Tuesday, November 28, 2017

New music review: Breath of Souls: Five Waiata for Solo Flute

Breath of Souls: Five Waiata for Solo Flute (2010-2014)
Peter Adams
©2015 Promethean Editions Limited

Native New Zealand composer Peter Adams studied with Peter Maxwell Davies, and he also cites the serial work of Anton Webern as an influence. Breath of Souls is clearly very carefully crafted with regards to structure, and it favors both symmetrical shapes and the loose employment of 12-tone rows, but the effect is nonetheless truly captivating.

The composer’s notes which precede this edition comprise a brief master class in the tonal form of the piece, which is interesting in itself--the intricate detail of this work is admirable.  But what is even more fascinating is how something that can be described in such mechanical terms can become something else entirely, as if each “breath” was improvised, growing organically from first note to last. The piece began as a set of three movements for treble recorder and was only completed last year with the addition of the second and fourth movements. The entire piece is inspired by the poem Mercy by Greek-Armenian poet Olga Broumas, which describes breaths of “sea smoke” rising from the waters of a harbor and compares this natural phenomenon to a more spiritual “breaths of souls”.

The first and fifth movements, both called “Pounamu”, serve as prologue and epilogue in this setting, and they are both constructed of identical pitch content. The first serves as a contemplative idea which develops slowly and incompletely, while the second (the last movement), has been drastically altered in rhythm to reflect the rhythmical development of the middle movements, ending in a more restless, but still incomplete thought. Movements two and four, “Waiata Aroha” and “Waiata Tangi”, are the newly added movements, and they are meant to explore themes of love and loss, respectively. “Aroha” (love) leaps and soars gracefully with a nimbleness expressed through rhythms that develop in density throughout.  A general sense of upward motion at the end of many phrases lends an optimism which is later crushed in the slow and meandering “Tangi” (loss).  “Moeraki (Jewel of the Sea)”, depicts transcendence in the form of the poet’s rising “sea smoke”.  It is organized in a simple A-B-A arch.  The A theme is a light 3+3+2 dance, interrupted in the middle of the movement by a B theme which suddenly slows, employing pitch bends and wiggling sixteenth notes meant to be played unevenly, with a sense of rising up into the atmosphere.

Breath of Souls: Five Waiata for Solo Flute in its current, fully developed incarnation is a set of meditations which build upon and inform each other; each one is pure magic. And while the composer suggests that these brief ideas may be performed individually, I would urge the performer to commit to this eight-and-a-half minute suite in its entirety, for a result that is pure sonic poetry and a refreshing new addition to our contemporary solo literature.

Nicole Riner ©2016

Thursday, November 2, 2017

A Field Guide to Extended Techniques for Beginners

As we near the deadline for Flute New Music Consortium's Flute Artist Competition, I am thinking about all of you out there who are currently making friends with some new techniques for flute, as well as those of us who advocate strongly for new music and work to incorporate extended techniques into all of our teaching. I hope you'll all be won over in the end! 

Flutter Tongue: Rolling the ‘r’ to produce a fluttering, “frrrr” sound through notes.
A few occurrences in the literature*: Ulrich Gasser, Papierblüten (Paper Blossoms); André Jolivet, Cinq Incantations
Notes on practice: Even people who can roll their r’s (if you can’t, blame genetics!) sometimes prefer to switch to the uvula in the low register.  Use your uvula the same way you would gargle and bring that motion as far forward on the uvula as possible.  It can sustain a smoother sound by not interrupting the air as much as the tongue.  And of course, open up, blow down, and use plenty of air! Flutter tongue, by the way, is a great exercise for practicing moving fast air; just add it to slurred scales or long tones, then play without and notice a more resonant, open sound!

Harmonics: Producing multiple notes from one fingering, namely the tones from the harmonic series based off that note you are fingering. 
A few occurrences in the literature: Anne LaBerge, revamper; Elizabeth Brown, Trillium
Notes on practice: Practicing harmonics regularly also leads to more accurate control of sound production by improving accuracy on the head joint.  The exercises on the first page of Trevor Wye’s Tone book from his Practice Book for the Flute series provides a great guide to practicing harmonics for the sake of improving tone, and can be transposed to start on notes from B to F in the lowest register.

Jet Whistle: Covering the entire embouchure hole with your mouth and blowing very hard to produce a whistling sound. 
A few occurrences in the literature: Villa-Lobos Assobio a Jato (The Jet Whistle) for flute and cello: first occurrence; Ian Clarke, Zoom Tube; Robert Dick, Afterlight
Notes on practice: If you aim forward slightly and try to blow your air against the far side of the tube inside the head joint, you will get a sharper sound and create some resistance, thereby allowing you to go longer on the breath.

Key Clicks: Slapping one or more keys with or without blowing into the flute, creating a light percussive sound. Composers will sometimes ask for the note to be played while performing a key click; without this specification, the key click should not be accompanied by a tone.
A few occurrences in the literature: Phyllis Avidan Louke,  Extended Techniques - Double the Fun and Extended Techniques - Solos for Fun! ; Edgard Varèse, Density 21.5: first occurrence; Lowell Liebermann, Eight Pieces
Notes on practice: For more projection, experiment with leaving your mouth open slightly to act as a resonating chamber.  You can also produce the pitch a seventh below what is written by covering the embouchure hole completely with your mouth, which will be notated in a variety of ways by the composer.

