Greetings and welcome to a belated Flute Friday/Saturday.
I was blessed with relatively straight teeth. With the exception of one tooth in the back that grew in wonky from the beginning (requiring a crown later in my teenage years), my teeth have been low drama. I know that I am not the norm. I watched many of my friends and family members struggle with braces in my youth and have seen my own students struggle with them in my adulthood. I received an inquiry on my blog several years ago to discuss how best to approach the flute with braces. Wishing that I had a better frame of reference from the player’s perspective, today I would like to share a few tips that I have gathered from the teacher’s perspective. Braces are not easy but keep in mind that in most cases they are not forever. And the best part is that your embouchure will be even better by the end which often makes your sound even better than it was pre-braces.
What Happens When the Braces Go On.
Your lips will have some serious gymnastics to perform as they must now extend beyond your braces. You may immediately notice a loss in lip strength and flexibility which, in turn, may make your sound a bit more difficult to produce. Your mouth needs time to adjust and your lips need practice moving slightly more forward. If you have a naturally “smiley” embouchure, you may have an even more difficult time fighting against the tendency to pull the corners of your mouth back which, with braces, can be very painful. The bottom braces also make it difficult to place the headjoint in the ideal spot.
What You Can Do to Make Playing with Braces Less of an Obstacle.
A good place to start is by practicing getting your lips around the braces to shape the aperture. Practice blowing through a narrow coffee straw to form the aperture. When this becomes more comfortable, move to practicing just on the headjoint.
Be patient with your sound. Your sound will be airy while your embouchure builds back strength. Spend some time playing through long tones and octaves to slowly re-build these muscles. Octaves in particular will help build embouchure flexibility.
Do smaller, more frequent amounts of practice. You do not want to tax your developing lip muscles too much with longer practice sessions.
Practice in front of a mirror or record videos of yourself playing. This will help you see how you are positioning your lips. You may be holding yourself or the flute in ways that cause more harm than good.
Make sure your embouchure is relaxed. A tight embouchure may lead to the metal digging into your mouth (ouch!).
Practice in short sessions with and without the topical wax on your braces. You may find that the wax helps your lips and vice versa. Find what works for you.
Experiment with your blowing angle. Try aiming your air toward the ceiling and then toward the floor. Again, find what works for you. Remember that in general the lips should cover the tone hole approximately 25-30%.
Try placing the flute lower on the lip. This is just a good tip in general (with or without braces). We all have a tendency to play too high on the lip. Bringing the flute down will help with both sound production and intonation.
If you have a “smiley” embouchure, practicing harmonics will help as they require the lips to move out and forward.
Use this time to focus less on your sound and more on technique. This is a great time to focus on your scales and etudes. Your fingers are not connected to your braces (that’s the good news!). Practice all of those technical bits that don’t necessarily need a great sound to execute.
Other Things to Keep in Mind.
Make sure your teacher knows that you will be getting braces. They can help you come up with a game plan. Teachers – work with your students on that game plan using some of the tips from above.
Schedule putting on your braces at a time that doesn’t conflict with any major performances or auditions. Summer break is great for this. Can you schedule during the summer break?
Having braces often improves your sound after they are taken off because your embouchure is stronger and the extra space in your mouth creates more resonance.
Did you ever play the flute with braces? Do you have students struggling to play with braces? What does your braces game plan look like? What are the biggest challenges? What are the best changes that occur when the braces come off? Please comment below!
I was performing in a masterclass in college when I was first introduced to the Rockstro position. No, this is not some weird yoga move. The Rockstro position is an approach to holding and balancing the flute that takes the pressure off the fingers while improving the center of the sound by aiming the airstream closer to the outside edge of the tone hole. As a performer that has always tended to play on the sharp side of the pitch, the Rockstro position immediately improved my sound and intonation while helping correct some of my bad habits (such as putting too much pressure on the outer edge of my left-hand index finger). In today’s blog, we will look a bit more closely at the Rockstro position – What it is, where it came from, how to do it, and the possible benefits to applying the Rockstro or Modified Rockstro positions to your daily routine.
