We’re still on step 1 of learning to circular breathe, which is the blow fish embouchure/huff and puff stage. I’m getting better though! It is pretty difficult to let go of any semblance of an embouchure, but attempting to release my inner 4-year-old seems to be helping. Step 2 will be to add the top lip as embouchure with the puffed cheeks, so we’ll see how that goes. Also, it turns out that the Hungarian approach to multiphonics is done with lots of breath pressure (versus lip placement and air direction), so I’ve been unknowingly using that technique and getting some multiphonics when practicing the huff and puff.
Science comes up quite a bit in class, and Robert believes musicians should be knowledgeable in two scientific areas: acoustics (the study of sound) and psychoacoustics (how we/audiences perceive sound). Our friend Arthur Benade came up again, this time concerning his book Horns, Strings, and Harmony.
A good portion of class was spent on breathing, expanding on Robert’s YouTube video “Prepare to Breathe.” There are exercises you can do to even out inhalation, which should be mostly concentrated in the lower abdominal region, not by the ribs and shoulders. The trick is to keep your rib cage up and engaged while using the lower belly as the “balloon” that inflates and deflates; this way, your chest can stay open to be a great resonating chamber.
Semi-related to breathing is vibrato. Once again, Robert suggested creating vibrato with the throat/voice for standard, everyday vibrato and using breath-pulse vibrato for the more Romantic “wow” moments. To practice the throat vibrato, determine a pitch that you can sing comfortably (we used B-flat in the staff). Sustain that pitch on the flute while fading the voice in and out, building up to a speed as is used in vibrato. Then take out the actual voice, but engage the same sensation in the throat. Robert thinks teachers should wait for vibrato to come naturally to students and then it can be refined, rather than teaching pulsated breath kicks in rhythm. He also made the point that when we imitate things that occur naturally, it is perceived as beautiful. In the case of vibrato, think about how something in nature, say a twig or branch on a tree, comes to rest after activity; strive to imitate that type of movement with your vibrato speed and depth. We also discussed how specific registers on the flute work with vibrato. For example, using air/vibrato in the cheeks is best for high notes because the mouth is the primary resonator for that register; however, the same type of cheek vibrato won’t work as well in the low range.
Some exciting news is that we will be looking at more repertoire soon! Robert made the point concerning learning music that one needs to practice the nuts and bolts of a piece (the technical aspects) AND musical interpretation together, not as two separate processes. Each side informs the other, and you’ll understand the piece more thoroughly if you combine the aspects from the beginning of the learning process. The pieces we specifically wish to focus on are Luciano Berio’s Sequenza I and Tōru Takemitsu’s Voice.
Understanding a composer’s style is part of the learning process as well, and in the case of Berio, knowing the influence of James Joyce is helpful. For further listening, Berio wrote a piece for voice and tape called Thema (Omaggio a Joyce); for further reading, Robert suggested the famous last chapter of Joyce’s Ulysses. Berio’s Sequenza is written using proportional notation, so Robert asked us not to get the edition that inserted bar lines. He also suggested making a copy of the piece to mark up, since it will need some love to learn initially; the first step is to make the “tick” marks more obvious. The next step is to circle dynamics with an “f” in red and dynamics with a “p” in a different color. The colors will work with your peripheral vision to help you notice and learn the contrasts quicker. After this comes the best part: scatting the piece. Aim for note contour rather than accuracy, focusing on the dynamics and getting familiar with the proportional notation. (And you can take it slower than marked.) It may also be helpful to visualize two characters throughout the piece and to mark where each switches off.
Concerning Takemitsu’s Voice, Robert is going to be a fantastic resource because he (casually) worked with Takemitsu on it. It turns out that some of the notation is not clear in depicting exactly what Takemitsu wanted; for example, the “circle” notes are more of a growl rather than actual sung pitch. This is partly based on the shakuhachi flute tradition, where players were exclusively male. Robert had prepared the piece by singing the notated pitches (instead of the grunting/growling), and Takemitsu liked that version, even though that wasn't what he was after! So Robert decided that’s how he’ll teach the piece to female flutists (aka me). He shared that the most challenging aspect of Voice is the acting involved. It’s the story of a ghost, and though the text isn’t all in English, you should figure out how you would say things and react to things in your own language. It was at this moment that instead of “qui va la/who goes there?” Robert decided “what the f***?!” would be a more natural reaction to a ghost appearing. He had no qualms screaming it to demonstrate. (Side note: I wrote a paper in grad school on the musical relationship between flute pieces by Debussy and Takemitsu; let me know if you’re interested in reading it. And to get a feel for Takemitsu’s style, here is a great list.)
Sarah and I took a free audio tour of the New York Public Library earlier this week; it was so cool! We saw one of the 48 remaining Gutenberg bibles, a writing desk that used to belong to Charles Dickens, a Brahms manuscript, the original Winnie the Pooh stuffed animals, a Cage score, a lock of Mary Shelley’s hair, and so much more. And all for free?! Continuing on the “free” idea, today I walked part of the High Line and also checked out Chelsea Market. It’s so easy to get my steps in here. And the weather is almost fall-like!!! We're so close. Gah, I can’t wait.
Until next time!