Month: November 2015

Chunky Monkey

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Happy Flute Friday! Today’s topic is dedicated to those of you struggling with crazy technical passages and pieces written in never-ending chains of 16th notes. How do we practice music that simply does not sit well under the fingers? Is practice and daily repetition the answer?  One solution, of course, is to use some crafty trick fingerings, but another more reliable alternative is to practice in chunks. Before the introduction of smart phones, whenever we needed to quickly memorize a phone number (whether our own, a hotel, or that of a friend) we did not memorize 7 numbers but rather a sequence of 3 numbers followed by a sequence of 4 numbers (ex. xxx-xxxx). Why? Because it is easier for the brain to input truncated numerical sequences into our short-term memory rather than longer patterns. In fact, according to psychologists, the brain can only hold up to 7 items in the short-term memory reserve at once (see http://www.memory-improvement-tips.com/remember-numbers-by-chunking.html ). If we add an area code to the sequence of numbers, it becomes impossible to memorize the number without truncating as follows: xxx-xxx-xxxx. This method of truncation is known as “chunking,” and can be applied in the same way to music to break up longer passages, or technically monotonous sections, into streams of shorter motives.

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There are no “rules” to how a passage should be chunked. You must use a bit of creativity and interpretation to decide where you hear the natural breaks in the music. A good starting point is to select certain notes that act as pick up notes to the downbeat. In the opening of Sonata No. 4 in C Major, Movement II, by J.S. Bach, the phrase can be chunked realistically in 2 different ways. The first is to hear the last two 16th notes in each beat as pick up notes to the first two 16th notes in the next beat.

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The running 16th notes in this movement can also be chunked with the final three 16th notes in each phrase leading to the downbeat 16th in the next group

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The most effective way to practice these chunks is to isolate them using long rests, or railroad tracks, between each segment. This gives your brain plenty of time to process individual mini-segments before moving to the next chunk in the sequence. After playing isolated chunks, put the music back together and play as written. You will find that your brain “hears” the phrase as interconnected segments that work together to form a cohesive phrase rather than a long meandering phrase of 16th notes searching desperately for a cadence.

Chunking is also quite effective for ironing out extremely difficult technical passages. Practicing in chunks may save you from moments of extreme frustration in the practice room that eventually lead to Facebook posts cursing the day that so-and-so composer wrote such an unplayable work of nonsense (been there – it is not pretty). One of the most difficult passages in our flute canon is the climax of Jolivet’s Chant de Lions. The passage found 2 measures before letter L looks like a volcanic eruption of angry notes, flying high and erratically at the top of the phrase. Fair enough. However, the passage can be practiced slowly in chunks to smooth out the rather complicated fingerings, creating a more fluid, easier to play, cohesive line. Simply hear the last two 16th notes in each triplet figure as leading to the first 16th note of the next triplet group. Practice by placing railroad style rests between each chunk.

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Chunking magic! Put the phrase back together again and you will immediately notice how each chunk seamlessly leads to the next, producing a line with poise and direction. Not so difficult anymore, right?

Finally, chunking is an excellent way to smooth out virtuosic runs, particularly those in the high register, that simply do not fall well under the fingers. The below passage taken from Muczyski’s Sonata for Flute and Piano, Movement I. Allegro deciso, is an example of a run that we all tend to rush. To prevent rushing, practice the phrase by grouping the final 3, 16th notes in each figure as pick-up notes to the downbeat, inserting railroad track style rests after the 16th note downbeat in each chunk. After the smaller segments begin to come together on their own, play the phrase as written. The run should now sound coherent and the 16th notes significantly more even. This run, therefore, becomes much more relevant to the musical texture than the random passage it appears to be on the page.

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When the smaller segments begin to come together on their own, play the phrase as written. The run should now be a bit more coherent and the 16th notes significantly more even. This run therefore become much more relevant to the musical texture than the random passage it appears to be on the page.

Whenever you are running short on practice time or simply want to isolate the technical bits of a piece, practice your chunks. Break difficult passages into smaller components and, like a jigsaw puzzle, put them back together to find the bigger picture. This saves you from numerous mindless repetitions of the Phrase of Frustration in the practice room and helps your brain digest your music one piece at a time. Performing a piece of music should not be a race against the clock to get the double bar finish line. It is, instead, about uniting a collection of shorter ideas that work together to form a larger concept.

