Flute & Composer Collaboration

As a flautist who has worked on projects with many composers, I have found there is a different approach and attitude required. We are used to performing established repertoire with interpretation ‘rules’ and a certain reverence towards the, often long gone, composer. Over the last month or so I have workshopped a number of student compositions, giving them tips on idiomatic or practical writing for the flute. There are things both the composer and the flautist need to be aware of.

Advice for student composers

  • While the flute has a wide range, it is not easy to project the bottom register and the top can cut through even at it’s quietest – consider the balance and size of your ensemble, and whether the flute is playing the melody or a supporting line, before choosing the register
  • In a workshop situation don’t be afraid to ask the musicians to demonstrate alternative options such as different octaves, articulations, phrasing or dynamics. They will often be pleased to offer advice and suggestions that might enhance your music.
  • detail detail detail! If a repeated phrase is no longer slurred, consider putting in staccato or tenuto marks or vice versa. If you want a particular mood, describe it!
    Keep updating each part with dynamics, especially if the balance of the group or melodic line changes.
  • It is easy to find out the range and standard techniques for each instrument. You are not expected to be an expert on every single instrument, especially if this is your first piece for a particular ensemble, but do some research to ensure it is as playable as possible.
  • The flute is capable of many extended techniques but many student flautists are new to these. In general I strongly believe these should be extras to add colour, and not the basis of an entire piece. See the list below for advice
  • Read through individual parts in addition to the score. You may have approached your composition harmonically but individual players look at individual lines. Consider simplifying accidentals – avoid mixing sharps and flats, can a complicated section be written as their enharmonic equivalents? Use this same approach for rhythms – beaming and consistent rhythmic groupings help make that all important sight reading much easier

Advice for flautists

  • Approach the workshop in an open minded way – it is exciting that this music may not look like other pieces you have come across before
  • Keep any requests or suggestions constructive and helpful – don’t list everything you would like to change or find hard, keep it a conversation and allow them to ask questions once you have played through
  • Exaggerate every detail. You may be sight reading but the composer has put a lot of thought into every articulation, expression and dynamic marking. Allow them to hear and consider the effect of these, especially in an ensemble where balance needs to be considered.
  • Try to work out the rhythm and focus on the pulse to keep the ensemble as close together as possible and, if something is difficult, give time to work together as a group before criticising or asking for changes.

Important things to consider:

  • The challenges initial rehearsals and collaborations might bring and the attitude needed to approach it constructively
  • Ensemble balance, register and dynamics
  • Sight reading – keys, accidentals and rhythm!
  • Ensemble – pulse, rhythm and listening. Will it help for the composer to conduct the initial run throughs?
  • Will a recording help the composer adapt the piece? Is it agreed that the recording will be kept private or shared in a certain way?
  • Writing what is discussed on the score and/or on parts
  • Keeping it an open discussion

Basics for the flute

  • General range is 3 octaves starting at middle C (can go a couple of notes higher and some flautists have a B foot joint which gives one note lower)
  • There are lots of possible articulations with different expressive effects: slurred, legato tongued, staccato tongued, marcato, accents, tenutos etc.
  • Flautists often tongue fast notes by using double or triple tonguing – where some notes are articulated by the back stroke of the tongue
  • Flutter tonguing – creates a rippled, coarse effect that emphasises notes/short passages
  • Singing and playing – again recommended just for short passages, easiest if it is holding a drone with the voice (consider the standard range of a non vocalist)
  • The low range can often be explored with a rich tone but is harder to hear over other instruments. A lot of flute writing is in the 2nd register and the instrument is capable of relatively large leaps.
  • The piccolo plays everything one octave higher and has a very different tone quality. While it is often used for high passages in large ensembles, it has an unusual expressive effect in its lower octaves.
  • Don’t forget to breathe! Musical phrases usually allow for breathing and space
  • The flute is capable of many different tone colours, even very simple expressive words can convey the atmosphere you want to create to your musicians

As well as having an incredibly busy summer working with lots of talented students, I found myself giving many different activities a go myself, from singing and movement to composition. When you forget the exam based composing or music making, the creative process is so much freer, more enjoyable and even therapeutic. I think I will be trying to sit and compose more, for my ears only!

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