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!

VIDEO: In Ireland by Hamilton Harty

Sir Hamilton Harty (1879 Р1941) was a British conductor, accompanist and composer. A church organist in Belfast and Dublin, he moved to London at the age of 20 and quickly developed a reputation as a composer and a particularly outstanding accompanist. His conducting career included concerts with the London Symphony Orchestra and 13 years with the Halle Orchestra. 

As a player he became noted for his interpretation of Berlioz. Harty’s own compositions include a violin concerto, a tone poem, and the Irish Symphony.

Despite being knighted in 1925, today he is one of our lesser known composers.
Still, In Ireland has a firm place in the hearts of many flautists.
Starting with wandering street musicians and a beautiful soaring melody moving to a far away light dance, and coming home with a fast exciting jig.
It showcases the flute, and composer, in a very short amount of time.

Planning Your Wedding Music

Describing wedding planning as overwhelming is an understatement, and that’s before you even consider the special touches. It is no secret that music is an important part of any celebration. It can

  • set the tone
  • make a moment more poignant
  • evoke memories
  • entertain
  • introduce the celebrations
  • turn quieter ceremony moments such as the registry signing or guests arriving into an event

Where to start?
Consider moments when music could enhance proceedings and create a package to suit, starting from one moment to the whole day.
Good times to consider are points in the ceremony and drink receptions or meals:

  • signing of the register
  • prelude as guests arrive
  • processional
  • recessional
  • reception sets
  • wedding breakfast

What about the cost?
As the costs of weddings increase, it is important to find memorable elements that make a true impact. I love playing weddings for the truly heartfelt and emotional responses to performances. A solo instrumentalist is an easy way to bring the cost down, paying a fraction of the cost of an ensemble or band.
Find someone who is flexible enough to play for the moments that matter to you and will adapt their set list to suit rather than providing only a prescribed package. Often couples opt for just one or two moments, adding a hugely unique element to their wedding for very little – a popular moment is the signing of the registers.

Why the flute?
Forget the sound you might remember from your school days, the flute is a romantic and beautiful melodic instrument. It often surprises guests and can melt the heart of even the most unlikely relatives! The flute can provide classical pieces, traditional wedding music, film music and even cover pop music. It’s a wonderful way to adapt your song into the ceremony. It can make an impact solo, with backing tracks, or as a duet with guitar or another flute.

Make it personal
Ask for your favourite song to be transcribed for flute or take a look at set lists for inspiration

The musicians should have a good idea of the required timings and pieces that work, often pieces can be flexible on the day to ensure they fit the ceremony perfectly. Requesting a style or mood if you are unsure of the piece is another option.

Here is video that provides a whistle stop tour through many of the different styles and moods the flute can provide. It can be solo or with backing track accompaniment.

VIDEO: Winter Spirits

Winter Spirits by Katherine Hoover

What better piece to listen to in January than the contemporary flute solo Winter Spirits. With Christmas tunes well behind us, this piece draws upon a very different sound world.

It is a contemporary flute sound with beautiful melodies, without an excess of extended techniques commonly found in late 20th Century and modern music.

Written in 1997, the piece is influenced by Native American sounds and traditions. Even on a powerful metal flute, the music invites the player to use a hollow, almost wooden tone colour (in my head this is always yellow!).

'Kachinas' by Marie Buchfink
‘Kachinas’ by Marie Buchfink

Many different characters come through the piece, possibly reflecting the different types of spirits that can be evoked.

Katherine Hoover put it into her own words:

“There is a picture by the marvelous artist Maria Buchfink of a Native American flute player; from his flute rises a cloud of kachinas and totem spirits. This piece has also risen from his notes, and it is indeed influenced by Native American music. The idea of the flute invoking beneficial spirits, be they kachinas or any others, is a very natural one. Such spirits are an accepted and valued part of life in most of the world, and the flute has been used to honor and invite their presence for countless ages.”

