Saturday, February 28, 2009

Bottom of the Food Chain

Wondering why I haven't posted recently? This is where I have been all week! At the bottom of the food chain! OK, maybe I exaggerate. Maybe more like a pawn on the chessboard of pieces where composers, conductors, organizers, managers are the big players. We play what sells, and ideas sell, beautiful packaging sells, regardless of the quality that is inside.

I've worked with more living composers than you can shake a stick at. In today's European Contemporary Music Scene, a handful of lucky composers are the stars, not the ensemble or orchestral musicians who play their music. These chosen few (composers) are promoted by organizers of festivals and the big publishing companies (who act as their agents as well). If you have a performance scheduled and receive a dud or embarrassing piece from one of them, or a piece that comes too late and is impossible to play: tough luck. It is your job to get it done and make it sound good. Cancelling a piece is politically incorrect, or would cause a scandal. The programs have been printed. The VIPs have been invited. The deals have been made. Money has changed hands. You are the sissy if you complain or can't pull it off. Besides, you have a family to feed, and can't afford to forgo your share of the money (minuscule as it may be).

A question was posed recently on the Flute List: does one have a moral obligation to fulfill a composer's intentions? I'd like to turn it around. Does a composer have similar moral obligations? Heck, does he even have a professional obligation when it comes to fulfilling a commission? It would seem not. More often than not, we find ourselves in a situation where a quality rendering of the premiere piece is severely compromised: too late, not for the instrumentation specified, unreadable manuscript, or unexplained, unclear notation. [I'm not talking about student workshops, I'm talking about well known composers who (even sadder) have teaching positions and are influencing the young generation.] Do we still pay the commission fee under such circumstances? Yes. We're nice, we're professionals, we're capable. We're pioneers, we can take anything anyone throws at us. Ahem.

Still, I'm a big fan of composers, even tardy ones. I support contemporary music and all its endeavours: big, small, loud, quiet, beautiful, ugly, complex, minimalistic. For all my b--ing I am happy to be doing what I am. So now I will speak of me/us/performers and our obligations, moral or otherwise to the composer's intentions.

I'll confine myself to 20th century and later composers - earlier music is another whole can of worms. I'll be honest. There are a few composers whom I dread to play. I see them coming up on a program and think: "well, I'll just go get my strait-jacket." These are the ones that require slavish following of their notation, no deviations allowed. Dang. I got into contemporary music because I consider myself a bit of a deviant. If I wanted to slavishly follow someone I could make a heck of a lot more money in an orchestra somewhere. [OK, I know it's not that bad in most orchestras! But you have to be darned lucky.]

Here's an example, though, of where this somewhat adolescent attitude of mine proved to be misplaced. I used to consider Karlheinz Stockhausen one of these dreaded composers. Working with him closely on the premiere of his Rotary Quintet gave me another perspective.

For the premiere of this work he wanted to underscore the difference between male and female (This quintet is part of his Licht cycle). So he asked us to reflect this gender difference in our concert-wear. With some trepidation, and gentle respect, I objected on the grounds that as a musician, I don't consider my gender, and my native English also reflects no differences of gender. To my utter astonishment, he readily conceded, in a very gentlemanly fashion.

Rehearsal, 1997. Left to right: A. Wesly, K. Stockhausen, me,
J. Babinec, P. Veale, N. Janssen (sitting)

Now I am starting preparations for the flute solo Paradies from Klang, which we plan to premiere in its (all 21 hours) entirety. This has me looking back on those days 12 years ago. Stockhausen is no longer around to gently concede to my cultural baggage, so I will not have the chance to thwart his intentions in person, but would I want to? It would just seem disrespectful at this point. Besides, I look back on my objections of 12 years ago and find them a bit silly. Americans are so gung-ho gender blind, but I don't think females do any better there than in Europe. In Europe it feels more realistic: nobody tries to pretend that men and women are alike.

My point is: I'd think twice now before trying to turn a composer's intention around. My objections may be parochial and egocentric, and have nothing to do with the real quality of the music. The composer's intentions might also be parochial and egocentric, but, well, it's their piece. If I want to express something else, I'll write my own piece.

Notes from Patricia Morris, Oxford '06

A few posts back, I suggested the guideline "the ears are more intelligent than the lips". Now I'm reading my masterclass notes from Patricia Morris (Oxford, 2006). I noticed one of her points: "Your lips learn from your ears". Exactly! She put it more succinctly.

Her class on piccolo playing was full of these great ideas. Her experience with Feldenkreis made things all the more intereting. The piccolo can be hard on the body!

  • In general, try placing the piccolo higher on the lower lip than the flute, and keep it turned out.
  • Tensing your shoulders is like jumping in water and hoping you'll swim! If you untense your shoulders, you will improve without having practiced.
  • The key to playing piccolo in the top register: increase the air speed without blowing more. You can keep the air speed fast by: 1) making the embouchure hole smaller and 2)putting more pressure behind the embouchure.
  • You don't need to practice hours and hours on the piccolo. Thoughtful, sensible transferrence of flute technique to piccolo every day regularly instead.
  • Ascending crescendos: build sound up at bottom, then let it alone. High notes are naturally loud.
  • For low notes, you need to be able to lift the top of the lip. It helps to use the inside of the top lip, instead of having the top lip always rammed down. Don't let bottom lip drop. To apply this to the low register: think of starting low notes from lifted upper lip.
  • Practice Moyse Tone Development through Interpretation on the piccolo.

