Rhythm of Life - Life of Rhythm

Rhythm pervades every living moment

From the cosmic to the momentary, every aspect of Life is shaped by recognizable, yet infinitely varied patterns. No two moments are the same, even if they are recognizable as being similar…nothing repeats itself, exactly. This is key to recognizing and unlocking the true power of rhythm in life and music. 

In trying to embrace the essence of this phenomenon, the starting point of our understanding should be the acceptance of the concept of ‘infinity’; measuring rhythm with a lesser unit will result in blind spots in our perception of the endless variety within each passing moment.

When it comes to music, rhythm shapes sound into recognizable patterns, creating emotional meaning and order out of what would otherwise be nonsensical chaos. Our understanding of rhythm as performers needs to be more conceptual than literal, however, otherwise we lose our personal connection with it, along with two of music’s most crucial elements: freedom and variety. Rather than being restrictive, rhythm needs to be a facilitating/liberating force that reveals the aesthetic shape and cohesion of our playing. 

A few points to ponder, when putting together your rhythmic approach:


Metronomes and Watches

In nature, things happen in whatever time it takes – any logic we perceive is only revealed with hindsight, at the conclusion of each evolutionary experience (phrase)…nothing is fixed in absolute or predetermined terms. Yet within this infinite variety, there also exist recognizable aesthetic trends and patterns.

Practicing with metronomes creates more problems than it solves, as relying on an external source of rhythm results in a serious abdication of rhythmic responsibility…ultimately, this can actually weaken our sense of rhythm, rather than strengthening it. It is far better to get used to organically creating rhythm internally; making a proactive mistake (and learning from it) is far better in the long-term, than simply learning to play accurately in a reactive way which is devoid of Will and Intent.     

Furthermore, metronomes are lifeless machines - they don’t know you are playing, they don’t hear the music and its high-points/low-points/harmonies/tensions/releases and are unaware of the idiosyncrasies of various instruments. They go Tick Tock, no matter what happens in the room. It is important to arrive at a living rhythm that is built on the living/breathing/moving nature of Life in all its glory and vulnerability, otherwise we wind up with a sterile rhythm that is created in denial of life itself.


Characterising Rhythm

Exactitude, in itself, has no real human, emotional or musical value. 
In order to glean the emotional characteristics of rhythm, we need to highlight its emergent defining features. This can be done in a combination of ways:

1.    By clearly articulating the nuances and phrasing within any given rhythm. The use of articulation and phrasing allows us to highlight the weight and lift of rhythms.  

2.    By subtly magnifying the noticeable features, we begin to characterise rhythm, instead of simply reproducing it - the difference between ‘painting an impression’ (which involves a creative process) and ‘taking a photo’ (which is comparatively neutral, creatively speaking). This involves making clear decisions about lengthening/shortening certain notes very subtly, in order to bring the rhythm characteristics to life.  


Body Language

Apart from the perspective of musical aesthetics, rhythm can have a very strong effect on us physically (and vice versa), as performers; we need to actively listen to our bodies as well as the sound we are producing.

A lack of internal rhythmic fluency very quickly translates into physical tension while playing, which often compromises our playing on many levels. By comparison, when rhythms have been deeply absorbed, they become second nature and the body is able to flow with the music. This is a process that is facilitated by repetition and memorisation.   

A close scrutiny of our body language is vital, if we are to harness the full power and potential of our bodies. Why do we move? When do we move? How does this all affect our playing? If you notice over-emphasized movements on certain beats (whether this is foot-tapping, or upper-body gestures), this body language is usually expressing a discomfort of some kind. If such gestures are appearing in mid-phrase, these are probably resulting in musical dead-ends and tension points that need to be resolved – such physical arrival points need to be avoided until the end of the phrase is reached...beats need to be subordinated in order for the bigger shape of the phrase to emerge. 


Consistency and Coordination

When we find our timing, a by-product of this is that we also find much of our coordination and consistency. Having a clear idea of when we choose to place a note results in a precise arrival point for several seemingly disparate movements: concentration, lower body support, articulation, fingers, lips and air speed/angle all have a common meeting point.   

