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Making It Your Own

Nicole Esposito | December 2015

    Performers are often told that it is their job to sell a piece of music. In order to sell any product, one must first own it. Taking ownership of a piece does not simply mean that you can do as you please with it, however. It means to dive into the music in a way that feels as if you wrote it yourself; as if it were pouring directly out from the performer’s soul. To do this, musicians should form a bond with the composer and build a sense of trust and understanding with the music and their own abilities. Investigate and recognize at the highest level possible every musical and technical requirement necessary to communicate this musical marriage effectively to the audience.  
    The first step in taking ownership is to do literally that. Purchase the music. Using resources such as libraries and online sources are fine, but investing in a score that you will use for a lifetime adds a layer of commitment to the project. Library copies need to be returned and should not have written markings. If using an electronic copy on an ipad or similar tablet, it is important to purchase pieces that are not yet public domain.
    Once you own the score, study it. Do not start by simply practicing the flute part. Begin by getting the overall sense and flavor of the work. Figure out the structure, basic harmonic scheme, and how the parts interact with each other. Look up any foreign words that you do not understand thoroughly. It is impossible to do what the composer asks if you do not understand all of the instructions. Keep in mind that the markings on the page are not only instructions that tell the performer how to play; they also describe what listeners should hear. It is important to study these details in the full context of the work.  
    Do research about the composer and piece. Get a sense of what was going on in the world at the time the piece was written. Discover what was happening with politics, art, and science, and how this may have influenced the composer’s ideas. Some musicians prefer not to listen to a new work before performing it themselves, as they do not want to be influenced by another person’s interpretation. It is important to listen to music, however, to develop good musical instincts. If possible, listen to as many recordings of the piece as possible to gain new perspectives or at least listen to other works written by the composer to get a sense of his or her basic style and musical vernacular. 
    People learn from imitation. This is how babies form their first words and take their first steps. Imitation helps us to become who we are. Personalities are cultivated both by inherent traits and learned behaviors. Musical personalities are much the same. Musicians should immerse themselves in the language of music. The subtleties in deciphering dialects within a spoken language are similar to learning the subtle differences between playing a staccato in a work by Beethoven versus one by Mozart. It is quite difficult to produce a particular sound or effect if one has never heard it, let alone demonstrate these differences in sounds, and their subsequent meanings to listeners.  
    Musicians cannot own a work if they first do not have confidence in their basic skills. Develop a technique that allows you to do whatever the composer is asking, from the understanding of the meter, mastery of technical passages through clear and solid rhythm, and the tonal and dynamic range required. Meter is not only about when to play at the right place at the right time, but much more to do with inflection, groove, and character. A proper waltz cannot be danced or played in 24 time. Search for meaning in the meter to add shape and direction to phrases. Counting will become less of an intellectual chore, and more of a feeling within the body.
    Work for a homogenous sound on the flute so that variance in tonal colors will be more effective. Practice long tones at various dynamics, with and without vibrato, varying vibrato speeds, intensity and prominence within the tone. It is not enough to play in tune with a good sound. Flutists should also understand the harmonic context in where each note fits. For example, a C# will have a very different flavor in the key of F# major than it will have in the key of A major or C# minor. Intonation has just as much to do with context and timbre as it does actual pitch.  
    Tone colors are not the only way to show expression through skill. When practicing scales and arpeggios, go beyond the note and articulation groupings suggested in the books. Use them as a launching pad for further exploration and discovery. Practice the same articulation grouping with various styles of articulation. Whether it is a softer tongue stroke, more clarity, short tapers, or ringing releases, work on control and execution of these stylistic elements at various dynamics. It is entirely possible to infuse the same type of pattern with many different layers of meaning.
    Do not worry about how to make your interpretation original. A performer’s interpretation of the music will be distinctive in the sense that no one else can provide exactly the same voice. No two people study with the exact same teachers, perform in the same concert halls, in the same orchestras or chamber groups, travel to the same places, eat the same foods and so on. It is not necessary to try to become original, because you already are. 
    Do not sell yourself short by trying to sell something that is not entirely yours. Do what the music is asking with your entire being. Expect more from yourself so that you can bring more to the music. Take risks in daily exercise practice to discover what is possible. Bring confidence to performances with through mastery of skill and musical awareness. Have a few tricks up your sleeve and an arsenal of expressive tools, so that you can provide a vivid window into the composer’s world.