Friday, December 14, 2012

My Blog Has Moved

Hi everyone, my blog and webpage has moved! Please click here and update your bookmark.
This old blog site will remain open for archival reasons, so feel free to browse.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Extended Techniques - a Do It Yourself Handout

Here is a 14 page booklet I put together on how to do the basics of some extended techniques:
  • Harmonics
  • Multiphonics
  • Singing and Playing
  • Whistle Tones
  • Percussive Effects
  • Circular Breathing
  • List of Studies for Further Practice
  • Selected Repertoire for unaccompanied flute
Here is the link. You may pass it on but please give credit where it is due. Any further suggestions are welcome.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Shiri Sivan Masterclass, Mental Preparation

On May 24, 2012 Shiri Sivan, principal flutist of the Bremer Philharmoniker (Bremen Philharmonic) gave a masterclass for our flute studio at the conservatory in Bremen. This semester our students played a project as guests with the Bremer Philharmoniker and came back with glowing reports of the young new principal, recently graduated from the Von Karajan Academy of the Berlin Philharmonic. It was very motivating for them to play next to a player of such high caliber who was the roughly the same age, so I immediately invited her to give an informal masterclass on orchestral repertoire.

I want to focus here on her talk about mental preparation, but first I will mention several points she made about technique during the lessons.

A general observation of hers is that our students don't use the flow of their air to carry their phrases.  She also encouraged them to let the air flow work and use less movement of the embouchure and jaw to reach intervals and register changes (not to the point of inflexibility, of course). And because modern-day flutes are so well made, if you use good air flow, and focus the air into a good sound, your intonation will automatically be very near the mark without having to make excess movement. This was nice to hear in light of the recent hoopla about flute intonation and tone-hole placement.

An interesting point about articulation: her strategy to achieve lightness is to practice single tonguing rapidly, working your way up to sixteenth notes at 132. In real life, you would double tongue passages that quick, but if you practice short passages with super fast single tonguing, say, a one-octave scale up and down, your tongue can't help but move lightly. It can't move quickly in a heavy way. Then try to transfer this lightness to double tonguing.

Her talk on mental preparation for auditions was based on her own recent experiences. Listening to her, I wondered if she had done a lot of reading research, since what she said resonated with what I have read over the years. But in fact, she said she had done little or no reading. Here is a synopsis:

Long-term preparation
1. Gain good experiences, not necessarily through major concerts or auditions, but any positive performance. Oscar Wilde said "Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes". You can learn from mistakes but it is absolutely essential for our confidence building to learn from your successes, what were you doing right?

2. The journey of self-acceptance. Some of those with a strong sense of profession and passion may have   defined themselves in terms of what they do at an early stage, and missed the adolescent self-searching phase of asking "Who am I"? But if you know and accept yourself you have an unlimited source of power. Know that you are a worthy human being, no matter how well you play the flute. Judge yourself harshly on your effort, but never on your result! This is the most complicated and important topic in this context, because your peace and happiness as a person is also important.

3. Keeping in proportions. Think big, looking for an orchestral job may be a journey, either short or long, but it is a phase (like your studies at school) and must pack a lot of positivity and patience. No audition is crucial!! It is a process of learning and gaining experience which will end in the right place when you are ready for it.

Mid-term preparation
1. Mental readiness. This should start as soon as the audition raises your stress levels when you think realistically about it, it may be six months or two weeks ahead. There is no reason why the performance should be any different from in your imagination, imagining it negatively is not a good sign.
Try to imagine the situation as specifically as possible, every piece of information, the hall acoustics, the jury members, the pieces, your clothing. The twist is: you need to imagine the situation as accurately as possible, but also positively. Maybe in the beginning it will be hard, but with persistence it will change slowly. Stick to those positive feelings. Remember them from past performances where you played well, and make it part of your daily practice. Run-throughs are important, but take them at a distance of one week from the audition, so you have time to draw conclusions and get emotionally detached from the positive or negative experience.

