Last week, I wrote about how excited I was to return to a regular practice routine.
I’m still excited, but man, I forgot how PHYSICAL practice is.
In the past decade, I have been lucky if I logged any practice at all on a given day. And if that practice time was extensive enough to include Moyse’s De La Sonorite, I considered myself immeasurably blessed.
So that didn’t happen often in the last decade, the Sonorite thing. It’s been a rare thing – that moment where I knew, or was reasonably sure, that no one would need anything from me, and that I could engage in this exercise, which, (as it was taught to me, first as a teen, by Christine Ertell (Richmond (VA) Symphony), and later by my mentor, Frances Averitt, at Shenandoah Conservatory, who studied this exercise with Moyse himself), is an exercise that requires the utmost concentration and energy. The first time we worked on it together, Frances said, when I finished playing the first exercise at a tempo slow enough to satisfy, “Are you tired? Good. You should feel tired when you finish playing this exercise.”
Frances taught that Sonorite was not intended as a warm-up, although many flutists do use it that way, and it does work well for that purpose. During warm-ups, we simply made note of what was going on with our tone that day. We didn’t return to a note or passage to correct. We just continued playing the warm-up and letting our tone find itself as we played, using our minds and ears.
Sonority was a different story. Frances had her students play it without vibrato, as Moyse instructed (although what he meant by “without vibrato” remains unclear), and often referred to putting the tone under the microscope in this exercise. We could repeat a two note segment multiple times until we were happy, could stay on one note and examine it, looking in a mirror, listening, adjusting, repeating, and then we could reverse the exercise, playing a short segment or the entire exercise backwards. This was in-depth tone work. And that’s how I use this exercise.
And, oh boy, I’d forgotten the energy that took. Paula Robison is right. We are athletes of the flute. And I think, during my time mothering small children, that while I may not have physically practiced as much as I would have liked, I’ve certainly raised my standards regarding tone. And also musicality.
I’ll wager than non-musician mothers do not find themselves rocking their children to sleep while simultaneously analyzing the Prokofiev Sonata. But I did. I did tons of this in-head analysis. I’d be humming to my child and suddenly, “Hush You Bye” would morph into the J.S. Bach’s B Minor Sonate, and I’d find myself analyzing phrases and chords. Sometimes I’d be replaying a piece in my head and deconstructing it, and also thinking, “If I ever perform this again, I won’t breathe THERE. I’ll breathe HERE.”
The end result of all this late-night in-head analysis is this: I find myself with some very exacting musical expectations, minus the polished skills required to meet those expectations. I have become my worst nightmare of a teacher.
Except that maybe, this is the best teacher I can be to myself. To have these expectations, and to remain patient as I redevelop (and further) my technique so that I can execute these phrases, these movements, these pieces to the exacting standards of my demanding inner teacher.
I remember the first time I played dynamics to suit Chris Ertell. I was a somewhat defiant high schooler who thought I knew most of what there is to know about playing the flute. One afternoon, Chris had brought me upstairs from her basement studio to her living room, so we could listen to a record of the piece we were working on. I don’t remember what the piece was, but I would remember this lesson for the rest of my life.
After listening to the piece, Chris said, “Do you see? Do you hear the amount of expression he uses? Do you hear the dynamic range?” I said that I did, but I really didn’t get it.
So Chris had me play an excerpt from the piece for her. When I finished, she said, “No, I don’t hear any dynamics. Do it again.” And so I played it again, and again, and again, and each time, Chris said she didn’t hear any dynamics. It was becoming quite clear that I wasn’t leaving until she believed I’d played some dynamics.
I looked out the window to the street.
“Your next student is here.”
“And they can wait.”
By this point, I was seething. Why was Chris telling me I wasn’t playing dynamics when I SO clearly was? Barely able to contain my anger and frustration, I played the excerpt again. I decided I was going to play it the way a circus clown would – I exaggerated the dynamics and phrasing, to the point I felt they sounded ridiculous. I played to the very fringes of my abilities, and when I was finished, my heart was racing and I was breathing fast, and I thought, “That was the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever done.”
And Chris said, “That was better. I heard some dynamics that time. You could do more.”
You could do more. And that became my mantra, as I rocked my children to sleep at night, analyzing this flute piece and that, and orchestral pieces and chamber music and anything else that came into my mind. You could do more.
And so, I’ll keep practicing, a bit more each time. And I’ll keep doing the unglamorous work of rebuilding and refining my technique. And I’ll unleash the clown when it’s time, and do more.