Month: May 2016

Tricks for Piccs

Welcome to Flute Friday!

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Last weekend I sight read a number of piccolo parts in one of the local groups I play with after having been on a piccolo hiatus since January. I often think that the most difficult thing about playing the piccolo is mustering the courage to belt out your parts no matter what your inner critic tells you. Blending into the background is simply not an option on this little instrument therefore good, bad or ugly – you will be heard. The first step is acceptance. The second hardest part about playing the piccolo is understanding that some of our good old flute fingerings translate very differently on the piccolo and we must develop new ways to adapt to different problems. As I was playing along to some unsurprisingly exposed music, I was reminded of many very useful trick fingerings I have picked up over the years for problem notes on the piccolo. Today’s blog is devoted to a few of my favorite trick fingerings on the piccolo. You may find that notes you have been “liping up” for years can be fixed with the repositioning of a few fingers or notes that always crack (I’m looking at you, high F#!) can be improved by removing a key here or there. Try them out in your practice! Your conductor will (and the rest of your section) will thank you for your research.

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First things first – Finding a good trick fingering chart. I recommend the chart found on The Woodwind Fingering Guide website http://wfg.woodwind.org/flute/picc_alt_1.html . Back in the good old days I used to keep a paper copy of this chart in my music folder for times in rehearsal when my piccolo was behaving badly on certain notes and I needed a quick fix. The fingerings on this page are very good and can be used for many different types of problems and attacks. I have never needed to use the fingerings in the extreme high register (C# and above) but you may find them in newer contemporary pieces. If you know of a fingering for any note not listed on this site, let me know!  I am always searching for new solutions to fingering issues.

Secondly – ALWAYS remember to use your earplugs if you are going to be practicing these fingerings in the high register. You risk permanent damage to your hearing if you go too many rounds in the practice room playing Rossini or Shostakovich excerpts without protection. I have left many practice sessions in the past with my ears ringing, recklessly thinking to myself, “This can’t be good.” Also provide earplugs to members of your ensemble sitting in close proximity to you whenever your parts extent into the high register. They will appreciate your consideration for their ear drums (and it is simply a professional courtesy).

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1. High D Natural. Let’s face it – this note is problematic on all flutes big and small. For me, the standard fingering for the high D natural on the piccolo has always been a bit flat making it difficult to play loudly and in tune during sustained or climatic moments in the score. By adding the first finger on the right hand and the G# key on the left, the pitch is lifted and the response dramatically improved. The sound quality of the note is also improved giving more of a center to the tone. I have used this fingering in numerous pieces but the one that stands out most in my memory is at the climatic piccolo entrance of the theme in the 3rd movement of Tchaikovsky’s 5th symphony (2 measures after Rehearsal K), marked ffff (Tchaikovsky meant business with this dynamic marking). The piccolo is the shining tip of the beautiful melodic pyramid created quite literally from the bottom voice on upward on the dramatic, slow moving yet expressive melody. You must be in tune on this note and play as loudly as possible. The trick fingering below helped me to really own this short, albeit significant, melodic fragment.

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2. High F#. This note has been my nemesis. It cracks. It squeaks. It will not speak. Anything dynamic softer than mf is out of the question. It often cannot be tamed using standard fingerings. Composers love to write for this note and I have encountered numerous pieces throughout my career that include sustained high F#s, often written at a mp or p dynamic, in exposed, terrifying sections of music. Some of the most difficult piccolo excerpts feature this note in such scenarios to challenge a performer’s relationship with this infamous pitch by testing their embouchure strength and flexibility. After my years of struggle and my experimentations with trick fingerings I have found that playing this F# with the right hand middle finger depressed produces the best sound quality and response. The most memorable encounter with this trick fingering has been on the piccolo excerpt from Shostakovich’s 6th symphony, movement I where a beautiful melody features a suspended high F# one measure before Rehearsal 9. The middle F# fingering in the scenario keeps the pitch and response under control allowing the performer to color the note with changing dynamics and beautiful vibrato.

