As we go into the summer months, you may have experienced a version of senioritis, burnout, or sheer exhaustion. You may have played your last concert of the spring, played a final jury, taken or taught your last lesson of the school year, finished a term paper or thesis project, or simply completed a large project at work. The main issue is you haven’t been practicing like you should, bad habits have crept into your playing, and frankly you are too tired to do much about them. You aren’t alone. This happens to the best of us. The question is: “How do you rejuvenate your playing?”
The first step is to have your flute checked by a repairman. A year of playing wears on the pads and can affect the total adjustment of the flute. A COA (clean, oil, and adjust) will put your flute in top playing order. If it has been longer than three years since the last COA, do not be surprised if the flute may need a complete overhaul. A well-seating flute makes everything else easier to achieve.
The next step is to assess yourself. Think about your sleep, eating, and exercise habits of late. You know what to do in these areas, so make a schedule and get back on track.
Listen to Something Different
The first thing to go for me is my tone. It starts to sound tired and predictable. Predictability is not bad in itself, but when I begin playing passages without a lot of thought in a generic way, I know I should do something. Listening to other instrumentalists helps me more than listening to other flutists. This year I have enjoyed studying and listening to two CDs of the Sonatas & Partitas for Violin Solo, BWV 1001-1006. The first is by Hamburg-born violinist Christian Tetzlaff. His recording was recommended to me by an early music specialist who thought Tetzlaff’s playing was a perfect blend of the modern school of violin playing with early music practices. Since that is what performers who play early music on modern instruments are trying to do, I listened with interest to these recordings.
The other recording I found inspirational was by Chris Thile, who played these same works on the mandolin. I was introduced to this recording while listening to public radio. When the announcer said the Bach would be played on the mandolin, my first thought was, “Almost anything can be transcribed, but should it be?” However, as I listened, I became fascinated with Thile’s phrasing and tonal inflection. Almost immediately my performance of the Bach A Minor Partita had new energy and vitality. Start a listening project of performers and music that are not well-known to you. I guarantee you will be pleased with the results.
To improve your melodic playing, listen to all the Schubert Lieder with the score. If you want to understand the sonata cycle, listen to string quartets by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. You can learn to blend with other woodwind instruments through recordings of the Philadelphia Woodwind Quintet – some of the best woodwind ensemble playing around.
To breathe new life into a tired tone, with the embouchure hole level, finger a low D and overblow to a middle D and then on to the A in the second octave. Once you can play this series of three notes easily and accurately, practice picking off the A until you can reliably play it without slurring up the harmonic series from the low D. Memorize the position of the lips and embouchure needed to play this note. Keeping the embouchure in that position, slowly play a slurred gruppetto (A, B, A, G#, A) with a constant vibrato. Hang the jaw and use your breath to spin an imaginary grape or a small plum positioned in your mouth. Try to achieve as much ring in the sound as you can. A dynamic of mf or f works best. Make this a new core sound from which to practice scales, arpeggios, seventh chords and etudes. Repeat using the chromatic notes in the first octave (Eb through C# in the second octave).
Teach or Play Some New Music
For about thirty years early in my teaching career, I taught the Handel sonatas. When I had a job playing background music, I played the Handel sonatas. Then one day, I realized I needed to teach and play something else because my teaching and playing of these works had become tired and boring. I explored sonatas by German, French, and Italian Baroque composers and discovered some gems in the repertoire. I began teaching the Telemann 12 Fantasias on a regular basis, and with the new music, I found new life in my teaching and playing. I am still vacationing from Handel’s gems, but one day I will return to them.
A good way to find new music is to download the repertoire requirements for all of the National Flute Association competitions and learn the music before attending the convention. Then attend the competition finals and compare your interpretations with those of the finalists and winners. If you have favorite flute composers, search the catalog for other pieces by them that you might enjoy. The more works you know by composers, the better you will perform their music.
For a healthy mental approach, rotate etude books so the music remains fresh. My favorite rotation includes works by Andersen, Berbiguier, Boehm, Altes, Castérède, Karg-Elert, Bozza, Furstenau, Souss-man, Koehler, Paganini, and the Bach Studies. Other daily exercise books that are beneficial to improve performance especially in the area of tonal homogeneity throughout the range are ones by Reichert, Maquarre, Barrère, and Wood. If you play in a flute choir, schedule a sightreading rehearsal to read one new piece after another. Volunteer to play the contra, bass, alto, or piccolo to experience a new part of the score. Get out of your comfort zone.
