Month: October 2016

Practice Blueprints – Poulenc Sonata

Welcome to another Flute Friday! Hope all of my Northwest readers are braving the rain and wind successfully. Stay safe!

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Today’s blog is the second posting in the Practice Blueprints series. This week I will be discussing the Poulenc Sonata (Available on Amazon.com: Sonata for Flute and Piano (Music Sales America)), a seminal work from the French flute canon, loved and performed by flutists all over the world (I promise next week I will discuss a work from somewhere other than France!). Many intermediate level flutists are attracted to this work for its beautiful, sweeping melodies, often juxtaposed against brief, but impressively virtuosic, technical passages. In typical sonata fashion, this work features 3 movements in the traditional fast-slow-fast form. Although each movement is structured fairly differently, the practice techniques discussed below can be applied across all movements. Unlike the Hue Fantasie from last week, this is a good example of a piece that appears to be simple on the page, but is actually riddled with “gotcha!” technical moments that may throw the faint of heart for a loop. Never fear! Dr. G is here! The practice suggestions below are a bit more straightforward and compact than last week because this work is based on shorter units of ideas rather than longer, larger concepts. I hope today’s blog helps those of you presently working on this piece find easy ways to approach the score in the practice room by breaking down phrases that may have had you stumped. Don’t worry – we have all faced this wolf in sheep’s clothing at one time or another and lived to tell the tale. You will too!

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Movement 1 – Allegretto malincolico

The High E Trick – The Poulenc Sonata begins with a 32nd note, 4 pitch, pick-up figure to the primary melody in the opening movement, beginning on a dreaded high E. Ugh! With the exception of the high F#, this is probably the trickiest note on the flute because it has a terrible tendency to crack, even under the best conditions. The same figure appears in various transpositions and abbreviations throughout the first movement, therefore controlling that pesky high E is of the utmost importance (and you thought you could fudge it just a little bit longer! We all did…). An easy trick that one of my Interlochen teachers taught me back in the day has helped me and many of my students master this note and provide it with the grace it deserves for execution in this piece. Simply place your right hand pinky between the low D# and C# keys on the foot joint, pressing both at the same time, while using the standard fingering for the high E. This gives the note more stability through the use of an added vent, preventing it from cracking. Try it!

Trill Trick – Another ornamental device used heavily throughout the Poulenc Sonata, and found consistently here in the opening movement, is the trill. Some trills are obviously easier and less taxing than others but many of the trills included in this piece are quite tricky. A good way to approach any trill is to focus your energy and strength on the higher note of the trill. For example, if you are trilling from a mid-range G to a mid-range A, squeeze the muscles in the finger holding down the A key (left hand, middle finger) with more force than the other fingers. This frees up tensions in the ring finger trilling the G, helping you to produce a faster and more effortless trill. This technique is not as straightforward on some trills and you may find yourself temporarily deferring your tension to the right hand pinky D# key to free up trilling fingers for trills on notes such as C# or B natural. This is perfectly fine and will produce the same effect. Just be sure to release the tension placed on this finger after the conclusion of the trill.

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The Return of Light and Quick Articulation – It wouldn’t be French if it did not require some type of light-as-air articulation markings! The Poulenc Sonata includes a number of double tonguing passages that are marked with the same ominous slashes through already fast moving notes that we saw last week in the Hue Fantasie. The same techniques can be applied to practicing these passages including using coo’s, uka-tukas, and chirps. The ever-so-slight difference between the articulations in the Poulenc and those in the Hue is that the Poulenc requires a more connected, legato style double tonguing to match the lyrical quality of the melody. To achieve this, first practice the line by removing the slashes and simply playing the melody underneath the articulation. Pretty, no? Next, add your doo-goo’s. The “doo-goo” articulation will connect the articulated notes closer to each other than a standard “too-coo” or even “duc-ky.” Remember not to hold your breath while you are double tonguing these short passages because you will need your air to connect each note. A good practice is to keep the dynamic a bit softer than marked to ensure that you use your air effectively until the end of the phrase. Specific phrases that may be practiced in this fashion include measures 45-48 and measure 37.

Remember your Scales – I hate to sound like a broken record, but the melodic section between Rehearsal 8 and Rehearsal 12 is based on scales. The primarily difference between these scales and the ones that we examined in the Hue last week, are that these tend to morph from major to minor over the course of a phrase rather than staying primarily in a single tonality. For example, the phrase beginning at Rehearsal 8 starts clearly in F major but quickly modulates to what seems like D minor in measure 75, A minor beginning in measure 76, and F minor in measure 78. Bracket these sections with the name of the scale to save your brain and fingers the headache of trying to figure out the notes when you get there. Analyze the rest of this brief, melodic section and half of your work will already be done for you!