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3.  High G#. This is another terrifying note on both the flute and piccolo and some may even go as far as to claim that this is the worst note in terms intonation and response. I have not had as much bad experience with this note as the high F# because I do not often see the note written as a sustained pitch on the piccolo but as the leading tone to an A, the G# certainly crops up from time to time in orchestral works. I favor the below fingering to bring the pitch down and provide the sound with a stronger center. With more control over the pitch I find that I can color the note easier using variations in vibrato speed. I do not have a memorable moment with this note as I have not struggled as much with the high G# on the piccolo but if you have your own memorable moment, please comment below!

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4.  High B Natural. The problem with this note on the piccolo is stamina. The high B natural screams (I imagine this to be the pitch sounding in Harry Potter’s head whenever a dementor approached). The note requires an enormous amount of air to produce and sustain yet any issues with response will jeopardize the support behind the note. The standard fingering for the high B natural is fine for shorter, brief interjections of the note. For longer, sustained passages (meaning longer than a half note), the below fingering is the most useful. It may seem a bit complicated initially but the payoff is well worth the extra time in the practice room. I used this fingering on the piccolo part to the Romeo and Juliet Orchestra Suite No. 2 by Sergey Prokofiev to successfully sustain the high B against a slow moving tempo and an added ritardando from the conductor. I also used this in the piccolo part to Samuel Barber’s Symphony No. 2 which also features passages written in sustained screaming high B naturals. (Unfortunately I do not have the scores to these parts any more to post as examples) Screaming high B naturals are quite common in orchestral works from the late Romantic to early 20th century compositions. This fingering will help you to muster the stamina required to sustain the note without losing tonal support.

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There are of course many other trick fingerings for the piccolo. An added G# key to a middle A, for example, will help to sustain the sound and adding any of the keys on the right hand will bring a middle or low C or C# lower in pitch but these fingerings will also work on the flute. The above fingerings have become my most used, and most loved, fingerings over the years and have helped pull me out of some shockingly out of tune and squeaky musical moments.

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What is your favorite trick fingering on the piccolo? Do you have your own memories using one of these trick fingerings to save an otherwise dying note or passage? Do you have other trick fingerings for the piccolo that you use and love? Please comment below!

 

Happy Fluting!

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A Picture Paints a Thousand Words

Welcome to a new Flute Friday/Saturday! I have started a new series on my Twitter page called Dr. G’s Daily Flute Tips. Please check it out @RTGeier and subscribe to receive my daily inspirational flute advice.

Today’s flute blog will not be as deep or informative as some of my previous blogs. Sometimes it is meaningful to simply step back and appreciate the beauty that others have found in our art. The flute and flute playing has been represented in countless paintings created by world renowned artists throughout the ages. Below are some of my favorite works of art presenting the flute in different performance scenarios under a wide range of interpretations. Use these images to inspire your flute playing. Find the beauty that exists on the other side of the stage.

 

Flute Concert with Frederick the Great in Sanssouci, 1850-1852 by Friedrich von Menzel

Frederick the Great

This painting was produced by Friedrich von Menzel for Franz Kugler’s History of Frederick the Great series. The flutist depicted in this painting is Friedrich II, or as he is also referred, Frederick the Great, who reigned as the King of Prussia from 1740-1786. Frederick the Great, known as a flutist and composer, is depicted here performing a flute concert on the occasion of a visit from his sister, the Margavine of Bayreuth. What is most notable in this scene is the very high placement of the music stand, preventing the King from making eye contact with the ensemble (I know a few band directors that would have a huge problem with this stand placement but I guess when you are the King you can basically do whatever you want. Please nobody give Donald Trump a flute…..). The King is also performing with his back to the audience. Is this a rehearsal or a performance? Whom is Frederick the Great really performing to in this painting?

