Practice Blueprints – Bach Sonata No. 4

Welcome to a new Flute Friday/Monday. I am very happy to announce that I have relocated my flute studio to Waldport, Oregon and am currently accepting new students. Please contact me if you are in the Newport/Waldport/Yachats area and are searching for a flute instructor. I also offer Skype lessons for those of you residing outside of the area. Please contact me for scheduling and availability.

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Today’s blog is the 3rd installment in the Practice Blueprints Series and, as promised, I will be covering a piece written outside of France. Bach’s Flute Sonata No. 4 in C Major is a work embraced by baroque flutists and performed by classical flutists young and old. Revered for its melodic simplicity and relentlessly spinning 16th notes, this sonata provides an interpretive blank canvas for a performer to experiment with different combinations of dynamics and articulations. As we have discussed in other works in this series, the Bach Flute Sonata in C Major is another great piece to practice various double-tonguing articulations, chunking, and experiments in tone color contouring. The following is a series of practice suggestions to help you get started on this sonata, refine elements that you may already be struggling with in your daily practice, or find new ways to use what you already know to further strengthen fundamental of technique. I often tell my students that Bach is like the Beyoncé of classical composers and I hope that by the end of this post you will understand why.

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Pulling Taffy. When I was learning to play this sonata in my youth, my flute teacher at the time told me to approach the opening Andante as if I were “pulling taffy.” I understood what this meant on an interpretive level, but when the time came for me to articulate the same concept to my students, I wanted to make sure I had a way to explain the idea of “pulling taffy” to a left brain dominant learner. How do I approach this interpretation from a logical rather than sensory position? The answer was in the slurs. The slurs in the opening Andante outline the individual lines of taffy that you must stretch and, as on a traditional taffy pulling machine, the true stretch occurs in the middle of the line formed by the end rollers. Using rubato as our musical taffy puller, begin each slurred grouping at tempo, slowing the tempo slightly in the center of the slur, and gradually returning to the starting tempo by the end of the slur. Not every slur needs to follow this pattern so you may pick and choose which taffies you will stretch and which will simply serve as pick up figures to the next taffy grouping.

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Trills. The traditional, tried and true approach to baroque trills still applies to this sonata. (And you thought you could escape!) Begin all cadential trills from the note above, trilling slowly at first and gradually speeding up as you approach the resolution of the trill. You may have more time on certain trills than others, therefore it is important that you time your accelerando appropriately. For example, you have more time to trill the E to F trill in measure 4 of the opening Andante than you do before the concluding D to E trill in measure 10 leading into the Presto. Stretch the trill in measure 4 to create a slower accelerating and more profound trill with the time you are given. Bach also provides us periodic clues regarding where to emphasize the stretch of a trill. For example, in the Adagio movement, eighth note grace notes are placed on the note above a longer trill in measures 2, 5, 11, 12, and 13 indicating that a longer, natural stretch is to be placed on this initiating note.

Tongue stops. Word of warning: The Presto mid-way through the opening movement of this sonata always seems to come out of nowhere. It is the Bach “Surprise,” gotcha moment of the piece. It is sometimes difficult to switch so quickly between the tranquillo mood of the opening to the frantic tone of the Presto, but a good way to prepare yourself is to set up a light, staccato articulation using tongue stops. A tongue stop is literally adding a consonant to the end of your articulation to stop the note and prepare the tongue for the next note in the sequence. This technique comes is quite handy when playing extensive staccato passages written in speedy tempos (I’m looking at you, Saint-Saens). The easiest way to practice this is by using the syllable “tut” or, if double tonguing, “tut-kut.” Using these syllables as tongue stops throughout the Presto will lighten up the entire line, making it much easier to play at faster speeds.

