Thursday, February 05, 2009

Congratulations... some former students who are doing great things!

  • Lauren Asimakoupoulos, a senior, won Honorable Mention in the Upper Division Horsfall competition sponsored by the Seattle Flute Society. Her Prokofiev sounded gorgeous! Bravo to her and to her current teacher, Sandra Saathoff.
  • Zachary Kellogg, a sixth grader, won First Place for the Lower Division category (grades 6-9) for his performance of the Griffes Poem. He also won the MTNA state and regional Junior Performance competitions and will be competing at the national contest in Atlanta in the spring.

Tone: Problems and Possible Solutions

A year ago, someone on the FLUTE listserv asked a question about a student's perplexing sound:

We have worked on relaxing her embouchure, air in corners. Now this - tension - I think *has* something to do with it - she is very, very muscularly stressed - all the tendons in her neck spring out. . .

In response, here's what I wrote:

Been there myself. Tension just about killed any sound I tried to make because I was so determined to play flute, and it took me years to get a sound I liked. (Like your student, I, too, got a late start at flute...I'd played for years in band but had no lessons--I knew a grand total of three pieces of repertoire when I entered college as a music major!)

My tone ideas now come more from a *philosophy* now than from a specific "move your lips this way" method. A couple of things have helped me along the way and/or have helped my students:

  • Physical awareness. I think a lot of our students live "in their heads" and don't always notice when they are bumping into countertops or walls! The more they can do to increase this physical awareness (physical activity, stretching, massage), the better. Start with lots of stretching. My colleague at DSU, Dr. Andrea Cheeseman, did a workshop for my students this year on playing with good health. The first thing she told my students was that they are all athletes and have to take care of their bodies! She encouraged them to exercise, stay hydrated, eat well, and get some sleep--good advice for busy college students--and for their flute prof! :) Then she led us through about 10 minutes of stretching. (Incidentally, she does a darned good workshop on musicians' health, if anyone is interested!) Interestingly, all of my students sounded much better after stretching...because they were all more relaxed. I think this has a lot to do with being physically aware of one's own body.
  • My hard-working, tense students don't realize that the "hard work = success" model isn't always the best for flute. Working "hard" doesn't mean sounding good. It just means working hard, and that's no fun to listen to! And yet, telling a type-A student to "relax!" simply won't work. (Let me repeat that: It does NO GOOD to tell a student with a tense personality to relax! Five minutes later they'll just be tense again, but now they'll feel guilty because they can't follow your instructions!) They're going to cling to their tension as a badge of pride...because it's a sign of effort! And they're just going to get more frustrated with themselves and their teacher.
  • As odd as it sounds, some students simply aren't comfortable with the idea of relaxation. So with a particularly uptight student, I'll invite him/her to move that tension somewhere where it actually can help, rather than restrict tone: the abs! (No, of course I don't want tense abs, either, but telling a student "yes, you have permission to go ahead and work hard...on your breath support!" seems to work for this type of student. Besides, we do need *some* tension in our bodies...or we'd fall over. Tension isn't always bad--it just has to be used correctly!) I taught a master class a few years ago with a very tense, but very hardworking, college student. I said to her, "I bet people are always telling you to relax, and it makes you even tenser when they say it, right?" I saw such a look of relief and recognition on her face. Sure enough, transferring the idea of "tension" to her abdominal muscles made a huge difference. Ironically, she felt "freer" when she was given permission to keep that tension and use it. I think it's more of a psychology thing than a physical thing, by the way.
  • Some students would rather be "right" than sound good. They're teacher-pleasers. They probably get good grades in school and feel comfortable when they're following directions. They're often overachievers. If you tell them to roll out, the next week they'll have rolled out so far that they barely can play! Then, when you tell them to roll IN a little, they get upset, because last week you told them to roll OUT! And they feel like they did what you told them to do, and now they sound worse, so it must be YOUR fault, right? :) This syndrome used to make me, as a teacher, defensive. I've now learned to give very, very specific directions to such students: "Roll out about one millimeter at a time...until you get a sound you like. Make tiny changes. Be aware of what sounds better, and try to match it next time."
  • I've also learned that such students follow verbal directions pretty well but DON'T LISTEN WELL to the sound they are making! Again, they've followed directions, so they don't understand why the sound isn't improving. Such students do well with short recording sessions (1 minute or so), followed by questions: "what did you like? what made you sound better? when did you like your sound the most? what were you doing at the time?" This can be hard for some students to get used to, because they've been taught that teachers have all the answers. I think they sometimes feel "ripped off" if they have to figure out the answers for themselves. :)
  • Experimenting: I love having students use different vowel shapes in their mouth until they get a sound they like. They should run through the list of vowels several times...once isn't enough to get a real "reading" on the sound.
  • A concept of where sound comes from: a lot of students think "lips and flute." I have to teach them that the instrument is their entire body, just like it is for a singer. We experiment with yawning/lifting the soft palette, flaring nostrils (yes, it changes the sound...try it!), thinking of head voice vs. chest voice, moving the center of gravity higher and lower in the body, etc. I like having students sit on a pilates ball to be aware of their center of gravity. (Warning: try this withOUT the flute first!)
  • One technique that works very well for sound-experimentation is singing while playing, and I want to give a a big thank-you to Robert Dick for writing Tone Development Through Extended Techniques with its great description of throat tuning. This is a fabulous way to get students to experiment with tone and to realize that tone starts in the body, not out on the lips. If your student isn't ready for singing WHILE playing, try just singing together first, then match the tone on the flute.
  • Go back to the headjoint. When I had tendinitis in grad school, my flute teacher, Alexa Still, had me play just the headjoint to work on my tone. Since I had no concept of what good tone "should" sound/feel like on just the headjoint, I was free to experiment without thinking of techniques as being "right" or "wrong." I did the same thing for one of my students this year and we were both very pleased by the results. It was darned hard work but the student said it was really worth it. (Thanks for your patience all those years ago, Alexa!)
The frustrated teacher also wrote:
She reports the typical "It's better at home and then when I come here it's horrible."

Tension is such a problem here! Trying to please the teacher leads to getting more stressed out, which leads to an even worse sound. This is no reflection on YOU as the teacher--you could be the nicest and most supportive person in the world and it wouldn't help! :) Also, the acoustics at home and studio may be very different. Try leaving the room and letting her play in your studio without you being there!

And of course students don't always realize that "I played it better at home" only happened on the 10th time they tried it at home, not on the first attempt. *sigh...*

The teacher continues:
"but she has also said that at home on Monday - it's fine - but on Tuesday - it goes away, and she can't seem to clear up her sound."

You know that saying about "bad hair days?" Well, I've come to the conclusion that some days are "bad tone days!" This could be from lack of sleep, dehydration, too much caffeine, overpracticing earlier, not warming up on lesson days, emotional frustrations, changes in weather affecting the pads, etc. On such days I find it's better to ignore my tone for five minutes and to work on finger technique, and then to come back to the tone.

And finally, sometimes it's ok to ignore the "elephant in the corner" for a little while until a student becomes more comfortable. I once had a student referred to me from a teacher who couldn't get a decent sound out of him. Well, I couldn't either, at first. He overblew all of his tones at an octave and a half higher -- for about two months! He kept telling me he had a "blowing problem," and I assured him that it was no big deal and we had already fixed it. That gave him the confidence to keep playing. We just waited until his lips got stronger, and then I introduced the lower range. Thankfully neither of us has perfect pitch! He's doing quite well now.

What are your comments on tone? How can we take a practical approach to help our students learn to listen to themselves?