Welcome to another Flute Friday/Monday and the 5th installment of the Practice Blueprints series. Are you getting sick of these yet? I hope not!
Today’s blog will deal with Poem by Charles T. Griffes, a piece that tugs on the heart strings of anyone that meets it. At first glance, the form of the piece seems to be a lovely, straight-forward A, long B, A form or even an A, B, C, D, E, A configuration (what????), but if you think about the work in relation to the written word (it is titled “Poem,” after all…), it makes more sense as a plot summary; Exposition, Development, Climax, Resolution. The connection to poetry and storytelling in this work is what makes the Griffes Poem unique and not just another pretty-sounding piece. It is as if Griffes gave us the emotional interpretation of his poem without the words. Find the words! Find the story buried within the music and the piece will sing on its own. Keep this in mind as you chisel away at the various technical and musical challenges. The Griffes Poem is, after all, a single, cohesive idea tied together with changing transitions and textures.
Intonation. The opening and concluding key of C# minor is obviously not our favorite. The problem with this pesky key is that it exposes some of our most difficult notes to tune with a piano (or most other instruments, for that matter); C#, F#, G#, and my personal favorite, E natural. Tuner time!! Practice the opening 48 measures in slow motion with your tuner, examining the tendencies of each pitch. Are your G#s naturally on the sharp side? Are your E naturals flat? If you are a visual learner, or just need some additional reminders here and there, draw arrows up or down above important sustained pitches in your score. For example, in my score I have up arrows above the middle register E’s in measures 13 and 31, and down arrows above the C#’s in measures 18 and 23. There are also one or two trick fingerings that you may use as tuning shortcuts in this opening passage. For any sustained high or middle C#’s or C’s, which tend to be sharp, place all three fingers down on your right hand to bring down the pitch. If you find that this flattens the pitch too far, you may experiment by instead only adding one or two fingers on the right hand. Let your tuner, and your ears, decide how low you may go. Finally, for E naturals in the middle register, lightly vent the 2nd trill key with the right-hand ring finger to bring up and stabilize this otherwise flat note. Do not press the trill key all the way down or the pitch may go too far in the other direction. Practice this fingering with a tuner to get it just right. Finally, make sure that you are practicing this section with vibrato if you are using a tuner. Adding vibrato to a pitch often raises the pitch more than the straight tone pitch.
Breath Kicks. There are many sections in this piece that can run off the rails quite quickly. An intense and captivating work, it is very tempting to rush the tempo by sheer force of adrenaline. One of the ways to prevent this from happening is by placing breath kicks on notes falling on downbeats (to review: breath kicks are simply accents, added vibrato, or elongations placed on notes falling on key downbeats or subdivisions). The most critical section of the piece to add breath kicks is in the short, explosive cadenza from measures 108-115. Okay, okay – I realize this is a cadenza and you do have a bit of freedom to play the notes as fast or slowly as you want, BUT if you lose all indication of beat in this passage, you will likely confuse your audience and yourself. This cadenza is virtuosic, yes, but is not intended to simply play as a tornado of notes. There is still rhythm, collections of pitches, and, if you listen closely, an underlying melody. If Griffes had intended this cadenza to be simply virtuosic in nature, he would not have written a tremolo in measure 114: He would have indicated a trill. Make sure your audience can hear the difference between a trill and a tremolo (it is subtle but significant). Another great place to add breath kicks at the Piu Mosso in measure 183 through the Vivace at Rehearsal M. The music is spinning, getting faster and more intense with every passing measure. You will want to rush because it is exciting! Breath kicks here will prevent the allure of rushing, and anchor repetitive patterns such as those found in measures 202 and 208. They will also add a sparkle of drama to the craziness. After all, the climax of a story usually involves both craziness and loads of drama, otherwise you have a very boring tale.
Conduct and Play. The tempo is constantly changing in this piece. Don’t get too comfortable at quarter note = 120. You will need to plan out several accelerandos and ritardanos with your accompanist, making sure you are both consistently in agreement. A good way to keep your place as the beat changes is to conduct the beat pattern with the end of your flute as you play. In rehearsals, you may use larger beat patterns to help communicate with your pianist but on stage you will need to be less obvious, limiting patterns to a smaller circle detectable only to yourself and your accompanist. Practice conducting and playing particularly at Rehearsal M where a Vivace tempo quickly morphs into an accelerando at Rehearsal N, continuing through some very clunky fingerings in the high register that begin as slurred triplet figures and move into articulated 16th notes at measure 242. To prevent this passage from becoming completely unglued, practice conducting and playing slowly with your metronome. There are several technical and musical elements working together in this passage to create intensity. Do not let changes in tempo lead you into a panic.
That final C# tho…. When they go low, we go high. No. I am not talking about American Politics. I am referring to the final note of the piece – That sinister low C#. The work concludes on a terribly flat note in a terribly flat register with a terribly flat pianissimo dynamic. This note will most likely be flat. Rats! To counteract this natural flatness, push your headjoint all the way into the body of your instrument some time during the 3 measures of rest preceding the final entrance at measure 284. Make sure to also keep the dynamic soft yet centered and supported to prevent lowering the pitch as your air supply dwindles. Although it is one pitch out of many, it is the most important of the piece. It is the conclusion of the poem. The final kiss at the end of the story and the sun setting over the water. Make it a good one!
What are your tricks for tackling the Griffes Poem? Do you use alternate fingerings for some of the more problematic notes? Do you conduct and play? How do you keep yourself from rushing the tempo during intense, climatic moments? Please comment below.