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2nd Movement Fun! Egg Shakers. Some of you may remember my post on how to use an egg shaker to iron out longer passages of moving notes. The 2nd movement of this Bach Sonata is the best exercise to practice your egg shaker technique. It is very easy to rush these running 16th as the entire movement is built on the concept of perpetual motion. You may find yourself rushing the opening measures but dragging when the going gets tough in the B section beginning in measure 21. Practice your 16th note technique away from the instrument by practicing 16th notes on an egg shaker with your metronome. Using a back-forward-back-forward shaking motion from the wrist, practice graceful yet decisive movements between notes rather than tensing your wrist between shakes. You will find that practicing this technique away from the instrument will help you translate the same grace and consistency to your flute playing.

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2nd Movement Fun (Continued)! Coos. In each of the pieces we have already discussed in the Practice Blueprints series, there has always been a section of music that can be used to practice various articulations. This is the Mac Daddy of all movements to practice double tonguing. I use the second movement of the Bach on a daily basis to practice “coos” and “uka-tuka”s. Memorize this movement! Change up the articulation each day and add it to your collection of warm-ups. Practice “duc-ky”s, “doo-goo”s, and, if you want a challenge, “tuk-ka-dug-ga-rug-ga-yug-ga.” (Good luck on that one!) In the end, you will have the movement permanently stapled in your brain and your double tonguing will be effortless.

2nd Movement Fun (Continued)! Chunking. Are you sick of this movement yet? Don’t be! This is one of the most versatile movements in all of flute literature and can be used to practice some of the most basic fundamentals. Chunking is another easy thing to tackle in this movement. Chunking is essentially the art of breaking longer stretches of rhythm into smaller, bite-sized pieces that the brain can process one at a time. Determine your “chunks,” place pauses between each chunk, practice the chunks individually, and finally, when you are ready, put the phrases back together as written. The below is an example of how you may start to break up your chunks. You may choose to place your chunks on different notes but as long as you keep your chunks short (3-4) you will be able to achieve the same effect. Chunking keeps longer stretches of music exciting and consistently moving forward.

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Get Creative with Dynamics. You may notice that Bach seldom indicates dynamics in his works that are not what we refer to as “terraced” dynamics. Terraced dynamics, in a nut shell, are when entire sections of music are marked in piano dynamics, juxtaposed against sections marked forte (sort of like seeing the world only in black and white terms). It is often up to the performer to add their own dynamics based on their interpretation of the music. Listen to the score with a recording and mark any natural places where you might crescendo into a climatic point of a phrase or diminuendo toward a resolution. You may also be on the lookout for phrases that repeat or present themselves in sequences. These are ideal times to add your own terraced dynamics between the two phrases to differentiate melodic ideas. For example, you may add a forte in measure 27 of the opening movement followed by a piano in measure 28. Measure 28 is a sequence of measure 27 therefore using dynamics to separate these two similar, but different, musical ideas keeps the melody interesting and the music moving forward. Where else can you experiment with dynamics? There are no right or wrong answers if your choices reflect your interpretation of the score.

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Be Brave and Add Ornamentation to a Straightforward Melody. Minuets I and II at the conclusion of this Sonata present ideal opportunities to add your own baroque sparkle to an otherwise static melody. A good practice is to perform the melodies as written the first time through and on the repeat sprinkle a few trills, turns, or short scale-wise runs on longer notes. As with adding dynamics, adding ornamentation is essentially up to the interpretation of the performer. You may want to listen to other recordings of Baroque pieces written for other instruments (harpsichord, violin, cello, etc.) or research Baroque styles of ornamentation before selecting the types of special effects that you wish to insert. I, myself, prefer trills and turns as they can easily be added to most notes to emphasize their importance in the line. Whatever ornamentation you chose, ensure that the figures conform to your interpretation of the melody and are selected with purpose (improvisation can be tricky in Baroque music and may take time, practice, and patience to formulate).

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There are numerous approaches to this work and countless articles written by Baroque scholars on how to properly perform Bach Sonatas per traditional performance practice. I am not unfortunately not a Baroque scholar but I hope that the above suggestions at least give you a starting point as you begin your foray into Baroque music.

How do you approach Bach Sonatas? Have any of the above tips helped you to improve your performance? What other suggestions do you have to approach this flute sonata or similar flute sonatas written by Baroque composers? Please comment below!

Happy Fluting!

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