 

The Fifer, 1866 by Édouard Manet

The Fifer

The Fifer was created by the Realist painter Édouard Manet in 1866 and is presently displayed at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. This painting, created with oil on canvas, features a young boy dressed in a military uniform playing a fife made of dark wood and silver keys against a stark background. A brass carrying case for the instrument is placed on the figure’s right side. The head-on angle of the performer gives the painting a photographic style (as if the fife player was taking a selfie). This painting is often interpreted to be “cartoonish” but I think the starkness of the work suggests a great heaviness associated with performing as a role in warfare rather for enjoyment of the instrument.

 

The Flute Player by Charles Bargue (1880)

The FLute Player

Created by Charles Bargue, who was known for his academic and dry approach to drawing, this painting features a flute player in a long white coat practicing the baroque flute with his back to the viewer. The focal point of the painting of course is the score, giving us the impression that we are reading the music along with the figure. We are both just spectators of the score. There is no audience in this painting suggesting that it is a portrayal of a practice session (and the music laying on the floor next to the instrument case would confirm this interpretation). What is the piece that he is practicing? If this is a baroque piece we can see that the ornamentation has been written out rather than improvised. This work shows the side of performance that the public does not get to see – the toil, planning and solitary hard work that goes into performing.

 

Orchestra at the Opera by Edgar Degas

Orchestra of the Opera

This painting is the most important to me from this collection as it features Joseph Henri Altes, whose work I analyzed in my cumulating DMA paper, playing in the pit orchestra at the Paris Opera. Composed in 1870 by Edgar Degas, the space in the painting is divided into three zones. The bottom of the painting features the edge of the pit, the center the musicians of the pit, and the top the stage where ballerinas dance to the music performed by the pit musicians. The focal point of the painting is the musicians which are traditionally hidden from view during an opera performance but whose role is seminal to the performance on stage. Legend has it that Degas knew many of the musicians in the portrait personally including Désiré Dihau, the bassoonist featured at the center of the painting (who, as we know, is not seated in the traditional position that the bassoonist sits in an orchestra). Like The Flute Player, this painting depicts the side of performance that the audience does not often get to see and the toil of performance.

 

The Snake Charmer, 1907 by Henri Rousseau

The Snake Charmer

Henri Rousseau once remarked to Pablo Piscasso, “Basically, you do in an Egyptian style what I do in the modern style.” The Snake Charmer, commissioned by Robert Delaunay’s mother, features the figure of a snake charmer in a creepy Garden of Eden on a dark evening charming a terrifying snake by playing the flute. This painting has been linked to Surrealism as the dense colors create an other-worldly atmosphere (Voldemort would be shaking in his boots). I love this painting because it shows the mythological ties to the flute and the darkness that the instrument may portray under a different light. The flute is not always the light, shimmering silver lining on the clouds above but may also represent hidden melodies and the darkness between day and dusk.

 

Do you have a favorite painting featuring the flute or a flute player? How are you inspired by the paintings above? Do you have an interpretation of these works that connects to your flute playing? Please comment below!

A Spoonful of Sugar – Encouraging Young Students to Practice

Welcome to another Flute Friday.

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We live in a world of instant gratification. Information that may have taken hours of research in a library 20 years ago can now be found quite literally in the palm of our hands by Siri in 30 seconds or less. Rapid fire advancements in technology have created an app-based society demanding expertise in 30 different subjects overnight through the click of a button or the queuing of a few YouTube web tutorials. Traditional disciplines requiring a more patient approach, such as music, are very difficult to understand by the younger generation whose idea of “time investment” has changed greatly over time from those held by Generation X, Y and even many of us pre-millenials. How do we encourage our younger students to practice when they are growing up in a society that wants everything NOW? I have struggled with this question in recent years as younger students have expressed frustration over the time required to learn new fingerings, notes, rhythms and breathing techniques before achieving their goal of playing a familiar song (anyone reading this who has been forced to teach “Let it Go” from Frozen knows the struggle of explaining the concept of syncopation to students who are still struggling with basic fingerings). After some research on the matter, I have come up with the following techniques that can be used to help students achieve daily practice goals and increase the amount of time they spend practicing their instruments. As Mary Poppins explained, “In every job that must be done there is an element of fun. You find the fun and SNAP – The job is a game.” Help students find the fun in their daily practice and they will want to practice more often to achieve smaller, more meaningful goals.

