Larry Krantz Flute Pages: Alexa Still Flute Corner

Alexa Still, Flute

Alexa is known internationally for her many recordings on the Koch International Classics label. She has been described as: “impeccable in technique and taste, seductive in phrasing” (Stephensen Classical C D Guide). “Still plays... so convincingly I cannot separate her from the music” (American Record Guide), “whatever she plays sounds musical in every turn of the phrase” (Gramophone), “a stunning showcase for the astonishing Alexa Still” (Fanfare).

A New Zealander, Alexa’s graduate study was in New York (SUNY Stony Brook) where she also won competitions including the New York Flute Club Young Artist Competition, and, East and West Artists Competition. Alexa then won principal flute of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra at the age of 23. While home, she received a Churchill Fellowship and a Fulbright award. In 1998, she left the NZSO to become Associate Professor of Flute at University of Colorado at Boulder. She then moved to Sydney in 2006, where she became Professor of Flute and Director of Performance research at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. She began in her new position at Oberlin Conservatory, USA, in 2011.

Alexa maintains a busy concert schedule, having presented recitals, concertos and master classes in England, Germany, Slovenia, Turkey, Mexico, Venezuela, Brazil, Canada, Korea, China, Australia, New Zealand, and of course across the United States. Her 13th solo compact disc (concertos including the Pied Piper Fantasy) was released in September 2004 to unanimous acclaim: “Anyone who doubts Still's dumbfounding technical ability or complete tonal control should hear these… You just won't hear better-sustained flute playing on disc than this” Fanfare Magazine. Alexa’s 14th CD was released in January 2008 (music for flute and piano with New York-based English pianist Stephen Gosling) “Both performers are constantly praised for their technical prowess and amazing ability to make the most challenging works sound effortless and easy. Reviewers far and wide agree that Alexa Still doesn’t make anything sound tough. She gracefully sprints and hurdles through menacing challenges without seeming to break a sweat. Added to this technical superiority comes an equally superior sensitive musical side. This disc isn’t just flautistic fireworks.” Sequenza21.

Alexa has also served her profession as President of the National Flute Association (USA), and regularly contributes articles to flute journals across the globe. She plays a silver flute made for her by Brannen Brothers of Boston with gold or wooden headjoints by Sanford Drelinger of White Plains, New York. When her flute is in its case, Alexa is an avid motorcyclist, and she shares a daughter and two dogs with her husband. You can read much more about Alexa on her website: Alexa

    "This listener found himself so involved in the music at hand that the artist's technical sureness and musical intensity were noticed only in retrospect" New York Times.

    "her playing matched her impressive stature... Alexa's ability to whisper or shout with her instrument as she needed made her performance very, very, special." Peninsula News, L.A.


Alexa Still Discography:

Click Here to visit Alexa's web site recordings page


Alexa on Performing at a Young Age:

I wanted to say what a great comment David Dahl's was concerning the learning that making mistakes isn't the end of the world.

I think performing a lot at a young age helps you figure this out sooner. I got going on flute rather early, so my experience is probably not the norm, but I *always* encourage my students to get out there and do *full recitals* as soon as possible. They learn to organise it all- hall rentals, accompanists publicity, photos etc in addition to playing the concert! I think this is good practise for a lot of very helpful skills!!!

While these students are around freshman age, I would also do it with younger ones- I just don't teach younger ones myself at the moment.

I am always reminded of a great story Sam Baron told me about Rampal... I was almost in tears discussing my recital of the previous day- I wanted it to be absolutely the best fluting ever, and ofcourse didn't live up to my expectations for the entire concert.

Sam pointed out that when Rampal was much younger, he toured almost constantly. While in New York for a recital, he had stayed with Mr Baron, so after the recital Mr Baron had accompanied Rampal to the after concert function.

Evidently Rampal had not done a terrific concert. Mr Baron clearly thought that a lot of travel, and not a lot of time for practise had taken a toll, and being the great Sam Baron, Mr Baron still found plenty to enjoy in Rampal's performance. Anyway, Rampal was quite depressed about it- atleast for a while... 15 minutes later, Rampal was justifying his problems, ackowledging the travel problems etc. After another 15 minutes, and a drink maybe?, Rampal was remembering the better bits and that he had done his best. Half an hour later, Rampal was feeling pretty happy about it... the audience had enjoyed it, so...

Mr Baron's point was that we all are human, and screw up to some degree, *and* that a successful musician learns to deal with it and not let such experiences be self destructive. Kind of like learn that mistakes are not a major catastrophy and keep yourself stress free- and not unduely worried about public performance.

Without fail, my students who get up and do recitals become better performers and better able to cope with it all.

