How many times have you (or your students) played a passage perfectly at home, yet made errors during those times that matter...ie, in a lesson, performance or audition? It is human to err, of course, but secure tools to build consistent technique can lay the foundation for nearly flawless execution all of the time. To be confident about your technique, both accuracy and repetition are your best friends. It's important when you break a passage apart to GET IT RIGHT...this means articulation and dynamics have to follow the printed markings too...this is game changing for accuracy. As for repetition drills, there are many strategies: some of my favorites are to play a passage at a reasonable tempo, speeding up one mark on the metronome, then playing the same thing 2 notches slower on the metronome, then one mark faster, etc. alternating back and forth. I have great sucess by varying the rhythms, which changes the emphasis of finger combinations in a passage. Breaking the passage up into smaller pieces (ie, chunking) is also a terrific way to fix problems. Often it's only a two note finger combination that produces the stumble. Make every practice session a labratory for success, and try out these simple solutions for technical success.
Every phrase, indeed every note, has to have a beautiful and thoughtful ending that is appropriate for the musical demand at the moment. Too many students chop last notes of phrases, often to take a breath for what lies ahead. Although a good intention, it will yield a poor result. I like to envision the shape of the last notes of phrases: some are square or like an exclamation point (emphatic), others more demure with the shape of a true taper(like a very tiny dimuendo). Other notes should be phrased as periods in sentences, some act as commas. Figure out the musical demand, and the technical skill required to make it happen. But never leave those phrases ragged at the ends! Attention to detail is crucial. Practice tapers of various lengths and shapes on scales. Try out different ways to end notes in phrases, listening to the musical meanings. Finish with polish!
When students are asked to play forte or fortissimo on the piccolo in ensembles, tone often gets a bit raucous and raw. I think that forte should be replaced by the word FULL...play full and round, so that the tutti orchestral sound has a crown or shimmer added to it by the voice of the piccolo. Instead of driving the tone thru the texture, relax into it, setting the air around you into vibration, which aids projection and reduces the tension in the tone which can make the instrument sound harsh or shrill. Never drive the sound...allow it to live in the space of the hall.
Breathing...the most natural thing in the world...until students have a flute in their hands! I love Michel Debost's concept of breathing (the inhalation) and blowing (the exhalation). Once students understand the correct way to inhale (using the whole body: rib cage expanding in all directions, shoulders stay low and a relaxed abdominal area) we are halfway there. This post is really about what happens on the exhalation! I love having students take a breath and exhale with a sigh to demonstrate an unsupported exhalation: the air is rapidly expelled, and has a natural diminuendo as well: the opposite of what our breath for flute playing should be doing. Next, take a breath and exhale making a strong 'hissing' sound: students will automatically engage the muscles in the abdominal area. (the same engagement happens when we cough or sneeze: the body knows what to do, we just need to make sure it happens at the correct times).
Support is that feeling of a slight pushing out/down in the abdominal area as well as the intercostal muscles in between the ribs. We need to keep the pressure as stable as possible when we are blowing out: we want our phrases to be long and flowing! Support of the air column is the way to achieve this.
Long tones should be a part of daily practice for all flutists, and piccolo players too. However, it is common for students to 'go thru the motions' and play them robotically with very little true attention to the process. I am such a fan of the simple 1/2 step routines in the Moyse classic De La Sonorite book. And, setting up students for success requires that simple half step studies be mastered, making sure both notes are pure and even in sound. With more advanced students, it is more challenging to have them play 'dynamic' long tones, requiring crescendo/diminuendo, color change, perhaps also including wider range requirements across the registers. To me, Static long tones are all about getting the basics of sound (purity, clarity, color evenness across the registers). Dynamic long tones have all of this PLUS shape (in color and dynamics). This is the key to advanced tonal practice, because this is the way we play phrases in music. I've heard too many lessons where the repertory sounds awesome and tone studies rather dead. Too many students just put in the time doing long tones...without the artistry of tone. Keep the creativity alive in all areas of your practice....
Trill fingerings ...so many choices! There are two trills that are notoriously difficult on piccolo: Third octave E-F#, and third octave F-G. The most common flute fingerings really don't work well on the piccolo, so give these a try. For the E-F#: Try 1 thumb 3/1234, moving RH 1 and 2. The F# is nice and clear. For F-G, try fingering High F# but add the RH 1st finger, which is the finger you trill. Both of these fingerings work well for long sustained trills. Happy Trilling!