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Practice Cards. How many of you remember the old school paper based practice cards of yester year? What used to be a weekly chore was actually a very good way of tracking progress. In the studio environment I use these paper based practice cards to help my students set goals and discuss ways to make their practice time more effective. For example, a beginning student may submit a practice card to me with 15 minutes of practice per day M-F and 0 minutes on the weekends. From here we may set a goal of 15 minutes, 7 days a week for the following week and increase to 20 minutes per day M-F the week after that. We may also investigate what the student spends the most time practicing. If they are struggling to memorize fingerings but devote a majority of their practice time to tone and breathing exercises, we may set a goal for the subsequent week to spend at least 10 minute per day working exclusively on new fingerings. For younger students, practice cards are intimidating because a poor practice card may result in another boring lecture from their teacher on the importance of practice. The objective of practice cards, however, is to serve as a report of where we are to help us reflect on where we would like to go. The problem I sometimes find with paper based practice cards is that my students conveniently “forget” to bring them to their lessons. This can be avoided by using a free, web-based practice card reporting system. Online Practice Record features a pretty decent online practice card https://www.onlinepracticerecord.com/opr/ that students may fill in online and email to their teachers at the end of the week. The online practice card allows students to track practice time, keep practice time stats such as weekly and daily averages, compare their practice time to other students across the country and upload videos to their practice card. This is a great way to create a weekly performance goal for students and serves as an excellent monitoring system for teachers.

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Create a practice game. Do you remember those wonderful chocolate bars that the cheerleading team or volleyball squad used to sell in high school to earn money to travel to away games. The person who sold the most chocolate bars typically won a prize of some sort for their outstanding salesmanship. The same merit system can be applied to practice. We refer to this as a rewards system in pop psychology in which students are given tangible items for their investment of practice time (aside from the improvement in ability that will naturally occur during this process). There are numerous accessories that can be purchased from www.fluteworld.com as prizes to hand out for benchmarks such as 500, 1000 and 2000 total minutes of practice but you may also award gift card prizes for weekly, monthly or quarterly practice record setters. Students often enjoy the friendly competition offered by a practice rewards system and my even take their practicing a bit more seriously if they know there may be a tangible object awaiting them for their hard work. They might even discover that they enjoy practicing regardless of the pot of gold waiting at the end of the rainbow!

Give students one clear goal each week. I have already mentioned the importance of using practice cards to set practice goals but it is also quite helpful for student to have a clear idea of what their primary focus for their practice time is each week. This gives students a purpose for their time and clear expectations for what is required to improve their flute playing. Part of the reason that practice time may vary each day of the week is that students do not know exactly what to invest their energy learning besides “learn all of the notes.” Set weekly priorities and help your students devise performance wish lists. What is it that they want to learn about the flute? What do they want to learn to play? What techniques are they most interested in learning about this instrument? Create single weekly goals based on these objectives.

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Mix in recognizable pieces with more challenging etudes and repertoire. Younger students are not as excited to learn how to play Schumman as they are to finally learn the notes to the theme from Lord of the Rings. When I was young, my mother would often pick up lead books and sheet music to many popular tunes of the day that I would mix into my weekly Band assignments from the Yamaha Practice Book #1. I loved learning how to play melodies to many recognizable Disney songs and other tunes I could listen to on the radio (For example, I performed the melody from Bryan Adams’ “Everything I do I do it for You” for my 6th grade band class at our first Show and Tell Friday). Many of these songs contain excellent lessons on rhythm, new fingerings, breathing, phrasing and tone development. Mix in a few fun pieces into the standard Mozart and Bach repertoire to make playing the flute more relevant to the lives of younger students.

