Great technique is something we all want! How to get faster fingers? Not necessarily by just practicing slowly, and certainly never from just practicing fast. The key is to figure out which finger connection is not working, where the stumbling block is, and how to smooth that over. Some of my favorite ways to fix problems are: 1. Playing a passage at tempo, then decreasing the tempo so as you repeat, it gets slower each time 2. Red Light/ Green Light practice: Play one beat plus a note and then stop, start on the next beat plus a note and stop, etc, 3. Play the phrase from the last pair of notes flawlessly, and add one more note working to the beginning of the phrase, so now you are playing 3 notes, etc, until the whole passage is played. Notice how many of these solutions involve breaking it down into smaller sections! Look in the mirror to 'see' the fingers that are out of synchronization. For piccolo, make sure to pick up the fingers a bit more since the instrument is smaller: adding more curve to the fingers. These tips should help you get your fingers flying!
Vibrato is a characteristic of flute tone, and styles of vibrato change with general shifts in musical taste. If my ear is drawn directly to vibrato, there is usually some kind of problem: maybe the vibrato is forced (produced with a closed throat) or it is too wide and disturbs the pitch. Tasteful vibrato often depends on the musical result desired, but in general, vibrato is integral to the tone itself. It enhances the beauty of the tone and does not draw attention to itself. Vibrato gives spin, color and motion to the more static notes: i.e, we don't generally vibrate on moving 16th notes. I find a slightly more shallow vibrato that is also a bit slower is useful to aid projection in tutti orchestral passages: a more tightly wound vibrato is less appropriate in this circumstance. And sometimes on big tutti chords, no vibrato is the correct choice.
Think of vibrato as a musical paintbrush and apply different intensities according to the musical demands.
Posture and Balance
There are lots of pedagogical articles advocating 'the right way' to sit and stand. It is always interesting to note that most players never consciously think about their posture in the creative moment: what is practiced every day just happens as a matter of muscle memory. When we teach, we need to remind students about ergonomics so that they learn how to sit/stand in the most efficient and relaxed manner when they practice and perform. For lesson and solo performances , as well as daily practice, standing is the preferred stance. Rather than focusing on which foot to place forward, I like to find a comfortable, tall balanced posture: relaxed and efficient. You must consider all the angles of the arms, head, neck, flute and torso. The legs and feet need to support the body weight. There are plenty of options for 'correct' posture that work, and lots of players change stance (shifting foot placement) mid way thru a performance. When seated, it's all about finding the correct angle of arms, neck, head, flute, and torso, with the additional angle created at the hip joint. Hyperextension of the lower back is not desired when sitting. Keep reminding your students about good posture at every lesson so that their bodies learn great position naturally without paying attention to dogmatic ideas. Consider Alexander Technique or Body Mapping to become more aware of these issues in your own playing. Use a mirror, and encourage students to listen to their bodies so they can 'self correct'.
There is an art to effective practice. Accomplishing goals will be assured with good planning. A good teacher needs to help students learn how to practice at an age/skill appropriate level. For beginners, this may mean helping them remember to practice 5 times a week by keeping a practice chart. I like to require beginners to discuss their progress each week. It does not take long for students to see that the weeks where they make the most progress are the weeks where they were being the most consistent with their practice. Time management strategies are helpful for busy college students often juggling the demands of work and student life. Blocking out 4 separate one hour practices is as effective if not MORE so, than a single 4 hour practice room marathon session. Adult amateurs often face roadblocks to practice time because of the demands of their busy lives, or often a fear of failure, so helping them learn to love the creative time of practice is key. Progress = Practice! For each level, and for each student, there is a key to help them unlock their creative potential.
On Being a Good Student
Be a teachable student! Come to all your lessons prepared and with a willingness to explore and learn. I'm always amazed by the number of students whose main contribution to lessons are excuses as to why they have not completed their preparation. It is easier than EVER to prepare: there are free downloads of scores, youtube offers free videos of almost any performance worldwide and you can bring your music with you on your ipod , tablet or smartphone to study wherever you go! Digital downloads are almost instantaneous. I remember going to the library to get scores and purchasing CD's, which were quite a luxury on a college student's budget. Becoming the musician you desire to be starts NOW and with everything you do. Bring questions to your lesson, and bring opinions too. After all, lively discussions can only happen if each person brings something to the table. Be excited to learn and keep that fire through all your practice sessions. Work, grow, explore, improve and create.....becoming an artist means being a good apprentice first.
It seems quite ironic that we always need to spend a good amount of time playing slowly and carefully in order to build up to breathtaking speeds in technical passages. Remember that you need to establish muscle memory and starting slowly is the sure pathway to success. But, play mindfully so that you are fully engaged. ALWAYS play smaller sections and try playing them in different octaves (for example if it's a low register passage, try playing in the middle register since the fingerings are mostly the same), Try playing the passage from right to left: all these tools can help 'wake up' the brain and fingers and lead you to success. When going for the final push of fast tempos, I try the 'add a note' method: play two notes in the passage at tempo, repeat several times, then three notes, repeat, until you have a full beat's worth of notes. Then add on the next beat's worth in similar fashion. And if you make an error, really analyze WHY it happened: until you figure out what went wrong, you might be frustrated and keep repeating the error. Building reliable and sparkling technique is the result of careful and deliberate work!
Playing Softly on the Piccolo
We have completed 4 out of 5 performances of Shostakovich's 10th Symphony this week, and the piccolo part is one of the most rewarding and demanding in the repertory. Not only is the part full of lightening fast technical passages where the piccolo is the top of the tutti woodwind ladder, there are many exposed piano level solos. Make sure to use a smaller aperture, but do not press the top lip down towards the bottom: instead bring jaw, tongue, and lips slightly forward. Make sure to use steady support and alternate fingerings become my primary choice for many of the notes. See next month's Flute Talk for an expanded version of these tips... Let's Talk Picc article is called SShh...Time to Play Softly!
Keep your Head up
In the words of a pop song I've heard on the radio, you gotta keep your head up,...and for the best resonance, intonation and projection, these words could not ring more true. Make sure that your neck is not bent too low (don't connect chin to chest) and that you are balancing your head freely on the top of your spine.. I like to imagine keeping a bit of space between my neck and my skull, lifting the crown of my head. Keep the collarbone open and lifted as well and shoulders open as much as possible. Thinking of the shoulder blades pulling down, as the neck lifts up, can give your posture a gentle vertical lift. These small 'tweaks' to posture can really aid in your projection and you will also look much more confident as well.
Expression and Rubato
Expression in music is a combination of a number of factors: tonal color/shading, dynamics, articulation and nuance, vibrato: the list goes on and on. Rubato is another device that creates an expressive line. Literally, rubato is 'robbed time', meaning if you linger in a spot, then you need to move forward again to 'compensate'. Sometimes students who start playing more expressively only slow down: this is only a rallentando, not rubato. Make sure to tape record your practice so you can really listen to your ideas and make sure that you are creating an elastic phrase, with supple contours, rather than just a slower moment.
Learning Contemporary Effects
When you are working on any new sound, such as singing and playing at the same time, it helps to listen to many examples of players performing the desired effect. Notice the octave the voice is in: it will be different depending on whether you are a female or male (most males will not be able to sing in the same octave as high flute playing for example). Isolate the effect on one note: if that works, link it to other notes. Build your phrase this way. I think it is wise to learn one special effect every few days to reinforce the work you just did. Most contemporary notation is quite approximate for the effect (isn't all musical notation somewhat approximate after all), so try to work more on the auditory result and rely less on the visual notation in front of you.