Thursday, October 5, 2017

Making recordings that showcase your best self

Every spring I am inundated with requests to help friends judge recorded rounds of competitions, and can I like to help out when I can.  And at the end of my judging stint, I always vow to jot down some helpful suggestions for the poor contestants I hear, whose flawed recordings are secretly jeopardizing their chances for advancement. Now is the time when those recordings get made, and I am really hoping I hear nothing but crystal clear, completely decipherable performances next May!  So, to all the future contestants out there...

Equipment.  I know, I know, we spend so much money.  But it's never been easier to find well-made equipment at an affordable price, or to comparison shop online for the deepest discounts.  Do yourselves the favor of investing in something good now, and you'll be able to use it for a long time to come.  I have loved my Zoom H4n stereo recorder for years, which records in both .mp3 and higher quality .wav formats, and it has been equally easy to use through computer changes and system upgrades. If you want to get fancy and use an external microphone, you can record up to four channels, but the built-in one has always worked for me. Likewise, Zoom's Q3HD will take both audio and video, together or separately, and you can control the quality level of both. I promise you, your phone/tablet/laptop is not doing you justice (unless you have a kick-ass external stereo mic and robust software).

Distance. Even good equipment sounds terrible when used poorly. Stand too close and there's a bunch of "junk" in the sound--juicy, airy extraneous noise from the air column splitting over the edge of the tone hole. Stand too far and you sound like you're playing from another room. Both are unflattering and make it hard to judge accurately what you sound like and what, specifically, you are playing. With a hand-held like the Zoom (above), start out standing about 5 feet from the machine, and place it slightly to your right if possible.  More of the "junk" in the sound comes out the left side of the embouchure hole. But all of this is hypothetical until you do a proper...

Sound Check. If you're impatient like me, or nervous like I was as a novice recorder in my student days, you just want to hurry up and get it over with. But you are unlikely to have your recording levels and spacing right on the first try. The level of the mic, your distance, the acoustics in the room, all make a difference in your recorded sound. So, play your extremes--something high and loud (most likely to overload the mic), something quiet and low (least likely to be picked up), and be sure you're also testing your dynamic range with a clear crescendo and decrescendo to make sure the mic isn't mitigating out volume for you (this often happens when it's set to "auto"). When you find the spot and settings where everything you are trying to do is accurately communicated in the recording, write down all the details so you can recreate that setting.  If you decide to come back and re-record things later, you won't have to reinvent the wheel.

Acoustics. Most competitions are strict about not editing tracks, and it's always good practice to avoid any questions about accuracy and truthfulness from the judges' panel. So, pick a room that sounds good--not too washy, but definitely not too dead, either.  I want to hear clarity of articulation and technical passages with all of the partials present in your sound.  Your bathtub may be too live, but your carpeted bedroom full of posters is most likely too dead (as are most practice rooms and teaching studios at U.S. colleges and conservatories).  Get creative--try using a rehearsal room or small auditorium at your school after hours if you can get in, or even a neighborhood church that isn't too live. If you teach lessons at a public school, there may be a nice space the band director will let you use. Oddly, my kitchen is the best room in the house, acoustically speaking. And again, sound check, sound check, sound check.

Dead time. A little time before and after each track is good, but if I am waiting more than 60 seconds for your first note, I'm going to get impatient and start jumping around in the track. The Zoom H4n comes with a remote control that helps you control this, or you can get a friend to push "record" and "stop" for you if it's taking too long to get from the machine to your stand.

Page turns and other extraneous noises. It may sound petty, but shockingly loud page turns are distracting (I giggled through an entire recording last spring because someone's pianist was taking out his frustrations on the score every time he turned). Clicking heels draw my attention towards your inability to stand still when you play. Creaking floors, loud furnaces, etc., all distract from your playing.  It's just human nature.  A little noise is fine (and proof you recorded live!), but anything that really pops out at you is a problem.

Listen before submitting. Seriously, this should be a no-brainer.  But when I hear tiny, far away flute, violent page turns, and a two minute lead (yes, really) before the start of a piece, I wonder if everyone is doing this. I get it--deadlines are surprisingly early, and it's tempting to wait until the last minute in the hopes that your dreaded trouble spot will be smoothed over. But don't rush yourself. You're spending hours and hours (and if you have to hire a pianist, dollars and dollars) to prepare this music to the best of your ability. You are competing to win, whether it's for a cash prize or a tenure-track job. So, it makes no sense to then take short cuts in the final step, which is the recording.Take the time to submit your best work, and make sure the listener can focus solely on your lovely playing, not how many times the air conditioning unit cycled during the Burton. Be a perfectionist.  It's worth it.

