Circular Breathing Progress

June 28th, 2013 § Leave a Comment

A couple of years ago, I made an attempt to learn circular breathing. It was a frustrating process and I didn’t stick with it, so I didn’t become proficient at the technique. It was probably a decent introduction to the idea but I’m not sure how much benefit I got from that initial failed attempt.

As I focus more heavily on contemporary music, the likelihood that I will encounter the specific requirement to use circular breathing within a piece becomes more realistic. I recently started working on a piece that does require circular breathing. Obviously it’s time for me to figure this out.

I have Robert Dick’s Circular Breathing for the Flutist. I also ran across a helpful video by Helen Bledsoe, which can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UQyAotWQjZQ. Reading descriptions of how to learn the technique is helpful, but sometimes it is necessary for me to see it being used to really understand what should be taking place.

At this point, I am able to inhale and exhale simultaneously for short bursts. I’m practicing this using a glass of water and a straw as well as just inhaling and exhaling without using the glass. When using the glass of water, you blow bubbles into the water through the straw while taking in a breath through your nose. Apparently it is rather common for people to accidentally inhale water while trying to coordinate these. Fortunately, I haven’t done that yet.

I haven’t been able to move past this stage at this point but I have been practicing it for only a week or so. I feel good about the consistency of my practice, even though I’ve been going a bit beyond the recommended 10 – 15 minutes a day. It takes me a while to get the hang of it each practice session, and once I do, I try to get as much as possible out of it. This has resulted in sore embouchure muscles after a couple of sessions, so I’m trying not to overdo it.

I hope to be able to start using this technique in an actual piece of music in a couple of months, while still keeping in mind that it can take years to be truly proficient.

I plan to keep track of my progress here, which will hopefully keep me accountable. If you are also in the process of learning how to use circular breathing, feel free to share your experiences.

Organizing Recital Preparations

March 11th, 2013 § Leave a Comment

Trying to prepare for a recital can be an overwhelming process. Whether you are a student planning a junior or senior recital or a professional who is trying to balance recital preparation with other duties, careful planning will ensure that the event goes smoothly.

First, it’s important to choose your program carefully. I usually have a backlog of music I would like to perform. I try to come up with a program that is balanced and includes a lot of variety. Even though I primarily focus on new music lately, I am aware of my audience and also include some of the older standard works. I also try not to neglect works written for interesting instrumental combinations when the players are available. For the recital I most recently presented, I included J.S. Bach, a French work, and a lot of new music. Of the new works, there is still considerable variety. One is for solo flute, two include digital audio sounds, one is for flute and clarinet, and another is for alto flute.

Some music has been on my stand for many months because I knew I would plan to program it on my next recital. Some of it is newly chosen, and I haven’t been working on it as long. As my recital approaches, I begin to keep a list of the entire program and put each work into one of these categories: almost performance ready but just needs polishing, really needs technical work, and ready to go. Then I determine a practice schedule based on that list. I continue to work on the pieces that are nearly ready but I spend much less time on them. The other works get more focused, intense practice like I describe here.

Lately, I have preferred to have most of my music learned and some kind of idea of how I want it to sound before I start collaborating with chamber music partners. While I keep an open mind, it seems to result in a stronger performance if we aren’t trying to make every musical decision as we go.

For students, I help them come up with a similar schedule to that outlined above, but we are more specific as to when and how often the student should practice each work and even each section of each work. Based on where they are with the music, we might come up with a schedule that includes the best-prepared works being heard in lessons every 2 or 3 weeks. The works that are nearly ready but need polishing might be heard every week but only those specific spots. The music that requires the most technical work will definitely get the most focus, including more intense lesson time. And as we approach the recital date, students will begin to play entire works in lessons, so they get the feel of what it’s like to play the entire program at one time. By making a specific schedule, this helps the student feel like there is a manageable plan between preparation and performance.

Teaching musical style can be tricky and obviously is a much longer process. I try to expose the student to various styles through demonstration and quality recordings; this is ongoing work, regardless of whether or not there is a recital on the horizon. Then when the student approaches a piece, we will have spent a little time with that particular style and it won’t be a brand new concept.

