Ten Weeks Out from Wye

I have been meaning for a while now to write a reflection on the Flute Studio course with a bit of distance. There was meant to be one after a month, then after two, and now I find myself at the point of ten weeks after finishing. Life has certainly taken on a different pace, and flute practice is now once again one of many things I’m doing. Nevertheless, I think it’s a good point to reflect on what I’ve taken away from the course and where I’m headed now.

At the beginning of April, once the course had ended, I went to France with mum for two weeks, then up to Grimsby to visit my family. While it felt odd to suddenly be catapulted back into ‘real’ life and not to touch my flute for two weeks, I think it was really important to leave it alone for a while. As I’m sure some of my final posts show, I finished the course rather frustrated, and more likely to be nervous and anxious about my playing than to be enjoying it. The break gave me time to reset, to think about other things (including a fair share of other arts and culture) and remember why I wanted to play flute for me.

In my final months in the UK, I’m doing a part-time internship as well as working on flute. Despite this, I’ve been sending off some audition CDs/DVDs, taking lessons with Carla Rees and preparing for the SoundSCAPE Festival in July. It’s busy, but I’m enjoying having the diversity of musical activities again. I’ve also been doing most of my practice in the local church, which is a lovely space with no distractions (apart from the odd visitor) whatsoever.

I’m still structuring my practice in the way that we were taught at the studio. Tune first, then moving into Reichert and technical exercises. Playing tunes in the church is great as I really need to play with a big sound to fill the space. Though there isn’t always as much time to spend on technical work as there was in Kent, I’m finding that the break actually helped a lot of it! All the exercises I memorised are still there, and even some of the ones I struggled with on the course are now improving a lot. I do, however, need to be more diligent with fitting in finger exercises each day. They often get left out in favour of more urgent things.

I do still need to remind myself to play really expressively and with a big dynamic range. Particularly when I’m a bit tired, I tend to regress back to mono-dynamic, less expressive (it’s not expressionless, and I don’t believe ever was) playing, and I do need to keep a check on that. Recording myself a lot has also helped with this – if it isn’t happening from the back row of the church, the it isn’t enough!

In terms of studies, I”m now working through the Boehm Op. 26 Caprices. Mostly, they’re not as note-heavy as the Andersen studies, and I’m focusing on expression and attention to details. I’m also revisiting some of the Moyse 25 as needed for specific areas of weakness. In particular, I’ve been having a bit of a crackdown on double and triple tonguing.

Intonation and vibrato are the two things that were specifically pointed out to me in our final feedback session. I’ve been trying to come at intonation from lots of different angles: interval exercises with a drone (the Maquarre book is great here), playing sections of pieces with a tuner, recording myself a lot. I’m also finding that a return to singing and playing is helping. As for vibrato…it’s still a work in progress. For my first week back at practice, I played straight tones only, and it almost drove me insane. Then I started doing exercises varying the number of oscillations per second, which is also a recipe for insanity. I think my awareness and control of vibrato is confusing, but I do find that it is still going haywire when I get tense for some reason. So still some work to do in that department.

Most importantly, I am enjoying practising again. At the end of the course, it worried me that the six months had killed my enjoyment of playing the flute, and it most certainly hasn’t. If anything, everything else I’m doing means that I now value my practice time a great deal. I’m looking forward to all the things that are coming in the next few months, and enjoying playing everything from Bach to Boulez.

Day 179 &180 – March 28th & 29th – Final Feedback

I didn’t manage a blog post yesterday because I ended up staying in Wye for the night with Mum and her friends. As there isn’t much fluting to report any more, I feel ok with combining two posts!

Yesterday morning was feedback class. To be honest, I was expecting some sort of pronouncement on whether Trevor thought we should continue with the flute or give up entirely, as there stories of that happening in the past. It was actually quite civilised and, by the flute studio standards, gentle. Not much was really said that we hadn’t heard before, and it was mostly us who gave each other feedback rather than Trevor.

My main points were:

– Fix vibrato, as it’s to fast and erratic. I’ve known this from the beginning of the course, and know that I need to go back to basics, starting with straight tones for a few weeks and then gradually adding vibrato back in. A few of us got this advice, and were told it would be some of the worst few weeks of our playing, but that the it would work to fix it. The coming months, when I don’t have performances but will have time to practise, is a perfect opportunity to do this, and it will be first on my priority list once I’m back into it again.

