Category Archives: Technical elements

Why a ‘perfect’ performance is not always the best

When analysing any musical performance, it is easy to focus solely on those elements which are traditionally seen as being the building blocks of music – pitch, rhythm and dynamics for example. Whilst these are no doubt fundamental in the accurate portrayal of any piece, and mastery of them alone may appear to create that ‘perfect’ performance, should these elements be allowed to be the ultimate goal when it comes to a musical performance?all-that-counts-in-life-is-intention-quote-1

I would argue not. Although I’m not a composer, I’m pretty sure that if you asked the vast majority of them what they would like a performer of their music to ensure that they get right when they perform, it has everything to do with intention and less to do with the actual instructions which have been provided in the score. For it is often those elements which cannot be fully notated – the length of a pause or breath, the exact use of an accented note or the way in which a crescendo is executed for example, which can only ever be controlled by the performer themselves in the moment and which require a thorough understanding of what the piece is really trying to say in order to bring a piece to life.

And because of this, there may be a price to pay when it comes to being ‘note perfect’. If the sole focus remains on the notes alone during a performance, then the real intention of the piece is not given any attention. Of course, the intention of some pieces is to be precise and that is all, and professional performers at the top of their game are quite rightly expected to never get a note wrong. But for those of us who are still striving to progress in our musical abilities, and particularly those who are new to performing itself, I feel that if the intention of the piece is allowed to be the overriding aspect of the performance, then it will be a successful one, despite any misplacement of notes or details which may take place. It will also be a personal one, where performer and perhaps teacher have worked together on what the intention of the piece is, from their own and the composers point of view, and have sought to use the performers current skill level and musical abilities to shape the piece in a way which is possible and suitable.

So the next time that you hear a live performance that you particularly like, try to think to yourself why that is? I can almost guarantee that it will go beyond the basic elements to deliver music which has it’s focus firmly on intention and not just on what it’s composer set down on a page.




Can’t sing, should sing!

Nadine Cooper was told by her music teacher when she was a child that she can’t sing and therefore shouldn’t join in with the school choir because she is ‘spoiling it for everyone else’ (as reported in this BBC article). Let’s think about that for a second. To me, it’s a bit like saying that you shouldn’t walk down the street because the way in which you place one foot in front of the other is not, in someone’s opinion, worthy of being classifiable as walking.can't sing

Everyone can sing. As a singing teacher I’m often asked to give this response to the first question that I’m faced with when someone’s learns what my job is. I’ve always given this same answer in my 9 years of teaching as I’ve never been proved wrong. Every student I have ever taught has been able to open their mouth a create ‘musical sounds with the voice’ (Cambridge dictionaries online definition of singing) right from the very first lesson and, more crucially, every student has made an improvement to this over time, even those who on initially hearing a note played on the piano are unable to internally hear it and therefore pitch it in their own voice. And that’s the main point here. Some people are born with an inmate musical ability and natural vocal technique which allows them to sing well with little guidance. But the vast majority are not, or at least have only a certain degree of these skills when they begin to sing more regularly. We wouldn’t expect anyone to be able to, for example, swim well, if even at all, the first time they try it, even though it only requires the use of our own bodies and no external equipment.

So learning how singing works is critical for anyone who wants to use their voice just like any other skill, with regular time needing to be spent on developing these skills in the correct way for the individual. If we go back to the walking idea, yes we can all walk (if we have no medical reason not to) but we could probably all improve our walking by looking at our posture, balance, fitness etc.

Nadine has decided to not let her music teachers words stop her and has formed a choir for ‘those who lack confidence or need more practice.’ I can’t applaud her enough. Often those students who have come to me with a seeming lack of skill as discussed above are really completely lacking confidence in their ability after being told they can’t sing, often by people who should know better. This is damaging, and can sometimes take years to reverse and have a knock on effect to other areas of their lives too. Singing as part of a choir is a great way to begin to combat this, allowing you to explore your voice in a relaxed way, whilst hopefully having some fun and learning something about vocal technique along the way. Of course there is no substitute for one on one lessons with an experienced teacher if you are serious about improving you voice, but we are not all fortunate enough to be able to devote the time and money needed to do this.