THE ROCKSTRO POSITION
What is it? The Rockstro position originates from Richard Shepherd Rockstro’s treatise, A Treatise on the Flute (1980). Part of the Rockstro approach involves positioning the headjoint relative to the rest of the flute so that the headjoint is rolled inward while the body of the flute is rolled outward. The tone hole in then aligned so that the far-left side aligns with the center of the keys. The left index finger then comes more under the flute to form a shelf while the right thumb slides to the back of the flute. This balances the flute on three different points: 1.) The lip plate pushing against the chin, 2.) The left index finger “shelf”, and the 3.) Right thumb at the back of the flute which guides the flute forward against the pressure of the lip plate pushing against the chin. The support of the instrument therefore falls in a triangle formation between the left index finger, right pinky, and the right thumb.
Benefits. The Rockstro position relieves some of the pressure on the left index finger and the tendency to grip the flute too much with the right hand. It also takes the pressure off the lower lip while freeing up the fingers so they move more fluidly between notes. The sound is also bit more responsive as it is easier to aim the airstream to the tone hole, creating more center to the sound and, in some cases, producing a darker overall sound while increasing embouchure flexibility. This is great for players that tend to play on the bright side. It is also great for those of us that veer sharp and the natural tendency of the position will lean under the pitch. This of course means that you may have to correct other pitches that tend to fall on the flat side. Word of warning: Try to avoid pulling the corners of the mouth back as this produces a buzzy, forced sound. The Rockstro position is also great to combine with placing the lip plate slightly lower on the bottom lip.
The Modified Rockstro Position. The Modified Rockstro position is discussed in books such as Music and the Flute by Thomas Nyfenger https://amzn.to/3zwxKgY and The Flutist’s Progress by Walfrid Kujala. https://amzn.to/3O9PEKw In the Modified Rockstro, the tone hole is placed somewhere between centered with the keys and far-side aligned. The left index finger is more under the flute than to the side, but not quite forming a shelf. The right thumb is placed halfway between under the flute and around the back of the flute. Finally, the right pinky does not press down as hard in the Modified Rockstro, making it easier to lift without losing the balance of the flute. This is a great compromise if you want some of the benefits of the Rockstro position without compromising the balance between the triangle of support points.
Where did the Rockstro position originate? The Rockstro position was not new when Rockstro discussed it in his treatise. This positioning was the traditional approach of flutists prior to the introduction of the Boehm flute. In fact, in his treatise, Rockstro references historians and performers such as Quantz, Devienne, Berbiguier, Drouet, Dressler, Lindsay, Tulou, Nickolson, and Coche as proponents of the approach. He even quotes Drouet’s Methode by stating, “The flute should be supported by the. . . . first finger of the left hand; by the thumb of the right hand, and by the lower part of the under lip. It is necessary to practise holding the flute perfectly steadily, and supported only by the three points indicated above, so that when it is placed to the mouth every finger, with the exception of the right hand thumb, may be free to move without endangering the steadiness of the instrument….” The tip of the thumb should be pressed against the inner side of the third joint of the flute, between the fourth and fifth [of the six open finger-] holes.” (A Treatise on the Flute, Rocktro, Page 424) He continues to cite the following individuals as supportive of moving the right-hand thumb to the back of the flute: Tromlitz, Tulou, Walckier (Tulou’s pupil), and Drouet.
Famous performers that use the Rockstro Position include James Galway, Susan Milan, Geofrey Gilbert, and William Bennet.
I have used and loved the Modified Rockstro for many years and often experiment with the full Rockstro from time to time. The key is to experiment to find the position that works best for you. If the Rockstro throws off your sound and your equilibrium, it may not be for you. If you are a sharp player, then you might give it a go. Bottom line, experiment and find the best approach for your unique flute style.
Do you use the Rockstro or Modified Rockstro position? What were your experiences with the approach? What do you find most beneficial in using the Rockstro position? What is most challenging with this position? Please comment below!
Welcome to a very much belated Flute Friday/sorta Solo Sunday combo blog.
When I was just starting to learn to play the flute, back in the days of cassette tape recorders, I loved to practice duets by recording myself playing the 2nd lines so that I could play along with the top line on playback. I mostly did this for fun but it also helped me to prepare both parts, as was typically required at my flute lessons, and memorize some of the trickier entrances and cues. I noticed a couple of years ago that some of my colleagues were making amazing videos of themselves performing duets, trios, quartets, and even entire flute choir pieces in a single video. How cool! I finally looked into this for myself and tested out a couple of apps that made this possible. In today’s blog, I will be reviewing three acapella apps to create these types of Do-It-Yourself Duets (not sponsored – although I should be). These are great to use for fun, as assignments for your students, or as a handy way to perform small ensemble pieces on various social media outlets.
