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An Open Letter from Robbie Lee of New York City

(Received on 4/2/2012)

Dear Lenny,

If you're interested, I'll just start rambling about how I understand your flute. I've become a student of the history of flutes, and how they fit into musical instrument design in the bigger picture. What you've done is pretty incredible. It follows Boehm's idea all the way through. It's sort of a polar opposite from the baroque instrument, and it really shows how much Boehm's cylinder flute was a revolution, more than an evolution, just an entirely different concept of sound production and tuning.

So in a sense, it's the most modern flute I've played. And yet, your clear skills for the craft have produced a flute that sings, in the original ideal of the instrument. I really don't like all these modern flutes that sound modern, in a way that's just brash and unmusical. What you've done is modern in its philosophy, but is full of character and control. The flute can be played sweetly even when it's loud, which is a combination I haven't found elsewhere. By pushing the boundaries, you've come up with something that has something of the essence of a Louis Lot, by coming full circle and back around again.

There are indeed new possibilities in this flute. Because it vents so much from each hole, new fingerings are possible for arpeggios, where you don't actually have to release all fingers to stay in tune. Boehm was so insistent on features like Open G#, but in fact your flute makes those concerns nearly superfluous, from the perspective of the player. I'm finding that I can play certain fast passages smoother by leaving certain keys closed that are supposed to be open. If everybody were playing on your flutes, the whole teaching methodology might be different.

As I suspected, multiphonics are not only easier to play, but easier to control very finely. When you are choosing to direct your airstream at two different harmonics embedded in the acoustical schema of an unusual fingering, usually it's hard to find the fine line, the balance, but it's much easier on your flute. I think it's because that acoustical structure is clearly defined by the straight edges, instead of a diffuse fuzzy approximation on a normal flute.

The C foot does change the balance in a nice way. But the flute responds so fast, that the C foot almost makes it too fast, a little hard to control. I'm glad to have both. The head joint is fantastic, too, as good as any other I've played. I'd be curious to try one of your Modern Traditional head joints. I tried my other fancy head joint with the flute, an Arista, and it didn't work as well as yours does... which is interesting, because the Arista is usually fantastic. I also tried the flute with my David Chu boxwood headjoint, which was great... and best of all, other than yours, the head on my circa 1880 Rive, which brought a fantastic 19th century sound to the modern system. The scale of the flute is transparent, and I'd love to ask what your changes are, and what your inspirations were for it. Some of the modern scales sound too much like equal temperament, and have that quality of always feeling equally out of tune. Yours is just very sweet.

(continued in a letter received on 7/29/2012)

I have continued to explore this wonderful flute that you built, and just recently I've come to understand another of its unusual benefits. In the recent era, so much focus on the flute world has focused on generating more power from the head joint, often to the detriment of the overall tone. Because your flute body allows every possible bit of sound to come through with no constrictions, it actually allows you to get much more out of less powerful head joints. I have been experimenting with a couple different heads with smaller and more conservative cuts, and find that with them I can achieve the power that the modern flute is known for, with more of the tonal nuance of the early French flute, and the early Powells. This, to me, is very exciting, even if it's not quite your intended purpose for the flute. I've just been using it with one of David Chu's wonderful wooden head joints, and also with a plated Louis Lot head joint from around 1875. These plated head joints actually have something of the quality of gold to them, and it's an amazing match with your flute -- though you'd never guess what it is from the sound.


Asking for Help – An Excerpt from our Grant Application
by Leonard E. Lopatin

The Lopatin Flute Company is the only manufacturer in the world of professional-level concert flutes, alto flutes and piccolos made with square tone holes instead of the traditional round holes. These wholly American-
made world-class flutes and head joints are handcrafted from precious metals, stainless steel and (in the case of piccolos) various exotic woods, primarily grenadilla. The square holes give a straight edge to each air column formed by the opening and closing of the different keys, resulting in a more precise sound than the graduated edges of a round-holed flute. The square design also allows room for the middle and lower holes to have a larger venting area than the same size round holes, which makes it easier to hit the lowest
notes.

