Some thoughts for flute class

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Today I’m taking the flute class at UQ while Patrick is away, and I’m kinda excited about it! I’ve got lots of ideas (too many really for the 2.5hrs I have with them…) – here’s the outline I sent them:

  1. Continuing Janet’s and my contemporary flute classes, I’ll talk about playing with live electronics, and specifically my experience playing Kaija Saariaho’s (female !! Finnish composer) Laconisme de L’aile last year as well as some work with electronics I did while overseas. I’m not sure I’ll be able to show examples … it’s a bit complicated to set up. But I’ll bring some recordings so you can get an idea of what it sounds like.
  2. I’m going to tell you all my life story – at least the flute-related parts. This is because I think it’s very valuable to hear how someone who is a few steps further along the music journey got there. It’s also a good introduction to the next section (and the bane of my existence)…
  3. Practise. Not so much a “how to” (although I’ll share a bit of what I personally do), more of a “why it’s important and why we struggle to do it” discussion. So, if you get a chance, think a bit about your biggest problem with getting to the practise room – for example: “I’m just so busy with uni/work/life/facebook” or “my neighbour throws things at me when I play” or “I find practise boring/tiring/terrifying”. I’ll have heard them all before (I’ve used them all before), but let’s have a brainstorm together on how to overcome them.
  4. Leading on from that, let’s talk about organising our lives around practise.
  5. I want to talk a bit about ideas for forming a musical career that don’t necessarily involve a full-time position in an orchestra.
  6. Finally, I would love it if some of you wanted to play some excerpts or bits of the pieces you are preparing in class too 🙂 Maybe anyone that’s super keen can email me and let me know what they intend to play, so that I can be sure I’ve listened to it! (To which I’ve had responses from Penny – who’s going to play Reinecke’s Ballade – and Anna – who’ll play Bozza’s Image. Nadia also offered to play some orchestral excerpts, but I’m not sure we’ll get to those!)

So the first one is easy – I’ve played quite a lot with live electronics and/or tape in my time: the Saariaho I mentioned, as well as Steve Reich’s Vermont Counterpoint (I went so far as recording all of other 13 flute lines myself!), works by composition students like the talented Reilly Smethurst, as well as at the impuls Academy in Graz at the beginning of 2011 where I took an intensive working-with-live-electronics workshop. I’ve got notes from this last workshop and will talk a bit about some difficulties but mostly about how fun this is!

The others take a bit more consideration. I want to cover the useful parts of my own journey, but also have enough time for everyone to contribute to discussion. I’ll talk briefly about my experiences growing up outside of a major centre, and the frustrations I felt, particularly as I developed as a musician and didn’t really have much in the way of peers or advanced tuition and support. Then my time at the Con, and the anxieties I developed and the difficulties I experienced, as well as my significant successes. I’ll talk about my teacher at that time, and the problems/benefits with him I perceived then compared to the problems/benefits I identify now. And Vanessa Tomlinson and new music ensemble (then later things like Sounding Out) and discovering I had a weird affinity with recently composed music. I’d also like to mention boyfriends … and the impact they had on my development – at that time mostly negative, but more recently wholly positive. Then there’s AYO and Words About Music, and how my writing was very encouraged so I flirted with art administration and publicity work when I finished at the Con, but found it to be very unsatisfying. After the Con I set up MAC Ensemble – a way to keep me playing and working with other musicians I’d formed contacts with, but also to combine music with my interest in social justice issues – and did a mentorship with Janet McKay through YAMP (“Youth Arts Mentoring Program”). This led to opportunities such as Golden Orb and the tour to China, but then they didn’t extend beyond that in the way I’d hoped, so I had to keep creating my own projects. I got in touch with Tim Munro, and through him and my work with Southern Cross Soloists I met Patrick and started lessons again – eventually deciding to quit Southern Cross and start a masters degree at UQ, which I am still doing now. Obviously I’ve had two trips overseas and always planned to study there, but I’m no longer sure that’s what will happen. MAC Ensemble continued and this year we kind of merged a few projects (MAC plus Sounding Out plus Peter Clark’s ensemble coruscate) and made Kupka’s Piano. Next year we’ve been offered a four-concert series at Judith Wright! Something I’ll talk about later…

Okay, so all of that will probably mean I’ll talk for roughly half an hour if I don’t get too over-excited.

But that will lead into a discussion on practise. Throughout the entire time I’ve just outlined, I’ve struggled to practise. At first, one of my major problems was not making the commitment to practise as a necessary component of pursuing a performance career – I wasn’t sure it was “worth it” or that I would “make it” or something. But I held onto the hope that it would somehow happen even without me really practising enough. I would commit in little bursts, but then I felt that I didn’t know how to practise. Later, when I really learnt how to structure and approach practise (thanks to Patrick, and texts such as The Musician’s Way by Gerald Klickstein), I still failed to stick to regular long-ish periods of practise for more than a few days or maybe a week. The reason then was not so much not committing (by then I’d really decided this was what I wanted/needed to do) or not knowing, but a kind of terror mixed with guilt at the idea of practise. It struck more intensely some days than others (and continues to – see most of this blog…).

I haven’t found the perfect answer for dealing with this terror yet, there’s no “silver bullet”. But there’s lots of little things that have at least worked a bit for me, and everyone has their own little things. So I want the UQ flute students to share their own problems – with commitment, with structuring or approaching practise, with getting to the practise room – and then we can all talk about possible solutions. A bit of a brainstorm, if you will.

