TOOLS FOR MUSICAL PLAYING
Did you ever notice when someone plays a simple tune like Amazing Grace or Londonderry Air it my sound extremely beautiful, but when another person plays the same tune it may sound a little dull? Let’s say that each of these players has an equally good tone, but one still sounds much better than the other. What is the difference? The difference is what we refer to as “musicality”. There are tools that we as flute players have at our disposal that will make our playing much more musical.
There are five basic tools for musical expression. They are: 1. Dynamics; 2. Vibrato; 3. Articulation; 4. Tone Colour (also called Timbre) and 5. Rubato.
The most obvious tool to make the music more interesting is volume or dynamics. Playing a tune with every note at exactly the same volume will create music that is very boring! Dynamic markings printed in the music help but do not tell the whole story. They are only intended as major landmarks in the music. If a phrase is marked forte, this does not mean that every note of the phrase is played at a forte level. This only means that the whole phrase is quite loud. To do what we musicians call “shaping the phrase” some notes have to be louder and softer than others, but at the general forte level. For instance, notes on the beat are generally stronger than notes off the beat.
What about a crescendo or decrescendo? Of course this means that the music should become gradually louder or softer. What it does not mean is that there is an even increase or decrease in volume until you reach the end of the crescendo or decrescendo. Think of this as a drive in the mountains. The road does not go from the bottom of the tall mountain on a straight and gradual incline to the top. No, the road goes over foot hills, winds gradually up and down and around until you finally get to the top or bottom depending on which direction you are going. This is the way most crescendos/decrescendos should work. You need to find which notes to make louder and which ones to make softer so the music will become alive and interesting in both a crescendo/decrescendo as well as a single dynamic marking.
Vibrato is a technique which some people must learn but all of us must learn to control. Vibrato can be fast or slow in speed and wide or narrow in range. After we learn to use and control vibrato it is a great tool for creating variety in the music. When we want the music to be intense we may want to use a fast and narrow vibrato. If the music is calm the vibrato can be slower and wider. Once flute players learn to use vibrato, they often forget that it can be a wonderful effect to use no vibrato at all. The use of no vibrato can give a mysterious or calm feel to the music.
We can use vibrato to emphasize single notes. For example, in a slow passage if there is a series of quavers (eighth notes) slurred in groups of two using a faster vibrato on the first of the group and a slower (or even no) vibrato on the second will bring out the first note and deemphasize the second. Another dramatic use of vibrato can be on a single long note with a crescendo. You can start the note with no vibrato and as you crescendo you can increase the vibrato. This will make the crescendo even more dramatic. If you become aware that vibrato is indeed a tool for expression your flute playing will become much more interesting.
Articulation as a tool for expressive playing is often overlooked. There are many different ways to start an articulated note. To name a few, a very sharp hard accented attack, a very soft legato attack, or very light delicate bouncy attacks. A note can even be started with out the use of the tongue at all. Starting the air above the embouchure hole and slowly lowering it until the sound starts to speak can be a very effective way to start a quiet, gentle note.
Like all techniques we need to practice articulations so we have a large variety of them to choose from to make our playing more expressive. Articulations can be varied by the placement of the tongue on the attack, how hard of an attack the tongue makes and what kind of push the air is given from the support mechanism. (Almost all attacks should be assisted by a push from the abdominal area – like the little puff you give to blow out a single candle. ) We must at least mention what is known as “French articulation”. In this articulation the tongue comes between the lips. This type tonguing can produce some wonderful attacks. Personally I do not think there should be a choice between using only “French” articulation or articulations from further back in the mouth. I use both, depending on the effect I am trying to produce. For an excellent discussion of this see Trevor Wye’s Practice Book on articulation.
The forth tool that we will discuss is what we call tone colour, often referred to as timbre. One thing that makes the flute such an expressive instrument is its wide variety of tone colours. Different tone colours in a sound are created by the number and relative strength of overtones. Almost all musical notes consist of the fundamental pitch, say the note G but also have overtones which are not noticed as individual pitches but gives the note a unique tone. On the flute if a note has only a few overtones, it produces a rather hollow tone, the French call this type of tone detimbre. If it has many overtones a richer tone is produced, in French timbre.
Our first priority is to learn to produce a nice full and vibrant tone on the flute. Eventually however to play expressively we need to learn how to use different tone colours to create variety and interest. There are a number of excellent exercises to learn to produce different tone colors on the flute. Trever Wye’s Practice Book on tone has a number of good exercises with excellent explanations.
The fifth tool, rubato, is one which must be used with care, and requires a lot of knowledge. Rubato is the varying the speed of the beat. That means the basic beat can slow down and speed up within the phrase. Rubato is used more in some styles of music than others. Using rubato can be a bit risky unless the player thoroughly understands the style of the music being played. Used incorrectly, rubato can cause more harm than good. Younger and inexperienced players should rely on a teacher to help them with rubato.
Once we have mastered the tools for musical expression, we have to learn how to use them to create more expressive music. Like all techniques used in playing the flute, this comes more naturally and easily to some than others. For instance, some can memorize music quickly, others can sight read without effort and some have naturally fast fingers. Like all things in music, expressive playing can be greatly improved with study. Even though a craftsman has all the tools of his trade he can not produce a beautiful object without training and practice. An excellent teacher can not only help you acquire the tools of musical expression. Then they can help you to understand how to use them to create more expressive music. After all, who wants to make or listen to boring music!