In 2007, I was asked to present a morning warm-up class at the National Flute Association convention in Albuquerque, New Mexico. This article reflects the questions that students asked at that class about my experience as a student in Paris of Raymond Guiot, one of the greatest flute teachers.
Unfortunately the class took place much too early in the morning and after my performance of François Devienne’s Concerto #7 the night before. There I was at 7:45 a.m., longing for a cup of coffee, in the company of many courageous flutists, who got up at dawn to attend. I offer my heartfelt thanks to all who resisted the temptation to sleep in.
Why should we practice?
Students always ask this question, often continuing with, “Why should we practice all of those old, boring, long and painful, technique and sound exercises?” My answer is that we practice them so that we can forget the flute and make music. Without technique and sound we cannot play artistically, no matter how deeply we feel the music.
As I learned from Guiot, the key to enjoying the art of practicing is to explore and develop every aspect of our playing every day. Through regular and dynamic practice, not only does practicing become more enjoyable, but our performances are more exciting and alive. We will be able to accentuate, punctuate, resonate, phrase, change tone colors and dynamics, bring out the magic of the music from the printed page, and make our audiences cry or smile. When we keep these objectives in mind, practicing is never boring.
Everyday we should work for
• A beautiful sustained singing sound with colors and nuances in all registers
• Correct and expressive breathing
• Tasteful imaginative phrasing
• Clear and expressive articulation
• Clean technique with a good sound in fast and/or articulated passages
• Nothing less than perfect rhythm
• Good intonation
• Expression, expression, expression!
With the music as our guide, future teachers and players will never be able to say what Quantz wrote over 200 years ago: “It seems as if the majority of flute players today have fingers and tongues, to be sure, but are deficient in brains, does it not?” (Johann Joachim Quantz, essay On Playing the Flute, 1752).
How should we practice?
First and foremost, learn to listen to what you are playing. You will only be able to know your playing – your strengths as well as your weaknesses – when you practice with ears the size of Mickey Mouse. If you have not identified your weaknesses, you will never be able to tackle and destroy them.
Second, do not spend too much time doing those things you can already do. “If it ain’t broke don’t try to fix it.” On the other hand, don’t let your weaknesses get to your soul and make you blue. They should not be a source of sorrow but a source of excitement because they are your key to improvement. As I learned from Guiot, nothing is ever impossible – difficult yes, but not impossible. He showed me that, by being optimistically stubborn about accepting each challenge and finding creative solutions, there are answers to every problem.
Guiot’s technical training was based on two main books, On Sonority and 480 Scales and Arpeggios (Marcel Moyse, Alphonse Leduc, Paris). To practice from these classics, first, prepare yourself to work mentally and physically.
• Open both your body and mind.
• Start the day gently, kissing your flute hello.
• Find a naturally stable posture.
• Always sing, even when playing only one note.
• Think of the flute as an extension of your body that makes round, colorful, generous, and sensual sounds that are full of meaning.
• Look for the poetry in all exercises. When practicing them you should think of the music and styles of such composers as Bach, Gluck, Brahms, Mozart, Bizet, Mendelssohn, Debussy, and Ravel.
• Do not just play what is printed. Bring the notes to life.
• Caress the flute with air and fingers.
• Don’t clench your fingers on the. keys. Keep them light as feathers.
• Forget any desire to be the strongest, fastest, and loudest. If you want to do that, go shopping for a trumpet!
“Breath is the
of the flute.”
Breathing and blowing without forcing the air column into the flute is of utmost importance when playing tone exercises. Blow through the flute aiming for roundness and resonance. Too much air pressure only makes the muscles tight and saturates the instrument. The throat should be open at all times to allow the a free flow of air. The lips only guide the air stream. Remember that sound comes from the air column, not from the throat, lips, or tongue. Good breathing is a must for a good sound and expressiveness.
Now, open Moyse’s book On Sonority, Art and Technique to page 3, “Timbre and Homogeneity of Tone in the 3 Registers”.
Right from the start, use this exercise to place your sound, just as a soprano would carefully place her voice before launching thoughtlessly into Mozart’s famous Queen of the Night aria. I believe that everyone has a “best placed note.” This is probably due to the physical constitution of both instrument and player, as well as the immutable laws of acoustics. Find this perfect beautiful sound first and use it as a reference point for the rest of the exercise. Proceed with the exercise and, as both Boehm and Moyse cleverly suggested, spread the beauty of that best note to all of the other notes. If a note is well placed and alive from the beginning, the next one will most likely be beautiful as well.
When you are able to sing beautifully through all the exercises from pages 6-9, change rhythms and nuances. This will renew your interest and attention by personally designing exercises to help you improve and expand your expressive palette.
Follow with this set of variations, inspired by Guiot’s teaching.
Just as I have heard him say “Thank you, Marcel Moyse,” I must say now “Thank you, Raymond Guiot.” Thank you for having opened so many doors for me to become a better music-maker!
We should practice exercises and studies with our best personal vitality, concentration, and creativity – always striving for exquisite beauty and radiance. Exercises and etudes should sound like music, reflecting human emotions. Practice etudes with many moods: dolce or bitter, calmo or agitated, sotto-voce or a triumphal forte, tendrement or angrily, leggero or heavy, scherzando or serious, maestoso or fragile, joyeux or sadly.
It takes commitment to go down the magic path of artistry. If you don’t give it all you’ve got, you will not enjoy yourself. Then any exercise will indeed become boring, long and painful, and ultimately useless. It’s up to you.