BOOK REVIEW: The Top Octave Book – Playing with Artistry by Patricia George

Greetings and welcome to a new Flute Friday!

If you have been reading my blog lately, you will know that I am on a quest to get my playing chops back into shape after spending the past couple years writing a book. Part of this process involves facing the things that challenge me the most. My high register and I have had a complicated love/hate relationship from the very beginning. In my younger days, I was quite proud of my ability to belt out notes in the high register like an 80’s hair band guitarist (rock on!), however this was mostly to distract from the fact that playing softly in same range, with a decent center and focused sound, was definitely my Achilles heel. I relied on using more air to create more sound. Seemed like a simple principle at the time… As I morphed into a more advanced player, I realized that it doesn’t really work that way. Now as an experienced adult flute player getting her flute playing groove back, I am trying to redevelop the better habits I’ve picked up along the way and avoid the old standards that keep my high notes from singing as effortlessly as they should. I picked up a copy of Patricia George’s new etude book, The Top Octave Book, recently and found it to be a great resource to accomplish some of my nearest and dearest high register goals. In today’s blog, I will be reviewing this book, discussing, among other things, some of my favorite elements on the design of the studies, the creative warm-ups and exercises, and the flexible nature of the entire work (Please note: This is not a sponsored post. Just supporting a book I am enjoying). Thank you, Patricia George, for creating such as wonderful way to work on my Achilles heel!

Before I begin, I also wanted to mention that Patricia George will be hosting a Teacher’s Exchange workshop with the Chicago Flute Club this weekend (Sunday, March 6, 2022, 2:00-3:30 pm CST) where she will be discussing topics such as stance, setup, harmonics, teaching scales with tetrachords, and note-groupings. This is a virtual workshop and the cost to join is only $5.00 for non-members or free to Chicago Flute Club Members (that’s less than a drink at Starbucks!). The deadline to register for this class is tomorrow at 10:00 pm CST! Please visit the following link to sign up: https://www.chicagofluteclub.org/page-18192 (Please note: This is also not sponsored. I just really love these virtual classes offered through the Chicago Flute Club. I am a big fan of their Fluting with Stars series and hope that it continues into the future). Check it out!

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BOOK REVIEW: The Top Octave Book – Playing with Artistry

So, this is going to be less of a “review” and more of a list of things I love about this new book. As someone who has spent countless hours in the past drilling top octave patterns from Taffanel and Gaubert’s 17 Daily Exercises (particularly Exercise No. 1) and stress-practicing excerpts from works such as Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony and Peter and Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, this book has been like a type of therapy for me. I’ve learned to deconstruct my high register gradually while thinking about melodies in new, creative ways. If you also struggle with your high register, this is totally the book for you!

1.         Structure. As an ISTJ Myer’s Briggs personality type, I am addicted to structure. The Top Octave is organized in an easy-to-follow format that varies different types of exercises in a progressively difficult structure, complete with a guide-map on page 5 (“Practice Plan”) that explains what each of the five parts of the book intends to accomplish and recommendations on how much time to spend on each exercise. This, of course, will vary depending on your skill level. This structure reminds me of Walfied Kujala’s Vade Mecum but in a far more accessible way that can be used in each practice session without having to constantly shift between short exercises.

2.         Warm-Ups. There is an excellent Warm-Up section on pages 6-7 that includes a handful of simple, yet very effective, warm-ups for your high register. What I like the most about these is that they are short and super easy to memorize (this reminds me of some of the Trevor Wye exercises that I love and have used for decades). Word of warning – Do not be fooled by appearances. These are harder than they look (particularly double tonguing at the top of the range).

3.         Interesting Stories in Descriptions. I also really like the gems that can be found in some of the descriptions in this book. One of my favorites is Joseph Mariano’s idea of octaves as slices of bread and sound as the ingredients between these slices. Brilliant!

