Basic Skills - Pt 2

What are the basic flute playing skills that I need to master?
Part 2 – Technique (fingerings and dexterity)
In the last entry, I discussed the importance of good flute stability and balance, as a way to facilitate better playing. This time, we are ready to jump into the real deal. For flutists, that is undeniably going to be speed and accuracy in finger technique.
I was sitting in orchestration class, back in my third year of college, and I remember smiling at my professor when he described the flute's “natural affinity” for fast passages. Though the flute does have a quick response and clear attacks, especially in the middle and high ranges, there is NOTHING about playing a bazillion notes at inhuman speeds that comes “naturally”.
It only comes as a result of time and hard work . . . and making sure that your fingers don't have to work ANY harder than they absolutely have to.
Once again, I am reminded of the importance of a good hand and body position. I realize that my last entry delved into hand position a great deal, so I will try to keep this section short.
I have an experiment for you. Somewhere in your house, you will likely have a nice big, wide mirror (often these reside in bathrooms, so you may have to contain your feelings of embarrassment while you try this).
Take your flute and stand in front of that mirror, and play a scale from memory. The first time, close your eyes. The second time play it more slowly, but try to duplicate HOW YOUR HANDS FELT the first time. Throughout this second playing, watch how your hands are moving (don't try to change anything yet). Does either hand shift from side to side when you play certain notes? Are you straightening your fingers so that they are sticking up in the air when they are not depressing any keys? And the big one – do you look like you have a death-grip on your flute? (For example, fingers clamping keys shut, or knuckles flexed harshly when depressing keys).
If any of the above are true, you need to review the info on flute stability from my last entry, to be sure that a tight grip is not a result of a mis-balanced flute. Also, you need to practice FEELING your hands being relaxed while you are playing. Play that scale again, this time note by note. As you play each note, look at your fingers in the mirror. They should be gently pressing on the required keys, while any fingers that are not depressing a key should sit JUST ABOVE the key it controls.
As long as your flute is in good repair, you should be able to relax your fingers. If you notice that notes get fuzzy, have trouble speaking, or are out of tune when you relax your hold, it's time to take your flute to the repair shop – you probably have air leakage around certain keys that will need to be diagnosed and corrected. It is tough to relax your hands when your flute is resisting you.
To alleviate the shifting hands, as well as the fingers-in-the-air syndrome, you will need to focus on how your hands FEEL for about a week or two every day while you are warming up. Choose simple warmups that you don't need music for (basic scales are fine). Play your warmups note by note, and think about how far the RAISED fingers are from their keys. Even though it feels impressive to raise your fingers far from the keys (especially as your technique begins to get faster), don't give in to the temptation. You will have MUCH FASTER technique if you fingers are CLOSER to their keys at all times.
Once you are able to relax your hand position, and keep your hands relatively still, and keep your fingers close to their keys, we can return our focus to the subject at hand: speed and agility.
We are all familiar with the usual technique studies, right? #1 on that list being: scales (no surprise there). Even flutists in their first year of study are working on basic scales to help facilitate good finger technique.
One-octave scales quickly move on to two-octave scales after a year or two. Then it's on to minor and chromatic scales. At that point, it is sometimes easy to sit back and take a breather, because you are at the stage that you feel you can say “yes, I know all of my scales”. And you know what, it IS a big accomplishment to get to that point. It feels good, right? You SHOULD be proud of everything you have learned.
Unfortunately, now comes the more challenging part of technique practice . . . really LISTENING to yourself play all of those scales. If you pay close attention, you might notice little problem areas. Do you always have to stop and go back so that you don't miss that Gb when you run through your Db Major scale? Does your high E tend to break every time you run your F Major scale? Does a key signature with more than four sharps or flats make your tempo drop by 10 beats per minute?
You may not have the same hard spots that many do, but I guarantee, we ALL have those tough spots.
That is especially true when you expand your two-octave scales to encompass the entire register of the flute. Those top 5-10 notes that we had never focused on before, can be the part of a scale that throws us for a loop now.
Try this challenge: take your metronome, and set it at a speed that is comfortable for you to play a two-octave Ab Major scale. Test yourself, and make sure you don't have any finger bobbles first. OK, now play that scale all the way up to your high Db, and down to your low C (begin the scale on low Ab, go up to the high Db, then ALL the way down to low C, and then back up to low Ab).
Still able to play it at that same speed? That test can be a little surprising (and humbling) if you've never tried it before. However, as with most other technique challenges, there is hope! Your answer will come with time and effort . . . as well as the right type of practice.
No longer do you want to focus on long sets of scales, but single-octave scales, or even smaller groups. But I am not talking about a one-octave Bb scale like you did as a beginner, but a Bb scale from low C to C on the staff, and back down (then back up, if you want to help your brain with the low end “turn around”). Then, a Bb scale from low D to D on the staff, and back down. Then on to the low Eb octave, the low F octave, etc., etc. All the way up to the top of the range.
You get the picture, right?
Why is this type of practice important? Because in a real piece of music, you may have a run from low G to high Bb in the key of Ab. Your brain needs to be trained to stop or start on any scale step of any scale. You also need to train your brain to be able to do a “turn around” on any note in the scale. If you try my suggestion and work the up-down-up scale pattern, you are practicing both the high-end and low-end turn around points.
Though this type of practicing feels very repetitive and tedious, you will be amazed after practicing scales of this type for one month. You might start out by doing one key signature per day, but you will quickly realize that you can take 2 or 3 related key signatures each day, and run through the full range of one-octave scales in each key, and it will only take you about 15 minutes.
There are clearly a whole slew of technique exercises that you can advance to after spending time on these scales, but mastering these to a tempo of 16th note = 100 will give you a good feel for how to work your technique through the entire range of your instrument.
Take my 1-month challenge, beginning no faster than 8th note = 100 (to be sure of clarity and evenness), and let me know how it goes!