Tuesday, January 17, 2023

A very quiet whistle

(click on picture to enlarge)

This week the two flute email groups I belong to seemed to spring back to life!

Perhaps we can again begin to think of whistling while we work now! :>)

 One interesting flute question email came from a 78 yr. old amateur flutist asking about how to keep your lips loose while on stage in a solo recital. Previously they had studied to a higher level of playing than currently, and now they were making a return after a decade or more of only a tiny amount of playing. They were at the point where they had just conquered finding their low register again after playing in the high register (it tended to disappear when they descended). Wanting to whip themselves into shape again for the new year, they had planned a challenging program of Bach's Unaccompanied A minor Sonata and Hindemith's Acht Stucke with another recitalist performing in between. (several of us also said: "Hey why such a tough programme? Take it easy!"). They were several months away yet.

But their question was about lip tension. During practice, if they became tense in the lips, they'd trill them like a horse saying "Brrrrrrrrrr" or make those "motorboat" sounds. This relaxing lip noise is a loose blowing lip-flapping motion such as shown here in this "Lip Trill" video.

But of course a noisy "lip trill" like that was not going to be a good thing to do with an audience present. (grin!)

What should they do between movements if they tightened up in the lips?

One short-term* answer to tense lips caused by stage-nerves is to learn one or two easy whistle-tones and just play a very very relaxed whistle tone when you're backstage. Personally I find just getting a single whistle tone while fingering high A3 is fine for me. It tells me where my lips are. The idea is that whistle tones require such extremely loose lip centers that they therefore give instant feedback that your lips are in fact non-tense.

This can be like a "centering moment" for you backstage that gives you the confidence to relax further, because you know you are centered.

Since the person asking the question about tense lips said they didn't have the ability to visualize images (aphantasia; learn more: 1,2,3) I went hunting for a good illustrative video on youtube, and found these two quite amazingly comprehensive videos below.

The first one shows some interesting superimposed graphics for how the sound is being created inside the bowl of the headjoint's embouchure hole, and the second one explains all the uses of whistle tones from beginning to end.

Very well worth viewing!

Egor Egorkin of The Berlin Philharmonic; Whistle tones on piccolo for quiet warmup onstage (video)

April Clayton; All the uses of whistletones from warmups to the composer's writing of them in pieces of music (video).

*Longer term answers to "tense lips"  or "tense jaw" are, of course, a completely different topic and would be dealt with as a separate issue to "planning a recital with too difficult repertoire" and "coming back to the flute after a hiatus" (or very long break from playing where you might be flabby). There's also entering your eighties, which I haven't yet had any experience, but others have! :>)

In my opinion, non-tense embouchure has to do with using the natural open hanging of the jaw hinge and the natural floppiness of the lip tissue to form the most natural embouchure opening possible. This also works together with rolling the flute down and outward on the chin and uncovering more blow-hole (if you were too rolled in before), moving the lips forward off the teeth, and gradually releasing unnecessary facial tensions over time. These topics are covered in "Embouchure - Volume 2" of the Roger Mather "Art of Playing the Flute" book.

And of course, let us not forget the biggest flute reality of all:

If you are playing with a flabby air stream, the lips and throat will attempt to assist by over-tightening. So beef up your abdominal involvement in your blowing to speed up a full and flexible airstream. This might need a whole new approach or a flute coach.

For medium term answers, there's also using "Spit-Buzzing" from Keith Underwood (Buzzing 101 'how to buzz') and Robert Dick's "Singing While Playing or Throat Tuning (silent singing)". The videos really help I find, but it's interesting that there are still vast flute skills not yet depicted in video.

If it were me, I would choose less demanding repertoire, I would add a flute piece that has accompaniment as one of my selections , and I would begin to use self-recording as part of the preparation so that I'm building up my endurance, relaxation and having a reality check for exactly what the audience will be hearing.  

More suggestions welcome as this topic is an interesting one. :>)