4.         Short, Clear Exercise Descriptions. I’ve often come across technique books that do not really give us an idea of how to practice an exercise or what the overall objective is. On the flip side, some books include so much descriptive material that nothing is really left up to interpretation by the performer (my way or the highway-type editions). This book offers clear, concise descriptions that give us a basic idea of how to approach the material (for example, some of the exercises in Part 3 indicate to play 8 bars, slurred in one breath, making it clear that breath control is the name of the game) but also allow flexibility to change it up by using various articulations.

5.         Barret Progressive Melodies (Part 5). The last section of the book includes 40 Progressive Melodies by A.M.R. Barret. These are wonderful high-register melodies that are short enough to practice one each day for more advanced performers. These remind me a lot of the studies in Marcel Moyse’s Tone Development Through Interpretation book (which is also a great companion book to The Top Octave). Many of these studies challenge the player to successfully play piano (p) in the high register, often at the very beginning of the work. This puts my Achilles heel front and center (no hiding, this time)!

6.         Seamless Octaves Exercise. There is an exercise in the middle of the Barret Progressive Melodies entitled, “Seamless Octaves.” This exercise serves almost as a reminder of the important fundamental skills and finger dexterity needed to successfully complete the book on, pardon the pun, a high note.

7.         Part 3 – Pair with Articulation Exercises. Many of the studies in Part 3: Advanced Top Octave Preparation, can be practiced with the same type of articulation exercises (aka scale games) that we use for Taffanel and Gaubert’s Exercise #4, particularly the Major Scales and Dominant 7ths. For ideas on scales games to use in conjunction with these exercises, please see my blog, Scale Games, Are they Really “Fun”? https://racheltaylorgeier.org/2013/05/28/scale-games-are-they-really-fun/

8.         Chunking. This book presents the concept of “chunking” (or note-grouping) in a very clear, easy to follow way, first with a great concise description of the technique on page 5 (“Special Challenges”), followed by scale studies organized in clear chunks (“Part 2: Top Octave Preparation.”). This is a great place to start practicing chunking if you, or your students, are new to the technique.

9.         Remember the Cork! There is a really good description on the importance of aligning your cork on page 2. We often forget about the cork and its role in helping the high register to pop.

10.       Simple Embouchure Exercise. There is a very simple yet effective embouchure exercise using just the headjoint on page 4. Again, this is something that simplifies the process of working on embouchure flexibility that can easily be memorized and used on a daily basis.

11.       Part 3 – Advanced Top Octave Preparation. I think this is overall my favorite part of the book! These exercises are all about using your embouchure, air speed, and airstream to balance your sound throughout the range while successfully using less air at the very top of the register. How else are you to get all 8 measures of each technical study in one breath? Very clever! Word of warning – Don’t be fooled by the easier studies at the beginning. The ones at the very top of the top octave are not easy! This is a great challenge but an obtainable one with practice. Pro Tip: Try practicing “snappy fingers” between each note (moving fingers deliberately and quickly – I sometimes refer to this as “robot fingers” to my students). This will help keep your technique fluid yet controlled while you place your primary focus on your embouchure and air control.

12.       Part 4: Phrasing Tips for 40 Progressive Melodies by A.M.R. Barret. This is my other favorite part of the book! Part 4 includes some really great ideas on how to add color and contour to phrases in Part 5 (Barret’s 40 Progressive Studies). I especially appreciate the discussion on using dynamic variations as a phrasing technique (this is a great description for students). These ideas make players think a bit more critically and creatively about the subsequent musical material. There is, after all, more than one correct way to color a phrase.

Thank you to Patricia George for writing such a great exercise book for the top register!! You are helping repair my Achilles Heel one top-octave scale at a time.

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Where can I purchase this book?

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Do you own a copy of The Top Octave already? Enjoying it? Do you also have a love/hate relationship with your high register? What are your favorite exercises and/or etude books to work on notes at the extreme high end of the flute range? Please comment below!

Happy fluting!

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