I also think this is an aspect of performing from memory that is often overlooked. Just from sitting in my orchestra, I have observed some very well known soloists do longwinded memory lapses. They always recover, and I guess it usually escapes the audiences' attention completely. This is confidence!!! -keep on playing something in the style of, and get back on the rails, and then do another solo appearance tomorrow!

Cheers, Alexa


Alexa Still on Flute and Gender:

I had a very interesting experience with my flute class meeting some Indonesian musicians. The visit was organised by Jack Body who is a composer/professor at the University that I teach at. Fortunately, Jack speaks Indonesian, and is very knowledgable about their customs etc, so he came along and smoothed the way.

We all sat in a circle on the floor, and they introduced themselves, and we introduced ourselves. Then these gentlemen performed for us. It was magical! The music is extremely expressive, and the three of them sang and played a wide range of flutes in turn- not sounds that we are accustomed to hearing of course, but obviously utilizing great skill. The breathing was remarkable- circular breathing continuously for the whole "song" with the body supported by elbows on knees and sort of slumped forward. The embouchure for playing is actually sideways for us- the cheek closes off most of the tube, with the lips directing the air at the edge that is left. They hold flutes out and downwards in a diagonal from the face. Our upper and bottom lips translate into left and right hand sides of the embouchure (I hope this makes some sense- I am managing to confuse myself!)

Anyway, after the gentlemen succeeded in mesmerising myself and my students, Jack pointed out that it was only polite to reciprocate, so I played Debussy's Syrinx. The Indonesian gentlemen spoke immediately to Jack and were quite animated- It turns out that playing flute is a man's occupation, and is regarded as something that demands and deserves a male's (superior) skills. Jack relayed that I "played like a man" and that I shouldn't take offense (he didn't know me too well...)

My students- all female- thought this was extremely amusing! We now can complement each other with a new phrase- "very like a man, that was!" etc

Anyway, I wanted to add that I think the male body does lend itself well to playing flute- all that room for air. Compare male/female air capacity charts to see what I mean. I think the success of female flutists, in those parts of the world that don't discriminate on basis of gender, is largely because the flute is widely regarded as having a "pretty" (ie not loud and "macho") sound generally. I think that worried Dads.

My dad didn't want me doing sax (his instrument) to keep me out of nightclubs- or atleast that is what my mother once told me... How many sax players are female? I'll bet there are many, but probably out numbered by men.

Cheers, Alexa


Alexa Still on Holding the Flute:

This is a really interesting topic. I made a point of asking the flutists I saw during my fulbright studies about this and, surprisingly, quite a number appeared to not have thought about it at all. I think some teachers do concentrate on the musical aspect, or tone, and if they themselves have never had hassles, they have had no reason to think this through... Anyway, personally I go along with Nyfenger's suggestion, which is more along the lines of holding the flute in four places (ie more like the thumb under routine) and my primary reason for this is to avoid a lot of pressure at the lip-plate squashing my lower lip. I like the general feel of less tension and more flexibility of the embouchure that this helps me achieve.

This is also what I promote with my students, and especially the ones who are particularly "jammed in" at the lower lip. In the extreme, I have seen flutists try to control octaves and soft dynamics in the higher ranges by "jamming in" harder (Not too successful). In a medium case, it can sound a little "thin" easily, but the fingers are often tense.... my own theory is that some people develop heavier/tenser fingers than necessary with the feeling of "push" required in the three contact point method, and also a definate thrust forward of the head/neck. This seems to become a vicious cycle; more push in the right hand is met with more push at the head which requires more push at the right hand etc

Having said all this, *obviously* some really great players make this position work really successfully, and obviously don't have any tension problems at all... maybe this needs to be filed in the "different strokes for different folks" basket? Humans come in an *amazing* array of body sizes/proportions/tolerances!

Now, for myself, I suppose having come closer to my ideal concerning bottom lip/lip plate pressure, I could try to revert to the three position grip ( I started off that way) but I'd rather spend the time fixing my weaker points :)

I should also say I have my right thumb about half way between "behind" and "under". This seems to suit the length of my fingers, and my right hand pinky. I obviously "push" a wee bit, but since I can hold on to the flute comfortably away from my chin without using fingers except the right pinky, I am clearly not pushing against the chin as in the three contact point idea.

Finally, and please excuse me for rabbiting on *again*, the whole way you hold the flute is probably related to whether you rotate it at all for pitch control. If you don't, the three point method maybe easier than it is for people who do rotate.... any other comments on this?

I agree with Ruth- more women on panels!!!! Atleast more people with small hands would be a start! and I hope someone can get Jeanne Baxtresser to do it. Her flute is heavily modified, and she is very happy about it...

