Play the Music, Not the Flute

Have you ever heard a recording of a 'standard' that seems to trump all others?

There are more than 50 videos of Poem by C. T. Griffes on just the first three pages of YouTube. There are at least 16 recordings available from Flute World. 

So why do I prefer Amy Porter's performance above all others?


She holds my attention from start to finish.
In my opinion, this is the most engaging recording of Poem that I've heard: I'm able to get a grasp on the entire piece. I hear a journey from start to finish. I hear more of Griffes.

Her interpretation is so compelling not because it is more perfect than any other, but because it is well-planned and the piece is effectively communicated.

As performers, it is our job to communicate for the composer. It is therefore our responsibility to analyze what that the composer offers to become capable of delivering the most effective, genuine, and compelling performance possible.
These are the steps I'm taking to prepare the pieces I'm currently working on:

  • Make the composer your best friend. Any bit of information about them is useful, especially little quirks and anecdotes. 
  • Research background information on the piece. 
  • Learn about and listen to other pieces by the composer.
  • Make a photo copy to use as a study score, and use colored pencils and highlighters to mark some of the following things.
  • Listen to several recordings.
  • Translate all markings that aren't in English. 
  • Mark the major sections as A, B, C, A1... etc.
  • Identify key areas and important harmonic shifts.
  • Identify the overall shape of the entire piece. Where is the climax of the entire piece?
    • Find and rank all climactic moments within sections and movements.
    • Find the least climactic moments.
  • Mark themes within larger sections.
  • Identify areas of tension and release. Where is there a sense of building? Where is there a sense of arrival? Stability?
  • Identify which notes are melody and which are accompaniment. (This is especially necessary in pretty much every etude ever.) Which notes are embellishment?
  • Identify the purpose of each section: What is the mood? What is the composer saying? HOW does the composer create this effect? Become specifically aware of the composer's use of musical language. 
  • Getting smaller, mark out phrases. Which thoughts are connected? Are there antecedent-consequent ideas? (Call and response?) Which phrases should end in a comma, a semicolon, a period, a question mark...?
  • Mark appropriate breath marks.
  • Mark the overall color and dynamic of each section and plan to shape each phrase accordingly.
Enter flute...
  • Do a side-by-side comparison of related themes/sections. Are they identical? What are the differences? What is the effect?
  • Experiment with style and character, vibrato, articulation, accents, etc...

The concern that accompanies such a prescribed approach would be a too-mechanical performance. From my experience, a well-prepared performance is convincing. I believe that having a thorough knowledge of an entire piece allows the performer the opportunity to hear more of the composer while performing, thus communicating more to the audience.
The most moving performances are the ones where the performer disappears and the audience gets to meet the composer.

How do you approach new pieces?

Jolene HarjuComment