Sunday, October 27, 2019

The rules will only get you so far.

Image result for flutist from behind on the beach

The great thing (for me, at least) about maintaining a non-monetized blog is that I can write whatever I want. Normally, I tend towards providing resources and instruction here, but today I'm just going to blather. Because I can.  But also because I think it's a really critical topic that we too often neglect in classical music. 

When we first begin to play the flute (or any instrument), we are learning rules. That's fine--it's complicated enough just developing the body awareness required to coordinate yourself on the instrument, and with no experience comes no wisdom when a note doesn't speak, etc. So, we have our little rules--put your headjoint exactly here on your face, place your right thumb in this one spot I have marked off with tape, place your feet like so--and we strive for consistency and mastery. But any experienced musician will tell you that these rules are imperfect--what if you have a teardrop shape in your upper lip, a very bendy thumb, etc.--and will require some adjustment for each student depending on the particular body holding the instrument. Teachers present these adjustments as clarifications of the rules, and the students don't know that nuance is already being introduced into the system. They just follow the rules and keep going.

I very rarely work with beginners or middle school students anymore, but I think this is a fine system for them, provided the teacher can be relied upon to adjust the "rules" effectively for each student. It takes years to just find yourself on the instrument.

I generally enter people's lives when they are in high school, college, or graduate school. And at all of these levels, I am often the one to introduce them to the next phase of their education: artistry. This is the phase in which a student has accrued enough information and experience to start making some of these decisions about nuance for themselves. A student in this phase recognizes that the rules only work until they don't, and when the desired results are not achieved, it becomes necessary to creatively combine skills and tweak that set of rules until the desired effect is achieved. It's moving beyond merely following rules to think critically and apply information to the situation at hand.

It is with heartbreaking regularity that I encounter students who are not being encouraged to move past the rule phase of their education. Here's a very simple case in point: we have THREE different fingerings for B-flat. But when students come to me as freshmen in college, they have often been taught only one of those fingerings (the most clunky, of course!). Some of them have been actively discouraged from using either of the other two (thumb and lever), others have just never learned about them, nor have they bothered to discover them on their own. So, I make it my mission to get everyone proficient on each of the three fingerings by the end of their first semester, and we talk about what it means to have three fingerings for this note: it means that you have choices. Some students take to this information and make it their own quickly, but others will continue to use the beginning band fingering for years, producing involuntary grace notes or, in the case of piccolo, poor pitch as a result.  And I will point out to them that perhaps they are not using the most efficient fingering each time, and they will be surprised and say "oh, yeah!". Because they have this deeply ingrained rule in their heads that they can only use "long" B-flat, so they aren't even open to the possibility of creative problem solving when it comes to that or any other fingering. It's a real time-waster, in my opinion.

But using a fingering that takes you longer to wood shed into submission is not the end of the world. It's a little unintelligent, but you'll eventually get there either way if you persist. What is more troubling is the way students are being allowed to remain in the rule-bound world with everything they do as musicians. No dynamic change written in the music, even though it is clear (to a musician, anyway) that this repeated phrase should either get louder or softer? Nope, it doesn't say to do that on the page, so I will just play it like a robot! You can imagine (and probably have heard) such an approach when applied to the Barenreiter edition of a Bach Sonata. And then there are the things which will never be written into the "rules" on the page-- where each phrase is going and how they relate to each other, what depth and speed of vibrato will sound most appropriate on any given note in a phrase in relation to its musical function, etc. When a musician sticks to "just the facts, ma'am", the resultant performance is a real snooze fest, and I would venture to say may not even qualify as "music" per se, but is rather a demonstration of typing and obedience regarding the notes and rhythms printed on the page.

Never before has our profession seen so many physically capable technicians; when I judge young (generally this means under 30) flutists in competitions, I am pleased to hear such incredibly clean technique and, often, the ability to produce one very clear, resonant tone consistently throughout the entire range of the instrument. It should be said that instruments have become easier to play, as well; technology has improved vastly since even the 1990s. But what I often do not hear is any music being made, original assertions about the purpose of these organized sounds, a story to tell, etc. While technical mastery is better than ever before, I fear that artistic creativity is becoming endangered as a goal.