 

Bending Rhythm for Physical and Technical Advantage

Bending rhythm to seek technical advantage - that’s not cheating….it is streetwise. Here are some examples of how to use flexible rhythm to command better musical and technical control:

1.    If a difficult passage is coming up, reducing speed in the preceding notes by a tiny fraction can give us a significant advantage. This takes a lot of self-control to do and is hardly noticeable to your audience. 

2.    When running out of air, reducing volume and subtly speeding up allows you to reach the end of the phrase with grace…far more desirable than sticking rigidly to a constant speed and falling short.  

3.    Starting a fast group of notes a tiny fraction early buys you valuable time to get the notes in. By the same token, starting a fraction late makes it more difficult, because you have even less time at your disposal. 

4.    It is a huge advantage to be aware of the varying idiosyncrasies and technical demands of various instruments, when playing together; making minute rhythmic adjustments to accommodate these will facilitate better ensemble playing, while creating stronger empathy, trust and respect between players.    


Large Versus Small Units

Counting in smaller rhythmic units (sub-dividing) can result in greater precision and accuracy, but this comes at a price: less freedom and more physical tension. On the other hand, choosing larger units facilitates greater freedom and ease of playing, but the drawback to that is that there is more likelihood of small inaccuracies occurring. We need to learn to switch between the two, depending on the situation.

In the early stages of learning a new piece, I find that some disciplined subdivision is helpful…but as the piece is internalised, it becomes more desirable to switch to counting in larger units, allowing space for a more natural playing style. This also helps create space for breathing in an unhurried, natural and musical way.

You will probably also notice that accessing your phrasing through larger rhythmic units helps reduce tension to a large degree, because each constructed beat is potentially a psychological/physical tension point – reducing the number of beats is therefore creating a more seamless and effortless playing style.   

So how do we arrive at the right choice of ‘pulse unit’? This process is largely driven by the underlying harmonies within the music; each changing harmony is a musical milestone, a transformation, a progression and an evolution. These evolving harmonies are cosmic beats that are the driving force of the music and our own energy levels, while what happens between these cosmic beats is merely transitory or ornamental - and must not be over-emphasised by being awarded a prominent beat.

   
Conclusion

Using metronomes and watches to measure the glorious patterns of Life simply reduces them to our petty filtered human standards…that is a path I choose not to take. It can be revealing to briefly check metronome markings, but I avoid practicing with a metronome for long periods.

We need to construct an attitude towards rhythm that transforms it into a catalyst and liberating force. Finding this freedom (our freedom) is not self-indulgent…it is the very pinnacle of self-discipline, self-control and empowerment, and needs to be represented in every facet of our music making, including rhythm. 

© Wissam Boustany

Why We Remember Things

  Try playing from memory with your duo partner....it is a rollercoaster experience!!

Try playing from memory with your duo partner....it is a rollercoaster experience!!

6 July 2016

We all tend to wind up believing in what we spend most of our lives doing…if we don’t, we are probably frustrated and unhappy. Instinctively, we set up intricate belief-systems that become the foundation of our confidence and self-esteem, irrespective of whether these beliefs are well founded or not…and the whole thing is largely driven by habit, fear…and LOVE.

Once we are able to identify various patterns of behaviour and reactions within ourselves, the process of empowerment and liberation can start and we can move forward with fulfilling our potential and shaping our destiny…yes, it is that simple.

For those of you who have a resistance or block concerning performance from memory, I would say that there are probably only a couple of overriding reasons for this:

  1. You are afraid of failing publicly.
  2. You don’t yet realise to what extent you already rely on your memory - not to pass exams or impress people with your flute playing…but simply to stay alive and learn.

Most learning is about observing and becoming aware about things that happen…that’s when life’s lessons become real and relevant.

Ask yourself a few questions:

Why do you remember to look left and right before you cross the street?

Although you probably have never been run over before, you have a very healthy fear of dying. If you have had a couple of dangerous near misses, that will have driven home the lesson more than anything anyone could tell you - your fear helps you remember…

 

If you are riding a bicycle, why do you slow down when the road is wet?

Perhaps you have slipped on wet surfaces before and hurt yourself…you remember the pain and this terrifying experience helps you to adjust your speed and your concentration to prevent a similar accident from happening again. No effort involved in remembering here…it is a purely reactive phenomenon; again, born out of the fear of pain.

