Originally printed in October 2007 Flute Talk
Among the myriad tools critical to professional success is the development of a repertoire of conducting gestures for playing chamber music. Giving a good cue to an ensemble while trying to blow through a difficult passage can be somewhat akin to rubbing your tummy and patting your head simultaneously. However, with practice, help from colleagues, and a little study, these difficult maneuvers can become second nature.
In chamber music, flutists often find themselves playing the role of musician and conductor at the same time. There are a variety of reasons for this, but the instrument’s high, baton-like perch ideally suits the flute to bringing ensembles in and out of pieces. The difficulty is that doing so is simply much more difficult than it looks, and musical pitfalls abound. If cues are vague or in the wrong tempo, they can send ensembles tortuously spiraling out of control. Even a wanton twitch on the flutist’s part can cause problems.
Compounding the difficulty is that flutists should not be content simply bringing ensembles in and out of a piece, but should enthusiastically shoulder the additional obligation of communicating music through gesture. In short, good cuing is simultaneously functional and artistic.
Although there are a wide variety of skills worth mastering within each category, cuing can be divided into two fundamental steps – preparation and execution. Each step should be practiced separately and then together.
A cue’s preparation involves so many critical elements, that to the uninitiated, trying to play, gesture in a comfortable, confident fashion, and show the music’s mood simultaneously can turn terrific playing into the ordinary. It is best to work on the basics and add more as comfort and fluidity grows.
On its most basic level, a cue should communicate tempo. Before pieces start, the cue giver should look at the metronome marking and find a key passage from which to reliably draw a good tempo. Next be certain that everyone is watching before starting. I hate to think of how many times horn players have been caught with their crooks out, building a reservoir beside their seat, or clarinetists have been frantically trying to extricate a swab from their instrument when a flutist gave a cue.
When giving a cue, a slouched posture and casual facial expression communicates a lack of energy and can dramatically affect an ensemble’s performance. Musicians subconsciously match the energy of the person giving the cue. Sit up straight, comfortably seated on the edge of the chair, with the music stand lowered to a height where your shoulders and head are easily visible to the rest of the ensemble. Within the limits of embouchure and instrument, the intensity of expression and body position subtly communicate a wide range of emotions, from energy and pathos to a dolce character.
An ictus is a visual example of a recurring stress or beat and is a vital part of cuing music. While conductors are quite comfortable using batons to show an ictus as they beat metric patterns before an orchestra, unpracticed flutists may feel an incipient implosion as they play while cuing.
A flutist’s cue should have two bounces, or ictuses. The first is a beginning, upward bounce, followed by a bounce that comes at the conclusion of the downward gesture. Unless the opening entrance is on the upbeat, the ensemble enters with the second ictus. Each of the two bounces should strike the same, invisible horizontal plane. The amount of motion behind the gestures depends on tempo and the piece’s character. However, a clear ictus is most successfully shown on the flute by simultaneously using the arms to raise and lower the end of the flute, and accompanying this with a slight flick of the right wrist (not unlike what a conductor does with a baton.)
The wrist motion is critical to giving a clear ictus to the ensemble. Simply using arms to show the beat inevitably results in an indeterminate ictus point. This can slow down the cue and often makes entrances difficult to line up.
The cue should also include a subtle, but audible breath that matches the tempo of the ictus. All members of the chamber ensemble should breathe together and have their eyes up, out of the music, with bodies and in truments in position.
After becoming comfortable with the rudiments of executing a good cue, flutists can add more expressive elements. The size of the cue’s gesture and its speed communicate vast amounts of musical information. A large gesture denotes a grand, big opening note, while the converse is true for smaller gestures. A fast, sharp breath can signal energy or passion, while a soft, barely visible or audible one communicates a placid character to ensemble and audience.
Cut-Offs and Beat Patterns
Cutting an ensemble off is an entirely different musical issue, but uses many of the same skills. All of the ensemble members’ eyes should be up. As with bringing an ensemble in, giving a clear ictus is critical for cut-offs. The preparation for a cut-off should be a simple raising and lowering of the instrument in the tempo of the piece. Giving two clear ictuses (preparation and cut-off) can sometimes confuse a group, so the only clear ictus in a cut-off should come with the note’s resolution.
When raising and lowering the end of the flute in a cut-off, there are two basic expressive gestures available to flutists. The first is the standard forward circle. When preparing the cutoff, the end of the flute goes up, forward and then down to the original starting position. This is useful for piece endings that have a sharp or distinct concluding note. For pieces where the last note should taper and waft away, scribing a backward circle encourages a wonderful lifted sound from the ensemble. The return to the starting point with the flute’s end should not be aggressive, but rather have a gentle flick of the wrist as it continues the circular motion beyond the note’s conclusion.
Inevitably, even the best ensembles encounter trouble, where one or more members of the group get lost during performance. For moments such as these, knowledge of the score is critical. You should also mark rehearsal numbers with a large cue, and be able to beat in two, three, or four metric patterns to help right a foundering ensemble. As with all cuing elements, this requires practice, communication, and experience, but it can salvage even the most precarious musical moments.
Finally, practice all cuing in front of a mirror, video camera, and your peers. Look for stiffness and superfluous motion. As you practice, ask yourself as objectively as possible whether the motion is clear and natural. Take care to keep the flute securely anchored to your lip, and try to keep the air stream uninterrupted by the physical gesture. Great chamber music performance is a symbiotic experience, where no individual’s responsibility is greater than another’s. All musicians should breathe, move, and play together.