Fake-arando is Not a Thing

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Sometime last school year, one of my private students was learning the Poulenc Sonata for flute and piano. If you are familiar with the piece, you know that there are at least five 32nd note runs that the flute does together with the piano in the first movement. When she got to the first run, she played the first couple notes, did some kind of faking in the middle of the run and played the last couple of notes. Inside, I was flipping out. What’s this? I never told her she could or should fake this run. It’s not that hard to play correctly, etc.

So I asked her about what she did in the most neutral way I could summon, why she wasn’t playing all the notes in this run, but in fact, faking it. Her answer elicited an even stronger reaction from me than just the fact that she was faking to begin with. She told me that her middle school band director had told her that was how to handle runs as a general rule! She had been told not to worry about the notes in the middle of the scale, just hit the bottom and top and you’re good. And this is a student who, herself wants to be a music educator.

A few thoughts about teaching kids good technique:

  • It impacts the quality of the entire ensemble when you let your woodwinds fake fast runs and scale rips.
  • It does kids a huge disservice to let them or even encourage them to fake their technique, both in their ensemble playing and when they begin working on solo repertoire.
  • If you only ever test kids on playing scales in eighth notes at mm=80, they will never develop the ability to play rip scales that are so much a part of woodwind writing in concert band music
  • Include technical work for your students both as a section and individually into your curriculum.
  • There are vast resources available through traditional band methods, band technique books and online resources you can use with your students with very little effort on your part

Technique resources that I like from the band world include the huge library of scales, arpeggios and wiggles in SmartMusic. Foundations for Superior Performance and Habits of a Successful Musician both have excellent technical exercises. Then, of course in the flute realm, there are a wealth of great technique books including Trevor Wye’s Practice Books Omibus edition and Complete Daily Exercises, Patricia George’s The Flute Scale Book, and of course the venerable Taffanel and Gaubert 17 Big Daily Exercises

Personally, I’m not a fan of scales that have an 8th note followed by seven 16th notes. I don’t really think this type of scale teaches technical fluency. What I do like are five note scale patterns in every key including sharp keys, scale rips starting on each note of a scale, scales that cover the full range of the instrument (for more advanced players).

As always, if you find these entries useful, please subscribe, share with your colleagues and come back regularly. Feel free to comment. If you have a topic you would like to see explored more fully, you can contact me via IM/Messenger on Facebook or email me at dr_cate@sbcglobal.net. For information about clinics, workshops and performances, click here.

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The Secret of Tuning Db (C#)

The truth is that if your students can learn to correctly place Db (C#), their overall tone will improve exponentially and they will be able to play with better intonation throughout the range of the flute. The obvious question then is how to teach this to your flute students?

Start with making sure your students have a good physical set up with the flute:

Next, have your flute students finger the lowest C and play the harmonic one octave higher. The harmonic is at correct pitch. Now match the pitch of the normal fingering to the pitch of the harmonic. Do the same with the Db/C#. First play the first harmonic of the low Db/C# and compare the pitch to the open/standard fingering for Db/C# on the staff. You will notice that the pitch of the normal fingering will be quite a bit higher than the harmonic. The tone will likely sound thinner and more airy. The way to get the pitch between the harmonic and normal fingering to match is reach out with the top lip and direct the air down more into the blow hole. Keep the blowing aperture small. Practice going back and forth between the harmonic and regular fingering slowly and learn to adjust the blowing angle until the harmonic and regular fingering are at the same pitch. You should notice that the tone will develop more body and be more focused.

A word about older scale flutes (read older mainline American band instrument brands). The scale (placement of the tone holes) is calibrated lower than A = 440-442 Hz. The headjoints were shortened to make the A in tune at 440 or 442. Consequently, the low register is flat and the third octave is sharp. The exercise above is helpful on any flute, however, there are some old tricks that you will want to try to see if you can improve the pitch even further on these old scale flutes. 1) Pull the footjoint out a couple of millimeters. 2) Add right hand fingers to flatten the C and Db/C#. You can do one, two or three, starting with the D key, so it would be D, E and F, in that order. Just see what works. Neither of these tricks should be necessary on modern scale flutes.