The business of the Lopatin Flute Company was founded in 1994, but its story actually began in 1976 when Leonard E. Lopatin, a recent Juilliard School graduate on tour with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in Detroit, hit on the idea of square tone holes as a way to solve some of the inadequacies of the flute he was playing. This idea, which seemed so logical, so acoustically sound, would not leave him alone, and finally, after three full seasons with the Met, he moved to Boston in 1979 to learn the art of flute making.

Learning to make flutes wasn’t quick and simple, and it took him almost ten years before he was able to design and craft his first SquareONE flute, and it was another five years before he formed his own independent flute company. The company seemed to be doing well during the first few years of this new century until suddenly the economy turned from boom to bust and professional flute sales became more rare.

The advent of social media, however, enabled market research that proved that flutists around the world do indeed “get” the SquareONE concept, most simply can’t afford a $10-$12,000 flute.

fsAfter considering various options and realizing that there is a good market for a solid $6,000-$7,000 sterling silver flute, Leonard Lopatin set about designing his SquareONE Semi-Professional flute, billed as “the great SquareONE sound at an affordable price.” Acoustically, it's absolutely the same as a professional SquareONE (everything underneath the pads is exactly the same as its professional counterpart), and it's loaded with very attractive features. But its available options are limited, allowing the bodies and the parts to be made in a slightly more mass-produced fashion, rather than having to wait for a special order for one particular type of flute. For specific details of the SP, visit:

www.lopatinflutes.com/SquareONE_Semi-Pro.htm

These are the responses from the first three SP’s made and sold:

  • “Best axe I’ve ever had!”
  • “I have never had a flute so in tune!”
  • “I will never go back to round-holed flutes again!”

    In March 2010, Lenny was honored to have the immediate past president of the British Flute Association, Atarah Ben-Tovim, hold his SquareONE flute aloft at the Spanish Flute Convention in Madrid and announce: “This is the flute of the future!” We hope you agree.

    If you would like to help support The Lopatin Flute Company of Woodfin, NC and help it further its goals for improving the flute for future generations, but can't afford one of our flutes or head joints right now, consider purchasing one of our CD’s or a music download through www.cdbaby.com/Artist/LeonardLopatin. We also have flute-related jewelry (of both the round- and square-holed variety) available at www.lopatinflutes.com/Other_Items.htm. Thank you for believing in us.


    Developing the SquareONE Flute
    by Leonard E. Lopatin
    ---first published June, 2007 in Pan, the journal of the British Flute Society, reprinted with the gracious permission of Pan Magazine. For more information on the BFS, check out their website at www.bfs.org.uk.


    Shortly after I got my first flute at age 12, I took it apart. That’s the kind of kid I was. This wasn’t the first mechanical thing I’d ever taken apart, but the difference between this and the broken watches and toasters I would happily take out of the trash and disassemble was that I knew I had to put it back together again. There were a few moments of frustration and confusion (not to mention outright terror!) but I figured it out and the flute was none the worse for it. It was only much later that I realized that this was not something all kids would think to do; it seemed normal to me.

    Later, I put this ability to more practical use. If something wasn’t working properly on my flute, I would take it apart, clean and oil the troubled area, and on I went. I asked questions of my teachers and instrument repair people, and soon started to think more about how a flute could be made to work better. I wasn’t always convinced that the answers I heard were right. (I was a skeptical little boy!) By the time I was in High School, I was keeping a notebook about the flute and writing down ideas as they occurred to me, regarding possible ways to improve flute design. I wasn’t sure what would come out of this note-taking, but I felt compelled to do it. I suppose I thought that if I came up with something brilliant, one of the major flute companies would rush to grab the idea, run with it, and I’d get all the credit. (I was a naïve young man!)

    I continued with my flute studies, first with Harold Bennett at the Manhattan School of Music, then with Arthur Lora at the Juilliard School. Just before my graduation from Juilliard in 1976, I auditioned for—and won—the position of third flute and piccolo in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Still, my flute notebook went everywhere with me.

    On 26 May 1978, in Detroit, Michigan, while touring with the Met, an idea occurred to me: square tone holes. This idea seemed qualitatively different—even logical—and more significant than all the others I’d jotted down over the years. By now, I was not so naïve as to think that any flute maker in the world would want to try something so different. I felt that I would need to learn flute making myself, and that was going to take time.

