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Utah Symphony Flute Section On Creating a Unified Sound

Patricia George | July 2019

    The Utah Symphony was founded in 1940 and became internationally known under the leadership of Maurice Abravanel who was the music director between 1947-1979. He led the orchestra on four international tours, released over 100 recordings, and began a music education program. Today his recordings with the Utah Symphony of the French works by Milhaud, Honegger, Satie, and Varèse are considered some of the best. Abravanel was followed by conductors Varujan Kojian, Joseph Silverstein, and Keith Lockhart. In 2009 Thierry Fischer was selected to be the music director. The orchestra is comprised of 85 musicians and since 1980, the symphony is one of the few 52-week orchestras in the United States. In 2002, a merger created the Utah Symphony/Utah Opera.

What is your role in the orchestra?
Mercedes Smith (principal flute): In an orchestra the principal flutist performs as a soloist, chamber musician, and accompanist. The trick is to know which role you are playing and when you are playing it. Playing soloistically is not about being loud and taking lots of rubato, it is about choosing the right sound and tone colors in the right moments. If I am playing a solo, I will probably use a faster air stream, regardless of the dynamic, to help the sound project. I might also use more vibrato or a brighter tone color to help cut through the rest of the orchestra. However, when it is my turn to blend, I might do the opposite – less airspeed, less vibrato, and a cooler tone color that will lead to a more transparent sound and allow other voices to come through more clearly. The ability to change tone colors quickly from a soloistic sound to a more transparent sound is one of the most important skills for any orchestra musician. 

Lisa Byrnes (associate principal flute):
We are one of the few 52-week orchestras with only three players in each section of the woodwinds. Consequently, I play principal sometimes, but primarily second flute. I consider myself fortunate to be able to perform both roles. One of the biggest challenges is switching back and forth because each role requires such different skills and a completely different mindset. When playing principal, I need to play with a projecting soloistic sound and yet still have the utmost control in soft playing. I have to lead well, make decisions, and play with confidence and consistency. This position allows more artistic freedom and creativity which is the reward to playing principal. 
    Playing second flute means being a team player – blending, being a chameleon, and playing in the shadow of the principal. I rely on my ear and intuition when trying to achieve a perfect blend and accurate intonation. I need to know when to get out of the way and when to play out. Playing in tune, changing tone color and being sensitive to vibrato usage according to what the principal does is vital to creating a unified sound. Doing these things effectively requires a lot of control which in many ways is more physically challenging. Because I am trying to match someone else, I am not necessarily playing in my most natural way. Playing principal allows me to be much more free and natural. Playing both makes me a much more well-rounded flutist. 

Caitlyn Valovick-Moore (piccolo/utility flute): My role is often to blend into the sounds of my colleagues. I achieve this by listening to the tone color and vibrato coming from the section and making sure my sound complements theirs. Playing piccolo and utility flute involves wearing a lot of hats; most weeks of the season I play both instruments. It is a challenge, requiring flexibility and awareness of your role in the section at any given moment. I have times when I am the soloist or I am sitting on top of the wind section line, and there are times when I am playing second, third or fourth flute.
    When I am on piccolo, if I am in unison with the flutes, my job is to be a part of their sound, and I make sure to match vibrato. If my voice is the highest, then I still listen to make sure we are playing in a unified way so that my articulation and note lengths match. I also check the balance to make sure I am singing out but not over-balancing.

How do you achieve a group sound? 
Byrnes: Blending can be one of the most challenging aspects of playing in an orchestra. There are many things to consider: tone color and timbre, intonation, vibrato or no vibrato, articulation length, rhythmic accuracy, ensemble, balance, style, phrasing, just to name a few. Knowing when to play less or when to stand out is very important. If you know the pitch and color tendencies of your instrument as well as the tendencies of other instruments, it will help you play in tune. Get to know every single note of your instrument intimately. When it comes to playing in a cohesive musical style, players should learn the different time periods of music including appropriate articulation, strong-weak inflection, phrasing, vibrato, and ornaments.
    When playing second flute, I am constantly thinking about blend and balance, when to back off and when to play out more. As a general rule, I usually play one dynamic level less than the principal unless the section is marked forte or I am asked to play out more. When playing in unison, I try to be in the shadow of the principal. I use vibrato according to what I hear the principal playing, but generally a lot less when playing second. Understanding the airspeed and direction that the principal uses with softs vs. louds helps me blend well in different dynamics. 
    Even though I am generally following the principal, it is also important to play with confidence to avoid being late on entrances or note endings. There are plenty of instances where the second flute needs to support the line or play out more – playing in harmony, bringing out a moving line while the principal is on a long note, trading off the line, an obligato line, possibly a lower register passage, and bringing out something unusual in the music.