As with most things, careful preparation is important. Instead of forging ahead with no clear plan, a detailed approach will more likely result in a successful, confident performance.

Two Types of Students (and the non-practicers)

November 29th, 2012 § Leave a Comment

As I was teaching today, I realized that there tend to be two types of applied students in my life. A student can move from one category to the other over time, or it’s possible for a student to stay one type for their entire time with me. Where that student falls is probably a factor of many things, including musical maturity, technical ability, motor skills, among many other probable causes. I’m not trying to make any sort of judgment of these two types; instead, I’m curious if other teachers find the same breakdown of students in their own studios, if they prefer to teach one type over the other, and how (or if) their pedagogical approaches differ between the two types.

With one type of student, we primarily work on musical ideas in lessons. Their repertoire might not be completely technically accurate in all respects. There might be a few wrong notes, and we work on refining that technique by practicing in small segments, by making sure we’re using the fingerings that make the most sense for that passage, by altering the rhythm and playing the passage in question backwards. We might work on refining the embouchure, or changing the direction of the air stream, or experimenting with faster or slower vibrato. However, it’s all in the name of musical experimentation and development. This group includes private students of all ages, college music majors, and college students who are taking lessons as an elective.

The lessons with the second type of student consist solely of technical nuts and bolts. Every lesson, we correct fingerings. I remind these students of the various fingerings for B-flat. I remind them to lift their left pointer finger for our middle D and E-flat. We work frequently on aligning the head joint. We count rhythms together every lesson. I also spend a lot of time with them supervising their practice during each lesson. I frequently coach them on how to practice things and specifically what to do and for how long in the practice room. Now I’m not naive; some of the students in this category flat-out do not practice. I understand that quite well. However, there seem to be those students who do spend time legitimately practicing and still have significant problems with just the basics of flute playing. As with the other type, this group also includes private students of all ages, college music majors, and college students who are taking lessons as an elective.

As a teacher, I’m genuinely happy to teach anyone who is an involved, enthusiastic student. I have very little patience for students who don’t practice at all. (Isn’t this true for everyone?) But teaching both of these types of students (Categories 1 and 2; not the non-practicers) is ok with me; it makes for an interesting, varied week of lessons. Reminding every student repeatedly of very basic information every day can be exhausting, and I have yet to be in a situation where I have only students of the first category. I always have a mix of both categories, with a few non-practicers thrown in to keep things interesting.

I’m interested in hearing from other applied teachers: do you have many students at any level (i.e., college, adult, high school, and so forth) for whom the fundamentals are very difficult? Is your pedagogical approach to them significantly different from your approach to Category 1 students?

 

Beatboxing and Such

October 25th, 2012 § 1 Comment

So I entered the realm of beatboxing a while back and figured it was time to write about it. I can’t remember exactly when I started experimenting with it, but it couldn’t have been much earlier than this past spring. The name to know in flute beatboxing circles is Greg Pattillo, who is a performer and composer. He also performs with the PROJECT Trio. I think it’s important to note that Pattillo comes from a fairly typical classical upbringing – started music in school, went to college for music study, etc. He even lists Beethoven as one of his main musical influences. (The other he cites is Ian Anderson.) But then he took inspiration from beat boxing, which is a type of vocal percussion performed by hip-hop artists. This style is combined with flute sounds to create something entirely unique. And this is where my interest was piqued. I’m in love with the framing of sounds – all kinds of sounds – and this is a new sound to experiment with. I think it’s also a good idea for me to learn these new techniques because it absolutely stretches me as a performer. Part of my obligation is to keep up with new developments, and it’s also a great reminder of how difficult new things can be to learn. When my students are approaching something new that I take for granted at this point, and they’re having trouble with it, these types of things remind me what they are experiencing.

In 2011, the National Flute Association commissioned Pattillo to write “Three Beats for Beatbox Flute” for their High School Competition, which is a pretty strong indication that this style is fairly well accepted. Whether it will become mainstream or will die away as a passing fad remains to be seen. I don’t know how often it is taught by flute teachers at any level, but my students find it interesting and I certainly don’t discourage them from practicing it. (Are you a flute instructor who teaches this? Let me know!)

