Monday, May 23, 2016

Scherzo from Midsummer Night's Dream

Question: Dear Jen, I realize that at some point as an adult intermediate flutist, that I should try and tackle the Mendelssohn Midsummer Night's Dream Scherzo from the Incidental Music. I have the Baxtresser book*. What's the deal with the non-existant breathing? I hardly see any breath marks, and it's a bit diabolical at first glance. Do you have suggestions? M.
*(note: Baxtresser book/cd of orchestral excerpts.)

Jen replies:
Dear M,
Look deeply into the eyes of young Mendelssohn. Is he saying "are you a manly dude or a wee mouse?"

click on pictures to enlarge them

I think I'm both myself, ha ha. But I am going to reply: "I am a renegade, sir. Like you."
(See below for renegade suggestions and pdf.)

The fact is that the solo from the Midsummer Night's Dream is on audition lists because it shows these qualities: lightness, clear tone during continuous double tonguing, motion and phrasing, and......incredible super-human control-breathing.

Some details:

1. Mendelssohn is to be played light and fairy-like. So the style must be "classic Mendelssohn". Listen to other works of his played by quality orchestras, in order to hear this lightness and sense of play and magic. Bring this light, otherworldly and dainty quality to all your Mendelssohn.

2. The flutist must play staccato, but at this speed "Allegro Vivace" the staccatos must ring with good tone quality and not be too dry or too short. Many of us practice the piece all slurred for a good deal of time, before tonguing the notes. That way the tone is centered and the tone quality is assured. You can then switch back and forth between tonguing and slurring to assure that the tone quality and fingers remain even. Playing two bars slurred, and then the next two tongued, is one clever way of doing it. (or one slurred bar followed by one tongued bar.) Toggling back and forth between tonguing and slurring is the best all around way to learn this well.

3. There are a few marked dynamics that are very subtle, that can give more motion and phrasing. If you start to learn the dynamics, tone and phrasing BEFORE you tackle the breathing problems, it will be much easier in the longrun. You'll already be light, ringing and clear in tone, with good phrasing before the famous asphyxia sets in. :>)

4. The double tonguing that you would eventually use for this at tempo, is also something that is more easily worked without breathing requirements; it's listening and testing, and even-ing, and Gu-ing and Du-ing. I'm sure your teacher will walk you through all that when the time comes for a faster tempo than can be single-tongued.

5. The Breathing:

This excerpt is famous for the non-existent breath-marks. I've marked two Baxtresser breaths in red in this sample, and one in brackets where you may drop a note for your first few (YEARS!) of working on this excerpt. See below.

click on pictures to enlarge them

How to work the breathing:

One note per bar
If you were to play the entire solo with just one main note per bar, then you could clearly learn the breathing demands without the tonguing and fingering to tangle with at the same time.

 Try it out and see if you can make a good quality mezzo piano tone and just play one note per bar;
  3   1   2  3   1  2  3    1   2   3    1   2   3

All you do is take the first note of each bar, and then hold the first note of each bar all the way through the three beats with a great centered tone at mezzo forte. Then repeat it at mezzo piano. Then put the dynamics in. Don't add the other notes all at once; just add a scale here, and a bar there. Fill in the outline that you've created.
One note per bar can rock: it tells you what air speed you'll need overall, and how much air you'll have to save, or hold back, so that you can make it last until the next breathing point. Played this way the solo is a delight. You still may need to add more breath marks at first. See below too for how to switch it up further and to make a duet out of it.

The above may of playing one note per bar, or every other bar,  even takes a few months work, because it's a huge challenge not to waste air while playing so long on one breath. I recall working on this in third year University (and not much before that) and it took me three months, as an advanced player, to learn to meter out the air so that I didn't run out. One of the tricks is to get good projection for quiet playing, but there are so many things to learn; not just the breathing (the staccato, the phrasing, the double tonguing so that fingering and tonguing are completely reliable etc.)

So for an intermediate student, all that might just be asking a bit much; so be sure your teacher really thinks you need this. After all countless players have listed this solo by Mendelssohn as one of the worst breathing problem-creations of all time. (the other one is Afternoon of a Faun, which is slightly less demanding for sure).

But now for something completely different. Are you ready for renegade?

My renegade thinking:

I think that we should all pay attention to this little fact. It is now about two full centuries since this breathing crisis was created by young Felix (brn. 1809). And yet, take a look at the screen shot of the Midsummer Night's Dream score here:

click on pictures to enlarge them
Do you notice what the second flute is doing when the first flute begins their circular breathing nightmare of a fairy dance?
Click on the picture to look at the empty bars for second flute.
Sad isn't it?
The second flute is just sitting there doing nothing when they could HELP!
For the sake of flute players everywhere, why don't they just HELP? 
 :>D (hahahhaa!)
So, joe-renegade here, I have re-written the Solo from the Scherzo in a pdf.
In the two page pdf I have done two things.
On page 1, there is the solo written as it originally appears, and below it, flute 2 has a simplified version that works to vary the different ways of practicing it. As mentioned above, one note per bar, or slurring before tonguing, all these are easier when the breathing problems disappear. Try it to hear.
On page 2 of the pdf, there is the solo written divided (HELP has ARRIVED!) for two flutes.
The soloist can begin and end the solo, and the 2nd flute dove-tails in and out in order to make it easy and do-able.
Why don't we all play it like this?
All the time?
It would no longer be required on auditions because we were all so helpful to eachother. :>)
Can't wait to hear your comments.
See the Mendelssohn Scherzo flute re-write and practice sheet here:
Free. :>)
Enjoy exploring it.
New July 2016:
Check out this video; could the two players be any more different?
Demarre McGill and Kaori Fujii:
Scherzo from A Midsummer Night's Dream - Mendelssohn (video)

Best, Jen