Recently we have asked our Facebook fans, newsletter subscribers and website visitors to write questions to Michael Cox, our Artist-in-residence, on any flute related topics. We were overwhelmed with the response. Michael worked very hard to try and answer all of the questions, and everyone on the Principal Chairs team worked very hard to bring this to you!
We would like to thank everyone who has sent in their questions.
What is your opinion on interpretation of Baroque music; to what extent do you think you should adhere to traditional playing rules? What are the most important things one should keep in mind when working on Baroque music?
This is a bit of a pet subject for mine because I do play the traverso flute, not as much as I would like to, but I do it in my spare time. I find that people tend to think of the traverso as an affiliated instrument but in reality it is categorically different to the modern flute. For instance, for me, playing the Baroque flute is the same as playing quarter tones on the modern flute. I have to judge the angle of the air on the traverso and how hard to blow to get the correct intonation. It just works completely differently to our modern instrument. So my opinion of interpreting Baroque music on the modern instrument is that one should not be imitating the traverso flute too much. It can be very boring if someone does because they feel like they need to pare everything down, while if you play on the period instrument with period payers you’ll find that they play incredibly expressively and with a great deal of flamboyance and musical strength. I feel that people on modern instruments trying to imitate Baroque style will always sound weaker, while the period players sound incredibly strong on the whole. So my view point is just that you have to make great music on your instrument then add some stylistic things which you can learn from the period music players, but don’t try to imitate it completely as a style.
I think in terms of the niceties of upper note trills, observing hemiolas, and so on, we need to remember that back then they were geared to listening to the figured bass and understand the harmonic event. So a huge awareness of the harmonic context of what you’re doing is what’s important. These days we are so much more melodically based.
Important things to keep in mind are:
Tone quality: There is something about the way one can make the sound which will make the audience know it’s a Baroque piece. There are distinct signals you can give from the sound quality. A key thing is really how much vibrato people should use in Baroque music. It’s not that I don’t like it in Baroque music but I think generally, it should be none vibrato. It is an expressive tool to develop a note, but it should absolutely not be constant. I think it is so often used meaninglessly or conveniently rather than having a particular effect of the phrasing.
The other important thing is the feeling of gesture and flamboyance in music. I always say that Baroque music is the closest thing to jazz before you get to jazz, so I think it is very important that is remains gestural. It was always a very flamboyant style, just look at the Baroque architecture, which is so ornamental and rich.
Next thing will be a rhythmic hierarchy; a sense of dance is hugely important and people sometimes miss it.
Articulation, I think, is often misunderstood, because on the traverso the articulation is always very “flat edged” and is generally much longer than people use on the modern instrument. The thing is that the modern instrument has much more resistance so it has much more explosion in the articulation while the traverso is much more caressed in terms of articulation. People tend to choose one length only on modern instruments, whereas on the traverso one can get a real swing from altering the length of articulation.
The other difficult thing is to try and say a huge amount in a very disciplined framework and what often happens is that one gets something which is a bit ungainly and doesn’t sound very Baroque, or you get something that sounds very Baroque but doesn’t have rich music making and to my mind that is the most important challenging thing: how you are musically “hot” in Baroque music but at the same time how to do that in an incredibly stylistic way.
Do you have a warm up routine?
The truth of the matter is that I don’t do warm-ups. I do design warm-up packages for my students but I think it should be largely a sense of self-discovery and what you need. Bad warm-ups are ones that aren’t thought out and aren’t a fresh approach to what you need at that moment. I think it’s important that it can be achieved quite rapidly, and you don’t spend too long in it. I would rather separate out a warm up from doing exercises. Since you specifically asked about warm-ups I would say that in a working life you just don’t get that opportunity and it has to be faced that, in orchestral life, quite a lot of the time you are sitting around waiting to play something, often, very difficult. It’s often that the most difficult solos come after you’ve had to sit and wait for a long time with very dangerous and still sounding music which actually makes you feel nervous just from listening to it. So it is very important that one is prepackaged into ‘and off I go’ mentality. Of course that develops in people at different stages, so yes warm-ups are very, very useful and very important, but it should be that you try and be very efficient with them and meaningful finding things in them fresh week by week and not just having a recipe. It can become dangerous to rely on them as a comfort blanket.
