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Borrowing Vocalises from Singers

Nancy Schmalz | March 2009

    Like a packrat collecting shiny treasures, I look for teaching ideas in many places. It seemed a good idea to borrow vocalises from the studios of vocal teachers, because they need only a little adapting to be suitable for the flute. Similar to our long tones, singing teachers often begin lessons with vocalizations that consist of short melodic patterns that are repeated in chromatic sequence. The teacher usually accompanies the vocalises with simple supportive harmonies.
    This opening routine allows the teacher to assess a student’s vocal health and readiness to sing other repertoire. It is also a good time to address basic technical matters, such as posture, breathing, and breath management, before working on music that has the additional complications of rhythm and diction. An especially appealing aspect of vocalization is that it is a dual effort, a collaborative introduction to the lesson that sets the mood and energy level for the work to come. Because I like to begin flute lessons with a brief activity that allows both musical and conversational interaction with students, I simply added a second part to the melodic patterns of the vocalises on the following page so that two flutists could play them; I call them “duo-warmups”.
    When used to teach fundamental skills such as breathing, hand position, and posture, the duos can be played without the lower part, so that attention can be given to the student’s performance. I find that these warm-ups are especially helpful as intonation exercises when both parts are played. Sometimes I ask students to identify unisons, fifths, and octaves between the two parts. We add fermatas to those notes, so that we can pause to listen to the intonation.
    We also observe how intonation is affected by the key. Keys with C# or D flat as the tonic or dominant, for instance, require special care. In collaborative music making, compromise is sometimes the best approach. Working with a tuner is an important and necessary skill for students to learn, but playing with other musicians requires flexibility and sensitivity, not to mention tact. Those skills can be learned only by playing with real people, not machines. The duo-warm-ups provide an opportunity to listen attentively to a partner while matching pitch, color, and dynamics.

    Recently I added a new twist to the duos and asked my students to compose their own. Those who had not notated a musical idea before learned to write the transposed versions of their duos with clearly marked accidentals and a legible manuscript.
    Students with access to a piano wrote a lower part for their duos, and I helped the others add a satisfying second part. Then I compiled the students’ duos into a set and distributed them for use in our lessons. As we incorporated the new duos into lessons, the students experienced the pride of knowing that their compositions are now part of the communal studio duo repertoire to be enjoyed and studied by their peers.
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