Friday, September 14, 2012

2. De-monstering the 'tudes

Etudes that are five pages long?!
Continued from part 1.

If you've read Michel Debost's book "The Simple Flute" which covers so many important flute topics, you'll see more of his straightforward thinking based on teaching experience from the Sept. Flutetalk article on etudes; he makes some excellent points which I'd gladly agree with!!

Etudes vs. Scales

Etudes are not to be confused with your daily technique practice such as tone work, scales and what Debost calls "comfortably timed tonal arpeggios". (free pdfs of all these things are here on my blog: Fast fingers, Tone, Scales & Arpeggios).

When you practice scales, as the the relatively easy and familiar basics of flute playing you alternate restful playing with bursts of speed and brilliance.

Technique practice such as scales and such should be "freely and lovingly phrased with fingers".

Legato finger technique (low, curved and sensitive fingers) is the basis of a good technique.

Etudes for Weekly Flute Skill Development

By contrast to smooth finger work on daily skills, Etudes are changed much more frequently. Students often prepare one a week.

Here's how to prepare an Etude

Sometimes Etudes are not entirely perfected by the end of a week's practice, but the flutist can still move ahead to a new challenge and a new etude after having made a wholesome attempt at an etude to become familiar with it.

The student can return to a an earlier perused etude and master it months later, over the summer, or during holidays. If it's a good one, it might stay in your repertoire for decades, so mark the ones you especially enjoy and return to them!

Blasting Through - A problem since 1820!:

Most students start an etude by blasting through it from the beginning and then gradually they sort of poop out at the half-way mark, because by then, as we've seen, their concentration has poooped way past the focussed three minute mark.
Guess how long this has been happening to flute students?
Since time immemorial. Check out this quote from the 1820s, when Louis Drouet wrote in his flute method book:

Jen's paraphrase of Louis Drouet:
On the Method of Perfecting an Etude

The word perfecting here means to focus on a piece of music until it is executed with as much purity in the musical style, as well as neatness in the technique or 'execution' when it is played.
The wrong way to go about this is to simply play the piece to the end, then start again from the beginning, and repeatedly play it from start to finish over and over for several days.
And yet, that's what so many flute students do.
A student who plays from top to bottom of a piece, for several days in succession becomes blinded or deafened to the piece. They engrain their own habitual errors, the defects of execution which occur in the difficult passages become so familiar to them, that they become unfelt by the peformer, though they strike the ears of his audience in the most glaring manner.

The following is the shortest method to learn well and speedily a piece of music that is to be performed in public (or at your flute lesson as a "perfected" piece or etude):

One begins perhaps by playing through the etude once or twice to obtain a general understanding of what the style and quality of the work is. What musical notions identify it as belonging to the style of its composer?

After this first look-over, learning the music should commence slowly.

A pause can be made at the end of every period, every phrase, and even at every bar.

All the details should be focussed upon, but with the greatest possible ease, until the flutist has acquired the the skills to give the music every degree of elegance, grace and dignity; and to display the brilliant passages with the most striking neatness, energy and splendour.

Suppose a beginner working on a piece of music finds amidst the laboured passages several groups of three or four notes that sit amidst a group of four or eight bars, which embarrases him when he attempts to play them.
By starting the whole four or eight bar phrase again from the beginning in order to attempt to "train" those few notes, he wastes much time.
He should instead apply himself directly to those three or four notes and create an easy undulating exercise out of them which relieves any stress in his technique, and easily and smoothly co-ordinates the passage of these notes.
(examples shown)

Afterwards, from time to time, the etude or piece should be performed "as if" it were to be performed in public. This allows the performer to listen with the audience's ear, and to hear what yet needs to be polished and made easy to perform.

(from pgs. 13-14 Drouet's Method of Playing the Flute)

Jen adds:
Of course, you may never perform etudes for an audience, ever, because of the breathing problems many of the advanced etudes introduce. Note that splicing together of overlapping recordings would have to be used in professional recordings.
Often there is no human way of producing the non-stop non-breathing that is printed in some of the advanced flute etudes.

When performing in your lesson, leave in a comfortable number of pauses and breathing breaks, and play your etude in a cadenza like and convincing way.
Don't stress, don't attempt to be super human. :)

Etudes as an Endurance Test?

Debost states that he used to think that at the professional and University level of flute playing that long arduous etudes were necessary to develop "endurance", but that he has changed his mind. Human beings only do work well in 3 to 4 minute long bursts of brilliance.

You need some training in endurance for performing, and this is because adrenalin and excitement use more caloric energy when you perform before an audience. When you practice, you are far more relaxed and do not become as tired as quickly.

Preparing to have endurance prepares the flutist to avoid becoming exhausted unexpectedly in performance.
The performer can sense the tiredness, and make corrections to release tension while they are continuing to play.

This is easier to practice by using a short, highly perfected etude, and play it twice in a row.
This is intellectually far more rewarding than making yourself complete a boring and difficult etude that's four pages (or more) in length.

(Here's how much fun that is to do):

Because the etude is short and well prepared, your ears will hear it more knowledgably and clearly, and you can actually listen to hear if you're playing WELL.

As you become slightly more tired on the repeat, you can discover what to do to release tension to return to your optimal tone and control.

Your well-trained ears will demand it.

Then you can truly experience the act of "endurance" vs. tiredness by discovering how to reduce excess tension as you play that particular etude.

You can use the scale of tension (10 is very tense, Zero is totally relaxed) to count down your perception of embouchure tension or shoulder tension, or even elbow tension, and learn to play at a lesser state of tension on command.

Alternately, if you sound "tired" when you repeat an etude, it may because your rib cage has collapsed, or your feet have shifted, or your posture has become soggy.

By playing an etude twice and video recording you can even SEE this.

Performers can build alot of easy endurance by using etudes.

Continued in Part 3