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Have You Got the Moves: Leading in Chamber Music

Mark Sparks | April 2014

    One of the most satisfying flute experiences is performing chamber music with colleagues. Actually, nearly everything we play is a form of chamber music, whether we are playing with piano, another flutist or two, a wind quintet, a small string ensemble, orchestra, or band.
    After all the practicing, we are not just playing for ourselves. Communicating music to an audience is the central purpose of what we do, but let us not put the chicken before the egg. Before communicating with an audience, players should first be able to make musical goals and ideas clear to those with whom they are playing. 
    In spite of a common jovial bias among fellow musicians that flute players are show-offs, many of them do look to flutists for musical cues and tempo indications. It may pain them to admit it, but in the heat of the moment in a chamber music setting, all eyes go to the flute player. This makes sense because the flute juts out into space like a baton. Some musicians, because of their instrument size and shape or seating position in the ensemble, are uncomfortable cueing or indicating tempo. For flutists it seems quite natural. Unfortunately, being the leader puts more on your plate. Flutists not only must master the fundamentals and fine points of playing a piece; they are also partially responsible for the performance level of the ensemble.

Basic Skills
    The basic cueing motion is the downbeat. A downbeat cannot exist in a vacuum and requires an upbeat to be operative. To give this upbeat, flutists should start with the end of the flute rather lower than usual, then raise the end and bring it down decisively, with an ictus at the bottom, just as a conductor would with a baton. The upbeat must be in time, or indicate a clear subdivision of the pulse. To complicate matters, some rhythmic cues occur on odd beats, which means that the flutist must indicate a beat pattern with the end of the flute. For example, a typical cue given on the fourth beat of a 4/4 measure requires a horizontal upbeat. A cue given on the second beat of the bar requires an upbeat that looks like a small downbeat. No matter their position, upbeats should be smaller than their downbeats.
    A beat pattern is often necessary when playing with a small group. Just as a conductor uses a “floor – left wall – right wall – ceiling” pattern for common time, a flutist leading a group should use a “floor – front wall – back wall – ceiling” approach with the end of the flute. For triple meter eliminate the front wall move. If all of the motions are simple up and down patterns, or a cue is given on an odd beat, you will look like a flute-playing bobble-head doll, and colleagues will be confused which beat the group is on. Sometimes it is possible to copy the violinists and give a little sniff through the nose, perfectly in time, for the upbeat.

Other Moves
    In a chamber ensemble, flutists often cue the cut-off at the end of a movement. One way to indicate a cut-off is to draw a letter O with the end of the flute or move the end of the flute forward and back as if ringing a doorbell. A diminuendo can be indicated by slightly lifting the end of flute so all musicians know how to pace the change. A doorbell movement can also be used to indicate note length and accents. 
    Visual cues can be important as well. Know the music well enough so that you can frequently look up. Place the music stand far enough away from you and just high enough so that your line of sight to colleagues is clear. Skilled chamber players constantly lift their eyes up off the music and share the musical moment with their colleagues. This is what I call fun, and the audience likes it too.
    Cueing to a pianist requires some modification. If you stand next to the piano, sight lines are a big problem. It is better to stand in front of the crook of the piano. The pianist can see you clearly, but you should turn a bit towards them for major cues. Use the downbeat motion described previously for most cues, and tempo indications. Beat pattern is not so crucial here, but the ictus of your beat is very important in a flute and piano collaboration, because of the precision of the piano’s attack.
    Principal flutists in orchestras sometimes find it helpful to move for the benefit of the section, or for winds sitting behind them. Keep these motions to a minimum, unless the style of the group (such as the Berlin Philharmonic) indicates more liberal motion. Some orchestras move a lot and some very little, but in any orchestra you do not want the conductor thinking there are too many cooks in the kitchen and that you are one of them. If giving motion to indicate an entrance in a slow tempo, start your upbeat move after the conductor gives his, and be rhythmic about it. Sometimes for section cues, I slide a bit forward on my chair so my fellow flutists can see me peripherally. Many times, I wait for colleagues to ask me to cue, or I courteously offer to do so.

    When learning the moves described above, start by practicing them in a mirror, without the flute. You should know the music very well, so study the score. Make indications and cues in your part. The better a musician you are, the easier it becomes to cue with confidence. If you are learning to cue, remember that just being able to give some important cues and upbeats in the right spots can make a huge difference to the ensemble, and especially to an accompanying pianist.
     Head, hands and arms move together as a unit. Think of a triangle drawn from the footjoint end of the flute to your forehead, then down through the embouchure hole of the flute to your sternum, and then a straight line back over to the flute end. Hands and arms are included in this tangent. This triangle should stay properly shaped and relaxed for all movements. Moving any part independently interferes with good position and therefore, will negatively affect tone quality.
     When giving precise cues, do not accent. This can be difficult. After mastering the basics, get comfortable with the hard stuff: giving large, accurate cues and tempos when playing legato, gentle dolce cues, and precise cues while entering pp.

Be Appropriate
    Do not conduct or give cues when accompanying a more important part or solo, and do not move to the point that it becomes a distraction to others. Keep motions within the character of the music. Often, less is more. Start the group off, but then let it play. Smaller, precise motions are always better. Mastering the art of movement in chamber music takes years but is an integral part of your musicianship and deserves the same attention as other musical aspects.