Katherine Hoover wrote many wonderful pieces for the flute including Kokopeli, Reflections and Spirit Flight. Her distinctive and fascinating voice comes through in each composition, they all tell a story with vivid imagery. After performing successes, she focussed on composition in the early 1970s and faced obstacles as an aspiring female composer. The American composer and flautist passed won the National Flute Association’s (US) lifetime achievement award in 2016. Ms. Hoover passed away in September 2018.

Year in the Life – one second a day

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If you are wondering what the day to day life of a very specific combination of musician, flute teacher, music college master’s student and concert steward looks like then check this out! It is my year in a second a day (nearly everyday since last September!). Or just check out the bitesize version on my instagram – it is a year in less than a minute.

Highlights and the general idea of a crazy year:

Instagram Video - my year

@jessamyrobinson

Here’s to the next phase and another great year!

 

About the flute

The flute can turn air into many different, mesmerising sounds. Unlike reed instruments, there is no resistance for the player to blow against, the player themselves bends and shapes the air to create their best tone. It is hardly surprising that the flute has a special place in mythology, most notably the Greek God Pan (the subject of much music, including solo flute piece, Debussy’s Syrinx).

How the flute works

Sound is caused by vibrations. Vibrations are generated on the flute when the airstream hits the riser and the far edge of the tone hole. The tube of the flute acts as a container, allowing the vibrating air to travel down it.

The length of this spring-like column of air is changed by the keys on the flute. Keeping all the keys down makes the tube as long as possible and creates the lowest note. If another hole is opened near the top of the flute, the air column will be shorter. The shorter the column, the higher the note.
This is why bass flutes (an octave lower) are so much bigger than our regular flutes and piccolos (an octave higher) are so much smaller!
-> try moving up the lowest octave on the flute from bottom C, each note needs one higher key to open.

Listen here

History of the flute

hohle-fels-flutes

Composer Timeline

A vulture bone flute is thought to be the world’s oldest recognisable musical instrument at 40,000 years old.  Found with evidence of mammoth ivory flute in a European cave. These flutes were used during hunting and in rituals, and were later made of wood or bamboo. Bamboo flutes were popular in East Asia and the six-holed flute was common in Ancient Greece.

The transverse (sideways as opposed to being played vertically like a modern recorder) flute of the Middle Ages was made of one piece of wood with had six finger holes. It was used in the military and at court, usually accompanied by a drum.

pso-baroque-fluteIn the Baroque era the flute became more popular and changed drastically. From 1660 it was made into three pieces before getting its first key (the D sharp key we still have today). As the flute improved in range and timbre it was able to compete in orchestras and became a rival to the popular recorder.

The baroque transverse flute still had sound, intonation and consistency problems.

adolph_menzel_-_flotenkonzert_friedrichs_des_grosen_in_sanssouci_-_google_art_project
A Flute Concert of Frederick the Great, on the far right there is Quantz, the king’s flute teacher

Flautist and composer Johann Quantz (1697‚Äď1773) studied the intonation problems of the instrument before becoming a flute maker himself. He invented the tuning slide, experimented with shapes and sizes of the tone hole and added another key. These improvements, his many flute compositions and his influential treatise ‚ÄėThe Art of Playing the Flute‚Äô brought the flute into the limelight and boosted its popularity further.

The improved flute had a firm place in the orchestra during the Classical Era but its timbre and technical capacity was still limited. ¬†By 1832 Theobald Boehm (1794‚Äď1881) had created the easier, linked key mechanism we know today, with tone holes adapted to improve the sound rather than the fingers. Further improvements to both the mechanism and tube revolutionised the flute and the Boehm system was gradually accepted during the Romantic era.

This created a technically complete flute with a better tone, composers explored the colours and abilities of the instrument and the solo repertoire dramatically increased.

We are able to enjoy this rich repertoire, colours, technical possibilities and history on the powerful instrument we know today.

1920-boehm-flute

500_2010

featured image credit to Josephine Wall (top, The Enchanted Flute)

imag005

A Musical Timeline

Screen Shot 2018-10-19 at 15.41.31 Click on the composers in bold to get to learn more

screen-shot-2016-10-24-at-22-10-36Bach                  

Telemann

Handel

Vivaldi

Purcell

Haydn

Mozart

Schubert

Beethoven

screen-shot-2016-10-24-at-22-18-48

 

 

Beethoven – brought the Romantic period

Debussy

Tchaikovsky

Grieg

Dvorak

Shostakovich

Bernstein

Cage

Copland

Gershwin

 

 

Sight reading…

… it’s not as scary as you think!

