In my recent talk together with Amanda Markwick, we delve into the question of what makes the music of J.S. Bach so challenging.
For me, it's definitely the amount of stamina needed, mentally and physically. Playing Bach's music can feel like a test of how well we can coordinate all of our techniques to function together. We first need to have a concept about the music, then arrange all what needs to happen physically:
breath work and management – how we regulate our air to produce sound, just like singers do. In addition, Bach's music is notorious for us flutists because we're struggling to find good places to breathe! The question is - where and how to breathe?
Articulation – Having our articulation contribute to the affect of the passage. Knowing early articulation methods is a key to that.
Navigating difficult keys – Navigating through difficult keys is related to our breath, our embouchure, and coordination with the fingers. Bach wrote some of his greatest works for the flute in the worst keys for us. Think about “Zerfließe mein Herze” from his St. John Passion, or the E major flute sonata. (we don't even get a break in between - no comfort in C# minor!)
So all these physical elements need to function together, at the same time, on command to carry out our interpretation. That's a tall order! It IS a challenge but I also see it as motivation. Flute-playing is a physical activity and the practice of it (whether 'practicing' or performing) makes me feel strong and builds confidence in my body. I do enjoy feeling that physical aspect of the challenge and the reward it brings.
Another challenge I see with Bach's music is simply finding those important clues which help us in our interpretation. It's like solving a jigsaw puzzle. Because of the common practice back then, things like dynamics and phrasing were mostly not given by the composer (unlike in later music). But that's Bach's trust in us that we're able to nevertheless understand his intentions. Or perhaps we can think of it like a game we play with Bach – he gives us some clues, can we get what he's talking about?
I recently received a question about how to deal with the left hand tension on the baroque flute. Especially if the flute model is a larger instrument (say early baroque, or a 3-part instrument where the middle joint is in one piece, or a flute in low pitch), it can really present a problem for players. Add the fact that the 4th finger is our weakest finger, the stretch between our middle and 4th finger can feel impossible.
If you come from the modern flute, you may wonder how people played back then. The problem may never disappear for some players, but I thought to offer what has helped me so far:
Try to stand securely, perhaps the feet wider apart than you might normally do, and really shift the center of foundation to as low as possible. When playing, try shifting your weight between your feet every now and then, for me that helps free up that feeling of tension in the hands and allow the fingers to move as relaxed as possible. If I feel like I don't have a solid base, it exacerbates the problem.
And now here's maybe a weird visualization - I imagine I'm able to extend my fingers longer than they actually are, somehow that helps me feel like I'm able to accommodate that big stretch and also further relax the fingers. When they're in tension, the fingers bunch up and "become short", which is not desired. Make them long.
Also, play around with the position of your left thumb - how does it feel to place it between your 2nd and middle finger? I used to play mostly with the thumb under the 2nd finger, but have found by moving it further down it can help me with 4th finger movements. Since the 4th finger is the weakest finger, I once got a tip from the Italian flutist Laura Pontecorvo to sometimes practice without the thumb. (See my post about it here!) I found this trains the 4th finger to be more independent and may perhaps help improve the issue.
I wonder if any of this helps for people. Let me know and feel free to chime in with your way!
Above is a photo of my big flutes - a 4-part Scherer and an Hotteterre flute, both by the late Claire Soubeyran.
ABOUT THE BLOG:
I got inspired to document my own observations in flute-playing and music-making. Also, I thought it's important to pass on the teachings of the great Wilbert Hazelzet, as well as many other mentors who have influenced my artistic visions one way or the other. Enjoy this potpourri of tips, inspirations, and musings.
I'm specialized in coaching historical and modern flutists. CONTACT ME directly to set up a session, in person or online.