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by Robert Cart
This article introduces flutists to the imagery and physiological concepts of vocal pedagogy as presented by the great masters of bel canto singing (Lamperti, Garcia, Miller, et al), integrated with pedagogical approaches of the French school of flute playing as taught by Taffenel, Gaubert, Moyse, et al.
The bel canto principles of appoggio, portamento, and messa di voce and their application to flute playing will be discussed alongside accompanying explanations of physiology and anatomy and practical exercises designed to help the flutist master these principles. By applying approaches of the bel canto school of singing, flutists should build a solid foundation that ultimately allows for complete surrender to musical expression.
Bel canto, the Italian term for “beautiful singing,” is applied to vocal pedagogy and to early nineteenth-century opera written by composers including Bellini, Donizetti, Rossini. Singers typically speak of bel canto technique when referring to a broad array of pedagogical theories communicated by teachers to their students during the late eighteenth century and the early nineteenth century. Pedagogical approaches during this time often began with simple exercises that allowed the student to be immersed in the practice of coordinating complex concepts of physiology and imagery related to the technique of singing through vocal exercises comprised of single pitches. As the voice student became more adept at applying these concepts, the vocal exercises increased in difficulty. The same approach is recommended for flutists of all levels as they familiarize themselves with this integrated pedagogical approach.
The foundation of the bel canto school of singing is Appoggio. While it is the Italian word for “leaning,” in the bel canto school of singing, appoggio refers to the muscular sensation of holding one’s breath, or even inhaling, while exhaling. The sense of leaning forward and into the sternum while exhaling (a means of maintaining an expanded rib cage and thus holding one’s breath) is likely the origin of the use of the word appoggio. From a more physiological perspective, appoggio is the expansion of the thoracic muscles that occurs when inhaling, and the ability to maintain that thoracic expansion while exhaling.
Appoggio is the sensation of remaining in the position of inspiration while exhaling. This means that the external intercostal muscles must remain engaged while exhaling, working in antagonism to the internal intercostal muscles to maintain the ribs in an open position. This activity also slows the recoil of the diaphragm, which must maintain tonicity, while recoiling slowly in order to control the outflow of air. Assisting this process is the quadratus lumborum coordinated with the levator costae muscles, giving the sensation of back expansion, particularly in the lower back. The feeling of leaning into the sternum – the long tie-shaped bone in the center of the chest – is employed as a means of maintaining anterior expansion of the ribs, and to counteract rapid diaphragmatic recoil. As Giovanni Battista Lamperti stated: “You do not hold your tone, you spin it. You hold your breath.” Thus, appoggio is the sensation of holding the breath while exhaling.
To understand appoggio, it will help to be aware of some basic physiology involved in the inhalation and exhalation process.
There are two layers of muscle between the ribs, referred to as the intercostal muscles. The external intercostal muscles each attach to the outer surface of the twelve ribs. The internal intercostal muscles attach to the inner surface of the ribs and run in the opposite direction of the external intercostals. The external intercostals raise the ribs, thus expanding the thoracic cavity and stretching the lungs during inspiration. The internal intercostal muscles contract the ribs forcing air out of the lungs during exhalation.
The levatores costarum and levator costae muscles connect the vertebrae and the ribs. These muscles assist the external intercostals in raising the ribs and expanding the thoracic cavity. When the quadratus lumborum muscle, located in the lower thoracic region, coordinates with the levatores costarum, a sensation of expansion can be felt in the lower back.
The diaphragm is the dome-shaped muscle that divides the lungs and heart of the thoracic cavity from the viscera (liver, spleen, kidneys, etc.) of the abdominal cavity. It is attached posteriorly (at the back) to the ribs and spine, and anteriorly (at the front) to the sternum. The diaphragm contracts downward, increasing upper thoracic space and allowing the lungs to fill with air. It is important to note that the diaphragm only actively moves downward during inhalation, which means that it releases passively during exhalation. As the diaphragm contracts downward, the viscera are forced outward. Thus, the abdominal muscles must expand, or the diaphragm cannot expand and allow adequate air to enter the lungs.
To help pinpoint the muscular sensations of appoggio, follow these six simple steps:
- Gently cough with your hand at the area where you would normally wear a belt and notice how the muscle bounces.
- Next, exhale all the air from your lungs.
- Then begin to inhale, stopping the inhalation briefly to hold your breath with your mouth open before your lungs fill. While doing this, take a moment to imagine that that you are still inhaling. Pay attention to your jaw, throat, ribs, abdomen, and the area that bounced when you coughed, keeping them elastically engaged but not rigid.
- Now, finish inhaling.
- After you have finished inhaling, hold your breath with your mouth open again.
