There was a request for me to share some thoughts about articulation in the music of J.S. Bach. Thanks for the suggestion!
I don't think what I'll talk about here is exclusively only for Bach, but I do think that Bach or German baroque music in general has certain characteristics which demonstrate quite clearly my concept. Click on the video below to listen to three ways of playing the first measure of this Bach violin sonata, each with a different combination of tonguing and breath work. You may want to turn up your volume and hear it a couple of times to fully recognize the subtle but important differences.
from J.S. Bach's Sonata in B minor for Violin and Obbligato Harpsichord
I'm currently preparing this piece for a performance and honestly, I've been feeling stuck with that first measure for awhile! And while I was using varied articulation, there was something about the tonguing and the breath that didn't quite match up, or wasn't refined enough. It sounded stiff and dull just like Example 1 or 2.
Basically, I would suggest here the tonguing pattern T DR(it) 'TR D(it). R is like the Latin hard R. The (it) or apostrophe signals stopping the sound with the tongue, which is very important in baroque music to give a clear shape to phrases, and also establishing metric stability. I'd tongue the second T (note E) a bit lighter than the first T (F#), but I also realized I can create a nice gesture on the E if I gave more of an impulse with the breath there, which is what you hear in Example 3. It propels the melody forward and gives it a good swing.
Not all T D R's are the same, a T could be slightly more forward or slightly more backward in your mouth. Stopping the sound has also its variants. On top of all that, there's the question of how you use the breath to further sculpt the sound, which means working on flexibility in directing the air. I like to think of articulation as sculpting and carving the sound like a sculptor working with an extremely fine knife. This image works particularly well with German baroque music as it echoes the music's defined, perhaps slightly edgy structure. It brings clarity to the counterpoint. It fits the language well if you're working with a singer.
Do let me know what differences you hear in the above examples! More on the concept of sculpting sound can be found in my video workshop "Music & Imagery - playing with a 3-dimensional sound".
I feel a common misconception that people sometimes have about baroque music is that one needs to articulate more. More separated, more clearly, playing 'drier'. This idea doesn't really reflect the true aesthetic of baroque music, which is the speaking quality. It is actually about using a variety of articulations, with slurring included. In historical playing, we use syllables like D or R (hard like in Spanish), in addition to the common T which is most common for modern flute playing. This really gives the player a lot more options to shape notes, as we can adjust infinitely the intensity of the syllable (lighter or more distinct? More forward in the mouth or in the back?) as well as the quality of air used to play in that moment. By quality I mean the characteristic - faster or slower airstream? Loud or soft? Bell-like impulses or more stretched? Brilliant or dark?
The thing with slurring is that it's an "on" or "off" mechanism. The breath can still play a role, but we simply lose those fine shadings we'd otherwise have with T D or R. That doesn't mean, however, that slurring didn't exist or that it's a bad thing to do. There are MANY examples of slurring in baroque music! It all has to do with the interpreter's intention, what is to be expressed in a passage? Which articulation does justice to the intended affect?
How are you speaking to your audience? Should it sound easy going or is there a more intense message to be delivered? What kind of profile or texture in sound makes sense here?
Make all these decisions a conscious one, based on informed choices. And by including diverse articulation methods AND slurring, we increase our vocabulary in our musical language.
This is from one of my favorite sections in the CPE Bach's solo sonata:
In historical flute playing, we talk a lot about using varied articulation to create "light and shadow" in our sound. However, if the breath is not supporting that, if there's no "light and shadow" in your breath, then we are only half way there. Being able to shape and release the breath is the absolute basis and a top priority in the art of wind-playing.
Hear me live on this topic and get some hands-on playing at my upcoming workshop BEYOND THE ALLEMANDE on Feb. 5!
Apparently, the slur between the A and G is not in the original, but the editor put it in as there are many inconsistencies regarding the articulation grouping of two's. It IS a good suggestion, but one could also tongue lightly and play the G in diminuendo from the A. The "in diminuendo" concept is more important than whether it should be slurred or tongued. This will then set off the B nicely, let it "pop" a little, like just a touch of light on the edges of some clouds. In fact, the entire movement is doing just that - the motifs are like wispy layers which keep rising, descending, floating.
With just 3 notes, we can already create an acoustical layering or texture, making our sound 3-dimensional.
We might think of this kind of phrasing as having more priority in lyrical movements, but this is just as important in fast movements! By doing so, the fast will sound even livelier, without us actually playing faster. Watch out when articulation becomes "stodgy", when the air sounds inflexible.
Always lifting, always shaping. It's a bit of a paradox of course, that we have to work to sound not over-worked. But it's no different than what singers have to do.
Continuing with the idea of concentrating on the breath rather than the tongue for articulation - practice first without any tongue at all, deep and short "huh". Notice any squeezing in the lips, throat, and HANDS. Ideally, hands should always feel floppy, like just sort of hanging onto the flute. A sign of this is you can feel the vibration of the sound through the hands. I say ideally because it gets difficult during a technical passage, but we just have to keep constantly reminding ourselves.
This is part of a free sound production.
Then when we use the tongue, experiment whether just using the very tip of the tongue barely touching the edge of the teeth is enough. If it's well-supported and backed up by the air we just practiced, it might be just enough already.
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.