So for me, some helpful things I’ve found:

  • Planning practise – tech plans so I don’t have to just think up tech practise each morning, then individual session plans in 10m blocks or so. I want to extend this further, but haven’t yet found the perfect way to plan learning repertoire.
  • Setting practise alarms on snooze every 10 minutes – I almost can’t practise anymore without this.
  • Eating well and prioritising sleep – Carmel Liertz’s Performance Confidence is the best guide for musicians on taking care of their bodies I’ve yet found.
  • Blogging and using writing to make myself pick up the flute or work through problems I encounter. I don’t really know whether or not sharing it with others makes much of a difference for me – I just know that I want to share it with other people who might get some benefit out of it, not so much to show other people how I’m doing (although in some selected cases there’s a bit of that too).
  • Playing in small ensembles – organising rehearsals early is a great motivator to get things moving along. Lessons can also be used in this way, particularly lessons with less familiar teachers. Doesn’t always work so well however, and can just add a layer of guilt.
  • Cycling through tech, etc. to add variety.
  • Listening to a hell of a lot of music a hell of a lot of the time. Know the broader repertoire as well as the flute-specific stuff, and really establish who your favourite composers throughout history are. For me, there has to be a combination of beauty through form and what are essentially romantic notions of beauty in lyricism and harmonic tension-release. So I will always prefer to listen to Brahms, Schumann, Mahler, or (especially late) Beethoven rather than Mozart, Handel, or even Bach and Haydn, but also I dislike some of the other romantic composers who lack rigorous formal logics. This continues through the 20th/21st centuries, but the distinctions of form become quite blurred. Some of the composers here I am most enamoured with include Bartók, Messiaen, the Serialists, Berio, Ligeti, Kurtág, Boulez, Grisey, as well as Saariaho, Sciarrino and Furrer. But that’s a bit off track…
  • Slow practise is my latest thing!! This article is quite good, and has further links to thoughts by other musicians and martial artists on the topic. I might give everyone a print-out of that, and also…
  • Positive Psychology (as per this fact sheet) – I’ve only recently come across this, but I’d like to talk to the students about how we might be able to apply some of these things to practise to make it a more pleasant experience overall.

Some examples, I’m sure I could think of more, but this is already a very long post…!

Finally, for the musical “careers” outside of the orchestra, I obviously want to talk about setting up your own outlet for music making – like my ensemble. But also, mixed practices, where you are a teacher and a performer and a something-or-other specialist – they like to call those “Portfolio Careers”, but that term makes me feel a bit sick. Still, it’s probably what I’ll be doing with my life so worth discussing properly.

Teaching for exams

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In the first half of next year, my three rather advanced flute students all aim to sit AMEB exams – one each at grade 7, 8, and AmusA. This is rather exciting in a way, giving as it does something concrete for me to work them towards. My problems with the AMEB system aside (and anyway, there is a massive review of the flute syllabus underway at the moment), it’s still the easiest way to get music students to work towards a really hefty goal, especially at this level.

Having a look at the requirements for these exams, I was surprised at just how much the student must prepare, especially in seventh and eighth grades. For seventh grade they have to prepare four contrasting works to full performance standard, as well as have two more works as their ‘extra list’ – they will have to perform a portion of one of them. That’s about 45mins of music. In addition, they have to memorise a long list of scales, arpeggios, and other technical work. It’s not that I wouldn’t encourage students to practise and memorise tech stuff anyway, but the set up doesn’t actively motivate good practise.

The problem for these three students will be the summer months. They are all at university (one studies engineering, one pharmacy, and one arts/music) and living at college. This means that when uni finishes at the end of November, they’ll be heading back to Rockhampton, Bundaberg, and Hong Kong. Bit hard to pop by my place for the occasional lesson then. So how will I keep their practise on track?

Well, today I made up a scale practise book for one of them, with the AMEB requirements and relevant pages from the tech work-book, plus exercises by Wye, Reichert, Moyse, and also Christine Draeger and Rosamund Plummer. It’s a pretty hefty thing, but I’ve done a worksheet for her to track her practise of these. Hopefully by the end of the holidays she’ll at least be on top of her scales! I might do a similar worksheet or even online log for her to record repertoire practise in a way that I can check up on how things are going.

This is all for the student in Hong Kong, who’ll be going for her eighth grade. We’ve discussed the possibility of Skype lessons and we might give it a try. She’s also thinking of having lessons with someone in HK, but I don’t have any idea what the teaching there is like and whether that would actually be detrimental at this stage or not … Not that I think it would be bad, it just might conflict too much with what I’ve been saying, and we’ve made some pretty major changes to her embouchure and way of playing over the last few months that I don’t want messed up.

This does raise the question of how I keep my own practise ‘on track’, and the answer is probably that I don’t – or at least not enough. My technical practise is coming along really nicely and I’m very happy with it actually, but REPERTOIRE!! It causes me so much pain! I don’t know quite how to approach practising actual works of music, particularly spatially notated or other non-rhythmically specific pieces, and the result is that I put it off off off and it doesn’t happen, like when it didn’t happen today. But feeling guilty doesn’t help, as usual. Making time for listening and planning, just a little bit every day, might help… I’ll aim to do a bit of that tomorrow, in amongst teaching early in the morning, grocery shopping, and the Reclaim the Night rally. Then there’s Pierrot!! Anyway, practise must somehow happen, as I have a lesson with Kathleen on Saturday.