- Finally, exhale and pay attention to the muscle area that bounced when you coughed. Be sure to resist the inclination of the abdomen and rib cage collapse while exhaling. It should feel as if you are holding your breath or even inhaling as you exhale. The sensation of expanding the back during this process is further helpful in maintaining the feeling of an open rib cage.
After inhaling as above, take an additional surprise breath (just a quick thimble full of air) quietly through your nose, as though someone startled you. For a brief moment, hold that position before playing. This energizes your breath, positions your torso in the appoggio position, and allows the air to be energized without creating throat tension and without requiring an embouchure readjustment. Next, play the following exercises, utilizing silent onset (the onset of sound without the use of the tongue or an audible puff of air, or le début silencieux) on the staccato notes, and maintaining the openness of the ribs, abdomen, and back, resisting any temptation to collapse in those areas, so that you can cleanly and clearly bounce the staccato notes.
As you play the next exercise, add to the previous exercise by expanding the ribs and back while simultaneously being aware of the sensation of leaning into the sternum as you ascend or descend to the fermatas. Maintaining an inner mouth shape, as if pronouncing [o] as in “both,” is the desired vowel for this exercise.
As you play the next exercise, maintain the postures from above, now adding the sensation of a slight bounce in the area where you would normally wear a belt as you articulate each sixteenth note.
Portamento is the Italian term meaning “carrying,” and in the bel canto tradition it refers to the movement from one pitch to another. The term originated from the Italian expression “portamento della voce,” or “carrying of the voice.” In the performance of Italian bel canto opera, the portamento is an energizing and vibrating of the legato between two pitches. As the singer moves from one pitch to another, the pitches must be united with spinning and vibrating energy. While the flutist cannot slide from note to note, the sense of portamento must always remain, especially when pitches change slowly. It is the sensation of constant energetic breath from note to note, or like the violinist’s bow being drawn across the string attached only by rosin. Further, it involves preparing to play each succeeding tone while still on the one preceding it. The singer and flutist alike must not wait until a phrase ends to gather breath energy but gather that energy in advance of the new phrase. Then, taking a breath does not break the continuity of the music or interrupt the position of the embouchure opening (ouverture d’embouchure).
In the use of portamento, it is also important to remember that every tone must contain in it enough energy and intensity to activate the next tone. A basic tenant of the bel canto school is that the singer should always be either singing a note or spinning energy between that tone and the next one. It is the same for flute playing. To maintain this vibration and energy, the body is constantly in motion but with very little visible movement.
It should be noted, here, that vibrato is always present in bel canto singing. Likewise, a subtle vibrancy should always be present in the flutist’s tone, with straight tone being the rare the exception to the rule as applied sparingly in orchestral or chamber music for purposes of blending with instruments that do not typically utilize vibrato or to assist with tuning. Further, nasal breathing (discussed later in this article) that fills the lungs and has the sensation of opening low in the viscera should be the standard breathing technique for flutists.
Breathe quietly through nose as if smelling a flower, then while maintaining an expanded nasopharynx, oropharynx, and laryngopharynx, (sinus cavity, mouth, and throat space) play the following exercise. Fill the space between the notes (or slur) with energy. The energy of each initial tone must contain in it the energy needed for the subsequent tone.
Le Corps and Messa di Voce
Le corps is the body, or middle, of a tone. It should blossom with consistently flowing energy. As the rosin of the violin bow allows the violinist to add only the pressure necessary to set into motion the vibration of the string and to create the desired tone color, the sensation of consistently flowing energy through the central opening of the embouchure between the lips allows the beautiful blossoming of tone referred to in the bel canto tradition as messa di voce, or placement of the voice. Properly executed, messa di voce requires that the only feature of tone to change is the volume. There should be no alteration of intonation, timbre, or vibrato. This requires a carefully balanced coordination of air speed and breath energy, particularly in the diminuendo. To the point, messa di voce refers to the ability to sustain a pitch while gradually increasing and decreasing the dynamic. Expansion of energetic vibration increases the dynamic, while compression or containment of energetic vibration decreases the dynamic. Both loud and soft, though, require energetic vibration.
Standard long tone exercises are perfectly suited to the study of messa di voce. Long-tone exercises form the foundation of flute playing and artistry, and they can be utilized for myriad purposes. Here, long tone exercises are presented as a messa di voce exercise. Play each phrase with dynamics as marked, being aware of the balance of energy required to crescendo and decrescendo without alteration of intonation, timbre, or vibrato. Breathe without altering the center of the embouchure between the lips and articulate each new tone with the silent onset (le début silencieux).
Play the flowing excerpt from Symphony No. 1 by Brahms. In this excerpt, create the f (forte) with expanded energetic vibration in embouchure between the lips. Be aware of the sensation of energized air passing through the lips and even the glottis, or vocal fold aperture in the throat. This energized air should feel surrounded by energetic vibration: If the air is represented by the violinist’s bow, the energy around the air is the rosin on the bow. Pay careful attention to intonation. There will be several subtle alterations necessary to expand and compress energy while staying in tune.