For further reading, check out this New York Times article. And check out his Youtube channel here: http://www.youtube.com/user/freedomworksfilms.

The videos are really helpful to learn the technique, and that’s what I’ve relied on. I’m currently working on the first part of his “Three Beats,” and who knows. Maybe it’ll end up on a faculty recital one of these days … ?

2011 in Review

January 2nd, 2012 § 1 Comment

It’s been a busy, full year. Usually, I assess what I’ve done (and haven’t managed to get done) at the end of the academic year; as a college professor, my concept of a “year” goes from August to May. However, it probably isn’t a bad idea to perform a mid-year check-up. While it’s easy to become frustrated as an ambitious, adjunct professor/classical musician, I think I’ve done a pretty decent job this year. I have several big projects in the works and will continue building on my experience, which will hopefully lead to a full-time professor gig in 2012.

Personally, there have been some tragic bumps in the road. My brother and sister-in-law had their first baby, Austin, in December 2010; she was premature. Baby number two, Cash, was born even more prematurely in September 2011. Both babies passed away this year. The March of Dimes has become my charity of choice, and I hope to be able to do some fundraising for them this year through music performance.

Professionally, things have been busy and varied. I spent a lot of time developing an online presence, finally biting the bullet and joining Twitter (@TammyEvansYonce) over the summer. I was reluctant to do so because I thought I was busy enough. However, I’ve met an entirely different group of people than I would ever meet through other avenues, and I’m able to interact with them regularly. It has definitely been worth it. I also redesigned my website this year, which I think makes it clearer and easier to navigate. I’ve also started adding blog posts to my site, with a primary focus on how to make practicing more effective and efficient. I’ve also written posts about teaching: my B-flat fingering rant is now in print, and there are posts about choosing a new instrument, how to prepare for a recital, and performance anxiety. I also started a new blogging site with the purpose of covering a wide variety of topics relating to a musician’s life: performance, music business, music education, and so forth. It has been growing by leaps and bounds, and we continue to add contributors. I’m really excited about this particular project and invite you to take a look at what we’ve done so far.

As far as performance, I’ve done less of this than I would have liked. I continued to perform as principal flute with the Ludwig Symphony Orchestra, which is based in the Atlanta area. That has been a great opportunity to play some of the real orchestral standards. I also continued playing in the Northwinds Symphonic Band, also based in the Atlanta area. I truly enjoy playing the band literature, and this is a fine group of colleagues. We also took a mini-tour through Georgia over the summer. When you play in south Georgia, they reward you with syrup! I had the opportunity to perform at Flute Festival Mid-South this spring, which was the perfect reason to take a little trip to Nashville. (Needed a new pair of boots, anyway…) Rhonda Larson was the guest artist, and I enjoyed taking part in the masterclass she led. I also participated in a concert of American music at University of South Carolina Aiken, where I’m on faculty. I never turn down an opportunity to play Charles Ives. My biggest performance was my Newberry College faculty recital at the end of the year, which included works by CPE Bach, Roussel, Jennifer Higdon, Muczynski, Enesco, and Jay Batzner. It was a heavy program but I prefer to go all out in solo recitals.

I was happy to return to my alma mater, the University of Georgia, to present at their Women’s Studies Research Symposium early in the year. I presented my dissertation research on the flute works of Joan Tower. I was also scheduled to present a workshop on effective practicing at the Carolina Flute Summit; however, the event was rescheduled for a date I was unavailable. Hopefully, I’ll be able to participate with the South Carolina Flute Society in the very near future.

I’ve continued researching the flute music of Joan Tower, and I’ve added the flute music of Jennifer Higdon as a primary research topic.

