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 129 – February 6th – Playing expressively

Quite a lot to write about what with yesterday’s trip up to London and class today, but now that I’ve spent a while on my review of the LSO concert it’s late again. I’ll try to keep things brief, get a good night’s sleep, and then write a longer post tomorrow!

Yesterday’s masterclass with Emily Beynon was really interesting, as much for just hearing some different musical opinions and ways of explaining things. It reminded me that I’m probably suffering a bit from Trevor fatigue, as in such an intensive environment his is the only voice giving feedback week after week. Emily Beynon talked a lot about musical story and character, and was adamant that every performer have a strong narrative in their mind for a piece. She wanted to be convinced by every note they played, and encouraged them to express their musical ideas verbally. I found her description of dynamics, vibrato and colour as being totally separate sliding dials quite useful.

Class today was back to Trevor, and as always had its ups and downs. As usual, I had a ‘solo’ turn at the warm-up tune, which Trevor made me play again and again asking me to ‘make a crescendo’. I was so tied up in the notes (yes, I got nervous again) that it took me several goes to get a suitable crescendo going. The thing that frustrated me was that he could see I was nervous, that that was the reason I couldn’t get notes and expression happening together, and yet he kept pushing. Clearly it’s all good training for more stressful future situations.

My rhythms in the first two movements of Dvorak 8 weren’t quite as solid as I’d though, and I earned a telling-off for totally re-composing the start of the solo in the second movement! Once I’d sorted the rhythms, though, I played expressively and eared some ‘very good’s here and there. Of the two repertoire pieces, I ended up playing the Gaubert Madrigal, which was also pronounced “some of the best you’ve played recently”. I still felt like a nervous wreck afterwards though, so calming down in class is very much a top priority.

Day 65 – December 4th – Mei

After gearing myself up for a tough day playing contemporary music for Trevor, I was pleasantly surprised how things turned out. I still didn’t fare too well in morning warm-ups – though my Reichert exercises were actually quite good, I wasn’t able to pick up on the pattern of a new scales exercise very well, nor play it at the speed Trevor was already setting! Looks like I’ll be adding that one to my practice list for the weekend.

To my surprise, Mei went quite well; Trevor could see that I mostly understood the music and had worked on it, and as a result I ended up having a really productive and rewarding lesson. There was one fundamental thing with the piece that I hadn’t thought about, and that’s the use of vibrato. We’ve been playing ‘standard’ repertoire for so long now that it didn’t even cross my mind to think about playing senza vibrato (and I had deliberately not listened to any recordings), which was a silly mistake. The piece mimics shakuhachi playing, and so “of course” should be played without vibrato, as in the Japanese musical culture it’s an ornament. Lesson duly learned.

From there, however, Trevor kept pushing me to play the music with sharper grace notes, more convincing pitch bends and a greater intensity of direction and dynamics. I enjoyed myself, and when his final comment was “some very good things happening there, but you need to do a lot of work playing without vibrato” I had to stop myself leaping for joy. His praise is so rare that it really means something when it does come!

We went to a nearby pub for dinner, and have just got back. It was a nice place – The Five Bells – and the food was yummy. Everything is starting to feel very Christmassy, especially since we head out into ‘civilisation’ so infrequently.

Day 6 – October 6th – Reality Check

First full day of normal lessons, and I can’t say that I enjoyed myself too much. After the exhilaration of yesterday, as well as my practice over the weekend, I was hopeful that my playing might please Trevor a little more than on Friday. Fat chance – today’s theme seemed to be ‘let’s point out all Naomi’s flute failings’, which can be summed up as follows:

– “You play with absolutely no expression”

– My vibrato sounds like a goat

– I don’t have an innate concept of musical line

– I can play neither loudly nor quietly enough

On the other hand, my intonation has been pronounced ‘not bad’. That is still quite a list to be starting with, and certainly not aimed to improve my self-confidence. And this entire list was based on my performance of warm-ups and three lines of the Andersen Op. 15 Study No. 1!. Considering that this is only day 6, I think that the question is not whether all this is as bad as Trevor makes out (I know I need to work on aspects of my playing, that’s why I’m here), but how to deal with his teaching methods themselves.

I’m not for a moment saying that I was the only one to cop it today, criticism was dealt out to all in some form or another, but I did seem to get something of a special treatment. So, here are the things I’m keeping in mind for the moment:

– I do come across as quite self-confident, which I’m not sure is the done thing here. Both that and the fact that I’m a bit more ‘settled in’ that some of the others (language and culture-wise) perhaps means that Trevor thinks I’m ready for the weightier criticism straight away.

– I’m into new music, which is not Trevor’s cup of tea.

– Trevor’s motto as listed in his practice books is that one must “play in time and in tune with a decent sense of line” to get through orchestral auditions. If my intonation is ok and he has yet to pick on my rhythm, then the decent sense of line is clearly what he’s going to go for big-time.

– Hopefully I can only improve from here! Tomorrow is a new day with plenty of hours in which to practise (and now a clearer direction), I’m a hard worker, and I want to play the flute beautifully.

Otherwise, we had a lovely walk across the fields to class this morning before the rain set in. I think it’s going to be wet for a while to come…