1. TOP CHOICE – Acapella. This app was super easy to use! What I love about this app, aside from how user-friendly it is, is, unlike the other apps, you can set it to record in durations from 15 seconds to 10 minutes. I also really like that the countdown timer appears very large on your screen so you know exactly when the recorder is set to start, which makes timing your entrances easier. Finally, this apps give you a number of choices when it comes to saving the final product. If you do not want to publish immediately to social media, you can save to your My Photos folder and post later. There is also a great trimming feature so you can edit anything out from the beginning and end of your video and you can also add interesting filters and fun boarders. The bummer is that it is not free (*enter sad violin music). This app will cost you $9.99/month after a 7-day trial. I still think it is worth it if you enjoy creating these types of videos or would like to encourage your students to create videos of their own. I was able to easily create a short video featuring Mozart’s “Non so piu” from The Marriage of Figaro:
2. DO NOT RECOMMEND – Riff. This app seemed user-friendly at first. You may only record up to 1 minute on the free version but the custom timer on the paid version of the app ($1.99/week after a 7-day trial) does not have a max. The countdown timer is not nearly as clear as the Acapella app and it does not let you add cool filters and boarders. What I found to be the automatic fail in my book was they delay in playback. I recorded the same Mozart duet with this app in the same way as Acapella, but the playback on the top line was delayed slightly, which unsynced the version of the piece that I was playing along with. Below is the recording of this video using Riff (warning – this video is horrible due to the delay in playback):
3. DO NOT RECOMMEND – Mixound. I couldn’t even get this app to work! There is no countdown, no settings for the time limit, and certainly no filters or boarders. Totally not user-friendly. You don’t even know that the video is recording when it is on! I don’t even have a terrible sample to share with you because this app was such a flop. Do not recommend.
So the clear winner is Acapella. I will likely keep this app and record more extensive duets in future Solo Sunday videos (although, I guess it would be more like Duet Sunday). Get ready for a future Doppler Solo Sunday! Here is another short video I was able to throw in using the Acapella app (featuring Blavet’s Tambourin)
What acapella apps do you use? Do you have a favorite? Have you had success with any of these apps in the past? Share your stories (and your videos) below!
Greetings and welcome to a new Solo Sunday! I am switching things up a bit today with a video featuring a piccolo solo (who doesn’t love the piccolo, am I right??). Today’s solo is a newer work by Hong-Da Chin entitled Mimosa for Piccolo Solo (2009) and yet another piece I fell in love with in preparation for a contest earlier this year.
From the composer, “Mimosa is any of various mostly tropical herbs, shrubs, and tress that have globular heads of small flowers with protruding stamens and usually bipinnate, compounds leaves that are often sensitive to touch or light.” The direct translation of Mimosa from Chinese is “shy grass.” It is named “shy grass” because the leaves are very sensitive to touch and when the leaves are touched, they would close to protect the plant. This particular character of the mimosas was the inspiration of the piece.” (Hong-Da Chin)
I hope you have all enjoyed this Solo Sunday series! I will definitely be continuing it in future weeks. Please let me know if you have a request for a piece to be featured on a future Solo Sunday or, if you are a composer, have a work that you would love for me to program on a future blog.
I don’t know about you but I am drawn to transcriptions of violin works on the flute. Perhaps it is my love for romantic music and the dreams I had of being a soloist in my younger days. Or perhaps I am just curious about the way the same music sounds on different instruments using different tone color palates. In today’s blog, we will sit back, grab a cold drink, and enjoy a handful of the most famous transcriptions of violin works, comparing various videos/recordings from renowned soloists on each instrument. What do you think are the biggest difference between transcriptions? Please comment below!
Probably the most famous of the transcriptions, the Prokofiev Sonata actually started as a flute sonata that was later transcribed for the violin. The Flute Sonata in D was completed in the summer of 1943. At that same time, Prokofiev was working on music for “Ivan the terrible”. The flute sonata in D was first performed in Moscow, Russia on December 7, 1943 by Nicolai Kharkovsky (flute) and Sviatoslav Richter (piano). It was later transcribed for violin in 1944, by the composer with the help of violinist David Oistrakh as Op. 94a. The violin version was first performed by David Oistrakh (violin) and Lev Oborin, Piano, on June 17, 1944.
