Wednesday, September 04, 2013

The Bane of the Borne We Bear

Question about technical speed in Carmen Fantasy for Competition.

Dear Flute Lovers, this email exchange is worth sharing, I think. Please comment if you have input.
I've thrown everything I know into my replies because of the time constraints for this intelligent and articulate questioner. Enjoy our conversation and keep the Borne fingering jpeg below, for your records.
Here is the conversation:

Dear Jen,

I have a concerto competition coming up in a month where I have to play Carmen Fantasy by Borne. I've often been told that my tone is extraordinary, and I seem to really "feel" the music. My intonation is pretty reliable, as well. However, my biggest weakness is technique. I have been practicing Taffanel &Gaubert every single day.
A sample day will be me doing exercise #2, quarter note =50, then I move up notches. I focus on keeping my fingers relaxed, not gripping the flute, and low. I also try to maintain an internal beat along with the metronome(to really feel it) but my fingers are still never even. I feel like they don't know where to go…in the short space of silence between the beats, they seem to do whatever they want. I don't know how to control them. I tried analyzing fingerings and that helped a little, but does that mean I have to analyze everything in Carmen Fantasy? Also, my technique seems to vary. Some days are good, some really bad.
All my other peers have far better technique than I, but they don't practice as hard or as long as I do. It's extremely frustrating and I feel like I'm at a dead end. I don't know how to improve anymore.
If you read this entire email, thank you so much. I would appreciate it greatly if you could help me. 

Dear G.
Can you answer for me please?

1. How's your flute's repair condition?
Many "technique problems" turn out to be leaking pads.
Do you have your flute adjusted and leaks checked once a year? Or once every six months?
If you play more than 2 hours a day, you might even need to have it checked MORE often.
When was the last time you took it to a truly great flute technician (that the symphony flutists use)?

2. What does your teacher say? 
Have you spoken to your flute teacher about your technique? What do they think the problem is? Have they tried your flute? Have you tried another flute (your teacher's?)

3. What changes do you make to your hand positions that help technique be faster, and clearer?
Have you tried......?

a) moving the LH closer to the Ab key so that the fingers are curved on the A, G and Ab?
The typical way to keep the ring and pinky fingers curved is to shift the left hand down the flute tube, so that it's 1/4 inch to 1/3rd of an inch (or less) closer to the Ab key.

Have you shifted your hand down the tube a tiny amount? Does your pinky stay hovering, curved over the G# or Ab pinky key? This one change can really help (especially with E Major arpeggios on last page of Carmen Fantasy).

b) Moving the right hand thumb to allow the RH to turn at the wrist slightly to the right (like opening a door knob clockwise).
 This helps the E to F# fingering change specifically and frees up tendons in the RH so E to F# is almost effortless. Pretend to open a doorknob clockwise, and then reduce the motion to a tiny one, and place that hand on your flute slightly turned clockwise. Notice the difference.

Also, for some hands, letting the right thumb point up the tube (tip of thumb points toward headjoint) really works to free up the back of the hand. There used to be a photo online of Joanna G'Froerer teaching this at a 2002 masterclass, but it's offline now. Doh.

More RH thumb help here: Best RH thumb position, how to find it.

For general flute-readers:
Sometimes hand stiffness and finger pressures are caused by a sliding or slippery flute. It doesn't cost much to try a 25 cent foam cylindrical pencil grip to release the left hand from gripping so hard.
These pencil grips are 'four for a dollar'  LH index finger - anti-skid, widening- foam cylinders sold at the stationary aisle for pencils. They are brightly coloured and non-skid rubberized foam.

You slit a pencil-grip open into a rectangle with scissors, and put 'blue tac' poster putty on the back.
You put them where the flute rests on the index finger of the left hand and press lightly.
Ungrease your flute first with a dab of alcohol as required.

A rectangle of pencil-grip material not only allows you to relax and recurve the left hand, but the gription surface is great in summer sweat-a-thons, and finally stops you having to press inward with the left index. They let you shape your hand to the flute, and personalize it.

And if they don't work for you, you've only spent $2 (I had to buy a pack of blue-tac for putting up posters on drywall; so that was $1). I use two pencil grip rectangles stacked together with masking tape. Most students who've tried in my studio tend to use one simply as a comfort providing  non-skid left hand index re-surface. Depending on the needed thickness you need might be two stacked.
Masking tape rolled backwards between two of them works well.

