Claudio Barile, principal flute of the Buenos Aires Philharmonic, is active world wide as a soloist, chamber musician and masterclass teacher. His virtuoso performances include repertoire from the Baroque through the Piazzolla Tango Etudes. Barile’s flamboyant personality radiates through his playing as well as in his teaching. He is a three-time winner of the Konex Award, the most prestigious award presented to performers in Argentina.
How did you get started playing flute?
The first instrument that I played was actually the bandoneón because my father liked tango music. A pink flyer publicizing music lessons appeared under the door of my house when I was eleven years old, and I decided to give it a try. I started to play that magical instrument while learning music theory as well.
At that time, my mother’s brother, Domingo Rulio, was principal flute soloist at the Colon Theater and also well-recognized as a tango player. I had an LP of him playing tango pieces, but instead of trying to play them on the bandoneón, I was mimicking the flute. Noticing this, my father said, “Claudio, your uncle is a great flute player in the Colon Theatre. Would you like to play the flute?”
Did your uncle teach you to play?
My uncle was a great flute player and friend of Jean Pierre Rampal; they even performed together at the Colon Theater when Rampal visited Buenos Aires in 1967. Initially my uncle was reluctant to teach me since I was a family member. My aunt intervened and also convinced him to let me have his very old wooden flute with silver keys. I will never forget Christmas 1971 when I got that flute. I began to discover a new world.
Once lessons began, we moved fast. I think perhaps my uncle had been expecting a disaster, but instead he was amazed by my attitude, talent, and progress. He stressed the importance of good technique and started me on Marcel Moyse’s, Le Debutante Flutiste, and Taffanel and Gaubert 17 Big Daily Exercises. Lessons always included some discussion about the passion and poetry of music. He taught me strategies for efficient practicing and focused on scales, arpeggios and long tones.
Soon the lessons with my uncle moved from my house to the Conservatory where he was teaching, and he began showing me off to his colleagues there. He had me play in front of any conductor or musician who came to perform with the orchestra, and of course I played for everyone in the family. My uncle was very demanding with me, but to everyone else he said, “This boy is a phenomenon, a genius.” I enjoyed that time so much. All I needed to do was practice and perform.
I performed at the Colon Theater when I was twelve. I was already playing Bach Sonatas and the B Minor Suite, Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie, Vivaldi’s Il Cardellino and C Major Piccolo Concerto, and piccolo solos from Tchaikovsky’s Fourth and Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphonies.
Did your parents support your flute playing?
Flute was easy for me and made me feel so happy. I played all the time. All the approval that I was receiving from others certainly didn’t hurt. Neither my father nor my mother were musicians, but they loved music and encouraged me. They never complained about my constant practicing at one, two, or three o’clock in the morning. When Julius Baker visited Buenos Aires with the New York Philharmonic, I played for him. He told my father, “Your son is great.” My father was very proud.
When did you start playing in the Buenos Aires Philharmonic?
I started playing with the Buenos Aires Philharmonic on April 2, 1974, the day after my 14th birthday. I was a baby compared to the other musicians, but everyone liked my playing and encouraged me. I was practicing all the time, learning about a whole new world, and earning money. What more could I ask?
We played a new program every week, so I had to learn a lot fast. I listened to many recordings, but not just flute players because a musical education should not be limited by the instrument you play. The brass and the bass inspired me to create many colors in my head and then try to produce them in the low register of the flute. There are great performances on violin, piano, cello, and voice, plus wonderful conductors. Barenboim is an example. of a pianist whose playing has been influenced by the colors of the orchestra. Sitting in the orchestra, I learned just by paying attention.
To me, the piccolo was like a little toy, but the flute, with its deeper sound, was different. I began to think about the direction of the music and what I wanted to express. I listened to Rampal, Baker, and Galway and was tremendously influenced by their playing. I started to think about what sound I wanted to have. I really did not establish my own sound until years later, but even when I was young I knew what I wanted to change. I imagine I was thinking like Michelangelo who said, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”
I practiced for hours and hours, and it brought me such joy. I began to realize that flute playing gave me a sense of peace like I had never felt from anything before. I still feel like that every day. When I begin my warm-up, my long tones are like a meditation.
Was your uncle your only teacher?