Cheers, Alexa


Alexa Still on Interpretation:

Judy asks about ideas concerning student's abilities to do the interperetive stuff by themselves...

I approach my teaching with that as the goal... Basically my teaching is limited to tertiary and adult students, so I don't know how far you can push this on younger ones really...

I start off *demanding* that they listen *a lot* and get accustomed to working from scores (ie piano parts etc). This is something Thomas Nyfenger insisted upon, and I think it makes very good sense. In the beginning I make suggestions as to different possibilities- I hope this gets them thinking, *and* realising that there isn't a "right" way necessarily but it does have to be thought out and very convincing. I try to move gradually into challenging the ideas the students arrive at... we eventually spend a lot of time experimenting with different ideas over a portion of the piece, and I leave them to figure out the whole thing. It is very hard work- it means that I have to play (attempting to demonstrate various ideas) quite a lot, and there is quite a lot of talking besides just getting through what the student has prepared. We always run out of time... And, it can be very hard to maintain an air of encouragment while pointing out what might be perhaps less than successful. I think I've mostly had a student for a year already by the time we get to this stage, so by then we can do it all in good humour. When treading close to damaging delicate personality/sense of confidence, I find exaggeration, and the resultant laughter goes a very long way! Any way, to quit rambling here, I think students can do their own work on interperetation, but excepting those rare talented wonders who are naturals, it takes a while to get there. I think, in the end, this is most important. In the end , we all have to teach ourselves!

Cheers, Alexa


Alexa Still on Perfect Pitch:

"Perfect pitch" is something I didn't realise I had until I was about 14, and finally realised that other poeple couldn't do what I could do quite easily in writing down things they heard on records etc. I am comfortable around A=339 up to about A=444, Outside of this I am very disoriented, and find listening most unpleasant. I can't say that it is painful as such, but the feeling is like something is just very wrong. I *think* I lose the ability to recognise the colour of the notes at the extremes.

I am sure Pefect pitch stuff is something you can learn, but maybe it is hard to get to the level that some have it. I had a childhood friend who could instantly tell the difference between A441 and A442. I think I can identify an A440 as opposed to A442 (on orchestral instruments anyway), but getting down to one cent is remarkably fine! Interestingly, I was more fluent at notating aural excerpts than her, although her pitch recognition was clearly more attuned than mine. I notice many of my colleagues have what has been referred to as flute pitch, and in other instruments of course, and I notice that I am not as confident with voices as I am with any mechanically produced/accidental environmental sound.

I also wanted to add that I think sometimes people with perfect pitch can have awful intonation because they stop at simply identifying the note- I think Keith referred to this; a clear ignorance of the depth of variables in intonation relating to the musical context.

This pitch recognition stuff is a very handy thing when one is lost (I admit to it, okay!), or in a situation where things are very unfamiliar or have gone wrong (soloist/conductor screw up etc)- it is helpful being able to recognise which passage will "work" in the context before actually playing.

Ocassionally I find my colleagues "following me" in such situations- my recognising the pitch gives me a confidence that is hard to come by otherwise.

It is also handy in my teaching- I don't have to wander across and look at the music- although I refer to the notes by the name that is right to me in the context, which may not correspond to the written note (enharmonic etc; my "Eb" may be actually notated as a "D#").

On the other hand, I can't stand listening to recordings that are "off"- I love authentic instruments, but, at their real pitch it drives me nuts, especially if I know the music in question. I also have a hard time dealing with German practise of the very high "a". I have played in Europe a few times, and had to "wind" myself up, over a couple of months. Even then, it was okay when I'm with a piano, but difficult to maintain otherwise.

I also have the hardest time dealing with fingering the "wrong note" as per alto flute, treble recorder etc. Transposing music (written for clarinet etc) is no problem, but playing the wrong fingering is horrific indeed, and has taken years off of my life!

I am full of admiration for people who can do that!

I also have to say that some days I "know" everything about pitch, and some days (after some rehearsals!) I feel like I can't begin to sing a major second.

Cheers, Alexa


Alexa Still on Recording the Flute:

I thought I'd add my 2 cents worth here. I guess like everybody else, I have had that experience of being either dissappointed, or surprised at hearing a flutist live after listening to recordings. It does seem that the recorded version is often quite unlike the actual sound- ofcourse we never know if some-one's playing has merely changed, or if they are using a different instrument, have a cold when playing live, or what etc etc.

Having been through the process of being recorded a few times now, I can appreciate how much difference the recording engineer, and producer can make by microphone placement, balance between microphones, the type of microphone used, and the digital treatment (enhancing, reverb etc) of the raw recorded sound done at production/editing time.

