The Joys of A Major

Patricia George | November 2014

    Most flute teachers would agree that it is their mission to help students become equally fluent in all major and minor key signatures. This may be accomplished by teaching the circle of fifths which outlines the sequencing and logic of the key signatures, scales, scales in thirds, and arpeggios. Students work with the seven daily exercise books (Andre Maquarre, George Barrère, John Wummer, M.A. Reichert etc.) which feature a one or two line vocalise for each day of the week and cycle through all keys. However, with the etude book portion of the lesson, on every new page, each etude has a different key signature. While there is merit in a composer writing etudes in all 24 keys, just as Joachim Andersen did in his Op. 33, 30, 63, and 15, for most students this approach does not offer enough exposure to a particular key before moving on to a new one.

Slice and Dice
    Since the Andersen etudes offer some of the best solutions for understanding and playing the flute, it is important to include these books in the advanced high school and college curriculum. However, in order to help students successfully learn this material, I employ the slice and dice technique. This technique, used in solving a Sudoku puzzle and in cooking, is a method or approach of slicing and then dicing material to help understand a concept better or to solve a problem.
    Rather than assigning four etudes per week in Op. 33 first and then on completion of the book progressing on to Op. 30, I assign one etude, C major, from each of the four books (Op. 33, 30, 63, 15). Then the next week another etude (A minor) from each of the four books. It takes students 24 weeks to get through these four books (96 etudes) at a rate of four per week. Assigning four per week in the same key signature, is still the same 24 weeks. However, by experiencing key saturation, students better understand the keys.
    When I first assigned one etude from each of the four books, I worried that some of the later etudes would be technically too advanced. However, having students chunk each exercise (tongued using T, K, Hah, TK or TKT or slurred) for three or four practice sessions before putting it all together quieted my concerns. If students encountered problems, then they were to use one of the 450 rhythmic and articulations patterns found in the Appendix of The Flute Scale Book by George & Louke (Presser).
    While the chunking practice and learning technique is now almost 30 years old, many teachers today are just adopting this learning strategy. The chunking technique, based on the eye seeing one inch of notes, has a flutist play one chunk of notes followed by a rest. The student is to breathe in each rest which separates the vocal folds or opens the throat. This type of breathing is called panting.
    In reading Harold Bennett’s practice suggestions for Op. 33 (Flute Talk, November 2014); it is obvious that he was using a similar practice tactic to modern day chunking. Michel Debost shared that his teacher Gaston Crunelle (1898-1990) also suggested practicing in a similar style when he was a student at the Paris Conservatory. I suppose this proves that nothing is actually new, but that we continually recycle and rename time-proven practice ideas.

Challenges of A Major
    As my students cycled through the Andersen etudes, it became obvious that playing in the key of A major offered more challenges than other key signatures. How many times have you heard a student put a D# in when playing an A major scale? Even students who know A major has three sharps do this because the D# key is depressed all the time except for D natural and several of the top octave notes. Students simply forget they have this finger on (failure to disengage) and leave it down when playing through the sequence of fingerings.

    The key of A major also offers challenging intonation issues. First, look at the A major triad. The A on most flutes is slightly flat, the third space C# is sharp, while the C# above the staff can be slightly flat. The dominant E can sound dull and flat in the second octave but sharp in the third. The leading tone G# in the second octave can be flat while the G# in the third octave is quite sharp. When playing slowly, sensitive fingerings may be used to rectify these issues, but as the name implies, sensitive fingerings should be employed in sensitive places, not in scales and perhaps etudes. It is up to the flutist to solve these issues when playing scales as the sensitive fingerings are often clumsy to undertake when playing fast technical passages.

Balancing the Flute 
    The A major scale is a difficult key to play and keep the flute balanced in the hands. If the flute is not balanced well just above the third knuckle back from the nail of the index left hand, every time the flutist removes his left hand thumb (for the two C# and the top G#), because of the design of the instrument, the flute will roll back toward the player. If the flute remains in this rolled back position, then the tuning of the entire scale is compromised.
    The A major scale (like any of the scales that begin on left hand notes) offers balance issues. When beginning the scale, the balance is a bit more in the left hand because the fingers are depressed. Then going over the break from C# to D, the balance is slightly shifted to the right hand. In watching a professional flutist, you will not be aware of the skillful shifting of balance, but it is something that a novice flutist will struggle with until discovering the secret of balancing the instrument well. Playing these two notes as a slow trill offers clues to achieving success.

Fingering Suggestions
    When playing the C# in the staff, any combination of the right hand fingers may be added. This fingering lowers the pitch and improves the sometimes too bright timbre (color) of the C#. This brightness is caused because most of the keys of the flute are open, and this produces the open pipe sound. In the case of the A major scale, try several different combinations of right finger placement to get from the C# to the D in the scale. When playing other literature such as the opening two notes of the Griffes Poem try putting the right hand E finger down for the C# as this will make the opening transition from the C# to the E stable.
    The other challenging fingering is in the top octave connection between the F# and G#. This interchange may be one of the most difficult on the flute as three fingers are lifted from the F# and two fingers are depressed for the G#. Daily practice of these two notes as a trill will show drastic improvement. Since the top G# is sharp, in slower passages, add the right E and D fingers to lower the pitch. This sensitive fingering is helpful to use when the note is soft and requires a diminuendo.
    The key of A major also possesses a wolf tone when slurring from A7 to E6. To rectify this issue, many flutes have a split E key (actually it should be called a split G key) or donut/crescent in the lower G key. If the flute does not have a split E, then the A7 is fingered with the right pinky on the D# key and is quickly removed and repositioned for the E. This quick motion requires practice to navigate smoothly. With the newer scale flutes, a wolf between G#6 to E6 sometimes occurs. In both cases selecting a crown of a different weight may eliminate the wolf.
    Of course, there are challenges for flutists in keys other than A major. However, learning to control the coordination, the intonation, and the timbre in A major will offer benefits so that other keys will be easier to navigate.