Month: October 2013

Performer Spotlight Series – Jasmine Choi

This will be the first in a series of regular posts introducing contemporary, and not so contemporary, flute artists to my blog community.  Each post will contain a snippet from the performer’s biography, a YouTube clip cataloging a significant performance from the artist’s career, basic historical background of the works performed in each clip and commentary regarding trademark elements of the artist’s performance style that are particularly effective, or in some instances, ineffective.

The first artist I would like to discuss is Jasmine Choi.  Ms. Choi has quickly become one of the most prominent flute soloists in the world and, as you will see below, her playing really speaks for itself.  Jasmine Choi, born in 1983 in Korea, holds a Bachelors of Music from the Curtis Institute of Music and Masters of Music from Julliard.  Her former teachers have included the legendary Julius Baker and Jeffrey Khaner.  She was named winner of the 2002 Albert M. Greenfield Student Competition, sponsored by the Philadelphia Orchestra and was included in Symphony Magazine’s list of emerging artists in 2006.  Her CD, Jasmine Choi Plays Mozart, was released in 2006 and was produced on the Sony BMG label.  Ms. Choi has served as Associate Principal Flute with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and Principal Flute with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra during the 2012-2013 concert season.  She is currently pursuing a quite lucrative career as a full time soloist and clinician.

The work performed in the below clip is the Concerto in G Major for Flute and Orchestra (K. 313) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  This concerto was completed in early 1778 and commissioned by wealthy amateur Dutch flutist Ferdinand De Jean.  The Concerto in G Major was part of the collection of “three short, simple concertos and a couple of quartets for the flute” initially requested by De Jean for the promised payment of 200 gulden.  There is a presumption among musicologists that Mozart disliked the flute.  This theory originates from a line written by Mozart in a letter to his father on February 14, 1777 (during the time this concerto was written) in which Mozart states, “..you know that I become quite powerless whenever I am obliged to write for an instrument that I cannot bear.”  The reality of the situation is after he had completed two concertos and two quartets, De Jean had only paid Mozart 96 gulden.  Mozart therefore disliked his patron (and the tight grip he had on his pocketbook), not the instrument itself.  Centuries after Mozart’s death, Albert Einstein proposed that De Jean found the slow movement of the Concerto in G Major to be “too florid” and that Mozart offed as a substitute the Andante in C, K. 315.  This concerto is scored for string orchestra, oboes and horns (flutes are substituted for oboes in the slow Adagio movement) and follows the traditional three movement classical concerto structure.

Flute soloist Jasmine Choi performing Concerto in G Major for Flute and Orchestra (K. 313) with the Daejon Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Nosang Gum, at the Seoul Arts Center in Seoul, Korea in November 2012:

What I find so wonderful about this performance (and Ms. Choi’s playing in general) is her ability to change tone colors quickly and imperceptibly.  This breathes new life into a piece such as the Concerto in G Major which has become the “meat and potatoes” of flute repertoire.  We all know this piece and have played it to death but here was see it as something new and exciting because it is not the cookie cutter version we know and she does not necessarily place breath kicks or accents where we would normally expect them.  The changeable quality of color in music is what keeps overplayed pieces exciting.  It is also quite clear from this video and Ms. Choi has studied Alexander Technique.  Notice how her head goes “up and forward” at the beginning of each phrase or when she takes a new breath.  Notice also how her shoulders remain steady and that nearly all of her movements originate from her torso therefore leaving her arms, fingers and jaw free to retain control over the flute.  Pedro de Alcantara would be proud!  Also, pay attention to Ms. Choi’s jaw when she changes dynamics.  It is clearly pushed forward for p and inward for f (which is something that flutist John Barcelona has discussed as an excellent way to control pitch and dynamic without sacrificing quality of tone).  Finally, Ms. Choi does a remarkable job of showing the phrasing of the piece to the orchestra with her movements almost as if she were a second conductor.

I do not have many negative comments about this clip.  I think Ms. Choi’s performance is as spectacular as her choice of dress (beautiful!).  Perhaps the cadenzas are a bit too long but for this venue I find them to be quite appropriate.  If this were a smaller recital I may suggest cutting them down however I think they are well written and executed perfectly.  Ms. Choi has really become a performance role model for me and I hope you will find her style just as inspiring as I have!

What did you notice about this performance?  What works and what does not?  Please leave your comments below.

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Throwing Out the Rules – Lessons in Improvisation

In the classical music world there seems to be an overarching emphasis placed on what is “correct” and what is “incorrect.”  We tend to categorize notes as being “too short” or “too long” or “too sharp” or “too flat” and the list goes on and on.  Are we searching for perfection?  Does music have to be perfect to be relevant?  Is there even such a thing as perfection in Art?  In Western Classical Music we separate the performer from the audience both figuratively and literally using the stage.  However in non-western forms (or “World” music as it is being referred to these days), the stage is removed and the audience and performers are one.  Music becomes more than a museum type exhibit and instead is a method of non-verbal communication.  However, these two methods of music performance are often separated into “camps” and as one makes their way through formal classical training, it becomes apparent that the two camps do not often collide.

Let’s fix this!

In my practice, students are encouraged to explore improvisation as part of their studies.  This is not as scary as it sounds!  When we think of the word “improvisation” the first images that often come to mind are cool cat Jazz performers perched lazily on stools wearing shades and weaving tapestries of fast moving lines with the greatest of ease. 

This is not always the case (and here is where the right vs. wrong thinking of the classical tradition throws us for a loop).  Making music for music’s sake is, in itself, “improvisation.”  When you open your case at the beginning of a practice session, put your flute together and play a few random notes, you are, in essence, improvising.

As an exercise, I often ask my students at the end of a lesson to pack up all of their music – every scrap of manuscript paper, their lesson notebook, their pencils, EVERYTHING – and play a drone in unison with me  (an low A or low B is a good starting point).  When ready, I will improvise a moving line while the student continues to hold the drone.  When I am finished with my improvisation I return to play the unison drone with the student.  Then it is the student’s turn to improvise!  While I hold the drone the student plays a moving line – whatever they want, whatever expresses their current emotions or thoughts or playing directions – and when they are finished they return to the held drone and we continue to take turns improvising.  It is often important that the teacher begins the improvisation to serve as an example of where an improvised line can go.  Be crazy!  Be mellow!  Show the spectrum of the capabilities of the instrument.  Throw out the rules – Mozart can watch over them.

Another great exercise is to connect improvisation exercises to the classical works that students are presently studying (or perhaps ones that you are also working on).  Identify a primary melody within a work (any work) and ask the student to analyze the chord structure underneath the line (ex. I-IV-V-I).  Proceed with the improvisation exercise above, taking turns improvising over a drone, but alternate the drone to represent the tonic members of each chords.  For example, if the chord structure is I-IV-V-I and the key is C Major, you may alternate improvising first over a drone on the note C, then on F, G, and back to C.  If you are improvising with a larger group (for example in the context of a studio class or a masterclass), you can assign members of the group with the different notes of the triad.  Using our example, in a group of 4 people, 1 person can hold a C drone, another an E, another on a G and the 4th person may improvise over the triad drone.  

Do you have any improvisation exercises that you have found particularly useful either to yourself or your students?  Please comment below.

Let’s all start breaking the rules a little bit more and create some music!