I am also very aware that flutists often have a different idea of what they sound like than do the people listening to them. It also seems that the basic sound can get messed with a lot while getting rid of extraneous hiss sounds etc. I am very happy with Michael Fine- well over the moon would be more accurate!-because *as far as I can tell* he gets it so I sound like me, to me at least. I am equally certain that if I didn't like something about it, he could change tthe sound quality very easily, and I think this often happens.

When it comes down to it, flute is very difficult to record, and the balance is often a problem. As a result of my observations of recording technique/ possibilities, I would *never* judge the sound of a flutist by a recording. It just isn't like real life.

Now that I think of it, most flutes don't sound too good in closets either! So, even "live", you have to take into account the context!

Cheers, Alexa


Alexa Still on Breath Support:

Wow, all these great ideas put into words. My teaching skills improve everytime I log in!- all these new ways of expressing it all, thanks to all the contributions...

I really like the Fogging the mirror concept from John Wion.

I think of breath support being totally tied to the sound/tone color that I'm trying to do at the time, and I think discussions on breath support get tricky because the tone thing can be so variable! I would agree with everything I have read here- but nothing would be right all the time for my own playing.

I think something of relevance to this discussion is however that it seems students often go through patches of being "lazy" in the support department, and over "embouchuring" to compensate. Their tone goes kind of thin and yuk, with more "splats" to higher notes etc, and the articulation suffers. It seems my students have a tendency toward that end of the spectrum than the too much support (if there is such a thing) and not enough "embouchuring". Does anyone else find this amongst their students? At least it is quite "fixable", but I'm curious that the "support" seems to be such an effort for some people, whereas "embouchure" control seems mostly quite easy. Maybe we are just not as fit as we should be?

I certainly agree- as does anyone that I can think of- that the sound difference is incredibly dramatic when comparing an "unsupported" sound to a "supported" one. Why is a very good question!

Does anyone have more exercises for this "supported" sound concept? I usually get the "what does it feel like" question in masterclasses, and my best response is so crude that I'm not even going to write it....

Cheers, Alexa


Alexa Still on Vibrato:

I am, as usual, a couple of days late with this, but I just wanted to say how I enjoyed people's comments about vibrato sometimes being obnoxiously prominent etc etc. I feel like this about a lot of flute playing, but I am inclined to think it is just me being nuts. Even if there are only 10 of us who feel that way, at least I'm not on my lonesome!

I think that flutists get accustomed to the sound of a flute being full of vibrato, and don't ever hear how a flute might fit in with other instruments without it.

My recent trip to the US was actually mostly for my Fulbright studies- it just worked out that I was going anyway for some concerts etc- and my studies were specifically on orchestral excerpts with leading orchestral players. This is something I never really studied with a teacher before. (gasp, horror...) But that is another story!

Anyway, a major thing that I discussed with everyone is the use of vibrato, and how to practise it etc. It is very clear to me now that flute players are generally expected to have a healthy dose of vibrato most of the time, and especially for audition purposes.

Beyond that I have at least come to an understanding - I think!- of how this may have come about. Jeffrey Khaner explained this really well, showing me how flutists often make a very ugly sound when they play with no vibrato. In his opinion, keeping the vibrato there all the time (and he does!) means that the air pressure has to be at a certain level, and then the notes all sound good, besides the fact that there is vibrato going on.

If you try this yourself, you can see that it is relatively difficult to make an ugly (like thin and edgy) sound when vibrato is happening, compared to the possibilities on a "straight" note.

The tricky bit is (for me) how to keep doing "phrasing" nuances without the vibrato interferring and vice-versa. I find it difficult to do a smooth run of notes, especially at a fastish tempo, and not have the vibrato become a regular subdivision of each note, or worse, become an apparent swell on each note (I really hate hearing this!). Khaner can actually play beautifully phrased music with what I would normally regard as an incessant vibrato, so at this point I think you could argue either way from an aesthetics point of view. Except that I still personally find what I call an "expressive" use of vibrato (ie a great singer, unaccompanied, moving from a still note into vibrato and back) spine chillingly moving. This must be something that is a matter of personal taste....

Jeanne Baxtresser had great ideas on how to practise control of vibrato- to aid the doing-it-all-the-time type of playing. She has her students play a note (with vib. of course) and imagine that they will not change anything (ie air, embouchure etc) and has them change the note at her direction. The idea is that you fool yourself into making a seamless change. To get an idea of what this feels like when done well, get someone else to operate the keys, and shut your eyes while playing. Jeanne Baxtresser also recommends a good vibrato speed is triplets (yes triplets- isn't that inspired! for some daft reason I've always thought in groups of four- how square!) at 114. She can do triplet 8ths very easily at 120. She recommends working at the vibrato with a metronome, and doing it in groups of five too.