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Movement II – Cantilena

Return of Singing and Singing/Playing – I know, I know – Singing your part is difficult and embarrassing. But when you are playing a piece of music that is as beautiful as the Cantilena, how can you not sing? Sing through the melody beginning from measure 3 of the movement and then translate that beautiful connection between the notes onto your instrument. For more of a challenge, and if you want to further embarrass yourself, attempt to sing the melody and play the notes at the same time. *Head explosion!* This technique takes some work and major patience, but the effect is even stronger than simply singing alone. I like to practice these off the wall techniques whenever my husband is at the golf course and no other living being besides my cat is within ear shot. Weird but highly effective!

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Duck Lips – No, I am not talking about taking a flute selfie while you pay the 2nd movement (although if you must, I invite all duck face selfies to my blog). Playing in the high register requires a very strong embouchure that directs a smaller, more pressurized air stream out and downward to prevent sharpness (okay, I mean, MORE sharpness to an already sharp register). When you bring your lips slightly out, forward, and down, you produce exactly this type of embouchure and create the dreaded duck face.  Don’t be hatin’ the duck face! The duck face, as it pertains the flute playing, helps to produce a more resonant, darker high register that responds much easier to alterations in dynamics. The 2nd movement of the Poulenc Sonata is Duck-Face-Palooza. Create your best duck face when playing this movement and you will also create your best sound quality in the high register.

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Pedal to the Metal – Have you practiced your flexibility exercises lately? This movement is somewhat like a very slow version of a Trever Wye style flexibility exercise with notes that stretch from the lowest register to the high register and back quite quickly. You must have a flexible embouchure, yes (which you can strengthen on a daily basis by drilling the flexibility exercises found in Trevor Wye’s Practice book on Tone as well as by practicing Exercises 10 and 12 in the Taffanel and Gaubert Daily Exercises), but you must also learn to use your air in a way that allows each note to organically grow out of the other. The best way to practice moving your air quickly yet efficiently from the low to the high is to think of your air as a gas pedal. You cannot go from 20 miles per hour to 60 miles per hour on the highway all at once. You must, instead, gradually add pressure to your gas pedal until your speedometer tells you that you have reached 60 mph. The same idea applies to your air. For example, in measure 7, the phrase in the middle of the bar begins on a low F and makes its way over 2 beats to a high Db. Begin this phrase on the low F (20 mph) and slowly increase your air pressure until it reaches the appropriate amount to sound the next Bb (30 mph), D (40 mph), Ab (50 mph), and finally Db (the 60 mph). As the saying goes, when you visualize, you materialize. The connection between these notes will be stronger when you use the pedal technique, ultimately making the phrase much easier to execute.

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Movement III – Presto Giocoso

Chunk it! – Holy High Registers, Batman!!! Are you ready to move those fingers?? Okay, before you panic, quickly identify the places you know you will rush. The obvious culprits are measures 11, 19, 26, and 34. The most effective way to iron out these sections (and practice not rushing) is to chunk the notes into smaller bite-sized pieces, practice the chunks individually, then put it all back together again after your fingers and brain have had the opportunity to figure out how each pattern works. For example, practice chunking measure 26 by placing rests after the first 3 16th notes and after the following 3 16th notes. Practice the figure slowly, resting where indicated, and increase the tempo until the separate figures fall perfectly under your fingers. When you put this passage back and play as written, you will be able to hear the natural break in the chunks which will also help you to not rush the phrase. Use this chunking method to practice the other technical phrases in this movement. Your pianist, and your audience, will be grateful!

Articulate the Beginnings of Each 16th Note Groupings. – The subtitle of this movement should read something to the effect of, “How well can you NOT rush this music? I dare you!” Repetitive 16th notes are very easy to rush but Poulenc helps us out in the 3rd movement of his Flute Sonata by including slur markings only above each group of 4 16th notes (with a few minor exceptions). Requiring the performer to place an articulation over these notes, rather than slurring them all together, deliberately slows down the music and prevents the possibility of rushing. Follow these slurs! An example of this type of phrase is found at Rehearsal 15, extending through measure 160. It might be tempting to slur the entire passage to connect the figures and provide some added elegance to the music. Fight this urge!!!! Slurring the figures together will lead you to rush the phrase. There is a reason that Poulenc included the slurs in this passage. Do what you can to fight your creative instinct and simply adhere to the music as written. The phrase will sound more intense and rhythmically accurate.