As always, if you find these entries useful, please subscribe, share with your colleagues and come back regularly. Feel free to comment. If you have a topic you would like to see explored more fully, you can contact me via IM/Messenger on Facebook or email me at dr_cate@sbcglobal.net. For information about clinics, workshops and performances, click here.

The Top 10 Blog Posts of 2017

It’s been a banner year at Dr. Cate’s Flute Tips, nearly doubling the number of views of the previous three years just this year alone. There are now 100 different articles on all aspects of embouchure, tone production, hand and body position and teaching beginners. There are more new posts coming up in the new year. Your suggestions and comments are always welcome. With no further ado, the top ten posts for 2017 are:

  1. Flute Embouchure and a Teardrop Top Lip – It’s great that this is the number one post. My hope is that it means more kids will have the opportunity to play the flute rather than being talked out of it because they have a prominent teardrop and need to shape the aperture off-center.
  2. Teaching Your Students to Play with Vibrato – I believe in waiting a year or two before introducing vibrato to young students. The most important thing is the kids are blowing strongly and have a well shaped embouchure before attempting to learn vibrato
  3. Helping Your Students Adjust to Playing with Braces – Always a big issue for junior high and high school kids. Not as big a deal as if they play a brass instrument. It’s just a matter of reevaluating the blowing angle to re-establish their characteristic tone
  4. The Legend of “Kiss and Roll” – This teaching “method” needs to disappear. If there is any one thing that is an obstacle to developing a rich, characteristic sound, it is learning to blow on the flute by rolling it down into place rather than bringing it up from below. Ask your resident flute teacher/player
  5. About the Third Octave – If you teach your students to maintain the size of the aperture and keep the blow hole sufficiently open, 60-75%, and blow fast enough air (different than quantity of air) at every dynamic, the third octave will be easy
  6. To Roll or Not to Roll: That is the Question – If students learn to change the blowing angle rather than rolling the flute, flute players around the country and the world will play more easily in tune. Rolling has such a negative impact on tone quality, as well as pitch
  7. The Very First Notes – The truth for flute players is that if you develop a strong, focused low register first, the second and third octaves will be a breeze to learn and playing in tune will happen more naturally. I’m well aware that the major band methods start in the middle and work outwards, but the flute is a different beast than the other winds and brass
  8. Finding the Sweet Spot – There isn’t a one size fits all solution for embouchure and tone production with the flute. Teach your students how to experiment with the parameters of blowing angle and placement on their lip and they will develop a characteristic sound more quickly
  9. Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Trills – When I do sectional rehearsals and clinics, it makes me nuts that kids will just wiggle whatever rather than go through the process of understanding what note is being trilled to which note, either a whole or half step, depending on the key. Teach them to use a trill chart
  10. Warm Air, Cold Air: Sense or Nonsense – Along with rolling to correct intonation and the “Kiss and Roll”, the warm air/cold air explanation for low and high notes is one of the silliest and least true thing we tell kids about how blowing on the flute works. It’s simple. If the aperture is open enough for the air to be warm, the air is moving too slowly to make a good sound. It will be fuzzy and unfocused.

Thank you for reading Dr. Cate’s Flute Tips. It is so gratifying to hear from all of you that you find the blog useful to you. New things in development include some more posts on pedagogy, products I endorse and use in my teaching and playing, a book of tone and technique exercises just for band flute players that can be used in sectionals and individual home practice, and industry sponsorship. Dr. Cate’s Flute Tips would not be possible without the support of KHS America and their flute brands: Altus, Azumi and Jupiter flutes.

As always, if you find these entries useful, please subscribe, share with your colleagues and come back regularly. Feel free to comment. If you have a topic you would like to see explored more fully, you can contact me via IM/Messenger on Facebook or email me at dr_cate@sbcglobal.net. For information about clinics, workshops and performances, click here.

