Many middle school music teachers focus on getting the notes and rhythms first and plan to make it musical later. Understandably, beginning students are overwhelmed by the many basic elements they have to learn and apply. Unfortunately, there never seems to be enough time to add in the musicianship and over time, students become complacent as they feel they have mastered playing the notes and rhythms and never get to the stage of asking what else should they should be doing.
To avoid this problem, teachers should develop a basic musicianship curriculum for beginning and intermediate flutists that will teach them how to play musically and expressively. They learn musicianship skills in a simplified format and can then apply them to their pieces. The following is one such method.
The first exercise is to teach students to play a single note with even air. With the tuner have students play a single A on the headjoint only. At this stage tell them to not worry whether the note is sharp or flat. The goal is just to keep the needle still while playing the note. With experimentation they will quickly figure out how to portion the air when playing a long note with even air. They will also learn how to make an attack in tune rather than going sharper at the beginning of the note.
Next, introduce students to the idea that two slurred notes are played as strong/weak or loud/soft. As a visual reference you can explain that in violin bow strokes, the sound is stronger near the frog where the hand holds the bow and can apply pressure more easily and gets weaker as the player pulls the bow out to the tip. This means that a two-note down bow slur on a violin naturally will start strong and become weaker.
Two slurred notes are nearly always played with this dynamic design. This idea also works well for any two articulated notes. The note duration of the two notes does not matter. It might be a whole note slurred to a quarter, a half note to an eighth, etc.
When applying the loud/soft idea to a phrase, the entire phrase is played at the printed dynamic, but within the passage some notes will be played softer and others with more stress. This deviation of dynamic is called inflection. You can illustrate the idea for students by having them speak with no inflection in a monotone voice and then making it more engaging with inflection.
Students can practice scales with this two-note idea. To accomplish this, the aperture or opening of the lips is made smaller by squeezing the lips together and the speed of the air may be reduced depending on the range or tessitura. This should be worked on at the slowest of tempos. Place four vibrato cycles on the first note and three vibrato cycles on the second note. The finger(s) should move just as one cycle ends, and the next begins. This also will help students end phrases with a taper.
Many of the most elementary pieces have repeated notes. These too should have dynamic design. Start by demonstrating how playing repeated notes at the same dynamics is boring for the listener. Then introduce the strength of the beat principle. (If a piece is in common meter, the first beat is the strongest, followed by the third, second and fourth beats.) In playing repeated notes, they should consider the strength of the beats first. If repeated notes begin on a weak beat and end on a strong one, they can increase the dynamic with each note to create forward motion.
J.J. Quantz wrote in his book, On Playing the Flute about articulatory silence. He noted “The notes must not appear to be glued together.” It was as good advice then as it is now. Articulatory silence is the nano second of silence good musicians place between syncopated notes. It is also the silence that replaces a dot in articulated rhythms. There is also an articulatory silence between groups of slurred notes.
Dotted or Tied Notes Under a Slur
A good rule to remember is decay or diminuendo to the dot or tie. I use the anacronym DDT for decay to the dot or tie. Remember this rule only applies to notes under a slur. This will help flutists add nuance to their playing. Two concerns to remember: If the phrase ends after the dot, then all notes after the dot are played more softly. If the phrase continues after the dot, the first notes are played softer and then it should crescendo into the next strong beat.
This is an issue for flutists of all levels. They come to the end of a phrase, take a big breath and then have so much air that the next notes played are too loud. Remind students to consciously play softer after a breath to control the shape of their phrases and make them conversational.
Practice with a Phrase
This melodic fragment illustrates these five basic rules of inflection. Work with students so that they can execute these rules in a convincing manner. Then experiment with other phrases.
Clues from a Title
Tell students the title of this fragment is Butterfly, and then have them think about how that might change their performance choices. Perhaps everything will be lighter and more dance-like as a butterfly goes from one flower to the next. To imitate a butterfly, they might play at a slightly faster tempo and make the notes a little less full bodied.
Then say that it is called Appassionato. Would the notes be fuller bodied and the vibrato more pronounced? Ask students to come up with titles of their own and experiment with different ideas. Changing the title of a piece or exercise is a beneficial practice tool to expand creativity.
These simple five rules can greatly improve musicianship, and they do not take much time. Start by working on one for a few minutes each week. Students who learn these ideas early will find easy to incorporate them into their music as they advance. They will likely enjoy exploring the vast world of musical expression as they learn the tools to make their performances exciting for listeners and themselves.