Good luck to everyone this audition/competition/job application season, and have fun!

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Wyoming All-State Band auditions, 2017

It's All-State time here in Wyoming, and I just put together an instructional video for all of you brave auditioning souls out there. Here it is, and the notes that follow are a review of what I'm demonstrating in the video:

You can download all three excerpts (two for flute, one for piccolo) and scales here. Scroll to the end for the optional piccolo excerpt. Some tips and resources, which I also touch upon in the video:


Etude #1: The accents create a sense of a march style here, and clean technique is clearly on display.


  • The spaces between the notes must be even, and all fingers must move as a rhythmical team to avoid "flams" or accidental grace notes.  Practice rhythms can help: turn each triplet into 





                           and 





to force the fingers to get to different notes cleanly and quickly.  Always practice with a metronome, and insist on 10 perfect repetitions in a row before moving on to the next tempo.

  • When slurring from E to F#, you can use the alternate F# fingering (RH 2 instead of RH3). This fingering is flat, so only use it in fast technical passages like you have in measure 13.
  • Each phrase has a clearly marked dynamic, and they must all sound different.  Map out your dynamic range on a single stable pitch: piano is the quietest sound you can make with a focused sound and excellent pitch, mezzo piano is one obvious notch louder, mezzo forte another step louder, etc. Fortissimo should still be in tune. To get louder, you drop your jaw (it should naturally go down and back at the same time) in increments for each louder dynamic. Conversely, to get quieter, your jaw will come up and forward slightly, like saying "oooo".
  • Accents should be produced with a firm tip of the tongue right where the back of your front teeth meet the roof of your mouth (where most people say "two"), and plenty of fast air behind the sound. If you find that you are cracking on these accents, drop your jaw a little bit and aim your air slightly lower into the headjoint.


Etude #2: This lovely, mournful ballad measures your ability to sustain a phrase and play expressively.  Good breathing capacity along with efficient air use, clear tone, and flexible vibrato are your goals.

  • Practice breathing out-of-time: with the metronome on, play a phrase in time, then give yourself two full beats to breathing, completely filling up from the bottom to the top, then play the next phrase in time, etc. After doing this for a week, limit yourself to one beat of breath, then finally, breathe in time. Continue to mimic the sense of fullness you had when you were taking two luxurious beats to breathe. 
  • If q=60 is too slow for you to play beautifully, start by practicing at the slowest comfortable tempo you can do, then gradually slow it down in increments. You haven't perfected a tempo until you can play in tune, with clear tone and dynamics ten times in a row. 
  • Be sure your vibrato depth/speed matches your volume--shallow and slow for piano, deep and fast for forte. Practice whole notes crescendo from piano to forte, then decrescendo back to piano ("diamonds") and experiment with your vibrato to fill up, but not go beyond the borders of, your sound at every volume. 
  • As with etude #1, map out your dynamics
  • It should go without saying, but...PRACTICE YOUR E-flat MINOR SCALE!
Piccolo Etude: You will be judged on beauty and continuity of sound, clean fingers (of course), and control of pitch. The fingers should be easier than flute etude # (use the 10x rule for all woodshedding), but sound can be more challenging on piccolo. Some thoughts:
  • Play the piccolo like you play the flute: keep your throat open, tongue relaxed, and some space between your back teeth like when you say "ah". Use fast spinning air like you do for flute.  This will ensure that all of your notes speak evenly and have depth.  Beauty of sound can be practiced like you practice it on flute, with long tones, "diamonds", and octave slurs. 
  • Your piccolo is not as acoustically "correct" as your flute, so you'll have to do more to control pitch.  Learn your tendencies with a simple "Pitch Tendency" sheet.  Turn on your metronome, and once you've tuned to an A, play and hold every single individual pitch, from low D to high F. Write down your specific tendency on that note (like "+20" or "-10"). Then take notes on what you have to do to get it in tune.  You should not need to roll in and out drastically, which hurts sound quality. Instead, drop your jaw to get flatter, or pucker to get sharper. In the context of this etude, you will know where to blow each note so that they are all in tune. 
Scales: Visit my blog post, "Tips for Creative Practice" to keep things fresh (and accurate).

Good luck, and enjoy the process!

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Tips for band directors

I always encourage band directors to keep in touch and ask questions whenever they are struggling with their flute sections; I think that we, as flutists, can offer a crucial lifeline to our colleagues in the public schools and advocate for the best practices on our instrument.  I cannot imagine the pressure of standing in front of a band and having to make everyone sound great on all of their various instruments all by myself; no one person can be the expert on everything. That's where a cadre of instrumental experts helps everyone involved.

