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30 Candles for Flute Talk

Michel Debost | September 2010

Flute Talk has been fortunate to have Debost’s Comments in the magazine for more than two decades. For this 30th anniversary issue, he shares this collection of his insights on the flute.

1.    Listening to recordings is good, but don’t get addicted to someone else’s interpretation with its quirks and mannerisms.
2.    Study the piano score as much as your own.
3.    Many elements (structural and harmonic) are in plain view in the score, ready to help you.
4.    Find your own meaning for each movement. Joyous? Triumphant? Happy? Peaceful? Sad? Loving? Longing? Desperate? Tragic?
5.    Espressivo does not mean slow. It means to put something there. It’s up to your sensibility, your intelligence, your imagination.
6.    Find the meaning of foreign indications. Aperto? Ma non tanto? Mesto?
7.    Vary your interpretation (tone, dynamics, vibrato, pacing, silence).
8.    Learn to play subtly and tenderly.
9.    When you have two notes slurred, 90% of the time the second one is a softer resolution of the first, which is a bit different than saying the first is loud. Don’t slam the second note.
10.    Phrase with your fingers, not with your jaw.

Breathing and Blowing
11.    Keep your shoulders low and open your throat. Feel the colder air on it and drop your tummy.
12.    Breathe and stand (or sit) like you’re waiting for the bus. Naturally. Yawning is the perfect breathing: your whole body relaxes and your breath goes way low. It feels so good.
13.    Sneeze (or cough): feel the point of energy deep in the abdomen. Blowing is somewhat like a sustained cough.
14.    If you don’t need a big breath, don’t take one. A middle/average breath is easier to focus.
15.    If you do need to play a long phrase, at first, save your air by barely blowing, thinking only of focus and appogio (tenuto, sostenuto, ritenuto), and then blow what you have got left at the end.

Tone, Tuning and Vibrato
16.    Develop a clean attack, French (or whatever).
17.    Vibrato is an essential part of your playing. Listen, use your ears, and train them to control your vibrato.
18.    In forte, don’t force the vibrato: it’s already there. In soft passages, use the speed of vibrato to keep the sound alive.
19.    Embouchure stability is the key to tone and articulation.
20.    If you are going to use vibrato, then tune with it, slightly. Same thing for long tones. What’s more boring than a dish of dead tones?
21.    In ensembles, tune with the lower notes around you: oboes, bassoons.
22.    Don’t feel guilty. You’re not always the culprit of a sour chord.
23.    Don’t blast away all the time. I know it’s the fashion but it’s boring. Don’t compete with the brass section or the piano. You’ll lose.
24.    No pain, no gain applies to contact sports, not to our delicate art.

Technique and Fingerings

25.    A noisy technique is a bad technique. Don’t slam-and-squeeze fingers. It slows you down.
26.    Be creative with your fingerings. If there is more than one way to play something, chose the most musical. It’s usually the easiest.


27.    Play pieces you like, especially things you are ready for: the French Book (Schirmer), Griffes, Burton, etc. Save the biggies for when you are ready. Early bad habits are hard to eradicate. Have pity on Mozart and Bach.

28.    Flute and head joint makers follow the trend. The louder and buzzier sell better, so that’s what they make. Playing piano? That’s passé European style.
29.    A brand new flute looks great. Consider also a second-hand one.
30.    Don’t buy a flute until you have played it in your normal surroundings. Ask the seller for three months and settle for one. Relationships are like that. You’re going to live with it for a long time.

Final Thought
At the end of the day, a flute is just a tool for your art, and an expensive piece of plumbing.