2. Keep positive. Words have more power than we think. When we make excuses like "I am not ready", "only the students of ........ can win", "I'm just doing this for practice", etc. we think that we are reducing the expectations from outside and inside, but actually, we are unconsciously convincing ourselves of failure. We are doing a mental preparation for a bad performance. Mantras can influence our consciousness if you really stick to them, even when you don't believe in them. Actually, a mantra would be quite useless if you already do believe in it. Just find one and repeat it again and again, as stupid as it sounds.  It will be your immune system for negative, "what if" thoughts or expectations. Another important point is belief, belief that you are worthy of the position, and to accept success as an option.

3. Did I mention be well prepared?

Short-term preparation
1. The obvious: Sleep. Eat. Rest. Put the flute in its case 24 hours before the audition. On the day of the audition, make sure to organize yourself so that you have enough time to warm up before the audition. Wear something you feel comfortable in.

2. You may find yourself warming up in a room with 20 other flutists, which is tiring, distracting, stressful and unhelpful for your sound and mood. If you have a long time to wait, it is better to keep your energy and find a quiet place to rest. The most important thing in auditions is concentration. It cannot be achieved in a second, it must be achieved with some kind of meditation. Find a way to make your body run slowly, and to let your mind focus on one thing. Find a place of silence, even if it means that you close yourself in the toilets 10 minutes before your audition. Go through your difficult parts slowly in your mind, breathe deeply, move slowly, do stretches, don't talk to anyone, and don't play with your iphone. Concentration is the best antidote for stress, it routes your mind to the right place. If in the audition you don't manage to concentrate on the music, concentrate on being concentrated. Knowledge reduces the levels of stress, gives confidence and the ability to talk to ourselves during the performance, to be our own teacher. If we have in mind a clear image of how we want to sound, and how we want to achieve it, this inner discussion will not only provide good results, but will also take the focus away from the stress factors.

Stress is good
Having said all this about managing stress, I believe it is an integral, important part of our profession. It is a motivating factor, and in the moment of performance can keep us alert and concentrated. It is only a matter of proportion. The key is not to eliminate fear, but to gain some control over it.

An audition is a concert. If you don't have fun, no one will. The jury has heard 100 flutists (less fun for them) and they just want to enjoy your performance, they want you to succeed. The jury is not looking or mistakes, and no one loses an audition because of making one. Of course the jury is looking for a good flutist, but mainly for a musician who suits their personal taste, and who they believe would suit the orchestra well. And that is not something you can control, so just do your best.

 Thank you, Shiri!

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Improvisation: Freedom and Responsibility

Maggie Nicols
On Sunday, May 20th I took part in a vocal improvisation workshop led my Maggie Nicols in Cologne. My husband is a huge fan, and signed me up in absentia while I was on tour in the US. There were about 25 of us, professional singers, lay singers, theater people, and professional instrumentalists. Some were seasoned improvisors who had taken part in Phil Minton's Feral Choir Project, which I am deeply sorry to have missed. I absolutely love Phil Minton's vocals, he is wonderful and grotesque, often stirring up something unrecognized and stagnant within.

I wanted to write this in order to remember several of Maggie Nicols' exercises that stuck with me. I thought they were great ways to introduce controlled improvisation to a group.

One is to start with only a short sound, a single syllable at any pitch or dynamic (we all sang the syllable "bop"). In the beginning there is silence, then anyone is free to give a starting impulse by singing  his/her "bop". All immediately follow, singing their own short "bop". It will (and should) sound like a scattered cloud of notes. Then silence, then someone else (anyone) starts the second cloud of short sounds. This goes on, someone giving an impulse, others following, always with silence afterwards. After the fifth impulse there can be more freedom to develop, let things happen, sing longer notes, lose the silence, etc.

Since you have a parameter of  one syllable there is no worry "oh, what am I going to sing!?" It's just "bop". Hooray!