And how do you avoid making the same mistakes again and again in life, say, in the relationships you develop?

By remembering what worked and what didn’t work, you present yourself with a choice of options the next time you reach a same juncture in your life. It becomes unavoidably clear that memory is one of the principle catalysts of learning; in fact, without remembering there is no learning.

When you pick up a rose, why do you stuff it in your nose and smell it without thinking?

We probably remember the explosion of ecstasy in our noses from the time we were babies. There is no effort involved in remembering pleasure.

This is how memory works; it is a powerful and deep-rooted phenomenon that is often triggered instinctively (involuntarily). We remember things in direct proportion to the intensity with which we experience them. That is why practicing in an emotionally dysfunctional way is unlikely to result in any lasting memories! We need to dig deep when we practice…we need to invite joy, pain, fear and exaltation into the room…and we need to learn the big lessons that only come as a direct consequence of taking big risks.

For every time we look at the music, we need to play the same passage several times without the music with full emotional intensity…we risk falling time and time again….and then we can finally taste the full intensity of victory after many defeats. If this is done consistently, you will have turned an important corner…you will have made a habit out of working with fear instead of running away from it (this is when you will finally have learned to play with authority and deep commitment). Fear will have been transformed from being the enemy that paralyses you, into the motor that drives you to blow away your self-imposed limitations.

There is another aspect to memorisation, which is also extremely important. Apart from driving us to take risks and confront our fears (huge life lessons, which inevitably help our flute playing), repetition breeds consistency and allows us to consolidate our playing…after all, if we were to take risks 100% of the time, we would definitely become nervous wrecks very quickly – so consolidating gains is as important as breaking boundaries, if we are to be stable and consistent, as well as thrilling and inspiring…we need to keep a healthy balance between the two.

Finally, if a passage continues to elude you after a long time, this is not because you have a bad memory, or that you are a bad flute player – it just means you have not yet fallen in love with that particular passage…you haven’t found its hidden essence. Practice it with more feeling….without the music, of course…over and over again…and from different perspectives. Yes, this can be a painfully slow process – but once your confidence arrives, it comes flooding in with great force. This is a thrilling moment when it finally arrives…and your audience will feel it with you.

There are so many more details relating to the phenomenon, discipline and benefits of memorisation and how it relates to so many aspects of flute playing, musicianship and communication…but unfortunately they dart in and out of my consciousness, too fast for me to capture them and write them down; anyway, I doubt that setting out endless tricks and details serves any significant purpose in itself – better just go into your practice room and start internalising the next phrase, the next gesture, the next fingering, the next sensuous breath…and one thing will lead to another. And remember the IMPORTANT things…the love and power of what you want to communicate…having a selective memory can be very advantageous because it allows you to focus on your priorities!

If you are waiting for the right time to take the plunge, the right time is NOW. The sooner you start, the sooner you will see the results of your leap of faith…and I can promise you one thing without a shred of doubt: whether your efforts lead to success or failure, I guarantee that you will grow.

Wissam Boustany

 

 

 

Power of Expression Versus Economy of Sound

14/05/2016 Filed in: Practice

Practice should really come with a health warning, because every practice session inadvertently creates habits that we may (or may not) want….practice can therefore be as destructive, as it can be creative.  

Most of us spend years developing a strong sound that is homogenous throughout the whole range of the flute, which in itself is an important aspect of playing the flute – but persistent practice using too much volume (which takes too much effort) will very quickly create deep-rooted habits that can seriously undermine our playing on MANY levels. As a student, I was frequently told to avoid overblowing - but I always assumed that this advice was just concerned with preserving the quality of my sound….I didn’t realise until much later, what an enormously detrimental impact the persistent pushing of sound can have on many aspects of musicianship:

1.    phrasing
2.    stamina
3.    breathing
4.    tension
5.    intonation
6.    articulation
7.    how your audience perceives you and your music
8.    basically almost everything!

Understanding WHY we tend to play with too much volume and air generally, is the first step that will enable us to break the pattern and finally see the importance of making the necessary changes, so that we can connect with music, our instrument and our audience in a more truthful, natural and sustainable way. Often we play more forcefully when we find something difficult (rhythmically, tonally or fingerwise) – our body is caught off balance and tries to regain control by brute force….in the short-term this can help us avert a mistake, but in the long-term it creates physical tension that is very difficult to break.  

