Notes on Practicing Flute under the Annie Street Bridge

That’s where I was this morning.

I love playing outside.  Even in a Texas summer, where the mercury climbs sky-high after 8:00 a.m. and the humidity can choke an iguana, outdoors is the place to be.  One of my big problems in music school was going into those stuffy little practice rooms and trying to get anything accomplished.  It was like playing inside a coffin.

So I have always headed for the great outdoors.  And the greatest place, as any wind player can tell you, is under a bridge or overpass.  For one thing, it’s cooler.  But the main reason, of course, is the reverberation from all four sides.  I especially love taking my flute down there, because it helps me to imagine that I’m almost a real flute player.

That’s where I was this morning, doing battle with the Andersen Etudes.  It’s taken a while, but I finally figured out that a flute is not a saxophone.  It’s a whole different animal, and has to be approached in a whole different way.

This seems obvious, but since flute and saxophone are so closely related, it’s easy to forget from a player’s standpoint.  The fingerings are close to identical, they’re both fleet instruments, they’re both highly expressive in terms of the tricks you can do with the sound quality.  But to play jazz on the flute, you have to stop thinking like a saxophone player.

There are several ways to break away from recycling sax licks onto the flute.  One of the most effective is to forget about jazz altogether and go back to the roots of the flute–deconstruct it through its history and pull something new from the rubble.  The Andersons are a good start for me;  challenging enough to work a lot on range and motion, but not so insanely technical that they are soulless and showy.  Plus, they sound good.

After mangling Herr Andersen a while, I turned to a very different flute tradition:  Indian classical music.  I have greatly enjoyed listening to this music for over forty years, although I’ve never done anything so drastic as formal study.  But I’m a jazz musician, so I’m not at all shy about bludgeoning my way into other people’s cultures and appropriating whatever catches my ear.  That’s what Tiggers do best.

So I’m messing around with the 5th mode of Harmonic Minor–a scale that, in D, looks like this:  D  Eb  F#  G  A  Bb  C  D.  It’s called the 5th mode because really it’s just a plain old G Harmonic Minor scale, starting on the 5th scale degree which is D.  I’m improvising using just these notes, and attempting to ‘sound Indian’.

First thing I’m aware of is how tricky this is to pull off.  I have a recording of an Indian chamber group consisting of sitar, tabla, tambura, and flute.  It starts off with just the flute and tambura (drone).  For about ten minutes, that’s all there is to it–but it’s not at all boring, it’s fabulous.  The flautist probably plays no more than than the first four pitches of the harmonic minor scale for about five minutes, and the effect is hypnotic.  Gradually he ventures higher.  Since the flute is the only thing moving, he has complete control over the musical journey.  Everything flows; nothing is forced; nothing is hurried.  As you listen, you become aware of his breath and then your own;  you feel your pulse slowing and you become aware of the gentle tug of blood in your veins.  There is nowhere else you need to be.

To experience this is quite profound.  To replicate it is damn near impossible.  My Western impatience, coupled with the jazzman’s insatiable appetite to push further and faster, dooms my attempts.  Finally, I have to impose the beginning improviser’s trick of limiting myself to just a few notes.  That’s better.  OK, now add one more…too soon!  Wrecked it.  Instead of relaxing, I feel like I’m stacking a house of cards.

The goal here is not to become an accomplished musician in the Indian classical sense, which would require a teacher and many years of study.  But if I can push myself into another tradition, even slightly, that gives me a ‘pushing off’ point for my own explorations.  And another color to add to my palette.

You may think all this has been leading somewhere.  You would be wrong.

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