Monday, October 17, 2011

Polyrthythms IV - Practicing Tempo Modulation

This is a continuation of my previous post, where I use Taffanel/Gaubert's Exercises Journaliers no. 1 to practice polyrhythms. Check that out before trying these! It will give you the correct placement in the measure for 4:3 and 4:5, which I have not notated here.

In these exercises, the metronome stays the same but the player has to change gears. I like to use this as an articulation exercise. You can shift from single tonguing to double tonguing as the tempo changes (but the metronome doesn't). It keeps you on your toes.

Set your metronome to a 3-beat pattern. The suggested tempo is a quarter note=45 but you can start slower if it helps. You'll need to start on the third beat for this to come out right. I love the fact that this pattern gives you an added rest for breathing!

The following variation puts the polyrhythm first. If you are doing this as an articulation exercise, it is good to start with double tonguing and then go to single tonging. I find this shift to slower tonguing more challenging.
Here is another variation going against a 5-beat pattern. Set your metronome to reflect that, at quarter note=75 (or slower if that helps). For this to come out right, start on the second beat. (This pattern gives you an eighth note for breathing, hooray!)

And here, a variation starting with the polyrhythm.
I hope these exercises will be of some use. Please post a comment if you have questions. I have had various comments regarding the notation of these exercises. There are more detailed ways of notating them but I find the notation above gets the concept across. In the end, you don't need the notes to perform the exercises. My goal in this was to use melodic material to develop a sense of rhythmic phrasing.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Polyrhythm III Exercise with Taffanel/Gaubert

Here is the third of my posts on rhythm. You can read the first post here and the second here. I wouldn't proceed here unless you can perform the exercises of these previous posts.

What I like about using Taffanel/Gaubert no. 1 from Exercices Journaliers is that it is a melodic study. In my first post, I emphasize the need for rhythmical phrasing, and the goal of playing rhythmically and not mechanically. One way of developing this, I think, is to develop your own strong, steady sense of pulse. This is something different from practicing with a metronome. If you test and develop your sense of pulse against the metronome's ticking, it will grow stronger.

If you take the basic 4-beat pattern of TG no. 1 and set your metronome to a 3-beat pattern at tempo 45, it could fit together like this:

And if you take the basic 4-beat pattern and set your metronome to a 5-beat pattern at tempo 75, it could fit together like this:

You may have noticed that in both examples the 16ths are the same speed, only the metronome setting is different.

An interesting way to practice Taffanel Gaubert nos. 1 and 2 is to first play with the metronome at a quarter note = 120. Play a number of patterns until you feel comfortable with the speed, then continue but change the metronome to a quarter note = 45 and play the 4:3 pattern. When you feel comfortable with that, change the metronome to a quarter note = 75 and play the 4:5 pattern.
This is a wonderful way of practicing groove!

In my next post, I will use these same sort of exercises to practice tempo modulation.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Polyrhythm II

To read my first post on how to figure out polyrhythms, click here.

To internalize an unfamilar polyrhythm, I suggest the following steps:
1) clap and tap the rhythm away from your instrument
2) play it on your instrument, using a single pitch (no moving notes yet)
3) if it's a difficult passage, play it using simplified material (a simple scale pattern)
4) play as written

Here is a written-out variation on how you can practice a scalar passage 5:4.
Your first step (not shown here) could be to play repeated sixteenths (here, it would be repeated F's) and accent every 5th one.
The first line shows how groups of 5 sixteenths fit into a 5/4 bar. 
The second line fills in the ties with moving sixteenths. 
The third and fourth lines are played the same but notated differently. It's good to practice both.
When you have an even number against 3, I find it easy to feel or visualize the second half of the second beat. It serves as a goal-post, or check-point. Here is an exercise similar to that above, but with 4:3.
Remember, your first step (not shown here) could be to play repeated sixteenth F's and accent every 3rd one.
Here are some further exercises with even numbers against 3.  If it helps, focus on the back of the second beat.

In the next post, I will take the scale patterns from Taffanel/Gaubert and fit them into a polyrhythmic pattern.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Polyrhythms I

This is the first of a series about practicing complex rhythms related to a pulse, a.k.a. polyrhythms.

Why bother practicing polyrhythms? Some of us have been taught that our metronome is our best friend, but how useful is it really? Do we bother to listen to it? If we do, does it ensure us a good sense of rhythm? If some of us were honest, we would admit that we do not want to listen too closely, for fear of being labeled mechanical. After all, we want to play rhythmically, not mechanically. How to do this?