However you choose to do it, if you have been told/think you can’t sing and want to give it a go, then go for it – you can only progress, and you never know where it might lead.

Fluteboxing – what the ….??

Fluteboxing, or flute beatboxing, is something that you may or, more likely, may not be familiar with. Simply put, there’s playing the flute and then there’s beatboxing (or the art of mimicking drum beats with the mouth and voice). Put them togethFlute Neon 1er, at the same time by the same player, and you get fluteboxing. This results in the player effectively becoming an entire band all by themselves, producing a beat with their lips, teeth, tongue and breath whilst maintaining a melody using traditional playing.

Fluteboxing very much sounds, and is, a recent concept (the term beatboxing only began to be used in the 1980s) however combining traditional flute playing with singing and other extended techniques can be traced somewhat further back with flautists such as Ian Anderson, Robert Dick and Ian Clarke developing new sounds and techniques for the instrument (which will be explored in a future post). Indeed, it is possible to use extended techniques when fluteboxing, adding yet another layer of sound and difficulty into the mix.

As a flautist, this is not for the faint hearted! Both the skill of playing and of beatboxing are not easy to produce on their own and because the two involve using and controlling many more parts of the body when you put them together than you would use when producing them on their own, it really does feel like an impossible task when you begin.

Without a doubt, the most well know fluteboxer is Greg Patillo. His youtube videos show the energy, versatility and creativity which is required to flutebox at the highest level yet he makes it look so easy! His desire to share not only his own playing anywhere and everywhere but to inspire others to have a go too (Greg has also produced a number of videos for players on where to start with fluteboxing) is really something to be admired and shared.

Just like playing other contemporary flute music with extended techniques, I’ve fallen in love with fluteboxing. The energy, imagination and time that is takes to get each piece working is immense and totally addictive. Because of the use of breath and the necessity to maintain a beat throughout a piece, fluteboxing requires stamina and strength like no other playing and forms a full on workout for mind and body. I love the way in which it allows any piece with a beat to be played as a solo, and gives endless possibilities for beats and rhythms to be changed to become more ‘edgy’ – something that is not easy to explore and put across when you are simply playing a melody alongside an accompaniment. It opens up mainstream repertoire – songs, jingles, film themes, computer game music – all become possible, as well as gives a new take on traditional pieces. And above all, I love the reaction of audiences when performing – so far I have always been met with big smiles and looks of disbelief every time I have performed.

It’s a whole new instrumental world and one which I hope will to continue to grow and be explored.

Breathing for life

yoga-422196_960_720Breathing. We all do it. So why do we need to think about it? Unfortunately our modern lifestyle has led us to become pretty lazy in this most natural of functions, so much so that we really are missing out on the many benefits that it can bring.

Breathing fully from the bottom of your lungs upwards gives you an instant feeling of openness, relaxation and strength, right from the first time you do it. It’s almost like opening your eyes for the first time. However, I’m yet to meet a new student who already does this habitually of their own accord unless they already practice something else which encourages it, such as swimming. What I mostly find is that new students have become satisfied with only filling the top part of their lungs, meaning that they often create tension in this area and are missing out on the true feeling of what breathing should be like.

As a singer and flautist, breathing is a fundamental element of what I work to improve, and I encourage my students to thing about it right from their very first lesson. Without this full breath, we can’t create the beautiful sound which we crave for. But this awareness of breathing has given me so much more. I am able to experience a feeling of calm whenever I feel just by taking in air, alongside knowing that I’m improving my general health by doing what nature really intended.

It takes time for full breathing to become automatic, as does every other aspect of singing or playing. However, I believe breathing is element which really gives us one of the greatest benefits to other areas of our lives, and which, as musicians, we should be grateful for. Full breathing really does feel like a joy, and it only takes our persistence and effort to find it.