    I had met Bickford and Bob Brannen shortly before they started their highly successful company, Brannen Brothers, Flutemakers, Inc., and was one of their first customers. During the vacation that followed the 1977-78 Metropolitan Opera season, I went to work for them at their very first shop. It was very crowded, with Bick, Bob, me and four others all crammed into what had been a small retail space.

    I worked in the back, learning to make posts, rings, and various other parts. I wasn’t yet sure I wanted to leave the Met, but I had to get a taste of what it was like to work in a flute-making shop. It was greasy, smelly, noisy and tedious—I was in heaven!

    After that summer break was over, I was ready to quit the Met, but Bick advised me not to be too hasty, that I should go back and play at least one more season. I did go back to the Met, but the drive to become a flute maker remained strong, and at the end of the 1978-1979 season, I left the Opera and moved to Boston to start full-time employment at Brannen, which had grown considerably by then.

    I found out that flute making was a great deal more involved and complex than I knew. It was not until 1988 that I felt ready to make the first experimental prototype of my square hole flute.

    It should come as no surprise that the question I am asked most often is: “Why square tone holes?” There are a number of ways to answer that question.

    The quick and easy explanation is that this gives a straight end to each air column length, so that the air arrives at the tone hole all at the same time.

    Another is that the principal reason a tone hole exists is to simulate the effect of the tube ending at that point, and it should do so as accurately as possible. A round tone hole seems to suggest that a tube ending at that point should have a curved end!

    Another way to explain is this: The square-hole flute is one step closer to the “ideal flute”, meaning a flute with the perfect acoustic for every note it plays. There’s a serious problem making that ideal flute, though, because “the perfect acoustic” would mean a different bore diameter for each note, a different size embouchure hole for each note, of course a different length for each note, which is to say a separate tube for each note.

    You can’t have all that in one unified flute, and you would have some difficulty playing Brahms’s symphonies or the Ibert Concerto on roughly forty separate tubes!

    So we play on a flute that’s all together as one unit, with a bore diameter that’s a good compromise for the whole range, with an embouchure hole size that’s a good compromise, and of course we use tone holes in the side of that one tube to stand in for all the different length tubes we’d like to have. But one element of that “ideal flute” was discarded unnecessarily: the straight end to the air column. With their straight edges, square tone holes bring our flute one step closer to the ideal.

    A further benefit of the square shape is that many of the tone holes can be made substantially larger without coming any closer to the edge of the body tube (which would reduce its rigidity and structural strength). I didn’t make this change right away, though.

    On the first of my square hole flutes, I simply made each hole the same area as the corresponding round one would be. I wanted to keep the number of variables to a minimum, to be able to judge clearly how the changed shape performed. Once satisfied with that, I made the next flute with slightly larger right hand holes and foot joint holes. I didn’t go very far this time, so I’d be able to use the pad cups I already had. But even this slight increase in size made a discernable improvement, so I decided to go as far as I could.

    I now make my flutes with right hand tone holes that have an 18.3% greater area than their round equivalents, and foot joint tone holes that have a 27.5% larger area than their counterparts. I have allowed the left hand holes to remain the usual smaller size, as I feel this is better for the easy response of the high notes. But the right hand notes and the foot joint notes are strengthened considerably, and have a better tone quality, counteracting the usual tendency of the lower notes to become progressively weaker.

    This goes along with the premise that was at the very core of Theobald Boehm’s work. In The Flute and Flute Playing he says “The holes should be as large as possible, since the effective shortening of the tube is proportional to the ratio of the size of the hole to the diameter of the bore.”

    There is even a side benefit to this enlargement. The bigger tone holes are moved lower down the tube to correct for pitch, so a slightly longer air column is being used for those lower notes. I feel that this further adds richness to the sound. Or, as Theobald Boehm phrased it on page 16 of his book: “…the strength, as well as the full, clear quality of the fundamental tone, is proportional to the volume of the air set in vibration.”

