a good sound on a flute is terribly difficult – there are a lot of factors at play. As Patrick said to me today, “I’m sorry you chose the flute my dear, it’s a bugger of an instrument”. He’s not wrong.

We basically spent the whole lesson trying to fix up my very-problematic-of-late embouchure. The troubles seem to be to do with air angle (we decided, after an hour of experimentation, and me trying not to scream with frustration) and jaw tension. I’ve been trying very hard to turn my flute out a bit so I can actually play above mezzo-forte, but the result is that my air stream is shooting too high and my sound is all fuzzy and annoying as all get out. Also my air just seems to evaporate.

Maybe I’ve been trying to force my jaw back, but it always wants to jut forward, and I have to really apply such incredible mental willpower to make it stay in a natural position (we are talking about millimeters of difference here, but boy do they matter). The trick is just to let the draw drop, find a natural position for the lips that accommodates that shape and then work from there. Sounds simple.

Then getting from loud and drawing back to soft, tubing the lips forward, lifting the air stream to keep the pitch up but still hitting the edge. Still needs to be essentially heading down into the instrument. Not oversupplying air at any point.

Attack. I can’t really tackle that one yet…

Essentially the outcome of the lesson was Patrick saying that I need to spend one hour every morning just finding a good sound. How I will do that without breaking my hand trying to punch it through my practise room wall I do not know. Tomorrow I’ll see how much patience I can muster.

One last point of Patrick’s: if I had a few months to be working on things and not several days until my recital I’d probably be able to settle into a good sound super quickly and it wouldn’t be a problem. My brain hates me.

Challenging Lesson

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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.

Recital Countdown: The Last Week

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My second masters recital is one week from tomorrow. So between now and then I intend to write (at least) a post per day, detailing my preparation, both to keep track of where I’m at and to document the final stages.

Some of the things this may include:

  • Lesson and rehearsal reflections – including my lesson with Melissa Doecke tomorrow (on Dean’s Demons), plus time with Patrick, and just quickly tonight I’ll jot down a few things from my lesson with Kathleen last Thursday.
  • Looking-after-the-body plans – meal plan, yoga and other exercise, avoiding and/or managing pain.
  • Piece preparation – last-minute touch-ups, practise performances, etc.
  • Mood management – dealing with anxiety and negative thoughts, using positive visualisations and thought monitoring.
  • Schedule for recital day, including a detailed warm-up plan.

Liam’s going to join me on the post-a-day challenge, he needs to finish off his “Paris Balance Sheet” documenting his thoughts coming out of his time overseas.

Anyhow, because I’m going to be having another lesson on the Dean tomorrow so soon after my lesson with Kathleen, I need to write down a few things that came out of that one. Kathleen, as always, really drew me out of my comfort zone – she had me essentially performing the first page or so sans flute, vocalising the whole things and dancing around like a maniac (embodying the work, taken to a new level!). For this, I was required to still make every ‘D’ somehow different – vocally, I went with varying vowels and head/chest/belly voice; corporeally, I shaped each note with my hands and created an aggressive character by lunging forward for each major attack.

After this exercise, I could play back over the work with a new strength – it was somewhat out of my cerebral control and into the body. The rhythm in this piece is really quite difficult, all the more so for obnoxious notation, and I’ve struggled to let that mental rigidity go when playing through certain sections (in the same way as I struggle sometimes to play musically through the phrase when I’m focussing on placing every note and maintaining a clear and beautiful tone). According to Kathleen, the rhythms need to be learned in a way that dictates the character of each small phrase, and it’s more about that than about mathematical rhythmic perfection.

We spoke about learning for a bit, and she suggested I start to really intently document my learning process, from first seeing a piece to performing it. She insisted that it would open new approaches as I became very conscious of the old ones I’ve been used to. Sounds like a good idea, so it should make an appearance on this blog in future posts.

An extra observation on the Dean that Liam made earlier last week is that there is a lot of Petrouchka in it. That opening fanfare. Dean’s piece obviously is working outside of a tonal framework, but otherwise there’s a very strong similarity in some of the material.

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!