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Visualizing Sound – Chronicles of sound quality and personal tone research

1800 words, 8-10 minutes reading time

Today we talk about sound quality on the flute. Whether you´re a beginner player OR an experienced player, dealing with tone quality, embrochure, air stream and projection is probably your daily bread. But how is sound quality affected and what ways are there, beyond technical aspects, to help achieve the desired quality in playing? Well, let´s have a look…

Of course, your instrument, with its particular mouthpiece shape, the material, as well as the tone-hole shape, is the starting point for any consideration on this topic. If this would be the main variable however, all players should experience a constant tone quality (given you don´t skip your daily practicing!). But, as we all know, there are good and bad days and often, your instrument feels different every time you blow inside it. The reason for that is, that flute is not like other members of the woodwind family. Unlike clarinet or oboe, the flute has no reed; the whole sound quality is the result of the shape of your embouchure, which depends completely on your lips shape and your way to approach the instrument. If you think that all our cells, given their particular finite life span, get replaced many times throughout your life, there is no wonder, that playing the flute, over time, feels different. From an anatomical point of view that is a fact. 

Read more about this topic here: http://book.bionumbers.org/how-quickly-do-different-cells-in-the-body-replace-themselves/

Since our embrochure is the result of the interaction and the particular shaping of a number of face muscles, which are constantly subject to inner and outer tensions, playing the flute is affected by many outer conditions that are, only partially, in control while playing. We have 42 individual facial muscles in our face, some of which are very important for playing the flute and some on the contrary are to be de-activated or, more correctly, to be disjoint from other muscles, along which they usually interact. Learning and training this muscle independence is a very complex process and that´s mainly the reason why playing the flute needs a very long and hard training. 

There are 42 individual facial muscles in our face

There is however a very important aspect that is often neglected, when dealing with sound quality and tone. There are more ways to help the body learn unused muscle movements. Human beings can use visualizing techniques to induce particular body movements and therefore sonic result.

And many theoretical approaches or methods of learning music, try to use this techniques. In fact, many methods for learning music share particular, remarkable similarities, as the Orff Schulwerk method, or the Suzuki method.

Since the beginning of time, children have not liked to study. They would much rather play, and if you have their interests at heart, you will let them learn while they play; they will find that what they have mastered is child´s play.” Carl Orff

Carl Orff (1895-1982), German composer and music educator

Orff´s Schulwerk is an approach that is not a systematic method per se, although it does entail fostering creative thinking through improvisational experiences. Rather than a system, Orff´s Schulwerk combines instruments, singing, movement, and speech, to develop children´s innate musical abilities. There are four stages of teaching:

  • Imitation
  • Exploration
  • Improvisation
  • Composition

Orff´s Schulwerk is rooted in arts and subject integration. The technical aspect here seems to shift slightly in the background, in favor of shaping the listening qualities and promoting a more abstract and creative musical experience.

Suzuki’s “Mother Tongue” approach to teaching music, on the other hand, focusses on the principles of language acquisition. Those principles include an early beginning, listening, loving encouragement, parental support, constant repetition, learning with other children and then learning to read. Because all children learn and master their own language, Suzuki believed all children could learn and master music in the same way. He sometimes called this “Talent Education”, meaning that musical talent is not inborn, but can be developed in everyone. Suzuki called his method a “philosophy” and not a method; saying teachers must all devise their own methods. Suzuki began by teaching the violin, then his “philosophy” grew to encompass viola, cello, bass, flute, guitar, harp, piano, organ, voice, recorder and early childhood education.

Although there are great differences in these methods, they all put the focus on aspects that go beyond mere technical aspects inherent to the instrument and share also the similarity of approaching music education from the point of view of language acquisition. Learning a musical instrument is therefore not only the mastery of the instrument from a technical point of view, but is intended as a complex training of sound experience through various means of visualization.

