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 160 – March 9th – Practice, practice

After a weekend with some free time, today was the day for pulling out all the stops and doing some serious practice. Not only do we have studies for class tomorrow, but also several pages of Doppler’s Airs Valaques each. Throw in flute history project and our weekly trip to Tesco, and I feel like I’ve been on the go non-stop since 8am!

It’s my turn to do the tune in class tomorrow, and I spent quite a bit of time this morning on Greensleeves making sure that it was both expressive and rhythmic. I keep getting distracted by trying to achieve a homogeneous tone across the whole flute range and through the different keys – I’ll play the tune in G minor and get it sounding really good, and then moving up to G# minor find that it sounds totally different! While I do like the idea of each key having its own character even in equal temperament, I don’t like it when certain notes stick out for all the wrong reasons. For the purposes of class, though, expression and good use of dynamics is key.

Studies are a bit hit and miss this week. I’ve got a handful of the Drouet set sounding quite good, but am still struggling with Altès no. 24 and all the mordants. I feel at once so close to and so far from finishing this book. There are only 26 studies, but both nos. 24 and 25 are tricky. While I can play most of no. 25, the second page is full of trills and I know that I need to play each one evenly with a perfectly timed turn at the end. As for Andersen no. 16, it has had a late surge of improvement, but I’m not totally sure whether that will all carry into class tomorrow. We’ll have to see.

Day 114 – January 22nd – Studies, studies and more studies

There were only five of us for class today, as it seems like colds are doing the rounds. So far I’ve been ok, and I’m hoping that it’ll stay that way!

As I said in my post yesterday, I was feeling a little trepidation about today’s studies, particularly the two Altès that I’ve spent a lot of time on. By contrast, I’d spent very little time on the Moyse studies, and (unfortunately) not as much as I should have Andersen No. 12! The results were interesting:

Moyse #5 and #9: Good following of notes with my lips, though both could have been faster. After no. 9 we talked a little about my needing to open up the tone in my top register. When I played the study again I did it with a lovely full tone, but need to be doing that all the time rather than just when prompted.

Moyse #8: “Lovely” – just get rid of a few wrong notes. I’d practiced this one a lot at the start of the week, but not in the last few days, and so just decided to go for it.

Then Trevor was a bit mean and made me sightread the next three studies so that he could show everyone what needed working on with them! It seems that he wants me to prepare all these in time for Monday which isn’t going to be much fun.

Andersen #12: Started out well but then I fell apart at the end of the B section where there were some particularly nasty leaps. Trevor didn’t seem terribly perturbed though, which was a bit strange. He just said ‘thank you’ and asked what was next – it seems he could tell I just hadn’t spent enough time on it. Looks like that’s back on for Monday, along with no. 13 which is a whole lot of chromatic scales.

Altès #18: “Some good things about this study, but you’re not bringing out the tune” sums this one up, and I agreed. I had spent so long on the notes and making sure that the articulation patterns were right that I hadn’t thought enough about musical direction. I need to play it again on Monday, which is a bit of a pain, but I do think I’ve learned a lot from this study.

Altès: #19: Fine, though I think Trevor would have liked it a little faster. I can play segments of it up to speed, but my tongue still feels like it’s going to fall off when I try to do a page of triple tonguing at crotchet =100!

Bach Variations #12 and #13: Ok but not tight enough…. I need to being doing little bits of this every day for a few minutes to get it tight enough.

Bach Variations #14 and #15: Trevor seemed quite pleased with these, but then tried to push and see how expressively I could play. The challenge with all these studies is achieving the articulation challenges as well as making them sound musical, and I was almost there with both. A case of attention to detail and then forgetting it and letting the music come through.

With regular class as well as the two masterclasses, we still have five to prepare for in the two weeks. Trevor’s solution to this is to set us even more work, and has asked us to write a cadenza for the first movement of Mozart’s G major flute concerto as well for next Thursday. Looks like I’m spending the evening working!

Day 111 – January 19th – Tunes and more tunes

I haven’t left much time to write tonight’s post, and should be heading off to be ready for another trip up to London tomorrow. This time we’re off to William Bennet’s masterclass for the day, and I’m hoping to gain as much inspiration from it as I did at the London Symphony Orchestra’s concert last night!

