Thursday, September 13, 2012

1. Monster Etudes! Gak!

(Click on pictures to enlarge. Extra jokes are mine.)

Dear Flute-lovers,
I was walking back from the mailbox yesterday, in the slanting sunlight of fall, flipping through the new Flutetalk magazine September issue, when these comforting words caught my eye:

Studying the Etude by Michel Debost.
"Long etudes of 4, 5, or 6 pages are not realistic.
They are deliberately repetitive, and monotony is the mother of boredom.
In my later years, I have come to the conclusion that a 3 or 4 minutes time span is the optimal length."

Oh be still my heart!
Someone AGREES with me!?
Phew!! :)

And here's my "Gak!" confession:

When I was about 15 I decided to take flute very seriously, and I walked into a sheetmusic store prepared to buy the book that was going to help me reach my goal.
I picked out Joachim Andersen's opus 60 work:
Schule der Virtuositat - 24 Gross Studien

Now, Andersen did indeed have a sense of humour when he wasn't writing etudes, he sketched musician cartoons, like this one where a flutist is trying to play a broom.

(Click on jpeg to enlarge.)

But he was a strict task master when he wrote opus 60 with its four page interminable etude patterning. My guess is that he probably was trying to seriously 'out-do' a competitor flutist of the time, rather than write something beautiful or engaging.

Back in 1976, my flute teacher simply said something that sounded distinctly like "Gak!"when she saw me plop Andersen opus 60 Virtuoso Etudes on the music stand.

Despite my insistence on playing 'as if I was absorbing virtuosity from every cluster of black ink', I bet I was showing symptoms of a budding case of "Schumann Syndrome".

(Robert Schumann was the late blooming pianist who permanently damaged his hands for piano playing after intensive over-practicing of technique. It's been proposed that his use of a "finger strengthening" contraption hastened the damage. He may have had additional weird medical problems, but his haste was in a bid to make up for lost time as a musician.)

What we can see in Andersen as the opus numbers increase, is that the longer etudes become even more repetitive and pianistic/violinistic in style. Unlike some of his tuneful earlier compositions (check out the often hilarious earlier opus numbers), the later etudes unfortunately seem to insist on non-breathing. One might expire without well thought-out pauses or big breathing breaks. Also, writing rhythmic gestures with articulations that repeat endlessly are also a bit, ahem, anti-musical. In my opinion, unlike opus 15, 41 or even 30, these higher numbered 'Tudes are endurance-pattern-challenge-etudes, or "Monster-'Tudes".

Also it's worth noting that Andersen himself, at the age of 43, after a brilliant start to his fluting career, suffered a Schumann-like affliction (paralysis of the tongue; similar to today's tongue dystonia), and I just bet that my flute teacher would have warned me about dystonia caused by Schumann Syndrome if she'd had the words for it back when I was 15.

So, you may ask, just how did a flutist in the 1800s practice tonguing etudes in every key until he paralysed his own tongue nerves?

Just try saying "Strict task master" five times really quickly.
That's how.)

So I've learned my lesson there! ha ha! Don't follow Andersen too literally.

Trying to plow through four page etudes that are way above your technical level may be an exercise in discovering what you cannot yet do, but a steady diet of it can lead to technical misuse and dystonia disaster, and as Debost says: "Monotony is the mother of boredom."

Boredom causes loss of focus and continuing despite all odds causes a loss of quality playing.

Luckily my ears became instantly bored and I didn't use the book again until I tried the same "virtuoso" trick in University, and my teacher assigned one page a week until my ears couldn't take my own foolishness anymore once again.

Yes, there's a time and a place for Andersen's opus 60 (have a look at the pdf here), and I think now, that that time is when you're a professional, concertizing flutist, not perhaps a University major. Say that you've got to play the Neilsen and Ibert Concerti in the next two years, performing live, with orchestra, and after practicing everything else in your repertoire, you're desperate to sight read something bizarre and long-winded, just to read double sharps and modulations every bar and a half, and to really jog your brain ready to tackle very demanding math....well that's the time to read maybe two to four lines of Andersen, and then play a cadenza on them, (all in slow motion of course).

For intermediate players, my sage advice is to avoid any etudes with "Virtuoso" in the title, unless you're just fooling around in a zen-like super-slow manner.
For example, build a free-wheeling cadenza from four bars. Add pauses; try four bars a day, and put them down the octave. Give it a few minutes, and don't over-do it.
No strict task mastering for you. Don't risk becoming tongue-tied or finger-twizzled by tiring repeitition.

Better yet, find your true flute playing skill level and then sight read and work through some jolly bunches of graded etudes (many good ones free online in pdf) that actually match your own grade of playing, or you can, for sight reading,read etudes that are a grade or two below your level.

That's when Etudes really do the most good.
That's what I've learned from my flute students over the years as well.
Here's all my best advice on how to work on etudes, especially read the part about BREATHING that's half way down the page.

If you really want to make up for lost flute skill learning years, you have to slow down, and concentrate your best possible focus and energy in tiny perfect minute pieces of musical material, and play them with 100% beauty.

What you don't want to do is wear yourself out and pound the pages.
Trust me; pound not. Advice that's been good for at least two hundred years
See part 2.

(More on this topic in part 2 that follows.)