Those First Four Measures

Mary Karen Clardy | January 2021

   The old saying that cream rises to the top is true in my experi­ence as a judge of national and international competitions. Lists of prize winners often include the names of previous semifinalists or finalists; their consistency, polish, and bril­liance are characteristics they demon­strate in each performance. Exper­ienced judges understand the impor­tance of the first four measures: a strong beginning sets the style and builds both momentum and confi­dence for a winning performance.

   The same characteristics are obvious in outstanding athletes (Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan) who start strong and establish their presence and power in the game. This momentum often builds to a winning conclusion. Con­fidence, accuracy, and excitement cre­ate a strong first impression. The observations of a coach or trainer help an athlete to eliminate much of the trial-and-error that produces failure in inexperienced competitors. The flutist’s first opportunity to excel is the begin­ning notes of the solo exposition of Mozart’s G Major Concerto (K. 313), one of the most commonly requested flute competition pieces; they set the style of the performance.
   Observations and evaluations by an experienced teacher benefit flutists, just as they do athletes and competi­tion pressures or other performance dis­tractions make rigorous mental prepa­ration necessary. Performers should understate the important aspects in those first moments of a piece in order to improve competition preparation. To create a winning first impression, I suggest these steps as the best way to the winners’ circle: confidence, rhyth­mic organization, environment, atti­tude, and musical impression.
   Confidence. Even before playing the first note, performers should demon­strate confidence in the way they walk to the center of the stage, smile at the audience, and coordinate the opening notes with the pianist. This confident demeanor includes stand­ing straight, walking with a sense of purpose and with eyes focused ahead. Never turn away from the audience; and when tuning, listen to the pitch of the piano in order to have it clearly in mind before playing. The flute should tune with a strong sound and move into different dynamic levels. Adjust the music stand to fit your height without blocking your face from the audience. Many inexperi­enced performers raise the stand too high and eliminate contact and com­munication with the audience as well as interfering with projecting the tone to the back of the hall.
   Setting the Rhythm. Establish an internal pulse before beginning the performance to define the meter and rhythmic structure; these are essential characteristics in a performance. Pre­cise rhythm patterns communicate phrase structure to the audience, and they convey style and meaning to the audience immediately. Run through one fast, tricky measure, mentally, sub­dividing the basic pulse into smaller units. Rhythmic accuracy is an impor­tant element in every performance but particularly for orchestral auditions.
   Environment. Experienced competitors understand that the particularly frustrat­ing effects of different temperatures and acoustics are out of the performer’s control and will practice in different locations in anticipation of either lively or dead acoustics. It helps to rehearse in large, small, dry, or live classrooms, rehearsal halls, or recital halls to learn to adapt quickly to what­ever conditions may exist for the per­formance. Temperature also affects both flute and performers, because either hot or cold temperatures cause intonation, endurance, and other per­formance problems. Practicing with a sweater or jacket on a hot day will sim­ulate a performance when the air con­ditioning fails.
   Attitude. A positive, anticipatory attitude toward performance creates confidence in both performer and audience, and even if nerves are a fac­tor, maintaining a great attitude con­veys confidence in your performance. Anxiety and nervous tension often begin days or weeks before a perfor­mance, and a calm, focused practice carries over into performance and cre­ates confidence rather than insecurity. Focus on the music and the enjoyment of performing for an audience in order to calm performance anxiety.
   Musical Impression. The most impor­tant element in the first four measures is also the musical substance and style they convey. This is certainly the most subjective part of any musical perfor­mance, but the key in which the pas­sage is written, the tempo, the time sig­nature, and structure have to be com­bined with a tone quality, dynamics and the intuitive or emotional quality that connect the notes to capture the soul of an audience. Players should record practice sessions and listen objectively for the musical impression beyond the notes to develop this essential part of performance. It’s helpful to find a part­ner and trade performance observations; write objective improvement suggestions such as more dynamic contrast, rhyth­mic accuracy, or improved tone quality.
   As the academic year begins and new challenges and opportunities emerge, players who make use of these suggestions will feel more confident and experience more success in audi­tions, competitions or performances. Remember that the cream always rises to the top.