I increased my involvement with the Atlanta Flute Club when I was elected President in February. This group is a well-oiled machine, and I’m happy to be able to jump in and help brainstorm some new ideas within an already-successful group. Some of my specific goals are to increase our membership to include members of various ages and levels and to sponsor even more high-quality programs that give flutists in the Atlanta area access to teachers, performers, and information they otherwise wouldn’t have. This year we’ve instituted the brand new Junior Artist Competition for students through the 10th grade, which complements our well-established Young Artist Competition. We have several great events planned for 2012, so stay tuned!

Having an article published in the Journal of the British Flute Society was a particular highlight of the year. I was thrilled to have my research on Joan Tower, an American composer, published across the pond. It also gave me the chance, through this and Twitter, to meet some great British flutists.

My teaching responsibilities have increased this year, and I have eagerly embraced the opportunity. Being on faculty at two different colleges gives me the chance to perhaps teach a wider variety of courses than if I just taught at one place. (Of course, there are considerable pitfalls to being part-time at two colleges, but let’s focus on the positive.) This year, new teaching included: assisting with marching band, establishing a flute studio class, starting a flute ensemble, and an introduction to music literature class. I’ve also been busy preparing to fill in for the theory professor when he goes on sabbatical in January; I’ll be teaching two courses from the undergraduate theory sequence as well as form and analysis. I’m really looking forward to teaching these classes.

I’ve also done some of the other college stuff besides teaching classes. I’ve been doing quite a bit of recruiting for one college, which has included a lot of travelling and coordination with the admissions department. I’ve also been designated the chamber music coordinator, which means I schedule student performances throughout the community. Now that the big recruiting event for the year is finished, I’ll be focusing on this more in the first semester of 2012.

And the miscellaneous: I’ve got several big projects in the works for 2012. They’ve taken quite a bit of work this year and will be ready to go very soon. I was very excited to be able to judge the Newly Published Music competition of the National Flute Association. I’ve also started taking occasional lessons again with Christina Smith, principal flute of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. I can’t say enough good stuff about her – what a fantastic musician!

So what’s in store for 2012? As a musician, who knows. I’ve learned that it’s an unpredictable gig, and you just have to do the best you can. Hopefully 2012 brings a full-time job as a music professor. Regardless, I’m going to introduce three big projects and continue writing blog posts. I’m also looking for a new flute – technically, a new “old” flute – a vintage Powell. I’ll be presenting at the Kentucky Flute Convention in January and the British Flute Convention in August; I’m also organizing the Atlanta Flute Club Flute Fair along with the rest of the board. I’m going to submit proposals to perform and present at as many flute conventions as possible, and I hope to also present at several universities over the course of 2012. I also have an article under consideration that I hope is published this year. My biggest plan for 2012 is to focus on musical collaboration. Several recitals are already in the works, but I want to be able to look back on 2012 and see that performing with other musicians has been my primary focus. It took me a while to learn but the collaborative aspect of music performance is really one of the best things about this profession.

What a year! What are your goals? Want to collaborate? Follow me here or on Twitter @TammyEvansYonce.

 

Recital Preparation

November 14th, 2011 § Leave a Comment

 

Preparing for a recital can be a daunting process. If you’ve ever given a recital before, you’ve discovered that there’s more to the process than just learning the music. You often collaborate with a pianist or other chamber music partners. You perform in a space that might differ significantly from your usual practice room, acoustically speaking. You perform in formal attire as opposed to your usual clothes. And let’s not underestimate the effect that nerves and adrenaline have on a performance. So what do you do? Here are some ideas.

-          Technical work. As you get closer to the date and the music starts coming together, there might still be some technical spots that continue to give you trouble. As reassuring as it is to keep practicing the music that you *can* play, it’s a smarter idea to focus most of your available practice time on working out the tricky spots.

-          Recordings. Listening to recordings is incredibly helpful. They can quickly clarify questions that you might have about interpretation or ensemble. On the other hand, they might also be a good indication of what you *don’t* want to do. Either way, listening to a variety of recordings is a valuable investment of time when preparing for a recital.