According to the Carolyn Nussbaum Music Company website, “Cesar Franck’s Sonata for Piano and Violin is one of the most treasured works in the violin repertoire, a masterpiece of cyclic form with a gracefulness and expressive force almost paradigmatic for the age of musical Romanticism. This work was composed in 1886 and was dedicated to the Belgian violinist and composer Eugene Ysaye. After Franck’s death in 1890 the original publisher of the Sonata, the Parisian house Julien Hamelle, announced an arrangement of the work for flute in 1910. However it has not been possible to locate any copy of this publication. That the flute version of Franck’s Sonata has found a permanent place in the chamber music repertoire is primarily the achievement of Jean-Pierre Rampal who frequently performed his own arrangement of the work. There were no idiomatic violin techniques to overcome, and the cantabile solo part, with its broadly arched melodies, seems perfectly natural on a wind instrument. The present flute arrangement largely adopts the original violin part unchanged, merely transposing those passages that go beneath the flute s range. In such cases the change of register begins early enough to avoid disruptions to the melodic line and the musical context. The balance between the solo instrument and the (unaltered) piano accompaniment remains intact.”
Introduction et Rondo Capriccioso by Camille Saint-Saëns
The Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso was originally intended to be the rousing finale to Saint-Saëns’ first violin concerto Op. 20, though its success as a solo composition at its first performance led Saint-Saëns to publish it separately. The premiere took place on April 4, 1867 at the Champs-Élysées, with Pablo de Sarasate playing the solo part and the composer conducting.
Paganini Caprice #24
Caprice No. 24 in A minor is the final caprice of Niccolò Paganini’s 24 Caprices, and a famous work for solo violin. The caprice, in the key of A minor, consists of a theme, 11 variations, and a finale. His 24 Caprices were probably composed in 1807, while he was in the service of the Baciocchi court. It is widely considered one of the most difficult pieces ever written for the solo violin. It requires many highly advanced techniques such as parallel octaves and rapid shifting covering many intervals, extremely fast scales and arpeggios including minor scales, left hand pizzicato, high positions, and quick string crossings. Also, there are many double stops, including thirds and tenths. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caprice_No.24(Paganini)).
Mendelssohn Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64
According to Calvin Dotsey, “During the summer of 1838, Felix Mendelssohn wrote to his longtime friend and collaborator Ferdinand David: “I should like to write a violin concerto for you next winter. One in E minor runs through my head, the beginning of which gives me no peace.” Indeed, it would not give him peace for another six years, when he at last found time and inspiration amidst his busy concert schedule to complete it. He consulted David regularly throughout the composition process regarding violin technique and, ever the perfectionist, continued to make minor adjustments to the concerto unto its premiere in Leipzig on March 13, 1845. Composed at the height of Mendelssohn’s brilliant career, the concerto became an instant classic and remains one of the cornerstones of the repertoire.” https://houstonsymphony.org/mendelssohn-violin-concerto/
According to Daniel Jaffé, “In 1939 Khachaturian heard first-hand for the first time Armenian folk music and singing, elements of which infused the melodic writing in his Violin Concerto composed the following year. Working closely with the Soviet Union’s star violinist David Oistrakh, he completed the Concerto in just over two months in the summer of 1940. Much of the work’s character was enhanced by Oistrakh’s suggestions; indeed, the violinist rejected Khachaturian’s original long cadenza in the first movement, replacing it with a masterfully composed version of his own.