For this next exercise we split into trios. We were all free to sing and vocalise what we wanted, the only rule was that if someone stopped, we had to stop too. A wonderful way to exercise absolute freedom combined with the responsibility of listening carefully.

Some of the social implications of these exercises interested me, since I am often bothered by the line between strong individualism and social consciousness. Maggie Nicols pointed out the importance of allowing absolute freedom of expression. If it is withheld, the repressed start to look cattily at those who express themselves freely. No one needs that.

How do you exercise responsibility within this freedom? Well, in music, it is relatively easy, just listen

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Singing and playing

Some time ago I decided to devote at least a few minutes of my flute practice time to singing. Long story as to why, I won't go in to that here. But the decision to sing, and the upcoming workshop I am giving at the Adams Flute Festival on Sunday April 15, 2012 inspired me to put together these ideas.

Throat tuning is the best basic application of singing and playing. Tuning your throat to a pitch you want to play will help you to achieve maximum resonance. You can find a more detailed explanation in Robert Dick's you tube videos and his exercises from Tone Development Through Extended Techniques. Here one of the exercises he demonstrates. This exercise is also much loved by Peter Lloyd:

You can start with Taffanel & Gaubert's first daily exercise in any key. I have chosen B-flat because it falls easily in my range. You can also choose any octave you wish. In case the musical example is not clear, here is what you do: 1. play the first 5-note pattern, 2. sing the 5-note pattern while silently fingering the notes on the flute, 3. sing and play together, 4. play only, but keep the feeling and resonance as if you were singing and playing. You may notice a big change in your resonance.

Another application of singing and playing that I like to utilize is to use singing as a check-point for keeping a relaxed throat while playing high notes. If you can sing a low note while playing a high one, then likely you are using your embouchure and support correctly. If you can't produce a low note while playing high, you are likely squeezing your throat in order to "help" the high notes out. That's the easy way out! A good high register, though, has its support down below, and the lips do the work of narrowing the passage of air, not the throat.

To experiment, play a high note (any will do, I have G here, but you can go higher or lower) and see how high and especially how low you can sing while holding that note.

 You will hear many strange difference tones while doing this; as your voice goes up, you may hear a "ghost" glissando going down, and vise versa. Being able to create this effect is application I love about singing and playing. Some composers use it effectively, and it also comes in handy when improvising.

Now, back to the point about keeping the voice low: try playing octaves and keeping the voice in the lower octave. Keep the voice steady on pitch. Again, you can choose any key and any octave:

 A bit trickier is to keep the voice on a single low pitch while blowing through the harmonic series. If you aren't familiar with the harmonic series, better to begin without singing. Don't worry about getting the highest notes at first. Work your way slowly up.

C is a good note to start on, but you can choose another. Also, don't be discouraged if you can't produce the highest harmonics while singing at first, just work on getting them one at a time, no vocal glissandi allowed here!

And just because I am a bit fanatical, I wrote a vocalise to one of Reichart's daily exercises. The voice sings the top line:
If anyone wants the whole exercise, I can send it as a Finale or pdf file (thank you Cutepdf!). Just send me an email at hbledsoe at helenbledsoe dot com.

Friday, February 3, 2012

The Radiant, Gradient Way: Color Practice

No one can watch the inside of your mouth when you play the flute, thank goodness. However, when talking to students about color changes, an X-Ray machine might come in handy. You could demonstrate how the position of the tongue, the jaw, and so many things come into play when you change the sound of the flute from loud to soft, harsh to light, bright to dark. Using such words is usually the best we can do when trying to describe musical timbres. That can be tricky though, one flutist's dark can be another's bright. Words are not always sufficient.

Thank goodness for imagery. Here is a collection of ideas to help stimulate the aural imagination. I was inspired by Photo Shop's gradient tool to make the following images.

