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!