Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Preparing Vivaldi’s A Minor Piccolo Concerto … for the Umpteenth Time!

Kate Prestia-Schaub
By Kate Prestia-Schaub

In preparation for an upcoming performance of the Vivaldi Piccolo Concerto in A Minor, I reflected upon  many years of studying this piece, and realized that I needed to start all over again.  I first learned the concerto in high school, and felt pretty great about it too!  Little did I know at the time, that intricate details would develop as a result of my various teachers, studying different editions, listening to a wide variety of recordings (and live performances), and watching YouTube videos!  I was asked to adjudicate the NFA piccolo competition recorded round this year, and the contestants recorded the C Major concerto.  There was a significant difference between those who had a broader stylistic understanding of the music, and those who simply played “notes on the page”.  After hearing this competition, I went back to the various live performances I had recorded of myself over the years, and after the desire to hurl the discs of some of the early versions under my car tire, I came out from my cave and realized that each of those performances was a stepping stone for what I have come to for this performance. 

In high school, I believe I snuck the piece out of my Mom’s closet, and worked on it until I was caught not practicing my Taffanel-Gaubert!  I had a few lessons on it with Mamacita, and I was taught the basic principles of Baroque ornamentation, correct phrasing, where to breathe and not to breathe, and how to create some variety by using a dynamic echo on repeated patterns.  I have to admit now, that I spent more time practicing that difficult triplet passage at the end of the first movement than really working on the rules of ornamentation and phrasing.  (Sorry Mom!)

At some point shortly after high school, I heard Mary Kay Fink perform this at an NFA convention, and I was amazed at her ability to embellish the 2nd movement.  Her performance was one of those that inspired me to reaffirm my “I’m gonna do that someday” statement!  At that point I added one or two feeble noodles in the 2nd movement, but was too bashful to really step away from the written note.

While studying for my undergraduate degree with Tom Robertello at Indiana University, I revisited the piece and we focused on the concept of using the articulation to help with dynamic contrast.  We also talked about a common practice of using fewer slurs in 16th note passages for Vivaldi.  For example, when playing softer, I was taught that using a staccato articulation would create the illusion of softer dynamics, and legato would help with louder dynamics.  I came to understand that entire phrases can be created by utilizing a wide range of dynamics, without using a slur, without using vibrato; simply by changing the articulation.  Mind Blown!

During my graduate degree at USC, I studied this piece again with Jim Walker, and focused on adding in a few slurs here and there to create a little more variety, and also make the piece sing on a modern instrument.  I studied, in depth, the ornamentation practices of Vivaldi with Janet Beazley, also at USC, and from her, I was encouraged to really explore the 2nd movement, and take more risks by stepping away from the written notes.  After 5 years of theory, 2 baroque studies classes, I was ready to try again!

During that time, I performed this piece with piano for the NFA Young Artist Piccolo competition with winning success, but little did I know that I’d take an entirely different approach 10 years later when performing this with a chamber orchestra.

Currently, I am in preparation for a performance with a wonderful group – The California Chamber Orchestra.  For this, I have studied many recordings of traditional baroque string ensembles trying to, once again, familiarize myself with the “Vivaldi” style of bowings, ornamentation, vibrato, dynamics, and tempi.  Trying to match my playing to what a small string ensemble would do has changed my thoughts yet again on what to do with this piece. 

Here are some questions I have asked myself in attempting to really make this “my own”.  It is from this process that I have developed the deepest respect for all of the teachers who have diligently spent time teaching me their points of view, doing their own research, and making the piece their “own” over the course of their careers.  It is a delicate process in current times, of creating a scholarly performance performing on a modern instrument.
  • How would I like to hear this if I were in the audience, and if it were a different kind of audience, how would I change it?
  • What is the “right” way to play each phrase, keeping in mind the practices of Vivaldi?
  •  Can I show off my beautiful modern instrument, or simplify my sound and concept of the piece to match the type of instrument used in Vivaldi’s time?
  • How will I blend with the strings in dynamics, articulation, and ornamentation? What are my limitations and strengths, what are theirs, and how can we blend them?
  • Shall I vibrate, or not vibrate; articulate all 16th notes, or add slurs?
  • How much can I stray from the written notes in the 2nd movement? Adventurous and exciting, or simple and safe?
  • How many extra ornaments may I add in the 1st and 3rd movement, and can I add a cadenza-like section where I really pause, and then speed up?
  • How can I make it my own and not directly mimic my favorite recording, or edition?

