Friday, January 30, 2009

Sexism; what, me, bitter?!

Here I am about 5 months pregnant!

About 20 years ago I ran into a male flute friend of mine who had just finished studying with a majorly famous European teacher (no longer among the living). I don't know what posessed my friend to make the following confidence, but the shadow it cast has been long and tenuous.
He told me that this teacher openly favored his male students, told him that he tries to help them along more than the women in his studio. Needless to say I was pretty shocked.

I am trying to speculate in a kind way as to why this might have been. (And I'm sure this old-school, Old World guy was not alone in his practices.) Maybe he saw the practicality of his investment in male students: they would be bread-winners, the women would get married, live off their husbands and spend their time and energies having babies.

As a student, I had my share of old-school teachers. And looking back, I think I was definitely a victim of this sort of treatment. Honestly, I don't think it was all intentional either. I would like to think that nobody treats anybody this way in order to be mean: it's just programmed behavior of a certain generation and culture. And what 19-year-old female student has the presence of mind to say:"hey, pay attention to me, make your investment in me! In 20 years I will be the bread-winner of my family, supporting my spouse and child on my fluting skills!"
Would they have believed me? Would I have believed me? That's the trouble, I think. I didn't believe in myself then. I think young boys/men are more used to believing in themselves.

But here I am, the man of the house (for now at least), relying heavily on my basic skills, since I have little time to actually practice. Thank goodness for the training I do have, and for those who believed in, or at least did their duty by me.

But I have to ask myself, am I completely gender-blind when it comes to my own students:? a gaggle of beautiful, poised, talented young women, and at the most one or two young men. There, you see, even the language I use: gaggle. It's a collective word, not geared to viewing the individual.

We all need a kick in the butt sometimes.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Real-Life Professional

It's the first day of a project and you have that tell-tale itchyness in you chest: you know for sure that some damned flu bug has found a temporary home in your warm, moist bronchial passages, just the very ones you rely on to play the flute. My body temp. went down to below 35 C that night and I called in sick the next day with a fever of 38 C. But then the dilema: do you find a replacement for the gig NOW, or do you take the positive attitude "I'll be better for a day of rest". Stupid me, I'm always the optimist. After the free day, still ill , too late to find a replacement and a concert on the morrow, I just had to do it no matter what. And relatively drug free since I am still breast feeding.

So Saturday morning, still feverish, I boarded the train for Berlin. Just a dress rehearsal, concert, and night train home. Do-able. Even with a coughing fit that delayed the second half of the concert.

But my sorry story is not the highlight of this memorable evening of Berlin's Ultraschall Festival. The night before the concert, our wonderful soloist of the evening, soprano R. Hardy stepped out of the airport in Berlin and broke her leg in two places below the knee. She came to dress rehearsal, casted up and sitting in a wheelchair, ready to throw in the towel. Or not quite just yet.... it actually went well! There aren't many singers who could manage K. Ospald's "und es regnet" even with their legs in one piece! But she is amazing. So we decided to go ahead with the piece - we even discussed and arranged that our conductor would wheel her out on stage and how we would all "bow".

After much ado - we are more than a little nervous and tossing around the phrase "Break a leg" - the big moment arrives. The lights dim, the festival director himself goes on stage to explain the accident, we enter and await the conductor and soloist. Thunderous applause as she is wheeled carefully in, right leg immobilized, sticking out straight in front. The conductor manages to park her, but while looking for the brake lever, accidently loosens the lever that held her right leg up. The leg takes a dive, we all let out a gasp***. But it seems no harm done - Ms. Hardy even made the joke "I wanted to write on the bottom of my foot (which the audience could see, as her right leg was extended pointing at them) "YES WE CAN" " The audience loved it.

Afterwards, we asked if it had hurt, when the lever was released and her leg fell down. She just replied "Oh never mind".

I could only gape in wonder.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Value of Time

I'd like to keep a running blog, something I can keep coming back to, on just how long it takes to do stuff. Especially practice things. We are all told - do your Moyse long tones! do your scales! etc. However, I notice that with my students and myself, under the gun and with a stack of notes to learn, basics fall way by the wayside. "I have so many notes to learn I just don't have time for the basics!!"

Well, here is a starter:
breathing exercise = 2 min.
finger tai-chi exercise 2 min.
a movement from a Bach or Telemann Sonata (an everyday absolute for me!) = under 5 min.
Moyse "pour les tons graves" = 11 min.
my scale exercises = ca. 4 min.
my harmonic trill exercise = 3 min

I'll get back to this as time goes on!

Corners of the Mind

I wonder what paths my head would take if it were not filled with juggling three languages, all the music that is going through it and all the "normal" things that go with working, playing and caring for a baby. When I was 11 I had my IQ tested, and my guess would be I'm a lot dumber now, in spite of all I know. What happened? Have I been a victim of dumbing-down?

There is the theory of "Mommy Brain", which women are prone to it seems. It's the ability to multitask on a huge level: have a pot on the stove and answer the phone while changing the diapers with your hair in curlers and a wrinkle-reducing masque on your face for tonight's romantic evening - you get the idea. I'm not that good at multitasking and hate being interrupted while practicing (or blogging). So why, when I try to read anything academic or that requires concentration, I find myself shaking my head and asking: is this even English? How come I don't understand a thing?