Her recommendations about taking the repeats in the Vivaldi Concerto at auditions:
You may ask if they want the repeats. If you are shy about asking, repeat the 1st section, then immediately play the ornamented version of the 2nd half.

I wish I could attend more of her classes! Years ago I bought her Piccolo Practice Book, but gave it away. Pretty silly, but I hope whoever has it is getting a lot of use.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Peter-Lukas Graf on Articulation

A few days ago I received my quarterly publication from the German Flute Society that featured a tribute to Peter-Lukas Graf, on the occasion of his 80th birthday.

I thought I would use this occasion as well. Last May I attended his masterclass at the Conservatory in Amsterdam. What he had to say, especially about articulation, bears repeating. I find myself using these ideas with my students all the time.

Here goes:
Articulation is a matter of embouchure and air = quality of sound. During articulated passages, keep the tongue as if saying the "y" in "year". The tongue is always piano.

There are 4 kinds of articulation:
  1. Portato. Sustained articulation, using only enough of the tongue in order to repeat the note. There is a tiny little diminuendo at the end of each note.
  2. Detache. Here there is also a little diminuendo at the end of each note, and a little interruption between each note.
  3. Staccato. A short note with a big interruption. Personally, I like to keep the idea of the diminuendo - even if it is a nano second. That way, it gives each note a kind of "lift".
  4. Marcato/Martellato. Strong accent. The accent can't be done with the tongue (tongue must always be piano!), it must come from the air. You can practice it without the tongue by saying "ha-ha-ha-", moving the abdominal muscles. This articulation can't be done very fast.
I love the idea of staccato as something that you can practice in slow motion (i.e. detache and portato are slowed down staccati!)

There is also the Langue Sorte as Moyse describes in de la Sonorite - this is used for special notes and is also not a quick-type of articulation.

In Graf's Check-Up; 20 Basic Studies for Flutists you can find articulation exercises in ex. no. 15.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Are we confused now?

Here is a long, rambling flute entry based on last week's teaching: helping "older" students who still have basic problems. Because we're talking about professional training, "older" means mid-twenties - usually - but there are notable exceptions. However, by age 21-22, most young flutists have done their 4-year degree and are looking for a Masters or Artist Diploma program.

I remember reading Trevor Wye's take on entrance auditions. Many aspirants are weeded out: "too many problems". I can understand that totally. Not that teachers are lazy, exactly.... It's just that time (and a short time - graduate programs are normally 2 years only) will be spent fixing (rather than developing, which is what teachers love to do) stuff before the music can be addressed. Sure, you can nurture the musician in parallel, all technical problems can be musically addressed, but, ...but..., still, it's just easier, and a hell of a lot more fun, to take someone who has already got the "flute"stuff (embouchure, fingers, articulation, breathing) figured out.

So how many times have I had a student in front of me, coming to me at the last minute for tomorrow's audition/competition, but with a lifetime of either bad habits, or a baggage of confusion? Mostly it's the latter. I am usually blessed with intelligent and diligent students. But whether their intelligence is a blessing, well, it's a two-sided coin. They've taken lots of lessons, looked for answers from many teachers, read a lot, looked in front of a mirror a lot, listened to many recordings and youtube vids. Hence the confusion.

Here are some examples: I'll focus on the basic problem of embouchure/sound production
"I was practicing fine, but then I looked in the mirror and noticed my embouchure was crooked"
"People tell me I'm not flexible enough - I have to do (fill in the blank) with the corners of my mouth, or (fill in the blank) with my jaw"
And the list goes on . "People have told" the poor student so many things, what can come out of it?
Well for students of the age group I'm talking about, who have played for 10-15 years already - I've devised some guidelines for embouchure/sound production:
  • Your ears are more intelligent than your eyes. Use the mirror only to make sure the hole in your lips is lined up with the hole of the flute. All else is vanity.
  • Barring a serious medical problem, there is no such thing as an inflexible lip. If your lips were inflexible, you couldn't talk! Again, your ears are more intelligent than your eyes. Give the center of the lips room to manoeuvre (Spielraum - great, succinct word in German!).
  • What you do with the corners of your lips is sausage (another great saying in German - meaning: it just doesn't matter). I asked William Bennett about this when I was about 15 years old and obsessed with the corner question. He put it in plain English: it doesn't matter a damn what the corners do as long as the center can do its job!
You may have guessed by now that I know from where I speak, first hand. Yes, I have been down this path. I had the advantage though of graduating university early, at age 20. I had serious playing problems. It took 2 years to get shaped up, and then I was able to start a Masters program at the "normal" age of 22.