Breathing is one of the most natural activities we do, all day every day. However, put a flute or piccolo in front of us and that activity seems to become much more difficult! Consider the ease of your first breath in any piece of music: it is relaxed, natural, unhurried and plentiful. Try and make sure to maintain this same sense of ease and poise mid phrase. Now, you may need to breathe FASTER mid phrase, but the process is the same.. think meal vs. snack. Snacks are never meant to fill you up like a meal, but smaller relaxed breaths should be effective. Make sure the throat is not tight (otherwise you might hear a very noisy breath indeed). For piccolo, we need to make sure to remember that the air pressure must be greater than that used on the flute, and be careful not to overpower the piccolo with the same volume, or amount of air, as used on the flute.
One of the most common fingering faults in younger players is Eb in the middle register…many students keep the first finger of the left hand down on this note…worse yet, their ears are so used to hearing the note like this that they have a hard time hearing the mistake. The first thing a teacher needs to do is help them hear the difference in timbre and pitch so that the student can catch themselves in the mistake, and eventually catch themselves fingering the note correctly every time!
I believe faulty hand position is a major culprit to blame in this fingering fault. Balancing the flute against the knuckle joint of the left hand first finger will prevent the student from having to squeeze the flute with the first finger of the left hand just to keep the flute from rolling away from them. Fixing faulty hand position, and enforcing the correct fingering every time are both important steps to enforce in lessons and at home practice.
Likewise, the pinky on the right hand is often used to hold the flute …and lifting it for D in the middle register becomes difficult. Fix this problem by allowing the right hand thumb to balance the majority of the weight of the instrument so that the right hand pinky is free to lift for D, and slide to the foot joint for all the lowest register pitches. This will also alleviate any chronic pressure on this finger, which is a common issue for students used to using the right hand pinky as a fulcrum to hold the flute. Patience and consistency will yield the consistent and correct results.
It would be naive to pretend there is no such thing as 'performance nerves'. I experience that pre performance feeling as pure excitement: nervousness is always viewed as something negative, whereas excitement is quite positive. Our performances are enhanced by adrenaline: that is the 'secret sauce' of many a performance which can transport us to the next level. But what about the students who are hit with debilitating nerves? First of all, thorough preparation is a MUST. It goes without saying that the musical aspects of the piece must be in control for confident performances. The preparation must be consistent and thorough. Learning to perform is another part of this process: have students perform at nursing homes, for family and friends, for other students, in short, ANY warm body is a potential audience member! These impromptu performances must happen more than once a week so that the performance itself becomes a little more routine. The art of keeping centered and composed when being in front of others takes time to develop. Help students develop a pre-performance routine, which helps build self comforting skills. Make sure students are reading about the psychological aspects of performance (Don Greene has an excellent website and there are many books on the topic). Remind your students that this too is a process.....and to paraphrase Jeanne Baxtreser, former principal flute of the NYPO, as long as the butterflies fly in formation, it is all good.
Intonation is a skill that can be practiced at home but the real 'test drive' of course happens when you are playing with others. Using a tuner in the practice room gives you a basic idea of what your tendencies are: it helps to keep a chart for each note in each octave, noting your personal tendencies, and any alternate fingerings that should be used regularly. For example, most of us take the D# key off for E in the third octave to bring the pitch down at the forte level. When playing in an ensemble, these personal tendencies are the starting point! Now, you need to take into account where your note sits in a chord, for example (root position vs. fifth of the chord) and also favor to any other instruments you happen to double. When playing with piano, it's a good idea to remember that the higher octaves are stretched a little bit for correct scale (how the piano plays in tune with itself) and voicing. Harps also tend to 'sweeten' the octaves a little bit, much like a piano does. Make sure that vibrato is not interfering with the pitch center. Blending and balancing your note in a chord will also help you fit into the general pitch scheme. Keep your ears open, and adjust quickly if you sense you are out of tune. Playing duets with students in lessons is a helpful exercise for developing pitch sensitivity, as are scales with a drone tone.