Multiphonics: Playing two or more pitches at once; these tones will not sound as clean and pure as normal flute playing, but will tend to create a hollow, train whistle kind of effect. Most multiphonics require special fingerings which will be glossed either in the performer’s notes or within the context of the piece.
A few occurrences in the literature: Trevor Wye,  A Very Easy 20th Century Album; Michael Colqhoun, Charanga; Luciano Berio, Sequenza
Notes on practice: To practice finding them in a piece, isolate each individual pitch with the fingering given by the composer. Then find the place on the head joint where both will speak, aiming in between the two spots on the head joint for the individual pitches.  It may be necessary to favor one pitch over the other(s) if it is weaker in resonance or harder to maintain. Experiment with changing your air speed or vowel shape in the mouth to make it easier to get both to speak.

Pitch Bends: Smooth glissandos performed by either rolling the head joint in and out or sliding fingers off the keys of an open-hole flute (or both).
A few occurrences in the literature: Ian Clarke, Orange Dawn , Kazuo Fukushima, Mei; Robert Dick, Fish are Jumping
Notes on practice:  Experiment and let your ear be your guide--more stable notes (middle register D) will require some finger sliding, while very bendable notes like middle register C or C# can be done entirely by rolling in and out without completely losing the sound.  Besides rolling the flute, collapsing the embouchure and/ or slowing the air can help make a pitch go flatter, and pulling the corners of the embouchure (usually a mortal sin!) may help raise pitch.

Pizzicato: Short bursts of air across the embouchure hole combined with heavy (“spit”) articulation to create an airy, ghost-like staccato, played on any note fingering.  Do not blow directly into the flute like you would for a normal pitch; these should sound closer to key clicks than actual notes.
A few occurrences in the literature: Shulamit Ran, East Wind; Jason Barabba, A Sign in Space
Notes on practice: Blow further across the flute than you normally would to avoid playing  clean tone. Pizzicato notes can also be used in place of unpitched key clicks if you are playing in a very large and/or noisy room where you fear the key clicks will not be heard by the audience.

Sing + Play: Humming a pitch while playing a note on the flute. 
A few occurrences in the literature: Wil Offermans, Honami; Robert Dick, Lookout
Notes on practice: Sing and play is a great way to ensure that air flow is relaxed and open and that air speed is fast--practice doing it in unison, octaves, and polyphony in scales. It’s also a nice review of our aural  training! If you have difficulty starting both sounds right away, practice singing and then adding the note, and keep working to make the two gradually coincide.

Tongue Ram / Tongue Stop: Performed by hitting the embouchure hole with the tip of your tongue, like saying “hut” or “hoot” (a kind of reverse articulation).  The lips should totally encircle the embouchure hole.
A few occurrences in the literature: Victor Fontin, No Problem (Pub.: Doblinger), Jos Zwannenberg, Solo for Prepared Flute
Notes on practice: Be extremely forceful with the air and tighten the mouth for a good seal over the tone hole in order to efficiently produce audible sound on these.

Whistle Tones: Using slow but extremely focused air across the embouchure hole, you can produce notes that sound like you are whistling; multiple notes from the harmonic series can also be “whistled” off of low notes.  The lips should be further forward than normal playing when executing whistle tones.
A few occurrences in the literature: Wil Offermans, For the Younger Flutist - etudes, Toru Takemitsu, Itinerant
Notes on practice: Whistle tones are commonly used as an exercise to improve accuracy on the headjoint, much like harmonics. A simple exercise could involve finding the whistle tone of a note, then playing the regular note, and going back and forth to compare clarity of sound and pitch.  They are easier to produce in the high register, so start there (on or near high A) and gradually work your way down.  Strive to improve projection and steadiness of sound.

* Literature examples listed from easiest to most difficult

Artaud, Pierre-Yves. The Mutliphonic Flute and Present-Day Flutes (Pub.: Billaudot)
Dehnhard, Tilmann.  The New Flute - Workbook & DVD (Pub.: Universal)
Dick, Robert.  The Other Flute and Tone Development Through Extended Techniques (Pub.: Robert Dick)
Holland, Linda.  Easing Into Extended Techniques (5 volumes) (Pub.: Con Brio)
Koizumi, Hiroshi.  Technique for Contemporary Flute Music (Pub.: Schott)
Offermans, Wil.  For the Younger Flutist - etudes (Pub.: Zimmerman)

General definitions/demonstrations:

Detailed Repertoire lists:

Nicole Riner ©2017

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Keep track of your goals for better performances!

It's important all times of the year to continually reevaluate and remember what goals you are striving to accomplish; I am surprised by how often my students lose track of this precisely when they are getting close to performances.  As we pass the midterm mark here at University of Wyoming, I encourage my students to resist the temptation to put the blinders on and just obsessively perform their jury and recital pieces for the rest of the term. Remember every exercise that helps you make those pieces sound great, and maintain your workout routine in the face of chaos to feel completely in control.

This goes double for chamber groups, who can be slow to start and quick to fall into a slump as solo projects call. But if your required woodwind quintet has an end-of-semester performance, it's critical that you spend this time to build a strong sense of musical community and trust in each other.

Here are a two of simple hand-outs you can copy many times and add to your flute notebook to help.
Click on the icon for the .pdf.

Weekly Practice Sheets for all age levels:

Chamber Music rehearsal logs:

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 


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!