How do you select substitute musicians when a work requires additional flutists?
Byrnes: We have a small list made up of local flutists. Substitutes are selected from an audition as well as past experience with the orchestra. We are very fortunate to have good subs throughout our woodwind sections. Some of the more obvious traits we look for is a blending sound that is not too bright or too loud. It is important not to use too much vibrato or stand out with an individual style. It can also be distracting if a player moves too much, making it difficult to follow the principal winds. A good substitute player should be easy to work with, flexible and perhaps a bit understated like a chameleon. We work with an extremely detailed and perfectionist mindset, and a substitute should come in and do the same thing. That can be a real challenge for someone who does not do it every day with the same players.

Smith: I mostly listen for the kind of sound a person chooses to use as well. A person can play soloistically and expressively and still be successful in a sublist audition (or section flute audition) as long as they have a sound that will not stick out too much. Of course, this is subjective and a sound that works with one orchestra might not be successful in another. Some things that can cause concern for me in terms of blend are too many attacks that are accented or even explosive, vibrato that is too wide or fast too much of the time, struggling to consistently play very short notes, and sustaining very quiet playing in tune.

Valovick-Moore: I look for people with a sound that fits in and allows me to still hear the rest of the section so I can match pitch and style. Good pitch and rhythm are a necessity. Excessive movement can be distracting, and only the principal should cue entrances. It is also important to sit in a way that allows the principal to be seen for cuing.
    I also want someone who is comfortable on piccolo. It is helpful to have matching brands, so that the general tone color is similar, but the most important thing is being able to match balance and pitch. The second piccolo should be aware of balance in unisons and not overpower the first piccolo or stick out. If the second piccolo is playing harmony, then a more equal balance is necessary. When playing second piccolo from the second flute chair, players should be extra aware of balance and pitch, as it is still the job to match the other piccoloist, not vice versa.

Who decides who plays which parts?
Smith: The principal flutist is responsible for creating all of the rosters for each concert. The Utah Symphony employs three full-time flutists and then hires substitutes as needed. For pieces that require three flutes the assignments are very self-explanatory: I play principal flute, Lisa plays second flute, and Caitlyn will play third flute/piccolo. For works with just two flutists, Lisa, as associate principal, will usually play on concertos or other pieces on the first half of the concert. The associate principal also plays whenever the principal is sick or taking time off. Works that only require one or two of us allow for the others to rotate out of that piece. I try to make the assignments as fairly as possible so that everyone gets the same amount of rotation off. I generally make the assignments as far in advance as possible, and then send them out to the others for feedback.

What is a typical rehearsal schedule?
Valovick-Moore: A Masterworks week generally consists of two or three concerts. If we have three concerts, one of them is a run-out north to Ogden or south to Orem, and the other concerts are at Abravanel Hall in Salt Lake. We have four to five rehearsals for these concerts, depending on repertoire, the music director’s wishes, and the orchestra’s schedule. If it is a four-rehearsal week, we have a single rehearsal, followed by a double the next day, and then a rehearsal the day of a concert. Five-rehearsal weeks usually involve two double rehearsal days followed by a rehearsal the morning of the concert. Typically, we have another concert happening during these weeks, such as an education concert, a movie, or a concert with a guest artist. In addition to 18 weeks of Masterworks programs, we perform four operas, five to six movies, four to five Pops concerts, and have a 12-week summer season. Education concerts are an important part of the orchestra’s mission, and we perform about 40 full orchestra education concerts and 15-20 chamber orchestra concerts.

Did you have a particular teacher who influenced your orchestral playing? 
Byrnes: I was fortunate to work with Richard Woodhams (former principal oboe of the Philadelphia Orchestra) when I attended Curtis. We had woodwind sectionals every week. Tone production and tuning were discussed on a regular basis. During that period, I worked a lot on long tones and listening for the overtones or ring in the sound. This really helped me understand the relationship between good sound and good intonation, and how to blend better with other players. In addition, I heard Mr. Woodhams perform with the Philadelphia Orchestra every week, which made a substantial impression upon me.  I also absorbed a lot of great musical information from other faculty and the many talented students at the school.  

