A presentation of the use of contemporary flute technique at the beginner level
by Dean N. Stallard ARCM
I have taught players of all levels from new beginner to advanced since moving to Oslo in 1990. Over the years my methods have changed and developed to what they are today. I take new beginners from 5-6 years and up, but whatever their age my choice of beginner instrument is the Yamaha fife. The fife is used as a preparatory instrument to the regular concert flute and the time spent on this instrument will be anything from 3 to 18 months depending on the age and level of the student. Everything learnt on the fife can be translated directly to the flute. My use of Extended Techniques at this early level is partly motivated by the need to add interest to the lessons because of the longer time that younger children will spend on the fife, which as a musical instrument has its limitations.
I consider the beginner level as the first 2-3 years of playing, as this is where the foundational skills are put into place. In my experience, if time is spent at this first stage ensuring that the foundational skills are sound, then rapid and sure progress is made from the 3rd year of playing and onwards. The techniques presented here are all introduced during the beginner level, sometimes on the fife, sometimes on the flute. After the first introduction we will work with a consolidation method, coming often back to the techniques and viewing them in the light of what we have learnt in the meantime.
Traditionally we look at flute technique in 3 levels, primary, secondary and advanced. The primary level is the basics of playing, the secondary level is skills needed to play traditional classical music, while the advanced level is skills that are needed in 20C and contemporary music (often seen as special effects) or skills that will enhance general playing giving an edge in the competitive job market.
In 1986 the flutist Robert Dick released the book "Tone Development through Extended Techniques" (pub. Multiple Breath Music Company), aimed at intermediate and advanced players to give them a way into these new techniques, but at the same time showing that working with these techniques would help in improving general playing. After working with the techniques myself I became convinced of the benefits. I wondered if there was any reason that a young flutist should wait until Conservatory level to start working on them and began to employ specific techniques in my teaching, at first to work on specific problems in more advanced pupils, but later with new beginners to more rapidly advance progress.
I found that as time went on I was more likely to be introducing some advanced techniques long before other more traditional secondary techniques. The boundary between secondary and advanced techniques had become unclear and I no longer thought of extended techniques as advanced, they were classed together with the other secondary skills.
This has brought about a change in my flute teaching philosophy.
In my opinion there are only two types of technique- primary and secondary. A primary technique is one that is totally necessary to play the flute, while a secondary technique is an enhancement of, or addition to the primary level. A secondary technique will not normally function without a certain degree of competence in the primary techniques, but because in many cases using a secondary technique will place demands on a primary technique it can help also to develop the primary level further.
The skills totally necessary for playing the flute are those used for; control of air reed/ column (volume, speed, direction), control of tube length. Without these skills nothing else can function.
The primary techniques are breath control and support, embouchure control and adjustment of tube length; i.e. finger dexterity. Together these three elements will determine the pitch, volume and timbre of a note.
Note that articulation is not listed as a primary technique as use of the tongue will be secondary to the support mechanism. Perhaps one could say that breath-support and control is the only true primary technique as failings in this area can to some degree be compensated for, but never fully.
For this reason I do not include tonguing in the primary techniques. It is secondary to air column support. Use of the tongue will give a clear attack with the possibility of small variations (ta, da, etc.) but the degree of the attack is controlled from the abdominal support mechanism.
Use of the tongue is introduced only when the tone is stable and we are getting a good and varied attack from the abdominal support. By this time several extended techniques might already have been introduced.
Nearly all work at this early level is aimed at:
Motivation-fun and variety
Putting in place the primary techniques- especially support and control of the air column/reed (any future work will be held back if this is not in place).
Extended techniques come in at the beginner level for both aims
Improvements in primary techniques
Thinking in this way all other techniques whether they be standard or extended are treated equally and in fact for a new beginner will be seen as equally difficult. They will be introduced as and when the need arises (i.e. pending repertoire), when their use will improve a primary technique or simply to add a fun element to lessons.
I started introducing extended techniques to teenage students to address specific problems in their playing. I had found myself that working with extended techniques often gave rapid improvements in the primary techniques.
Also working in the abstract as it were, allowed them to work around their problem and approach it from the other side. Some students were so caught up in sounding like their idol that this in fact was keeping them from obtaining their goal of a good tone. By exploding their concept of what flute tone can be they seem to be less uptight about the sound they are making.
Later as I started using the Yamaha fife to teach 5 and 6 year olds I was faced with the problem of keeping their interest for a much longer period than with older beginners. Extended techniques help to add interesting fun elements to the lessons while at the same time broadening the pupilâ€™s view of what music can be, in addition to the advantages I found with the older pupils.
It has been my experience that young players in their first year have fewer problems taking extended techniques into use than older players who have played for several years. This reinforces my view that for a beginner any technique is perceived as equally difficult or easy as another. Itâ€™s just a new challenge.
Of course the extended techniques are introduced at a technical level that is appropriate for the young player but why have extended techniques up until now been used almost solely in conservatory and postgraduate repertoire? I think the answer is simply tradition. Traditionally it has been the advanced players who have been looking for new challenges, stretching the limits of the instrument and asking composers to write demanding music to show off these new found skills. But once discovered why shouldnâ€™t the technique be used at all levels?
So why do I choose to use extended techniques in my lessons? Iâ€™ve already spoken about improvement of the primary techniques, which Iâ€™ll come back to when I address specific extended techniques.
I've also spoken about adding fun and interest to the lessons. The kids actually do enjoy using these techniques and the fact that their parents might find the sound strange seems to make it even more fun!