What I would do, if I had time, would be some harmonic warm-ups, to get a clean and clear pianissimo and some amplitude practice for rounded sound with low harmonics. I would do some interval work and some tuning work in terms of doing consecutive 4ths (the cycle of the keys). I would say that the worse thing, and I have heard this a lot, is that people use warm-ups while not thinking and then overproducing. So I would greet the warm-up to absolutely make sure your production is perfect. I would rather not have any warm-up than over produce during it. Particularly punching out the low notes with too much air, so that it’s logging into the system right from the word “go”, which is something that is not going to work very well.
Is it more important to get orchestral experience or should I be practicing other repertoire first?
The easy answer is that so much in professional life you’re juggling huge amounts of different things. Your career will probably take on teaching, chamber music, orchestral music so it becomes very important right from the word “go” to get good at balancing stuff and working out exactly what you need to do for everything. That can only be your own call. Basically what it means: just do it all, you SHOULD do it all. Yes, it is challenging but professional working life as a successful musician is. It is very tough and there is a lot of travel involved and it is very tiring, so one, in a sense, needs to get into the habit of training for that. I would really encourage people to go out and play. People learn more on the job than from lessons and the gigs. So unless it is going to completely frazzle you or be unbelievably frustrating, I would encourage people to just go out there.
Things like choral society gigs are perhaps not musically rewarding but it is wonderful orchestral experience. It’s just building a vocabulary of things you experience and it doesn’t have to be enjoyed necessarily. Sadly, sometimes it’s just not great, but it is still experience. For example you got used to this or that set of circumstances, or now you know this piece better for next time and so on. The only time I would recommend notto go out is if the people are making some big changes in your playing.
How much should a Conservatoire student practice?
Well, an awful lot, because the more successful you’ll get and the more you need to earn money the less time you’ll have to practice later. If I had my college career again, my goodness me, by the bucket load I would have done so much more practice. You don’t realise at the time how once you leave college just how constrained your time will be. However, I would much prefer people practiced a little less as well. Sometime to practice when you are tired and the brain is just not switched on is worse. It’s actually proven that there are time frames when the brain is more successful and beyond that is just needs a rest. Also your body needs rest. There is that temptation to go to autopilot on the flute which is not good, because you are not really evaluating your playing and things like R.S.I. can build up easily. It is really impossible to play for too long in a really emotionally-connected way, so I think it’s much more important that it’s not ridiculous hours and I’d much rather that students were doing a good amount of hours in a really full-on way.
What is the key to successful audition?
It may sound a bit kitschy, but it’s basically to try and make the panel smile, because as someone who sits on the other side of the panels, I am just waiting for someone who lights me up and just gets to my heart. I think that when people are auditioning they are thinking that they have to get this and that right, do the articulation in Voliere fantastically and so on, but actually what the panel is waiting for is something musically special that is going to light them up. I spoke to somebody who did second flute auditions recently and they said that it was the feeling of flamboyance and playing out that made the people who got the trial really stand out. People often get so worried about the rightness of everything that they lose that essential “x-factor” so it’s really hard but incredibly important to have the two things going at the same time: nailing everything that needs to be nailed and play the distinct challenges of all the excerpts, but also, 50% of it is how musically alive and special can you make it. Sometimes it is quite hard to do that, because they’ve been sitting there for a long time so you need to work quite hard! But it’s making the music flow very meaningfully, which is something often people lack and therefore as a panel member you don’t get that hit of musicianship. The panel will hear a lot of great players and lovely musicians but not so much real music making where it wills you to listen and demands attention.
The other big thing about the auditions which I’ve noticed is that people very rarely play properly every style of every excerpt, so that all of the panel members are saying “yes, that sounds like Brahms, Mozart” and so on. So people come with good playing but don’t adapt it enough to the style of every excerpt.
To be continued…
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