In 1979 I won a scholarship to study in Berlin. I had no idea who my teacher would be, but I knew that I would have the opportunity to hear many soloists and play in the Berlin Philharmonic. I had the opportunity to observe von Karajan every day, conducting and making recordings. My teacher for the two years that I was in Berlin was Karlheinz Zoller, who may be heard on many Berlin Philharmonic recordings. I recorded with the Berlin Philharmonic while I was there, under the direction of Claudio Abbado. Playing piccolo and assistant principal flute with the Berlin Philharmonic was a dream come true.
My lessons with Zoller gave me a lot to think about. There were things that we did not agree on, but even so they made me realize that I could change some aspects of my playing. I started to ask myself, “How would Rampal play this? What would Galway do here? And what about Nicolet?”
One difference was that I always played with my tongue out, because Marcel Moyse told me to do that on page 15 of De la Sonorite: “With the tongue out, try to get a consistent note, rather like a vibrating pizzicato; therefore, each note should be short but not harsh; in a word, let it be as lively as possible in the shortest possible time.” My tongue was out, like I was spitting, and I played everything this way. Studying with Zoller, I realized that I had to change this position, but it was not easy to do. I persisted, and found that my low tones became bigger and richer.
I won another scholarship in 1988, this time to go to the Aspen Music Festival and study with Nadine Asin. While there, I also took a lesson with James Galway. Nadine Asin is a remarkable teacher and player. She played flute and piccolo in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra for many years.
I was preparing for a solo appearance at the time, and had always performed from memory. Someone pointed out to me that most other flutists played with their music in front of them and asked me, “Don’t you think you look arrogant?” I considered this, but thought to consult Nadine about it first. She asked, “Are you the soloist? So, play by memory. Of course.” I have always performed without music since then.
What happened after Berlin?
In 1981, upon completing two years in Berlin, I returned to Buenos Aires as principal flute soloist with the opera company of the Teatro Colon. That was another amazing experience for me as I learned how to accompany without overpowering the singers. I heard many sensational musicians. They had technique, were excellent sight readers, and also had the ability to seduce the audience with their sound. I decided to set a similar goal for myself, the combination of skill and technique, plus sound and artistry, just like a singer.
After two seasons with the opera, I won the audition for principal flute soloist with the National Symphony, followed in 1983 by principal flute soloist of the Buenos Aires Philharmonic, the position that I hold today. Through the years I have played almost all the standard orchestral repertoire, and some interesting new works as well. I have worked with hundreds of wonderful soloists and conductors, and performed as concerto soloist dozens of times. I will celebrate my 40th anniversary with the orchestra in 2014, and am planning two concerto performances. I play quite a bit of chamber music as well, as flute soloist with the Bach Festival Ensemble of Buenos Aires, Quadro Barocco Chamber Ensemble, and a founding member of Quinteto Filharmonico, the wind quintet of the Buenos Aires Philharmonic.
How do you begin your daily warm-up?
I start with long tones, beginning on low B, holding each note as long as possible, and ascending chromatically up the entire range of the flute to high F. For my second practice, later in the day, I sometimes start on high F and work my way down to low B. Each note is articulated only with air. This exercise usually takes 20 or 25 minutes, and I don’t stop at all except when I need to take in air. Since this is before each note, I am only breathing 42 times in 25 minutes. Not stopping helps me with concentration and power. My brain starts to feel clearer. I feel like I can see everything when I do that exercise, but from another perspective. That exercise brings me peace, just like being in a state of nirvana. In fact, there are mantras that are sustained like that.
What advice would you give other flutists?
When I play, my focus is always on my sound, intonation, expression, and flexibility. This may not sound like anything new, however, I always keep that focus as a starting point. For example, if I am working on trills, I am focusing on a beautiful tone and trills. If I am working on staccato, I am focusing on a beautiful tone and staccato. If I am learning a new piece, I play long tones and scales, and at the same time I think about the piece, consider what colors I want to use, and memorize it.
This carries over into all my activities. If I am enjoying a book, I try to transmit my feeling of happiness into my sound while playing scales and arpeggios. If I fall in love with something (philosophy, aphorism, poetry), I use the energy that I feel inside to make my sound more beautiful and find new enjoyment in my life. What works for me is to find something that I love and continue incorporating new things – taking walks, meditating, playing piano, learning English, and always keeping the focus on the music that I am learning.