Play with Different Musicians
One of the goals of being a great orchestral or chamber musician is being able to know how any colleague will play a passage so that you can perfectly match it. Often by the end of a season, your colleagues may have become as bored with your playing as you are of theirs. Many orchestral players find new horizons by playing in a summer music festival such as the Grand Teton Music Festival Orchestra just outside Jackson Hole, Wyoming or the Sun Valley Summer Symphony in Sun Valley, Idaho. Both of these orchestras are comprised of personnel from major US orchestras. A summer masterclass or camp also allows you to explore new musical opportunities. (See Flute Talk’s annual list of summer masterclasses, festivals and camps at www.flutetalkmagazine.com)
Another option is to plan a chamber series where you play a different genre of music. For example, if you primarily play in a woodwind quintet during the year, organize a flute, cello, and piano trio to explore that repertoire. Playing with piano will sharpen equal temperament tuning skills, and performing with a string player will remind you how nice it is to have a bow rather than the breath. My tennis teacher told me to always play tennis with someone better than me. The same is true in playing chamber music.
One day I took my son to his horn lesson. Usually his teacher’s home was perfectly kept with nothing out of place. However, that day there were at least 100 CDs spread here and there on the floor next to the stereo. It was such an unusual occurrence that I asked what was going on. He said that he had been practicing the Brahms Horn Trio with the various CDs. He commented, “When I play with the CDs, I get to play with much better musicians than I usually get to play with. This gives me insight into new ideas about phrasing, tone color, and intonation.” This is a great idea which I follow regularly.
Enjoy Another Art Genre
Several times during my studies with Joseph Mariano at the Eastman School of Music, Mariano suggested a walk down East Avenue would improve my imagination. This happened on days when my phrasing was humdrum and my tone was tired. He was correct, as always, and it was months later before I realized that each day he too either drove or walked down East Avenue to get from his home to the Eastman School. No doubt this avenue had helped him with his inspiration too.
Rochester, New York’s famed East Avenue was or had been home to many prominent citizens, including George Eastman, founder of Kodak, James Goold Cutler, first president of Western Union and inventor of the Cutler Mail Chute, and Hiram Sibley, an industrialist. The Italianate, Greek Revival, Georgian, Queen Anne, and Prairie School style mansions were designed by America’s leading architects. A walk down this street was a lesson in form and proportion, and of course, light and shadow. I especially liked to take this stroll in the fall so I could shuffle down the sidewalk through the several inches of newly fallen leaves. I delighted in the sound of the leaves crackling under my feet. A stroll down East Avenue was certainly for the senses.
Mariano’s wife was a painter, as he would later become in retirement. Whenever there was a show at the Memorial Art Gallery/Cutler Union, he encouraged me to attend. When I about to leave on a three-month orchestral tour with the Eastman Philharmonia to Europe, the Middle East, Poland, and Russia, he had a list of paintings I should be sure to see. He knew that art cannot be done in a vacuum and to do art well you have to feed the senses. So whether it is architecture, paintings, sculpture, a book of fiction, poetry, seeing a play or film, nourish your brain and before long your playing will be inspired and your brain stimulated.
If All Else Fails
For years I have kept a list of how creative people get their creative juices going each day. Moss Hart, the Broadway playwright, writes in his memoir Act One about completing his first day of work with new writing partner George S. Kaufman. Before Hart left, he asked Kaufman if there was anything else he should do, and Kaufman instructed him to break all the tips of the pencils in the jar. The next morning Hart asked Kaufman how he would like to begin the day, and Kaufman said, “Sharpen the pencils.” Evidently, the sound of the hand-grinding of the pencil sharpener spurred Kaufmann’s creative writing skills. I later read that W. Somerset Maugham started each writing session by writing his name over and over again in cursive. Some writers, including composers, say they get their best ideas in the shower. I find vacuuming does the same for me. Hopefully one of these ideas will help you enter the summer months as a rejuvenated, creative teacher and performer.