  • Every time you learn a new piece of music you are sight reading – teachers and students shouldn’t treat it as an intense part of the exam there’s no way to prepare for

Prepare in advance:

  • Yes you can practise sight reading. Whether this is with pieces you are just starting to study or a quick new piece in your practise. Flute Tunes¬†have a random generator and a tune of the day¬†with clear difficulty levels so you can find the perfect challenge
  • Learn those scales…¬†scales are valuable for a number of reasons.
    – they teach us patterns we can then look out for in sight reading. Pieces are often based around scales and arpeggios meaning that, if we know our scales, we know we can already play some of the piece!
    – learning the key signatures help us learn what to expect.
    for example:Screen Shot 2017-04-27 at 18.27.09.png
    from this key signature and first few notes we can see it’s in F major. It is helpful to expect B flats, lots of Fs and F major scale/arpeggio motifs.
  • Be familiar with common rhythms and time signatures. There are lots of ways to practise this such as working on challenging repertoire with your teacher, writing out your own rhythms or watching our time signatures music theory video.

activity: set a metronome to 60 and practise clapping different rhythms. Move between crotchets, quavers, minims, semiquavers etc. Try to keep as steady and rhythmical as possible. 

  • Sing. This improves your ear, notation reading and helps you translate the page into sound without relying on your instrument.

In exams and auditions:

  • Keep going! Yes you might play a wrong note or weird rhythm but they want to see that you can recover
  • Count yourself in. This will help with the previous point as it will establish a strong reliable pulse. Use this time to¬†hear the piece in your head before you play.
  • Quickly scan to find the trickiest bits. There might be a bar you want to play slowly, an accidental you want to make a mental note of or some tricky intervals to prepare.
    Finding the fastest, most difficult bar will give you an idea of the pulse (in a faster piece you don’t want to start too quickly and come into problems later)
    Utilise the time you have to really study the piece, its challenges and style.
  • Don’t forget the details.¬†Elements such as dynamics, articulation and performance directions make a huge difference so¬†it sounds more like music than an exercise. It is an easy way to create contrast, interest and give the impression that you are really comfortable in interpreting new music.Screen Shot 2017-04-03 at 23.45.36

A huge part of sight reading is confidence so you can get into the music and really feel the pulse and style. Revise these tips but on the day just try to enjoy the new music.

Playing with others

There are different skills and attitudes for chamber groups and orchestras, but it is worth thinking about how you play with other people, no matter how many there are.

Rhythmic playing is clearly extremely important, if a group is not tightly together they can do very little. However spending time getting used to playing together will mean your music does not have to be rigid and overly metronomic.

Intuitive playing is achieved overtime but is greatly improved by paying attention to¬†all¬†the composers markings. This sort of detailed work conveys a collective intent and expression (dynamics, tempo, articulation,¬†performance directions…)

Ensemble playing is a fantastic opportunity to work on an area easily ignored in solo practise… intonation! Really listen and work on being in tune with the rest of the ensemble.

In many chamber ensembles, and indeed sometimes as a first flute at the front of an orchestral wind section, you have to become a leader. I say this with caution as big movements can be off-putting and soloistic. Just communicate and don’t be afraid to use movement to show your intent.

Listen to recordings, read scores and really get to know the music. IMSLP is your new friend! With all our technology there is no excuse not to know what is going on. This will help you to know when you are playing the melody or a supportive role. Learning to balance in an ensemble is an important skill.

If you are new to orchestral playing learn the basic conducting patterns so you understand what the conductor is doing and where they are in the bar. Following a conductor takes a bit of getting used to but you should be able to recognise the downbeat (first beat of the bar) and the upbeat (last beat of the bar). Screen Shot 2017-04-11 at 21.54.24.png