Possibly due to its direct, lively and melodious character, Khachaturian’s Concerto has all too routinely been underestimated. Yet for all its ebullience, most apparent in the opening and final movements, melancholy never seems far away. Perhaps the Concerto’s heart is to be found in the twilight world of the central Andante sostenuto, one of whose themes derives from a funeral song Khachaturian originally composed for the film Zangezur (1938). For all its bitter-sweet quality and the cool Gymnopédie-style opening, there is a sense of grief that is finally unassuageable, met with a strikingly bleak ending as the soloist’s final sustained A flat remains at odds with the orchestra’s chillingly implacable A minor descent. Yet the work ends with one of the most ebullient finales in concerto literature. No wonder the Concerto became so popular during World War Two, its mournful slow movement speaking so eloquently to a people resisting a brutal invasion, followed by this brisk and ultimately optimistic conclusion.” https://www.boosey.com/cr/music/Aram-Khachaturian-Violin-Concerto-in-D-minor/3465
Sonata in E-flat Major, Op. 18 by Richard Strauss
According to John Henken, “Strauss was also an accomplished pianist and violinist, and it shows in the idiomatic virtuosity of the Violin Sonata he composed in 1887 (premiered the following year). The composer was only 23 at the time, but he already had behind him a substantial body of abstract instrumental music, including two symphonies, two concertos, two piano trios, a piano quartet, a string quartet, and a cello sonata, as well as dozens of songs. The Violin Sonata was completed just before Strauss began his first burst of tone poem creation – Don Juan, Death and Transfiguration, Macbeth – and it often presages the densely woven, highly interactive texture of those works, although it would be just as apt to remark that the tone poems continue the instrumental brilliance of the earlier abstract pieces. The nobly aspiring outer movements remind us that E-flat was also to be the key of Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life), as it was of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony. Consummately crafted, they have a refined sparkle that overcomes the dark intrusions with confident energy. Strauss had already come to regard sonata form as a “hollow shell,” but one that he filled here with characteristic thematic ebullience and sophistication. The first movement shifts meter freely for different themes, and even has the two instruments playing in different meters at one point. The Finale begins with a hushed, premonitory prelude for the piano, before launching the energetic main theme, which is closely related to the opening (and emphatic closing) of the first movement. It is emotionally and technically turbulent, but relatively stable harmonically and metrically until Strauss shifts into the triple-meter variant in C-flat presaged by the piano introduction. The Violin Sonata was composed the year that Strauss first met the soprano Pauline de Ahna, whom he would later marry, and it is not hard to hear suggestions of romantic ardor in the lush lyricism of the work. This is particularly true of the rapt, long-breathed Improvisation, the Andante cantabile middle movement, which proved so popular that Strauss allowed it to be published separately.” https://www.laphil.com/musicdb/pieces/3483/sonata-in-e-flat-major-op-18
What is your favorite violin transcription? How do you think the flute transcription compares to the original violin work (besides the obvious fact we cannot perform double stops, chords, or pizzacato)? Are there any violin transcriptions that should be added to this best-of list? Please comment below!
Today’s video, El Bachiano by Raimundo Pineda, is a newer piece (2017) and a spicier spin on the famous Bach Partita. I worked on this piece late last year in preparation for a competition and absolutely fell in love with it. Doesn’t it just make you want to dance? Well, that is the point (see the description from the composer below). 🙂
Enjoy! And as always, happy fluting!
From the composer: “The Bachiano was written for the Venezuelan maestro Jose Antonio Naranjo, pillar of the flute school in my country. When I was a child, I was his pupil. He taught me to love, among other things, the traditional music and to make it an inseparable part of my identity as a musician and as a person. The first part of the piece is a Venezuelan national dance (Joropo) with Bach style, with melodic twists that makes us remember the great German genius. Though it’s possible to execute thinking about the tempoes of a baroque dance it’s necessary to have in mind that the Joropo is a dance, in which the tempo must not be very slow. The central part is very calmer, like a melancholic fantasy, if it’s wanted. This interlude slowly shows the Joropo up to leading it in the middle of acelerandos and spasms to the awaited refrain, where the music acquires a very much faster tempo in which the singers of the Venezuelan east improvise comparing their talent with the mandolin players and the performers of the “cuereta”, type of accordion that it’s a leader voice in the oriental folk music of Venezuela. The virtuosos arpeggioes tests the ability of the improvisers and take the dancers to the paroxysm.”
I am in the process of purchasing a new flute. Part of this process is selecting the best headjoint for my own playing style and everything that goes with that (the good, the bad, the ugly, and the not-yet-discovered). We sometimes underestimate the power that a headjoint has to transform our sound in new and exciting ways. The type of metal used can brighten or darken the sound and even the cut of the embouchure hole can modify the projection of certain registers. In today’s blog, we will look at some of the basics of headjoints. Bottom line: a headjoint will sound different for different players. The best approach is to gather your list of sound wants/needs and try everything. The perfect headjoint may not look the way you expect.
Density vs. Stiffness – The material of a headjoint is based on two elements: Density and stiffness. Density refers to the amount of matter in a given space. For example, if an element has a large amount of matter, it will have a high density. Stiffness refers to the tendency of a material to resist being compressed. Different metals will have different degrees of density and stiffness. These differences result in different types of sounds on each type of headjoint. The sound of the flute, after all, originates in the headjoint.