Valovick-Moore: My study with Mary Stolper greatly influenced my orchestral playing, and I had orchestral repertoire classes at DePaul and Northwestern, and in addition, Mr. Kujala had us learn important flute repertoire, like Mendelssohn Symphony No. 4, Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4, and Brahms Symphony No. 1. In studio class he taught us what to listen for, how to play the music with the appropriate style, and corrected balance and intonation. 
    The orchestra director at DePaul, Cliff Colnot scheduled wind sectionals, and from him we learned the importance of balance and tuning chords. If the balance is off, an octave or chord can sound out of tune. An example of that in an octave would be if the low note is too soft, or in a chord, if the third is the loudest note. Everything could be in tune on a tuner, but the sound might not be right or ringing. Fixing balance can come down to intuition, or experimentation. Is the top voice too loud, or does the lower voice need to support more? Is the third of the chord too loud, or the fifth? Knowing what part of the chord you are, and who you are playing with is also important. You need to look at scores and listen to recordings. Minor thirds get raised, major thirds get lowered, and the fifth is two cents sharp.

Smith: In the short time I spent studying with Jeanne Baxtresser she completely changed my sound and vibrato. For the first month of my freshman year she had me play all repertoire with no vibrato at all, and I practiced vibrato exercises separately. We practiced different vibrato speeds and depths, making sure that I was vibrating equally above and below the correct pitch and ensuring I could play with a vibrato that was inside the sound rather than on top of the sound. After a month we then started to slowly incorporate vibrato back into my regular playing, first by using vibrato only on the long notes and as the weeks went by gradually adding vibrato to the smaller note values.

Do you have any tips on improving intonation?
Byrnes: Working with a tuner on a regular basis is essential. When it comes to intonation, be sure to compromise as flexibility is often the name of the game. In an orchestra, oboes sit in the same row as the flutes, and clarinets and bassoons are behind in the next row. Realize that most likely these other musicians cannot hear you in the same way that you hear them. It is important to be a team player so be diplomatic when working on intonation.

Valovick-Moore: When I was younger, I would play duets with friends to work on my intonation, and sometimes would make a game of trying to match pitch. Have one person pull out or push in the headjoint, and the other person has to match the pitch. I also suggest putting the tuner on a drone and work on matching it. Get comfortable moving pitch around to hear what being sharp or flat sounds like and train the ear to recognize which way to adjust when you are out of tune. When working on intonation, leave vibrato out, so that you hear a pure sound without the variations of pitch that come with vibrato. When you are comfortable matching unisons and octaves, listening for the ring in the sound and an absence of beats in the sound, move on to fifths, thirds and sevenths. Taffanel et Gaubert #10, #12, #8, and #9 are extremely useful for this. Good section intonation comes with taking care of your own business first. Be comfortable hearing when you are out of tune and adjusting to fix it.
    Flute choir can be a good time to work on good intonation. Parts may be doubled which provides an opportunity to blend and match vibrato, or if you are the second player on the same part, you could also not use any. Vibrato that does not match is just going to sound like two people playing out of tune with each other.

Smith: My goal is to be as flexible as possible. It is much easier for the flute to bend pitch than it is for other woodwind instruments. It is easier for everyone if I can make a quick intonation adjustment. When practicing with a tuner, remember that just because the tuner says you are in tune, does not mean that the note will be in tune in context. For example, the principal flute will very often play the third of the chord on the very last note of a piece. In order to sound in tune, a major third must be played 13.5 cents flat and a minor third must be played 13.5 cents sharp. Practice to be able to bend every note both flat and sharp 13-14 cents. I think about the intonation for every single note I play and am constantly making adjustments.

Do you have any tricks for counting long sections of measures of rests?
Byrnes: Know the music well. Study the score and listen to recordings. Write in cues. Use your fingers (discreetly) to keep your place.

Smith: Counting rests does not have to be scary. If I have a long stretch of rests, I will write in cues (entrances of other instruments or sections) that help me to know I am counting correctly. 