Do you use musical chunking in your practice? How has chunking helped you iron out technical passages? Do you have an example of a phrase or piece that was easier to perform after practicing in chunks?

Happy Fluting!

 

 

 

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What’s Your Sign, Wolfgang?

Happy Flute Friday/Saturday (oops)! Earlier this week I celebrated a birthday and I began to consider how various traits associated with my Scorpio astrological sign find their way into my professional and creative life. I am a very focus individual and have been known in the past to drill short passages in the practice room until they are burned into my memory and intense enough to stay up until all hours of the morning (with a rather large can of Red Bull) to make sure my blog is posted as close to “on time” as possible. Scorpios are workaholics. Scorpios are also very passionate. One of my favorite subjects to discuss with my students is the use of vibrato and how to produce fiery, intense “red” vibrato during the climax of a piece and hollow or “yellow” vibrato in contrast at softer, more introspective moments. Understanding how these traits manifest in my own life, I found myself wondering if dissecting a composer’s work based on their astrological sign may help us to understand possible creative influences and the “why” behind many of the most significant pieces in the Western canon of Classical Music.

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You may think astrology is made up hogwash. To each his own. I certainly am not trying to suggest that astrological influences are facts nor do I believe they are the only motivations behind the work of a composer. I do think, however, they may offer us some personal insights as to the why a piece was written the way it was written. I will only be focusing on each composer’s sun sign (no rising signs, moon signs, mars placements, etc.) but if you are interested I would love to discuss other possible astrological aspects to a composer’s birth chart and how they manifest in their music.

Let’s start off with 2 of the 3 B’s:

Beethoven – Although there is no known date for his birth, Ludwig van Beethoven was baptized in Bonn, Germany on December 17, 1770 and most scholars have accepted December 16, 1770 as his most likely date of birth. This makes him a Sagittarius. The archers of the zodiac, Sagittarians are known risk takers who love their freedom and have a very biting sense of humor. They are curious about all subjects under the sun and are extremely idealistic. Impatient at times, Sagittarians are very blunt/tactless and tend to say what they mean and mean what they say no matter who they offend or what conventions they may break. They are also optimistic and do whatever is necessary to achieve their goals in life. Obviously many of these traits explain Beethoven to a tee (blunt, tactless, risk taker) but they can most certainly be found in several his symphonic works. The Third Symphony (“Eroica”) is a Sagittarian work through and through. Here we find Beethoven breaking traditional symphonic form and taking risks by introducing a new theme in the development section of the opening movement (whaaat???). He also interjects his sense of humor with the false entrance of the recapitulation in the horn before the orchestra concludes the development. The dedication of this work, originally to Napoleon but scratched off the page by Beethoven after Napoleon crowned himself emperor, also displays Beethoven’s Sagittarian temper and bluntness (aka don’t mess with Ludwig!). The 6th Symphony “Pastoral” shows Beethoven as an optimist and interested in creating idealistic musical environments. Finally, the 9th symphony breaks all the rules by disguising the border between symphony and chorale. “Ode to Joy.” Is there a more optimistic subject than joy?

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J.S. Bach –  Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach, present-day Germany on March 31,1685. Bach was an Aries, the quintessential productive boss of the zodiac. Aries are competitive yet energetic and extremely courageous. Although they are a bit impatient and take action before thinking things through, they are very organized and born leaders. These characteristics embody many of Bach’s fugal works (The Art of Counterpoint, The Musical Offering, etc.). Voices “compete” with each other in a fugue while the music remains in constant motion. Bach does not write 1 fugue – he writes a collection of 24 in prolific Aries style. Bach does not stay idle nor does his music. His style is built upon great attention to musical organization and his compositions have made him the “boss” of the Baroque era.