    All of the above would simply be a nice-sounding theory, if it didn’t actually make a difference in the way the flute sounds. It does make a difference, most strikingly in the clarity of the tone, meaning the relative lack of extraneous noise, such as airiness or hiss. And it’s easier to keep the clear quality of tone at the extremes of the dynamic range. The “puff-puff-puff” often heard when we tongue is reduced.

    There is also less hesitation (or what I like to call “blowback”) in the attack. It doesn’t feel like a lack of resistance, though, it feels like a lack of stuffiness. This is especially noticeable in the low register. The attack feels more secure, as if we’re aiming at a bigger target. I also find that the legato is improved, both between neighboring notes and between registers.

    I attribute all of this to the fact that my SquareONE flute is going from one length of air column to another length, rather than one collection of different lengths to another collection of different lengths. It stands to reason that the change will be quicker and smoother; the flute is more in agreement with itself as to what note is supposed to come out!

    The main difference I noticed when I began to use the square hole flute in group settings was that I could hear myself better. I can’t explain why that should be, but I can say what it did for me as a player. I didn’t feel the need to force my sound in order to be heard. That made for a better tone quality and I found it easier to tune with other instruments. I feel that many flutists push too hard and play slightly sharp all the time in order to hear themselves. I firmly believe that it’s what the listener hears that matters most.

    After more than 25 years as a flute maker, I still consider myself a flutist first, and have always continued to play professionally. Once I had finished the first production model square hole flute in 1989, it became my personal flute. While in the Boston area, I was a regular extra and substitute player in the Boston Symphony and Boston Pops Orchestras. The Metropolitan Opera continued to tour each spring, and I got calls from them, too, to sub in my “old band” if they needed an extra. I won the seat I hold in the Asheville Symphony Orchestra playing on this flute.

    As a professional musician, I could not afford to play this flute if I didn’t believe it to be the very best flute available to me. The SquareONE flute is not some kind of advertising “gimmick,” it’s an idea that I found worth leaving a major professional position to pursue, and it hasn’t disappointed me. People’s reactions to the concept have often disappointed me, but not my flute. I recently designed a SquareONE alto flute and it sounds and plays better than any alto I’ve ever tried. I’m looking forward to expanding my “family” of SquareONE flutes to include a piccolo, and even a bass flute; not because I believe it’s the best marketing strategy, but because I want to play them. That’s been my intent all along. That I’m able to earn my living making the flutes and head joints I love is simply an added benefit.

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    To Patent or Not to Patent?
    The Straight-Edged Tone Hole in History

    by Jacqueline Britton Lopatin
    ---also first published June, 2007 in Pan, the journal of the British Flute Society, reprinted with the gracious permission of Pan Magazine. For more information on the BFS, check out their website at www.bfs.org.uk.

    One question frequently asked of Lenny regards patenting his  SquareONE concept. When asked, he generally shrugs and says, “It’s just not worth it.” He points out the high cost of both proving a patent and of defending it. His rationale at first was that he didn’t want to spend all of his time and money in court defending it. Later, he discovered that he wasn’t the first to come up with the idea, anyway.

    In the latter half of the nineteenth century, relatively soon after Theobald Boehm first developed his fully keyed flute mechanism, there came a spate of innovators who attempted to give a straight edge to each air column created by the opening and closing of the tone holes. Were any of them successful? We don’t precisely know, because all of these attempts languish unplayable in museums or special collections. There is one in the Bate Collection in Oxford, England, which was probably made by Rudall Carte ca 1876. A piccolo, allegedly designed by Louis Joseph Rene Steckel and built by jeweler and watchmaker Paul LaPorte of Ottawa, Canada, is housed in the private collection of Robert Strouf in California. Steckel is the designer of the “Harmonic Flute” housed in the Dayton C. Miller Collection in the Library of Congress, in Washington, DC.

    The most ambitious of these attempts was by Carlo Tomasso Giorgi of Florence, Italy, who patented a design for a flute with large rectangular holes in 1888. In partnership with a Florentine dentist named Schaffner, Giorgi took flute, oboe and clarinet tubes of theoretical length and measured them off according to the laws of physics. The fingering and playing positions of all three instruments were to be identical, so that with the right training, a musician would be easily able to switch between any of these three instruments.