Best, Jen
Dear Jen,

I got my flute checked about 2 months ago, at the beginning of July. The repairman was very trustworthy(my teacher recommended him to me) and he did an annual check-up on my flute. He cleaned the tubing(is that how you say it?) out and said my flute was in pretty good condition, including the pads. I practice about 2 to 3 hours a day, but my teacher checked my flute out recently and he said it was fine.

I've asked my teacher about my technique but he didn't go into specifics, he just said to practice it slowly and go over the fingerings individually. He also said that my fingers were too high. 
I haven't tried the changes in the hand positions, but I will definitely try tomorrow and get back to you! Thank you so much for your quick response, I really appreciate your expertise on this. :)

Dear G.

Okay, great. I'm really glad to hear your flute is getting regular checkups.

Make sure your teacher checks it again though, just to be sure.

 Leaks that slow down the hands can crop up at any time, and we get used to them gradually, and so the only thing we notice is the slowdown during fast technical passages.

I had a thumb-key problem on a flute once, and had to play a full recital on it, as it got worse and worse. What a nightmare that was! Goddard's Waltz with a thumb key problem. Yoiks!

If your teacher says your fingers were too high, and now they're lower, then you'll find that the technical facility will keep improving the more you lower them and keep their actions light.

The only way to assure this is, as you say, go slowly, carefully, stay light and low with the fingers in all exercises, and don't try to play fast until you  are as light as possible.

Carmen fantasy has about five critical spots where the technique is incredibly and ridiculously fast and difficult.The fact that you're soon competing makes you tense, no doubt, and impatient. But low fast, light fingers take at least a year to become fully "natural", so don't push yourself too manically.

Just ease into it, and don't go nuts.
 Hand position changes can be tiny but make a huge change.

Let me know if you find any instant improvements from my previously suggested hand position ideas.
Dear Jen

I tried lowering my fingers and changing my right hand position. I found that there was a lot of tension in my hand and it was making it harder for me to move my fingers efficiently.

So my question now is this: Should I just continue my slow practice for the entirety of the Carmen? Also, I've found that analyzing my fingerings helps too--does that mean I should analyze the fingers for all of Carmen? I would do it, but I feel like I would forget how the fingers move pretty quickly, if I'm doing it for 10+ pages.....


Dear G.

I'm very relieved that you found the hand tension and could eliminate it.
Yes, why not analyze just the finger switches that seem "too slow" in the Carmen?
 You don't have to over-analyse the parts that are already working well, just analyse precisely where things are not working.
Visually looking at fingers that exchange places (this one rises, while this one falls) is so helpful and is often adopted so late, and only when we're desperate, ha ha.

But I would definitely use my eyes to analyse cross-fingerings just for difficult sections.

Do you have the Trick Fingerings for the passages on page 2 or 3.
Try these fingerings: the RH 2 for F# to E is optional, but works for some.

Fingerings for Carmen Fantasy

(click to enlarge the above jpeg)

There are, of course, parts of the Borne are truly worthy of serious technical work that goes on for years and years (really) and they are: the last presto finale page in E major, which is difficult for ANYONE who doesn't have their LH close enough to the Ab key to keep their pinky curved and constantly hovering over the Ab key, and, of course, Variation 1 which has tricky lip leaps combined with fast fingers.

But we must be realistic too. In my humble but oh-so-honest opinioni :>) this is not the kind of piece that University performance majors would typically audition with unless they'd already been studying privately for ten years or more and had possibly played it previously on recital.

Hopefully you've picked a piece that's appropriate to your skill level.
Many University flutists over-challenge themselves too soon with this work.
It's really for graduates, and professionals.
I know that I wouldn't have chosen it for second or third year...doh.

Best, Jen
Dear Jen
Yes, thank you! My teacher taught me the overblown Bb-A-G# fingering, but not keeping down the 3rd finger for F#. You have been a tremendous help, and feel welcome to post this on your blog. I'll be sure to let you know how the piece is coming along! :)
Dear G.


And two more things:

- it's not too late to change to a slightly easier, shorter and more exciting piece of music. Carmen Fantasy is fanatically difficult.

- double check the cost of renting the Carmen Fantasy orchestra parts. Sometimes, even though you are the best at the audition, the panel can find out that it's cheaper for them to allow another winner whose rental parts are under $100, whereas another work might be $500 to rent (!)