What I suggest is a method to develop rhythmical phrasing through the study of Taffanel/Gaubert's study no. 1 from Exercices Journaliers. (I choose this because most of you reading this are flutists, and it is best to apply these ideas to something that is already familiar.). But this introduction will first cover the basics.

A well developed sense of rhythmical phrasing can help whether you want to become the next star beat-boxer or want to keep a steady Scherzo from Mendelssohn's  A Midsummer Night's Dream.

You will need a metronome that can be set to a simple beat pattern (2/4, 3/4, etc.), and a willingness to feel a bit clumsy at first.

The following examples use simple mathematics to see visually where your pulse is against the metronome's (or your partner's). It is a graphical guide to help develop a FEEL for the polyrhythm.

Given polyrhythm a:b, where b = metronome beats and a = your beats, there are two ways of figuring it out:

1) Take the b number of metronome beats and divide it into units of a, then clap or play every b number of these units. Let's take the example where a:b = 3:2 (three against two). In standard notation it looks like this:

Now take two (b) metronome beats, divide them into units of three (a),

Now clap or play every two (b) of these units as shown by a crossed note head:

2) The second way to figure a:b  is to multiply a times b, in this case 3 times 2. This gives us six:
Now divide this 6 into a (3). That gives us two, so mark every two pulses with an O on top. Then divide 6 into b (2) . This gives us 3, so marks every 3 pulses with an X on the bottom.
The "O"s are the rhythm you play or clap, the "X"s are the metronome beats.

Here is a more complicated example: 5:7

Let's see how it looks using the first method: given a:b, divide b (7) into units of a (5) :

Now clap or play every b of these units (7) notated by a crossed note head:

Try writing this example using the second method. (Begin by multiplying 5 x 7.)

The next installation will give practical exercises on how to feel 5:4, and any even number against 3.

For more practice, see Peter Magadini's Polyrhythms, the Musician's Guide, Hal Leonard Publications, 1993

If you would like a pdf of this information in English or German, please leave a comment.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Bass Flute ins and outs II - for composers

Since my last post about composing for bass flute, I've taken note of other questions that pop up with regularity.

Q: Should I notate the pitches as sounding or transpose up an octave?
A: Please transpose them up an octave. Flutists are not used to reading ledger lines below the staff.

Q: Can a bass flute play glissandi?
A: Yes. There are two things to be aware of though.
1) Most bass flutes don't have open holes like normal C flutes, so research with your local flutist if you want a smooth glissando over an interval larger than a minor second. From a middle C to E-flat, and the C to E-flat an octave above, the flutist can use the trill keys to effect a good glissando.
2) A long tube means the pitch is more difficult to manipulate. Unlike the piccolo, which can go out of tune if you look at it the wrong way, a bass flute requires more effort to bend the pitch. In the lowest octave, where the tube is the longest, a lip glissando of a quarter tone is about the easiest one can do. A lip glissando of a  larger interval can be done if you allow the dynamics to help you. To let the dynamics help: use decrescendo for a downward slide, and a crescendo for an upward slide.
A bass flute by Eva Kingma with open holes. Not every flutist is lucky enough to have one.

The third octave of the bass flute is easiest for glissandi. Here you can use a combination of lips, adding or lifting keys to get a good glissando. For the exact range of a glissando on a particular note, it's best to check with the flutist for whom you are writing.

Q: Can a bass flute play microtones?
A: Yes. Third tones, quarter tones, and sixth tones are all possible. (Actually, the smaller intervals are easier, for me at least.) Since most bass flutes don't have open holes, there are basically two ways to produce microtones:
1) De-tune a normally fingered pitch by turning the flute in or out and adjusting with the lips. The lowest notes from its lowest C to E-flat (an octave below middle C) have to be done this way (see question above as to why that could be problematic).
2) Using a special fingering, usually a "shaded fingering" or "forked fingering" that adds keys to a normal fingering.  These fingerings tend to sound very unstable and diffuse (it's a cool sound, but not always what you need).

Q: What about fast passages with microtones?
A: Beware of writing fast passages with microtones. On any flute, not just bass, learning a fast passage with non-standard fingerings will take the flutist not only twice as long, but I'd say up to ten times as long. That's fine if you are investing time in a solo work that will get a number of performances and you are sure every note will be heard and count for something.