Embouchure Components – Headjoints have two embrochure components: A lip plate and a riser. A riser is the piece of metal that holds the lip plate to the flute. These can be the same material as the headjoint itself or a combination of materials.
Material – There are five primary types of metals that headjoints are made out of:
Nickel – Nickel is most commonly used on student model headjoints. Although some describe the sound as fuzzier and less clear than sterling silver headjoints, others characterize the sound as crisp and bright. This metal has a low density and is very resistant. The downside is that it often causes allergic reactions.
Sterling Silver – Sterling Silver typically contains 92.5% pure silver combined with other metals for structure. As described on the Burkhart website, silver creates a “sound with classic brilliance. Silver has the ability to produce a balanced sound with projection and shimmer.” Silver headjoints are known best for their pure tone, and light, fluid sound that offers more sparkle than their gold and nickel counterparts.
Gold – Gold darkens the sound and is often described as having a “warm” tone. A gold headjoint can add new dimensions of colors at an affordable price. Denser than silver, the combination of a gold lip plate and a gold riser puts the gold at the exact tip of the blowing edge, producing a richer sound. Even just a gold riser can add a degree of color to a silver headjoint.
Platinum – The Burkhart website describes platinum as delivering “stunning richness and depth.” Known for free-blowing fortes and subtlety of color, platinum headjoints add projection and help facilitate softer dynamics in the high register. Perfect for the orchestral player for blending with other instruments.
Wood – Although less common, wood headjoints are used primarily for baroque music. Although some players criticize wood headjoints as being difficult to produce a clear tone on, they are great to use in chamber music settings to blend with other period instruments.
Embouchure Hole Size and Shape – The size and shape of the tone hole can also effect sound, even within different registers. A larger tone tole will produce a bigger sound while a smaller tone hall will result in a sweet sound. An oval shape is better for high register sensitivity while a rectangular shape produces strong middle and low registers.
Blowing Edge – The cut of the blowing edge will also impact sound depending on how much resistance is given to the airstream. This also effects the ease of articulation. Players that use a lot of air tend to prefer a headjoint offering less resistance while players who struggle with articulation in the middle register gravitate towards a blowing edge with more resistance.
Crowns – Crowns are often made from the same material as the headjoint, effecting sound in the same way. Some players use crowns with various stones for decoration. Regardless of material used in the crown, the material of the cork generally remains the same.
Tips for Selecting a Headjoint:
Identify your flute playing strengths and weakness with your teacher. What are you looking for in a headjoint? How do you want to change your sound? Write out some of the things you’d like to address and consult with a specialist at an instrument retailer. They will help you identify certain headjoints with materials and cuts that address your specific needs.
Try out a variety of headjoints using different materials with and without risers. Explore the range of your options.
Consider where you perform the most. A headjoint can help you produce a sound that best fits your chosen performance scenario. For example, soloists need a headjoint to help them project while orchestral players gravitate towards a headjoint that helps them blend with other instruments.
Write down 1-word adjectives when trying out different headjoints to help quickly compare the pro and cons of each. This is also a great task for your teacher for a second opinion. What headjoint sounds best to you? Which one sounds best to your teacher? Which sounds best on a recording? A handy list will help make your final decision a lot easier.
Again, bottom line: Try everything. Finding a headjoint is like finding a perfect haircut. It has to work for your unique playing style and no two players are exactly alike.
What type of headjoint do you prefer and why? How do you select your perfect headjoint? Any noteworthy headjoint selection experiences? Please comment below.
Greetings and welcome to a new Solo Sunday! Today’s video is Kokopeli for Solo Flute by Katherine Hoover. I love this piece because it sounds haunting and almost ethereal, like walking into a forest on a misty evening – You know there are secrets in the tress but cannot see the path in front of you. Spooky!
As Glen Walker explains, “According to San Ildefonso legend, Kokopelli was a wandering minstrel who carried songs on his back, trading new songs for old ones. According to this legend, Kokopelli brought good luck and prosperity to anyone who listened to his songs. Kokopelli embodied everything pure and spiritual about music. He and his magical flute traveled from village to village bestowing gifts and spreading cheer to all whom he visited. His flute was said to symbolize happiness and joy. When he played his flute, the sun came out, the snow melted, grass began to grow, birds began to sing, and all the animals gathered around to hear his songs. His flute music soothed the Earth and made it ready to receive his seed. The magic of his flute was also thought to stimulate creativity and help good dreams come true.” http://www.indigenouspeople.net/kokopelli.htm#:~:text=According%20to%20San%20Ildefonso%20legend,pure%20and%20spiritual%20about%20music .
