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Bringing It to the Table

Patricia George | September 2014

    A few summers ago, I was having lunch with one of the guest conductors at the music festival where I teach each summer. I asked how the morning rehearsal had gone, and he replied, “I wish these students brought more to the table.” I agreed.
    A year or so later I started a masterclass with the question, “What does it mean when a conductor says he wishes players brought more to the table.” There was silence in the class. Finally one student ventured, “Does he mean the right notes in the correct rhythm at the written dynamic?” Of course on the most basic level that is correct, but there is so much more to being a great orchestral player. Teachers should consider just what topics should be on the table and how we can help students and young professionals bring more to rehearsals and performances.

Know the Music
    Whenever parts are available in the music library, flutists should pick them up and study the music before the first rehearsal. If individual parts are unavailable, then study from a full score. Much of the Baroque, Classic, and Romantic literature as well as contemporary pieces written before 1923 are available at Sometimes there are recordings uploaded along with the scores. There are also usually good free or inexpensive recordings available on the internet. Listening while following along with the score is the most efficient way to get an overview of the composition. The composer and the name of the composition should be researched either on the web or in a symphonic music text. A good ensemble player will know something of the historical background of a piece including if it was written for a special event or particular performer.  
    The genre of the composition and title offer clues to choosing the correct performance strategies. Typical orchestral genres include overtures, marches, suites, symphonies, programmatic works, and concertos. The style period in which a work was written will signal what performance practices a performer should employ. Be aware of early music research that has been done in the past 35 or so years and play in a style appropriate for the period. Theoretical topics such as form, key, melodic and harmonic structure, orchestration scoring, dynamic usage, and rhythmic patterns are also important ingredients to examine while constructing an interpretation.

Know the Instrument
    A great orchestral performer will know the instrument well. The first topic to explore is intonation. The best way to do this is to make a pitch tendency chart. Start by listing all the notes on the flute from B4 through D7 on a sheet of paper. Then have a fellow flutist mark the pitch tendency of each note as you play, using a tuner. The player should not be able to see the tuner. Repeat this process several times to get a good sample of the tendencies. Then offer to do the same for your friend.
    If you find that you are generally sharp or flat all the time, check the cork placement in the headjoint. The line on the cleaning rod should be in the center of the embouchure hole. If this line is in the proper place, then check how much the headjoint is pulled from the body. Generally most headjoints should be pulled about ¼ inch; however, to calibrate this distance specifically for your instrument, pull the headjoint so that low C and an overblown C an octave above are in tune. Repeat on low D and D#. Finally play a C6 from a low C fingering and if all are in tune, the headjoint is pulled enough. Each flute is slightly different so the exact distance may vary from one flute to the next. The room temperature will affect pitch so be sure that it is in the 72-76 degree range when you make a chart. A room that is too cold will make a flute play flat, and a room that is too warm will make the flute play sharp.
    If all the notes that are fingered with the left thumb off the key are flat (C5, C#5, C6, C#6, C7, C#7, G#6), the flute is rolling back toward you when you remove the thumb from the key. Learning to remove the thumb and keep the flute steady requires it to be balanced well in the left hand. Many flutists have found that thinking of uplifting the flute just above the left knuckle solves the rolling issue. A flute rolls back because there is heavier key work on the back side of the flute, and the flutist is using the left thumb to balance the instrument.
    Dynamic levels also affect pitch. Generally notes played p and pp have a tendency to be flat and f and ff sharp. Practice with a tuner to rectify this issue. The same pitch tendencies are true when making diminuendos and  crescendos. Along with knowing pitch tendencies, a skilled orchestral player will know the pitch tendencies of other instruments in at least the woodwind section. Playing in tune with the woodwind section is always a group compromise for the greater good.
    Which tone color to use when and where in an orchestral composition is a lifelong challenge. The more you experiment, the more solutions you will find. The first step though is developing a homogeneous sound throughout the range. This is the baseline from which you will deviate.  Music of the Baroque and Classic periods is best served with less core or center to the sound while music of the Romantic era will have more core. To experiment with this concept, overblow a low C to the second partial. Keep the embouchure in this position while playing Baroque and Classic literature. Overblow at the third partial (G5) for a generic sound (use this for scales and most etudes), and for the Romantic era sound, set the embouchure between the overblown third and fourth partial. The basic idea here is to have the air stream hit the wall are varying angles. This may be achieved by moving either the top or bottom lip, changing the tongue position, dropping the jaw, and varying the speed of the air. The best players use tone color to their advantage for musical interest and also for blending well with other instruments. 
    A great player has a wide dynamic range, while novice players play everything mf. Know whether you have the melody or prominent part or the accompaniment and place dynamics appropriately.