For more flexibility of vibrato, and also for bigger sound generally, she suggested that I ascend octaves... a big healthy note with lots of vib, and then "grow" onto the same note an octave higher.

Of course, my pathetic attempts at trying to convey what she was showing me etc do not do her justice- or Jeff for that matter, but I hope this is of interest to a few of you.

From the general feel of my lessons, and from observing these people playing, I think vibrato is very definately "in". From an orchestral players point of view I should add that it can help amazingly with projection. That same sound that doesn't blend can be invaluable in making oneself heard. Sorry if this is a bit rambly-

Cheers, Alexa


Encouragement for a Young Player

Dear Sarah (Mozart lady),

Please believe me when I say we have all been there, and that your playing, really, truly was probably no where near as bad as you think it was... Performing is a risky business and sometimes we aren't well enough prepared, and sometimes things are simply beyond our control (not going as we'd prefer they did...).

And, sometimes things go GREAT, and those occassions make all the less fantastic ones pale into insignificance.

The point is that you have to remember that this getting up and expressing yourself in public, on the spot, under pressure etc, is your choice. And you do it because you love it and because other people enjoy listening to you. Stressing out about maybes and whys after the event etc don't help at all. It is an experience we all have to have. All you can do is get right back on the horse (sorry- bad use of a saying- I know) and calmly think about what you need to do to minimise the effect of detrimental things you have no control over- like not enough rehearsals. It is very possible that if you listened *a lot* to many recordings and studied the score, that you'd feel so confident of the accompaniment that you'd have no problem with four rehearsals. You'd probably even be confident enough to change the tempo in the performance. You mightn't realise it, but it is quite common for a professional to get just two (and even sometimes just one) rehearsal with an orchestra before a concerto performance. I don't mean to say that I like that idea (---- no!), but that is life. We have to learn how to cope with all sorts of things, so that we can really present our very best efforts... especially after all the hard work you obviously did.

So, pat yourself on the back for surviving a hard experience/hanging in there, and get working on the next one- audition/concert/lesson or what ever. Figure out how you can prepare for everything better. Enjoy your friends (they sound like cool mates) and get thinking positively!

Cheers, Alexa
from FLUTE discussion group: February 1997


Alexa Still on Practice

Recently on the FLUTE list, there was a plea for help from someone experiencing one of those patches of lacking motivation.... I remember feeling this way when nothing was going on in my life. Other responses discussed beautifully how this can be handled as a part of preparation for touring and concerts. The trouble is that not everyone has concerts/tours to practice for. I have observed that some people have seemingly endless motivation when they work to a clock. I know several pianists who practice really well, imminent concerts or not, by doing their three hours (or whatever) at a certain time of day. They can achieve tremendously with great concentration for that time. They know that the rest of the day is free and can actively be used for all those other things that help give us a sense of balance in our lives and all the things we just have to do for maintenance.

I am motivated best when I have a "cause". I know myself well enough now that I have a waiting list of "causes", taking the form of certain technical goals and new repertoire. When I don't have an imminent concert, there is more than plenty to do and to look forward to! Now, I adore practicing, and I am a total grump and horrible person to live with when I don't get my quota of practice in.

This motivation issue is something I try to get my students to consider early on- to identify whether they work best to a clock, or specific goals. I think the former is probably a more relaxed and healthier way of life, but the latter can be a good excuse for building those entrepreneurial and organizational skills that are very valuable for a career- making recitals happen and actively hunting other performance opportunities.

It is also important to recognise our human nature- some days just aren't practice days for whatever reason, and it is best to accept that and use such days to your best advantage rather than getting all depressed or feeling guilty. I firmly believe that my practice time has to be a totally 100% involvement or I could be learning bad habits. So, if I can't focus on my playing, I opt for the other things we can benefit from: I go outside and remember that I am just one litlle part of a big world / regain some perspective, I go to an art exhibition, I attend a play, I listen to a record, read a book, try to learn something...

There is a lot more to music than you can learn in a practice room!

Cheers, Alexa

Alexa on Asthma and Flute Playing

For Teri, as a "chronic asthmatic" since the age of about seven, I can relate.

The amazing thing is that I was a total weakling sick pathetic kid, you know, skinny and pale, to the point of spending about half the year at home sick, and I simply feel like I have gotten stronger and better every year. I put this down to my flute playing largely. Sure, I figured out what I am allergic to, and I watch what I eat especially when I am performing as it can make a very big difference.