Taming the Beast

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Intonation on Piccolo

Over the last few weeks, students have been asking me for help with piccolo. For such a diminutive instrument, pitch awareness and placement is a huge issue. It might even be the biggest issue because so much of what we know about playing the flute translates directly to piccolo. Here are a few tips to help your students play better in tune on piccolo:

  • Make sure the piccolo the student is playing is in good repair. In my experience, school piccolos are notorious for being in the worst condition of any instruments in the storage locker. They have shredded pads, bent keys, plating flaking off the keys…you name it. They rarely see the inside of a repair shop and often are unplayable.img_3254
  • Check the headjoint cork placement. This is probably the #1 problem with student flute players playing piccolo out of tune. Make sure to use a piccolo cleaning rod for the correct measurement. The line should be in the middle of the blow hole.
  • Have the cork replaced if it moves easily. A leaking cork will cause a lot of pitch problems.
  • Be sure that your piccolo players have the most stable and developed embouchure in your ensemble. They need to know how to correct pitch and use their air properly on flute to know how to begin to explore piccolo without causing more problems than they solve.
  • You need to put the piccolo a little higher on your lip than the flute. Because of the small size, issues of placement are magnified. In other words, smaller adjustments will mean larger changes in pitch and tone quality
  • Playing octaves will teach the student what in tune means on the piccolo. The pitch tendencies are a bit different than flute. This is especially noticeable in the notes just above the staff like Bb, B, C, C# and D. This can also be the case with long notes on the staff like D, Eb and E. Another way to practice pitch is by using a tone generator and playing intervals like perfect 4ths and 5ths against the drone.
  • Make sure to make adjustments by moving your lips independently. Rolling your bottom lip out will raise the pitch, using your top lip to angle the air down will lower the pitch just as on flute. The movements are more subtle and require you listen carefully.
  • If rolling the instrument to adjust pitch is a bad idea on flute, it is an even worse idea on piccolo. Remember, everything, both good and bad, is magnified on the piccolo. You could even say, “less is more”. A smaller change makes a bigger difference.

As always, if you find these entries useful, please subscribe, share with your colleagues and come back regularly. Feel free to comment. If you have a topic you would like to see explored more fully, you can contact me via IM/Messenger on Facebook or email me at dr_cate@sbcglobal.net. For information about clinics, workshops and performances, click here.

Do’s and Don’ts of Flute Care and Feeding

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Helping our students take proper care of their instruments is an important part of the instruction we provide, especially when the kids first start playing. It is important to give the kids accurate information so flutes play their best.

File_000 (2)Tenons

  • Do keep the tenons squeaky clean. It is a friction fit that shouldn’t need any lubrication. I use alcohol prep pads to clean oil and dirt off the tenons. You can also use paraffin wax (apply liberally, put the pieces together, twist gently back and forth, take apart and thoroughly wipe off the tenon of both pieces with a soft cloth)
  • For piccolos with a cork tenon, do use a little cork grease once in a while when there is resistance when assembling the instrument. This is similar to clarinets and oboes
  • Don’t ever use petroleum jelly or slide oil on the tenons of flutes or piccolos. It just makes a gummy mess. The petroleum jelly attracts dirt and gets thick and gummy. I saw a wooden school piccolo recently that someone had put petroleum jelly on the cork. Yuck! It was a mess to clean up.
  • Using pencil graphite on tight tenons. This one can be controversial with some people saying yes and others no. Trevor Wye, the internationally know flute pedagogue showed me this trick. Clean the tenons thoroughly as above. Take a pencil with a soft lead and gently trace circles on both surfaces of the tenon. Put the pieces together and twist gently back and forth a few times. Take the pieces apart and wipe with a soft cloth. My experience is this is a temporary fix only and only on beginner or intermediate flutes
  • For loose footjoint tenons, a small swipe of clear nail polish on the body tenon (let it dry thoroughly before assembling) will hold a loose tenon temporarily until it can be properly adjusted by a repair technician.
  • Best solution for ill fitting tenons is keep them clean and have it adjusted by a repair technician.