For me, the balanced approach has won out, at least for this performance.  Here are some of the decisions I have planned out so far, and some reasoning behind them: 
  • The audience will be a wide variety of classical music lovers.  There will be a mix of senior citizens, students, and a handful of other musicians, but not a majority of true baroque experts; therefore, I will lean on a more classical approach to my sound. This decision is also made because I believe it helps a general audience appreciate the sound of the piccolo as a solo instrument, and not a screeching marching band instrument.
  • The orchestra will be playing on all modern instruments, and other music on the program will be either Baroque or Classical, so I will lean on the late baroque style of ornamentation for a better blend with the rest of the program.  
  • I have taken about 3 editions and 4 recordings, and blended my own ornamentation for the 2nd movement, and it is different than I have ever performed before, and yes – virtuosic!  
  • I have determined to use a more modern approach on vibrato because of the performance venue.  Without it, I believe that the projection over the chamber orchestra will be lost. 
  • I will use a wide variety of articulations, with a moderate amount of slurs, and ultimately I hope to create the most dynamic contrast by the use of staccato vs. legato during each phrase.  
  • I have eliminated many “echo” patterns, and replaced them with more of a forward moving phrase using a constant dynamic shift, so as not to disrupt the line with a subito piano, although a few are left for variety.  My hope is not to play every repeated phrase the same way, but to creatively form a musical line with simple, yet effective articulation shifts. 
  • There will only be one rehearsal, and since I have mixed and matched many different editions, I will have to be sure to go over these decisions with the conductor to make sure that she can give a heads up to the principals before the entire group arrives.   If these decisions are not noted at the rehearsal, I will have to be extremely flexible at the time of the performance, relying on listening and blending with the group so as not to stick out like a sore thumb.
So, what I thought in high school was a cute little piccolo piece has been continuously evolving for over a decade – almost two!!  If I can be humble enough and allow myself to continue learning, I will be able to let these concerti, as well as other standard repertoire for both flute and piccolo evolve as this has, and hopefully, the result will be a more refined and enjoyable performance for the audience!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Key Saturation – Familiarity Through Study

By Patricia George

Recently I attended a New Sousa Band Concert directed by flutist Keith Brion portraying the legendary conductor/composer John Philip Sousa. One of the hallmarks of these re-enactment concerts is the practice of playing a Sousa march in between each composition listed on the program. Hearing some of these marches brought back memories of my high school band days in Amarillo, Texas.

Patricia George
My next thought was “Students today rarely play Sousa marches in concert as they are too difficult for the average band. They are difficult because they are written in keys that most students have little experience playing in and they are written in compound meter (6/8). Most bands play in two or three flats and call it a day. And, there is hardly a student in the United States that truly understands compound meter (beat divisible by 3).”

Part of this problem begins with the band method books that public school students use as part of the beginning curriculum. The books are written so the teacher may instruct a mixed consort of instruments at one time in one class. However, most good teachers know what may be good for one instrument family, may not be of prime importance for another. The key choices are kept to a minimum at just two, three, or four flats. If the flutist is fortunate enough to study privately, most early tutors breeze through the keys, one page after another. There is not enough drill in one key before a student turns the page to attempt a new key. 

For students at the high school level who study privately, I offer a solution to this problem.  Rather than playing one page after another in an etude book, what about playing one exercise in the same key out of several books to achieve saturation in a key before moving on? For example, study the C major etudes in the 18 Exercises by Berbiguier and 24 Exercises, Op. 33 by Andersen, and then work only in the key of C major in scale books such as the 17 Big Daily Exercises by Taffanel & Gaubert or The Flute Scale Book by George & Louke. The object is saturation in a key before moving on to a new key.

I enjoy the books written primarily by flutists which have an exercise for each day of the week. Each of these exercises progresses through all 24 keys (12 major/12 minor). One exercise may be based on a scale, the next in intervallic skips, the next on arpeggios, etc. These books include the Daily Exercises by Maquarre, Daily Exercises by Barrere, Daily Exercises by Wummer, Daily Exercises by Reichert and Studies for Facilitating the Execution of the Upper Notes by Wood. I suggest rather than playing/teaching one exercise in all 24 keys per day, play all the C major keys in all the exercises in the book and then tomorrow or in a week/month play the ones in A minor. Drill until there is saturation in a key before moving on. 

Perhaps if our students achieved true understanding of playing in all the keys, we would hear more marches of Sousa and Fillmore on band concerts today.
Compound meter? That is for next time.