Know when to pull the plug. Not every student that comes through your studio doors will continuing performing on the flute. Sometimes young students are just not that into learning a new instrument as their parents want them to be. If they do not practice, do not submit practice cards, and do not enjoy learning new lessons each week, playing the flute may just not be for them. Do your best to expose students to the fundamentals of flute playing, fun and interesting repertoire, practice plans and musical goal setting and at the end of the school year reassess their progress and general interest in the instrument. Sometimes it is an uphill struggle and as difficult as it is to have the conversation with parents that their child may not share your love of the flute, it is a conversation that must be had. Years spent doing something that has little to no value to the student is not a wise investment of the precious years of childhood. Be honest with parents and be patient with students. Show them why you love the flute and what the instrument is capable of achieving but know that they must discover their love of music in their own time.

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Practice makes perfect but often is not a perfect process. Encourage younger students to find the fun in practicing using the techniques above and they will look forward to completing their weekly practice cards. Help them find new, interesting music that is relevant to their lives to perform for other students, parents and audiences of all types. Incorporate technology such as online practice cards and weekly video recordings to help keep practicing fresh, new and on track. Practicing does not have to be a chore or a punishment but a pathway to skill development and enjoyment of the flute.

How do you encourage younger students to practice? Do you use a rewards system? Do you assign practice cards? What do your students love about their practice time? Please comment below!

 

Happy Fluting!

Trill, Baby, Trill – The C# Trill Key

Welcome to another Flute Friday.

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Years ago I purchased a flute with a C# trill key and, although it seemed quite exciting at the time, I have since only used it in one or two circumstances. When the time came for one of my students to purchase an instrument with a similar feature I was a bit hesitant to recommend such a pricey add-on without doing some additional research . What are all of the functions of the C# trill key outside the obvious B-C# trills in the first and second octaves? Have I had solutions to some of my most pesky problems quite literally at the tip of my fingers all this time? There has been debate over the necessity of the key in recent forums as some performers consider the C# trill key to be indispensable while others could take it or leave it. I myself remain torn as I have appreciated the key for what it was able to accomplish in the few instances I have used it but know very well I have not explored its possibilities as much as I could. Today’s blog is devoted to this mysterious key and all of the ways the C# trill key may offer new approaches to old problems with the click of a button. Hopefully you too will find ways to incorporate these shortcuts into your own practices to improve complicated trills, tremolo patterns and other musical nuances.

 

What is the C# Trill Key?

The C# Trill Key is an additional key located to the left of the left hand thumb key. Connected by a long rod, this key is depressed by the first finger on the right hand using a lever placed above the standard Bb lever key. The key is rarely found on student models but has become a standard add-on to newer professional series flutes.

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What does it do?

Trills

Let’s start with the most obvious trills:

  • B-C# (first and second octaves): Finger B and trill the C# key. Mozart’s Concerto in D Major features these trills for example. Trills produced using the C# key are faster and better in tune.
  • C-C# (first and second octaves): Finger C and trill the C# key.

..But wait….the C# trill key will also help improve the following trills which we have all encountered and have most likely all struggled to play:

  • High F#-G#: Finger high F# and trill the C# key. I use the C# trill key in this instance for pieces such as the final movement of Burton’s Sonatine which features a quick, repetitive dance-like figure. Some performers consider this trill to be well worth the price of the additional key and I definitely agree. This trill has a more controlled (or centered) sound and is substantially more in tune that the standard trill fingering.
  • High G-Ab: Finger high G and trill the C# key. Time to give your left hand pinky a well deserved vacation!
  • High G-A: Finger high G and trill the C# trill key and D trill key in unison.This is the trill that I have used the most from the above list. The response and sound quality is greatly improved when using the C# trill key in this instance. You will notice an immediate difference particularly when playing the flute and piccolo excerpt from Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony, Movement III. Practice this excerpt first on the piccolo and then on the flute using the C# trill key. The ease that the key offers for one of the most difficult trills on the flute is remarkable. The only difficulty to performing this trill is that the trill key is quite close to the Bb lever key which will give you and entirely different sound if trilled by accident. Familiarize yourself with the difference in location between the Bb and C# trill levers and it will become easier to distinguish between the two with practice.

