Monday, August 17, 2009

Composing for Students (Conservatory Level)

I was asked by a composer what pitfalls there might be for writing an ensemble piece for a local conservatory. Since we both had copies Carin Levine's Techniques of Flute Playing, I took that as my basis and made the following remarks.

I will preface these remarks with an important note. If you are composing for students or young people, please go easy on the extended techniques: use them sparingly! Some rough guidelines: stick to one technique per musical phrase, and give the player enough time to set up an unusual fingering or to move the flute to a covered embouchure position.

2.1 The fourth octave
for a student piece, please don't use extended passages above D4. Non-harmful 4th octave technique takes time to develop. Isolated notes up to E4 are OK for students.

2.2 Fluttertongue
seems like a normal technique but watch out - many Asian students can't do it. And the distinction between glottal and tongue production - *in an ensemble situation* - falls into the category of DON'T BOTHER. You won't necessarily hear the distinction if there are others playing, and most young players can only do either one or the other anyway.

2.3 Harmonics
Very good for students!
2.3.1 Double Harmonics
Also good. It's good to have the fundamental note (fingered one) notated as in the Pagh-Paan and Richard examples. Beware that higher partials are difficult to produce and control dynamically.

2.4 Whistle Tones
Good for students, but may be difficult for them at first. Easiest to use them in an atmospheric, undefined way, with the fundamental tone notated, as in Carin's examples. As you probably know, these are very quiet sounds.

2.4.1 Special Whistle Tones
Difficult for most beginners. These are the ones with the teeth and covered embouchure hole that need time to set up. Just for the record, Sciarrino notates them incorrectly. When you cover the embouchure hole, the pitch you produce is a m. 7th below. The Sciarrino example p. 17 does not produce the pitches notated.

2.5 Jet Whistle
OK for students - give them time to set up the embouchure; inexperienced/uncoordinated players can chip their teeth if they try to get into covered embouchure position too fast. Once in this position though, you can write quick passages. Please also give time for getting back into normal playing position. As a general rule, when writing for inexperienced players, set up all "covered embouchure" techniques as if they were actual instrument changes - leaving a bit of time on either side.

2.6 Trumpet Embouchure
I'd avoid in student pieces, although I personally am fond of this technique. It does mess with the circulation in your lips and you can't get back to normal playing right away, and if you are too eager, it can cause temporary damage.

2.7 Singing and Playing
Good for students. But as you may already know, produces more of an "effect" than a true polyphony. As to where to notate the voice line: if it is simple, use the same staff as the flute - if more complicated (or separate dynamics) - use two lines (vocal line on bottom).

2.8 Multiphonics
Good for students - there are a whole bunch of "beginner" ones that are not too difficult. I'd check with a real flutist for these, or maybe you know them already. Otherwise, follow Carin's chart with regards to stability and dynamics, but take away a few degrees of stability and mentally take the dynamic notch down too - an inexperienced player may not have as much success as notated in the chart. Also take care of the surrounding dynamics in an ensemble situation. The flutist has to be able to hear his/herself well enough to produce these sounds accurately. Also since the student has to learn new fingerings, it is better to use them in slower passages.

3.1 Pizzicato
Good for students to learn. Beware that in an ensemble situation, the difference between a tongue pizz produced on the lips and a tongue pizz produced on the palate is negligable. Most students will be able to do one better than the other anyway. Therefore, in order for them to be heard, it's good to give them freedom to do what they can produce most effectively.

3.2 Key Clicks
In an ensemble situation, these fall into the DON'T BOTHER category. I almost always have to end up adding a tongue or lip pizz to make them effective (this is a good combination anyway, more percussive). In ascending first octave passages, one lifts up keys instead of putting them down so there is no natural percussive effect. You can hit an auxilliary key - but in a rapid passage this is awkward.

