Trompe-l’œil, Trompe-l’oreille

Michel Debost | March 2010

  Trompe-l’œil is a painting technique consisting of “tricking-the-eye” either by a false perspective or by representing deceptive objects. It was used by great (and not so great) artists and architects of all periods, sometimes playfully, sometimes with the philosophical idea that nothing in life is always what it seems.
  The American artist Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) used the technique beautifully to show humor and nostalgia. The Spaniard Salvador Dali (1904-1989) is the most famous member of the movement known as “Surrealism,” a term that means things more real than real.
  That same type of trickery is used on the flute.  Similar to trompe-l’œil in the visual arts, alternate fingerings in the musical arts trick the ear into hearing the written pitch with an easier set of fingerings. There is a stigma attached to the use of alternate fingerings, even called fake fingerings, among many flutists – even by myself when I was younger.
  Some professors used to outright forbid the use of the thumb-Bb, teaching students to use only the right-hand
Bb in the belief that it improved finger technique. Using the thumb Bb  was supposedly taking the easy way out.
  The thumb-Bb key was invented by the Italian virtuoso Giulio Briccialdi (1818-1881- pictured on right). With this new key he created the only real improvement to the Boehm flute as we know it now. I can say that most flutists I know in the profession use it consistently, even if they are, for some reason, ashamed to indulge with it and require their students not to use this object of lascivious sloth.
  The traverso, which prevailed for many centuries, was a beautiful instrument made of boxwood or precious species of exotic woods, sometimes ivory, or rarely crystal. To this day there are lovers of these instruments who won’t even look at a modern flute and who frown upon us metal flute players daring to peruse their repertoire.
  The traverso had a birth defect, however. It was built on the diatonic scale, whereby each basic hole was one step of a chosen scale, mostly D major, or a transposition thereof. The consequence was that any note outside the basic scale had to be played with a combination of fingerings, which we would call fake fingerings. There lies the technical difficulty of the traverso: these fingerings are necessary to play in a distant key or to improve intonation.
  Boehm’s flute is chromatic, and that was his stroke of genius. It is built on the premise that each note of a scale, any scale, could be produced by using two holes (in the case of a whole step interval) or one hole (in the case of a half-step distance).
  This does not mean that the Böehm flute could do without alternate fingerings. Boehm flutes require fingerings, (especially in the high range), that are essentially alternate fingerings.
  I recall my old Conservatoire professor, Gaston Crunelle, encouraging us to use the Briccialdi thumb-Bb key or other “fake” keys, in order to find comfortable solutions. Once, after Crunelle had been replaced by Fernand Caratgé, a sort of taskmaster greatly appreciated by the British students, I played an F-major scale with the thumb Bb. I was reprimanded and told to play Après-midi d’un Faune, where the last note of the solo is A#. Of course, he did not like my interpretation and proceeded to demonstrate his to the class, finishing the solo on the A#… but using the thumb Bb . Young buck that I was, I pointed out his inconsistency. He was furious for having been caught with his pants down in front of the class. I don’t think he ever forgave me.
  This is just to show that even great pros cut corners. No big deal, but my motto is “Whatever you do, teach it”, not “Do as I say, not do as I do.” I also think “If it’s easier, do it!”
  So trompe-l’œil is for the eye or the brain, I would like to innovate with trompe-l’oreille or trick-the-ear. I think that a noisy finger technique, sounding like an old Corona typewriter, is not the sign of musical playing. The illusion we should give is one of ease and smoothness, a beautiful structure in a fragrant garden. It should  not evoke the feeling of a gutter fight between the flutist and his poor instrument.
  One of the reasons for brutal treatment of the poor flute is what I call slam-and-squeeze: some fingers come down forcefully on the keys, with a bang (noise), then are pressed in that position. The added muscle tension of squeezing the keys down makes lifting those fingers more difficult and slower. Slamming also hurts the mechanics of the keys and pads.
  In fact, the strength should only be applied to static points of contact between the player and the instrument.
• The right hand thumb
• The first joint of the left forefinger
• The contact of the lip plate on the chin.
They serve as anchors, even though they do not actually create notes. Their immobility is an asset for stability.
  To make believe that our fluent technique is a dream, we can practice the flexible lift off of the “up” fingers, and moderate the slam of the “down” fingers. This is not only true for fast passages, but also for slow ones, where a lack of connection between notes shows up even more than in fast licks.
  As I said before, even the Boehm flute uses difficult finger combinations, especially in the high register. It is important to know that the left hand can finger half the notes of the flute (discounting the notes of the foot joint) by itself, from second-line G to the highest C, by using harmonics. The asterisks in the following exercise, Scales in Harmonics, indicate when to use the Bb-thumb key. The sign ∧ shows recalcitrant tone production.  

Scales in Harmonics

  The reason for this convenience is that most high note fingerings are based upon fundamentals two octaves below; to be completely accurate the lower notes in the scales should be notated one octave lower.
  The consequence of this is that we should be aware of which finger activates the closest key to the head joint in order to play the high range efficiently. For example, for the E in the G-major scale above, we should be aware of the A finger. This is a little confusing, so here are a few examples:

Prokofiev Sonata, end of mvt. I:

  In this pp passage, the hole closest to the lip plate is activated by the first trill key. Therefore our emphasis should be on that key to go first. Chin movements are not as efficient. 

Bizet Carmen Entracte:

  The pp Bb is the highest point: as in the Prokofiev, favor the first trill key.

Beethoven’s Leonore III

  The A to F#  is not strictly speaking an alternate fingering, but it is an example of a place in which the secret is in the left hand C#, the closest key to the lip plate, not in slamming down any right hand finger or in trying to force out notes with lip and chin movements.

Ravel 2nd Suite of Daphnis et Chloé

  The interval of A to F# is not helped by slamming right hand fingers. Rather, think of the left thumb and forefinger working together to form the B, which is the fundamental of F#.
  Why are some connections difficult to play smoothly? (Examples: G-Bb repeated, C-D, or B-D in the staff) The reason is that fingers operating in opposite directions are awkward. Because fingers are prehensile (i.e. grabbing) tools, they are meant to move in the same direction.
  Try E to F or A to B; there is no roughness there. However, even without the flute and with the fingers placed on a flat surface, moving the forefinger up when the two next fingers are on the way down is quite a bit harder than moving those same three fingers in the same direction, up or down. The complexity of motion is much greater with the flute, both hands, and antagonistic motion (examples: E-F# in the high range or D-C in the staff).
  The purpose of alternate fingerings, comparable to trill fingerings, is to move as few fingers as possible, not only because it is easier (not a negligeable issue), but because the connection is smoother and consequently more musical. Needless to say, this should never be at the expense of sound quality or noticeable truth of intonation.
  When I hear the brutality of playing that seems to be the norm nowadays (“a BIG sound is essential, dynamics are for the birds, the flute has to cut through at all costs and drown out the brass section”), it is no wonder to me that so many instrumentalists have focal dystonia, carpal tunnel, tendonitis, etc.
In your practice avoid slam-and-squeeze and don’t use force. Instead, think of fingers coming down slowly, but lifting fast and not higher than needed. Mostly practice the lifting. Philosophically, a light touch is a sign of delicacy, of tenderness, of refinement, of spirit; whereas a strong slam is synonymous with weight, matter and brute force, the opposite of what the flute symbolizes to me.