Practice Blueprints – Poulenc Sonata

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


Today’s blog is the second posting in the Practice Blueprints series. This week I will be discussing the Poulenc Sonata (Available on 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!


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.


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!


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!


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.


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.


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.


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!


One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.