How do you memorize?
Playing from memory has come naturally to me, ever since I was a child. I remember learning Bach partitas and sonatas spontaneously, without even thinking about what I was doing. As a result, many students have asked me how I do it.
Sigmund Freud wrote that memory is selective, that the psyche can cause us to forget unpleasant thoughts. I read that Freud himself was in an uncomfortable situation during a conversation when he was talking about an artist and could not remember her name. It tormented him for days, and then he began to think. He realized that her name was similar to that of a patient who had committed suicide. The issue was not that he forgot, but that he did not want to remember. He had repressed the memory.
The great Argentine poet Jorge Luis Borges said, “El olvido es sólo una forma de la memoria.” Forgetfulness is just one form of memory. But in flute playing, that could be a disaster. Understanding this, how can we use our intelligence to make sure that our bodies remember what we want for a good flute performance? How do we practice that? The answer is not easy. Playing flute from memory can be more difficult than any other instrument.
When we play the flute, we can’t see our hands. Pianists look down and have a good companion at the keyboard. String players can see their hands, as can all the other wind players. This is a very important point for flutists, because they are missing the visual sense to aid memory. To make matters worse, standing in front of an audience without a music stand can be a distraction.
The key is to visualize everything from inside to outside. It is not necessary to close the eyes in order to do that, but flutists should change their thought processes when they practice. To play confidently from memory, I start without the instrument and sit in a comfortable place to read the score. I look at the key signature, time signatures, changes in tonality, rhythms, note values, everything, trying to remember what I’ve seen. I begin playing long tones, one by one, in a chromatic scale, from low B. I think of this like a meditation. In my mind I am thinking about the music that I have just studied, bar by bar. I make sure that each long tone is very clear. No matter how fast the piece is that I am thinking about, I am still meditating and playing long tones.
I sing the piece to myself with special focus on the rhythms and visualize what is happening on each beat of the measure. If the piece has four beats in a measure, I mark the notes within each beat with a bracket while studying the score. Then later, when I am playing my long tones, I can see those beat divisions in my mind.
If a tempo is very fast, as in the Khachaturian Concerto, I think in terms of a geometrical map. Instead of visualizing beats, I visualize bars. In the third movement, for example, instead of thinking of four bars in 38, I visualize one bar in 128, with the conductor’s hand moving down on the first measure, to the left on the second, to the right on the third, and up on the last measure. I mark the music accordingly.
I have always had a habit of moving my fingers as if I am playing, even when I am not holding my flute. Taking this a step further, I practice difficult passages in the reverse position, as if I’m holding my flute on the left. I think this helps muscle memory.
It is also important to think about what else is going on in the music. If it is a solo piece, then there are no additional concerns, but it could be with orchestra, piano, another flute, or quartet. It is important to learn those parts as well and see how they interact.
This entire process can take a long time, but I take the score with me and read it whenever I can. That could be anywhere from the sofa to the train. Eventually I have a photograph of the music in my head. I can hear the sound that I want, the intonation of each note, and the rhythmic groupings. I have learned the music visually, aurally, and kinesthetically. When I pick up my flute, the notes just come. If at any point there is a problem, I return to the score and fix the mistake.
Playing from memory gives me the freedom to focus on my sound, breathing, and phrasing. Being able to see what is happening around me keeps me calm, and enables me to connect with the other musicians and the audience. The goal is always to present a superior performance.
For me music is a refuge. It provides me with the ability to rebuild and strengthen my walls every day. I am very happy playing De la Sonorite and Daily Exercises for hours. I believe that it is a good thing to play pieces that you know already just for fun, to improve your already well-known repertoire or explore them with a partner. For me, this focus on the present, continually improving what I already know and building on that, is my refuge. I take piano lessons, and they make me happy in the same way.
This energy spreads over to other aspects of my life as well. I like to walk for an hour every day. I enjoy reading, particularly philosophy, and have returned many times to the books of Baruch Spinoza, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Jose Ingenieros. I have fallen in love many times. I believe that in the time we are connected to the earth, the earth responds. This harmony in my life is a way to reach heaven. Mozart is said to have exclaimed, “I can only be creative when I am in love!” I agree.
