I always wanted to be a pop star!

 

October 09 2017

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 Ok, well not exactly a star, but a pop singer to be sure.

You see, I have always marveled at the ability of certain pop singers to use their voice in many different ways to convey their emotions in a song. They aren’t constrained by rules, and the expectations placed upon them differ from those for “classical” musicians. Pop singers are expected to convey emotion, or rather, to deliver the song in a personal way. Us classical musicians have the emphasis in the wrong place in my opinion.

Take for example a pop singer singing some sad song about death. They would have no hesitation to use a breaking voice should the words command it. A classical singer would be more mortified at letting the voice break. But to this day I have a hard time imagining someone talking about death in their best most beautiful voice. Therein lies a limitation. It’s rather like in the classical world the expectation is something along the lines of, “give it your all and identify with the music....just make sure it’s beautiful”. Well that doesn’t ring with me.

If music is the perfect vehicle for describing the human condition (and I believe it is, especially classical music), then aren’t we doing a disservice to make sure it’s always beautiful? The human condition is certainly not always beautiful. So we leave out a huge part of the story just by that one limitation.

In my practice I spend an awful lot of time trying to find different sounds and articulations in the flute. I long for the day when I can actually find a convincing way to portray the breaking voice. The trailing off of the voice at the end of a phrase to denote uncertainty, like so many wonderful saxophonists can do. The hesitant start to a phrase denoting the beginning of an uncertain thought. The weakness in a voice whose owner is afraid. The tone and colour of a voice whose owner is “speaking under their breath”. The threatening, the ugly, the fearful, the questioning, the determined, and yes the beautiful, the love, the happy, the over the moon. The flute is our voice and we’d better find ways of using it like a good actor does.

I’ve spent time with pop singers learning a new song. The process in those instances went something like this: learn the song (all the nuances, words, melodies); find a way to make it fit into you as a person.  In my experience in the classical world it’s more like: learn the piece (all the notes, words if applicable,  rhythms, dynamics, tempi, articulations, breathing spots, rubato etc.); figure out what the composer intended by that.

This to me is a serious disconnect to music as a form of communication. Whilst the former strives to communicate directly with the listener and tell a personal story, the latter is always striving to present someone else’s story (the composer’s) which now and forever shall only be hearsay. It’s perhaps like reading a play in a language one doesn’t know and expecting an audience to understand it and moreover be moved by it.  Indeed we say to students they should identify what they feel with a piece of music, and in the next breath we can also admonish them for not presenting what someone else (the composer) intended.

I believe that music, all music, is communication. We communicate by speaking to each other with all the nuances of the voice. We don’t communicate by singing to each other in perfect voices no matter what the intention. So I try to find ways of phrasing that suit more a speaking style rather than a singing style. Of course if it’s a piece of French music I will have in mind the conversational style of French. A Spanish piece will be done with Spanish in mind and so on.

I wonder even further. We keep saying such and such people aren’t sophisticated enough to understand classical music and that’s why they stay away. Could it be that we’re just not communicating?

So yes I’ve always wanted to be a pop singer to be able to express myself in this way. I ended up a flutist! This unending quest for expression is fascinating to me. I have yet to find the answers and I don’t know that I ever will. The search though, does yield some interesting results!

 

The photo above shows some of the voices I love for their expressiveness. From left to right: Kd Lang, Kalan Porter, Almeta Speaks, Me (wannabe)

I'm sure you're all familiar with Kd, but Kalan Porter is a past winner of Canadian Idol and his singing of "Nature Boy" has lived on my listening list ever since. Almeta Speaks is someone very special to me and now that I think of it, that probably deserves its own blog post. Soon I promise! 

 

 

Recording

I don’t want it to be ‘perfect’

October 07 2015

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Recording is such a large topic that I’ll just share with  you my thoughts on the recording process itself and not include the nitty gritty about copyrights, licensing, manufacturing, design etc.

I love recording but that’s probably because my preferred way of doing it is as low pressure as possible. It all starts with my concept of what a recording is (for me) and that is a snapshot of a performance at that time. I’ve always felt that this is all it can be and it relieves me from the pressure of having to consider it a definitive version or my very best anything during the process. To that end, there are a few things I do or don’t do that might be a surprise to most who are either considering doing a recording or have already done several. I’ll outline them below in the appropriate sections.

