Monday, November 24, 2008

Tone, Technique, & Releasing unecessary flute tensions....

Dear Flutists,

In a recent flute lesson, a student and I were talking about how to arrive at a state of ease and balance while practising flute technique.

I mentioned the piano books by Abby Whiteside and Heinrich Neuhaus.
Fabulous reading, especially for those who also play piano (but more on that in another post.)

In researching further I found a very good quote by a third author, cellist Pedro de Alcantara, and I thought it would be interesting to discuss or add to.

"Technique has often been equated with co-ordination, and co-ordination with the ability to play fast notes. Speed and accuracy may be important aspects of technique, but so are clarity, evenness, intonation, and many others. We hear it said of someone that he has 'great technique' but an ugly sound. This is a patent absurdity. Wilhelm Fürtwangler, conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic from 1922 to 1954, wrote that 'technique must make free regulation of the rhythm possible, and go beyond this to influence tone.' Heinrich Neuhaus concurs: 'Work on tone is work on technique and work on technique is work on tone.'

The musician with an ugly sound may have great dexterity, which is but one aspect of technique, but he does not have a great technique. A complete technique implies the ability to play legato and sostenuto, in a wide range of dynamics and articulations, in every imaginable colour. Good technique contains in itself the seeds of musicianship. If you practice 'technique' in isolation from 'music', you risk mastering neither. You could easily find that you can play a passage evenly as long as you keep it empty of all expressivity, but that you lose technical control as soon as you attempt to make the passage expressive. Therefore, never execute a gesture or phrase without taking into consideration its musical character."
©1999 Pedro de Alcantara

The information in this article is fully developed in Indirect Procedures: A Musician's Guide to the Alexander Technique.

In flute lessons I personally teach that the goals to co-ordinating mind, ears, head and body, and to reduce unecessary tension are these:

1) Balance yourself from the feet up, but remain elastic (knees slightly bent, weight on both feet etc. as found in "The Physical Flute" by Wilkinson.)

2) Let there be length between your hip bones and your shoulders. Let your head be balanced on a long, graceful neck.

3) Always release tension so you are using the least amount of effort for the best possible tone and musicality. Always follow any sense of effort with a sense of complete release, even from one second to the next, or one note or bar to the next.

4) Use "outlining" to play simplified versions of technique, but play with fabulous tone quality. Sing out. (use 20% faster air than you think you need in order to open up the body's "voice" when playing flute.)

5) If you can't figure out how to release tension, re-balance yourself from the floor up, and then release one tiny area at a time. IE: Make slow-motion, very tiny figure-8s in all directions with any and all body parts, elbow joints, wrists, flute, fingers, neck, nose etc. etc. Discover the range of release for every group of muscles, and all parts of your flute-holding patterns. All directions of the slow figure-8s may tell you something. always seek a point of comfort, poise, balance and "least amount of muscular effort" for any given flute technique.

I've got tons of ideas to share on this topic, but this is a starter.
Love to hear input from others.
Go to part 2 of this post by clicking here.

Comments (4)
Anonymous Matthew Taylor said...

Hi Jen
I heartily agree. Playing music of any type is an aural medium the sound must always come first. All other aspects of music playing ,dexterity,style etc aren't worth anything unless always combined with beautiful sound. Who wants to hear fast fingers robots can do that. best wishes

Monday, November 24, 2008 4:49:00 PM

Blogger Jen Cluff said...

Thanks for your comment Matt. One of the problems with "band flutists" who haven't had private lessons is that they have become used to a poor quality tone, and believe that fuzzy flute tone is "normal". They often combine this with the desire to "learn to play fast". Hopefully one or two of them might stumble across this blog.
I know that when I'm speaking to flute teachers about tone and technique that I'm singing to the choir! ;>)
Best, Jen

Monday, November 24, 2008 6:48:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Jennifer! I would like to ask you some questions about flute tone. I'm 20 years old, already a violin student since i was 8 and the last two years i have been playing the flute. The thing is that although i'm pretty sure i know whether a flutist has a great sound or not when it is recorded or when i listen to him live at a music hall, i'm not pretty sure that i can understand if a flutist has this "great sound" when i listen to him from about 2 meters distance. Am i crazy or this is normal? For example when i listen my teacher playing, i certainly understand the difference between how she sounds and how i sound, but to tell you the truth, i don't like what i'm hearing very much. In fact i don't like every professional flutist that i have listened to from a small distance much. On the other hand when i listen to her playing in a concert hall i say "oah this is good". I'm sure this has nothing to do with my teacher, she is a great player (she has studied with Artaud in Paris), the thing that i'm trying to figure out is :does the distance between the fluter player and you makes the sound different in your ears? I'm asking all that because i feel that in order to make my sound better i have to have an example of how a flute should sound first when you hear it playing next to you and then from a 8 meter or more distance. Continuing my thoughts i often wonder, how do i sound to people? Do they listen my tounge, my air hitting the metal, is my sound considered to be airy or is it normal to listen a few air when your ear is 20 cms close to the instrument. Personally i feel that i sound great when i listen "bells" in my sound but i don't sound the bells, or i never tried to listen to them when other people play. My teacher told me that she went to a seminar with Trevor Wye and he told them that in order to help your student understand the real sound of the flute, you must play just next to their ears.. Sorry for the big letter, i really would like to listen to your thoughts.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011 1:04:00 PM

Blogger jen said...

Dear Anon,

The flute has a zillion sound qualities depending on the room that it is heard in.
If your flute lessons are taking place in a small, dead-sounding (non-echoing) room, then the flute will likely sounds harsh, dry and spitty, with some hiss. This is the real sound of the flute close up in a non-resonant practice room.
Conversely, if a flute novice with a fuzzy tone plays flute in a big echo-filled church (something that happens in competitions etc.) the perception changes. Because of the good accoustics all the annoying sounds of fuzz and hiss disappear. The tone of even the most novice player is enhanced. This is why so many flutists try and practice or teach in more dry/dead rooms, and alternate with more echoey spaces (like bathrooms/kitchens as Galway suggests) so they can hear their corrections more accurately in the dead room, and soar their tone to more ringing heights in the echo filled room. Every size of hall and room has to be guaged for the best possible sound you can make in it, as not all concerts are held in beautifully resonant halls.

If you want to hear your own sound from 40 feet away (or any distance, or in any level of echo-room), place a microphone, cell phone, discrecorder, zoom recorder at that distance. Then pause the recording and move the microphone closer and closer. Play the same thing over and over again, and you'll hear what the audience hears.
Interesting topic. One easy to get acquainted with through self-recording and recording your flute lessons etc.

If you want to hear more professional flute player's tone qualities, so you can compare and contrast which qualities you like best, listen to many many players.
Your tastes will change as you go.
Best of luck and let me know what happens to your ears after a few more years of various accoustic experiences.
Best, Jen

Tuesday, April 19, 2011 2:47:00 PM


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