When a flutist arrives for a first lesson with me, I invite him to play any composition he feels like sharing. While the flutist is playing, I listen intently for sound, rhythmic control, and musicianship. I usually walk around to check stance, body alignment, how the flute is balanced in the hands, and whether or not the flutist looks put together when he performs. After the student plays, I ask, “Tell me about your playing. What do you like? What do you think needs improvement? How can I help you?” Nine times out of ten the student says, “I need help with technique. I cannot play fast enough.”
Another flutist is asked to play for a civic function. He scans his repertoire and selects a slow movement from a Baroque sonata for the concert. He surmises there are not very many notes in the piece and the tempo is slow; so with little to no preparation, the performance should be easy.
Legendary flutist Robert Willoughby once commented, “I play in church every couple of months. I usually do a slow and a fast number. I am killing myself on the slow one, but everyone thinks it is the fast one that is difficult.” (“A Conversation with Robert Willoughby,” Flute Talk, December 2011)
Technique comes in two forms: conquering the fast notes and conquering the slow notes. Most flutists gravitate to learning to control fast technique first and worry about playing slowly later. In the same interview, Willoughby was asked how he built his technique. He said, “One summer after my first year in college I worked through a whole bunch of Marcel Moyse books…I think at some point you need to take a year off and just work on technique.” Julius Baker, former New York Philharmonic principal flute and flute professor at The Juilliard School, told me when he came to NYC as a young man, he realized there were many good flute players working in the city. If he were to make his mark, he needed to have more technique than anyone else. Since much of the work in those days was in the studio recording commercials for radio and television, his goal was to be known as the flutist who could walk into any situation and play the music perfectly.
To accomplish this feat, he decided he would have to master the technical aspects of playing the flute. His solution: hours of daily etude practice for several years. When I studied with him, he casually remarked, “To make it today, you need to be able to play the Taffanel & Gaubert Seventeen Daily Exercises at q = 144 or q. = 88.” Today the metronome numbers are much higher for professional flutists, perhaps q = 200+ and q. = 96+.
Julius Baker outlined a good course of study to develop technique with students. His curriculum of scales, arpeggios, 3rds and 6ths, seventh chords, etc. and volumes of etudes are as valid today as in the past. Many teachers are implementing Baker’s ideas well with students; however, students still complain that they do not have enough technique. If students are practicing well and regularly, then there are several other additional concepts to explore.
If the flute is not sealing well or if the tension in the springs is not even, no amount of practice by the student will build an effortless technique. Check your student’s flute and, if necessary, have the flute repaired by a master craftsman.
If students do not practice technical items with a metronome, they will not know if they are going faster today than yesterday. Encourage students to use a metronome daily and note the metronome markings in a journal each day. For many exercises, students may stay at the same metronome marking for several days or weeks until the patterns become easy. Do not speed up until the exercise sounds and feels easy.
Students should also explore practicing technical material with different rhythmic patterns, articulation patterns, and dynamics. Practicing in chunks first is always the best idea. Encourage students to play with light fingers moving from the third knuckle back from the nail except for the left index finger. The fingers should be close to the keys. Practicing scales with a fast trill or mordent on each note will help students learn to move the fingers quickly and with economy of motion. Practice this exercise in the mirror to be sure the finger is articulate in its movement.
Fast notes should be played on one long puff of air. If air speed increases or decreases during technical passages, then they will not sound or feel smooth. In order to learn to play with even air, try the following exercise. If a technical passage is eight counts in duration, play the first note of the passage for eight counts keeping the air speed even. Use a tuner while playing the long note. If the needle is still for the eight counts, then the air speed is even. Have students repeat this exercise until the air speed is even on several attempts. Once it is even, play the notes of the passage with this even air stream. Many times if students think of having the fingers lead the air stream, the same results will occur.
In the elementary stages of learning the flute, many flutists learn to count by pumping the end of the flute with a metronome. I believe this is a concept that each flutist should learn to employ, but also learn to omit. If a student is playing a two-octave scale in sixteenths and moves the end of the flute on every two sixteenths, there is only a certain tempo the flutist can execute the scale. Likewise bouncing the end of the flute on each grouping of four sixteenths limits the tempo. However, bouncing on every eight or sixteen sixteenth notes can allow the flutist to play more quickly. For example, rather than playing the opening movement of either Mozart Concerto in 44, playing alla breve will free the fingers to move effortlessly and quickly. When a student is having difficulty playing any passage fast enough, encourage him to try playing passages in simple meter in cut-time or alla breve and passages in compound meter in one.
Slow technique is the technique that most students and less experienced flutists think is easy, and professionals know is not. Larger intervals (a fourth or more) are more difficult to execute than intervals that are stepwise. When playing most intervals, several fingers must move. In lifting more than one finger at once, there is a chance of lifting the fingers in a rippling motion meaning that the notes in between the written notes sound.
The way to avoid letting these unwritten notes from floating into the melody is to subdivide the beat and move the fingers as a unit at exactly the correct time. Practicing counted or measured vibrato on each note of the phrase will help assure that the vibrato speed is constant throughout the phrase and that the vibrato does not stop and start on each note. I often set the metronome ticking the major beats and also clicking the subdivisions to help students count the subdivisions.
Clarinet professors talk about legato fingers. This means the fingers move gracefully from one note to the next with purpose and control. This is a good thought for flutists as well. For intervals of a distance of a fourth or more, slightly lengthening the note before the skip makes the notes of the passage appear even to the listener. Increasing the vibrato speed just before skipping to the next note will also make the interval sound smaller.
If there are challenging intervals in a slow movement, practice each one separately. Set the metronome on q = 60. On each click, slur from the first note to the second placing four or five vibrato cycles on each note, four to eight times. Repeat this exercise if necessary to develop a smooth connection. While doing this, consider the speed of the air and the angle of the air when playing the two notes. Low notes may be played with a high embouchure setting, but high notes cannot be played with a low embouchure setting. Use a mirror to examine the aperture size. Many times a smaller aperture (but not tight) makes intervallic connections more fluid.
Record and video tape slow and fast technical passages as the eyes are often more acute in their deductions than the ears. With patience and diligence students should be able to conquer passages that require a controlled slow and fast technique. Practice never produces a final result, but it is a continual process of learning and exploration to reach an artistic performance.