 

Venue: I prefer to record in an actual hall (church or concert hall) rather than in a studio. I like to hear the sound of the hall on the recording as I feel it gives lots of character to and further ties in to my idea of a final product that sounds as though one is at a concert. Make sure to choose a space that complements your sound. Studio recordings give one more options in the editing portion and there are amazing tools an engineer could use to present you at your best. For me though, it all takes away from the overall sound of that concert experience. Be aware of the noise around the hall during different times of the day and choose a time to record that is the most quiet.

 

Preparation: This is of vital importance. Do your rehearsals in advance and rehearse as you would for a concert. Actual recording time is expensive and you will want to be as efficient as possible in using your time. Rehearsing sections during the recording process is not a good use of time.

 

Recording: The day arrives when you will do the deed and it goes without saying that you should be completely warmed up! Remember, treat it as a concert. Depending on the piece itself, you will want to be aware of sections where you can easily do a re-take. Remember that if you are recording over more than one day, you should try and do an entire piece or movement on the same day. This is because the sound in the space you are in could very well change from one day to the next. Sometimes microphones aren’t exactly as they were or something else has changed in the room and this will be glaring on the final product. Have a producer who’s ears you trust listening to every bit that you record and take their advice seriously.

I try and do as few takes as possible and find that after a maximum of three takes on something it begins to change and doesn’t sound like me any longer. Perhaps we just get more and more careful with each take who knows. But I do know that eventually I start to sound like a machine with too many takes. If you are well-prepared, one take should be enough and most of my final product is from one take, even if it wasn’t perfect.

Editing:  In this part of the process, as with the takes mentioned above, I try to do as little as possible. Glaring things will be edited out yes but little things such as a 08tone colour I wasn’t expecting or a slightly out of tune note or a tempo gone wrong etc. I will leave alone. Again, this is tying into the ‘concert experience’ sound I’m trying for.

Because I record in actual halls one sometimes has to deal with outside noise. It isn’t a pristine environment and there can be traffic or even a squeaky chair. Depending on the severity of those noises I might leave them in. ‘Concert experience’ remember! Besides which, to my ears, too much cutting and pasting leaves a foreign product and I don’t recognise any part of myself at the end.

Mastering:  Frankly I don’t have my recordings mastered. The product you hear on the CD is the actual recording feed that happened. I don’t like hearing levels equalised where softs become a little louder and louds become softer. It misses the subtleties I’m trying for.

What I hope with the final product is that someone could put on the CD and feel that they are actually in that room at that time with me as if it were a concert. I’m not as much concerned with ‘perfection’ as I am with identity and purpose. In other words, does it sound like me and does it get my message across.


I like hearing the creaking of a chair or the breaths I might take or sometimes the passing of traffic. In effect, making it as close to a live concert as possible. For some future recording, I’m toying with the idea of leaving on the final product what happens after I record a take.  So no, my recordings aren’t ‘perfect’ and I’m glad they’re not!

 

Why Get on Stage Anyway?

(Purpose, programming and Possibilities)

September 25 2015

 

 35   What, are you crazy? How many times have I asked myself this?! Performing is a funny business at the best of times; nerves to deal with, and a certain level of uncertainty which can, to an observer, look anything but fun. Then of course I seem to like performing without music - no safety net! Ok, insane! Why do we do it?

    Different people will have different reasons as to why they do it. It could be as simple as, “this is just what I do”, or even, “I never thought about it really”. I’ve certainly been there too, and have had many different experiences from the stage over the years. I do feel, that for myself, I know I end up dealing with the butterflies (or stage fright if you will) when I don’t have a clear purpose for being on the stage that night. In other words, if I’m going to be there on a stage (through my own volition no less), I’d better have something to say!

    For me, the clear purpose has to be that of telling my story through the music I’m going to be playing. If I don’t feel that a particular piece of music on my programme that night contributes to that, then I feel extremely uncomfortable if I have to play it. Completely icky in fact; so much so that I dread having to go out there and feel rather like when I get involved in a juicy debate and I argue the other side just for kicks. Except not like that no. That’s fun, but doing it on stage musically, not so much. Luckily, I’m more often in a position these days to decide for myself what a programme shall be. For the other times when I don’t get to decide, I have to do my utmost to become a good actor, convincing myself of the purpose of a programme first.

