Welcome to a new Flute Friday/Sunday/Weekend!
We return this week to another installment in the Practice Blueprints series. The Muczynski Sonata for Flute and Piano is a bizarre, but not quite off the tracks, genre of work that appeals to the budding flutist wanting to do something a bit different from the norm. Before diving into the piece, however, you must be prepared to put your rhythmic skills to the test. Count, then count, then count some more and count differently from what you know to be “correct.” But don’t let me scare you! Once the counting is under control, there are moments of grace and vitality that make the piece introspective at times and exciting at others. I often joke with students and colleagues that the Muczynski Sonata for Flute and Piano must have been written for or about a person falling under the Scorpio astrological sign due to the juxtaposition of extremes and “stinging” surprises (and syncopation that, at times, recalls the creepy scurrying of an insect such as a scorpion or spider). This piece appeals to anyone who finds themselves wanting to express something different from the politeness of a Bach Sonata or the over-the-top virtuosity of the French favorites. If you march to a different drummer (one that switches from 6/8 to 4/4 to 3/8 and back to 3/4 with strange syncopations in between), the Muczynski Flute Sonata will speak directly to your unique, if not unconventional, personality.
But where to start…? Looking at the score is a bit confusing as it is not quite clear what the composer is trying to achieve even within the first movement. Today’s blog will help point all of you working on this sonata in the right direction to iron out some of the work’s technical potholes. Elbow grease is required and patience is necessary. Once the foundation is set, however, the piece evolves into the flute’s equivalent of an 80s rock ballad. Can’t you just hear Slash playing some of the patterns from the final movement on his 12-string? I know I can!
Practice this music with SmartMusic accompaniments. One of the trickiest elements of this piece is knowing your piano cues and figuring out just how your part interacts with the piano. There is a reason that the piece is titled Sonata for Flute AND Piano. The piano accompaniment does not simply play a supporting role in this scenario but acts as an equal partner that you will be communicating with in moments of rhythmic instability. When I was learning this piece in college, I literally locked myself in a practice room with a SmartMusic setup for hours at a time just trying to listen and understand how everything fits together, particularly in the 1st and 4th movements. It is one thing to read the score and see how the notes work themselves out but it is quite another to play what is written when the harmonic foundation is not so straight forward. The inner movements are a bit more stable rhythmically speaking so they will take less time to master than the outer two. SmartMusic will help you go over the tricky bits within the privacy of your practice room, saving precious rehearsal time with your accompanist trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together.
Think bigger beats when time signatures create rhythmic confusion. Okay, I must preface this by saying that you will need to subdivide EVERYTHING, of course. But, if you get lost in the subdivisions, you will most likely get run over by the steam engine of notes in the piano part. Remember that element of grace that I was referring to in the beginning of this post? It is not just reserved for the tranquil 3rd movement but in the larger melodies that exist between notes in the complicated bits of the outer movements. For example, 6 measures before rehearsal 37 in the 4th movement is a bit strange because what you see on the page is a measure that should be written in 6/8 (based on how the note stems are grouped) followed by a couple of measures in 3/4 and a strange lyrical measure that seems to drift into a slower 3/8. WTF?? Muczynski, get a grip, dude! Why not count the entire phrase in larger downbeats? Doesn’t that make more sense to the larger musical picture? Uhm, yes! First step – work out your subdivisions. Second step – find the big beats. Third step – play the music.
Breath kicks are your friends. I have discussed breath kicks in previous blogs, but for those new to my blog, a breath kick is simply an accent you place on the downbeat to establish where the beat actually is (helping both you and your pianist stay on the same page as the music flies by). You can do this by simply adding an air accent on the beat, elongating the downbeat slightly, or by placing a bit more vibrato on the most important, anchoring notes. Breath kicks will save your life in this work. Placing a breath kick on downbeats will help you establish where the beat is when the beat is constantly changing throughout complicated time changes. For example, opening measures of the 1st movement may not necessarily change according to time signature but do feature a variety of syncopations and changing rhythms. If you look closely, Muczynski gives us hints as to where to place these breath kicks with the indication of accent marks. Use these but also add a few of your own when switching from triplets to 16th note patterns. Another section to add a few breath kicks is at rehearsal 17 in the opening movement where the time signature changes almost every measure. Breath kicks here will ground the rhythmic figures and help you communicate the beat clearly with both your pianist and your audience.
Conduct the (ever-changing) beat with the end of your flute. Yes – you can, in fact, conduct and play the flute at the same time (whaaaat???). Practice conducting simply 2,3, and 4 beat patterns with the end of your flute while you play. It will take a bit of practice to feel confident doing this while playing difficult repertoire but if you can master it, this is one of the best pieces to practice conducting and playing. The beat will change. The subdivisions will change. The notes to emphasize will change. BUT if you are conducting in small motions with the end of your flute while you play, you will not get lost. You may even understand why the measures are barred the way they are and why Mucyznski wrote a measure that appears to be in 6/8 over a 3/4 time signature.
You still need to be in tune for the 3rd movement. Do not let the craziness of the opening movements make you disregard intonation. Sure – the music moves along mostly in “stinging” interjections and brief moments of moving melody, however the 3rd movement requires an altogether different approach. Practice the opening measures of this movement with a tuner and be prepared for that low D at measure 31. The piano joins you on the low D and if you are out of tune, everybody within a 20 mile radius will know it. Practice playing both piano and forte dynamics with your tuner in preparation for the 3rd movement because if you are out of tune, the piano will unintentionally expose you at rehearsal 33 and again at 34. You know how the dentist is always telling you not to neglect your gums? Well, along the same lines, do not neglect your intonation when performing this piece. The 3rd movement will expose your cavities if you are not careful.
Have you performed Muczynski’s Sonata for Flute and Piano? What rhythmic elements did you struggle with and what did you do to iron those parts out? Have you practiced this piece with SmartMusic? How did you start your own practice of this work? Please comment below.