What other advice do you have? 
Smith: So much of playing principal flute is about flexibility. Whether it is bending pitch to tune a woodwind chorale section, adjusting the tempo to accommodate the conductor’s rubato, or simply trying out a new musical interpretation, flexibility is a critical skill. Sometimes you are the soloist and sometimes you are not, and these changes can happen very quickly – often within the same measure.
    Arrive at the first rehearsal armed with knowledge of the score and an informed musical interpretation. For example, I might decide that I want to play a Brahms symphony with a warm sound, using a round vibrato that is not too fast, and will be careful to play certain short notes with a bit of length. This is very different from how I would approach a piece like Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, which might require sharp, percussive attacks and a wider range of tone colors, from pastel and impressionist to more angular sounds with very fast airspeed and laser-like projection. I also consider the expressive qualities of the music and  practice solos in many different ways (tempi, rubato, breathing, etc.) before the first rehearsal. This helps me to be more comfortable performing spontaneously in concert and also makes it easier to follow any requests the conductor might make. Sometimes conductors will allow you to play with complete freedom, or they may ask you to do something unexpected instead. Make the best of these requests, maintain a good attitude, and remember that doing challenging things outside one’s comfort zone is an opportunity for growth.

Valovick-Moore: Playing piccolo well requires courage. Do your homework – work with a tuner, a metronome, and recording device so you are well-prepared going into rehearsals. Embrace the instrument; do not be scared of it. During your first experiences playing piccolo, you may be tempted to play passages an octave lower, but this is not the character of the piccolo. Practice so you are prepared and go for it. I primarily listen to the instruments around me (woodwinds and violins) to fit my sound into those sections. Because of the tessitura, playing piccolo is like putting frosting on the cake. It should be beautiful.      

Mercedes Smith, Principal Flutist
    A Texas native, Smith served as Principal Flutist of the Houston Grand Opera and Houston Ballet Orchestras for nearly a decade. She has performed with the Seattle Symphony, San Diego Symphony, Houston Symphony, and served as Prin-cipal Flutist of the Pacific Symphony during the 2010-2011 season. Awarded first prize in the NFA 2010 Young Artist Competition, She was also the second prize winner of the 2007 Haynes International Flute Competition and top prizewinner of the Manhattan School of Music Concerto Competition Smith has performed multiple times in Carnegie Hall, Europe, and Asia, and performed as guest Principal Flutist for the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra’s 2018 European Tour. Currently on the faculty of the Miami Summer Music Festival, she also has performed at the Grand Teton Festival, Oregon Bach Festival, Tanglewood, Music Academy of the West, Verbier Festival Orchestra, and Marlboro Music Festival. She was accepted as a scholarship student at the Manhattan School of Music at the age of 16 and studied with Michael Parloff, Jeanne Baxtresser, and Ronda Mains. She is Board Chairman of Salty Cricket, an organization in Salt Lake City that provides after-school orchestra programs.

Lisa Byrnes, Associate Principal Flute
    Byrnes serves on the faculty at the University of Utah as Adjunct Asso-ciate Professor of Flute and also was on the faculty at Brigham Young Uni-versity. She earned her Bachelor of Music degree at the Curtis Institute of Music and a Master of Music degree at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music with some undergraduate studies at the Eastman School of Music. Her major teachers were Julius Baker, Jeffrey Khaner, Timothy Day, Bonita Boyd, Richard Sherman, and Caryl Mae Scott. She held the position of Acting Principal Flute for the 2011-2012 season with the Utah Symphony and was previously a member of the New World Symphony under the direction of Michael Tilson-Thomas. She also held the position of Principal Flute with the San Francisco Opera/Western Opera Theatre as well as the Sarasota Opera Company. She has performed in summer music festivals including Tanglewood, the National Repertory Orchestra, the Chautauqua Music Festival and the International Music Festival in Evian, France. She has performed as a concert soloist with several orchestras and has been on the faculty at Humboldt State University Sequoia Chamber Music Workshop for 25 years. She has performed chamber music with groups including The Left Coast Ensemble, Alternate Currents, Nova Chamber Series, Intermezzo Chamber Series, Three Fish and a Scorpion and Sundays@7. 

Caitlyn Valovick-Moore, Piccolo/Utility Flute 
    Valovick-Moore joined the Utah Symphony in 2008, and served as Acting Associate Principal Flute during the 2011-2012 and 2014-2015 seasons. She also performs with the Grand Teton Music Festival Orchestra, and is on the faculty at the University of Utah as an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Flute. In addition, she performs chamber music with the Nova Chamber Music Series, the faculty recital series at the University of Utah, Sundays@7, and Intermezzo Chamber Music Series. Prior to her Utah Symphony appointment, She was a member of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, and was a prizewinner in the NFA Piccolo Artist Competition. A native of northern Michigan, she attended her final two years of high school at Interlochen Arts Academy and went on to receive her Bachelor of Music degree from DePaul University and her Master of Music degree from Northwestern University. She has studied with Mary Stolper, Walfrid Kujala, and Stephanie Mortimore. 

