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.
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