Trevor Wye’s “Flexibility I” flute exercise

One of my favorite flute warmups is “Flexibility–I (after Sousseman)” from Trevor Wye’s Tone book. (Just buy the whole omnibus edition and thank me later.) This exercise is value-packed and meticulously thought out, and leads inevitably to some fundamental truths about flute playing.

The exercise is slurred arpeggiated figures, like this:

wye-1

As you might expect, the figure gradually expands to larger intervals and notes in the third octave. It’s challenging to make the intervals smooth and accurate, but especially so if your approach to flute tone production is based on unclear or faulty pedagogical concepts. Wye provides some very crucial advice that is key to getting the most out of the etude, and to developing a solid approach to tone production.

Wye suggests first playing the etude omitting the highest notes, and dynamically shaping the figures as follows:

wye-2

The forte dynamic on the lowest notes demands a low, open voicing and strong breath support, feeding into an aperture that is “focused” (small). The dynamic shape, stretched mostly across a single note (B-flat here), also requires the aperture to be agile and flexible, opening slightly for the loudest notes and closing slightly as the volume decreases.

The next step is to “work up” to the high note, “so that it sounds softly, but not flat:”

wye-3

There is a lot going on here. The aperture has to continue to move flexibly in order to produce the dynamic effect. Voicing has to be low and open to make the low notes full and responsive. Breath support has to remain powerful and steady to keep the pitch buoyed up. And something has to happen to produce the register change.

Many flute teachers suggest making the aperture smaller to achieve the higher registers, but this ties register to dynamics—the larger aperture makes the low notes loud, and the small aperture makes the high notes soft. Others suggest something like increasing air pressure or using “faster” air. This can be accomplished by increasing breath support and/or by using a higher voicing; changing these has a destabilizing and register-bound effect on pitch and tone. It also creates the opposite dynamic problem from aperture-based register changes: the higher notes are always loud, and the low notes are always soft.

The most effective approach is to allow the embouchure to push forward for notes in the upper registers, and to relax back for lower registers. This allows breath support, voicing, and aperture to function separately, and intonation, tone, and dynamics to be manipulated independently. The Wye exercise demands all of this from the flutist.

This is a great exercise to incorporate into a daily warmup. I especially like it for its coverage of several flute tone production concepts, since doubling on several instruments means I don’t have as much time to devote to the flute as I would like. Work on it slowly and deliberately—as Mr. Wye points out, “this may take time.”

Beginners, parents, and making double reeds

I am in touch fairly often with parents (and school band directors) about their young oboists and bassoonists. Obtaining suitable reeds at an affordable price is of course an Ongoing Problem for beginning double reed players and their adjacent adults. Invariably my advice is that they connect with a private teacher who can supply and adjust reeds. But there aren’t many of those in the area, and, of course, they cost money, so sometimes the conversation turns toward reedmaking, which they may have read about on the internet and which seems to them like a promising solution.

If you are a parent or band director, here is what you need to know about reedmaking:

photo, Javier
photo, Javier
  • Making oboe or bassoon reeds is an art that takes many years to master.
  • While there are some fine books, videos, etc. that teach reedmaking concepts, there is no substitute for studying reedmaking with an oboe or bassoon teacher.
  • Reedmaking ability is very dependent on playing ability. Most of reedmaking is an iterative process of testing the reed, making a tiny adjustment, testing again, adjusting again, and so forth. A beginner’s playing level isn’t enough for reedmaking, even if they somehow manage to master the physical reedmaking techniques. (At youngest, I might start reedmaking with a very dedicated and talented high school junior.) This is also why it won’t work to learn to make reeds yourself for your child or student, unless you already happen to be a fine oboist or bassoonist.
  • Reedmaking is expensive! Someone studying the art of reedmaking will make many, many, many reeds before it starts to be a good deal financially. A minimal set of tools can be had for maybe the cost of a couple of car tires, but will require the purchase of cane that is already partially prepared. Each piece of prepared cane costs about as much as a large order of French fries, and a beginning reedmaker may ruin dozens or hundreds of them before making their first somewhat usable reed, and hundreds or thousands more before they can make reeds as good as ones from an excellent private teacher. (Cane purchased in its raw tube form is cheaper, but requires additional equipment costing as much as a transatlantic flight, plus extra hours of work.)
  • It may be worth pointing out, too, that reedmaking involves razor-sharp tools. These can of course be handled safely with proper training, but it’s still a concern where small hands are involved. Pieces of cane can be dangerous, too—I’ve cut myself more times with sharp or jagged pieces of cane than I have with knives or razor blades.