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Playing Tips for Exposed Flute Parts in the Orchestral Repertoire

Smetana: The Moldau

Byrnes: Smetena’s The Moldau starts with a solo in the second flute that sets the mood for this beautiful work about the Moldau River. Visualization can help you create a feeling of ebb and flow. When the first flute enters in measure 3, the musical line really gets going. The goal in this excerpt is to create a seamless line as if it is played by one flute. Both players should play with the same kind of sound, use a gentle articulation, play evenly, and pay special attention to the written dynamics joining one line to the next. Your mind should be thinking about both parts for continuity, not just your own. Be proactive, not reactive, otherwise you will be late. Think ahead and look ahead. 

Dvorák: Symphony #9 in E minor, “From the New World,” Op. 95, B. 178

Byrnes: In the first movement of Dvorák, the composer gave solos to the first and second flutes, as well as a small four-bar solo to the piccolo. This piece is an excellent example of musical material that is the same solo in all parts, but may be played differently each time it comes back. The two main solos start in the first flute part near the beginning of the movement when things are getting started, in tempo with possibly a happy characteristic. Next comes the piccolo solo which could be echoing the horn, and finally, near the end of the movement, the second flute has the same two solos that the principal played earlier but in different keys. Perhaps this time it is like a memory or might have a melancholy sound. The final solo occurs near the end of the movement, so it also has a different mood, and there may be more flexibility in the tempo. Dvorák may have purposely chosen the second flute’s low register to change the mood or character of these solos. Second flute players spend much of their time in this register. 

Mendelssohn: Symphony #4 in A major, Op. 90

Byrnes: Here at the beginning of the second movement of the symphony is an example where both flute parts are equally important. Each line complements the other. When the second flute is in the low register, it can play out more to balance the first. Stylistically, you will have to play according to what the conductor or the principal wants. Since it is considered religious in nature, it is sometimes played very purely with minimal vibrato, or you may be asked to play with a full-bodied sound and a singing expressive vibrato. I have performed it both ways.

Prokofiev: Symphony #1 in D major “Classical”

Byrnes: In the fourth movement of Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony two flutes trade off the same material. Both players should be equally technically proficient and consistent. The second flute should match the pitch and articulation of the first flute.

Britten: The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra

Byrnes: This has a somewhat difficult variation for the flutes. There are several important things for the second flute to consider in this excerpt. In variation A, second flute starts alone and plays a fast-articulated motif in the low register. Have courage, and come in with confidence. Both flutes trade off for several bars, building in volume until they come together in rhythmic unison. It is written in harmony, so bring out the second part. It must be perfectly aligned with the first flute and played with a short articulation. Several bars later, the flutes take turns playing an arpeggiated figure, so be sure to match the volume and energy of the first flute. They come together once again in perfect rhythmic unison and harmony. 

Valovick-Moore: Fundamentally, listen to your section mates, it is more about following each other than being with the conductor’s stick. The piccolo matches the flutes’ style, note length, and articulation. Sometimes to better match the articulation of the flutes, I begin with a breath attack rather than a tongued attack. Listen to the sound of the principal flute and take that sound and go from there. If you are passing a line to someone else, release gently, not abruptly, allowing the phrase to continue, do not disappear too soon before the line is handed off.

Mozart: Don Giovanni, K.527 “Overture”

Smith: When I play in orchestra, I always think about whether I have the leading voice at any given moment. This simple passage from the overture shows a place where the second flute has an important moving line. Although I may be playing the upper note, it is the second flute’s harmonic line that needs to come through the texture. In this example I would clearly attack the top E with a vibrant ringing vibrato and then immediately reduce the dynamic slightly and significantly reduce the vibrato to allow the second flute’s line to be heard. Sometimes we even trade off attacks like tolling bells – each with a clear, prominent attack and a quick decay (diminuendo) to allow the other voice to come through the texture. It is important to recognize which phrases should be played in a very sustained way and which should have much more decay and transparency.