I have to be honest and say that I can still be a wreck if I get a cold, but now I don't always get Bronchitis. YAY! This is somehwat symptomatic of being an asthmatic, and it is important to avoid getting bugs. Anti flu jabs can help. It used to be that I always got that chest infection... I could feel it happening, often within hours of the sneezing. Now this happens seldom.

I have also found that I have to be reasonable fit. This makes a very graphic difference in my ability to cope with the asthma as well as general resilience. I understand that keeping your wieght under control is also important. Extra weight means extra effort in breathing.

In terms of flute playing, I think the big thing is not to worry, and don't feel handicapped! I can play longer phrases than a lot of people, even with my asthma, and actually the really important thing is making convincing music- not how long the phrase is! It comes down to how you use the air that you have.

Many of my students are asthmatics too- here in New Zealand it is a common problem. Once you get sorted out with the medication, which may include the excellent preventive medications available, and understand how your body reacts, asthma is a very minor concern and easily managable. The good side is that you have to be aware what your breathng mechaninism feels like to an extreme level, and I think we can play "wiser" as a result.

I wish you luck Teri, and patience, but don't worry. You will do fine! Remember Arnold Jacobs is asthmatic and small and was minus portions of his lungs for much of his career with the Chicago Symphony, and played Tuba amazingly. In my lessons he didn't dwell on the asthma thing either. We breifly compared what medication we were using, and then got onto the important stuff.

Cheers, Alexa
from FLUTE discussion group, April 1998


Breathing - from Alexa Still

Arnold Jacobs is a legend. Known as "the Man With One Lung", Arnold was Tuba player with the Chicago Symphony, and a worldwide respected breathing expert. He lectured at medical conferences, and taught anyone who breathes for a living. He also had the equivalent of one lung- a half of each was removed when he was in his forties. Besides being an awesome musician, he was a gifted teacher and a wonderful person. You can read about him in "Arnold Jacobs: Song and Wind" Brain Frederiksen, edited by John Taylor, published by WindSong Press Ltd, second printing 1996, ISBN 0-9652489-0-9.

This is a brief summary of the very important bits of knowledge that I figure relate best to us as flute players, based upon my four lessons with Mr. Jacobs. By all accounts Mr. Jacobs taught each as an individual, and there may be very different aspects of his knowledge available from others. I hoped to learn more, and had expected to be an assistant and observe his teaching throughout this year, but tragically he passed away in October. I feel very obligated to do what I can to spread understanding of his teaching.

Firstly and most importantly, please go and look up a medical dictionary. Better yet would be to try and visit a pulmonary ward of a hospital. The most important aspect is to understand your body and how it works. You need to know where the lungs are exactly, how the diaphragm functions, and how your rib cage works. You need to see this for yourself! Hospitals often have wonderful life size training charts, which can show the bones, the muscles and the organs.

The lungs are very high up in the chest, beginning above the collarbone, and finishing some way up inside the rib cage. (This was news to me, and to most lay people I ask!)

The diaphragm is an involuntary muscle. We don't even know what it feels like- there are no nerves to tell us. It sits connected from the base of the ribs across the top of the stomach area organs etc. When you breathe, it automatically moves. On the inhale, it contracts downwards compressing organs etc down further into the stomach area. On the exhale it loosens, so the middle rises up into the rib cage forming something akin to an upside down bowl shape.

The ribs are well and truly anchored at the spine, and (aside from ribs 11 and 12 at the very bottom) anchored firmly in front of the chest at the sternum. Ribs are curved and shaped in such a way that they rotate slightly at the spine, and the chest takes on a bigger size when we breathe normally- by raising the sternum at the front of the chest.

The intercostal muscles moving the ribs can only lift or compress downwards. They overlap, and can be used to counteract each other to manipulate the chest shape or compression but only in a seemingly up or down motion. They cannot magically make the chest expand sideways.

So, how does this affect us?

We are taught traditionally to breathe "low" down. We are taught to use stomach muscles to expand the stomach area to breath better (sometimes the word diaphragm is used quite incorrectly). Personally, I also used a tremendous amount of effort attempting to expand my back/stomach to breathe better. Jacobs showed me that because the lungs are very high up, the lower expansion doesn't achieve a whole lot. Letting your chest rise and expand upwards (normally!) is more efficient and provides much more space for lung expansion than only letting the lungs expand down in the rib cage. Also, your diaphragm will accomplish all the necessary movement around the bottom of the rib cage all by itself, with no extra effort, if you let it. This is the purpose of this muscle, and it does a great job provided you don't hold those stomach muscles tense or firm when inhaling. I refer to this as normal, because it is. If you work yourself into a state of desperately needing lots of air in a hurry (i.e. during or after running), this is exactly how you will breath. Try this, and you will observe your chest desperately heaving and your diaphragm doing its job.