The best thing you can do for your beginning oboists or bassoonists is to pair him or her with excellent teachers who can help them improve their skills on their instruments, make and adjust reeds for them, and lay the groundwork for future instruction in reedmaking.

Practice slump checklist

Sometimes my students complain that they have had bad practicing days or weeks. Not that I have ever had this problem (ahem), but here are a few ideas for breaking out of a practicing slump.

photo, Katy Wrathall
photo, Katy Wrathall
  1. Check equipment. Slightly-malfunctioning gear can make you feel like a bad player. Be sure to eliminate this possibility.
    • Are your reeds functioning well? Prioritize response-balanced-with-stability over more subjective and malleable things like tone. Many reed players use unnecessarily stiff reeds; consider trying something a little softer if you haven’t lately.
    • Is your instrument functioning well? If you know how, check the most important adjustment screws (oboe: left hand stack, left G-sharp key, F resonance; saxophone: bis, G-sharp, right hand stack). Re-check basics like alignment of bridge keys. And, of course, make sure your instrument gets regular (at least annual) maintenance checkups. Professional instruments should probably get full mechanical overhauls every 5-10 years.
    • Are you using the best equipment for you? Don’t let new purchases be your go-to solution for every problem, but in some cases replacing an instrument or accessory can remove a roadblock to progress. (Do a reality-check with your teacher to make sure you aren’t just throwing away money chasing a quick fix.)
  2. Check technique. It might be you after all.
    • Have you warmed up thoroughly and correctly today? It’s best to do this at the beginning of your practice session, but there’s no rule that says you can’t warm up some more mid-session to double-check your tone production and reset your mental focus.
    • Have you reviewed all your fundamentals? Take a closer look at your posture, hand position, breath support, embouchure, voicing, finger movement, etc. Have you slipped back into a bad habit? Are you suffering the effects of a technique deficiency you know you should fix but haven’t gotten around to yet? If you don’t know how to fix it, check in with your teacher.
    • Can you release some tension? Frustration often goes hand-in-hand with tense muscles. Consider doing a little deep breathing, stretching, mindfulness practice, yoga, Alexander Technique, or whatever else puts your body back in balance.
    • Have you laid sufficient technical groundwork? If you are working on something especially difficult, is there something else you could practice as an intermediate step? Études, technical exercises, or other preparatory material can help bridge the gap between your current ability level and the ability level you need.
  3. Check your health. If your body isn’t responding well, your practice sessions will be difficult and unpleasant.
    • Have you been getting enough quality sleep? Implementing good sleep habits is a major upgrade to the function of your mind and body.
    • Are you eating balanced meals? Are you eating enough? Are you eating too much? Is your diet too low on good stuff and/or too high in bad stuff?
    • Are you getting outside for at least a few minutes of sunshine and “fresh” air? Sunshine is important to your body’s vitamin D level.
    • Are you stressed, or otherwise not at your best mentally? In some cases, professional counseling and/or treatment may be needed. If you are a college student, there is a good chance there are free, discreet counseling services available on your campus. In other cases, taking a break, getting a little exercise, talking something out with a friend or loved one, or just getting a change of scenery might be enough.
  4. Check your mindset.
    • Are you practicing mindlessly or without direction? Try making a short list of goals you would like to accomplish during this practice session. If you’re not sure where to start, make a quick recording (perhaps with the voice memo app on your smartphone) and listen to it to get some ideas about what needs improvement. If you don’t meet all your goals, you can tackle them again tomorrow or re-prioritize.
  5. Check your environment.
    • At what time of day are your practice sessions the most productive and pleasant? Do you practice best in the morning before your body is tired and your brain is full? Or do you get a second wind after the sun goes down?
    • What locations are most conducive to good practice sessions? Sometimes just changing the scenery can revitalize your focus and productivity. Practicing in places with different acoustical qualities can make you hear yourself in new ways and get your creative juices flowing.
    • What distractions are getting in your way? Can you reduce or remove them?
  6. Check your ego. Practicing should challenge you, but not overwhelm you.
    • Are you working on music that is inappropriately difficult for your current abilities? If you have some freedom to choose what you practice, consider working on something else for now and tackling this project later. If you are committed to a performance of something very difficult and have to make it work, be sure to include other things in your practice session that you can be successful at, to keep your motivation primed.

Don’t let poor practice sessions bring you down—use them to refine your habits and make the next session your best yet.