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Teacher’s Studio: Improving Fast and Slow Playing

Patricia George | September 2018

    There are two kinds of technique: playing slowly and playing quickly. Most students think playing slowly is easy and playing quickly is difficult. Professional flutists know the opposite is usually true.
    If you are asked to play for church or a convocation with organ, probably your first repertoire choice would be a slow movement of a Bach, Handel, Marcello, or Telemann sonata rather than one of the faster movements. Flutists often hesitate to select fast movements of sonatas because of fears that they may not be able to finger or articulate the notes fast enough. 
    However, in slow movements, listeners can hear all of the places where the fingering is not articulate and clean. A few common intervals are playing from an F to an A, a G to a Bb, or an A to a C. With these intervals, it is easy to sound the note in between the two written notes. Any interval that involves moving more than one finger has the potential for sloppy fingering and these intervals can be particularly noticeable at a slow tempo. 
    There are of course pitfalls to fast works, but these movements often are composed of scale passages, thirds, arpeggios, and trills. Fumbling these gestures does shows a lack of knowledge and practice in these areas, but they offer concrete areas to practice and improve. 
    If you have ever had the preceding debate with yourself and hesitated over a programming choice, try the following exercises to improve your technique. With dedicated effort, your playing will improve in just a few months. 

Slow Technique
    The secret to developing good slow technique is counting subdivisions so you know exactly when to move the finger. Flutists are good at feeling a pulse, but rarely count carefully enough to always know which beat they are on. Pianists know what beat they are on because from lesson one they practice counting aloud. Of course, this is impossible on the flute because the lip plate is in the chin, and the tongue is busy with articulation. There are so many things happening at once that the last thing student flutists think about is counting 1, 2, 3, 4 with the subdivisions. 
    A metronome with a voice feature can be a huge aid in learning to count. I encourage my students to use the voice feature every time when learning something new and to also use it (with subdivisions) when practicing scales, thirds, sixths, arpeggios, seventh chords and broken seventh chords.      Basically, the voice setting should be going for any theoretical technical material. I strongly suspect the aural stimuli registers in a different part of the brain than the ticking. People need this aural stimulation to imprint in the brain to be useful in playing accurately. 
    To better feel the subdivisions, look at the interval of F to A below. Before slurring this interval, practice rhythmically filling the interval in sixteenth notes. Use the T, K, Hah, TK or TKT, or try counted/measured vibrato to pulse the subdivisions. Do this each day. 

    The legendary flute professor Robert Willoughby was well-known for teaching his students how to make seamless slurs. I mentioned to him one time that I could always tell a Willoughby student from his slurs. He grinned and said, “I have worked very hard on that.” He had students fill in the missing notes – sometimes chromatically and sometimes diatonically. After they had played the interval many times filled in, they knew exactly where the lips needed to be and when to move their fingers. Here is an example of an octave with the notes filled in. 

Fast Technique
    A few years ago, I taught a student who brought each assignment to her lesson ready to play at the prescribed tempo week after week. Over the summer she learned all of the Paganini 24 Caprices and Andersen Op. 15. I was impressed. I asked, “How is it that you can play so fast so well.” She thought for a moment and said, “I had a band director in middle school who had playing tests each week. The flutist who could play it the fastest and the most accurately, would win. I wanted to win.” So, she had learned to play fast because she regularly had practiced the skill of playing fast. 
    If you want to learn to play fast, make a commitment to play something fast every day. Start by playing the first two notes of the following major scales. This interval is a major second. The fingering system on the flute overblows at the octave from E4 to C#5. This means that all of the chromatic notes from E4 to C#5 are fingered the same again, starting with E5 to C#6. Practice these two-note chunks slurred eight times, three times a day (morning, afternoon, and just before bedtime) for two weeks. Take a small or sip breath between each group of slurred notes. 

    The problem I notice with most flutists is that there is time lost between these two notes. The first note is held too long, and the finger does not initiate the motion soon enough for the second note. The movement of the fingers (except for the left index finger) should be from the third knuckle back from the nail. For the right hand, practice waving goodbye with the four fingers to get the proper motion. 
    Keep the fingers close to the keys, and practice in front of a mirror. Be sure the movement is simple and clean. The fingertip should touch the same place on the key each time it is lowered. The flute should be still with the elbows hung and pointed towards the floor. 
    In week three, continue with this exercise but add playing it in half-steps. This will set you up for playing chromatic passages. Remember to not lengthen the first note and move quickly on to the second note. 

    As you practice these duplets, analyze your movement. The fingers should be close to the keys with no extraneous movement. Everything should look and feel simple. Continue to take a sip breath between each group of two notes. The sip breath separates the vocal folds and opens the throat. An open throat contributes to a beautiful sound. 
    To connect the E4 to C#5 notes with the E5 and C#6 notes, you need to practice the two bridge notes D5 and Eb5. These are the notes where the left index finger is lifted. 

    In week five, put the whole-step and half-step duplet together to form a tetra chord. Practice playing the tetra chord slurred as fast as you can followed by a rest. Combining two tetrachords creates a one-octave major scale. Practice playing these one-octave scales slurred as fast as possible.  
    To build a fluid technique, continue to work in step-wise motion before adding in the larger intervals (thirds, fourths, fifths, sixths, sevenths and octaves). Practice possibilities could be in the form of two-octave major and minor scales, two-octave modal scales, or two- or three-octave chromatic scales. Look for etudes by Gariboldi, Hugues, Andersen, or Berbiguier that are primarily step-wise in motion. Also check out the books of daily studies (vocalizes) by Wummer, Wood, Maquarre, Barrere and Reichert as there are many in each set of the seven daily exercises that do this. Between each slurred chunk of two, three, four or six notes continue to take a sip breath. Play each chunk as fast as you can because by practicing playing fast, you are conquering playing fast. 

Tetra Chords

    Mordents are written either to be executed as either a half step or a whole step. Place a mordent on each step of a major scale. Check the key signature to know if it will be a half-step or whole-step interval. Rather that using a trill fingering, use real fingerings to improve coordination. (Of course, the mordent is slurred and a sip breath is taken between each note of the scale.)  

    You may apply mordent practice to anything in the repertoire. Rhythmically a mordent is short, short, long. This technique is fantastic for conquering awkward passages. 
    After a few months of daily practice or repetition, you should find that you are able to play better at both tempo extremes. Getting whole- and half-step intervals into your muscle memory will aid in playing passages at any tempo in band and orchestra music. Just like any other technique, the ability to play fast or slow is something that can be learned. It just has to be practiced on a regular basis.