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 152 – March 1st – A bit of whimsy

To go with the start of a new month, today really was beautiful English springtime weather. I spent most of the morning Skyping and didn’t get onto practice until relatively late-on. My technical work was a bit of a mixed bag – some of it went really well and then other bits were sloppy. While getting through No. 4 of Boehm’s Twelve Studies from memory was a struggle, the much more difficult No. 1 was easy.

Since Christmas, Trevor has been introducing more and more variations on his technical exercises in class. Some are relatively easy, like playing page 90 of Complete Daily Exercises alternating major and minor each time. Others are tricky, particularly Taffanel and Gaubert-style scales with added mordants on the descent! The variations on page 96 are positively endless, and at once fun and difficult. I like exploring all the ways we can play around with a very simple pattern, but then struggle to apply it to the last bar of the sequence – the dominant 7th of the next key. I know exactly what the notes should be, but don’t relax enough with them and am constantly second-guessing myself. That said, at the beginning of the course I couldn’t imagine playing most of the exercises from memory at all!

This afternoon, I took advantage of the lovely weather to go back to Spong Wood. I took my flute and zoom (microphone), and, after wading through quite a bit of mud, improvised for a while in a glade. I’ve been meaning to do it for a while, and loved the experience. It was sunny, almost warm, and I was alone with the trees and the birds. I’ve recorded the improvisation, and will play around with it in Max 7. Stay tuned for the results!

After that, though, it was back to studies. I feel like Altès No. 24 is finally working, after spending quite a while this week getting my fingers around the tricky mordants, but am not convinced that Andersen No. 16 is ready. Hopefully we’ll spend plenty of time planning our Bodsham Primary School concert and my Moyse, Altes and Drouet studies will be enough!

Day 149 – February 26th – Cloudy with light drizzle

I’m not sure the weather forecast got it quite right for today – cloudy with light drizzle turned into pea soup with lashings of rain by the time it arrived in Elmsted! It was a good day for solid pracitising, and I got in a good five and a half hours…with the help of as many cups of tea!

Like I said yesterday, I had quite clear plans for what needed practising in the Copland Duo, and think that I did quite a good job of sorting them out. It’s a pity that there’s only time in class tomorrow for the first movement, as I really like the piece and would like to prepare it ‘properly’ for something. The second movement (I had a quick play through this afternoon) is stunning. Oh well, another piece to add to my wish list.

Back to doing a full three hours of warm-ups and technique, I was surprised today just how much I got through in the time. I remember back at the beginning of December I was still taking half an hour to get through Reichert No. 2 from memory. Now I can fly through that and quite a few of the other exercises with no problems at all. No. 1 from Boehm’s Twelve Studies is finally there as well, after many painful practice sessions! Both my memory and my finger speed are certainly improving, though I do still get frustrated with myself in class if I can’t keep up with some of the others.

Day 122 – January 30th – Snow and Frustration

Snowy downs

Snowy downs

This morning I woke to the first proper snowfall; white fields and hedgerows. Despite the cold, I thoroughly enjoyed the walk to class and could almost have passed Trevor’s house by and carried on!

I rather surprised myself in the warm-up by getting through almost all of the proposed exercises from memory without slips. Of particular note, I was asked to play ‘solo’ scales round the circle of fifths (C major, A melodic minor, F major etc.) with Trevor beating a rather brisk time all the way. Only two slips, and interestingly neither of them in tricky keys! I also managed the arpeggios on page 96 of Complete Daily Exercises all the way up to Ab without any significant slips, and it was playing them once through as well.

Snowy downs

Snowy downs

However, my performance in the masterclass proper didn’t go brilliantly. I started the Taffanel Andante Pastoral too slowly, and despite feeling like I’d put a lot of work into the character of the piece, was told that I was playing in quite an insular, nervous way. By the time we got to the Scherzettino, I just wanted to sit down, and dropped quite a lot of notes. Apparently that was better, though, because I was feeling the rhythm more! I recorded the class, and so need to sit down in a couple of days time and process all the information again.

There was a general sigh of relief this evening, as we’ve made it to the end of a very hectic two weeks. Though there are studies anew to prepare for Monday, we had a bit of a night off, watched some truly awful American TV and played the board game Frustration!

Day 109 – January 17th – Sleet

I had rather hoped to wake up this morning with even a little bit of snow on the ground, but it was just icy and rather grey. Instead, we had half an hour of sleet in the afternoon. Great clumps of soggy wetness that turned to water as soon as they hit the ground. At least it was fun to watch – from inside, snuggled up in my over-sized woolly jumper with a cup of tea!

My painstaking efforts with the Bach E minor sonata are definitely starting to pay off – I’m almost there with memorising the first movement! While it in itself doesn’t seem like much, thinking through all the exercises that I’ve committed to memory over the last three and a half months does make me feel like I’ve achieved quite a bit. The Maquarre exercises are also coming from memory, and I made it through to D minor without glancing at the music this morning. After spending quite a bit of time in flat key territory with them (starting at the top of the page, it works through from C major in descending 5ths), I was really excited to find that the tail end of the circle from A major to E minor felt very easy.

Trevor cancelled our walk again this evening, but my proposal of chamber music was finally taken up and I walked over to the Old Dairy to play quartets with the girls there. We read through some lovely Schmitt, an arrangement of Chopin piano preludes (nice melodies, but my 3rd flute part was rather dull), Ravel’s Pièce en forme d’Habanera for four flutes, and then ended up once again with the Furstenau Op. 88 quartet that we read last time.

I love the last movement of this piece, which is variations on Deutschlandlied (the German national anthem). I can’t find any recordings of the flute quartet on youtube, but there are several of the tune in its original and arguably more pleasing form. It was originally written by Haydn as the slow movement of his Op.76, No. 3 string quartet, the ‘Emperor’. This is a recording of the wonderful Takacs quartet, and though the slow movement starts at 9:35, I’ve just very happily listened to the whole thing through twice!