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Recorder Rant: A Practice Invitation

Mark Sparks | July August 2014

    Using a recorder in your practice is essential to improvement and awareness of what you really sound like, but exactly how you use recording is crucial. What you need is a process of working with a recording device. The difficulty is critiquing objectively. You must separate yourself from your playing when listening to what you record. Switch roles; pretend for a moment you are the teacher giving a lesson. It is hard at first, but you get used to it.
    Assuming an honest acoustic and good microphone placement, recording can be especially effective if concentrating on separate aspects of a brief passage. I use the recorder with a layering technique, first working on a specific thing, such as tonal focus or intonation, then moving on to other areas such as rhythm, retaining the results. When I am finished, I also use the recorder as a tiny but very demanding audience and perform for it to see whether I can bring everything together.
    I would like to invite you into my practice room as I begin work (with my iPhone recorder and headphones) on the first movement of J.S. Bach’s Sonata in E minor (with my trusty Henle Urtext edition), one of the most challenging Bach slow movements. If you are unfamiliar with this piece, I suggest listening to a couple of recordings before reading my ideas. (Many great flutists have recorded it, such as Emmanuel Pahud, and on Baroque flute, Jed Wentz.)

J.S. Bach’s Sonata in E minor

Initial Try
    The plan is to work hard on the first phrase, make decisions, and refine skills which I will apply specifically in the rest of the movement. After warming up with some long tones (Moyse De la Sonorite, with good posture and breathing) and scales (various sections from Maquarre Daily Exercises), I record and listen to the first bars as a baseline recording take.

Tempo, Breathing, and Tone
    I sing through the first bar, and with the continuo part in mind, I choose a tempo of mm=69 for the eighth-note, Adagio, but still in 4/4 meter. I record and listen to myself playing with a metronome, so I gain sensitivity to the pulse. Next, I decide to play this phrase in one breath. Posture, breathing, and tone must be perfect to accomplish this. I explore more extensive, non-vibrato scalar and triadic long tones, especially emphasizing the first octave, pushing my air capacity. Relaxing the throat and checking the alignment of my embouchure with the blowhole in a mirror, I match the timbre of the notes. I record this tone work and listen occasionally. Then I play the whole phrase for the recorder again, without vibrato or expression. Now each note is clear, resonant and focused.

    You must be really objective to notice your intonation flaws. Using a tuner to establish the first couple notes, I then work through the rest, concentrating especially on the open intervals, fourths and fifths. I was hearing the B natural and E natural on the low side of the pitch, and this made some other notes sound sharp. Flexibility will be needed with the continuo, but now I have good awareness. When I record again without vibrato in 10 minutes I note that I have made big progress on basic tempo, breath control, tone, and intonation. This work will enable rapid progress in the rest of the movement.

    After another recording, I hear that my vibrato is too haphazard. It becomes fast and tense with some of the moving notes or before leaving tied notes. For Bach I want a consistent, moderate vibrato speed and quality, somewhat narrow and emotionally cool in character. I define the vibrato speed: a gentle waver of sixteenth notes at mm=72. I also do not want it on every note.
    I compartmentalize vibrato in two areas: quality of vibrato and continuity of it. For quality, I do a few minutes of basic pulsing exercises (very firm pulses with good tone, throat relaxed, on one mid-register note at slow, then faster speeds), and then record segments of scales and arpeggios, with vibrato staying within my strict parameters. For continuity, I record the phrase with an intense continuous vibrato on every note, and then with the gentler vibrato I have chosen.

This Note or That Note?
    As is common in phrases with moderate moving notes, I must actually decide where to continue or discontinue vibrato. I use plain tone on the first two notes, the D#, E, and B of beat 3, the moving notes of measure 2, beat 3, and the final B natural. I record and play to make these decisions. Vibrato intentions, especially in passages that have more long notes, are flexible; it is the control and awareness that I am after. Next I work for a few minutes to stop and start the vibrato discreetly. I have spent 20 minutes on this phrase.

    For phrase shaping I hear three points of emphasis, two of which are liberated from the traditional downbeat-oriented hierarchy of stresses in a 4/4 bar. Measures one and two have an increase of energy to the tied notes in the middle of the bar (measure two being the most important), and the last emphasis is on the D# downbeat of measure three. Recording again, I cross-reference traits. For example, I use slightly more intense vibrato on the tied G natural, my principal phrasing note. I also make small indications in my part regarding the movement of the continuo and harmony, and decisions regarding dynamics, degrees of stress on structural notes, rubato, and articulations. I record and cross-reference each.

    Performing these first bars for the recorder now, I intend to use them as a model for the rest of the movement. After a total of about 45 minutes of work, I record and listen to measures 1-17. Tomorrow I will record the whole section and see how much I have retained. Practicing the entire movement in the next days, things come together quickly.

Slow Work, Fast Results
    Work of this type may be tedious, but it is worth it. Improvement of fundamentals affects everything you play. Progress is rapid, and retention is greatly improved. Recording may seem to inhibit spontaneity, but I have found it actually encourages flexibility, as elements can be manipulated in performance, and self-awareness and intentionality are increased.
    Progress results from combining many beneficial factors. This is a 45-minute demonstration of a certain way of practicing part of a slow movement. There are other methods as well, and much has been written on the topic by noted instructors, such as Leonard Garrison, Samuel Baron, John Krell, and Patricia George. You should be open to as many ways of improving as possible.