Pads

  • Do swab the flute out thoroughly after playing. Also do blot the pads with tissue paper or use a product like the BG Pad Dryer, especially if you blow wet, like I do.
  • Don’t ever pull tissue paper or a BG Pad Dryer out from a closed key. You will rip and/or fray the pad skin necessitating pad replacement.
  • Don’t ever use a dollar bill to blot sticky pads and don’t pull them against a closed key like above. The ink just makes the pads dirty, or worse, rips or frays the pad skin.
  • Yamaha Powder Paper can be useful for sticky pads if used sparingly. Pads tend to get sticky with the change of seasons or humidity. A few judicious gentle blots can go a long way. Some techs don’t like them because they say the powder clogs the pores in the pad skin
  • So called Pad Savers. If they are used to swab the instrument, they should not be stored inside the instrument. Pads deteriorate faster because they hold the moisture in the instrument. The Pad Save gets moldy. If the flute is swabbed with a cloth first, then the Pad Saver can be stored in the flute.

One more big don’t…..Don’t store your cleaning rag in the case, pushing down on the keys. It will put the instrument out of adjustment more quickly. Ask your local repair technicians. Tie the rag to the handle of your case, or better yet, get a case cover. Store the cloth in the case cover.

As always, if you find these entries useful, please subscribe, share with your colleagues and come back regularly. Feel free to comment. If you have a topic you would like to see explored more fully, you can contact me via IM/Messenger on Facebook or email me at dr_cate@sbcglobal.net. For information about clinics, workshops and performances, click here.

Never Mind About Support

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“What??? But, but…….how can a wind instrument sound good without support?” That’s not what I’m saying at all. I’m saying we need to stop paying attention to “support” as a concept. Let me ask you a few questions. If I tell you to support your sound, what do you do? Can you explain what you are doing or how you are doing it? What is your definition for “support”? How do you explain “support” to your students? What do they do in their attempts to follow your instruction?

First, my observations about flute students who have been told to “support”.

  • They are pinching the aperture, squeezing their lips
  • They are clenching in their throat
  • They are generally tense in their shoulders, torso, even in their hands and wrists

Secondly, here’s my definition for “support”. Simply put, it is having body energy behind the blowing. It involves using abdominal muscles, pelvic muscles and intercostal muscles of the rib cage. In other words, its a full body activity.

DSC_3214Rather than talking about “support”, let’s talk about blowing. If I say, “Blow fast (or faster) air,” do you understand what you need to do? Do you think students will know what they need to do if you give them that direction? If the air is moving sufficiently fast, the tone will be supported automatically. Support is the consequence of blowing quickly enough. All those supporting muscles are engaged in the process of blowing. You don’t need to “do” anything else besides blow with sufficient air speed to have a supported sound.

Beyond blowing sufficiently quickly enough, there are, of course all the issues of finding the right placement on your chin, having the blow hole open just the right amount, shaping the aperture, blowing at the correct angle for the register you are playing and so forth. But a lot of these issues will largely take care of themselves if the student is blowing fast enough air to begin with. So encourage your students to blow faster air.

Finally, air speed is different than air quantity. You can blow a lot of air through a large aperture and nothing will work well because the air isn’t moving fast enough. Not low notes (they will be wooly and unfocused), not the middle register because it will keep dropping down the octave, and not the third octave because it will either be so pinched as to not speak at all or keep dropping down to a lower partial. With the correct air speed and direction a flutist can play rich, focused low notes, have a clear, singing middle register, and be everything from heroic to ethereal in the third octave. It all starts with sufficient air speed. The rest comes through refining the direction of the air and sensitivity and flexibility of the aperture.

As always, if you find these entries useful, please subscribe, share with your colleagues and come back regularly. Feel free to comment. If you have a topic you would like to see explored more fully, you can contact me via IM/Messenger on Facebook or email me at dr_cate@sbcglobal.net. For information about clinics, workshops and performances, click here.

Thank you!

It is so exciting to share the amazing news that Dr. Cate’s Flute Tips has reached 100K views in less than three years.

What’s coming next? More great content, including more video demonstrations and a flute exercise book for school flute students.

Thank you for reading Dr. Cate’s Flute Tips!

You Wouldn’t Think it Makes Much Difference But……..

