I can think of very few activities that build confidence and stretch students' abilities as musical recitals do. Friday night, January 16, five of my students participated in a recital at Musical Innovations. For many of them, this was their first opportunity to share their music publicly! I was very pleased with their poise and performances. Each student first introduced himself/herself and the selected piece, played well, then took a bow and acknowledged the accompanist (Alexandria Ensley). They showed professionalism, even though some are still in elementary school!
For Ryan M., this performance opportunity was a trial run before he auditions for scholarships at 3 different colleges over the next 8 weeks. He played the Bach Partita in A Minor Sarabande, a solo work for flute.
Ryan has studied with me since August 2013. He attends the Fine Arts Center in Greenville and is involved in such organizations as the Fountain Inn Symphony Orchestra and the Greenville Youth Symphony. He also freelances as a musician.
Several people asked me about Aravind's flute, which is short and has a curved head joint. This flute is sometimes called an Eb flute because that is the lowest note it plays (instead of a low C which is common on a student flute). The head joint is curved to allow his arms to reach the keys with ease. It won't be long until Aravind grows big enough for a regular C flute, but for now, he is making outstanding progress on a flute that is just his size without undue strain, tension, and the development of detrimental habits. Aravind has studied with me since last fall.
Well, why not? People play "air guitar"; why not "air flute"?
Recently, my student Chloe had oral surgery which will keep her from actually playing her flute for about 6 weeks. Her mother wisely decided to keep her in flute lessons during her recovery time, so I was pleased to have the opportunity to help Chloe learn how to practice "away" from her flute.
Sometimes it is even more helpful to practice without an instrument than with it because it reduces distractions and helps us to focus on specific concepts we are trying to learn. It is easy to fill a 30-60 minute or more practice session developing rhythm, breathing, theory, and even technical passages. In Chloe's lessons, we work from a rhythm book for the first segment anyway, so we check the written counts and then clap out rhythms. If the tempo is inconsistent, we use a metronome. To change things up, I might even use a percussion instrument to perform the rhythm exercises.
Chloe doesn't want to get behind in learning her music, either, so we use her flute to finger the music and "air play". If we listen carefully, we hear the pitches that are voiced when the flute keys are depressed because the flute tube resonates quietly. That way, we do know if she's hitting the right notes. She gets used to the note combinations without having to blow! This exercise is one I commonly use in other students' lessons as well: we call out the note names (in rhythm, of course) while synchronizing the key fingerings. The brain makes a strong connection when so many kinesthetic tools are used: feeling the fingering, saying a note name, hearing oneself call out the note name, etc.
While playing "air flute", it would be easy to forget to breathe in appropriate places because air is not used in the same way. Therefore, it is important to consciously inhale at the breath marks just as one would do while playing. Building this habit is quicker than trying to learn many things at once, as when one is sight reading or learning a piece in the beginning stages.
When Chloe is able to resume regular flute playing, I fully expect that she will not have lost any ground. In fact, some habits may be stronger, and others may have improved! Practicing "away from the flute" is handy for all students, whether they are in a place where they are not allowed to make much noise, such as while waiting in band class, or if they want to learn a concept quickly by building one habit at a time.
So you've got your flute, your music, and your stand. What's missing? Other than a metronome, a chromatic tuner is the most useful tool in your music bag!
Being a musician means that you are constantly training your ear, brain, and body to work together to bring out the message of the music you play. Fingerings and note reading are just details; to make music, your SOUND must be the highest quality you can produce. Part of that dynamic (pardon the pun) is playing in tune. Even many untrained listeners can distinguish between flat and sharp pitches, and so should you!
While it is important to assemble your flute in such a way that it is roughly in tune with itself, it is even more important to play in tune. Learning to do this takes years of practice for some students; however, a chromatic tuner can help develop this skill.
For the ensemble player, playing in tune is important for blending with other musicians' pitches. Sometimes an ensemble may not be perfectly in tune, but the group can still produce a pleasing sound if the members are in tune with each other.
For the soloist, it is tantamount to good musicianship to learn to play in tune by hearing yourself play in tune. Just as using a metronome helps develop your internal rhythmic steadiness, using a tuner helps a student recognize correct pitches.
An excellent teacher will introduce the use of a tuner relatively soon after the student has begun lessons. Good teachers know the value of ear training and will constantly seek to develop that skill in students.
How-to: The Nitty-gritty
*At the first of each practice session, warm up your flute by playing some slow scales.
*Turn the tuner on and play an "A". (Theoretically, you could play any note and a chromatic tuner would respond correctly; however, "A" in the staff is the standard orchestral tuning note.) Play your note the way you always play--not softer, not louder, not harder--just plain. Let the tuner tell you what it reads. The needle may indicate flatness; if so, make the tube shorter by pushing in the head joint slightly. Conversely, if the tuner indicates sharpness, lengthen the tube by extending the head joint outward. Repeat this experiment until the tuner registers a correct pitch (at A=440). At this stage, it is important to not force the tuner to read the way you want it to by making your pitch match by manipulation. Instead, let the tuner do it's job, giving you a true reading so you can make adjustments.
*Next, play an "A" above the staff. This time, since your flute is already in tune in the lower register, you will be checking to adjust yourself (air speed, position, embouchure) to play in tune.
Just because your flute is in tune does not necessarily mean you will be playing every note in your piece on a correct pitch. Notes in the third register are particularly problematic, and each flute may respond differently to various notes. Use a tuner during your practice session to check the tendency of problematic notes. Is your high Eb generally sharp? Learn to adjust your embouchure to keep it in balance.
The tuner that's right for you
Many of my students enjoy using a combination metronome tuner such as the Korg TM-50. However, if you already have a metronome OR you like having a separate tuner, the Korg CA-40 would work well for you. There are several reliable brands, however, such as Sabine, Seiko, and Fender. A good tuner is indispensable and should last you for many years (as long as you don't drop it too often).