-          The importance of rehearsals can’t be overstated. No matter how easy the coordination between the different parts of a work may seem, there are always those quirky mistakes that can spring up unexpectedly. If you’ve spent a reasonable amount of time in rehearsal, you should be able to minimize those unfortunate mistakes. Write in cues for music in the other parts that you seem to always notice. Even if the performance is going perfectly well, those aural reassurances might be just what you need to set your mind at ease.

-          Try to practice in the recital hall as much as possible. In larger venues, this isn’t always possible since they tend to be booked up all the time. You can still talk to people who have played in the space before. Is it a live space? Muffled? Hard to hear your chamber music partners? Do there always seem to be balance problems? Get as much information as possible before your dress rehearsal and performance.

-          Do some practice run-throughs in your formal clothing. For guys, this probably isn’t such a huge change, but for ladies, this can be a major adjustment. Think about the temperature in the hall. Do you want to wear something sleeveless, or will you be shivering? If you’re wearing a dress, make sure it isn’t too long; you don’t want to trip over the hem on your way across the stage. And don’t forget to think about your shoes! If you tend to stick to flats most of the time, this might not be the time to try out those 4-inch stilettos, no matter how good they look. It’s a good idea to practice in the shoes you intend to wear for the performance itself.

-          I’m a big believer in practicing in small sections. As far as learning technical material, it’s really the most efficient way, even though it requires more focused practice. However, the experience of giving a performance is completely different from working in these small chunks. As your recital date approaches, it’s a really good idea to start playing through your entire program. A couple of weeks before is usually a good time to try this because your technique should be solid and you should be quite familiar with the music. If you can’t make it all the way through, that’s ok. You still have a couple of weeks to build up endurance. Keep trying to make run-throughs of your recital program and try to get a little further in it each time.

-          Basically, preparation is the key to a successful performance. Trying to visualize all aspects of the performance from the actual music to the performance space to your clothing will help you pull off a polished, solid recital.

Practice Tips

November 1st, 2011 § Leave a Comment

The following was a result of a handout I put together for a workshop. More detailed information can be found about these topics in separate blog posts on this site.

 

Establish a solid practice schedule: 

  • Actually block off time in your schedule designated specifically for practicing. Avoid using it for lunch, socializing, homework, errands, sleeping, and so forth. As a musician, practicing is part of your job, so treat it with professionalism. 
  • Write your designated practice time in your schedule. Enter it into your online planner. Make sure it ends up wherever you will see it until it becomes habit. 
  • Arrange your practice time for when you practice best. Some people love getting work done first thing in the morning before anyone else is around to be a distraction. Others work best late at night. Maybe right before or after lunch is when you’re most alert. Figure out when your most effective practice time is and make sure you schedule around that. A reasonable amount of focused practice is better than lots of unfocused practice. 
  • Your practice time doesn’t have to be one large block. Maybe you have 30 free minutes between classes early in the morning. That’s perfect for your warm-up! You can then schedule another practice session for technical work and repertoire, or you can split that work into two sessions. 

When approaching a new piece: 

  • Listen to a quality recording of the piece. Yes, this counts as practicing!
  • Do a quick run-through of the piece to get a feel for it and where the difficult parts are.
  • Actually write the tempos of each problem area in your music (in pencil) so you remember where you are the next time you practice. You will probably have different tempos for each difficult section of the work, but that’s ok. You’ll eventually work them all up to the same tempo. Don’t forget to update the tempo in your music after you’ve made progress.
  • In particularly difficult sections, it may be necessary to break your practice down into just 2 or 3 notes. This may seem too simple, but it’s a much more effective use of your practice time than simply running through the music and making little, if any, progress.
  • Save run-throughs. Start doing more of these as you approach a performance to get a feel for the work in its entirety and to start building endurance. It’s also helpful to do occasionally to assess how well your practice is going, but it’s simply not enough to be your sole practice strategy.

