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Joining a Flute Choir

Sara Nichols | September 2019

    In recent years the flute choir has grown into a vibrant ensemble for flutists with an ever expanding repertoire ranging from dazzling original works to arrangements of popular music encompassing every possible genre. It also provides stellar opportunities for flutists to cultivate new friendships, collaborate on artistic endeavors, and elevate their skills. The following suggestions will help you find an appropriate group and enhance your experience.

Finding a Flute Choir
    For students, start by talking to your teacher. Many colleges offer flute choir opportunities for credit, and some private teachers create flute choirs as a chamber music experience for their students. As the numbers of participants increase, some teachers form multiple ensembles organized by age or ability. Sometimes a flute choir is formed as an after-school activity by a local flute teacher or advanced student. Several of my former students, who possess superb leadership skills and are now professionals or college music majors, organized such performing ensembles for their peers when they were high school upperclassmen. 
    Searching for a suitable flute choir can be more of a challenge for those coming back to playing as an adult. Ask established flute teachers or professionals for prospective groups. (A local high school band director may be able to direct you to flute teachers in the area.) Universities, flute clubs, and social media can suggest other options.
    Once you find some options, consider whether the group will fit your schedule. Ask when, where, and how often the choir will rehearse. Check the attendance policy. Find out how many concerts they present each season. Some might give a couple concerts each year, while others perform frequently at diverse venues such as area festivals, conventions, schools, churches, and retirement communities. Determine whether there is a membership fee. Start by checking the flute choir’s website. There may be recent concert videos available online as well. If the ensemble seems like a good fit, contact the director for more information. You could attend an upcoming performance or possibly observe or participate in a rehearsal.

    There are many flute choirs that welcome new members without an audition. Groups requiring an audition tend to perform more advanced repertoire. If you are not accepted after an audition, don’t be discouraged. You want to find a group that is the right fit for you. Ask for constructive feedback and consider taking some private lessons. There may be gaps in your flute knowledge, or you may just need a refresher and some practice. You may need to start with a less formal ensemble as you improve your playing skills. This will also give you experience playing in this type of group.
Flute Care
    If you are returning to flute playing after a break, take it in to a qualified flute technician for a Clean, Oil, & Adjust (COA). All pads eventually need to be replaced, as they are exposed to condensation, temperature fluctuations, and impurities including dirt and pet dander. If you hear muted or non-existent tones when you play, it may simply be the result of split or leaky pads. An aged, loose cork in the headjoint makes it impossible to play in tune with others. Once a flute is in good working order and being played regularly, follow up by taking it in for maintenance service at least once per year.

    Allow adequate time to set up your stand, organize your music, and assemble your flute for both rehearsals and performances. Nothing is worse than someone disrupting a rehearsal with a late arrival. Be in your seat ready to play at least 15 minutes prior to the designated start to every rehearsal. On a concert day, allow additional travel time so you will arrive composed and focused.

Rehearsal Preparation
    Warm up with a few harmonics and long tones and check your pitch with a tuner. I recommend purchasing a tuning pick-up device, available for under $10 on Amazon. Some models plug into a tuner/metronome while others fit into a phone to use with a tuning app. The device clips onto the flute and enables you to monitor your tuning even while others are playing. During warmup time, review tricky passages or perhaps tune a note or interval with a colleague.

    Notify the director or attendance coordinator in advance if you will be absent for a rehearsal or concert. Reliability is essential to every successful performing organization. If a single part is missing, the section will sound different to those who are present. If a different person is missing each week, the group will be not develop good listening and ensemble skills. Much repertoire, especially more recent compositions, share thematic material throughout all of the parts.

Part Assignments
    Much deliberation takes place behind the scenes to determine who should play each part. While some players are happy playing any part, others become frustrated or resentful when they are not assigned a prominent solo part. Don’t complain no matter what part you receive. Remember that every part of a performing group is essential. Through teamwork each member contributes vibrant energy to the whole.

