Sunday, April 11, 2010

Low Register: Descending to Paradise

Countdown: just about one month before my performances (8 in two days!) of Karlheinz Stockhausen's PARADIES for flute and electronic music. Am I panicking? No. But I have been soundly kicked in the butt. This piece allows for absolutely no technical weaknesses. In addition, I've been challenged to really expand my stability, dynamics, and coloristic range of the low register.

PARADIES is composed of 24 stanzas. Each stanza has a group of notes (ritornelli) that may be played freely and repeated, and a composed insert which can be played at any time within the stanza. Each ritornello has a fermata on a low note - that makes a lot of long low notes that need to be varied in terms of length, dynamic, vibrato, or even air sounds, fluttertongue or singing and playing.

Soft, quiet dynamics are not acoustically viable in PARADIES (even though the flute is miked). They appear at strategic moments when the electronics are not sounding full blip, but these are rare moments. I think this is too bad, but hey, Mr. S didn't ask my opinion. A quiet dynamic may be played within the ritornelli, but there needs to be a crescendo after it. Therefore, my expansion has been in the direction of forte.

So I'm finally getting to the point about what I've learned about the low register. [By the way, the following can also help with bass flute playing.]
The number one killer of the low register (for me at this time) is pressing of the flute into the chin. This makes the distance from the exit of the air stream to the edge of the embouchure hole too short. The "air reed" needs space for that register, especially if you want to use a heavy vibrato!

The whole challenge in playing loud and low is to be able to give more air but to make sure the air is not too fast. Aim it down, move the flute away. These are not original ideas, but just something we all need to be reminded about from time to time. Also, there are two pieces of advice from Michel Debost (The Simple Flute) that I find really work for me:
1) Play on the middle breath. That sounds strange because if you have a long low note marked ff, the instinct is to take a huge breath and blast away. But if you have a very full tank in your lungs your airstream will me more difficult to manage, it just may come out too fast and crack that low note. I've found that with practice, I can play a long, loud, low note without having to take a HUGE breath.
2) Release a bit of air through the nose a fraction of a second before you play. That also sounds strange, but makes sense if you think of your airstream as a violin bow that is being set in motion before the attack.

Now to see if this all works even if I'm wearing pink! That's right, the score specifies what color you have to wear for this piece, regardless of your chromosonal situation. The color for the 21st hour of the KLANG cycle that PARADIES represents falls in the pink spectrum. (If you play Harmonien, you wear blue, Balance, you wear green.) Dynamic expansion and wardrobe expansion, all-in-one!
Photo: Disney clip-art


  1. Speaking of pink, my 11 year old son is joining band next school year (6th grade). The flute teacher apparently drooled over him because he could smoothly breathe out for over 13 seconds and had fantastic speedy fingers, and some other stuff. She chose him to play the flute next year, and he is very excited about it (all his siblings have been threatened to not dare tease him). He'll still be dealing with the fact that the flute is considered a "girly" instrument. We do of course have a professional flutist in the family :) and my sister played for most of high school so he has a family history of "fluting."

    Got any links or good info about male flutists?

    Cuz Mary

  2. Mary, yeah, in North America the flute is seen as girly (although it's not, still the top orchestras often have a man sitting in the solo spot). In South America it's another story, there's lots of guys playing the flute. For some cool players check out Greg Pattillo on Youtube:
    He's totally hip!
    On the classical side check out Emannuel Pahud:
    Let me know if he needs anything, I've got some extra stuff like metronomes, music, tuners, whatever he needs. Good luck and lots of love, Helen

  3. Good luck, Helen! Wish I could hear (and see!)the concert.