Let's take one note and see what kind of spectrum can be produced. I chose B natural because it is the Moyse thing to do, but choose a note that is good for you. The purpose is to take a full breath, play a single note while going from one aural extreme to another. What happens in the middle can be quite interesting, I find. You can also practice these exercises backwards.

Some people work well with color imagery, so an exercise like this might work:
Another exercise could be to imagine a trumpet-like sound, then go to the extreme of complete air noise. I thank Harrie Starreveld for this suggestion.

You can also consciously control the position of your tongue by producing different vowel sounds. For example thinking a deep, open O sound, to a rather closed I (think of the word "eye"). I spelled it "aye" in the example. In preparation for this, I like to sing the exercise first to get a feel for how the tongue moves and how it changes the harmonic components of the sound.

Peter Lukas Graf also has an interesting approach. He describes different categories of sounds starting with those that are rich in overtones, think of the opening of the second movement of Cesar Franck's Sonata in A, to those that are poor in overtones, think of the opening of Debussy's L'Apres Midi. Of course it is a simplification, the music of Franck and Debussy require a variety of colors, but these are the associations that stick. If such imagery is useful, here is an illustration:
Any other ideas?

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Contemporary Music: Where's the Music?

Funny how memories work. I am left with the lingering conviction, no doubt untrue, that the esthetic of Arnold Schönberg and the Second Viennese School was motivated by peevishness. Not that I was there to remember, but it is the sense I got from student reading and listening to hip lecturers. (For example, I enjoyed Brand and Hailey's "Constructive Dissonance", despite the 2 star rating on Amazon). It probably has to do with my own peevishness, and talent for turning fantasies into mis-remembered memories.

"Not the damned Waldstein again!"
Picture a circle of super intelligent youths, coming of age in a time when well-to-do educated folks actually made music together at social gatherings. We disenfranchised musicians can look back with nostalgia on this, but the Viennese version probably got on their nerves. I can understand their thirst for something more intelligent than the harmonic language of Sunday's salon pieces, and for something genuine, unlike the popular faux-Bohemianism of Gustav Klimt's circle.  If you are easily irritated (peevish), such a thing can make you want to set the world on fire. And they did.

OK, that was way simplified. Better informed and better working minds than mine have pondered and written about the evolution of the Second Viennese School. My point is to look at now. The biggest question that I ask myself in my ensemble work as a "contemporary" musician is this: Where is the music?

Schönberg may have been seeking artistic and intellectual integrity in music, but I want to know WTF happened to music itself? Yes, I am peevish and here's why: Music seems the least important aspect to almost every project we do. If it's a theater project, the visual aspect must take precedence (and be sensational, damn the score!). If it is multi media, the technology takes precedence. If it is "purely" musical, it must be set to a theme that draws audience members in, regardless of quality. (How else do pieces like Henri Pousseur's  La Seconde Apothéose de Rameau get programmed?)

One benefit of all this is that contemporary classical music is reaching a wider audience. But are we marketing it to death and losing sight of the search for something genuine and meaningful? When I finished my formal musical studies I had a limited number of choices. Contemporary music was one of the least remunerative, but I felt it fit my Geist, somehow. I felt I understood the drive of 20th century composers such as Schönberg and Boulez to find a new language that satisfied both the intellect and the aesthetic. (Not that I put myself on the same level as them!)

Nice weather we're having, did you enjoy the concert?
Somehow, I feel we have lost sight of this, and I wonder if we are facing the death of contemporary music as we know it. Because as musicians, when you focus on the banalities of market theory, embrace bourgeois  Sunday salon mentality, there is a danger of ignoring  the actual music, ignoring the basic precepts of artistic integrity (be genuine, don't compare yourself to others). These things will die if not nourished. Even if art music doesn't immediately expire, it will suffer the indignity of being back where it started. A musical revolving door.

 Rewind, look at Schönberg's Vienna. Salons, forced small talk, social, artistic and economic comparison of others in a bourgeois setting. I don't want it. I want the music back.
Revolution sucks. Evolution rocks.