The relationship we have with our sound is very similar to the relationship we have with our own bodies: on the whole, we tend to be quite self-conscious and judgmental about how we look…Are we too fat? Too thin? Is our skin smooth/perfect? Are we attractive? Our desire to be attractive to others can lead to a tendency to look in the mirror too often and become overcritical of ourselves. Yet when we are relaxed and feeling good about ourselves, we don’t react negatively when we catch a glimpse of ourselves in the mirror…that is because the essence of beauty and attractiveness is internal - less to do with how we look physically, more to do with how we feel about ourselves and the people around us (i.e. our self-esteem). Uninhibited people are far more likely to feel (and therefore be) attractive, than those who fuss, fret and work on themselves constantly; these narcissistic tendencies easily kill off the inherent genuine beauty within us. The same thing applies to the sound we produce…when we work too hard at our sound the physical aspects of the sound, we wind up inhibiting rather than enhancing it. We start pushing too much into the sound and giving it more importance than it warrants. We need to learn differentiate between the PHYSICALITY OF SOUND and EMOTIONAL ENERGY, which is far more powerful, yet less tangible – the two can often be confused with each other.

In order to convince, inspire and overwhelm with our music, every subtlest nuance or musical gesture needs to have the profoundest emotional significance….so we need to create the most powerful emotional result, using the most economic resources. This measured approach facilitates greater refinement and stamina (mental and physical) to get through a piece (let alone a whole recital) with a seemingly limitless sense of evolution and variation at our disposal.

It is very difficult and (wholly inappropriate) for an outsider to tell you, what sound you should play with; after all, your voice is such a personal thing…it is YOUR voice. Equally, only YOU can perceive and define where your personal limits lie. Therefore the onus is on YOU to get to know yourself well, in order to maximise the potential of your uniquely individual physical and emotional characteristics. 

It can all get very confusing and overwhelmed when we start breaking everything down to in purely muscular terms. The key: TO LISTEN…..listen to your sound, listen to the phrase, listen to your musical colleagues, listen to the pitch, listen to what your body is telling you….listen to your imagination and what your heart is telling you. Listen in the biggest and widest sense of the word.

It is perfectly okay to compromise on a dynamic, a speed, an articulation or the vibrato – if this leads to greater love and energy given and received. The challenge is to give our imagination and passion infinite reign, while keeping in touch with the reality of every moment in relation to our finite physical resources.

© Wissam Boustany

Tags: Flute, Sound, Phrasing, Practice

The Aesthetics of Body Language and Phrasing, and their Relation to Technique

originally written 14/11/13

Yes, the title is a mouthful…but this issue is increasingly dominating much of my teaching, as well as my own practice and performance, and literally every conversation I have with others and myself when I am away from the flute.

Body language runs rampant pretty much every waking moment of our lives; to become aware of it is to become aware of how energy is transmitted between people, beyond and in spite of the words and sounds that we use. In fact, it does more than just express our thoughts and feelings – it betrays who we really are and what our intensions are. Body language is the unedited physical manifestation of our emotional reality. 

What I can usually immediately tell from the body language while people play:

1.    Whether they are comfortable or not
2.    Whether they are feeling the music
3.    Whether they are sincere
4.    The ease/difficulty of breathing
5.    Whether they care about their audience
6.    The ease/difficulty of sound production and/or finger-work
7.    Whether the person is showing off or putting on an act
8.    Whether a performer is driven by the phrase
9.    Whether a person is ‘trying too hard’ or zoned out
10.    Whether a person is struggling with the beat or in harmony with it
11.    The list goes on!

These messages are transmitted spontaneously and immediately through our movements even if we have thought long and hard about them, and often do not necessarily correspond with the sounds that are actually being produced, although mostly they do. 

If you delve deeper, you become aware of the discrepancies that often appear between a person’s original intent and what is actually happening. These can undermine the message we are trying to share with our audience, and can wreak havoc on the consistency of our playing (in other words: our technique).