Note: I just checked for you.
Here's the info from

Borne, Francois   Carmen Fantasy Brilliante
Instrumentation: 2D1.2.2.2/,timp,perc,str,fl solo
Duration: 11:00
Rental: $ 217.00

The reason I always check this now BEFORE a competition is that I once won a concerto with a Doppler Concerto in D minor for two flutes, only to almost bankrupt the local orchestra, because of the very high cost of the orchestral score and parts in rental.

Also check the instrumentation (harp availability etc.), because the committee might also choose a piece that has a smaller orchestra (not so many reeds and brass/percussion/harp) and can be done in two rehearsals or less. The Borne has many tempo changes that require possibly more rehearsals than other works.
Dear Jen,
What do you think about the Reinecke Concerto? This is more of a "safety" work for me, and I'm worried that it might be too simple. It's not as technically challenging as the Carmen, and I'm wondering about how this would affect my chances of winning.
Dear G.
I've never performed this particular concerto, but the criteria are this:

1. The soloist is COMFORTABLE with the material, and has been for quite some time.
  This is the single most important factor, as nerves/adrenalin and technical challenges can affect emotive ability and the convincing artistry of the soloist in an audition.

Other factors:

2. The orchestra is smallish, and the composition is dependable, (not a large no. of players, and only standard instruments) and the piece is easy to rehearse (not alot of tempo changes.)

This isn't to say that an incredibly interesting, complicated and new work with a party-full of percussion instruments and extra flugel-horns won't win any given concerto competition, (personally I wish it WOULD, because I LOVE stuff like that) but if this is the very first time you're auditioning for a concerto, keep it well within moderate means so that you are calm, cool, collected, and you're not asking too much of the orchestra.

To wit: I once played Faure Fantasie with a local orchestra and they could not get it up to tempo, which only made me stand there on stage working working working on their behalf. Eeek.

3. The piece is similar to the kind of pieces that have won this competition before (not too far out; not too hard to rehearse; not having extraordinary balance problems where the flute might have to be amplified to be heard.)
Go ahead and listen to the concerto you've chosen on youtube, and analyse its successes.

4. The piece pleases the audience, for the most part. (not too hard to fit with the other pieces in the program they're creating. So try and look ahead and see what other works are on the same show.)

5. The piece can be cut down to size to fit a program's timing  (one to two mvmts. only for a Concerto, often. In this case the third mvmt. takes some serious speed, so consider which one or two mvmts. you'd perform if your timing was cut down.)

I would always choose a piece that I was EXTREMELY technically comfortable with, as it greatly improves the chance of being chosen. Plus I certainly don't want to suffer all the time that I'm in preparation for an audition, plus, if I won, the time I have to continue to suffer while waiting for the performance.....I'd rather have a great time preparing and on stage.
Reineke second mvmt. is a great stand-alone choice, regardless of whether you win, just to enjoy the audition!
And then perform the opening mvmt. for the performance; how excellent would you feel then?

The Carmen can always be saved for next year, or the year after that.

Let me know how this all turns out.
Thanks for a great conversation.

Best, Jen
Comments (2)
Blogger MATTHEW TAYLOR said...

It's hard to change a posture, hand technique problem when learning a new piece under a time limit especially a virtuoso piece like this. So I wish the student good luck. A couple of suggestions I have that may help.
1. Its never to late to practice really slow. I mean really slow maybe a 1/4 of the tempo. If you are trying to change hand position don't even think of putting the tempo up for a week.

2. Soft and light. It doesn't matter how close your fingertips are to the keys if they aren't relaxed soft they won't move to well.

If you sit down before practising place your hands face down on your lap. Then imagine your hands melting into your lap. Then the soles of your feet melting into the floor. Both the feet and hands should feel soft.

After doing this pick up your flute play something easy that you don't have to think about, say a f major scale. Try and still feel the soles of your feet melting into the floor and the pads of your fingertips still with that melting feeling as you play.

3. If you have a relaxation technique you use see if you can do some each time before practice. It only needs to be for 5 minutes or so before playing. If you don't when you get a chance learn some basic relaxation techniques.

Jen has given lots of great advice I hope you do well
Matthew Taylor

Friday, September 06, 2013 3:56:00 PM

Blogger jen said...

Wow. Thankyou so much Matt for an excellent set of advice. So good. Thanks so much. Jen

Friday, September 06, 2013 5:52:00 PM


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