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Preparing and Thinking Ahead

Michel Debost | January 2011

    I am an avid tennis watcher. I don’t play myself, but I am fascinated by the struggle of wills between two ladies, or two men, on either side of an almost imaginary border – the net. I am especially impressed with their power of concentration. They are in motion as soon as the ball leaves the opponent’s racket, and their inner computer foresees the trajectory. When they fail, the disappointment is palpable, as if they hated themselves for missing. Golf is even more frustrating, perhaps because the opponent is not so much the other competitor as that silly little capricious ball, which seems to go where it wants.
     Doesn’t that remind you of musicians? How many times have I kicked myself in the pants for a stupid mistake? Actually, all mistakes are stupid, are they not? Then again, if we think of past and present mistakes, technical or musical, we lay the ground for more mistakes ahead. Like athletes, we lose concentration when we focus on what has just happened rather than anticipating what is to come.
      Instrumentalists don’t have to hit anything. Still, concentration and anticipation are vital. Take breathing: a wind player should not breathe the same way for a short passage as for a long phrase. Once a long phrase begins, anticipation helps to save air at first, instead of needing to call 911 two thirds of the way through.
      Likewise, the word crescendo is a reminder to progressively go from soft to loud, instead of pulling out all the stops immediately. Ditto for accelerando or ritardando.
     I would like to provide a few examples of finger anticipation. These examples concern slow movement, but can be as difficult to play smoothly as fast ones, which are also helped by preparation.
     One of the roughest finger connection is also one of the most common:

                                 C                                             D
     The right pinky1 makes no difference in the sound of the C, so why not anticipate and do away with it, using the right ring finger in anticipation and for balance:

                                C                                             D no change

     The same procedure applies for the other connections in the example above: the right ring finger stays down, whether the interval goes up or down. Smoothness and ease help comfort and phrasing, as well as speed if needed.
     There is no alternative for the E fingering but to have the right pinky down. No shortcuts there. But it is good to know that there are only six notes over the whole range of the flute that must be fingered with the right pinky down: 

All other notes (except for those on the foot joint and in the 4th octave) can be played without the right pinky.
     Take the connection between F# and G to D, in the low and medium ranges, as in various places of the Mozart G major Concerto:

                                   No Pinkie ________________________________

     Likewise, F natural to D and vice-versa are much more smoothly connected when the pinkie is taken off on the F in anticipation of the D.
     The following example from the Finale of Poulenc’s Sonata shows the possibility to use both the F# (right ring finger) as stabilizer and preparation for the D, as well, later, as facilitator for the D/B repetitive connection. The F natural/D does not need the pinkie down. Finally, the F# can stay down on the B/F# repetition, while it is unimportant whether the pinkie is down or up.

                                 B                                            C#

                                D                                             B

                                 B (5 opt.)                               F# (5 opt.)

     These anticipatory fingerings may seem a little farfetched. My opinion is that a few minutes of concentration and logic are worth hours of mindless practice of the so-called real fingerings. Anticipation and preparation can create better music making, in slow and fast movements. It is not always a bad idea to use one’s head.
     No less an authority than Wally Kujala wrote an exhaustive article2 on this same subject , where he says: “I continue to be impressed with (Altès’ 3) rational method for using alternate fingerings.” Unfortunately, this advice does not seem to be followed, as if finding easier and smoother solutions were something to be ashamed of, a cop out, as it were.
     There are many instances, however, where anticipating finger configurations are the fruit of analysis and thought, not just laziness. In all these triads, as in many others, certain fingers can be kept down:

                               F# (5 stays off)                   A & A# (5 off, 4 on)

                              B flat (5 off, 4 on)                     B (5 off, 4 on)

                                E flat (normal                     G flat (normal)

                                 B flat (4 stays on)                   C (4 stays on)

     The only note where the right ring finger must be lifted is the D above the staff.
     The right middle finger can also be left down to facilitate a fast passage or to anticipate a smooth connection between two cantabile notes.
Measure 6 in Aria with flute obbligato from Cantata #212 by J.S. Bach  (Universal Edition)

Throughout this passage the right middle finger can be kept down:

     Even in slow phrases where note connection is musically vital, the E can be anticipated with the same fingering:   

A slow phrase showing preparation is the pp beginning of the beautiful Ibert Concerto slow movement, which is so hard to connect:

                                1st B (anticipates D)           2nd B (anticipates E)

     Finally, when the context permits, it is a good idea to anticipate low C, whether in the low range or when it is needed for the highest D.

From the start of this tricky little lick, there is time to anticipate the low C before the first B, and leave it there until low C:

                                  B (low C on)                     C (low C on)

In the very high notes leading up to the highest D, the quick switch of the pinky to the low C keys is enough to destabilize the flute and cause the D to fail. An excellent example occurs many times in the devilish Finale of the Classical Symphony by Prokofiev, that nightmare of auditioners:

It makes sense to improve stability by preparing the low C fingering at least one beat before, in both cases. The quality of the notes is not affected by the anticipation. The A, which will not speak without the D# key, comes out easily with the low C keys.

                              high G (low C on)                        high A (low C on)

These licks are rare, thank heaven. If the flutist uses his imagination and concentration, however, and anticipates the difficulty, there is a possibility of success.   

1 Debost’s Comments: Three Little Devils (Flute Talk, 1993)
2 Walfrid Kujala: Flute Fingerings in Homage to Henri Altes (
Flute Talk, March 1992)
Celebre Methode de Flute Henry Altes (1826-1895). (various ditions, including in English). Altes was professor at the Conservatoire National de Paris (1868-1893).