Making different sounds with the flute broadens the horizons of the kids as to what music is, or can be and what a desirable flute tone should be like. All too often kids become so obsessed with one certain sound that they become uptight about their own sound. Another side to tone-work is that instead of tentatively reaching out for the next goal, the kids take a huge leap past it and then view that goal as a nice secure place to come back to.
Working with these techniques encourages the kids to experiment with their flute. Realising that there are other possibilities gets them to try and find even more things to do with the instrument.
All the techniques presented here, have been used by me with success, in the first year of playing. Suitability for fife or flute (flt) is indicated.
Singing and playing (fife/flt); often seen as one of the most difficult of extended techniques, this is one of the first that I teach. There are several reasons for this but most are connected to the improvements in tone production that working with the technique produce. Of course improvement in aural skills and encouragement to sing are also important factors.
Why does singing and playing have such a beneficial effect on regular playing? The standard answer is of course to do with throat tuning but I believe that the issue is far more complex. I also see work with throat tuning as truly in the realm of the advanced player as working with vowels will affect the embouchure if it is not already stable.
I believe that work with singing and playing has a threefold effect; the pupil needs to increase abdominal support, consciously control throat tension and focus the lips to raise the air speed of the little air that is arriving at embouchure. This can be illustrated by one of the first exercises I use in this technique, where, without the flute, the pupil sings a note and then tries to focus a thin strong air stream onto their finger whilst singing. Once this is achieved all that remains is to place the flute in front of the air stream and hey presto! they're singing and playing.
When it comes to throat tension it is a common misunderstanding that the throat is relaxed when playing. We use the analogy of yawning to explain how to open the throat. But if we are opening the throat we are not relaxing it. In the relaxed state the throat will be more closed because of all the loose tissue. Singing and playing teaches the kids to open their throat while playing, at the same time as they consciously open or close the vocal chords. It is the vocal chords that cause grunting while playing and by gaining conscious control over this area, the kind of tension we are talking about in playing can be combated.
Another benefit is improvement of aural skills. When singing and playing the sound seems to be right inside your head. The child both hears the note they are singing better and can hear when they are hitting the right note because that's when the flute reacts best.
Tone bending/ timbre changes through embouchure changes (fife/ flt); by experimenting with flute angle the kids become much more aware of tone colours and at the same time are encouraged to find the optimal angle for normal playing. They learn to have flexibility in the embouchure and become much more aware of their lip control.
One of the exercises I use is called â€œThe police carâ€ when we try to emulate the â€œDoppler effectâ€ while playing a slow tremolo. This encourages not only embouchure work but finger dexterity exercises too.
Overtones/ Whisper tones/ Multiphonics (flt); that I don`t use these techniques much with the fife has more to do with the limitations of the instrument than the kids. The higher resistance of the fife makes it difficult to produce whistle tones and multiphonics. All these techniques help to improve both embouchure control and control of the air column support at the same time as improving aural skills (i.e. hearing a note before you hit it). In addition working with multiphonics helps with dexterity.
Tongue rams (fife/flt); A fun technique that adds another element to music making in the lessons. In addition it seems to help in co-ordination between the tongue and abdomen.
In working with preparation for technique it becomes surprisingly clear how little motor control younger kids have in their tongue. Another reason I feel for not complicating initial primary work with articulation.
Frulato (fife/flt); More fun making but at the same time helping to open the throat and relax the tongue. A nice exercise is to emulate the â€œsoft ringâ€ of a telephone.
Playing with inflated cheeks (fife/flt); this is actually preparation for circular breathing but I use it to rectify pulling in the cheeks and to focus the embouchure. It illustrates for the pupil where the embouchure should be controlled from at the same time as showing them that it is not necessary to tense the lips.
I also use other techniques like glissando (fife) and key clicks (flt) but the techniques I have presented here are the ones I most commonly employ. The main rule is that anything goes. Of other more traditional techniques I introduce vibrato preparation early on to help in breath support and trills to give lightness and dexterity of fingers.
The use of extended techniques is not central but integral to my teaching. Sometimes I use them and sometimes I don`t, but they are always there as a teaching tool that I can employ. The unusual nature of these techniques means that kids love to try them and at the same time are inspired to experiment with their flute to see what they can come up with.
Extended Techniques are a part of my teaching because of three basic principles that govern my flute pedagogic philosophy;
First and foremost we are dealing with music; like it or not music is in constant development. Extended techniques are widely used in contemporary music and even we prefer to play music from before 1900, we have a duty to equip our pupils both with the tools and open minds they will need in the future.
Until mastered the flute will always stand in the way of total freedom in music making; Using extended techniques seems to give the pupils flexibility and accelerate them towards this goal. At the same time not equipping them with contemporary techniques will limit their artistic choices, thereby limiting their freedom.
If it ain`t no fun then what's the point?!
© Dean Stallard
Born in 1963 in Ash, Surrey, Dean Stallard left school at the age of 16 to join the British Military as a musician. After 2 years at the Royal Armoured Corps Band School he spent the next 9 extensively touring Europe with the band of The Kings Royal Hussars.
In 1990 Dean left the military and relocated to Norway where he lives today just outside Oslo with his wife Fride and daughter Konstanze.
After moving to Norway, Dean studied flute with Torkil Bye of the Oslo Philharmonic and started a career as a freelance flutist and teacher. Dean took up a permanent flute teaching position at the Oslo Municipal School in 2000 after several years of teaching in the school`s department for talented young musicians. Working in the "talent school" prompted Dean to address the large age gap between gifted youngsters on string instruments and those who start later on the flute. Today Dean teaches the flute to children as young as age 5 using the Yamaha fife and is a teacher much in demand.
In addition to teaching and playing Dean writes regularly for Flutewise magazine.