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!

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One comment

  1. Thanks for this most opportune post!……..it came at the right time; I play in an orchestre and good relations are necessary…….our Flute team has 8 members and its problems, some younger members trying to out-play the older members! therefore nuances in playing suffers.
    Our conductor steps in to do the correcting……whew!, thank god.
    Seab Turner

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