Basic dos and don'ts:

  • Raise the front of the chest when you breath. Jacobs always said, "Do a Dolly Parton impression!" Breathing well should be this easy.
  • Relax your stomach muscles on the inhale. Let your diaphragm do its stuff.
  • Stand tall! Your torso, between the hips and shoulders, must be very upright for the ribs to rise properly.
  • Relax! Once you can sit/stand tall (that is if you normally slouch, this may force some atrophied back muscles into action), this should feel very easy and free. I notice a tremendous difference in tension between this method and what I was doing before.
  • Relax the throat. Plain old relaxed for the throat is best for breathing in. Often flute players stick the jaw forward to breath or lift the head. Either movement implies a certain level of tension in throat and jaw area, which will cause resistance to air intake, making inhalations slower and noisier. You can experiment with breathing through different size straws to see how wide an opening you need to make. I recommend dropping the jaw down slightly in a very natural, easy motion.
  • Let your shoulders ride your body. Don't hold them rigid. Forget about shoulders and concentrate instead on your general posture in common Alexander Technique terms- as if a hair lifts you from the top of your head. The shoulders may rise a little with the chest since they are on top of the chest. This is to be expected.
  • Try to maintain the high chest position as long as possible. Think about the diaphragm moving up inside the ribs rather than letting the ribs collapse down on to the diaphragm. This helps create a big sound and reduces the movement required to raise the chest again. Avoid slouching at all times!

Two (of the many) exercises:

Breathing bag - used as a visual gauge of your capacity. Buy a small plastic tube of sufficient diameter to not cause resistance and that will fit in your mouth. Attach to that a bag that is slightly bigger than you can fill with air from one breath. For those with money to spare, an anesthetist's rubber bag, from a medical supplies outfit, is great. Breath in as much as possible, observing in a mirror one's posture and relaxed state. Breath into the bag. Observe the quantity! (judge by the wrinkles/saggy-ness of the bag) Try to breath back in this amount more rapidly- this is more akin to trying to breath in fast within the musical context. You can do a number of repetitions. Watch carefully in the mirror!

Measure your air intake with your arm. Fully extended arm =totally exhaled. Hand touching shoulder= fully inhaled. Try to breathe in and out accurately in thirds. Try combinations of thirds. Increase to increments of six. This leads us to a much greater understanding of our capacity at any one time. This is suprisingly helpful in performance!

Other important facts to be aware of:

The air capacity of an individual depends HUGELY on size, somewhat on gender (men are better endowed than women are), on age and physical condition. The small student may dream of imitating the lengthy phrases of his/her huge bodied teacher, but it is probably impossible.

As Arnold Jacobs would say, the music must be the priority in how we play. Creating wonderful music may mean that some people cannot get through certain phrases in one breath.

Different things work for different people. In keeping with the amazing diversity of body shapes, this method of breathing may be unnecessary for some people. I am reasonably big, and I got by just fine breathing the way I did previously. Therefore, it wasn't "wrong". However, I do much better now using what I learned from Arnold Jacobs. I encourage everyone to learn about him or herself and figure out what will work best for themselves!

Alexa Still


Playing in Tune & Perfect Pitch

Some people say that a player with perfect pitch can play in tune easily. I don't believe that perfect pitch has much to do with playing in tune. I could identify notes way before I had any sense of even trying to play in tune, and I consider playing in tune is a major challenge. I have also observed other musicians, also possessing perfect pitch, who play with an intonation I consider poor.

Perfect pitch is, in my opinion, a secure knowledge of the pitch area in a generic sense. Perfect pitch varies: to some an A is absolutely an A=442, to some an A can be between A= 440 to A=445. In any case the person uses their sense of perfect pitch to identify the note irrespective of the tuning of notes around it and the general tuning of the context. Playing "in tune", as one of my teachers once said, is a very personal thing.

A convincing performer, whether playing basically tempered or in some exotic baroque tuning, will have an intonation priority of playing the note so it is complimentary to the context. Sometimes this means bending a note a long way from where we ordinarily try to play it on the flute unrelated to a key or harmony.

One of the things that really bugs me when I listen back to myself playing is the pitch problems that I can perceive. So, why didn't I hear it at the time? The only light I can shed on this is that one gets better at it, and more discriminating with time and effort. I think I hear better and better. Too bad I didn't work on it more thoroughly and sooner!

As a teacher, I place great emphasis on intonation, often before my students really have the control required to deal with it. I think I must try to help them learn to listen. I think we often learn to push the right buttons to get a note, and don't develop the necessary listening skills until far too late.