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And let’s add an M:

Mozart – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born on January 27, 1756, in Salzburg, Austria making him an Aquarius. I have known quite a few Aquarians in my time and this one seems to hit the nail on the head. Aquarians like to think about the larger picture and dream big but do not really like delving into the details. Aquarians are also quite humorous and enjoy mocking others. Most importantly, they are the rebels of the zodiac. Ruled by Uranus, Aquarians gravitate towards unconventional ideas and prefer to work independently. I do not know about you but when I think of a “rebel” composer, the first name that pops into my mind is Mozart. Mozart did what he wanted and wrote what he wanted in the language he wanted. Classical music owes its most witty, large scale works to the Mozart opera buffa collection (Marriage of Figaro, The Magic Flute, etc.) while his opera seria works embody Mozart’s rebellious nature (Don Giovanni is often considered as a rebellious reaction to his own father’s passing). Mozart’s compositions make us smile through witt and humor and help us to conceive music as a cohesive work of art regardless of how unconventional they were thought to be during his lifetime.

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And our favorite W:

Wagner – Wagner was born on May 22, 1813 in Leipzig, Germany therefore he was a Gemini.  Geminis are the gossips of the zodiac. Quick witted and creative, a Gemini loves to talk about anything and everything. Geminis become bored fairly easily and oftentimes are emotionally aloof. Perhaps this is due to the twin personality represented by the sign which may indicate a dual conflict between thoughts and feelings. We all know Wagner loved to talk and did so even when his opinions were outlandish and inappropriate. When we think about his use of leitmotivs in the Ring cycle (which, let’s face it, is a 16-hour long story/conversation) we find that they are used primarily to keep the conversation going even when there are no words in the dialog by interjecting references to thoughts, places people and objects. He referred to recitative in many of his music-dramas as Sprechgesang, or “sung speech” and his libretti as “poems.” Wagner’s many letters, writings and operatic works suggest that the love of speech shared by many fellow Gemini was also present in his creative endeavors.

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This blog post could go on forever as we look at different composers and the stereotypical traits associated with each astrological sign. Be on the lookout for a Part II in future weeks! Who is your favorite composer? Can you find traces of their astrological traits in their compositions?  Do you have a new understanding of their compositional style by looking at their sun signs? Do you disagree? Do you think astrology has no place in music? Please share your thoughts below!

Flute Section Communities – What is Your Role?

Happy (belated) Flute Friday. Apologies for the late post but Daylight Savings Time this week has got me feeling a bit like Alice in Wonderland (what is this strange place shrouded in darkness by 6:00 pm??).

Today’s post is devoted to the many roles flutists serve within an orchestral flute section and the different ways we may approach performing in our roles to create a more cohesive sound while promoting a better sense of community amongst our colleagues. Yeah, I know that is a mouthful…. but part of the reason that conflicts arise in orchestral settings (and really anywhere in the professional world) is often due to confusion about how our individual voices fit into the bigger picture. How can we properly fulfill the job we are assigned while still maintaining our sense of individuality? Who do we listen to? Who do we follow? How much artistic license do we really have? Where should we devote our practice time away from rehearsal based on our role in the section? The suggestions I share below are based on many years of experience performing in various orchestras (and therefore various roles within flute sections) and nearly all of my insights were developed through trial and error and figuring out how to silence my sometimes bruised ego to create a cohesive group performance with my colleagues. An orchestra is not simply a collection of very talented solo musicians trying to outplay each other 24/7. It is a musical community that works together to create the same large scale work of art.

