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Slammin an Squeezin A Dialogue with Michel Debost

Michel Debost | January 2013

    You often refer to Jean-Pierre Rampal as one of your models and mentors, and about the ease and charm of his playing. What do you recall of his ideas and idiosyncrasies?

    I never really studied with Jean-Pierre Rampal. He never agreed to give me formal lessons. He would say, “If you want to learn from me, listen to me.” And that I did! I listened from the audience and when I sat next to him in the Paris Opera as a sub. We became great friends, and more than forty years ago, he was my son’s godfather. I admired him devotedly, but I could never duplicate his facility in every area of playing, among them his finger technique. He had little chubby hands and short sausage fingers (he said so himself), which never seemed to stray away from the keys so there was very little apparent finger movement.
    I did not have that facility, and my fingers are long and clumsy, but I think that if the left-hand fingers come down from too high, they will slam (I call that slam-and-squeeze). The harder the fingers come down on the keys, the tighter the grip will be. If the grip is tight, it takes more effort to lift the squeezed fingers, and the louder the key mechanism will be. Have you noticed that key noise comes from downward fingers, because venting or opening keys (except G# and D#) makes no noise? When playing from B to A, the A has a tendency to slam; but when playing from A to B, the lifting does not make any noise. This is why I say a good technique is not always the fastest one, but the most silent and smooth one, even in slow passages. Playing a slow phrase smoothly and seamlessly is just as technical as the opening page of the Ibert Concerto.

What else do you recall about Rampal’s finger technique?
    He had a very special, light, effortless control of his fingers that at times sounded feathery, tender, etc. Every note spoke with a liquid clarity. The intervals were seamless between each note no matter the interval. One can often hear seamless intervals in flute players who have studied or collaborated with Rampal. What is this special touch? I think he did not do any slapping or gripping of the keys because all of this affects the tightness of the body and that in turn affects sound.
    I don’t think the old French system flutes have a significantly different finger spacing than flutes have today. However, even having played most of my life on an inline mechanism, I must confess for purely cosmetic reasons, I think that offset G key is a better configuration for ergonomic reasons. I also think that open holes (of the French system) are not absolutely better than closed. It is more a question of convenience than necessity. Experiment with plugging the three left-hand open keys one after the other, one at a time, and see what is most comfortable for you. That is the real issue. If plugs or key extensions work for you, use them.

What should I practice to develop a smooth technique like Rampal’s?
    I think there is nothing better than comfortable scales in all keys and articulations (Taffanel-Gaubert, #4, nicknamed the Debost Gamme-Game). Speed is not the issue at first. Practice the scales in a slow, smooth, unbroken, un-slammed, and musical way. Rampal advised to play scales as if you were playing a concerto, although, I think at the time I knew him, he was not practicing much anymore. Don’t be dogmatic about theoretical aphorisms. Do what works for you. You are your own best public and your own cheapest professor.
    While other prominent flute professors may disagree, I think lifting fingers is harder than bringing them down. Check this without the flute by resting your open hand on a flat surface. With the heal of the hand resting comfortably, and the fingertips on the table,
    • lift one finger: no problem
    • lift two adjoining fingers together: a little effort
    • lift two opposing fingers simultaneously: awkward
    • lift one finger while lowering another: torture (E to D figure or vice versa)
    Concerning the break C/D or vice-versa (which I call the bridge in my book, because we cross it 10,000 times a day), I try to get rid of the right pinky early, balancing the flute with the D key (called “dead or silent key” in my book The Simple Flute).
    I also think that when possible, it is more stable and comfortable to have at least one finger of each hand on the flute. For example when trilling low or medium B to C, place the right ring finger down as dead-key/stabilizer. The sound is not affected and the tone may even be a little more focused. To create an even trill from G to A, rest the right-hand index finger on the Bb side key to keep the flute stable.

Do you or Rampal have any exercises for flutists to find the most comfortable position for each finger of the left-hand?
    Personally, I do not feel happy with the distance between the left-hand first (index) and second (middle) fingers. The distance feels too large and makes reaching the third key (G) impossible without bending the left wrist at a severe angle. The severe angle of the left wrist is perhaps a source of discomfort for some flutists. I try to keep all the left-hand’s tendons inline and not break my wrist. Even recently, before I stopped playing, I had no qualms about plugging up the G key with a small piece of real cork (preferably from a French wine bottle).
    Marcel Moyse, who never had a naturally easy technique, designed what we used to satirize as “the Orthopedic Couesnon Flute.” Jeanne Baxtresser, former principal flute New York Phil, played a flute with offset left-hand keys. Theobald Böhm, our own genius of the modern flute, chose the offset G for at least two reasons. It requires less strain on the left hand and wrist and is more mechanically sensible than the long rods of the French system, which tend to bend outward.
    I think it is just a matter of finding a way to have every finger in the left-hand move up comfortably. The 2nd (index) and 3rd (middle) fingers of the left-hand grip the flute the most. Going from C to D in the 2nd and 3rd registers are big scale devils. You just want to get a smooth transition in the bridge. I can say that the main fulcrum or balance spot (first phalanx) of the left hand is the only fixed position. It is the main anchor of flute technique. It provides stability, it does not move, and it does not produce notes, just the stability. Remember to reach the G# key or even the third (ring finger) key, you should not have to lift the wrist.

What are your thoughts about creating stability of the flute in the chin?
    In spite of all the contemporary preoccupation with relaxation and fear of tightness, I think a bit of logic here would not hurt. Stability is not a bad word that is interchangeable with tightness. Everyone agrees that rough finger movements rattle the embouchure. These rough finger movements produce broken notes, fuzzy staccato, faulty attacks in the all the wrong places, especially for tricky long-note onsets in the high range of orchestra chords. Let us not confuse chin stability and embouchure tightness. It is the lips, and somewhat the cheeks, that must be flexible and relaxed, not the embouchure/lip-plate point of contact.
    Something has to hold the flute. The fingers in movement produce the various shapes of the musical phrase, and they cannot do that smoothly if they are trying to hold the instrument. My logical conclusion is that the flute should be held by three (+1/2) points. The symbolic 1/2 finger is the right pinky (little devil #2), which is often so tight and bent that it hurts. It is vital for certain notes, of course, but the three other points of stability don’t form notes at all, and therefore do not move. I can call them the three fulcrums.

    If the fulcrums do not produce notes or move, their primary function is to ensure the stability of the embouchure/lip plate contact. Therefore, ideally, the moving fingers that create notes will not be holding the flute, slamming on the way down and lifting with reluctance and effort on the way up.
    A good rule in my view is to find out for yourself what moving fingers are slamming and holding the instrument. A noisy technique, however fast, is not an efficient tool for improvement.
The following exercise is one that I used with young players and mature students alike who had trouble improving their finger playing.
   Hold the flute in playing position, but place the right hand on the barrel of the flute or over to the maker’s trademark. Without any effort, you will feel a comfortable contact of the embouchure plate with the chin. This way you can play quite a lot of nice tunes just with the left-hand. Beethoven’s Ode to Joy (in G major) is one, Chabrier’s Espagna is another. One of my favorites was the initial solo of Debussy’s Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un Faune. You will have to do a little side-stepping with the thumb, but you might get the feeling that this evanescent C# can have many different colors, and the hesitant chromatic fall of the tritone sliding into the expectant G4 can express your own various moods and secrets.
    Said Archimedes of Syracuse (of Greek Sicily, not New York) (± 287 to ± 212 BC), “Give me a fulcrum and a lever, and I will lift the Earth.”