In traditional Asian music education, f.e. in Japanese Shakuhachi traditional teaching, the learning process also relies strongly on the listening experience, moving the technical aspect to a somehow unconscious research of sound result. So, the focus seems not to be on mere technical aspects, but rather on visual, sonic and imaginary aspects, that transcend the instrument:

Around the thirteenth century though, the shakuhachi became a popular instrument of the Buddhist Fuke sect, who wanted to replace sutra chanting with blowing zen, or suizen. These monks were known as komuso, or “priests of nothingness” or “emptiness monks”, and they wore large baskets tengai (basket) over their heads to symbolize their detachment from the world. The komuso used the shakuhachi as a spiritual tool and their songs were known as honkyoku, which were played according to the player’s breathing and were considered meditation as much as music.” – Kensho Takeshi (Tokyo Gakugei University, Japan).

Source: https://www.igi-global.com/chapter/traditional-music-in-japanese-music-education/224490

During my education at the University for Music and Performing Arts in Vienna, I noticed that often me and my colleagues musicians would focus more on technical aspects of the embrochure shape, sometimes neglecting the sound result. In the process, actually this

happens very easily and, to a certain extent, it is part of the game. My flute education at the university was also characterized by a complete re-learning of sound emission, due to some bad habits I carried with me from past education, that affected my embrochure and therefore the sound result. In fact, changing playing habits induces a sort of uncertainty in the muscle arrangement, so that the process of re-learning means to go through a phase where almost nothing works. Going back to almost the very beginning, after years and years of training, was at times very frustrating. 

Many theoretical approaches used by my teachers helped me a lot during this process to better understand what was going on, but the real paradigm change happened with my teacher and mentor Eva Furrer, who had a more philosophical approach to playing and also carried many influences of Buddhist thinking into her teaching. Eva Furrer conceived the interaction with the instrument as a love relationship, where you learn to give and take, without a strong judgment involved. I remember her telling me: “don´t try to impose to the instrument a particular (sound) idea. Blow into the flute and embrace what the instrument gives you back”.  

At the beginning I remember trying this new approach with some skepticism. I always had a very down-to-earth approach to problem-solving and thought that theoretical knowledge was the key to better understand playing an instrument and improving musically. But it was for me a striking moment, when I realized that I could actually achieve a particular sonic vision much easier, by forgetting about theory for some time and focusing on the reaction of the instrument. And the reason that new approach worked was that my listening experience had been awaken and my theoretical overthinking disarmed.

I could experience my sound in a completely new way and this fresh approach helped me to also be more positive in moments where the result was not exactly what I wanted. It was as if the body would slowly adapt and find a way to deal with any particular situation. 

And visualizing (often with closed eyes) would help me to modify the result to my needs. It is without doubt that the theoretical foundation is crucial for creating any sound on the flute. But at a certain moment, aspects that go beyond technical aspects, can have a much stronger effect on our sound quality.

As “embrochure” is also a very polarizing topic, since it depends so much on the anatomy of the player, I think that it is important to also look beyond schools of thoughts about it and seek a more abstract approach to sound emission.

I believe that going on a discovery with the instrument and trying to look for new colors, possibilities and means of expression, is crucial to improve also your technical abilities. As a passionate performer of contemporary music, I deal very often with extreme playing techniques, which bring me far away from a beautiful sound. But this experience enriched my sonic imagination deeply and, as a result, it made it much easier to come back to a cultivated full sound. 

An example of the importance of visualization of sonic experience is the controlof Multiphonics. You all are familiar with the struggles to get a stable Multiphonic, not jumping back and forth between the different pitches. Often Multiphonics require a particular embrochure shape, combined with a precise air speed. It is very difficult to remember and recall this complex muscle asset in the face. This is also made difficult by the fact that in ensemble playing you might not always hear yourself very clearly. But if you have a concrete sonic idea of how it should sound, the body will do the rest for you and the Multiphonic will be sound stable. Similar as for Multiphonics, most advanced extended techniques work in a similar way. And this relying on the sonic experience and shaping this experience is what gives you as a player a greater stability and confidence, despite the unstable condition that characterizes interacting with musical instruments. 

To sum it up, I believe that practicing sonic imagination and exercise recalling particular sounds and colors is a key element to stabilize your sound and gain more confidence in playing.

About the Author:

Alessandro Baticci is a flautist, composer and inventor from Italy. His international music activity and his focus on contemporary techniques has shaped him to be a versatile player, navigating from classical to modern music effortlessly. Alessandro is also active internationally as a tutor and teacher in various masterclasses throughout the world. His compositional experience has also shaped his vision of sound production, interpretation and aesthetics.

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