These are some materials I have shared with my colleagues in Wyoming and NoCo over the years and I hope it is helpful in some way; feel free to share this information with your own colleagues, wherever you happen to be as you read this.  And band directors, remember: we want to help you help your students to love the flute (and piccolo) the way we do.  We're all on the same team, so call us when we can help!

Equipment

Move to an open-hole flute as early as possible (if hands are large enough, it is possible to start on one).  Off-set G is preferred over inline for the health of the left hand.  Pitch is generally better on a B-foot, rather than a C-foot, flute.   Flute prices range wildly, but in general, you get what you pay for.  The following brands are recommended because they are built on good scales, construction is sturdy, and they tend to hold a repair for a long time.

Recommended Brands, in order of preference--flutes:
            1. Altus/ Azumi (Azumi is made by Altus)
            2. Muramatsu
            3. Trevor James
            4. Yamaha

Recommended Brands, in order of preference--concert piccolos
            1. Resona by Burkhart
            2. Pearl PFP105-E
            3. Yamaha YPC-62

Embouchure practice aid: Pneumo Pro Wind Director, www.blockiflute.com

Resources

Online:
Accurate fingering charts: www.wfg.woodwind.org
Breathing exercises: Breathing Gym Playlist on YouTube
Purchasing flute music, instruments, and accessories: www.fluteworld.com 
Flute repertoire guides, practice tips, and history: thepedagogyproject.pbworks.com
Information on summer festivals, competitions, and conferences: www.nfaonline.org
Overcoming performance anxiety, general inspiration: www.bulletproffmusician.com
UW Flute Studio, including information on Wyoming Flute Day and a Wyoming state flute teacher directory: sites.google.com/site/wyoflutes/home
Dr. Riner’s home page: www.nicoleriner.info

Highly Recommended Exercise Books:
Trevor Wye, Practice Book for Flute, Omnibus Edition (Published by Novello)
            °Includes sections on tone, technique, breathing, articulation, scales, and more

Tips for Great Flute Playing
A hand-out for high school flutists by Dr. Nicole Riner
Visiting Assistant Professor of Flute, University of Wyoming

1.  Try to stand whenever you practice the flute, and face your feet, hips, and knees 45º to the right.  Then swing the upper half of your body to face the music stand.  This prevents arm fatigue and makes it easier to fill up with air. 

2. To fill up with air, deliberately sense the temperature of the air in the back of the throat.  This triggers the lower half of the lungs and makes the lungs expand from the bottom first, where they are larger and more pear-shaped.  Notice that the three lowest ribs are “floating” and not attached in the front like the rest of the ribs.  Let the floating ribs go outward in a 360º circle. 

3.  When tonguing say “tu” or “du”, not “whoo” or “pu”.  The tip of the tongue should hit just behind your front top teeth to lightly interrupt a fast, constant stream of air.  After each “tu” the tongue tip should rest lightly behind the bottom teeth, ready to strike again.  Keep the mouth cavity open and relaxed with the tongue resting on the floor of the mouth when not in use. 

4. To sustain the tone with a rich, full sound, use the “belt trick”.  Fill up with air and pretend you have a belt around your middle that is WAY too big for you. Make the imaginary belt taut by pushing out all around in a circle, and keep the imaginary belt taught the whole time you exhale into the flute.  This engages extra abdominal muscles that help control the exhalation. 

5. Move the lip corners forward as you go higher on the flute so that the center of the lips moves gradually closer to the far side of the blowing edge.  To go lower, open your mouth by putting more space between your back teeth and pointing the air down into the hole, which will be les covered.  Keep your corners loose and relaxed at all times.  Don’t roll the flute inwards or outwards to achieve different octaves or pitches, but make your lips do it instead. 

6.  To tune, push the headjoint in to make the pitch higher (sharper), pull the headjoint out to make the pitch lower (flatter).  When you are in a good place and the majority of your notes are in tune, remember that spot and put your headjoint there every time you put it together.  Remember that cold flutes will always be flat until they warm up; you can speed up the process by blowing some hot air into the headjoint before checking your tuning. 

If you find that you go flat when playing softly or sharp when playing loudly, use your embouchure:
For forte: Put more space between your back teeth, pull the upper lip downward, and aim the air down into the flute.
For piano: Bring your lips forward into a pucker and blow more across the hole, still using fast air speed. 