Why was I such a mess at age 20? Well, with all due respect for my then teacher in Pittsburgh, Mr. Goldberg, the one thing I never developed was the trust of, or reliance on, my own ears. We always started with long tones. I tried to produce my sound according to what he said and what I heard him do. Since what I did was always wrong, I developed a mistrust of my ears and relied only on what he told me, which was usually that it sounded bad. By the time I finished my 3 years with him, I couldn't produce a reliable sound below low G.

I can't put all the blame on him, though. What 19-20 year-old girl has the presence of mind to question someone whom the local newspaper critics say "plays like a God"? And someone who was "sans doubt" Moyse's successor? This is why I encourage my students to give feedback. And you as a teacher have to ask hard questions like, did this exercise not work because you didn't practice it, didn't understand it, or because it just didn't help you? Otherwise, everything is a waste of time.

I want to end on a positive note about Mr. Goldberg though, since I don't consider my time with him wasted. He did his duty, I came out with a technical solidity and knowledge of the French repertoire and style.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

When Inspiration Knocks

I had this conversation with a student of mine who just graduated. It's a tough situation for her: suddenly no stimulus of fellow students, no schedule to follow, lack of money, and pressure of entrance auditions for the next degree. As a foreigner, she has no support system and must provide her own stability and motivation. The result of this is mild depression and reculsiveness. So my pep talk to her included the phrase:"Inspiration doesn't come knocking at the door, you have to get out and find it"!

I don't know to what extent this is true. And I don't think it helped, but we'll see how she does this month with the auditions.

It is however good that I remember these words for myself. As I mentioned in my last post, my husband needed to kick me out the door to attend a concert of "Plush Music Festival" at the Loft. I've been house bound except for the necessary teaching, meetings etc. Missing many good concerts. It was time for some inspiration and I found it! Last night's concert opened with Simon Nabatov (piano) playing Herbie Nichols. Boy does he rock! And I am sad I don't play a harmony instrument - what lushness.... And power - the sheer volume of it, but never harsh or grating. On the flip side, the second set featured Hayden Chisholm and his quartet playing original works. I've never heard a sax player play so sustainedly quiet. What subtlety and color!

When you leave a concert thinking: "oh dear, I've got a lot to learn", I think you can say it was worthwhile.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Too Many Hats

This image was taken during a rehearsal of my "Pan" Project. What a trip that was! I was wearing the hat of soloist, arranger and organizer all at once! In the end, I was quite happy with the arrangements I did of Debussy's Bilitis for 2 flutes and piano, and several movements of Bach's secular cantata "Der Streit zwichen Phoebus und Pan" BWV 201 that I arranged for flute, alto flute, oboe/oboe d'amore, cello and cembalo.

I was thinking about this project recently because of the many non-playing projects I am involved in now, and the different hats I have to wear. February was supposed to be a slow month - no actual concerts or tours. But it is full of rehearsals, teaching, meetings, and proposals, proposals, proposals! And all that in German too, so everything takes longer and every written document I feel obliged to send to a proof-reader. So I feel a bit like a snake, hidden under a rock, waiting to spring. It seems as though it is lying inert and inactive, but that is only the surface. (It fits my Chinese astological sign, this image...) I've been terribly reclusive, not venturing out at all some days. Very bad, I know! But tomorrow my husband is tossing me out the door to a concert at the Loft, where a friend of ours is playing. Will report on that to be sure.

The most pressing thing on my plate is to organize a mini-tour for my duo partner who is coming in June from St. Petersburg. We've already got a concert at the Loft, and lots of leads for other venues. So it looks promising!

Monday, February 2, 2009

Recording session 25 Dec

I like this blog venue, I can publish those funny pictures that are kinda cool, but you just don't know where to put them. They're not "official" enough for the website, and certainly don't belong hanging on my wall.

My piano partner Lyosha just sent me the best of our session from 25 Dec. 2008. It turned out to be a really mellow session, almost minimalistic. I was in a strange frame of mind. In the western world, it was Christmas Day. In Russia, which goes by the old calendar, it was just a working day. Not that it makes much difference to me. There are basically no holidays for musicians anyway.

So it was a steeley gray and very cold day in St. Petersburg. We'd just arrived at Babushka and Dedushka's two days ago, with our 4-month-old in tow, and I was still recovering from the trip. One of those "vacations" which is not a vacation. Family trip, plus had a difficult program to learn for a concert on Jan 9th in Cologne so no time to really slack off.
But I always find time to play with Lyosha. He'd just bought his new grand piano, and his new at-home studio was now set up and ready to go. So armed with extra woolen socks, my husband and I set out to the session.

Here's a take from the session, Lyosha titled it "House on the Lake". Quite minimal but it has something, I think:

House on the Lake

Here is a photo of our concert that we played at the GEZ a few days later. Don't have the recording of that yet, am curious! That's Vladimir Shostak on bass and Nikolai Rubanov on bass clarinet.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Stook, stook

Can't resist this one. His lower incisors have been visible as little white dots just below the surface. Today, for the first time, they made a click, click sound when we tapped with a spoon. Ground-breaking (or gum-breaking!). We just love him!