Practice Blueprints – Serenade by Howard Hanson

Welcome a new Flute Friday (actually posting on a Friday this time!).


Today’s blog is the 4th installment of the Practice Blueprints Series, addressing the wonderfully passionate, sometimes creepy, and always scale-happy Serenade by Howard Hanson. I find in my old age that I need a few cups of coffee and a Red Bull to perform this piece with the same vigor and energy that I had at 18. Hanson demands intensity and persistence. Anything less and this piece plays like a Taffanel and Gaubert style concerto of scale exercises (*yawn*). To quote Kid President, “Anyone can be boring, but you’re gooder than that.” The sparkle in this work can be found in moments of melodic simplicity (they do exist!). Contrast these sections with the volcanic scale explosions found in climactic phrases using variations in vibrato speed and tone color to give this piece the extra bit of drama it deserves. Do not be fooled by the innocent 3-page format. Hanson certainly packs a ton of notes in the little ditty. Buckle your safety belts. Stretch your wrists. Loosen your fingers. Let’s get ready to rumble!


Beware! The opening entrance is disorienting. “But, why?” you ask, “It’s just a bunch of 8th notes.” Looks can be deceiving, my friends. The piece opens in A minor and the pick-up note to beat 2 of the opening measure actually begins on a tonic A played in octaves in the piano part, resolving on beat 2 to a C, the third of the scale. This is significant because what appears to be a pick-up in the score in fact sounds like a solid downbeat. This is a compositional trick to disorient the listener. Not only is it awkward to feature an opening pick up note on the tonic of the scale but to begin the introduction on beat 2 rather than beat 1 is a bit jarring. The flute entrance in measure 3 of this work is also quite strange as it begins at the conclusion of the third repetition of the piano’s opening phrase. Okay, you’ve been warned! Be ready. A good way to prepare for this opening weirdness is to play both parts along with a recording to train your ear to listen to the melody rather than count the beats. Better yet, find a friend to play the piano melody and practice entering on the final high G natural in the third phrase with your entrance on the A in bar 3. Finally, as good practice and really one of the best investments you can make for your own practice on this and future pieces, sign up for a Smart Music subscription. Smart Music includes a piano part to this piece that you can practice over, and over, and over, and over again. I cannot tell you how many times I have started and stopped this very track to train my brain to listen to the melody rather than search in the dark for the “true” downbeat.

Learn Your Scales. Yes, I know this is obvious advice for anyone just glancing at the score, but it is imperative that you have your scales under your fingers, particularly in the high register, because they will fly like the wind in this piece! Practice slowly with a metronome to avoid rushing. A handy trick to save some time and brain power is to write the name of each scale in your score. For example, beginning with the pick-up to 4 measures after Rehearsal 3, instead of squinting at the notes in each run, simply write “E major” above the entire phrase. All 3 runs in this passage are in the key of E major. The virtuosic scales at Rehearsal 5 appear terrifying but look a bit closer. The scales stay in A major for 3 lines!! Simply write “A major” above this section and half of your work is already done. Analyze any passages written in scales for these and other shortcuts and you will come to find that the work is not as difficult as it appears.


Trill Fingerings are your Friends. Another great shortcut in this piece is to find places to substitute trill fingerings in place of standard, clunky, high register fingerings. For example, 2 measures before Rehearsal 3 can be simplified by using the trill finger for higher the G# to A rather than standard fingerings. The same concept can be applied 2 measures before Rehearsal 10 where trill fingerings can be used on the high E natural, D#, C#, F, E, D, C, G, F#, E, and D. The notes in this work often move so quickly that substituting a trill fingering will not adversely affect the quality of sound. Save your fingers.


Use Breath Kicks to Keep Track of the Beat. A major concern in pieces such as the Hanson Serenade, which features long strings of technical passages, is that it is very easy for a performer to lose the beat in an effort to play all of the notes on the page. You may find yourself slowing down during the easier scales and rushing the more complicated bits while your accompanist listens very carefully to place their downbeats somewhere in the general vicinity of your spinning scales. Help yourself and your accompanist by adding breath kicks, or slight accents or elongations, to only the notes falling on the downbeat. Practice this, for example, 1 measure before Rehearsal 9. This passage is very repetitive and packed with notes. Place breath kicks on each of the Bb’s falling on the downbeats in this measure. You may do this simply by adding vibrato to these notes or holding out the note slightly longer than the notes surrounding them. Used in this passage, breath kicks will help you retain a steady beat while adding the necessary bravura to the fast-moving passage.

Use Rubato with Caution. Unlike some of the works we have looked at from the French Flute School, this piece is draws it’s intensity not from artificial rubato added by the performer but from persistent undercurrents of rhythmic motion. If you wish to add bits of rubato for dramatic effect, apply them sparingly. Longer melodic phrases, such as those found at the beginning of the work, are good places to experiment with rubato, but do so without disturbing the rolling motion of the accompaniment.


Have you performed this piece and if so, what helped you tackle some of the most challenging phrases? Have any of the above tips helped you streamline technical elements in this piece? What do you find most challenging about the Hanson Serenade and how do you think we can simplify the work? Please comment below.


Happy Fluting!


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