Patricia George (
To learn more about Patricia George, click here to visit her artist profile on the Powell website.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Green Golly Project

By Barbara Siesel

Barbara Siesel
When I was ten, I decided to become a professional musician. I told my mom that music was the only thing I wanted to do in my life - and thank goodness she was actually happy about it.  My path was clear, I was fortunate to get a great musical education with some wonderful teachers: Harold Bennett in High School and Samuel Baron at the Juilliard School (BM,MM).  Thomas Nyfenger, Gerardo Levy, Julius Baker, and Jean Pierre Rampal also contributed greatly to my playing.

As I embarked upon my professional life I started teaching and performing contemporary music.  Fascinated with the relationship between new music and new technology I founded The Storm King Music Festival and became its artistic director, giving me the opportunity to work with some great contemporary composers, as well as help them create history through their new compositions.

During my time teaching - first at the New World School of the Arts High School and College Divisions, and later at Colby College, I began noticing the incredible shrinking audience!  The press was issuing dire reports about the decline of classical music, everyone started to clamor for more music education, budgets started to get cut, and foundations started to ask musical groups to rethink how they marketed and presented themselves.  The web revolution was speeding up history and my beloved classical music seemed like it might become – history – and nothing else.

Green Golly Project Logo
 In 2004 in response to all of these changes and difficulties in the music world, I resigned my teaching positions and teamed up with songwriter, composer, playwright, actor, Keith Torgan, and launched The Green Golly Project.  It was a huge change but something that I needed to do. I believed then and now that children need to be exposed to great music, live, at a grass-roots level.  Green Golly & Her Golden Flute, the centerpiece of The Green Golly Project,  is a story and comedy performance that tells the tale of a different girl in a different tower, decidedly not Rapunzel, who expresses her responses to life through classical music. 

Often Green Golly performances are the first time a child has seen a flute or heard classical music. And because we have taken a truly inclusive and multidisciplinary approach to our performances, children everywhere are getting turned on to, and enthusiastic about music.  Amazingly they don’t usually know its “classical” they just know they like it!! Because of the success of the live performances and album we’ve added an illustrated story book, flute and piano music, flute choir arrangements, beginner flute and an animated series, currently in development, based on Green Golly & Her Golden Flute.

The Green Golly Project has come a long way since 2004. Our album “Green Golly & Her Golden Flute” has won rave reviews all over the world and last May was graced with a 2011 Parents’ Choice Gold Award. The title and story were inspired in part by my beautiful 14K golden Powell flute!! We are currently running a campaign, which emerged out of the work we have done with children, called “Why Music.” The Green Golly Project is a hub for discussion asking the question “Why is music important for children, for our culture, for our lives?”  Not asking the question and listening to everyone’s answer, might indeed spell the end of all of the music we know and love. We invite you to be part of this discussion! Please join us at:

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

After All The Breathing...

By Lisa Nelsen

Lisa Nelse
As a ‘Part Deux’ to the warm up on this site, I’d like to suggest that players become aware of the effectiveness of the breathing exercises they’ve been doing.  In the weeks of regularly engaging the breathing muscles every morning, players will probably notice a more clear-headed approach to their daily practice.  It still may not be enough to give a sense of control to their tone production in the extreme. Many of us are conditioned to begin with tone exercises right away, to search for those beautiful colours and magical manipulation of scales and intervals.  If you struggle, like I did, try these really simple exercises first so that you can connect the breath with your instrument like a singer would engage the vocal chords with breath.

Harmonics: Start on low D, and, without moving your lips or jaw, speed up the air to the next octave. Keep the low D fingering. Then speed up the air to slur to the fifth partial (sounding A). Again, use only the air, not lips or jaw. Then smoothly switch to the actual fingering of A in the second octave.  Repeat, and then move on the Eb, E, F etc up to C which will sound G in the 3rd octave. Do this very slowly and really scoop the slurs.

Scales:  Learn 5-note scales (by memory if possible) and play these with a metronome (or with a group or find a practice buddy for added incentive) without pulling on the corners of your mouth to control the tone. Just blow and repeat each group of scales 4 times evenly and fast.  In the group I lead we start on low D and continue up about two octaves. We also change the pattern using other combinations of simple scales...blowing to connect sound to breath, and warm up the fingers.

Note bending:  Without moving your head or turning your flute toward you or away, play a long note like C, B, Bb or A and bend the pitch half a step down, back to the note, then half a step up, and then back..slowly. Your lips and jaw should be doing all the moving, and you should be making quite breathy sounds.

Ugly sounds: Don’t be afraid of making very harsh and ugly sounds. You’re working at connecting breath with sound. Refining the sound to make colours will feel a lot easier after all you find control and manipulation of the breath.