7.  Always line up your headjoint so that when you play your flute, the tops of the keys face the ceiling.  The first key should be lined up with the embouchure hole in the headjoint. Your pinky keys should be easily reachable—adjust where you put your footjoint to fit your hand.  Your right hand thumb should act as a shelf to hold that side of the flute, while the left side is held in place by your chin (with only gentle pressure, no pushing!) and the lower part of your index finger of your left hand. 

8.  When assembling or disassembling your flute, don’t place your hands on the keys, rods, or levers.  Place your hands on the sturdy and smooth parts of the tube only.  It’s very easy to bend the thin keys and rods, which will keep your flute from working smoothly and accurately. 

9.  Always swab the flute out with a handkerchief or silk swab after playing. This dries the pads and protects them from wear.  Always gently wipe fingerprints off the body to preserve the finish of your flute; you can use a handkerchief or microfiber cloth.

10.  Practice things that are challenging, like octave slurs and fast, clean scales, every day!  Stay curious and seek good role models in professional flute players and recordings.  Take lessons from a reputable flute teacher in your area if possible, or email me for in-person or SKYPE lessons. 


Nicole Riner ©2016



Thursday, September 7, 2017

Announcing my Flutist's Expression Workbook!

...just in time to combat the back-to-school obsession over All-State auditions and marching band shows! This book has been a two-year labor of love and I will continue to update and improve it with your feedback. I've just released A Flutist’s Expression Workbook, appropriate for junior high through adult students. The Workbook utilizes exercises from 19th Century vocal method books as a vehicle for developing beautiful, flexible tone and more creative expression in playing. Vocalises are presented with two sets of expression markings followed by text meant to lead the student through the musical effect of the markings as well as specific instruction on how to perform those markings effectively. There is also an unadorned copy of each vocalise for students to mark for themselves as they explore their own musical creativity. Supplementary material includes four duets, arranged from their original operatic settings, for flutes and piano, and piano accompaniment to all vocalises. It's available in print edition (spiral-bound) or digital download, which also includes .mp3 files of select accompaniments to play along with and extra "blanks" of each vocalise for your musical marking pleasure!

You can read more about it, view sample pages, and order at this link. I'll be updating that page with supplementary videos of me teaching some of the vocalises throughout the fall. Please feel free to share this information with colleagues and students, and thanks for helping spreading the word!


Thursday, August 24, 2017

So You Want to Be a Freelance Musician

It's that time of year, when everyone who's not heading back to school is starting to look around and wonder, "what next?" I wrote this article back in 2014 and it has been published in a couple of places, but I don't think anything much has changed.  For further reading, however, the landscape is looking brighter all the time. Shout-out to Brandon Upshaw's Startup Musician blog and his downloadable book, This is How We Do It.


So You Want to Be a Freelance Musician

Nicole Riner

The musical community is becoming a more creative, dynamic place.  Never before have there been so many opportunities to develop your own path as a music entrepreneur.  You may decide this is the path you choose to take after school, rather than pursuing the more traditional graduate school-to-professorship trajectory or devoting yourself to orchestral auditions. This will often mean moving to a more urban environment with an arts scene after college. Moving to a new city is challenging if you do not have personal or musical connections there.  You will start out in the back of the line behind local professors and their graduate students, recent graduates who stayed in town, important people’s spouses, and those who have been a part of the local scene since you were a toddler!  But don’t lose heart--you will eventually be recognized for your reliability, talent, pleasant social skills, and humble, hard-working attitude as long as you consistently display those qualities whenever you have the opportunity.  Some tips:

Be ready to self-promote.  Get your one-page resume looking as good as it can, and make it easily available.  You can carry paper copies with you wherever you go, but paper is becoming a thing of the past.  It’s better to also have all the information you want to convey on a website (resume, bio, performance calendar, teaching philosophy, sound clips, etc.) and get some great-looking business cards made to share your information quickly and easily.   Study other websites from people in your field and copy the best.  Do some shopping for hosts--new companies are constantly forming to offer affordable package deals on the domain name alongside some pretty professional-looking design help. 

PS--a website filled with bravado and not much else is rather annoying (and ubiquitous, unfortunately); create a website that celebrates your victories while also allowing people to get to know you as a musician.  This is why I think a well-written teaching philosophy is so important: it allows potential students and their parents to make a connection to you and feel comfortable choosing you as their teacher. Share your particular interests, whether it’s classical-jazz crossover music or Latin American folk music.  Your website helps you get past the awkward stranger phase. 