Some moments in our flute lives end up living permanently in our memories, often teaching us valuable lessons much later down the road. As a sophomore in high school, I was super excited to be selected to play principal flute in the Idaho All-State Orchestra, however, as just a simple farm girl from the sticks, I had never been in an orchestra. Intimidated was an understatement! Although the first couple rehearsals were difficult, by the last rehearsal I was feeling a bit more on top of my game – Until the conductor decided to flip the script. The final rehearsal ended with a group improvisation. The conductor narrated a story, periodically pointing at principal players to improvise a melody or play a specific part from the music by only alluding to the phrase in his story. I did not know the first thing about improvising and wanted desperately to hide under a bass drum and hand my role over to my second in command. I thanked my lucky stars every time the conductor pointed at other section leaders. I tried to listen carefully to his story, but my own anxiety closed off the sensors between my ears and my brain. Suddenly it was my turn. I stared across the ensemble to an authoritative index finger pointed in my direction. I had to improvise something but instead froze. I didn’t know the rules. I wasn’t confident without a score to rely on. I was very much out of my element. I chose instead to play one of my solo passages and he moved on to the next player. I was embarrassed and confused. What is improvisation? How do we do it? What does it mean to just play what your ears want you to play? I have never forgotten this fear of the unknown but over time I have learned to embrace the freedom of creative expression offered by improvisation. In today’s blog, I will offer a few suggestions on how to practice improvisation. Ditching the rules is not really as scary as it sounds! You might even be surprised at the music just waiting to escape from your soul.
Tip No. 1 – Improvise over a drone. The drone can be as simple as a sustained piano chord or a sustained pitch played by a friend or student. This could be quite a fun activity trading drones with other instruments such as an electric guitar or a contrabassoon. Several years ago, I recorded a video demonstrating this technique with one of my students. Check it out here: https://youtu.be/9snmnlKojV8 (sound quality is a little bunk but recorded on 2014 technology – I am also 50 pounds heavier in this video, but the demonstration is still good!).
Tip No. 3 – Pick one scale each day and set a timer. Make improvisation a super easy addition to your daily routine by focusing on one scale per day and improvise for a set time only using the notes of this scale. Remember the key cadential notes to help improvise a set of phrases (for example, know where the 4th, 5th, and 6th scale degrees are to help frame your cadences).
Tip No. 4 – Use improvisations to try out strange, unorthodox cadences from Baroque, Classical, Contemporary, and Jazz repertoire or even Pop and Rock genres. This of course will require some score analysis, but it is well worth the effort. Play only the notes of each chord at first and then gradually add a few passing tones. Lead sheets are good to use with this method.
Tips No. 5 – Use improvisation to practice using a particular type of articulation or to practice a new technique such as beatboxing or singing and playing. Because improvisation removes the rules of music, which are often a bit confining, it is easier to experiment with new concepts in a safe, exploratory environment.
Tip No. 6 – Improvise a new phrase that begins on each note of a single scale. For example, play the first phrase beginning on a G, the second phrase beginning on an A, and the third phrase beginning on a B. Continue upward the scale to end up back on a phrase that begins again on a G.
Tip No. 7 – Take a basic melody and add some improvised ornamentation to the line. Add scales and other deviations as you become comfortable straying from the main melody. Pop tunes are great for this! What is your favorite song on the radio? Look up the simple outline of the melody and create your own ornaments.
Tip No. 8 – MOST IMPORTANTLY, go with your ear and have fun! There is no right or wrong when it comes to improvisation. Play from your heart. Play whatever comes to mind. Test things out. Invent new sounds. Most of all, play what you love in the style that you love to play. What do you sound like when the rules no longer apply?
Improvisation for Flute, The Scale Mode Approach by Andy McGhee. This is a great book that includes exercises using different modes and scales. https://amzn.to/3Mdqry4
The Technique and Theory of Improvisation by Bill McBirnie. This is all about Jazz improvisation for those interested in trying your hand at Jazz. https://amzn.to/3sBY4C5
Do you struggle with improvisation? What is your favorite approach? Do any of the above tips resonate with you? Do you encourage your students to practice improvisation? How do you practice improvisation? Please comment below!