Originally printed in January 2007 Flute Talk
Anyone who has ever put the flute away for a period of time knows that the embouchure dissipates quickly. Even a two-week vacation can wreak havoc with the skills we take for granted. Coming back to the flute after years of neglect, however, is an entirely different matter.
A snippet of personal history will explain why I lost it, how I got it back and some of the struggles I faced. As a teenager I was a West Coast whiz kid, winning every competition I entered with lightening-fast fingers and a tight, smiley embouchure. My first flute teacher was a doubler, who said, "Smile. It is just like playing on a Coke bottle." He was well-meaning, but the die was cast and habit set.
During college I attempted an embouchure change, which was successful on the right side of the mouth but not on the left. Throughout a 35-year career, my tone has been inconsistent, mainly because the embouchure was asymmetrical. Some days the left side was tighter than others. Playing those first few long tones each day was a dreaded activity because I never knew what was going to come out of the instrument. I began to spend much more energy and time on the embouchure and air direction than on the music I was attempting to play.
A career change in 2001 brought me to Flute Talk as its editor, while continuing to teach and hold a church organ and choral position. I was working a full-time job in a field I knew little about. I knew about the flute, of course, but magazine production and editing were another matter. There was a lot to learn, and I embraced the challenge. However, by the end of that year it was clear that something had to go. After finding teachers for my private students and resigning from the church position, I put the flute away. I was just too tired at the end of a work day to practice. I didn’t even miss playing very much.
In 2005 at the N.F.A. convention in San Diego, a fire began to smolder inside me. After not touching the instrument for almost five years. I passionately wanted to play again. I didn’t know if the ability to do so would come back. My 96-year old father likes to remind me that I am no spring chicken anymore. After all, what is technically possible in one’s 20s and 30s is often less possible in one’s 50s and 60s.
One year later I am happy to report that It is back, and every flutist reading this knows what It is – a beautiful, flowing, rich sound with depth. The fluid fingers have also returned for the most part. Clear articulation in all forms will take a while longer.
There is an advantage to learning, or in this case re-learning, a skill as an adult. I believe that the average fifthgrader starting a musical instrument has not yet become a totally conscious human being. They learn instinctively, often without much thought about what they are trying to accomplish. Their mindset is often finger the right notes and put them in approximately the right places.
Adults, on the other hand, have a lifetime of knowledge and experience upon which to draw. Not playing for so many years made it possible for me to approach the flute from square one, but with all of the musical experiences that I had amassed during my career.
The first day was wonderful! My embouchure was relaxed because the left corner of my mouth had forgotten to be tight. The tightness came back with a vengeance on the second day, which was therefore a disaster. Aware of this old tightening habit, I played long tones for just five minutes each day, puffing the left cheek to establish a new relaxed habit. This activity continued for several weeks.
Although I had tried to accomplish a relaxed left side throughout my previous playing career, the habit had been too strong to break, but now after a five-year break, the tight embouchure was less entrenched. With attention to relaxing the left side while warming up with long tones, creating the new embouchure was easier than at any other time in my flute-playing life.
When I was confident that the embouchure was ready, I added slow movements from Handel sonatas. Because their range is mostly limited to the staff, my embouchure was not taxed to jump into extreme highs or lows as I continued to reinforce the new approach with simple melodies.
My fingers were sluggish and not always synchronized, but they had always been a strength, and I knew they would return with time. I added slurred, slow one-octave scales, followed by Soussmann’s Progressive Studies, Op. 53. These easy etudes use a limited range and are proceeded by a matching scale study. Playing slowly to listen for finger baubles, I added articulation and discovered tonguing was a problem, although it had also been a strength before.
After several months, I switched to Trevor Wye’s Complete Daily Exercises for the Flute – Essential Practice Material for all intermediate to advanced flautists (Novello, 1999). It became my workbook for the next six months. In fact, I still use it every day. The beauty of this little gem is its organization. With sticky notes to mark the pages, I practice one thing from each of the six sections each day for a week: tone exercises, warm-ups and vocalize; scales and scale exercises; arpeggios; chromatic exercises; the third octave; and daily exercises.
Aware of my tendency to obsess about the embouchure, warming up with melodies has been helpful. I can concentrate on phrasing, color, and musicality instead. Choose one melody each day or week- whatever works for you, or create a collection of tunes that you like. Using songs and melodies to start the day redirects the mind toward the music and its expressiveness, something that is quickly lost when you fret about the workings of the anatomy. Students can easily lose contact with the emotions that brought them to music in the first place, when they are urged to think on a physical level. I believe that happened to me.
Scales and Scales Exercises
Wye included 11 ways to play scales in this section, and many are closely related to similar patterns found in books by Moyse, Taffanel, and Gaubert. Those returning to the flute after a long absence should start with easy patterns. When playing begins to feel comfortable, move to a a new scale study to keep the practicing fresh. Also, avoid articulation -just slur while listening for smooth connected intervals. Players must be able to connect notes smoothly before interjecting the tongue into the situation. Besides, articulation can camouflage numerous problems.
Twenty arpeggio studies are included in Wye’s compendium, so enjoy the variety. I worked # 1 with a metronome set on a slow tempo. Those arpeggios that were not clean and smooth received brackets to indicate uncoordinated fingers, which I practiced in rhythms to bring them up to the metronome speed. I continue to revisit # 1 in the arpeggio section, increasing the tempo in small increments each time. I probably don’t play them as well as I did 20 years ago, but they are much better than they were a year ago.
Chromatic passages under the best of circumstances present performers with numerous opportunities for uneven fingers. These six chromatic studies provide enough variety to avoid boredom while players practice slowly. Avoid what I call pa-doos – note connections that are not quite coordinated.
The Third Octave
On returning to the flute, the high register was and still is my biggest technical challenge. I find the numerous cross-fingerings in the flute’s stratosphere less secure than they used to be, and 20 years ago they were a piece of cake. Practice third octave passages slowly and deliberately with various rhythms, or work them in tempo in small segments. Patricia George calls this chunking. I still need more work here.
In the final analysis and one year later, my sound is better and more secure than it was before I stopped playing. My finger technique is approximately 90% of what it used to be although articulation speed is considerably less than that. Both of these skills require muscle coordination that is established more easily at a younger age. It seems that there is some truth to that old adage about old dogs and new tricks. That said, I will continue to work to improve. Goal setting has been a life-long motivational tool for me, so a few notches higher on the metronome is the order for the foreseeable future.
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A Personal Melody Book
The following list is my present melody collection:
Canzone by Samuel Barber
"Sarabande" from J.S. Bach’s Partita in A Minor
The Swan by Saint-Saens Shostakovich Symphony #5, end of 1st mvt.
Marceau de Concourse, Pavane, Berceuse, Op. 16, and Sicilienne by Gabriel Faure
Ave Maria, Bach-Gounod arr.
"Bali Ha’i," South Pacific, Richard Rodgers
Londonderry Air or Danny Boy
"Over the Rainbow," The Wizard of Oz, Harold Arlen
"Summertime," Porgy and Bess, George Gershwin
"Going Home," Dvorak’s New World Symphony