Tag Archives: musician

Knowing the Next Note, Not Just Reading Ahead — Flute Technique

Dawn's Azumi flute


I haven’t seen this particular and helpful flute technique mentioned. There’s discussion about embouchure, about fingers, about breathing, about tone, but not much about something so simple and easy to do that it should go into every flutist’s (maybe even every musician’s) knowledge base. It was taught to me, so I’ll pass it along. It’s ‘knowing the next note’.

I’m not talking about reading ahead, where we are reading one, two, or more measures ahead of what we’re actually playing.  No. This technique has nothing at all to do with whether you are playing something that you are reading off a score or something you are playing from memory.

‘Knowing the next note’ means: Have the next note you are going to play after the one you are presently playing already in your head. When you do this, your brain already has set up for the transition.

A lot of players play ‘in the moment’ only, note by note. They may know the piece inside and out, they may read ahead, but they’re concentrating solely upon the note they are playing — its intonation, its quality, its dynamics…a lot of things, including quality and type of vibrato. But. They fail to ‘know the next note’, much less the entire phrase, both of which are exceedingly helpful, giving your body, via your brain’s mental preparations, a head start in preparing for the fine motor skill changes that lead to smooth, clean transitions, note-to-note, regardless of difficult fingerings or of interval jumps. Here’s how:

When playing, simply ‘know the next note’. So, if I’m playing a first register A and the next note is a third register E, I already ‘know’ that, next, I will be playing that third register E, no matter how fast or slowly that E comes after the A. And as I’m playing that third register E, I ‘know’ that the next note I will play will be a second register D. Then, as I’m playing that second register D, I ‘know’ I will be playing a first register C# after that.

The ‘know’ is an active ‘knowing’, instant by instant, note by note.

If it’s a run that comes after, then, ‘know’ the run, and, especially, ‘know’ that run’s target note while playing the previous note.

In essence, you’re focused on the note you’re playing, but, underneath, are actively aware of the note you’re going to next. And it also helps to know the entire phrase in your head in the background, behind the active ‘playing this, knowing that next is this’ technique.

This is a ‘brain technique’ that, once mastered, effortlessly does magical things to performance for smoothing out transitions between even the most difficult fingering changes and intervals one must play.

Hope this helps you.

Azumi flute

Music as a Career – NO.

Learning an instrument is wonderful. Learning the written language of music does wonderful things in brain development — yes, really. Best, the experience of playing with others under a decent conductor is an exceptional experience, as I cover here in “On Being a Member of a Great Orchestra“. Learning to play an instrument with an eye to the skill and art of it as a career, however, is not a wise choice. Let’s put that notion to bed, right now.

At any given moment across the globe, there might be eleven (11) — count them — well-paid, not-so-well-paid, and unpaid openings for, for example, flutists, mostly in temp, part-time, or teaching positions. Same is true for performance artists of other instruments. The available openings probably won’t be something that’s your dream job. If one of them is, I can pretty much guarantee that you won’t get it, because there’s a lot of “who knows who” involved in landing those positions, never mind that there’s usually a better player competing for that rare-as-hen’s-teeth (hens don’t have teeth) job.

Orchestras are vanishing — too expensive to maintain. Performance venues are more interested in contracting for sports events than for music events. The public is more interested in old, has-been rockers or in the latest young pop star who’s good at stirring their hormones or giving them a dopamine high than in a bunch of skilled musicians performing flawlessly. If it ain’t got glam and bling, if it ain’t got some schtick, forget it.

Want to teach music for a living? Really? Okay. But real teaching jobs are, again, rare. In the U.S., public school music departments are being slashed, as are art departments. In fact, all the creative arts are being reduced to unpaid extracurricular activities. The money is in sports, also an extracurricular activity, but usually quite well funded by local booster clubs. Music? Nah. Art? Nah. Drama? Nah. Go to an upper crust school, and, yes, music, art, drama, and all sorts of other things, like horsemanship and archery, are supported. But these are all activities to broaden scope, not taken as serious career pursuits.

There are, in fact, less and less opportunities in every type of career, but especially music, and more and more competitors for those fewer opportunities. So, unless you want to spend your life chasing after success in entrepreneurial endeavors, which means get a degree in marketing, not music, don’t focus on performing, or even teaching music as a career.

At best, you can look for a future to utilize your skills as a musician and a teacher as an avocation, something you do on the side to maybe generate some ‘pin money‘, but you’ll be hard-pressed unless you’re absolutely the hands down best in the world to expect to put bread on the table and money in the bank with a career in music. That’s the reality now and in the future. There are just too many people competing for dwindling opportunities and not enough public interest to sustain you as a musician.

