Greetings and welcome to a new Flute Friday/Sunday!
Today’s blog is a continuation of the Practice Blueprints – Repertoire 101 Series (Are you all still enjoying this series? Please comment below!). The Siciliano movement from Bach’s Sonata No. 2 in Eb major is an excellent introduction to Baroque repertoire and often one of the first pieces I assign to beginners just learning to subdivide sextuplets (they are really not as scary as they look). This piece was requested by one of my readers (thank you!) and I encourage anyone searching for practice blueprints on a particular piece to please comment below or send me a direct message so that I can discuss your piece on an upcoming blog.
There are a number of foundational components to this short movement that, when isolated, not only strengthen your performance of the piece itself but significantly improve your flute playing overall. As the kitten Marie observes in the Disney animated film, The Aristocats, “If you’re smart you’ll learn by heart what every artist knows. You must learn your scales and your arpeggios.” Keep the below guidelines in mind as you work your way through this piece and use them as forever exercises. The music does not end when the performance is over. Use the lessons here to gradually build upon your flute technique over time.
Practice your G minor and D minor scales. Much of this work centers around the tonalities of G minor and D minor, so familiarize yourself with all the different versions of these two scales in your daily warm ups (natural, harmonic, melodic minor variations). Your fingers and your ears will get used to hearing and playing familiar note patterns that directly translate to this movement. A good exercise to practice in conjunction with this piece is good, old Taffanel and Gaubert Exercise #4 from the 17 Daily Exercises collection. You will learn to work through a number of different types of minor scales and adapt to transpositions in and out of each scale. On the same note…
Also practice your G minor and D minor arpeggios. One of the things to understand about Baroque music is that, in general, what goes up (ascends) typically comes back down (descends) and this is done through the use of scales in conjunction with arpeggios. Therefore, it is important to familiarize yourself with both during your daily warm ups. A good example of this type of writing can be found at measure 8 where a pattern of ascending broken chords, primarily in F Major, is followed by a melodic g minor descending scale. To save yourself some time and headache, I urge you to simply write the name of the scale or chord above where it appears in your music and devote some of your warm up time to mastering those harmonic patterns. Taffanel and Gaubert Exercise #10 and #12 are both excellent warm ups to strengthen your skills in these areas. Add these to your practice routine as you learn this movement.
Lift the crown of your head slightly up to “reach” higher notes. The melody of this short movement often contains higher notes that seem to jump out of the texture and if you are not prepared, these notes create a sound equivalent to wearing a tube top in church – completely out of place. To give these notes a bit of grace and balance, work that mind/body connection and use the top of your head to lift your neck and head to achieve proper posture. This will enable your air column to open and produce a note with excellent resonance. Try this for the first four measures of the movement to balance out your sound for a much more effective performance
Ask yourself, “Where are these 16th notes leading?” All of the passages written in 16th notes are always trying to lead to a more suspended downbeat or melodic fragment. Picture these phrases as arrows and circle the notes where the arrows lead. Intensify the line as it approaches each landing note. Remember that in this movement the melody is key. Everything else is merely decoration (and lovely notated arrows) that lead us back to the melody.
Bring out the leading tones. Bach creates tension in this movement by including a number of suspended leading tones that briefly resolve before moving on to the next musical idea. In a subtle way, he dares his listeners (and performers) to embrace the uncomfortable longing that these notes create in the texture. Therefore, it is very important to emphasize these pitches and, with a sprinkle of strategically placed vibrato, intensify the sound on suspended leading tones. These can be found particularly in measures 17 and 18 and again at measures 27 and 28.
Do not forget to dance. Remember that the Siciliano was a dance movement characterized by lilting dotted figures in a compound meter. March to the larger duple beats as you practice this piece and, if you feel brave enough, even dance around your practice room to these beats to capture the style of the music. Marching and/or dancing will also help iron out any rhythmic difficulties that may arise (such as holding notes a bit too long or resting too long after a sixteenth note rest).
Identify opportunities to sneak a breath after a downbeat. Bach does not leave a lot of time to breathe in some of his flute sonatas, but he does hint and places where the melody temporarily resolves enough before the next musical idea, giving us flutists an opportunity to add a Rampal-esque sneak breath. For example, at measure 13 the melody almost always seems to pause on the downbeat of the beginning of a 16th note continuation. These are perfect places to sneak in a very quick breath before moving on. These breaths fit quite well into the natural configuration of the melody and are nearly undetectable to your audience. To ensure that you do not take too long of a breath, shorten the downbeat just enough to inhale a small bit of air. You do want to resolve the cadence, but you also still want to move the music forward.
Keep your volume and tone quality even throughout the dipping and meandering scales. This movement is a very subtle exercise in tone flexibility. Practice retaining volume and sound quality throughout the registers by reviewing Taffanel and Gaubert’s Exercise No. 10 from the 17 Daily Studies. This exercise will lead you through similar patterns in every major and minor scale under the sun. Focus on keeping your low register resonate while balancing your higher register with a calm yet sparkling sound. This will translate perfectly to the Siciliano and create a much more even and centered sound through the movement.
Have you performed this movement before? What were your challenges? Have any of the techniques in today’s blog worked for you? Do you have other techniques that you like to practice in relation to this piece? Please comment below!