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