Particularly for a flutist, the control of pitch is unfortunately interwoven with dynamics. Regardless of the scale one chooses, the issue of drooping when we get softer and going horribly sharp when we play louder is something we all have to deal with.

I often wonder if the flute isn't labelled boring sometimes because we unconsciously avoid dynamic extremes and the pitch hassles they bring us. A flutist can develop repetitive habits in phrasing and note ends; playing the version they can control rather than what the music might command if the pitch were not a consideration.

In my humble opinion the chronic flute playing problem of drooping flat on a diminuendo is less apparent in orchestral players because in the wind section of an orchestra, everyone else's tendency in the winds is to go sharp in that same context. The flute is the odd one out. Orchestral players soon learn (or at least I think I did) to develop the ability to go *sharp* at the end of a note, in addition to a great deal of flexibility in pitch generally. Orchestral playing is to be a member of a team, accommodating as much as required for the benefit of the ensemble.

Orchestral players also have the advantage of hearing the ends of their notes against a sustained sound- whereas a piano note decays rapidly. I wonder if sometimes flutists playing in recitals aren't fussy about holding the pitch up because the "clash" at the end is less noticeable with the piano note having faded away.

Personally, I rely on taping myself, using a tuner to watch for the needle moving on a note when I change the dynamic, and listening as critically as possible to pitch when I'm playing, ALL THE TIME, no matter what it is. I also play notes against a piano, holding the sustaining pedal and listening for the intervals or even just resonance from the piano's strings. I set my tuner to sound through a passage I play, to hear the intervals. I often play around the passage, adding arpeggios and octaves in an attempt to gain perspective and avoid my intervals getting too small. Arnold Jacobs suggested listening back to the tape and watching a tuner while listening, to really absorb where the problems lie. This is also a good way to check if I am compromising on the music to avoid pitch hassles. Sometimes we have to, but I want to be aware!

From a technical point of view, there are a number of methods to control drooping pitch. I think different things work for different folks. Also, different notes respond differently!!!! and the techniques used might depend a little on your musical priorities at that precise moment.

The lips forward and jaw moving forward routine don't work too well for me, and I don't advocate that generally, because I think it can lead to TMJ problems in some people, and I personally don't like the thinner sound that happens with the lips far forward. It is interesting to note though that Gilbert advised putting the lower lip into the embouchure hole to raise the pitch, theoretically making the tube shorter. It does work!

To practise raising the pitch and playing softer, I think about a number of things: reducing the embouchure hole size in my lips somewhat, closing up the oral cavity some and raising the tongue position , an increase in air pressure, rolling the flute out/ lifting the head, and directing the air a little higher. The degree of adjustment depends very much on the sound I want and how responsive the note is there are some that certainly are not co-operative! I've also vented those open holes sometimes and used some very strange fingerings.... I will try anything! To play louder and flatten the pitch, I do the reverse, and I am particularly conscious of having more space between my teeth and being looser and freer. I try to ignore the extra air noise, knowing that it doesn't carry at a distance as well as my loud sound hopefully will.

Another mentor of mine once made the comment that he thought flutists largely fell into two major camps- one playing with a priority of matching timbres and the other with a priority of intonation. Once I thought he was right, but now I hear many wonderful players who prove him wrong. In the end, you have to make great music too. It is important not get so hung up in the tuner needle that you forget to do that georgous, beautiful, memorable and seemingly effortless phrase!

Alexa Still
from FLUTE discussion group: November 1999


Articlation Help

Janet wrote:
I'm trying to switch my articulation to the lighter french style of tounging -snip-
I've only been trying to do the french style about a week now and I'm having a lot of trouble, particulary with getting the low notes to speak. Sometimes, I also have trouble with getting the middle and upper register to speak cleanly--even when I'm not spitting so much into my flute. Are there any other syallables that I can use to make my articulation lighter and also (eventually) faster than the american style of tounging?

It occurs to me that while we do generally refer to the "french tonguing" as "french", there are probably a lot of players outside of the US who might feel a little miffed at the term "american tonguing" :)

To answer your query, IMHO, regardless of the position of your tongue at the point of articulation (generalization: french = between the lips, other = tip of tongue behind the teeth), it is most important to consider what your lips are doing. All the articulation technique in the world will not help up a note that doesn't sound because your embouchure is not appropriately formed, and/or the air quantity/quality isn't appropriate for the particular note you are aiming for.

To test what is going wrong, play the note without any articulation and without any visable lip movement occurring at the beginning of the note (ie don't use the formation of the embouchure to be the beginning of the note). When you can do this well, you can move onto working on the articulation part. Many people find that they are stressing and worrying about the articulation when the problem is elsewhere.

from FLUTE discussion group: December 2000


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