Handling especially difficult sections:

  • First, make sure you’re practicing slowly and with a metronome. Play it as slowly as needed so that you’re able to play the entire passage correctly. This may be half-speed or even slower. That’s ok; you’ll speed it up later.
  • Second, try playing the passage with different articulations. Try slurring the difficult passage, articulating it, slurring small and large groupings, and combining articulations and slurs.
  • Third, alter the rhythm of the passage. If the passage is made up of eighth notes, play a dotted eighth/sixteenth note pattern. Then reverse it and play a sixteenth note/dotted eighth note pattern.
  • Finally, try playing the passage backwards. This gives your brain and fingers a serious workout. Practice this section backwards until you can play it smoothly and comfortably.
  • Once you’ve practiced this difficult section with all of these changes, play it as written. Even after a short amount of practice, you should see considerable improvement.

How do you know when you’re improving?

  • Checking metronome markings. This is a pretty simple way to measure progress, especially in technical passages. Being able to play something a few clicks faster than you could at the beginning of your practice session is a pretty good indication of progress.
  • Being able to play longer passages in a work. Maybe you could play only small portions of a work previously. Maybe you could only make it through one movement before you felt fatigued or lost focus. Suddenly, you can make it through the entire piece successfully. This is a positive sign, especially if you are getting close to a recital date.
  • Noticing an improvement in tone quality. This issue becomes more subjective. Recording yourself, an eye-opening experience, is a great way to hear what your audience is hearing. The sound from the performer’s side of the instrument can be vastly different from what the sound is by the time it reaches the audience. Maybe you’ve been working on tone and you *think* it’s clearer, more resonant, more focused, and so on. Double-check it with your recording device.

Technique stuff

September 20th, 2011 § Leave a Comment

If  you are interested in following along with Sir James Galway as he overhauls his technique, check out the following video. He has issued a “Practice Challenge,” where flutists from presumably around the world will all be working out of the same technique book. He will be using Marcel Moyse’s Daily Exercises book. I will be following along with the challenge loosely. I usually work out of this Moyse book every day, so I am going to be adapting the challenge by fiddling around with the articulations.

http://galwaynetwork.com/scale.htm

I’m also feeling rather sheepish about my short-lived experimentations with circular breathing. I started work on it a little over a year ago but didn’t commit to it like I should have. Now I’m kicking myself; if I had stuck with it, I would have probably been fairly fluent in the technique by this point. I’ve dug out my book and am considering adding it to my practice regimen. Anyone out there have any experience with circular breathing?

Practicing Difficult Sections

August 3rd, 2011 § Leave a Comment

What do you do when you’ve practiced that one difficult section over and over and over again, and it still isn’t right? It’s not fast enough, or smooth enough, or loud enough, or …

It can be really frustrating when you’re making an honest effort to improve but you aren’t seeing results.

Next time you find yourself stuck in this situation, try the following tips. You’re still practicing the same musical material, but you’re making your brain (and fingers) think about it in a different way.

First – make sure you’re practicing slowly with a metronome. Play it as slowly as needed so that you’re able to play the entire passage correctly. This may be half-speed or even slower. That’s ok; you’ll speed it up later.

Second – Try playing the passage with different articulations. Take a look at this measure taken from Robert Muczynski’s Sonata for Flute and Piano:


Instead of playing it as written, try articulating each note:

Then try slurring pairs of notes:


Then try slurring larger groups:

Finally, play it again as written.
Third – Alter the rhythm of the passage. Instead of straight eighth notes, play a dotted eighth-sixteenth note pattern:

Then try a sixteenth note-dotted eighth note pattern:

Finally – Try playing the passage backwards. This gives your brain and fingers a serious workout. Work on this section backwards until you can play it smoothly and comfortably.


Once you’ve practiced this section with all of these changes, play it as written. Even after a short amount of practice, you should see a considerable improvement.

Have you tried any of these tips? Let me know how they work!

Perspective

July 27th, 2011 § Leave a Comment

Often, when you have been doing a considerable amount of practice, you suddenly feel like you’re getting much WORSE instead of better.

In my experience, this is actually a good thing. You aren’t getting worse. It’s just that your ears are now more acutely aware of the things about your playing that could be improved. You’re developing a more critical perspective.

Keep plowing through. You’ll get over the hurdle. Sometimes a little self-awareness is uncomfortable, but it means that you’re improving.

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