Q: What about playing fast microtones with just the lip or turning the flute in or out?
A: That's fine if you have only quarter-sharps or only quarter-flats. Otherwise, you will have a good laugh watching a flutist bob his head in two directions at once. If you are lucky, the flutist will not bang his headjoint against his front teeth and claim liability.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Newsflash for Teachers: Being an Asshole is Ineffective

Every time I pick up a science news magazine or book I end up smacking my head in disbelief that science goes to such lengths to prove what everybody else knows already. So being an Asshole is an ineffective approach to teaching. Really, a Nobel Prizewinning scientist said so.  I read it in a random book on randomness: The Drunkard's Walk by Leonard Mlodinow. The author tells the story of Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist who won the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics (!). I'll retell this because here is an interesting twist on "what everybody else knows already".

While working as a psychology professor at Hebrew University in the 1960s, Kahneman lectured  a group of Israeli air force flight instructors on behavior modification. As a well-read mother of an almost-three year old, I know about behavior modification: rewarding positive behavior works but punishing mistakes does not. Almost every other parenting book will tell you this. My husband does not agree, but that is another story.

When I read the following passage though, my first connection was not to my son, dear as he is, but to teaching flute. I listen to some teachers brag about how tough they are and now believe they are driven by a misconception. Perhaps more importantly, this will give us a lesson on how not to talk to ourselves, as we practice for hours on end, give concerts, and play auditions.  I'll begin quoting from page 7, just mentally replace the word "flight" with "flute":
Kahneman drove home the point that rewarding positive behavior works but punishing mistakes does not. One of [the pilot instructors] interrupted,..."I've often praised people warmly for beautifully executed maneuvers, and the next time they do worse," the flight instructor said. "And I've screamed at people for badly executed maneuvers, and by and large the next time they improve. Don't tell me that reward works and punishment doesn't work. My experience contradicts it." The other flight instructors agreed. To Kahneman the flight instructor's experiences rang true. On the other hand, Kahneman believed in the animal experiments that demonstrated that reward works better than punishment. [...] And then it struck him: the screaming preceded the improvement, but contrary to appearances it did not cause it.

How can that be? The answer lies in a phenomenon called regression toward the mean. That is, in any series of random events an extraordinary event is most likely to be followed, due purely to chance, by a more ordinary one. Here is how it works: The student pilots all had a certain personal ability to fly fighter planes. Raising their skill level involved many factors and required extensive practice, so although their skill was slowly improving through flight training, the change wouldn't be noticeable from one maneuver to the next. Any especially good or especially poor performance was thus mostly a matter of luck. So if a pilot made an exceptionally good landing - one far above his normal level of performance - then the odds would be good that he would perform closer to his norm - that is, worse - the next day. And if
his instructor had praised him, it would appear that the praise had done no good. But if a pilot
But I was going for that high D!
made an exceptionally bad landing - [...] then the odds would be good that the next day he would perform closer to his norm - that is, better. And if his instructor had a habit of screaming "you clumsy ape" when the student performed poorly, it would appear that his criticism did some good. In this way an apparent pattern would emerge: student performs well, praise does no good; student performs poorly, instructor compares student to lower primate at high volume, student improves. The instructors in Kahneman's class had concluded that their screaming was a powerful educational tool. In reality it made no difference at all.

So the next time you or anyone else crash and burn, it's fine to mull it over and figure out what went wrong, but it doesn't pay to be an asshole about it. And besides, aren't apes higher primates?

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Circular Breathing on the Modern Flute

This entry is cross posted on the musikFabrik blog

In 1992, while in residence at the Banff Centre, Canada, I spent eleven weeks learning to circular breathe so that I could perform Flames Must Not Encircle Sides by Robert Dick. I figured if I could do it at 1.500 meters (ca. 5000 feet) above sea level, in the dryness of the mountain air, I could do it anywhere. I won't forget that first performance so easily! Flutist Aurèle Nicolet was also performing in that concert, so the pressure to perform well was intense.

There is one correction to make on this video: at ca. 01:04 I say "beneath the tongue" when I should have said "towards the base of the tongue".

Michel Debost points out that Circular Breathing should be properly called Circular Blowing. I do believe he is right, but for the sake of consistency and electronic searches, I will keep the term Circular Breathing.