    What should keep Lenny’s SquareONE from becoming simply a musical footnote in history, is that he didn’t try to change too much on the flute too fast. The important aspect was that any flute player could pick up one of his flutes and immediately begin to play it. The SquareONE flutes are made to order, with all the gizmos, trill keys and other variations that a customer may desire. His primary desire is to give the customer everything they want and are used to in a flute—along with the SquareONE sound.

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    A Discussion of Scale Design

    On FLUTE, an email discussion group, in September of 2003, the topic of how to know how far out to draw your head joint came up. A question was asked as to why manufacturers don't tell us how far they intend this distance to be for the various pitches they make. The method of determining this by overblowing and tuning harmonics arose.

    The reply I posted should shed some light on how I arrived at my scale measurements.

    One list member wrote:

    "The trouble with using harmonics to set your flute up is that this method is only as reliable as your embouchure. However, in the absence of any help from the manufacturers on the matter of exactly how far out their beginner or student flutes should have the HJ, to give the reliable scale they are marketing, it is the only method of doing it."

    I wrote in reply:


    Dear (______),

    "I have wanted to say something about this method for the longest time. Thank you for bringing it up. I would say that this method is not *even* as reliable as your embouchure. Try the 'overblown method' with a tuner. Don't try to play in tune. That's the opposite of what you should do. Play the best, most perfectly centered tone you are able to. Face the tuner with your eyes closed as you center the tone of the overblown octave. Once you have the sound centered, without stopping or changing the airstream, open your eyes and see what the tuner says. It will say you are sharp. Octaves and other harmonics simply don't overblow in tune according to the idea of tuning we have in Western music. Not automatically, anyway. Nature has Her own ideas, and best to go along, you know.

    When I designed my scale, and being aware of the above, I first set out to tune the length of the first octave by finding the right length for low C, then for the C at the upper end of the first octave. That was pretty good, I thought, and it was pretty darn similar to what Albert Cooper had decided upon. But when I played the third C (top of the second octave), it was sharp. It dawned on me at the point that this is at least part of the reason that with all the wonderful scale-shortening work that has been done over the last several decades, the top register is still sharp. We use the left hand tone holes for venting the high register, and some kind of compromise is required. The compromise that has been employed for the most part is to accept a slightly sharp high register, since we play in the first two registers more. I don't like that choice of compromises. In contemporary music, there is a huge amount of playing required in the third register.

    So I tried the compromise I thought would please me better---to make my scale length so that bottom C and the C at the top of the second octave (two ledger lines above the staff) were both perfectly in tune. That really brought the high register down to pitch. So now you might suppose that that is what I do on the flutes I make now, but I don't! I wanted to, because I felt that the least flexible notes on the flute, those in the third register were in tune (or close as I believed they could be). But the other side of the coin was that the notes above A in the first octave were noticeably flat. I *still* didn't mind. It took a bit of a change in the approach needed to cross register breaks, assuming you still were planning to play in tune, but I didn't mind. The notes at the upper end of the first octave are the most flexible on the flute as to pitch.

    So I had players try my prototype, and within seconds, I could tell no one was going to accept (therefore buy) a flute with this scale. I couldn't go all the way to this extreme, but I found that by splitting the difference, I could 'get away with it.' So I made the C at the top of the first octave a teensy bit flat, the C at the top of the second octave a teeny bit sharp, and had reduced the sharpness of the third octave a little.

    So, I compromised my compromise. I was less happy, but more people were more happy, so who's to say what's right?

    The next point (and I will try not to be as long-winded!), is about the desire I frequently hear expressed by players to have manufacturers tell you just how far to pull out/push in to play at the nominal pitch of the flute. It seems to have gotten lost in the mists of time, but we have done that. It was always the industry standard, to my recollection, to make the head joint 2 mm shorter than needed to play at A=440, 442, or what have you. But we makers have always known that some players will pull out to 3 mm, 4 mm, 5 mm, 6 mm, 7 mm, 8 mm or what have you. Some will push all the way in and complain that they are still flat!