    So let’s talk about programming...please make it interesting! When all the planets align and I get to choose a programme, my only thought is what kind of story arc will I be able to create for the audience that is going to listen. That’s it. It’s not about what I think I should play as a flutist (you know...”those pieces”), or what I think will show off some aspect of my technical ability or what key a piece is in or what period it’s from, and I certainly don’t want to present an historically acceptable and chronological tour through music history - yawn. The same goes for any programme notes I might need to write. I try to stay away from a textbook regurgitation of historical dates and discussions on structure and form, because really, c’mon. Instead I might write about what a piece means to me and why it’s placed in the programme where it is in general terms. I feel this gives the listener a small starting point from which they may join me on this journey.  One experience in particular changed the way I approached programming. A while back while rehearsing a recital programme, my pianist suggested I end the whole show with a very soft and quiet piece. Not just a piece with a quiet ending, the whole piece was like this. I took his suggestion and it was the most effective experience. So much so that I most often end programmes this way now rather than the expected big flutey bang.  I’m not on stage to ‘educate’ an audience but rather, to play for them and experience with them.

    In my mind, a constant consideration of someone who has paid to come to listen to me play the flute for a couple of hours is paramount. They must have an experience.  I might take one or two pieces that speak to me currently and create a story arc to which I will add other suitable pieces until the product is coherent, to me first. Is this story a play by play narrative that one could put into words? No. It certainly can be that, but it can also be an arc of emotion or thought, images or memories. At times, it’s almost a stream of consciousness that would be impossible to dictate.  Most often for me, pieces of music are about people I know and experiences I’ve had with them (both good and bad); at other times it can be more of an actual narrative of something I’ve experienced or imagined.

    Of course this means that more often than not, I play music that wasn’t actually written for the flute. At this point, there isn’t much in the flute repertoire that speaks to me and what I’m trying to say because apparently I haven’t grown up yet (yay!). If I truly don’t have anything to ‘say’ with a piece of music, I will not perform it. I feel it would be disingenuous to the audience that night and I’d be telling a big fat lie; a story I didn’t actually believe in. However I know that as I live and experience more of life, different pieces begin to take hold as others lose their grip on me and so I simply wait for the process to happen naturally.

    One such experience happened recently at our Whole Musician Retreat in Toronto. One of the participants played a piece that I hadn’t even really thought about for many years. Upon hearing him play it however, I suddenly startedone of the most interesting and exciting performances. Duo Mei getting ideas I’d not had before. After the retreat I went home, pulled it off the shelf and lo and behold, there was a narrative unfolding right there in front of me. One of the clearest stories yet!

    This doesn’t mean that I expect an audience to understand what it is I’m trying to say up there. The intent only is to tell my story and leave everything else up to them. They can think and feel whatever it is they like and whatever it is that makes sense to them. In this way, I find instrumental music to be much more freeing than vocal music. Without words, we leave the audience much more in their own world and don’t tell them what they should be feeling or thinking.

    For me, I’ve found that the old battles with stage fright and so on have diminished greatly or even disappeared when I can walk out on stage with a clear purpose of what I want to do. This has nothing to do with technical considerations and in fact those things never even enter my mind because it’s all about this concert experience on this night. Taking a roomful of people on a journey for two hours is most magical. So, no, it’s not insanity to get up on that stage. It’s simply that I got something I wanna say. Did I just justify (again) the insanity?

 

Photo (right):Thoroughly enjoyed witnessing Duo Mei's (Patricia Garcia and Juliana Moreno) performance in Lima

 

Can’t hear the music for the markings!
(throw away that pencil)

published September 29 2015

Ok so a while ago someone looked at my music on the stand at home and asked if I had started learning that piece yet. I replied that yes, in fact I performed it the week before. Shescore was very surprised and when I asked why, she said it was because there were no marks in the score! To which I naturally exclaim that I think pencils are the enemy to music.

That’s right, I make no marks in the score whatsoever. Done freaking out? I find that it really distracts me from any original thought I might have. I see a pencil mark telling me to do something and it completely destroys what I might have felt like doing at that moment.

When I see marks in the part, I start to “play the markings” rather than the music. I play the dynamic that’s marked or do the accelerando that’s marked. Really, do I absolutely need to be reminded to do that? In the orchestra, do I really need to mark in that the clarinet is playing with me?  If I do, it’s a sure sign that I don’t actually know the piece well yet and what am I doing performing it then?

When a piece of music sits well within me and makes sense there is no need for a scribble that tells me to play softer here or there. It just is the way it happens. I don’t need or want a reminder at the top of the page as to what the piece is all about or what character I should try to create. I should know that already.