For more about the details and history of circular breathing I can recommend:
Michel Debost, The Simple Flute


Monday, June 27, 2011

Tongue Pizzicato

 A question came up on the Flute List about how to produce tongue pizzicato effectively. Here is a link to a video where I demonstrate this effect (along with other percussive effects and air sounds).

This is the notation I prefer for tongue pizzicato

To get a good POP, you have to close off your air passage from behind and in front, compress the trapped air, then release it. Perhaps a "bubble" image will help. That is what we are doing, popping air after all. It's a simple concept that each flutist can do differently. I'll now go into boring detail about what works for me.

To block the air from the back,  raise the back of the tongue as if you are beginning to swallow. If you try to close your throat further down (as it is in the middle of a swallow), that won't work (for me).

For a tongue pizzicato, the release of of the air bubble can be varied, tongue on the lips, or tongue on the palate.

If on the palate, I find it more effective if the tongue is slightly retroflex. That's a fancy word, but actually it only means the tip of the tongue is behind the hard palate, pointing up but not pointed. There should be an air-tight chamber (bubble), with the hard palate as the roof and your tongue as the walls and floor. The pressure to create the pop is made by trying to push the air bubble forward. When you feel the pressure, you can release front of the tongue and let the jaw drop a tiny, tiny bit, that will help the air bubble go down into the flute.

In the pizzicato with tongue on the lips (behind or between the lips, both are possible), the bubble's roof is the roof of your mouth, the walls are the teeth and cheeks, and the floor is your tongue. The pressure is built up by squeezing whatever muscles you can (lips, cheek tongue, whatever works), then drawing the tongue quickly back. Letting the jaw drop here a tiny, tiny bit can also help here with resonance, getting the air bubble into the flute.

Hard to put into words what goes on inside us!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Air & Percussive Sounds for the Flute

 This entry is cross posted on the musikFabrik blog

This video gives a brief demonstration of some common air sounds and percussive effects on the flute.

Here are some further tips for players and composers:
For players, when doing air sounds, it is not always necessary to use as much air as possible. After a long, loud passage, you might find yourself passed out on the floor! The trick here is to make as sibilant a sound as possible. One way of doing this is to actually narrow the throat a little to make the air passage smaller (I know, just the opposite of what we all learned!), then raise the tongue a little, so that it disturbs the distribution of air wanting to escape from your mouth. These are subtle adjustments, you needn’t do too much. All you are doing is speeding up the air, as when you narrow the end of a garden hose to make it spray further. For loud passages, you will still need to give extra support from down below, putting your abdominal muscles into play.
The pizzicati sounds will be louder and more resonant if the flute is turned out a bit. The more you can make resonance in your own mouth, the better. For maximum resonance for key clicks, stay in playing position, open your throat as far as possible, and open your mouth just a bit more over the embouchure hole to create an extra resonance chamber.

I have posted some further information on the production of tongue pizzicato here.

For composers:
There is unfortunately no standarisation of notation for these effects. I have shown on the video those recommended by Pierre-Yves Artaud in his book Present Day Flutes. I find these to be quite intuitive, but maybe another flutist will have another opinion.
When notating air sounds for the flute, please avoid using empty note heads, unless an empty note head is rhythmically called for (a half note, dotted half note, or whole note). I know, Helmut Lachenmann, Isabel Mundry, and other well-known composers use open note heads, but it makes their music extremely frustrating to read. I am hoping that this tradition will die out. (For more about this and to see written musical examples, read my blog entry here.)
Key clicks on the flute fall into my “Why Bother?” category. Unless you carefully compose them in a solo work, or under amplification, you won’t  hear them.  95 % of the time, I end up having to reinforce them with a tongue pizz. Helmut Lachenmann’s Mouvement is an exception, there are some passages with pure key clicks that can actually be heard! However,  other passages in that piece that need the reinforcement of a tongue pizz.
Note that the difference between a tongue pizz produced on the palate and a tongue pizz produced on the lips is not very distinct. It may be best to let the player decide where to produce the pizz. Some can do it on the palate better, others more effectively on the lips. However there are circumstances, such as close amplification, where that small difference can be quite interesting.
Now, if only I could beatbox…..

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Finger Exercises Based on Tai Chi

 This entry is cross posted on the musikFabrik blog
Anyone who works with their hands can benefit from the energy flow these exercises provide. I am no expert or student of Tai Chi, but I have had to work a lot at injury prevention. You can do them at the beginning of your warm up, then as necessary during the breaks. Breaks are very important in injury prevention. Any exercise that stretches or gets the energy flowing during your break will allow you to practice more in the long run, and keep your money in your own pocket and not the doctor’s.

