Day 157 – March 6th – Piccolo and the Pub

Another busy day and so another short post. This morning I was off bright and early to London to attend Peter Verhoyen’s piccolo masterclass at the Royal Academy of Music. It was great to watch, and I really felt like I learned a lot, especially about how to conceptualise piccolo differently to flute. The class finished at 1pm, and so I went for a wander down to Oxford St – more for a change of scenery than for any desire to go shopping! 

My friend Sherlock is down in Kent this weekend, and met me at Wye station. We had a walk in Wye nature reserve (chilly, but the view was worth it) before heading to the Three Bells Pub in Brabourne for dinner. All in all both a lovely and insightful day. There’s lots to practice tomorrow though! 

Day 116 – January 24th – Piccolo

Today was piccolo masterclass with Patricia Morris, the retired Principal Piccolo of the BBC Radio Symphony Orchestra and author (with Trevor) of The Piccolo Study Book and Practice Book for the Piccolo. It was a great day, and I felt like I really learned a lot about the way to practice piccolo effectively and for life.

Patricia advocated practising piccolo every day, even if it’s only for ten or twenty minutes. Rather than note bashing, this should ideally be slow practice of tunes of segments of studies, as the most important thing on the piccolo is achieving a homogeneous tone across the whole range. This all needs to be in tune as well! We talked a lot about getting up to high notes quietly, and I need to remember not to push for them – much better to set up properly a few notes beforehand and then let it happen. That said, when Patricia asked me to play (sightread) the picc solo from the slow movement of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 6, I didn’t do too bad a job of getting the high note out. The alternate fingering she showed me did help with this though!

I mentioned in a blog post a few weeks ago that I’d set myself the task of learning all the excerpts for the Queensland Symphony Orchestra piccolo audition in preparation for this class. I was feeling pretty prepared, with the only elephants still being Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4 (eeek) and Verdi’s Othello (I’ve just never played it before). Needless to say, we didn’t actually get onto any of my excerpts at all, though I now think I’m better equipped to work on them myself.

Now I’m working myself up to some more practice, and there are another three classes next week. No rest for the wicked!

Day 115 – January 23rd – Learning it quickly

One of the big things I’m learning as part of this course is how to prepare a lot of music very quickly. Last weekend up in London I was telling a friend about all the studies we have to play each week, and then added that Thursday is repertoire and excerpts. She almost fell off her a chair!

While it’s not normally comfortable preparing this much music each week, I’m definitely getting much better at it. This week, however, is another step up again. Not only is Trevor applying pressure to me in particular with studies, we have the Fauré Fantasie on Thursday and then different repertoire for the masterclass on Friday. I’ve played the Fauré before, and so my main worry this morning was the Taffanel for Friday – the Scherzettino in particular needs to be fast and fluid despite some tricky finger passages.

This afternoon, though, I spent 45min working quite solidly on the Taffanel and already feel a lot better about it. I think that I’ve learned to isolate the passages that really need work, and also the type of work that’s needed, rather than assuming I need to spend hours on every last corner of a piece. In the Scherzettino, I need to spend more time on articulation in the theme, as well as some fingering bits at the end. The Andante Pastoral isn’t as hard as it looks – there are a couple of demi-semiquaver flourishes at the end that need a bit more time, but otherwise it’s basically counting and making sure that my ornaments in the poco piu mosso stay in time.

The other big factor in learning all the music quickly is definitely all the scales and finger exercises – my fingers fall into the patterns so much more easily now! The studies, though, are another story. They’re meant to be hard, to challenge both our technique and our musicality. Looks like they’re what I’ll be working on after piccolo class tomorrow!

Day 105 – January 13th – Even more time!

Though Trevor was kind enough to take us to Tesco this afternoon, he still sounded very croaky and class has been postponed until at least Thursday. Shopping was a good reason to get out of the house, and I’m also glad that we’ve now replenished the stock of fruit and veggies – we’d got to the point of the fridge being rather bare!

On one hand, a break from the relentlessness of classes has been good, and allowed me to spend a little more time on technique without worrying about all the studies to prepare. On the other hand, it means that I’ve ended up working myself really hard now for five days straight, and am rather in need of a bit of down time that doesn’t involve flute playing! On the days that we have class, there’s a bit of a mutual agreement that we don’t practice, and often there’s a bit of a group dinner. I’m not sure what’s happened in the last few days – maybe everyone’s got a bit of the January blues – but nobody was keen to play chamber music yesterday evening and everyone has kept to themselves all of the time. It felt like our little outing today was the first conversation I’d had in a while, and even that was rather subdued!

