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 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 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 113 – January 21st – Snow!

I woke up this morning to some proper snow, though it was in the air rather than on the ground. My morning practice accompanied the flurries and eddies playing round the dairy. Sadly, I couldn’t persuade it to settle, and by lunchtime any little traces at the side of the road had all melted.

It reminded me of another long practice day I spent accompanying snow, five years ago now. I was in Helsinki on my exchange year, and ended up in one of the big practice rooms in the ‘P-talo’ (P-house) with two grand pianos, a couch and a wall of windows. It had snowed for months, and the fluffy morning whiteness no longer astounded me the way it had at first. Yet that day the snow danced as it fell, whipped up by the wind into great swirls and currents of fairy floss. I was practising scales, and remember trying to make them ebb and flow in the same way the snow did, flourishing effortlessly as I ascended. Today wasn’t quite as magical as five years ago, but I tried to capture the same feeling nevertheless.

Tomorrow is a studies class rather than repertoire, as we’re still getting back on track after Trevor’s illness. This time yesterday, I was trying not to panic too much about my studies, the two Altès in particular. I find both of them difficult – no. 18 for the combination of a tricky 6/8 articulation pattern and lots of leaps, and no. 19 for the speed at which I’m required to triple tongue! However, as often happens on the final day before class I really felt like I made a lot of progress today, and am now playing both at something approaching the marked speed. I dealt with the triple tonguing one by playing it every twenty minutes in all my practice sessions today – I probably drove the others a bit mental but it’s working. As for no. 18, I’ve learned the notes and will probably play it better tomorrow in class if I take a step back and trust myself rather than being too pedantic about trying to get every single note.

Day 104 – January 12th – E flat

Today has been rather quiet, both because of our lack of class and because it’s utterly horrible outside. This morning I had grand plans of going for a run, but that was soon halted when I saw just how wet and windy it was outside. Instead, the large knitted jumper from grandma has come out, and I’ve spent the day practising, getting odd jobs done and drinking lots of tea. Last night, I finished one of my hand-warmers (or are they fingerless gloves?), which I’m very pleased with. The pattern I’m using is here. If this weather keeps up, the other one will be done before too long as well.

My first hand-warmer!

My first hand-warmer!

All the technical work that we’re doing makes me play round the circle of fifths multiple times a day, and as always there are some keys that sit better than others. When it comes to my least favourite keys, though, I’ve rather surprised myself if recent months. As a teenager and undergrad student, I always feared C#/Db and F#/Gb majors and Bb and D#/Eb minors because there were scary numbers of flats and sharps not matter how I thought about it. Maybe that ultimately made me practise them with more vigour. Now that I’m here at the flute studio, the keys that I’m most inclined to slip up on are Eb major, Eb minor and G#/Ab minor. I think one of the main things about Eb is that we’re not allowed to use thumb Bb for technical work, and so all of a sudden the fifth of the key is a awkward fingering. Reichert no. 2 becomes particularly treacherous because the fifth is in both the arpeggio and the dominant 7th.

Other exercises where I’ve noticed this are the Boehm study and Trevor’s scales in thirds. With the thirds, we start in C and play the scales in C major, harmonic minor, melodic minor and whole tones. Then we play the major, minor, second inversion minor (so F minor for C major) and diminished seventh of the next key (C#) all in broken thirds. The whole exercise then moves up a step to C# major and so on. In class we tend not to get too much further than D, as Trevor decides it’s time to move onto something else, but I’ve one of my goals to play through the whole thing. That was, until I got to Eb. The major is ok, but the minors are utterly awful! At this level, the aim is to erase weaknesses in tricky keys, and I’m of course going to persevere, but it could take a while to get past the Eb minor block.

In some ways, today was an Eb minor sort of day; dark and ominous. In the major, I quite like the richness of this key, and the minor can also be rich and velvety. It might be even more so if I could overcome my battle with it!