3.3 Tongue Ram
Ok for students. Give them lots of time to set up, although once set up, you can write fast passages. See comments to Jet Whistle 2.5

4. Vibratos
All ok - beware the different kinds can be very subtle - you may not hear the differences between them (for example, normal heavy vibrato and smorzato) if there's other stuff going on.

5. Air sounds
OK for students. Although it seems like an airy sound would be the easiest thing in the world to produce, it takes time to control a mix of sound and air that will project. Not all young players can do loud air sounds immediately.

Also, please note the following since I don't think Carin makes the distinction:
Be sure to specify if you want these sounds:

* produced in playing position (so the air goes across the flute and produces a pitch that corresponds with the fingers), or
* produced inside the flute: i.e., if you want the flutist to cover the embouchure hole and produce a kind of unpitched "white noise". Here the pitch will not *necessarily* correspond with the fingers. However, if you change fingerings, you will get color and vague pitch changes. This technique is also effective when changing vowel sounds in the mouth.

In an ensemble situation, please avoid the notational use of empty note heads, especially if rhythm is important. This makes it difficult to distinguish quarter notes from half notes.

6. Circular breathing
It takes a long time to master - would avoid in a student piece unless the student is already learning it.

7. Trills
all Ok, I'd just follow what Carin says.

8. Glissandi
Beware with embouchure glissando: the lowest notes have less flexibility. You can get better results from about E1 and upwards.
Otherwise, follow Carin's guidelines.

9. Microtonality
OK - rapid passages will take lots of time to learn though.

Bass Flute ins and outs - for composers

Here's some collected advice on how to compose for the bass flute.

For both composers and performers:
To check out solo repertoire you can refer to my repertoire list - scroll to the list of works with piccolo/alto and bass flute. You can also listen to my playing Boulez' Dialogue de l'Ombre Double arranged for bass flute.

Please realize that the bass flute is not a true bass instrument. It won't honk unless you amplify it or use its third octave. Both can be very effective, but I often wonder why composers don't take advantage of the beautiful acoustic sound of the instrument's first octave more often. What it lacks in carrying power, it makes up for in soulfulness.

When composing extended techniques - some are very effective! All the percussive tricks like tongue or lip pizzicati and tongue rams work very well in the first octave. Be aware though that they too can get lost in an ensemble situation, especially if you have percussion or bass clarinet also doing slaps. It's difficult to match the dynamic impact of a good bass clarinetist doing slaps.

Key clicks - as with the C flute - fall under my category of "why bother" techniques. I almost always find I need to supplement the key sound with a tongue or lip pizz. They can be effective though if not much else is going on. And please (this is almost a no-brainer, but I have to repeat it all the time) when you write a fast passage, bear in mind that you'll only get key noises on the notes that require you to ADD a finger. Logically, descending passages work better than ascending.

Multiphonics work on the bass flute - fingering charts can be found in Carin Levine's book The Techniques of Flute Playing vol. 2. Basically, you can use most C-flute multiphonics that don't require half-holes. Again, though, there are acoustical considerations. Quiet dynamics, please! with the exception of high overblown harmonics. Multiphonics can be tricky on the bass flute, so don't be disapointed with an airy, unstable result. If that's the effect you wish to create - all the better! To seek a stable, dynamically viable multiphonic, work with the individual player. Each player will have his/her own set of multiphonics which come easier.
It's less of an issue nowadays, but beware that some cheap instruments are still being made without trill keys - so multiphonics using trill keys will not work on them.

Whistle tones work well but are difficult to control. Sweeping through the overtone spectrum on a fingered low note can be effective. Again - as you all probably know - this is easier for the player when it's just an atmospheric effect. Longer notes please! Or if they need to be short, it's best to have a free or undefined rhythm as the response time may vary.

Air/aeolian sounds. This is a great, if perhaps overdone, effect on the bass flute. Toshio Hosokawa uses it often in his ensemble works to good effect. Beware though that young or inexperienced players will need some time to develop when it comes to producing louder dynamics.