Ironically, basic, "rules"-y kinds of things suffer, as well. I will coach duos in which the flutist is clearly not making any decisions about how to balance herself to the piano or acknowledging who has the melody (spoiler: occasionally it's the piano). Pitch is not always great, and when I mention it my comment is often countered with "that's a hard note on my flute" or some such idea which clearly reveals the performer is allowing the instrument to make all the decisions. If you think of the flute as a machine, then you are the engineer. Even an engineer must gather up all of her knowledge which she has absorbed, experimented with, and made her own, and creatively apply it appropriately in each situation.

What I have always loved about being a musician is that, beyond all of the training and discipline I have spent the majority of my life attaining, I get to make the rules. I may be playing someone else's notes, but I (in an intelligent, informed way which is respectful of the composer) am turning those splotches of ink into a musical story, sonic art. What I am witnessing lately is a whole of students who don't seem aware of this next step in their artistic development, and some teachers who are far too comfortable lingering in the black-and-white world of rules to venture into the gray matter.

What can we do about it? Students must listen, and care deeply about every aspect of the sounds they are making. A painter doesn't say "I don't care, just give me whatever paint colors you have laying around", and a musician can't disengage from the resultant sound they create while they are occupied by placing their feet in the correct shape on the floor or obsessing over how close they are to the metronome marking their editor provided. They should record themselves in different sections of the music, their tone exercises, their scales--everything!--and listen back critically. They can also train themselves to hear these nuances in others' playing, through good, professional recordings and critical listening to live performances regularly.

Teachers must dive into the less objective stuff that turns sounds into compelling music, and know that they don't have to provide all of the answers. In fact, they can't! Ask students questions about what they think the music is about, where they think the peak of a phrase resides, etc., and don't feed them your answer after five seconds of silence. If you haven't been asking these questions in lessons, your students are not going to like it at first, but they'll learn. We must experiment with language and be willing to say things imperfectly as we struggle to get in between the cracks of the right notes, right rhythms, etc. It's messy, but that's art.

I remember a lesson in graduate school many years ago. I was playing a phrase correctly, but wasn't engaging with the obvious fact that the harmonies in the piano part had changed drastically and I needed to reflect this in my sound, as well. My teacher said, "I don't know how to say this...can you put more red in the sound?" It was a thrilling experience for me. I didn't know what he wanted, and no one had ever asked it of me, but I loved the challenge of trying to figure it out (and it certainly was an evocative image to work with). When I tried it again, he clapped and laughed happily--"That's it!" But if that hadn't been it, I know that he would have persisted until he helped me craft my artistic statement. We need more of this.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Graduate Teaching Assistantships available at UWYO!

Department of Music
     Dept. 3037
     1000 East University Avenue
     Laramie, WY  82071
     (307) 766-5242 / (307) 766-5326 fax
Graduate Teaching Assistantship

A full Graduate Teaching Assistantship includes a full tuition waiver, stipend of $12,330
and available health benefits. Half assistantships are also available. 

Assistantship duties may be awarded in the areas listed below. 
Students who are qualified in any of the below mentioned areas are strongly encouraged
to apply.  Qualified students may have the opportunity to receive teaching experience in
their areas of expertise.

Performance Areas   Academic Areas Other areas
Applied lessons Music History Recording studio
Chamber music Music Entrepreneurship Bands
WW methods class Music Theory

Degrees offered:  Master of Music in Performance and Master of Music Education

Department of MusicThe University of Wyoming Department of Music's Mission is
multi-faceted. As artist/performer/teachers, we offer the highest level of instruction in preparing musicians for leadership positions as professional performers, excellent teachers, and as continuing creative individuals in the field of music. As an active performing community, we continue to position the UW Department of Music as a state, regional, national, and international artistic and cultural leader in performance, teacher education, research, and creative activities. As role models and leaders, we serve the state and region as resources for music educators, for community performances, and as mentors and guides for young musicians seeking future musical careers.

Deadline: Competed application materials (including audition) must be completed by 
February 21, 2020.

Application Process: Visit the Department of Music webpage at
for details and a link to the online application. 

Questions: For any questions or assistance contact:
Dr. Nicole Riner Dr. Beth Vanderborgh
Visiting Asst. Professor of Flute Graduate Coordinator
307.223.5184 (cell) 307.766.5242 (office)