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Conducting from the Flutist’s Chair

Jonathan Keeble | May 2020

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.

The Preparation
   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.

The Execution
   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.