Home Practice
    Learn your part at home. The purpose of rehearsals is to understand how your part fits with the other players. If you are struggling with technical issues such as fingerings, articulation, or intonation, you will not be able to focus on the big picture, and this affects the whole ensemble. You also do not want the director to stop rehearsal because you do not know your part.

    Some players get immersed in the music and forget to look up. Raise the music stand so you can easily look up every few bars, especially when there is an approaching tempo change, including ritards and accelerandos. Memorize a bar or two at difficult spots.

    Bring pencils to each rehearsal and mark your part whenever the conductor makes a request. Erasers are also essential, so keep a spare in your case.

Playing with Others
    Be ready to play. Prepare for attacks so you are not late. Have the flute up to your face, set the embouchure, and breathe before the attack. Consider how string players prepare their bows prior to playing. Preparation begins before you play. If you wait until the attack, you will be late. It takes some getting used to but makes a world of difference for the precision of the ensemble. Listen to your colleagues to match attacks on the front and releases at the end of each note. Pay attention to note lengths, including staccato, legato, and everything in between. With practice your group will learn to intuitively react and move as one.

Balancing the Parts
    Figure out if you have the melody, a part of the melody, the background, simply a texture, or something else. The conductor will discuss this at rehearsals as well. Careful balance and adjustments allow the essence of the music to emerge. Even if you think you are doing what is needed, it is often good to exaggerate even more. Remember the music sounds different to the conductor in front of the group and even more so as it projects to the audience. Trust the director’s requests even if you think your part sounds correct from your location in the group.

Upgrading Your Flute
    Considerable mechanical and acoustic improvements are found on flutes built after the 1980s. If you are playing on an older instrument stored in a closet since your high school days, it may be time to upgrade. Newer instruments are more responsive, more mechanically precise, and feature significant improvements with intonation. Everyone is different, so it takes time and experimenting to discover the right one for you.

Low Flutes
    You may want to consider buying a low flute (alto, bass, contrabass). These instruments present a deep and thrilling resonance which grounds the flute choir. Low flutes are often featured in new flute choir music. Check them out at regional and national flute conventions where a wide variety is readily available to try. Flute specialists and dealers will gladly offer information about specific models and designs, and it is possible to purchase many low flutes at a modest price for those just getting started playing them.

Improving Your Skills
    In addition to practicing your flute choir repertoire, a regular and disciplined warmup routine improves your general playing skills. Try warming up on the headjoint only, playing octaves and practicing vibrato cycles and double-tonguing. After assembling the flute, play harmonics (overblowing from a first octave note) and long tones. You should be able to play all major and minor scales in two octaves at a metronome setting of 104. Play scales in slurred thirds to develop articulated fingers and a flexible embouchure. Practicing arpeggios with a tuner teaches the pitch tendencies of your flute.
    If you have a difficult passage, ask for alternate fingerings in advance and practice them diligently. The extra effort will be worth it. Extended techniques, now featured in many new compositions, also require additional focus to master. Study appropriate YouTube tutorials, if they are available.
    Partner practice with another member of the flute choir is also beneficial. Try creating your own scale exercises. These might include practicing scales a third apart or playing two octave arpeggios slowly in opposite directions so you can tune intervals. The possibilities are endless. If you have the same flute choir part, focus on matching and playing as one. If you have different parts, determine their similarities and differences. Another option is for one person to play the flute choir passage while the partner adds subdivisions (quarters or eighths) to work on keeping a steady tempo.

Other Contributions
    Consider assisting with setting up and striking chairs and stands at rehearsals and concerts. Offer to help collect and file parts. Suggest new repertoire you hear at a concert or on social media. Invite people to the ensemble’s concerts. Look around and see what needs to be done, and then do it. Flute choir will enrich your life and can lead to great new friendships. Creating and achieving artistic goals with others is immensely satisfying.