– Fix intonation, which is not consistent. This is an interesting one: I have always felt and been told that intonation is a weakness, but when I arrived at the studio in October no mention of it was made at all for the first month. When I brought it up one class, Trevor went as far as expressing surprise that I said it was a problem. Then it has gradually crept back into the feedback I get, and if late (as the nerves have escalated), it has been on the cards more and more. So, I think part of it is to do with nerves, and I need to find a way of controlling my intonation even when nervous. I also need to go back to some basics here, spend more time playing with drones and working on simple tunes and exercises, with piano wherever possible. I still see this as my biggest musical challenge, and the time here has helped to clarify that.

– Relax about things, which I definitely agree with! I play best when I’m a bit up but not terrified, and when I am nervous I do really stupid things like warming up in the wrong key and playing strange wrong notes. Hopefully moving on from this environment will help with the nerves, but I need to work on focused, mindful playing in a broader sense as well.

Otherwise, the feedback I received from the others was mostly positive. I was told I had improved a lot with expression and dynamic range, and need to continue along that path rather than going back to how I played before. I have stopped waving my flute around, and also stopped playing unevenly, which is also good. Interestingly, no other mention was made of rhythm, or at all of articulation. I know that these are two areas that aren’t totally solid, and still need work. Articulation in particular. I’m looking forward to returning to Moyse’s 50 Variations and really playing each variation well.

As for today, I’ve been packing and need to do some more cleaning. I’m still not convinced everything will fit in my rucksack, but am getting somewhere!

Day 165 – March 14th – Trills 

I didn’t have a hugely productive day today – after yesterday’s long day and late night I needed a lazy morning. After a run and lunch, though, I was feeling sufficiently guilty about a lack of practice to start doing battle with my studies. 

Altès no. 25, the penultimate study in the book, has a devilish half-page of quick trill coupled with dotted rhythms. I spent quite a while on this bit, really aiming for clean trills that sound easy and don’t disrupt the rhythm. I’ve often been told off for not linking my final turns with the rest of the trill, so this is a big part of my ‘sounding easy’ criteria. Rather than starting slowly, I first made sure that the rhythms were correct without the trills but at the right speed. Then I played through small sections adding in the trills and making sure that all sound even. I though this was a better solution than starting slowly because the temptation with more time would be to add in more oscillations of the trill. Most of it is now sounding quite good (though I’m prepared for it being a couple of notches worse at the start of practice tomorrow), but I need to remember to relax rather than get tense over the trills! 

At the very start of my practice session, I stuck to my goal of working with drone tones. I decided to play my warm-up tune – Morning has Broken – with the drone because it uses a lot of notes from the major triad and has quite a few leaps as well. Even over the ten-minute time frame I became a little more sensitive to my intonation in relation to the drone, which is good. My 5ths and 8ves were likely to be on the flat side, and then individual keys have special difficulties. Theoretically I know all this, hopefully the drones will help me iron it out in the long run. It’s tiring work though, and I felt my concentration wavering after ten minutes. 

Trevor’s cold continues, and it looks like class is off again on Monday. We’re so near the end of the course now, but the next two and a half weeks still seem like a long time! 

Day 163 – March 12th – Lambs!

Spring in the woods

Spring in the woods

An extra day of grace due to cancelled class, I did a bit of relaxing and plenty of practice. In the afternoon I took myself off on a long walk down a path I haven’t explored before. It took me across the fields and through some lovely woodland, eventually joining up with the North Downs Way near Brabourne. Though I didn’t spot any daffodils (I think up on the hills it’s still a bit cold) but in the woods could see that things were starting to become very green.

On the way back I visited some of our farm’s lambs – suddenly there are so many! The oldest ones are already out in the field with their mums, and round in the barn there are pens full of them. With the window open, my practice has been accompanied by the call and answer of bleats for a few days now, but I was amazed to see just how quickly the numbers have multiplied. The lambs were gorgeous, white and fluffy with over-sized ears and feet. Most were full of energy, and already eagerly exploring both their new world and each other. For some of them, though, play was all a bit too much and a nap in the sun was more enticing.

