Welcome to another Flute Friday!
Earlier this week I began practicing the Chaminade Concertino, a piece that has been collecting dust in my music collection for several years now. It is always surprising to me whenever I practice music I have not touched in a long time how performance struggles that existed before seem to vanish into thin air but are instantly replaced with new struggles that a younger version of myself took for granted. As I was practicing some of the more technical passages in the vivo section, I noticed how easy it was to fake my way through the chromatic runs (something I tell my students NOT to do) and rush the trill fingerings now that I am a bit more comfortable using them. The articulated 16th notes and sextuplets that follow also tend to rush as I explore faster tempos and new uses of rubato. I began thinking about creative ways to solve common technical issues such as rushing and realized that there are a number of tools and techniques I have at my disposal as an adult that I did not have when I was studying this piece in my younger days. Today’s blog will address some of the approaches you may take if you are struggling with technical passages or simply rushing overly familiar music. “Woodshedding” is nothing more than a return to basics. Dial down your metronome and pick a new rhythm to rejuvenate what is old with a fresh, new perspective.
Slow it down. This is a time tested, tried and true technique that all of us have used but some of us forget to practice in moments of panic. If you are having trouble with a technical passage the first thing to do is dial back your metronome to half the written speed. Once you feel comfortable playing flawlessly in that tempo, move your metronome up a couple of clicks (this works best if you have a dial style metronome but you can also just increase the tempo by 10 or so beats on a digitized or app style metronome). As you feel comfortable playing flawlessly in this tempo increase gradually until you arrive at the written tempo. It may take you a few days or even weeks to feel comfortable at the written tempo so do not lose heart if it is taking longer than you had hoped to play your music perfectly. Stay the course and practice in slow motion.
Change the rhythm. If your music is written in never ending 16th notes, practice the passage instead in triplets. If the music is written in sextuplets (like the ones in the Chaminade), practice the passage instead in 16th notes. Change complicated triplets into 8th notes. Your ear will be uncomfortable but your fingers will be easier to control when you remove the terrifying rhythmic stimulus. When you change the rhythm you are simply isolating the note patterns away from the written rhythm, learning the phrase one step at a time.
Chunk it. Several weeks ago I wrote a blog on how to practice your music in chunks. https://racheltaylorgeier.org/2015/11/21/chunky-monkey/ Examine your music for natural mini-groupings of notes (for example, typically a group of four 16th notes includes a 16th note down beat while the three remaining 16th notes lead to the next downbeat). Practice your chunks slowly placing long rests in between each grouping. This will help you to think of your passage not merely as one long, “difficult” line but as a series of interconnected mini musical chunks. Our brains prefer smaller units of information (as do our fingers).
Dot it. Change all rhythms to dotted 8ths/16ths in French Overture style. This is another variation on changing the rhythm but will also enable you to march to the beat stabilizing both the notes and rhythm. Select a nice walking tempo for your passage (an easy 72 or march-like 88 will suffice) and march to the beat (left, right, left, right) as you perform your passage in dotted rhythms. This is quite literally boot camp for your technique.
Snappy Fingers. This is a spin off technique of “slow it down” and helps train your fingers to move swiftly between notes. Set your metronome to half the written speed of your excerpt. Play as written but move your fingers as quickly and deliberately between each note (I sometimes refer to this to my students as “robot fingers” as the movements are so snappy they often resemble robot fingers playing the flute). This will train your fingers to move quickly between each note making your technique much tighter at higher speeds.
Transpose it. This is not my idea but one developed by a past flute mentors. Transpose your passage to a different key (C or F major are good keys to start out with). This technique will help you to hear your passage in new and exciting ways and enable you to find ways to emphasize certain notes over others. If you can play the passage in Eb major, chances are good that when you return to B major, the notes will be easier to play and you will have a new understanding of how each note relates to another.
Insert Breath Kicks. This is a great practice if you are like me and like to rush through your scales. Place a small emphasis on the first note of each downbeat or the first note in each grouping. This can be done by adding the smallest amount of vibrato to a note, inserting an accent or elongating the note falling on a down beat slightly more than the surrounding notes. This is a great practice in the vivo section of the Chaminade for the sextuplet chromatic scales to ensure that each grouping of 3 is clearly heard within the texture.
How do you like to work on technical passages? How do you take apart excerpts that rush into chaos? Do you have a favorite method to breaking phrases apart and putting them back together? Please comment below.