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Thoughts on Circular Breathing
One piece that I love to play is Paganini’s Perpetual Motion. For that, I must use circular breathing. The great mathematician and philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650) wrote in his Rules for the Direction of the Mind, Rule V: “Method consists entirely in the order and disposition of the objects towards which our mental vision must be directed if we would find out any truth”and Rule VI: “In order to separate out what is quite simple from what is complex, and to arrange these matters methodically, we ought, in the case of every series in which we have deduced certain facts the one from the other, to notice which fact is simple, and to mark the interval, greater, less, or equal, which separates all the others from this.”
I learned circular breathing from Robert Dick’s book. I met him when he visited Buenos Aires in 2002, I bought his book, and I followed his instructions. Keeping the writings of Descartes and Robert Dick in mind, I will try to explain circular breathing in small, understandable steps.
Flutists don’t have a reed, a mouthpiece, or anywhere to lean our lips. All we have are the lip plate of the head joint and our bodies. But we do have what we need for circular breathing, two channels where the air can go in and come out, the nose and the mouth.
Take the biggest breath you can, and hold the air in the cheeks. Close the back of your throat with the tongue. Keeping the air in your mouth, try to inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale; use only the nose to breathe deeply in and out and continue to hold the air in your cheeks. Don’t open your throat, or the air in your mouth will go right down your lungs. Stay confident about the independence of the two channels. You can test this by holding water in your mouth and breathing only through the nose.
Play just one note while your cheeks are blown up with as much air as they can hold. This will be easiest in the 2nd and 3rd octave. Try B, D, F, or G. Try to relax the lips into a globe embouchure, storing air behind your upper lip in the moustache zone. You may have to rotate the head joint a bit to make a sound, since the lips are doing complicated acrobatics. Don’t give up. People often become frustrated at this point, but don’t worry. Tone quality will improve later, and because of the work you are doing, it will be better than ever.
Use only the air that is in your mouth and blow up and down the range of the flute. Then focus on playing second octave G and B, and third octave D, E, F, G. Relax the right and left edges of your lips, but use your moustache muscles to push the center of your lips toward the front teeth. Use only cheek air and a puh articulation to blow a single note. Try to control your intonation. Repeat this exercise.
Play one note with cheek air. Breathe normally. Repeat the process and try to hold each note for longer, maybe 5, 6, and then 7 seconds. Remember to keep the tongue at the back of the mouth, blocking the throat. Hold the note with good intonation for a few seconds.
Blow bubbles into a glass of water using a straw. Use only the air in your cheeks.
Remember the first step in which you inhaled air through the nose while air was in the mouth. Now the difference will be to exhale air while inhaling. Blow out with your cheeks and try to breathe in through the nose at same time, then stop. Stop after each note. Stay slow, and visualize the actions. Give the brain time to process the movements.
Say gong. Keep the throat closed and the tongue in this position, like the last part of the consonants “nnnng.” Test yourself using the resistance of a glass of water once again. The cheek movements must be strong to push the air out. Use “puh” for the initial attack. The air that you are using in your cheeks will give you the time to breathe in through your nose.
Now, if you are a beginner, here is a strange challenge for your brain. Play one note, like second octave G. Blow out the note, and at same time take a breath. Stop, exhale the air, and instead of inhaling air you must exhale. Then, play second octave B flat. Blow the note and at same time take a breath. Stop, exhale the air, and then play second octave D. Blow the note and at same time take a breath. Stop, exhale the air. Now the question is, what to do with that air? Well, blow it into the flute. Play the next note. Try to avoid tension in the throat, which must open and close.
With a metronome set to quarter=60, play and breathe until your body becomes more comfortable with the movements. Then go (legato) up to B, D, and F. Play G, and hold it as long as you can. As soon as you need more air, take it in through the nose. Now, play scales such as the Taffanel and Gaubert #4. Do the circular breathing after every three notes. Then try to do it with arpeggios. At first try not to interrupt the sound with your throat, which must open and close. Keep practicing. It’s better to begin with high notes, second octave notes, and trills. For low tones, push the air with the tongue, it works better than the cheek. This is more difficult to do, but be patient, persevere, and do it anyway.