On Being a Member of a Great Orchestra

Azumi flute

I found this quote a while back when following a conversation about the future of classical music and classical music performers.

…Orchestral players are trained to become highly-skilled performers who can turn little black dots and lines and all kinds of mysterious indications into a free-sounding musical experience. The exhilarating experience of playing in the middle of a group of some 90 musicians with an inner freedom and [at] the same time, perfect inter-relatedness with the others as if being a member of one large body, as a communal achievement, an experience where the dead letter of the text has been internalized so strongly that the music freely floats as one voice in a communal synthesis, is the freedom which has been struggled for by years and years of study and training, carried by love for the art form. It is difficult to explain this if you are not an orchestral musician of a (good) orchestra yourself….  — JOHN BORSTLAP July 28, 2017

Yet, in my opinion, Mr. Borstlap describes only the very surface reality of the experience that is playing in a good, even great, orchestra, conducted by a good, and better, great conductor. There is absolutely no experience that I know of, save maybe that of performing in a seriously superior choir, that comes even close to it, certainly not the common experiences most players have in their performance history. It’s an immersive experience that transports the performer to heights and breadths of humble — yes, humble — awe and ecstasy. One is humbled that one has been gifted this experience, that one is worthy of it and of contributing to it.  And when it happens again and again, time upon time, then the realization that what you have in that group of musicians, bonded together by a conductor and by the scores you play, is priceless beyond scope. Everything else musical pales by comparison.

If there were one wish I could have for anyone who plays or yearns to play an instrument, it would be this experience. Sadly, that’s not possible. I could plant people amidst such an orchestral experience, yet they’d never really feel it. Oh, sure. They’d feel themselves immersed in the power of that sea of sound, in the energy of the musicians creating that sound, but they would lack one critical element — contributing to the creating of that moving sea of symphony. There is, in fact, nothing like it, and the proof comes at the end.

In the silence that follows the last note of the last bar played, breathing as one, the orchestra stills. And the audience, enraptured, holds that silence, seemingly interminably, until, all at once, something breaks the spell and, as one, erupts into applause, whistles, and cheers, tears streaming from some, laughter from others, giddiness or radiance from yet still others.

Or sometimes the music hasn’t even stopped when the audience breaks to its feet in wild applause, overwhelmed with the emotions stirred in them.

When it happens in rehearsal, though, and it does quite often when playing with a good orchestra, we all just sit, stunned by what we’ve accomplished, in a long moment of shared and humbled awe at ourselves and each other — at the fact that we just created a ‘moment’ in sound …that what we did was magical.

This is why I played. Those days are long over for me, but this is, to me, the ultimate experience in playing. It surpasses anything else one can do as a classical performer, and I wish, I really do, that every player could experience this, even just once.

 

Those Darned Holes!

Dawn's Azumi flute

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Both the flutes I play, my beloved new Haynes and my Azumi, are what we flutists call ‘open hole’.  Since suffering a broken elbow, one of my ring fingers doesn’t work quite how it used to.  So, for that particular key, I’ve had to resort to using a little silicon plug to fill the hole.  Plugging it brought about a discovery.  First some back history, though.

When I play, due to bad training at the onset of my learning way back when, I have ‘high fingers’.  A lot of flutists do, and it’s all from being started wrong.  I’ve got another problem that is compounded by my high fingers.  I’m indelicate, especially when playing intensely and with enthusiasm for a piece.  Happily immersed, I’m completely unconscious that I’m pounding down the keys with my fingers, fingers which are quite strong and ‘athletic’ from riding horses since before I could ride a tricycle, from mucking stalls, hefting heavy hay bales, and all the other associated physical labor that goes along with girls and horses, fences and barns.  That pounding of the keys wasn’t noticeable when I was playing classically, either solo or in an orchestra.  We never used microphones or amplification, so the sound didn’t carry out to the audience.

Enter husband Forrest who brings things like condenser microphones into my life.  Touchy, sensitive, can-hear-an-ant-walk-across-the-floor torture devices, condenser mics pick up everything(Please don’t sneeze, cough, or laugh, or you’ll blow the mic’s diaphragm, rendering this very expensive and intimidating piece of equipment to the trash bin.)  It didn’t matter if it was the huge monster mic that hangs suspended in its grotesque-looking mount or the tiny one on my headset hovering by my cheek.  Both picked up every touch of hand, breath, and finger on the flute, every shift of a sheet of music.  If I shifted my hand, it came through like a desperate grab for survival.  When I inhaled through my nose and my mouth, something we do to get as much air into our lungs as fast as possible, it sounded like a dragon sniffing out dinner, while inhaling just through my mouth produced a slightly better result — a gryphon readying to roar.  (We went with inhaling by mouth as preferable, though that significantly reduces the amount of air I can pull in the nanosecond usually allotted me by rock music.)  The fingers?  There seemed no hope for those, unless I really, really concentrated on finger technique instead of playing music, and, as any musician knows, no performance goes well if you’re not letting go every inhibition to ‘let it happen’.