DSCN6250I often find I have a really good practice day when class gets postponed, probably because all of a sudden the pressure is released and I can enjoy things a bit more. This morning, I returned to a technical exercise that has been frustrating me – Taffanel and Gaubert-style scales with mordants on the first and third semiquavers of the descents. I’m not sure whether it was the Altès mordant study I’ve been working on, or my greater relaxation, but the exercise has definitely improved. I’m playing it a lot faster, and most of the mordants are clean and correctly-placed – which just makes the errors more frustrating! If I slip up, I can feel my hands tense up in anticipation of another slip, exactly what I need not to do. Most of the problem areas are up in the third octave, where the trill fingerings aren’t second nature yet.

Lots of new families. The numbers are to match the ewes and lambs.

Lots of new families. The numbers are to match the ewes and lambs.

One of my big problems in class of late has been inconsistency of intonation. It’s something I need to fix, but also something that musicians aren’t terribly keen to talk about! Trevor isn’t being very helpful, just telling me to listen more rather than offering any suggestions for practice. While practicing with a tuner and recording myself (I’ve been doing both a couple of times a week) do help, I feel like this area of my playing has got worse since I’ve been here for two reasons. The first is that I’m now using a much bigger dynamic range and being more daring in my playing, rather than playing it safe. The second is that I’m rarely playing with other people, which I was doing a lot of this time last year.

I think one of the things I’m missing is that reference point of others to pitch off, and so have decided to do some practice with drones over the coming week rather than playing with a visual tuner. Rather than beating myself up about it, I need to work on finding a solution even when I’m not regularly playing chamber music.

Tomorrow we’re off up to London for the final Wibb masterclass of our stay, though I’ll try and go to a few more in the coming months if possible. Then it’s back to Hastingleigh for the final whist drive. Time does move on apace!

Bed time!

Bed time!

Day 154 – March 3rd – Playing Slowly

I can’t admit to having done terribly much practice today, only about three hours. After a gloomy, wet morning, the spring sun can out and was beckoning me outside. I went for a run after lunch, and did the whole loop round to the church, up into Hastingleigh and back to Elmsted. For weeks now I’ve been on the lookout for daffodils, and up in Hastingleigh one or two are just starting to flower. There are great banks of green stalks poised and ready, so very soon there will be a sea of little yellow trumpets. The sights of daffodils evokes really strong memories of my childhood here in England, and I’m excited to see them all flowering again. The others probably think my enthusiasm is a bit crazy!

Rather than play through all the technical exercises at speed, I decided to back off the pace today and work through fewer things really slowly. Trevor always advocates learning things quickly. His preferred method for the Andersen studies is learning small fragments at the correct tempo and then putting them together, rather than learning the notes slowly and then increasing the speed. I can see the logic in this – we’re working on sightreading and musicality at the same time as learning the notes, whereas slow note bashing can often sound rather wooden.

However, today I was playing through technical exercises that I know I can play much faster. I wanted to refocus a bit on sound, and on playing strong, clean notes rather than always sitting on the edge of what I can manage. I wanted to have time to notice things about my playing. The exercise worked; while I wasn’t thrilled by the idea of technical work, I really enjoyed the practice.

What did I notice?

I noticed that my sound, though rather varied of late, has become much bigger. Sometimes I’ve wondered whether it’s going backwards and becoming less focused, but now I think that might be part of the process of it opening out a bit more. I noticed that I’m still tending to cover the embouchure hole more that I should in the low register, particularly when I’m descending from something higher. I think this feels safe and produces something that sounds big from my perspective, but sounds weaker to a listener.

I also noticed that my fingers feel cleaner when I play slowly. I don’t lift them as high as six months ago, nor do I move them about nearly as much when they’re in the air. I noticed that my sensitivity to intonation had improved a lot, thought it’s still not where I’d like it to be. I still tend to think of out of tune notes as having a different colour rather than sharp or flat – which is probably why I often struggle with identifying them as either sharp or flat to correct! However, I also noticed that I’m intrinsically correcting them more, probably because the tendencies of certain notes have been drilled in so consistently!

It’s definitely a different sort of practice to what I’ve been doing lately, and one that I think needs to happen more often. If not here, then when I have some time after Trevor’s course. It’s also much more intensive in its own way, and I found that my concentration wavered after only fifteen or twenty minutes. Plenty to think on!