And the here is the kicker! In the past I have simply overblown a second octave Ab-Bb to achieve this trill which has often resulted in an airy, messy and out of control screaming trill (not pretty). The C# trill key is the solution to this problem and produces a quicker trill with a much sweeter sounding tone color.

  • High Ab-Bb: Finger high Ab and trill the C# trill key, the D trill key and the D# trill key in unison.

Tremolos

Keep in mind that most tremolos of these types are rare however short cuts like the ones listed below will save you a lot of pain and frustration if you encounter them in your scores. Be on the lookout for these trills in pieces by Stravinsky or Varese.

  • In the first octave, tremolo to C# from G, Ab, A, Bb, B or C by trilling the C# trill key.
  • In the second octave, tremolo to C# from A, Bb, B or C by trilling the C# trill key.
  • In the first octave, tremolo to D from G, Ab, A, Bb or B by trilling the C# trill key and the D trill key in unison.
  • In the first octave, tremolo to D# from G, Ab, A, Bb or B by trilling the C# trill key and the D# trill key in unison.

Trick Fingerings

  • Pianissimo high Ab: Play middle Ab with ALL the left hand keys depressed, add the C# trill and the high Ab will appear softly, and in tune. Finally the answer to our prayers! How many trick fingerings have we used to contain that terrifyingly beautiful opening high G# in Daphnis et Chloe? I can count at least 3 but none have worked quite as well as the C# trill key. I have been eliminated from auditions in the past over the color and clarity of that single note without realizing that the solution to my problems was under my fingers the whole time. There are of course countless other pieces that require the use of a soft Ab or G# but simply for the clarity, intonation and ease of tone on the Daphnis flute solo, the C# trill key is well worth the investment. This key should be required for all professional (and non-professional principal seat) orchestral players.
  • Debussy C#: Use the C# trill key while fingering B natural, and you will sound a C# of a different color. This fingering produces an in tune C# (is that even possible?) with better resonance and a richer tone color. This is in part due to that fact the resistance of the note is increased with the addition of the key.This tip is magical and has changed the way I approach the opening solo in Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun. The difficulty in this solo lays not necessarily in breath control but more so in finding variety within the tone. This is often accomplished by producing a different tone color each time the melody returns to the suspended C# which is quite difficult due to the openness of the natural C# (this note is much like the flute’s version of an open string). The C# trill key gives us more control over the suspended C# in both the first and second octaves allowing a greater spectrum of tone colors to be explored. Bonus: You will no longer need to add additional fingers on your right hand to bring down the pitch of the C#!

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If you are an orchestral flute player, or would like to become one down the road, I highly recommend the C# trill key as an add-on to your instrument. If you are an amateur playing the flute for fun or a student just learning the ropes of flute playing, this key is not as necessary as, say, a D# roller, B-foot or a headjoint with a gold riser. At the end of the day the key is very useful for many of our most pesky trills and problematic notes. I plan to use the alternate fingering possibilities that the trill key offers when playing pianissimo G#/Ab on a much more frequent basis and experiment with the trills listed above that I have less experience using the C# trill key to produce. There is obviously more to this key than meets the eye and it will be interesting to see how composers utilize the key in future works. Will there be a C# Trill Key Concerto for Flute and Orchestra? Only time will tell.

C# trill

Do you have a C# Trill key? How often do you use this key and in what contexts? Do you recommend this key to your students? Have you found other uses for the key than those outlined above? Please comment below.

 

Happy Fluting!