I don’t mention the pacing of the exercises in the video. For me, they take four to five minutes to complete. This is a good investment of time when I have a long practice session, especially if there’s much to be done on alto or bass flute. Enjoy!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Bring in the Clones

Read an article by almost any famous flute teacher today from North America or Western Europe and you will notice they share similar ideals. The development of a student's individuality is given high priority. Their students are encouraged to find their own musical identities; they don't want clones or sound-alikes.

Nor do I. But what I'm about to say will at first seem like a contradiction. I am aware that I am in a different position than the stellar players and teachers of our time. I don't have a bunch of sycophants and wannabees trailing in my wake. Therefore, I can enjoy a bit of skepticism in the face of this idealistic individualism.

Peter Lloyd, with whom I studied for 4 years, shared this ideal, and took it to an extreme. Even when he was still playing (as he was when I studied with him 1988 - 1992), he would not play for us in lessons. He didn't want us sounding like him. I asked him why not, since we came out of our lessons talking like him (joking, of course. He has a great posh accent.) His reply: "Good, you're finally learning to speak properly!" This humor as well as his patience saved me, nurturing and bringing back to life what was left of me after my dismal undergraduate years. I have much thank him for. However, since I was so good at hiding my real problems, my playing still left much to be desired when I left Indiana. And I still didn't have a clue who I was as a musician. I was too confused to even have a clear ideal of sound, I wanted to sound French, but with American verve, and English full-bodiedness. One thing was clear, I was sure I could find it by following the Contemporary Music path, not the Early Music or orchestral path. Perhaps I sympathized with late 20th century Modernism; it was striving to find itself as much as I was.

Harrie Starreveld
That path led to Amsterdam, where I studied flute with  Harrie Starreveld and classical South Indian music with Rafael Reina and Jahnavi Jayaprakash. Harrie does not have any particular philosophy regarding playing in lessons, but most of what I learned came from listening to him and playing with him, often in an apprentice-type situation with the Nieuw Ensemble. That is what it took for me. No one would even say that I sound at all like Harrie: I don't, but I cannot stress how much this experience helped me to find my voice.

Four years after my studies with Harrie I went to India for two and a half weeks to work with Jahnavi Jayaprakash privately in Bangalore, and the scales seemed to fall from my eyes. I wondered if our Western musical education was not entirely bass-ackwards. Everything we learn seems to be from the top down, instead of the bottom up. In India, the idea that you can learn music by verbal explanation only and hope to develop a musical spirit in a vacum of abstract ideas is ludicrous. That one can study without the rote learning which frees one technically and enables inspiration to soar - also ridiculous!

But rote learning is BAD, a well-known European flute teacher told me recently. I'm tending to disagree. Rote learning without any understanding at all is bad, but I think we tend to throw the baby out with the bath water.

Jahnavi Jayaprakash
Indian classical music education does not eschew the technical, analytical or theoretical, but as I understand, it comes when one has already mastered one's voice or instrument. My teacher Jahnavi had her Doctorate from an Indian University in music and could explain the intricacies of each nuance of a Raga for Westerners like me. But that was not how she normally taught. Mastering music means learning the language of music and all its subtleties not through the intellect, but through the ear and the heart, by method of imitation. It is a somatic, not an intellectual process. But the diversity among South Indian flute players is a living testament to individuality "in spite of" this method.

This is not a "grass is greener" essay. I don't think if I had learned the Indian way from the beginning it would have completely solved all my problems. I do enjoy analysis, and was good at theory, and was glad to learn it young. But I do wish I had had someone to sonically follow in my earliest years. It would have avoided crisis and saved me a lot of time, but maybe I was destined to have such a long and hurdle-ridden path. For many young players today this from-the-top-down musical education is less of a problem, thanks to the proliferation of Suzuki teachers. I am speaking only on behalf of those like myself, who come from the traditional marching- or wind-band school education.

I do not want my students to slavishly follow me, and I certainly don't wish my bad habits on them. However, I do play for them whenever possible, and expect them to strive to my standards, and higher. There is of course the danger that my students might superficially sound like me, but I am fully convinced they will get over it.

photo credits:
Dolly: Stephen Ferry/Getty Images
Harrie Starreveld and Jahnavi Jayaprakash, unknown