Below are a few tendencies that I notice are very common among many players:

Tapping of the knee/foot/toe, related to beating time
One of the most common physical gestures is to beat time with the upper body or elbow, knee, foot or toe. The issue is not whether or how the gesture manifests itself, but WHY. Anything we say or do for a defensive reason tends to fall flat on its face, because we are off balance and at a disadvantage - this is the issue, rather than the movement itself…if we fix the cause of defensiveness, we fix the movement – from its root. We must always seek to address the cause not the symptom otherwise we are only effecting cosmetic changes and exchanging one dysfunctional gesture for another. 

Looking more closely at the gestures related to beating time, you will begin to realise how it actually affects the accuracy of your playing. Often the gestures bear little relation to where we are actually intending on placing the note itself!! This often results in a lack of accuracy in our coordination and leads directly to unnecessary muscular intervention (tension), as we instinctively try to override these inaccuracies – essentially, we are out of synch and trying to force our bodies to realign with the moment…and the bigger the gesture, the more fundamental our discomfort. If we don’t deal with this aspect of our playing we wind up in a constant state of damage limitation resulting from this physical dysfunction.

From the aesthetic point of view, physically highlighting individual beats inadvertently prioritizes the beat over the phrase. Instead of the movement reaching its culmination at the conclusion of a phrase we wind up peaking on every single beat. 

This kind of body language leads to technical problems, not to mention musical suicide.

The Breath Spasm
I notice very similar body language patterns related to breathing, where our desperation at the point of breathing is highlighted by the body language. The most common movements associated with this phenomenon are either the downwards swipe as we inhale, or the tight lifting up of the shoulders (and often both these movements are accompanied by the knees buckling in sympathy). Apart from looking terrible and destroying the journey of the phrase, these movements severely undermine our actual ability to inhale in an unobstructed way.

Again, this is being instigated by severe discomfort (physical AND emotional), however in this case the primary cause of discomfort is NOT the beat, but from our sense of panic/desperation leading up to, and at the point of, the breath; a by-product of this ‘panic’ is that we rush. Going over the phrase with full musical involvement (this helps the breathing enormously) and mapping out exactly what you want and where you begin falling apart, will reveal the way forward; this can take time (sometimes several weeks), so patience is not just a virtue – it is an absolute necessity. Again, we must resist dealing with the symptom at the expense of dealing with the root cause…the physical manifestation of discomfort is the last link in a chain of events. 

The functional route to solving the problem is to figure out the most musical and subtle way to bend the beat around the point of the breath…but there is usually a great deal of guilt associated with this, because the beat is often (wrongly) considered absolutely sacrosanct – we often confuse ‘timing’ with ‘beating’, both of which require innate accuracy but one is very restrictive, while the other is thoroughly liberating and empowering.

Holding the Flute
The way we hold our flute and move our fingers over the keys tells us a lot about our relationship with the instrument and is an extension of this body language discussion. We must hold the instrument like we would hold a friend: we need to be firm, trusting, flexible and sensual. This has an enormous influence on the tension levels of playing, as well as the quality and beauty of the sound we produce. We need to hold the flute with authority, without losing any sensitivity or flexibility in the process. 

Of course, this is not just a question of simply ‘relaxing’….once more, it involves creating an emotionally functional connection with the instrument – holding the flute with love, pleasure and joy transforms the experience and wakes up our senses, nerves and muscles to a heightened state. 

The Eyes: Window into the Soul
Finally, the smallest but most powerful body language is revealed through our eyes. The eyes are the focal point of our aura as human beings; that is why we instinctively look at the eyes when we talk to people (unless we are uncomfortable) because this reveals the true energy, which tends to dance invisibly over, under and in between any words that are flying around. The popular metaphor ‘Eye of the Storm’ very vividly describes the utterly devastating core force that lies at the still centre of any powerful phenomenon. 

In terms of flute playing, the body language taking place in the eyes is a hugely relevent factor that is often totally overlooked. Because the actual sound production on the flute is virtually invisible (compared to the bowing and vibrato movements that are visible when playing a string instrument), the impact (positive or negative) of the expression in our eyes becomes multiplied to a huge degree. 