    So, when a player asks me to tell them exactly how much they are 'supposed' to pull out, I tell them that I can't say. They would have to tell me exactly how hard they plan to blow, at what angle (do they 'roll in/roll out', and how much), are they used to pulling out or pushing in, why do they do these things?, etc. I believe that many set their flutes up a certain way because that's how their teacher does.

    I know this all sounds very curmudgeonly of me to say, but the reasons we don't more precisely indicate how much you are to pull out are: A) There are too many variables. B) Most players would not listen to this 'rule' and would set up the way they are comfortable setting up.

    And that is exactly the right thing for them to do. Makers could only standardize these things more fully if and when humans start being made with a standardized pair of lips, and when we all sit down and hammer out a final agreement on the correct sound that we all want to hear from everyone all the time. I won't be holding my breath
    .

    The diversity is part of the beauty of this beautiful thing called art.

    (Soapbox returned to under kitchen sink!)

    Yours with best wishes,
    Leonard E. Lopatin
    Lopatin Flute Company


    For more information on FLUTE go to: www.larrykrantz.com - The Flute List Pages: an e-mail discussion group, covering all flute-related topics.

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    What is the Lopatin Scale?

    As a long-time professional flutist, Leonard Lopatin has had considerable experience playing and testing flutes with many different scales. The difficulties that most performers encountered on the "traditional" or "long" scale flutes were well known to him as a student, and as a young player starting out his performance career. In a nutshell, these difficulties were a sharp high register and a flat low register. The reason for this seemed to be that the flute makers of the day had responded to a rising pitch standard simply by shortening the head joint or the upper end of the center joint. Doing so raised the pitch of the flute unevenly, raising the high register more than the low register.

    In the early 1970's, Lopatin became aware of the work of Albert Cooper. Cooper had come to the correct conclusion that it was necessary to re-work the spacing of all the tone holes, as well as shorten the overall length in order to raise the three registers equally.

    Lopatin found that the scales on flutes which followed Cooper's example were a great improvement. However, it seemed that many of the third octave notes were still sharp, though less so than previously. By further lowering some of the left hand tone holes, those which are used to vent third octave notes, Leonard Lopatin was able to make the highest notes on the flute much more in tune.

    No two flutists play the exactly the same way, and there will always be compromises in the tuning of a flute. At Lopatin Flute Company, we feel that our scale will suit the majority of players. However, if a player desires that a different scale be used, this can be done by special request.
     

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    Practice Notes - by Leonard E. Lopatin

    These two articles were originally published in the Gazette of the Greater Boston Flute Association, and reprinted with their gracious permission. For more information on the GBFA, check out their website at www.gbfa.org.

    So, you've all been really anxious to read an article in the Gazette about practicing, right? No, huh?  Sure, what could be more boring?  "But wait!" you say.  "There is that piece I've been working on and I do seem to be in a bit of a rut.  Hmmmm ... maybe a new perspective could loosen things up a bit?!"  I, for one, find practice boring only if I feel that I'm getting nowhere, but if I make even a small improvement, I feel great about it for quite some time. So each time I speak to you here, I will discuss an approach to a particular problem, talk about my "flute philosophy," or perhaps question some bit of conventional wisdom.

    Let me start with what might seem to be the most obvious thing possible: "One practices to get better."  That is obvious, but the ways in which we can thwart our own efforts may be very subtle and not so easy to see.  We're all human beings and affected by our emotions.  I'm sure everyone at some time has taken out his or her flute, played one note, and felt like putting it back in the case.  But, if you did, you may have missed an opportunity, an opportunity to work through difficulties, which contributes to our overall goal of continual improvement.  This is mostly a mental process.  If you know that "one practices to get better" then you realize that there is no need to get discouraged if you sound lousy on your first note (or for your first hour, for that matter).  If every day were automatically a "good day" there would be no need for anyone to practice.  And realize, too that most improvement is so gradual that you are not aware of it yourself, so, patience is paramount!

