We spent the first half talking mostly about acoustics and singing. I think the book Robert suggested as a good source on acoustics if you don’t want to wade through calculus is Fundamentals of Musical Acoustics by Arthur Benade. While the air we blow through the flute is on a one-way mission out, sound is actually on a two-way street; there is primary resonance in our chest, throat, face, and flute. Notice that three of the four involve the body! (PSA: Eat well and exercise. Please.) This is part of what contributes to each person’s unique flute sound. One way we can help tap into those body-acoustics is through singing. A whole section of Robert’s book Tone Development Through Extended Techniques is about “throat tuning.” This is the term he dedicated to the practice of engaging your throat as if you were singing the notes that you play on the flute. There are different warm ups and methods to practice this, such as playing and singing simultaneously or creating a dialogue with yourself, alternating between singing and playing phrases. Building your singing chops alone is a great idea, too. My biggest take away from that? Go ahead and belt “Defying Gravity” while on the subway. Of course, straining the voice is not advised. So once your voice is tired, TAKE A BREAK. This is where he made the comment about some singers taking this to the extreme and saying, “Oh, a cricket died in Mongolia so I can’t sing today.” (Sorry vocalist friends…but it was hilarious.) If you’re interested in this idea of throat tuning, check out his book.
I had taken Density 21.5 by Edgard Varèse* to play in class. This is credited as one of the first pieces for flute to use an extended technique: the key click. [Basically, you finger a note and then use a different finger (typically the ring finger on your left hand) to click a key, resulting in a pitched “popping” sound.] The first comment Robert made was that musicians should listen to a lot of music, especially to better understand a composer’s style. So for Varèse, may I recommend Hyperprism and Poème électronique. (If you have a favorite piece by good ol’ Eddy, leave a link in the comments!) Robert then talked about the many revisions Density 21.5 went through before becoming the final version we know and love today. There’s apparently a theory that the famous key clicks were not in the earlier sketches, but that the flutist it was written for, Georges Barrère, was trying to get the sound out of his monster of a platinum flute (the density of platinum is 21.5, hence the title), and in attempting to help the low notes speak, he popped the keys…Varèse liked the sound and the rest is history. Robert also pointed out a nifty trick: engage your wrist for a more satisfying and projecting key click. Also, THERE ARE SO MANY OPTIONS FOR ALTERNATE FINGERINGS IN THIS PIECE. Because Density 21.5 is all about extremes, there are ways we can manipulate our air and the flute to help add to those edges. For example, there is a held third-octave E-natural in mm. 13 and 14 that is notated with a crescendo. Now, all flutists just cringed because they know that E is not exactly known for being, erm, the most beautiful or in-tune of notes. But! Let’s look at the context in which it appears. It’s the first note in that register we’ve encountered in the piece thus far. It’s also one of the loudest so far (marked with a crescendo from fortissimo). So I think it’s safe to say Varèse was hoping for some brightness in this moment. So let’s help that little note out! Instead of lifting the right pinky to lower the pitch (as I was doing before), why don’t we press down both the E-flat paddle AND the D-flat paddle with our right pinky? Try it, I dare you. Guess what happens? The overtone of the next octave E is waaaaaay clearer. So that’s going to contribute to a brighter sound. Mission accomplished. You can play around with the right hand pinky for a ton of notes, especially in the upper octave (since those are cross fingerings anyway). That’s my assignment this weekend.
*Related, contemporary flutist Claire Chase has a whole project based on Density 21.5. Check it out.
The thing that most blew my mind was when we briefly talked about flute multiphonics. As Robert put it, you will have these “eureka!” moments in life, which will then be followed by a great wash of humility when you realize whatever you just discovered was staring you in the face the whole time. So my moment like that was when we talked about how multiphonics are just fingering patterns on the flute. For example, look at the keys while fingering a third-octave D-natural (a fairly simple multiphonic of D6 and C5) and notice where the first open key is from the headjoint. (Note: An open key doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not pressing down a key. For example, the A-flat key becomes open when depressed.) Once you find the open key, count how many closed keys follow it. Once you know this pattern, you can take the pattern anywhere on the flute; it’s the equivalent to shifting on stringed instruments. The point of all this jargon is that you have the ability to figure out your own fingerings for multiphonics; you don’t need a diagram or fingering chart. How freeing is that???
Some of the other highlights from class:
- Play thumb B-flat all the time if you want. Your hand naturally sits there and it’s not “cheating” if it works and sounds exactly the same as one-and-one B-flat.
- Uvular flutter tonguing (versus forward, tip-of-the-tongue fluttering) is great because it can be combined with French tonguing (between the teeth) to still articulate the beginning of notes while fluttering. You can practice this by gargling and singing for about 30 seconds daily, slowly lessening the water needed, then taking out the singing, and then adding the flute to the mix. Eventually, you can even vary the speed of the flutter.
- We can change how we think about and approach certain notes. For example, D-flat is not the worst note ever on the flute; it is simply the most flexible note and allows for a wide array of color changes.
- Listen to a ton of music by a ton of composers. Just listen to more music in general. (And that doesn’t necessarily mean listen to more flutists.) And this pairs well with…
- Consider “practicing” to be anything you do that aids your music making. So listening counts. As does exercising. And talking with people, sharing ideas. And reading. I bet you’ve already practiced a bunch today based on this criteria!
- It is pretty widely accepted that our music is often based around the human heartbeat. Robert made the comment that if we had a different body, we would have different music. It made me think about this recording of crickets.
Until next time!