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DSC_2349There are a number of seemingly insignificant habits your flute students can get into that make a bigger difference than you might imagine to intonation, tone quality and technique. Some of these are more visibly obvious than others. All of them can negatively impact your flute players, both individually and as a section. Keep an eye and ear out for these things in your flute students for a better sounding section.

  • Pressing the flute too hard against the chin – This makes a big difference. If you can’t move your bottom lip, you are pressing too hard. When the flute is resting on your lip, make sure you can move your lip to be able to say a “W”. If you can’t make the “W” shape, back off on the pressure against your lip. If you can’t move your bottom lip, controlling dynamics and play high notes will be too difficult.
  • Flute too high on the chin – Affects both tone quality and pitch. Sound will be small and probably sharp. If you have to pull the headjoint out more than 5/8″ (1 cm), the flute is probably too high on the bottom lip.
  • Covering too much of the blow hole – There shouldn’t be any more than a 1/3 of the hole covered by the bottom lip. Any more than that and the tone will be dull and likely flat
  • Angle of the lower end of the flute in relation to your head – This means that you get the best sound from your instrument when you can see the lower end of the instrument in your peripheral vision. If you have the end of the flute in line with your right ear, you won’t be able to get maximum resonance from your instrument
  • Balance of the flute in your hands – Position the headjoint on the body so the weight of the rods is more on top. That way your fingers are free to move and you won’t be having to “hold” the flute to prevent it from rotating backwards.
  • Resting right knuckles against the rods – Just bad for the flute and for technique. Bad for the flute because sweat and body oils can work into the mechanism causing binding and even rust. Bad for technique because you can move your fingers much more quickly from the joints at the base of the fingers than from the second joints.
  • Thumb position on right hand – For best technique and hand position, thumb should be under and behind the flute, more or less under the F key. Thumb should never be in front of the flute (check the headjoint alignment and balance) or up under the F# or G key.
  • Thumb position on left hand – For best technique, left thumb should be open in relation to the rest of the hand, straight and relaxed. Let the thumb fall on the key wherever. This can be anywhere from the thumb knuckle to the the tip, depending on size and length of the thumb. Top joint should not be bent. The Bb key arm is intentionally recessed around the B key on flutes to accommodate different size and shape thumbs.

As always, if you find these entries useful, please subscribe, share with your colleagues and come back regularly. Feel free to comment. If you have a topic you would like to see explored more fully, you can contact me via IM/Messenger on Facebook or email me at dr_cate@sbcglobal.net. For information about clinics, workshops and performances, click here.

The Dreaded Nay Palm

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What is the dreaded nay palm? Every band flute player is well familiar with the so-called nay palm. That’s when their band director is always asking them to play quieter because they can’t hear the……you name it, trumpets, low brass, clarinets…… By the way, my old teacher, Thomas Nyfenger coined this expression with more than a little irony. Trust me, every flute player has experienced the nay palm at one time or other.

First a bit of reality. There is no way the flute can ever compete in terms of volume of sound with any other instrument in the band. Never. Even if we have a well developed, mature and characteristic sound are we ever going to be able to overpower any other wind instrument? It’s just simple physics.

Secondly, the flute section usually sits right under the conductor. So the person on the podium will hear the flutes first just because the flutes are sitting right under their nose. Is it possible that it’s not really that the flutes are playing so loudly, but that the other instruments are seated further away? You can get a better sense of the balance of volume of the flutes in relation to the rest of the ensemble by getting further away, like in the auditorium. Then I think you will find that the flutes are generally not loud enough and any flute features in the music get lost in the bigger room.

A while back, I was playing with pick up ensemble that supported a local chorus. Most of the time it was an orchestra and we sat in the traditional orchestra configuration. The conductor never once said anything to me about playing “too loudly” through many oratorios and choral works. Just one time did we have a band rather than an orchestra. Now I was sitting directly under the same conductor and I was repeatedly told I was playing too loudly. I have to conclude it was where I was sitting in relation to him rather than how I played. It was the way I play in either case.

