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The Sensible Flutist

The Sensible Flutist: May 2011

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Personal Music Therapy

For those of you that follow me on twitter and Facebook, you know that my grandmother passed away recently. Even though I had prepared myself for the inevitable, her passing was still painful especially since she was my last living grandparent and she was my favorite.

As I did for both my grandfathers' services, I played my flute. My grandparents were so proud of my accomplishments, and I am so proud of my family's musical heritage.

Because of these past performances, my mother and uncle wanted my brother and I to play what we had already done once before. My grandmother was treated to an encore performance of what my brother and I had played for my paternal grandfather, and what I had played alone for my maternal grandfather. And more so than the times before, playing during my grandmother's funeral service was perhaps the most therapeutic experience I've had in my life.

My brother played on the mandolin that our paternal grandfather (a bluegrass musician himself) left him, handmade in 1997 by a local man. We chose "Amazing Grace," a simple but powerful tune that resonates so well in the hills of Southwest Virginia. Because of our lack of time and the expected yet unexpected timing of my grandmother's passing, we didn't have time to prepare anything else; however, playing with my brother, products of our family's musical influence, I could do nothing else but hug my brother when we finished.

Unlike past services, I had to play again. This time "The Lord's Prayer." I was happy to play unaccompanied because it meant I could let my emotions guide me without straying from the song's intent. Emotionally charged throughout, I was able to stay focused on the task at hand - performing to honor my grandmother's memory.

The climax was the most difficult moment of the song, as I felt a huge swell of emotion within. I was able to finish, and that moment became a lesson in resilience. No matter how low the valley, we all have enough strength to get through the toughest moments. Since I wanted to use my performances to "converse" one last time with my grandmother, I stayed aware of my family to invite them into reflection but I also stayed within myself.

Interestingly, I did not have to cope with any performance anxiety. I want to figure out why this type of emotional performance did not affect me in the same way as my other performances do. Instead, I think I played the most musically I have in quite some time and that gave me peace and helped calm the self-doubt I've been wrestling with recently. It reminded me of all the qualities that my grandmother passed on to me: strength, courage, resilience, compassion.

Moments of grief come and go, but the fact that I was able to perform not once but twice for my Nanny will comfort me for years to come. Being able to play for a relative's funeral is not easy, but the healing benefits are very important in the grieving process.

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Thursday, May 5, 2011

Rethinking the Breath

Flutists are athletes. It isn’t uncommon to see flutists on stage impressing the audience with their huge sound or distracting physical movements as they try to take large enough breaths to sustain the musical phrase. Flute playing can be approached not as a physical task that must be conquered, but instead a physically freeing MUSICAL experience. Play music, not the flute.

Here are a couple of tips to free yourself from the physical ideas of “supporting” and “bracing:”

1) Focus on your spine when inhaling and exhaling the breath. The spine GATHERS on the inhale and LENGTHENS on the exhale. This isn’t how most flutists think about their spine. What happens when you start running out of air? You start squeezing the torso. If you play in opposition to the way your body naturally works, it will be harder to play.

2) Improve the quality of your inhalation. Picture yourself taking a sip of hot cocoa, and how you try to cool the warmth of the drink by sucking air in through your lips. This is how the breath should feel when you inhale. The lungs naturally expand, and energy is conserved because you aren’t forcing air into the belly. Practice this type of inhalation with slow scales such as Taffanel and Gaubert E.J. 4.

3) Tounge position really does matter. Most are taught to keep the tounge low in the mouth to allow the air to move freely. What happens when you place the tounge high, wide, and forward in the mouth and then play? If you do it correctly, you should feel that you use less air to get the volume and quality of sound that you want. Experimenting with this French style of tounge position really gives a remarkable ease to playing extremely soft.

Even if these tips go against all that you have been taught in your studies, experiment. If you struggle with breathing, what if one of these ideas gives you the “a-ha” moment you’ve been desperately looking for? Happy fluting!

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