But, listening, I noticed that one key wasn’t popping …or, should I say, wasn’t popping as much — the plugged hole.

Hmmm.  Time to experiment.

Plug the rest of the open holes.  …And, what do you know!  The popping was cut in half, a great improvement.

‘French’, or open holed, flutes have their advantages, especially up in the flute’s fourth register (piccolo territory).  It’s a register only used in obscure pieces that nobody much ever listens to or plays, unless in a flute competition or for a special performance featuring a composer’s works.  Of course, open holes do have other uses, as well.  They allow one to play a flutist’s version of chords, bend notes, and play quarter tones …among other abstract uses.  For standard playing, however, plateau flutes, that is, flutes which don’t have open hole keys, work just fine, and, despite opinion to the contrary, don’t negatively affect tone quality and resonance, at least not to any but the most infinitesimal degree, if that.  Plugging up the holes wouldn’t matter for most of what I’m asked to play now.

My experiment and opinion aside, the real test came when we had our next recording session.  And, sure enough, though my right hand’s index and, especially, my middle finger still smacked the keys with such vigor that, thanks to the condenser mic, you’d think somebody was popping bubble-wrap during the session, the sound was much, much quieter.  Darn.  If only I’d known before we started laying down tracks long months ago.

Update on Me & My New Digital Grand Piano.

It’s happening. Finally, something’s kicked open that rusted, locked door in my brain, releasing the sleeping skills therein stored so long ago. After weeks of scales, arpeggios, and interval training, after struggling to play well-known favorites and failing to be able to sightread even some of what I consider to be rudimentary pieces — Hayden, Mozart, Bach 2-Part Inventions — finally, FINALLY my fingers are finding and playing advanced level music without me having to glance at them and adjust my position. I’m reading, my hands moving where they should, as they should. Of course, what is listed as ‘advanced’ on the music books isn’t really. It’s about on a par with what I was playing at thirteen and fourteen — polyphonic and polyrhythmic — but my eyes are reading the music, my brain instantly translating what is read relatively accurately to my hands. Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C# Minor is now within reach again, as are pieces by Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Schumann, Liszt….

A Monday Spent in Recovery

A whirlwind weekend — rehearsal, recording, videography — the resulting video a tribute to a rock star recently passed.  Long hours, long days, longer nights, then Monday.

After getting Forrest to the truck, I desperately needed ‘down time’ and quiet to grab a little sleep. And, of course, as soon as I fell comatose into bed, Mom said that a friend showed up. I guess they stayed quite awhile, glancing every so often toward the door to my bedroom that sits at one end of a balcony span overlooking the great room. But I was far gone into oblivion, literally banked by a protective passel of cats, Laddie, the dog, snoozing away, guard-of-the-door.

I didn’t get more than the necessities done yesterday. I couldn’t. I was wobbling on my feet with exhaustion. But it was a happy, productive weekend, which is nice. We actually rehearsed, recorded, and successfully video recorded Forrest’s arrangement of Black Hole Sun by Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell. Then I compiled the video.

It took five-and-a-half hours to put the video together, and, that, for me, is miracle fast, because I usually spend at least three days compiling them.  I wanted it done by the time Forrest woke, so pulled an all nighter after getting house and hold battened down for the night.  And I managed it — just. On render, there’s only one not-so-glaring mistake — quite a feat when you’re doing something on-the-fly.

The response to it has been lackluster, but that’s okay. We’re happy.

While yesterday was recovery, today I’m feeling like ‘the day after’. You know the feeling, I’m sure. Over-indulgence in anything carries an aftermath of echoed requite.

So, meanwhile, here’s our version of Black Hole Sun.

[arve url=”https://youtu.be/6z1wLn0NIFQ” /]

 

The Mix-Down Session

So, today, my husband is back to working on the mix-down of our performance of Carry On Wayward Son. As I listen to the balances he’s trying to achieve between sounds produced by un-effected me — pure, raw flute (loud) — and sounds produced by me through an effects unit (loud, but not as), I’m thinking to myself, I really like the sound of my instrument. I’m really not that thrilled with sounding like a saxophone, a lead guitar, a chorus of instruments, or any other warping of my sound waves.

Of course, what I think is irrelevant to what we’re trying to do. It took me a lot of practice and frustration to be able to manage the foot-switching on the effects unit at a fraction of a second prior to when the sound was supposed to happen …which, in the case of this piece, sometimes happens every two-and-three-quarter beats apart: Clean, effected, clean, effected — do it, do it, do it, do it.