DSC_2847.JPGFor your flute players, the biggest issue with always asking them to play quieter is that they usually develop problematic compensations because they don’t actually know how to play quietly, with a supported sound. Here are some of the most egregious:

  • Pinching and squeezing the aperture
  • Clenching jaw with teeth too close together
  • Barely blowing
  • Closing the throat

All of these are guaranteed to cause pitch and tone problems. Compound that with being told to roll in or out to tune and you wind up with a real mess on your hands. And playing is not so fun or rewarding for the students.

How can you help your kids? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Make sure your students understand the fundamentals of good sound including size and shape of the aperture and placement on the lower lip
  • Experiment with where your flutes sit in relation to the podium to be able to get a better sense of the balance of the ensemble even in the band room
  • Encourage your flute players to blow. Just using sufficient air will ensure better pitch.
  • Teach your flute players about supporting the air column. When you use your core muscles to drive the air, the air is moving fast enough to play more softly without losing pitch control.

As always, if you find these entries useful, please subscribe, share with your colleagues and come back regularly. Feel free to comment. If you have a topic you would like to see explored more fully, you can contact me via IM/Messenger on Facebook or email me at dr_cate@sbcglobal.net. For information about clinics, workshops and performances, click here.

If You Can’t Hear It, It Doesn’t Count

When I was a grad student, my flute professor said to me, “It’s obvious you have a very active inner musical life. The problem is, I can’t hear it.” To say that this was a light bulb moment for me would be a bit of an understatement. This observation really shook me to the core and completely reordered my priorities in my practicing and performing from that time forward. What I realized is that there is a big difference between what I thought I was doing and how it was coming across to my audience. It was when I devised a simple, somewhat tongue-in-cheek rule for myself that has proved to be really useful as a way to monitor my playing and face the truth about how effectively I’m communicating the composer’s intention through my playing. “If you can’t hear it, it doesn’t count.” As I’ve reflected on my “rule”, I’ve discovered there are as many corollaries as there are parameters to playing. There is seemingly an infinite number of things I can hold myself accountable for in my performing including technique, articulation, tone quality, phrasing, inflection, tone color, expression, etc.

When I lead sectional rehearsals and flute choirs, one of the biggest issues I run into all the time is how to handle repeated notes so they sound like repeated notes. They can appear a number of different ways:

  • repeated notes under a slur
  • repeated notes under a slur with either a tenuto or staccato
  • repeated notes marked with tenutos or staccatos
  • repeated notes marked with accents
  • repeated notes marked with no designated articulation

More often than not, repeated notes come across as a sustained note, maybe with barely perceptible bumps for the individual repeated notes. And this is just with one player! Compound that by the 6, 10 or 12 kids in your flute section and I guarantee it sounds like a single, sustained note to your audience. What to do to make the repeated notes sound like distinctly different from each other? Here are a few thoughts to consider:

  • Whether or not there is a slur, repeated notes must be tongued. How else can we delineate the same pitch which is repeated? No tongue, no separate note
  • A so-called breath pulse isn’t a solution either. That’s more like vibrato and when utilized by multiple flute players in a section/ensemble, it basically sounds like nothing but a bumpy long note
  • Along with tonguing the repeated pitch, let up ever so slightly on the blowing at the end of the first note before tonguing the second note. It gives a little more definition. The type of articulation mark determines the length, but there should always be a slight lift for definition.

It takes a special effort to define and delineate repeated notes on the flute because the nature of the flute is to sound legato. Other wind instruments with a legato character include the clarinet and the horn. They face some of the same issues with regard to repeated notes as flute players. As the great French flutist, Marcel Moyse, said, “Play the music, not the flute.” In other words, figure out how to get the flute to meet the demands of the music rather than acquiescing to the nature and inherent weakness of the instrument. You can hear me demonstrate playing repeated notes here.

As always, if you find these entries useful, please subscribe, share with your colleagues and come back regularly. Feel free to comment. If you have a topic you would like to see explored more fully, you can contact me via IM/Messenger on Facebook or email me at dr_cate@sbcglobal.net. For information about clinics, workshops and performances, click here.