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Beloved Neurosis

Michel Debost | March 2012

   One of the most common ailments of age is loss of hearing. Exaggerated levels of heavy metal and amplified music, live or through earphones, can damage the delicate mechanisms of the human ear. I have sat in front of red-faced blaring brass sections, but I have always listened to reasonable levels of decibels. Still I am losing some of my hearing. This was one of the reasons of my retirement from playing and teaching.
   “Il n’y a pas plus sourd que celui qui ne veut pas entendre.” This old French saying can be translated as: “The worst deafness is refusing to listen.” When a habit is well ingrained, it is like a neurosis. The first step toward a cure is accepting the fact that there is a problem whether it is a dependency on alcohol, tobacco, or even flute mannerisms. I am not addicted to most of them, but concerning the latter, I am not so sure. After playing the flute for over 60 years, I should not be enjoying it so much anymore, but the urge still tickles me. That is my neurosis, and I love it. Let us look at a few flutisms, just for fun. No offense meant to anyone.

Starting and playing rituals
   We all have our rituals. This flutist blows hard through the tube as if to flush the cobwebs accumulated since the last time she practiced; that one aligns the flute as if aiming a shotgun. Another wipes the lip plate three times with a cloth; one powerful fellow takes the stance of a karateka; and then there is the flutist who cannot start a piece without a sweep of the flute, even if she is alone. The list goes on.
   Once under way the gyrations start. Passion pervades the most innocuous line. Even a held note deserves wiggling and tossing. We genuflect or rise on our toes. One foot affirms character with a stomp, the other beats time.
    If it helps, let’s do it, without forgetting that the most important element is still the playing, and that our neurotic movements can actually hinder our performance.

The Sacrosanct Long Tones
   One of the first questions I used to ask new students was a description of their practice, sometimes called their routine, an awful and revealing word. Often the answer was: “I always start with my looong tones” (Moyse: De La Sonorite No. 1, half-step slurs descending and ascending). Playing this exercise mindlessly is often an excuse to think we are practicing or warming up, but in effect are actually accomplishing little. We also incorrectly think that anything where we do not have to move the fingers fast is easy. Why don’t we play something that involves tone, fingers, intonation, breathing, tone (again), tonality, articulation, and tone (always)? Yes, you got it: scales (Taffanel-Gaubert Exercise #4, or many others). Instrumental playing is not a dresser with one drawer for technique, one for tone, one for tonguing, one for pitch control, etc. Hopefully, they all work together to serve music.

Flutes and Headjoints
   Who has ever heard of a flute or head-joint maker who did not claim that out of his shop came the final flute marvel in the century? That is normal; business is business. The strange thing is that we believe it. We are constantly searching for the magical instrument that will miraculously make us better. We are not alone. Adolph Herseth, the legendary principal trumpet of the Chicago Symphony told me he had hundreds of mouthpieces. He alone knew which one he was playing, but it was Herseth we heard.
   We must have spanking new flutes, with the latest scale, perfectly in tune, of course. Julius Baker played on many flutes (and sold even more), but it was the player and not the instrument who set the standard so high in America.
   Conversely, we might be holding on for dear life to our old headjoint as to our alter ego. I played for 25 years on a Louis Lot flute made in 1862. I thought I could not live without it. It was out-of-tune, like all flutes, or shall we say, all flutists, but not more so. I sold it to Wibb Bennett. In England the fashion is Louis Lots; they would not think of blowing one of these shiny new yellow American or Japanese flutes.
   Our flute is our fetish, an extension of our being. And so be it, if we feel happier for it. Still, the flute is a just piece of sophisticated plumbing, and until machines take over, the flute player and his art are the ultimate answer.

Tuners, Metronomes, CD Players
   Tuners, metronomes, CD players are our servants, not our masters. The tuner only gives a starting measurement of pitch. After tuning listen to others and ourselves. Find a common ground. Feel the pulse of the heart, the throb of life, before the inhuman beat of the metronome. If the machine helps to verify the tempo and control our slowing or rushing, however, it is very useful.
   Do not play with the metronome, but against it. Phrasing and pacing are a way to bend and stretch the predictability of the hourglass. In music as in life, there are seconds, which are larger than hours, and stay with us forever.
   Flutists should look at the score to decipher the total magic of a composition before rushing to the recording. CDs and tapes are designed primarily to bring music to the non-musician, not to fabricate intelligence and feeling for the performer. Of course, these inventions are an asset. However, we work not for them, but with them.

Cleaning Rituals
   It was a surprise to me when I settled at Oberlin that one is advised to never leave a rag inside the flute. The old French flutes had a rod with an upholsterer’s tassel on it, which was left inside the center joint (preferably not while playing!). After wiping most of the water out, the rod stayed inside the center joint. It was an easy way to maintain a certain degree of humidity, and a few germs. Jean-Pierre Rampal, among others, had always done it, and so did I. Perhaps out of luck, we seldom had sticky pads or needed an overhaul. If you believe that squeaky clean plays better, then wash the headjoint in the sink and pour Chanel N°5 into it.

Big Tone = Lots of Air
   I am blowing my brains out, so I must be playing ff. A well-placed focused sound carries better and requires less air. How do you achieve focus? Try an uncramped smile and the embouchure plate in a stable position on the chin.

Tune with Vibrato
   If you play with vibrato, then tune with vibrato. Is it better to be slightly off with the machine and true in actual playing, or the other way around?

Real Fingerings, Not Always
   If an alternate fingering produces with more ease the same or better quality of music, do it. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. I don’t believe in no pain, no gain; more comfort is more pleasure.

My teacher and my elders were always right
   I wish. But even if they were wrong, it was the effort that I made to execute what they asked, that in turn, gave me the tools and imagination to do my own thing. The best conductors were those who were capable of making me do things I did not agree with, or that I was reluctant to do.