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Create a Story for Mood Changes – There are several mood changes in the final movement of this Sonata. From the heroic opening, to the intense middle section, the melancholy Subito le double plus lent at Rehearsal 16, to the past memories of the opening movement at Rehearsal 17, the ultimate heroic return followed by the brief melancholy recollection at measure 227, and the final stately “THE END”, this movement is a story all on its own. One of my favorite exercises to assign my students is to create a story for the music they play. This helps them to establish a high individualized sense of intrinsic, interpretive meaning. I venture to guess that having a story like this to connect to the music will also help you make musical sense of the different sections within this movement. Be creative! Your story doesn’t need to make sense to anybody else but you! Find a way to make the music fit to a soundtrack of your life. There is a difference between a performance by a performer just playing he notes on the page and one from a performer who understands what the notes on the page truly mean to them. It’s up to you to find the difference.

What other practice techniques do you use for the Poulenc Sonata? Have any of the above tips worked for you? Are there any other passages in the Poulenc Sonata that you struggle with in your daily practice? How do you address these struggles? Please comment below!

Happy Fluting!

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Practice Blueprints – Hue Fantasie

Welcome to a new Flute Friday/Saturday! I would like to welcome all of my new Facebook friends and followers from music communities around the world to my blog. Hope you enjoy my weekly posts!

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Today’s blog is the first in a new series that I will be featuring on Flute Friday affectionately titled, Practice Blueprints. In these posts, I will discuss a few different ways to approach sections from some of the most famous and widely played flute works. I will not analyze the entire piece per say (I will leave that up to you J), but instead suggest practice methods for a handful of the most technically difficult or melodically important phrases in the piece. My goal with this series is to provide those of you just picking up these pieces a “blueprint” on how to tackle the score in the practice room. If you have any suggestions for other works you would like me to discuss in this series, please comment below or email me at racheltgeier@gmail.com. I welcome all requests!

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I will begin the Practice Blueprints series with a discussion on Georges Hue’s Fantasie pour flute et orchestra (Available on Amazon.com: Fantaisie and Serenade: For Flute and Piano: 0 (Kalmus Edition)). A piece cherished by millions, the Hue Fantasie is a good example of a piece that appears more difficult on the score than it actually is to perform on stage. At first glance, the opening page is covered in ink, leading many to, how do I put this eloquently, run for their lives. 32nd second notes for several measures are followed by a terrifying articulated section, complete with slashes crossed through sextuplet 16th notes that seem to say, “I’d turn back if I were you” (Here I am reminded of the wooden sign posts from the Haunted Forrest in the Wizard of Oz…). After a brief melodic section (refreshing), the insanity of the opening page returns briefly at Rehearsal 5 and then back to a dramatic melody 5 measures after Rehearsal 6. A creepy dotted section follows after Rehearsal 8 that gives way to another chromatic, meandering melody at Rehearsal 10. This melody continues in various transpositions until Rehearsal 17. Here we find a gradual tapering of dynamic and speed (and a return to the familiar scale-wise motion of the opening measures) that gives us a moment of zen before the dramatic closing climatic coda surprises us at Rehearsal 18 (time to wake up Grandpa!). For the final cherry on top, the work concludes with an ornamented high Bb, because it is French and that is typically how the French say “The End” (aka with a little added drama).

Are you scared yet? Don’t be. There are very easy ways to break this work into several workable sections and, with a little bit of analysis, make those scary 32nd notes fall gracefully under our fingers.

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Find the Scales. So much of this piece is based on scales. Time to pull out the old Taffanel and Gaubert and start drilling! The opening 8 measures are in the key of Eb Major and move primarily in scales with a few broken 3rds here and there to provide some depth to the melody. Using a pencil, bracket this section with a note indicating “Eb Major.” Before attempting to play these few measures, practice a 2 octave Eb Major scale. Not that difficult, right? After a very brief, 2 measure foray in G major (a nod to the Romantic obsession with transposing a melody up or down a major third), the second half of the opening page is primarily in F major, with a few sprinkles of D minor thrown in for a clever, and surprising, harmonic effect. Bracket this, again, by denoting “F Major” over most of the section, and D minor over the 2nd and 3rd staves from the bottom of the page. Practice simple 2 octave scales in both F major and D minor in preparation for this phrase. Isolating these scales under our fingers prior to launching into the work prepares us physically for the virtuosic passages that lay ahead but also trains our brain to quickly identify sections of scales and key changes, enabling us to anticipate and maintain composure. It’s just a scale. You can play scales!