There’s a lag — just a fraction of a second — that happens when you punch a button on an effects unit. It’s just a minuscule amount of time, but it’s critical. And, trained classically, which comes ‘on the beat’ rather than just before the beat like rockers play, my training coupled with the effects engagement lag compounds my problems, because it’s got to be right.

So, prior to recording day, I spent a week working very hard on my feet — an odd thing for a flutist to have to attend. I practiced …and recorded that practice — thank the cosmos for good recording software — then began adjusting my playing to ‘anticipate the beat’ and come in sounding ‘on time’ the varying micro-fractions (depending on which patch…and, yes, they all require different lead times) ahead of when normally one should. That worked. I was…happier. (Can’t say happy, just happier.) Next was trying to figure out the lag that happened between stomping on the effects unit button (switch banks, engage POG, step on one or another button, 1-10, and, simultaneously, with the other foot, ease on the volume pedal to the exact level specified in the performance notes, reversing the process two-and-three-quarters of a beat later.)

The lag was, literally, .121 seconds according to the sound wave and beat division markers contrasted against the actual time in thousands of a second. Right. I guessed at what I had to do, trying over and over …and I was running out of time. This was Thursday. We were recording on Saturday.  Finally …finally, I got it.  The wave form lined up.  When Forrest came home from driving truck all week. I was ready. He was happy with my results, though I’m still not completely convinced. I feel I can do much better. (Intonation suffers. Posture suffers, me sliding into ‘hunch back’ with having to keep an eye on the LED readouts at my toes. I fall back into the bad habits, letting my fingers fly off the keys when I’m concentrating too much on getting everything digital right and not on just playing my flute.) I hope that, given time and experience, all the electronic ‘stuff’ becomes second nature so that I’m more comfortable and can, once again, just concentrate on playing, not coordinating all the paraphernalia required for plugged-in performances.

…Then, there’s getting over ‘red-light fright’, which happens any time Forrest hits the space-bar that starts everything recording us — instant diaphragm freeze and shaking fingers….   I WILL get over these pitfalls, just like I did the extreme stage fright I suffered in my youth. I am determined.

White Bread

WhiteBreadTc“Could you play it a little less ‘white bread’?” Forrest asks, his eyes kind, but steady on mine, his fingers, as always, delicate in their grip on the neck of his newest guitar, a beautiful instrument that sounds as exquisite as it looks.

We’d just finished a run through of ‘Cheap Sunglasses’ and, despite it being a challenging piece for me rhythmically, I’d done a pretty darn near perfect, note-for-note performance of it.

I blinked, stared, blinked again. “Ah…oka-aay,” I said, hedging.  “Which part?”  I asked this because, honestly, I know I’d just done it as written.

He tells me.

I blink.

He’s talking about two embellished notes, same pitch, the first three-sixteenths in length coming a sixteenth after the fourth beat and a quarter note coming on the one beat of the next bar.

He explains what he wants, then demonstrates it vocally.

I nod. He starts the riff; I come in when I should, mimicking his vocalization.

“Not really,” he says, stopping, again.

I laugh. “Okay. What, then?”

Feel it more.”

He starts moving his fingers, playing out the riff, his head bobbing in that just-off-the-beat kind-of-way that seems pervasive among rock musicians. He looks at me, his eyes urging me to come in.

I do.

He stops …shakes his head. “Feel it. Don’t count it.”

“Oka-aaay.” I try again.

A huge sigh answers that attempt. “Could you try not playing it like a classical musician? …Try playing like a …a….” He shrugs. “…LIke you don’t have a rod up your backside.”

By now, I’m practically giggling in gleeful hysteria (Very inappropriate!). Damping down my giggles is taking supreme effort. “But I am a classically trained musician.” Then, more soberly: “And I’m really trying, here.”

“I know….” He groans. “…But it’s just so…’white bread‘!”

He’s getting exasperated. Perfectionist that he is, I know how serious he means this. Still, I can’t help myself: “I like white bread,” say I.

His eyes flash. “You don’t even eat bread.”

“That’s true.” (I’m grinning, and I know that exasperates him even more, but, honestly, I can’t help myself.)

“Then, don’t play white bread!” he practically bellows.

I sigh. Watch him fondly. Finally, I shrug a bit. “Hon-, I can only do me. I’m not a ‘bro-‘. I ain’t got no rhythm that way. But I did play with Santana for a few weeks long time passing, and they loved my playing.”

“It’s too ‘white bread’,” he repeats. Emphatically.

“Yes, dear. I’ll work on it.”

…Anyone know how to make white bread brown?
Azumi_flute