Saturday, 14 March 2015

The art of "practising" extended techniques

So this post is to address a question I have had asked to me several times in the past weeks in regards to working on extended technique. I thought this would be a useful post to write since for me, it is not cut and dry. I think there is this idea out there that people who are involved in new music spend all our time in our dark dusty corners, surrounded by electronics, and bizarre contraptions always in search of new ways to make sounds. Obviously I can only answer for myself, but this is pretty far from the truth. What I have found with those who perform lots of new music, and myself would be included in this group, is that there tends to be a great deal of time spent on the fundamentals of sound production, articulation, flexibility... you know the meat an potatoes of playing. The more time I have spent with new music the more focused my basic work becomes.


I think that this is a necessary reality when we are dealing with lots of extended technique, we need to invest a great deal of time and energy to our simplest aspects of playing, since there is a good chance you may not make a conventional sound, in a conventional way in your two hours of rehearsal today. As well, having wicked technique and flexibility is a must for new music, or at least it is the pipe dream.

But all those sounds... how?

There it is, the elephant in the room, and that is we need to be able to meet the demands of the music when it comes to extended technique. There are two groups I lump things into.

1. "Normal" extended technique.

2. Unorthodox technique.

In group 1, this is where I put things like, flutter tongue, growling, multiphonics, stopped and echo horn, microtones, etc. Things you encounter all the time and are drawn on constantly. Some people may not include stopped horn in here, but one thing I have learned is that you need a killer right hand for new music, fast, nimble, and accurate.

So with all of the things listed in group 1, the only thing I routinely do in my practising is flutter tongue and stopped horn work. These are worked on for other reasons, flutter scales for air, stopped horn for.. well... being able to do it well.

Group 2 has techniques like, slap tonguing, hammer tonguing, different air sounds, multiphonics in contrary motion (this is, for me at least, an INSANELY hard thing to do, kind of works against how my brain works), combining flutter and growl together, and the list goes on. These are things that you encounter less often, or are unique to a singular work.

If you are still here we have arrived to the part about working on these techniques... so set phasers to fun! So the two groups we are important to this next part. When something falls into group 1, our "normal" group, these are things that are a byproduct of good base technique and mechanics. So if your nuts and bolts are in the right place they tend to just happen. For microtones, if you understand how they work, can hear them, and have a fingering for them they pop out since that is the harmonic series at play. Flutter tongue of course some of us have to learn to do it, I was one of those individuals that can't, and still can not, roll my R's. Had to learn to flutter, but now it works. So again group 1 is all about just being able to play horn in general.

Group 2, now here is the trickier part. There is always a trade off when learning these things, some people are unwilling to, complain it's "not idiomatic" and write it off. Others sit down and figure it out. That is what I'm going to talk about, my process of figuring it out. The best thing you can do is shop-talk with someone who knows the drill, assuming you don't have this luxury here is what I would do, even if you do have someone to shop-talk with, you still need to do the work... sorry?

First: Make a decision about what the technique is, what sound EXACTLY are you going to make. With no decision, you cant conceptualize how to make it work.

Second: Experiment, this is the big steps, start trying things, it could be vowel shapes for air sound, tongue positioning, anything. Leave no stone un-turned.

Third: Deconstruct it to it's elements and master them individually, then put them back together.

Fourth: Implement it back into the piece. Though, do so with no tempo, rhythm, dynamics, etc... The gaol is to place it around the other sounds and start to make sense of it sonically, and structurally. The same way we workout tricky licks in any kind of music, we are building relationships now.

Fifth: Add either the rhythm, or the dynamics, not both. I do this because I am trying to not overload the system. We are close to getting what we want, not just "something".

Sixth - infinity: Add the remaining elements one at a time. So depending on what we are dealing with it could be range, tempo, dynamics, etc. Keep this slow approach going, again we want to get what we conceptualized.

So the above method is slow... and can be tedious depending on who you are, and how you like to get your work done, but, it works. Remember we are not faking it. We need to figure these things out or what is the point. The take away here is that one needs to be really focused on their basic elements of playing to make things work, The more unorthodox a technique is, the more focused time we need to put into it to make it work, since in the end we don't want to get in the way of what we do naturally. I'm not a supporter of sitting down and working on my microscales daily, or anything like that, BUT when these techniques are called on I work them out AWAY from my "morning routine". Good habits, and a strong base will get anything to work.

Be sure to check out the download section for ideas and exercises