The same scale theory can be applied to practicing the overtly chromatic melodies beginning at Rehearsal 8 (marked “Tres vif”). Upon close examination, this entire section from Rehearsal 8 until Rehearsal 15 is entrenched in chromatic figures of all shapes and sizes. Taffanel and Gaubert have a few decent chromatic scale exercises, however an easy way to practice chromatic scales is simply to begin at the lowest note and play chromatically up to the highest and back down again in a slurred pattern. Set your metronome to a reasonable tempo and move the dial up by one click each day to quickly master the chromatic scale. Practice your chromatic scale each day before attempting to perform this section of the music. You will find over time that the notes fall quite easy under your fingers, making this stretch of the score quite simple, and enjoyable, to play.

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Test your double tonging chops. The French are renowned for their lighter-than-air articulation. In the French tradition, the Hue Fantaise contains a number of phrases denoted with articulated slashes through the notes, requesting a light articulation from the performer. These are perfect phrases to use to practice all of the clever double tonguing articulations in your proverbial toolbox. For example, practice the selection located 4 measures before Rehearsal 2 using first a “coo-coo” articulation, followed by some “uka-tuka”s, and finally practice your unarticulated chirps (sound produced using only your airstream). In fact, make this a daily exercise! When you put the phrase back together with your standard double tonguing syllables (“too-coo,” “doo-goo,” or my favorite, “duc-ky”), you will easily produce a much lighter and balanced articulation over the notes in this selection. Other sections of the score to practice with these alternative syllables include the pick-up to 7 measures before Rehearsal 15, and 7 measures after Rehearsal 16. Turn these phrases into opportunities to create your best impression of Rampal-eque French tonguing. Your audience will be impressed and your music will be reminiscent of one of those perfect French macrons that we all pay too much for at the bakery.

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Sing through the melodies. No, I mean it. Literally. Sing. Through. The. Melodies. I was horrified the first time my flute teacher asked me to do this during a lesson and even more so when he asked me to sing in front of my peers, but the payoff was well worth the fleeting embarrassment. There is so much extra “stuff” in this piece (from the cascading scales to crisply articulated passages) that it is quite refreshing when the music features a beautiful melody. I often joke that this piece has multiple personalities! Cherish the moments when the music slows down and highlights something sing-able by singing the syllables of the notes (A, B, G, F#), or, for a challenge, the solfege (I know, I know….it’s a challenge). If you would like to test your creativity and give a more personal meaning to the notes, come up with your own words to the music. The translation of singing the melody to your playing is remarkable! The melody will literally become personalized and it will suddenly be clear how each note connects to the other and how all notes connect to the larger picture. The best phrase to literally sing through your notes is found after Rehearsal 2 through the downbeat of Rehearsal 5. Sing it loud and proud! Then play. Create magical melodies! (Corny, yes, I know. But highly effective!)

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Use breath kicks to prevent rushing. As I mentioned before, much of this work is based on scales and other repetitive patterns. It is, therefore, very easy to rush through your lines and consequently leave your pianist in the dust (not cool!). This can be prevented by placing a breath kick, or small accent or vibrato emphasis, on any notes that fall on eighth note or quarter note downbeats. Breath kicks are like mileposts along the highway, or, for my more athletic inclined readers, mile markers by the side of the road during a marathon, as they help remind you, your audience, and your pianist, where the beat falls. A very good place to practice adding breath kicks to a phrase is 4 measures after Rehearsal 6 where a chromatic scale ushers in the dramatic reappearance of the melody in the high register. If you get there before your pianist, your audience will know for sure that you rushed the phrase (embarrassing), and your pianist will be steamed (rightly so). Placing breath kicks on the notes falling on downbeats in this phrase will keep you from rushing and create a more dramatic, and measured build-up to the climax in the next measure. (Yay! Great success.) The same practice can be applied to other “build-up” phrases within the work including the chromatic phrase located 5 measures before Rehearsal 12, and the virtuosic broken chords at the beginning of the coda section at Rehearsal 18. Adding breath kicks throughout the work will anchor your rhythm both in the practice room and on stage as you perform this incredible piece in front of an audience.

Have you performed the Hue Fantasie? What are some of the passages that challenged you the most? What practice techniques did you use to address the above problems or other issues not mentioned in this blog? Please comment below!

Happy Fluting!

101 Tips and Tidbits for the Aspiring Classical Musician

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