I have been wondering what to do with our son - he will be raised tri-lingually. All the advice points to keeping the paths straight: one parent adheres to one language, the other parent to the other language, no seeping allowed. Then the third language comes "on the street" or in school. Any advice?

Also, we have been wondering about Waldorf education, starting with kindergarten. The fact that they don't do reading or math until age 7 is OK with me. If he is like either of his parents, he will learn by himself by about age 3. We also have tons of books at home so he will be in no way deprived.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Thoughts on Prokofiev Flute Sonata

Several times I've been asked by students "so how do I play Russian music?"
This is always within the context of the Prokofiev Sonata. The history of this piece is quite well known now, especially since Patricia Harper's article (DFG 4/2008) has been published in the US and Germany (and elsewhere, for all I know). I had learned this history while teaching a private masterclass to students from Moscow. However, Ms. Harper brought some interesting facts to light which I did not know, and which vindicate a suspicion I've always had about Prokofiev's music, and particularly about the flute sonata.

I've always been suspicious about a heavy, brutal, rough, even crass interpretation of this piece. Some flutists, even famous ones perform it this way: overblowing the low register, ignoring the refinements of articulation, heavily accenting where no accents are written. Why? I guess they think it's more authentic. After all - it is Russian Music - whatever that means. Gypsy influences? Peasants stomping heavily in their rough white shirts, kicking up their heels in a macho display? Stereotypical BS, if you ask me. The piece - the music - just doesn't seem to warrant it. Think about the Russian players of the time, especially the ones Prokofiev admired, like David Oistrakh (yes, I know the Flute Sonata was not written for him!). Oistrakh played with passion and verve, but I suspect the guy did not have a crass bone in his body. Full blooded and full bodied, but never out of control. Why should we not play the Flute Sonata with the finesse of the great players of Prokofiev's day?

Today we seek "authenticity"; we ask ourselves what was the flute sound he had in mind? Who were the flutists of his day? It turns out, as I learned from Ms. Harper's article, that the flutist that most impressed him was Georges Barrere! The Oistrakh of flutists! And not a Russian, but a Frenchman exported to America.

I don't have a clear point in this post, I realize. Maybe only this: we can go overboard with interpretation. Prokofiev was a cosmopolitan figure, and a lover of the Classics. He carefully notated exactly what he wanted and all we have to do is go for it with our minds and hearts open to the music.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Pet Peeves for composers

This is going to be a work in progress.

To all composers - here is one musician's (of the flutist persuasion) list of pet peeves:
There is a compositional tradition which I would like to ask composers to please avoid, especially when writing for wind players. This is using a comma (which looks to a wind player like a breath mark) at the end of a note to indicate that the player should maintain the intensity of the dynamic and end the note abruptly, without tapering:

A wind player's instinct on seeing this mark is to make a quick inhalation - not the effect desired. A preferable solution would be to make a stylistic indication at the beginning of the work, or to indicate the dynamic graphically:

A short list of other pet peeves:

  • Using empty note heads to indicate air or aeolian sounds. Please see my tips on this subject.
  • Bass flute together with bass clarinet. Neither their ranges nor sonorities match. IMO the bass flute is better paired with the A-clarinet. The bass clarinet is a different animal altogether, with a much broader range, more scope for dynamics, than the bass flute. Just because they are both labeled "bass" (incorrectly, as it turns out for the bass flute, but that's another story altogether) doesn't mean they belong together.
  • piccolo and E-flat clarinet ditto. Cliche. Why bother? Unless you want to sound like a screeching street band. Maurico Kagel was able to get away with it.
  • Fluttertongue. It's also cliche. Give it a rest please. (And it's not a given that every flutist can do it - Asian flutists have a more difficult time. I myself cannot do the forward version, but have to resort to the Parisian Gargle) And it's often imprecisely notated, esp. when it comes to mixing the flute and voice. When written together, why are they sometimes written differently? If one does a fluttertongue, the other will automatically do it too - it would be nice to have it reflected in the notation.
  • Extended techniques stacked up on top of one another. This is something some resort to thinking that it will make the sound more interesting and intense. Well, some techniques cancel each other out and just muddy the waters. Better to pick a few that work acoustically well together.
  • Difficulty for difficulty's sake. OK, Ferneyhough made it part of the esthetic of Cassandra's Dream Song - to make the struggle an intrinsic part of the music. But this is a rare case of it actually working (IMHO), I do love this piece but I haven't come across another that successfully uses this scheme.

Stolen Moments: What Makes a Composition Difficult?

This has got to be the worst time to start something you want to keep up. Blogging, now, with work and a 4 month old baby? Are you nuts? Well, silly question.I figure this stuff is in my head anyway, might as well get it out and get on with my life.

A composer asked me the other day what is it that makes a piece really difficult? Here's what I came up with. Please bear in mind, these are not mistakes or pet peeves. For a list of frequent mistakes, please click here.

  • rapid microtonal (or quartertone) passages
  • anything that requires doing two techniques in different rhythms (i.e. key click and voice in different tempi or polyrthythm)
  • no place to breathe
  • extended passages outside the "normal" range of the flute

I'm sure I'll add to this list as time goes on. Please note that this is not a list of things to avoid, I list them only to create an awareness of potential difficulty. It's great to work with someone who cares to ask the question! Now for the next step, to list my pet peeves! Hee Hee