Stay in shape.  The imposed down-time of having no gigs in a new place allows you to be in the best shape of your life.  Design an efficient regular practice routine so that you are always ready at a moment’s notice to fill in at a gig--these will most likely be your first calls.  Scales, long tones, orchestral excerpts, and sight reading practice should all be prioritized, as well as familiarizing yourself with any common chamber music literature you haven’t yet learned (woodwind quintets, flute trios, etc.). Your goal is to be able to say yes to anything that comes along and to play so well that you get called again.  No excuses.

When I was new to a previous city where I worked, I received a call at 8am asking me if I could step in for a sick piccolo player for a days’ worth of recording demonstration CDs for band programs.  The gig started at 9:30am, and with traffic, I had to leave my apartment as soon as I hung up.  While I don’t normally consider myself a piccolo player, I had been practicing it hoping it would increase my chances of getting called, and so I was ready to pound through Hal Leonard arrangements for four hours.  My paycheck that day was the largest I had received up to that point, I met several movers and shakers in the local gig scene who remembered me for future work, and I got credit with contractors for being willing to drop everything and save the day. 

Make calls.  Contact local band directors about coming in to teach pull-out or after-school lessons.  Call the personnel managers of local part-time orchestras and ask if you can audition for the sub list.  If there is a good college or full-time orchestra in your area, contact the flute professor/ principal player and take a lesson, expressing your interest in subbing and other side work if you hit it off (be prepared to pay a premium for these lessons, though).  Learn who the contractors in your area are and email them your press packet of headshot, resume, bio, and links to pertinent information on your website.  In short, make sure people know where to find you. 

Look for a faculty to join.  Any faculty, whether it’s a tiny private college or a community music school whose clientele are mostly fresh out of diapers, is a great place to meet other active freelancers.  By making friends with the other adjuncts, you can learn about gigs, create chamber music groups, and generally learn the lay of the land. Teach flute, music appreciation, aural skills—in short, teach whatever you responsibly can.

Create performance opportunities.  Give a recital at a local church, theater, or chamber music venue if it exists.  And be sure to promote that recital aggressively--contact local newspapers, classical radio stations, and arts bloggers to announce the program and offer yourself for an interview or review of the show.  If it goes well and you are meeting like-minded musicians at your part-time teaching job (see above), consider creating a chamber music series in your town. 

Say yes to everything.  Any work even marginally related to performing could lead to more performing.  Just do anything you feel capable of doing that will allow you to work with other musicians and let them see you shine.  Entry-level arts administration work, becoming a sub-contractor for gigs, or just teaching or playing in situations you didn’t imagine for yourself are all fair game.  I don’t spend a lot of time with small children, but I have played my well-worn Peter and the Wolf excerpts and Harry Potter themes for them a number of times in their elementary schools, and I am always playing with great musicians, some of whom have great gigs.  And eventually they mention my name to their contractors.  

Consider working for free.  It’s a painful concept after so many years of playing for free as a student, but I think you go back to square one whenever you move to a new place. You have decide if the situation is right for you.  If the unpaid gig will ingratiate you with a busy, overworked contractor or allow you to play for influential musicians in the area, you can consider it an extended audition.  However, if it’s playing for some out-of-towner’s outdoor wedding in January, skip it. 

What to do once you get a gig:  by the time you start getting calls, you will have gone through periods of frustration, mild depression, and panic at the thought of having wasted your college years practicing your instrument instead of doing something marketable.  Don’t let it show.  Whether you are playing beside brilliant musicians or people who seem ready to retire, address everyone as a respected colleague.  That means patting your thigh in appreciation after orchestra solos in rehearsal (good or bad) and thanking the regulars in the ensemble for letting you play with them.   And it most certainly includes good social skills in general: make direct eye contact, smile, offer your hand and introduce yourself.  Act happy to be there, even if it has been a difficult week filled with rejections.  There are far more good musicians than there are jobs, so no one has to suffer your inflated ego for the privilege of hearing you play.  They can just call someone else. 

And whatever you do, treat every rehearsal, no matter how mundane the music, as if it is the most important performance of your life.  You are being judged every time you make a sound as people decide where to put you on the sub list. 

It takes time to establish yourself, and that calendar can vary.  Every musical community is a small one, and every action and statement you make will follow you.  If you consistently--even when you think no one is looking--present yourself as willing to work, hold yourself to a high standard, and act generously and with kindness in the face of others’ struggles, people will want to work with you.  And the longer you remain that excellent colleague, the higher your name rises on the sub list.                                                                                                                          

Nicole Riner ©2016