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Principal Flute – You are the leader of the flute section however you report directly to the conductor at all times. Yours is the line on the score that he/she will be using as a guide as it often appears at the top of the page therefore you must understand that your playing will be under a microscope. If you miss an accidental, drag/rush the tempo, play an incorrect rhythm or do not mesh with his/her stylistic interpretation, they will know and will likely comment during rehearsal. I am not telling you this to be a Debbie Downer. This is the inconvenient truth of the principal flute role that they do not tell you when you are crowned as section leader and you must accept this reality in order to successfully function as a principal flute. Develop a thick skin and correct mistakes with a dispassionate approach. Fix what needs to be fixed and stick to the conductor like glue. Follow his/her tempos even if you do not agree. As the principal you will have several opportunities to play solo passages. Figure out how much artistic freedom you have during these passages and memorize your music. Sometimes a solo will be supported by other instruments and you will need to remain at the established tempo per the conductor (the solo in the 4th movement of Beethoven’s 3rd symphony is a great example) however other solo passages allow you to use a larger degree of rubato (opening of Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun). Regardless, it is always a good idea to memorize your solos so that you can watch the conductor closely for correct tempos and cues. Listen closely to other instruments that perform solos before, during and after your own and work with these performers to develop consistent styles between commonly shared motives and accurate timing of call and response type phrasing. You are now part of the “senior staff” of the orchestra and must communicate both artistically and verbally with other senior staff voices within the group (ex. principal oboe, concertmaster, principal horn, principal clarinet, etc.). Become best friends with the principal oboist as you will often work together to establish consistent intonation across the entire woodwind section. Research your own pitch tendencies and compare with the principal oboe. This will give you an idea of which notes you will need to adjust as you play together to prevent unpleasant, out of tune musical catastrophes. Most importantly, always always always always communicate with the 2nd flute regarding tempos, articulation, trick fingerings (if you are using any) and intonation. You are on the same team! Work together to iron out all of the details from vibrato speed to tuning chords and octaves. Remain a team through thick and thin and collaborate on everything. Behind every good principal is a very talented (and in some cases even more talented) 2nd flute who can anticipate your every breath mark and change of tempo. Become a well-oiled flute section machine.

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2nd Flute – Under your breath you may find yourself chanting, “always a bridesmaid but never the bride,” but this could not be further than the truth. As a 2nd flute you must be a chameleon. You are the jack of all trades and can melt your sound into that of any other instrument in the orchestra but you can also stand out from the crowd when the music requests you to perform a solo. Your primary responsibility is to listen closely and emulate the principal flute on everything from vibrato speed, style, intonation, articulation and sound. They may be wrong and you may not agree with their approach but as a 2nd flute it is not your duty to reinvent the wheel. If they are horrendously sharp (as I have been known to be in previous lives), match their pitch regardless if your tuner told you otherwise prior to rehearsal. If they use a super fast, chipmunk-like vibrato, study it and match the rate of pulsation even if you think it is out of control. You will often have passages in the lower octave therefore it is important for you to focus your daily long tone exercises on strengthening this range so that you can provide a firm foundation for the principal to float above. You are the rock of the flute section. Become friends with the 2nd clarinet and 2nd oboe as you will often play passages in unison or in chords and will need to understand intonation tendencies in order to anticipate alterations you will need to make to your own pitch. If you are given a solo, memorize your passage and watch the conductor for the correct tempo and/or any cues and play out. Whatever you think is loud in the low register will need to project much further than you anticipat. Finally, never try to outplay the principal flute. That is just bad form. Work together with the principal on everything and always communicate both verbally and musically so that you remain on the same page.

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Piccolo – If the flute section represented the characters in the Wizard of Oz. you would be the Lion as he sings “If I were King of the Forrrrrrest.” You are the King of the Forrest and you must have courage at all times. You will be heard above all of the instruments in the orchestra and while that seems terrifying it is also quite wonderful. Become comfortable projecting above the group. Since you are the highest voice, be sure to add a touch more vibrato that you would on the flute to mask any intonation problems. Learn trick fingerings! There are many notes that are by design significantly high and lower on the piccolo (such as the D above the staff) and when you are asked to perform these notes at the extreme ends of the dynamic spectrum often intonation suffers. Trick fingerings will mitigate these natural tendencies and help you to retain your confidence. Listen closely to the rest of the flute section for style and intonation and create consistency in articulation and vibrato during tutti sections. Memorize any solos and watch the conductor closely for tempo and cues. Become friends with the Eb clarinet player. You will often have tutti phrases with this instrument and the intonation can be problematic at best. Sit down with a tuner and work out the tendency of each note for corrections. Above all, belt it out. Accept your role as King of the Forrest and perform steadfast and strong. Play out!

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What have you learned by performing in these roles? How can we strengthen flute sections across the globe through collaborative music making? How can you improve communication within your own orchestras? Please comment below.

Happy Fluting!