Flute Expectations

Michel Debost | October 2011

   October is back. Summer is already fading into memories. The summer may have brought changes to your musical life – graduation, a shiny new flute, or time spent at music camp, masterclass or festival. The start of the new school year is a good time for resolutions. “I am going to get up early, fix up my room, answer letters and emails, do all my assignments on time, go on a serious diet, but first of all, I’ve decided to practice.” We have all done it. Early fall or at New Year’s, we have planned an ambitious program of finger twisters, six-page etudes and Moyse repetitious patterns (A B C D – M N O P – A B O P – M N C D, etc). These unrealistic resolutions seldom last because they are too strenuous to follow.
   On the other hand, a term I regularly hear in America worries me: “my daily routine.” Routine implies tedium and callousness in action. My advice is to be realistic about what you can do on a daily long-term basis. To bear fruit you should work at instrumental practice daily (or at least four days a week, allowing for a busy day and some fun on the weekend). Therefore, it should be relatively easy, and you should make it interesting and beautiful.
   That is why I insist on teaching scales. They are easy (more on this later) and, if you so decide, they are music, with color, mood, tension and release, virtuosity or expression, rubato or rigor, and violence or tenderness, especially the modulation bar between keys. Before I retired, many of my new students were skeptical, or even downright hostile (“I did not come to college to play scales.”) until they understood the process and saw the results.
   I can still hear Jean-Pierre Rampal, who had always been my friend and my model, say: “Play a scale like a concerto.” That is not the least teaching of the French school, which is more a way of practicing than an esoteric concept of style and tone.
   Daily practice is what a piano tuner does. He adjusts the instrument so all the notes are even, response is reliable, the whole range resonates and the mechanism is not noisy. No one asks a pianist to play all notes equal and placed in strict order, however. Any computer can do that, even the charming player-pianos of old times did it. A musician should be both a conscientious craftsperson who prepares a balanced and reliable instrument and then, transfigured by the magic wand of a Mozart or a Debussy, an artist who is using freely a language and tools, which are only the means to an end.
   It is the constant dilemma of a performer’s life, a precarious balance on a narrow wire. Without reliable tools, what is expression? Without imagination, what is art? We must be at once, the craftsman and the artist.
   The components of beautiful instrumental playing, quality of tone, breath and hands, are not an end in themselves. Music and its interpretation are uneven by nature, but it is a deliberate and desired unevenness, not a clumsy one. Thus, we must always return to the basic principles of work, so that the soul of music is freed from the clay of material imperfection that limits the freedom to recreate.
   As the sculptor Auguste Rodin said: “Art is but feeling. But without the science of volume, of proportions, of colors, without the cleverness of the hand, the liveliest feeling is paralyzed. What would become of the greatest poet in a foreign land whose language he could not understand?”
   The aim of practicing is to obtain a margin of security, self-confidence, and a reserve of endurance without which it is very difficult to deal with stress and stage fright, and to do justice to the composer. Play your daily scales, in all major and minor keys, in a short pattern (15-20 seconds each). That seems short, but if you can completely concentrate, even for just that small amount of time, you are working in the right direction.
   Think of a piece of music for every scale that you practice. Use your metronome often, but always call on your imagination. (It is not forbidden.)There are many books of scales; don’t take the most difficult one. My preference goes to the Taffanel-Gaubert 17 Exercices Journaliers, especially Number 4, which is not too difficult, not too long, and, I don’t care what anybody says, musical if you care to play it so. It is impossible to separate instrumental work from interpretation. There is no instrumental technique without a musical project. There is no musical expression without a dominated grammar, without a reliable tool.
   It is in the practice studio, during personal practice time, without stress, that you must play perfectly. During the performance or the audition, set free the music you have in your soul. Your mistakes will be forgiven and chances are, if you worked on perfection at home, there will not be too many. For me easy or difficult relate to what happens in performance. Difficult is what does not work under stress. Often difficulties relate to breath control (stage fright), ensemble, high and low notes, staccato or legato. Rarely does easy or difficult apply to speed or number of notes. Do not think that technique is purely speed or amount of notes per square inch.
   It is the easy things that must be done perfectly. You have no excuse for not doing perfectly what you consider easy. Come New Year’s Day, let’s see what happened to your resolutions!