Looking on the bright side, I have the perfect remedy lined up for tomorrow evening when I’m off to see The Theory of Everything with wonderful Sue from Hastingleigh. I’ll certainly be packing tissues, and am looking forward to it immensely. Beyond that, I need to remember that reading, knitting and even watching TV are perfectly acceptable ways to spend the evening when my lips and/or brain gives out!

I returned to the Eb scales and thirds today, and am pleased to say that they’re maybe 5% better than yesterday. A small improvement, but hopefully if I keep chipping away at it they’ll be flying along in a week or so. The Taffanel and Gaubert-style regular scales certainly are, though majors are still a bit faster than the minors. Another exercise that I’ve been practising a bit lately is the Perpetuum Mobile studies at the back of Trevor’s Complete Daily Exercises book. He’s taken a devilish little orchestral solo from Strauss’s work by the same name and written four studies which transpose the pattern of the excerpt through all the keys. Apparently one year he had two students who memorised the whole thing in a week and played it flawlessly at a really fast speed! I’m not up to that yet, but have been slowly edging the metronome up and the fluency is slowly increasing.

Though our piccolo masterclass with Patricia Morris was cancelled on Sunday, Trevor’s hopeful that it’ll happen in the next week or so. He asked us to prepare a few studies and some excerpts but left it open as to how much we work on – I’m assuming because there will be vary levels of competency with the piccolo in the class group. For studies, I’ve chosen no. 8 from Moyse’s 24 Melodic Studies as it has quite a broad range and requires seamless movement between the registers. I’ve been working on a few studies from Patricia Morris’s Piccolo Study Book, and will certainly be ready to play no. 3 (Furstenau) but am not so sure whether no. 7 will be ready by the time she comes.

In terms of excerpts, I’ve set myself a bit of a challenge. Though my excerpts in regular class are far from perfect, they’re usually quite good, and I seem to have a pretty decent knowledge of the orchestral repertoire. So rather than preparing one or two excerpts, I though I’d have a crack at the audition list for the Queensland Symphony Orchestra’s Principal Piccolo job which was up for audition in December. There were eleven excerpts on piccolo, to which I’ve added the Ravel Ma mère l’oye piccolo excerpts (there were also flute ones listed). Looking down the list, I was pleasantly surprised that I knew most of then, and had played all but two before in various contexts. A couple of them – the dreaded Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4 for example – will need a lot of work to get them up to speed, while others seemed to fall back under the fingers very naturally. Perhaps an ambitious goal considering everything else that I need to work on, but it feels like a good one and for the moment I’m quite enjoying it.

Right now, though, it’s time for a cup of chamomile tea, a book and bed!

Day 91 – December 30th – Frayed tempers?

I’m not sure whether it’s the cold or that everyone’s been around each other a bit too long, but things are starting to feel a bit uncomfortable here and there. I was the only one in my dairy that practised today, and for myself was feeling energised and excited to be back into it after the Christmas break. I’m not sure what’s up with the other two, though do wonder whether they might be struggling a bit with the winter weather. Trevor was certainly in a bad mood this evening, giving a stern talk about signing books out properly (one that he wants has gone walk-abouts), and then declaring that he didn’t want to walk and would just drop us home. Decidedly odd.

After a chilly shopping trip this morning, I had quite a productive day. My new goal is really getting to grips with mental practice, as I think it’s the key to improving my memory and confidence for all the technical exercises. The plan is that for every hour of practice that I do with the flute, I now do 15 minutes of slow mental practice – visualising myself playing through a passage or exercise. It’s quite tiring, especially since I haven’t been in the habit of doing it regularly. For now, it’s very slow, but I hope that with a couple of weeks it will really help me to get things going a bit faster and more easily. I managed three lots focused mental practice, but by later in the afternoon was loosing concentration.

On January 11th we have a piccolo masterclass with Patricia Morris, and so today I also started work on some studies and excerpts for that. Trevor has suggested a couple of the Moyse 24 Melodic Studies, a study from Patricia Morris’s book, and a few excerpts from the Piccolo Practice Book. I’ve chosen some good studies, but am still deciding which excerpts to do.