    Sometimes I start practicing and things don't feel quite right.  But I know from experience that doing the work as I originally planned will help me build strength and stamina, maintain flexibility, and sharpen my ear.  On days when things just seem to be coming out right by themselves, I will sound even better as a result of working through the harder times.  If, for example, you are working on long tones and you hear that the sound is very breathy, do you simply go through the motions because you feel that you are supposed to?  Or do you try to be aware of what you are doing with your embouchure and air stream?  I recommend the latter approach.  Obvious?  Yes, but if you feel discouraged, your choice of approach may be guided by your emotions rather than your mind!

    Now suppose you are practicing scales and you know for certain that you can usually play them evenly and smoothly at a certain speed, say mm=138.  Today, for reasons unknown, your fingers are not following orders.  Here's what I think: speed is not the problem; control is the problem.  So, slowing down is no shame.  In fact, it's the best thing to do.  Set your metronome at a tempo that you find presents absolutely no problem (say mm=92), and play your scales.  Now try them at the tempo halfway between (112).  Then slow down again, only not as much (96).  Then at 116, 100, 120, 104, 126, 108, 132, 112, and finally138. You're going five steps forward and four steps back, gradually sneaking up on the tempo you want. Try the same type of approach with difficult passages in music you are learning.

    The bottom line is: practicing carefully and intelligently on "bad days" can help you have fewer bad days.

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    Practice Notes - the Sequel

    The flute's tone was the first thing to attract me to it.  It's what made me fall in love with it. It is always what I find most memorable when I've heard a really terrific artist perform.

    Some have said that playing in tune is the most important thing, because average listeners (even non-musicians) tend to notice poor intonation.  They will sense that something is a little off even if they can't put their finger on just what it is.  Don't get me wrong; I'm rather fond of good intonation.  An out-of-tune note is wrong, just as a cracked note is wrong.  But to me, correct pitch and beautiful tone are like air and water.  One can live longer without water than without air, but eventually, well, you know - ultimately, they are both important.

    That is why I say: make every exercise a tone exercise.  Basically this means listening to yourself and making the most beautiful sound possible, no matter what kind of exercise you are playing.  You may think: "Why does it matter what my tone is like if I'm exercising my fingers or my tongue?"  The first reason is obvious: these things come up in real music.  The second is more subtle and more complex: When playing various kinds of technical patterns, we have to be aware of specific parts of our flute-playing anatomy, primarily to execute the pattern, but also to monitor whether we are doing anything detrimental to tone production.

    A prime example is double tonguing.  There is a strong tendency for the lower jaw to bounce around.  Ask yourself what would happen if you bounced while playing a sustained tone.  Of course, the tone would be uneven, so you can assume that when you double tongue, your "t" notes and your "k" notes don't have the same quality.  So you have to practice keeping your jaw still (not tense).  Find the position that works best.  You may even find a better position for all your playing.  Also, try practicing etudes with the "k" attack only and with "reverse" double tonguing ("ktkt"). This will strengthen the usually weaker "k" attack.

    Another example comes up when practicing scales or arpeggios.  If you keep missing a note, especially in the third octave, it's easy to assume that the fault is in the fingers, and it may well be.  After all, the fingerings in the high register are more complicated, so smooth motion from one note to the next requires more careful coordination.  But other things can go awry and are easy to overlook.  In addition to more complicated fingerings, the third octave has a more uneven response.  E-flat is easy and stable, E-natural cracks to high A or drops to middle A, F-natural is easy and stable, F-sharp cracks to high B or drops to middle B, G-natural is easy and stable, and G-sharp does whatever it feels like doing (or so it seems at times).  You need to make sure your breath support is sufficient to sustain even the "worst" notes in the scale or arpeggio.  Be sure your embouchure is doing its part in smoothing the connections between notes.  If you practice doing this, it will be even easier to produce a beautiful tone when your fingers aren't quite so busy.

    There are many things to learn and discover along these lines.  Ask yourself: When practicing crescendo/diminuendo to maintain proper pitch, am I maintaining a lovely tone as well?  Or is the tone "dry" or "harsh" when practicing staccato?  Maybe if "average" listeners don't usually notice differences in tone quality, we should get them used to such a beautiful sound that they won't settle for less!

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    This page was last modified on March 2, 2011.

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