Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Album review: Formisano plays the classics

Davide Formisano, flute and Phillip Moll, piano
© 2015 Deutsche Grammophon

Italian flutist Davide Formisano’s latest collaboration with renowned pianist Phillip Moll, Portrait, is painted with very traditional strokes, indeed. But it is nevertheless a wonderful record of the flute’s history as a soloistic instrument.

The repertoire on Portrait is probably already all in your library: Taffanel’s Mignon Fantasie, Roussel’s Joueurs de Flûte, Gaubert’s Nocturne et Allegro Scherzando, Dutilleux Sonatine, La Merle Noir by Messiaen, and even the Romance by Saint-Saëns makes an appearance. Karl Lenski’s arrangement of Prélude à l’apres-midi d’un faun showcases some subtle variations to the way we often hear the piece, and Formisano’s own transcription of a Carmen fantasie by Pablo de Sarasate is a clever little surprise at the end. The entire album is like a Romantic-lover’s candy shop—all of your favorites are here, and they are all beautifully rendered.

And now here is my real point: after letting out a little sigh of boredom upon reading the playlist, I was utterly entranced from the first to the last note of this album. Formisano swoons and sways just the right amount—so much you begin to wonder what is coming next in Mignon, but much more introspectively in Debussy. His colors change with every need, from brilliant to cool and shimmering. His technique is, of course, impeccable—that’s the easiest thing to accomplish on a recording. But more impressively, each note has a place and a function, making every single phrase meaningful in every single piece. He and Moll move at all times as such as tight team, it is as if they share one musical brain. New colors are brought to life in the piano parts, particularly in Roussel and Debussy. Portrait is elegant music making at its best, and it could make a believer of even the most jaded new music aficionado.

Nicole Riner ©2016

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Book review: Tim Lane's Art of Doing Less

Holiday gift alert for the uber-flute geek in your life!

Tim Lane
Flute Playing and the Arts of Doing Less, Volumes 1 & 2
Paper Route Press ©2016

Dr. Time Lane has taught at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1989. In addition to his classical music education, he has pursued additional studies in Alexander Technique and yoga. These influences, as well as his academically rigorous understanding of musical acoustics and the mechanics of the flute, are all on clear display in his incredibly thorough, illuminating two-volume series, Flute Playing and the Arts of Doing Less.

These slender (57 and 58 pages, respectively), spiral-bound publications may resemble homemade workbooks upon first glance, but they are actually densely-written, intellectually challenging tomes for even the best-trained veteran flutist. His philosophy, alluded to in the title, is that a thorough understanding of the construction of the flute and how it functions acoustically can lead to the most efficient, logical approach to playing. To this end, Dr. Lane includes a compact but rather complete explanation of how the flute makes a sound (from the vortices created inside and outside the flute with the application of air to the venting system that creates our fingerings) and a useful review of the overtone series, partials, and wavelengths that make up the sounds we perceive. 

In volume 1, Lane’s body work in Alexander Technique and yoga really shows. His introductory chapters (repeated at the front of volume 2) espouse a Zen-like approach to learning, emphasizing patience and thoughtful, deliberate practice as the student develops (or restructures) every small physical habit required to make playing the flute as efficient and physically healthy as possible. Stability and flexibility are stressed here, and he creates exercises to isolate all the working parts of the embouchure and oral cavity. He is also focused at every step on deconstructing tension by heightening physical awareness of over-worked muscle groups. For instance, one exercise has the student “blowing the candle out” (in this case, the tip of a finger placed in front of the face) while experimenting with different shapes in the mouth—open, with a closed throat, and with a raised tongue—to compare methods of moving air. Obviously, the goal is to release the throat and tongue for best use of air speed. Other exercises take a similar approach, comparing ideal to less ideal physical conditions in order to learn how to make a conscious decision about best practice habits. The book has students isolating muscles in order to control the corners of the mouth (which should be firm but flexible), move the middle of the upper lip while keeping the rest of the lips free and relaxed, and moving the jaw without engaging the tongue, among others.  The entire book is done largely without the flute, and even professional flutists might find some of it challenging to perform!

In volume 2, acoustical information becomes the basis of his instruction on how to manipulate the tube in various ways to alter pitch, find and utilize harmonics to strengthen sound and alter color, and play in tune with others. Particularly remarkable is his painstaking exploration of all possible colors on any given note, requiring the student to make minute physical adjustments to affect the overtones with a scientific explanation of what happens in each adjustment. His mathematically based chart for identifying the fundamental difference tones between intervals, which is then applied to a score of a Corrette duet, is also indicative of his extremely thorough approach to understanding the flute.  And I love his explanation of how venting in combination with harmonics works to create pitches, which he then applies to devising alternate fingerings for better pitch in the third octave, etc. Nothing is left a mystery; every aspect of playing is explained intelligently.

Dr. Lane’s approach to teaching the flute is one of the most thoughtful, wholistic, and thoroughly researched I have ever seen. Not only that, it’s good; every exercise truly contributes to better control over the flute, with no unnecessary words or ideas merely taking up space on paper. His stated desire with these volumes is that learners will develop an efficient way of playing, but I would add that his teaching style also helps students move towards self-sufficiency by teaching universal concepts of how to manipulate the instrument based on understanding how it is constructed and how sound is made. With all of the knowledge acquired and skills developed in these books, a player should be able to solve any sound production problem, whether it has to do with tone quality, pitch, or air capacity. It is a brilliant collection which can only come from a professional lifetime of examining every little detail of what the flutist does.

While the introduction claims that these books can be used by flutists of all ages, I do not think all ages can read at this level.  However, I certainly agree that these ideas would be very beneficial to young students as they develop good habits in their playing.  It is therefore an important addition to teachers’ libraries, who then must take responsibility for accurately translating these concepts and faithfully recreating these lessons in a thorough manner. As a college teacher, I will definitely add Flute Playing and the Arts of Doing Less to my list of required reading in pedagogy class, and I look forward to incorporating some of Dr. Lane’s approach into my own teaching at every level.

Nicole Riner ©2016