Today’s class has a few ups and downs. A distinct down was when we were talking about practice schedules, and Trevor honed in on my playing of tunes. I’m starting every day with a tune, and no matter what he may think am working to play it expressively and with feeling and dynamics. All of a sudden in class I had to stand up and give him a demonstration. And another, and another. I think I ended up playing seven or so different tunes, most of which he seemed to quite like. It just so happened that the one I started off with he didn’t know, and then the next one that I landed on I wasn’t as sure of the notes as I wanted to be! So then he went off on a tangent about me trying too hard to play from memory! It got to the point that I felt like no matter what I did I couldn’t win, and I just wanted to sit down and let him focus on someone else for a while!

Once we got past that, I ended up playing quite well. My first B in Debussy’s En Bateau was flat, and earned a bit of a lecture, but otherwise the excerpt went quite well. I also played the second movement of Lennox Berkeley’s Sonatina, in a way that earned the comment “very nice, lovely control”, which made me quite pleased.

I can’t let these rants get to me!

Day 99 – January 7th – In a good rhythm

After feeling a bit lethargic yesterday, today was really quite wonderful for a whole combination of things. Rather than trying to convince myself that running was a good idea in the dark, I went at the much better time of 9am after my first hour of practice. I ran a long way, right round to the church then up into Hastingleigh the back way and coming back to Elmsted in one big loop. Alas, I didn’t manage to run all the way, as the road was really icy down by the church and then the final hill up to our dairy was a real killer. Still, it was a lovely time of the morning to be out, and I had a great time despite the sore legs.

Muffins - not my prettiest baking creation but still quite yummy.

Muffins – not my prettiest baking creation but still quite yummy.

In the afternoon, I finally got round to baking some muffins, which I’ve been meaning to do for a while. Grandma gave me a rather nice flexible tray at Christmas, and so I made dark chocolate and raspberry muffins with the hope of taking them to class tomorrow. I’ve got slightly mixed feelings about the result – they taste nice but didn’t come out of the tray terribly well and have misshapen bottoms – but had lots of fun in the process. There is something infinitely relaxing about rubbing butter into flour!

I still managed to fit in a good five and a half hours of practice around all this, and it was much better than last week. It’s my turn to propose a warm-up tune tomorrow, as well as directing the exercises that follow. I think I’m ready! My warm-up tune is the opening flute solo (2nd passing to 1st) of Ravel’s Ma mère l’oye, since I’m currently writing a program note for it for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s 2015 Discovery program.

Then there’s all the rest of the things to prepare. Our repertoire for tomorrow is Schubert’s Trockne Blumen Variations, which are monumental as flute works go. While yesterday’s practice on it was rather average, today went quite well. I’m not sure whether it’s my fingers remembering the work I did on it three years ago, all the scales we’ve been doing or a combination of both, but it all felt quite comfortable and I’m not too stressed about playing it in class tomorrow. I just need to remember to be expressive and play dotted rhythms correctly!

Finally, I spent an hour before our walk doing some of my listening project for the week. My chosen topic is the American flautist (or should I say flutist since he’s American?) William Kincaid, and amoung Trevor’s CDs I found an absolute gem. It’s a retrospective of Kincaid’s career with the Philadelphia Orchestra, originally for radio, with lots of really old recordings of him playing orchestral, chamber and solo works. Despite the presenter being awful (something of an old recordings collector by the sound of it, but really needed a script), the musical snapshot was fantastic, and the background information helped to put it all into context. Kincaid’s playing is stunning, particularly in the orchestral pieces. There was the Entr’acte from Bizet’s Carmen, Debussy’s Après-midi d’une faune, a really rather delicious rendition of the Daphnis and Chloe (Ravel) flute solo. I can easily say it’s the best CD I’ve listened to so far from Trevor’s collection.

Now I’m sitting here with a cup of chamomile tea, listening to David Francey’s Belgrade Train (it’s awesome!) and thinking that it’s days like today that really make the experience here at the flute studio. I don’t know if I’ll ever have a time and space like this again, so need to make the most of it. And of course practice scales!