As I play a lot of violin music, I have to ‘rearrange’ certain parts frequently. The violin’s range is lower than the flute and so things like arpeggios and so on need to be turned around or re-voiced. To write that in the part would make it especially busy to look at and just wouldn’t work.

Even in the cases of a misprint in the score, I will not mark the error. Again, it would simply look to me like a big DANGER DANGER WARNING WRONG NOTE UP AHEAD and it’s entirely too distracting. Have you ever noticed your mind flits away from the music just for an instant when you see a mark in the part? Simply learn the right note(s) and internalise it. Everything becomes internalised and then it will always be there.

I find that scores with lots of marks in them (sometimes where it’s near impossible to actually read the print) sort of shifts the focus from ourselves to the paper too much. For me anyway, it’s almost like saying to my brain, ‘ok don’t think, all you need is on the paper’. But blink at the wrong time and you’re toast.


As I’ve said in other places, I do tend to play without music in front of me so obviously markings would be rather useless. But let’s get off the page. Putting a mark on the score further ties us to it.

 

Whole Musician Toronto Retreat 2015

published September 23 2015

Right after the CFA Convention, my team and I began a five day retreat for the Whole Musician at the same location. We had amazing participants from as far as Australia and Peru come to join us in Toronto and for the first time we also had non-flutists join us!

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We started off with a full day of workshops and then the faculty concert on the first night. This is always a treat because the five faculty members all play so differently to each other and it all works beautifully as we can showcase how good it is to have differing approaches to flute playing. It all comes together perfectly as a showcase for the instrument’s abilities. I got to play with our retreat pianist Anne Marshall which is always a pleasure. Dear Anne was coming off of a hectic convention having already played about fourteen recitals in the previous four days and she was still eager to play more! Together we played my transcription of Mahler’s Adagietto from the fifth symphony, and we quickly hammered together two Strauss songs arranged by Elizabeth Walker that I had heard Liz play a couple of days previously. This music by Strauss is so moving, magical and familiar, that Anne and I really didn’t spend much time rehearsing it and I can’t wait to play them again! As usual, my colleagues performed at the top of their game, and this keeps me inspired!

The next days were spent in the usual workshops which for the first time included Anne delivering a class on “From the pianist’s point of view” which is something we all need to keep in mind. The rest of the concerts included two participant concerts and an open mic night where we all could get up and play whatever we wished.

This open mic night is certainly one of my favourite nights as we let our hair down and perform for each other in this private concert where the idea is, no rehearsals, just get up and do it. We heard hilarious duos, tangos, flamenco guitar, more guitar with singer and flute, melodia, and I had the pleasure of playing a couple of duets that are special to me. One was a work called rio cali pasillo that I heard in Peru and the performers there gave me the music before I left. It was sitting in my bag and I hadn’t looked at it since they gave it to me. At the retreat, flutist Vincenzo Volpe asked if we could play something together and I thought of that piece. While we were at it I remembered I also had the music to Piazzolla’s Oblivion and we played that as well. Oblivion is a beautiful work full of meaning and emotion. This version is for two flutes and strings arranged by Christine Beard and Christine and I played it together in Peru. For this occasion, Anne promptly picked out a piano part from the score, ‘cause she can do that. We enjoyed this so much that we repeated the same pieces again a couple of nights later at the final concert (videos on this site). Also at that concert another of the participants, Hann Melendez asked to play his composition ‘Mirada’ with him. I happily obliged as it’s a beautiful work that he needs to make longer! Hann is not only a fabulous flutist, but obviously an excellent guitarist and composer.

wmblog1Our workshops cover the gamut of everything one could think of that would be of value. There were yoga, feldenkrais and fitness classes. The traditional masterclasses and coachings, life coaching, meditation, music theory and history, other music classes and so on, all in an effort to help all involved find their way in this musical life. This is cool.

Beyond the playing and workshops we also made time to have a night off in which we did a small walking tour of Toronto. My plan was to go even further, but, since dinner happened we all needed to just relax afterward. So it was back to the university for a nightcap of yoga nidra of which I missed most of since, well, it was dark and dinner had happened and....

The retreat saw some discovering themselves; new found confidence or purpose and even long term goals. We play together, we live together and we witness each other together. For me this is a magical combination. At the end, I’m always sorry to see things come to a close. I always hope that the participants feel they have gotten something of value, no matter how small, out of the experience because I know I certainly do.