    Arrive in plenty of time before a rehearsal starts. The old adage of early is on time and on time is late is a good one to heed. The person who sets the stage may know little or nothing about playing the flute and will set the chairs too close together and in a straight line. If you are on the end of a straight line of woodwind chairs, when you look up, you will be looking out into the audience rather than at the conductor. A slight curve at the end of the row will help you see the conductor. Move the chair. It takes more room to play flute than most realize (including flute players), so spread out as much as possible to play comfortably. All flutists in a section should have their own music stands. To ensure good projection, the music stands should have space between them so each flutist’s tone can be directed to the audience. Since the flute is played to the side, turning chairs 45 degrees to the right will facilitate a good playing position. 
    Always have a pencil. When a conductor stops to give a direction, mark instructions in the part. Novice players are sure they will remember, but experienced musicians know that a penciled reminder helps them play their best. If you make a note mistake, mark the accidental. This will keep you from making the same mistake twice. The accidental or cautionary reminder should be placed before the note, not above the note. Trudy Kane said that when she was playing principal flute in the Met, she always put the conductor’s name after the instruction as she often played the same opera with multiple conductors. Circle all beats and measures where no one plays. This will save the embarrassment of looking around wondering what happens next.
    Do not talk during rehearsals unless it is to communicate a specific instruction within the flute or woodwind section. Do not ask irrelevant questions in the rehearsal. Stay focused and save socializing for rehearsal breaks.
    Watch the conductor. The better you know your music, the more often you will feel comfortable looking up. Make it a habit to look up every measure or two. Look up especially at the beginning of the piece, at section changes, at the ending, in ritards and accelerandos, at entrances, fermatas etc. When the conductor stops, ask yourself why. If you know the correct answer, you are tuned in to the rehearsal.
    Count, count, count. The master teacher Nadia Boulanger said, “To live you have to count. One who counts best lives best.” So true. There is nothing worse that can happen as a performer than not knowing where you are. Count as a section. During a long rest of many measures, someone in the section should slightly lift his hand and gesture at each rehearsal marking (Circle M etc.).
    At the end of a rehearsal take the music. At the end of a concert leave the music on the stand unless advised otherwise. Respect the music and keep it safe. Many of the scores you will play through the years will be rental copies. If a rental part is lost, the fee for replacement is quite large.

Musical Items
    Tune quickly with the tone you are going to use in the first entrance in the music. This is not the time to play other melodies, rhythms etc. Keep it simple. Remember the A in the first octave on the flute is generally flat, so tune accordingly.
    Before rehearsal and during breaks do not play the solo parts of another musician’s music. When a person sitting next to you is playing a solo, do not look at his music. 
    Make your ears sensitive to the shape of the notes you are playing. Football shaped notes are a no-no. Many flutists play footballs with their vibrato too. This happens when the tone begins with no vibrato and a nano-bit later the vibrato is turned on full force. Learn to keep vibrato constant. A good person to watch to help you make musical vibrato choices is the concertmaster since the flute doubles the first violins so much of the time. 
    Pick-up notes should be lifted into a strong beat. Generally pick-up notes are played softer than the note they lead into. Ties are never played. Many conductors will ask you to mark an X through the tied note, meaning you should breathe on the tie so you won’t be late on the next notes.
    Whole notes are rarely played at the same dynamic throughout the measure. Usually the first beat is played at the indicated dynamic, and then the player backs off so that instruments with moving parts can be heard in the texture. Playing long notes in this style shows you have good musical manners. 
    As a one-line playing instrument flutists are more comfortable thinking horizontally. The best players listen vertically too. This will help you figure out where a pitch fits into a chord and what the flute’s dynamic should be in relationship to the other players.
    Try not to chip the beginning of a note. Chipped notes happen, but if you think about placing the attack well, it will happen less often. A good rule to remember is: the tongue releases the air.
    Sections who breathe together will attack together. Someone in the section should give a small motion to cue in the rest of the section. Depending on the passage this usually falls to the principal player, but not always.

In Conclusion
    For many years I kept a small notebook in my flute bag. When a conductor made a remark about the music that I did not know or I thought was clever, I wrote the comment down. Pretty soon I had about 100 rules of phrasing or thoughts to consider when performing. Rereading these comments from time to time continues to make me a better musician. I encourage teachers and students to do the same, and endeavor over time to learn how to bring more to the table.