We need to notice the emotional basis behind our blinking, flinching, looking at the ceiling or the floor, whether we close our eyes or stare at something static or meet the gaze of someone during performance, as this reveals the heart of who we are and whether we are in tune with our environment and the blossoming moment. Our eyes betray the precise moment when we are feeling the strain of a particular passage, while at the same time short-circuiting our concentration at the very moment when we need to be at our most lucid. 

In my opinion, a functional use of our eyes often solves many other body language issues, too. 

Conclusion
So where to go from here? Move less? Move more? Look at the ceiling? Eyeball the audience? Is all this analysis just navel-gazing and a recipe for chronic inhibition? 

No, no, no, no and no. 

As mentioned, the challenge is to identify the cause, usually emotional, linked to any stress point that consequently manifests itself as ‘body language’. Whilst playing, we need to fully engage in the moment with great emotional force and our real priority needs to be the merging of notes (and our body movements) into a phrase. The culmination of a phrase is the end of the last note, extending beyond the breath into another phrase…and so on and on and on until the end of the piece, which in physical terms becomes the ‘ultimate arrival beat’ – so we need to learn to absorb our energies and peak at the right time with our movements, if we are to create a storyline with our music, rather than a series of notes or beats.

Identify your aim and fix the cause of your discomfort…and you will have liberated your movements without falling into the trap of developing dysfunctional physical fetishes. The aim is not to control the movements, but to liberate ourselves.

© Wissam Boustany
 

Beyond Sound

BEYOND SOUND
30/07/12 12:36

Hot off the heels of two flute courses in Poland (Ventus Optimus, in Łødtz) and Scotland (Scottish International Flute Summer School, in St Andrews), I am reminded very emphatically about the essence of what constitutes a musical and inspiring sound and musicality. So many of us are constantly battling to find and define this elusive sound…constantly tampering with and analyzing sounds that are too thin or too fat, sharp or flat etc.

But what cuts right through all this cacophony, is the simplicity of a sound that is born out of true passion and love. This is the heart and soul of our music and our sound…the rest is marginal. Yes, issues of intonation and timbre are a source of deep concern….but these are only attainable if we are able to be emotionally functional and have the Will (born out of passion) to cut through our personal emotional and physical blockages, and translate this energy into a physical manifestation of energy and emotion that inspires people from within.

The challenge is NOT to control the flute, but rather to keep the flame alive within our own hearts open to change and stimulation…if we discover this secret, we give wings to our efforts and our music is transformed into a reality that is far beyond our wildest dreams. 

A beautiful face is not conscious of itself.

Musical Breathing

MUSICAL BREATHING
22/04/12 09:52

The Art of Breathing is pretty much at the heart of music making, on the performance and technical levels - whatever instrument you play.

Much has been documented about the physical aspects of breathing, but I would prefer to leave this to the side and concentrate on the emotional and aesthetic side of breathing as I believe that, armed  with the right attitude,  we are more likely to find an expressive way of playing and a more natural relationship with the instrument.

The breath in music is a truly wondrous moment…if timed to perfection, it empowers and lifts what we are giving to a truly powerful dimension. A few points to ponder:

Spaces in the Music
The moments between phrases (silences) are highly charged emotional milestones. Rushing these moments robs the listener of the space he/she needs in order to digest and put in perspective everything they are hearing. In this ‘pregnant’ silence, the question and thirst for the next phrase are born…rushing into the next phrase prematurely often results in lost expressive opportunities, while also leading to a rushed (and therefore tight) breath. 

Staying Relaxed
One of the most common pieces of advice given is to ‘keep the throat open and relaxed’ and to ‘breath deeply’…but this is simply not going to be possible if we don’t give ourselves enough time. Of course we must strive to play with our colleagues - but there is a great deal of flexibility possible, if we know exactly why and how we want/need to breathe….taking this time (it is never given!) is of paramount importance. 

The Expressive Power of Silence
It has been said many times before: silence is often more powerful than the sound or words we use…silence can be deafening. Silence is not ‘nothing’…it is the root of sound…it is the awakening of our creative desire. Without silence, our music is born premature and without concept. 

Recover
I often tell my students: When you come to breathe, think ‘recover’ not ‘breathe’. If your aim is to fully recover your energy at the point of breath, you will naturally take the time needed to fully recover your energy. Of course this can be overdone….but we often have far more time at our disposal, than we think we do.