This excerpt from Symphony No. 4 by Brahms is one of the most magnificent examples of bel canto flute playing in the literature. It requires mastery of appoggio, portamento, and perfectly balanced messa di voce.
When the breath is steady, the tone is steady; when breath is unsteady, the tone is unsteady. Control the breath carefully, knowing that inhalation gives strength while retention of air during exhalation provides steadiness. Breathing well means breathing more slowly and deeply with intention.
Generally, the flutist is taught to breathe through the mouth only. However, scientific studies support the importance of nasal breathing for several reasons. When breathing through the mouth, we often inhale too much air. Excess air can increase levels of anxiety and stress, which are antithetical to performing. When we practice nose breathing, we properly regulate our levels of carbon dioxide (CO2), which leads to a decrease in our stress and anxiety.
Nasal breathing is a technique often used by professional singers, particularly in preparation for long difficult phrases. The flutist will find this technique quite useful also. When there is plenty of time to prepare for a phrase, the flutist should breath quietly and slowly through the nose as if smelling a flower, being mindful of expansion in the pharyngeal and thoracic regions. The result is an open nasal passage and a relaxed and stretched pharyngeal space that produces a dark, warm sound. The embouchure and ribs should remain unaffected, allowing consistency in tone production.
When inhaling through the mouth, the embouchure must remain inviolate. Unlike nasal breaths, which open the pharynx nicely but whose natural inclination is to be shallow, the mouth breath is felt quite deeply in the body. It can, however, constrict the throat, especially when a large amount is taken quickly through the small opening created by the flute embouchure.
First, inhale a small breath through the nose as if smelling a flower, then inhale the remainder of the necessary energized breath through the embouchure opening quietly. This will ensure that your pharynx remains open and will create optimal pharyngeal space when you produce a tone. The embouchure opening also creates resistance during inhalation which in turn energizes the breath. Energized breath is integral to the sensation of vibration at the central opening of the embouchure between the lips at the onset of tone.
Compressed Breath and Breath Energy
A vibrant tone emerges from an unlimited supply of both steady vibration and breath energy, and you must be adept at renewing both without noticeable disruption to rhythm or tone. It is the release of energy, not forced motion, that prepares and excites the tone to activate. Having been activated, the tone always feels focused in the same place, though the focus has different degrees of energy according to the energy of the breath released to produce it. The carrying power of the sound is equal to the intrinsic energy of your compressed breath, and the intensity of both vibration and breath is the same for soft as it is for loud tones. It takes more muscle to hold the breath energy back than it does to let it go, and it is the spinning vibration that takes care of tone and volume. Coordinated breathing furnishes the necessary energy. Thus, to keep the lungs full of compressed air and always satisfied is a necessity.
The flutist must maintain tonicity of muscles without stiffness from the waist to the pelvis. This creates an unseen and almost imperceptible energy. If you hold this accumulated energy after breathing then begin the sound, the tone will seem drawn from you by energy rather than pushed by air. It is an energetic and exciting sensation that allows your tone to emerge from silence without interrupting the regular flow of energy. Because the inherent energy in compressed breath produces both the timbre and dynamic of tones, the flutist should feel the breath control descend in the body as the pitch ascends or becomes louder. Remember, however, that soft tones still demand pelvic breath control. When you have breath energy that is sufficient to maintain a phrase and that can accommodate all of the subtleties and pitch changes within a phrase, you have achieved much. Loose breath, on the other hand, is useless and causes unnecessary effort, irregular vibration, and deficient energy.
When you exhale with a small embouchure opening, air pressure builds inside the mouth. Air pressure increases even more as you increase the speed of your air and/or narrow your embouchure opening. While air pressure and speed changes from low to high notes, in all registers of the flute the breath should feel energized, and the flutist must feed the sensation of vibration in the central opening of the embouchure between the lips. It is this compressed breath that strikes the far edge of your flute’s embouchure plate.
You can practice variations in air speed by blowing warm air through various sizes of straws. As you blow through straws, you should feel resistance throughout the torso and abdomen. This resistance increases as the diameter of the straw decreases.
Consistency of air flow is vital to legato and staccato playing alike. Your abdominal muscles and ribs should remain elastically firm the entire time you are playing. This can be achieved by meticulous coordination of appoggio, portamento, and messa di voce.
As D. Antoinette Foy states: “Breathe deeply, until sweet air extinguishes the burn of fear in your lungs and every breath is a beautiful refusal to become anything less than infinite.”
Recently appointed to Philadelphia’s Network for New Music, flutist Robert Cart is an international soloist, chamber musician, and orchestral player known for performing with a “thrilling abandon.” (Baltimore Sun). He has toured as soloist throughout Europe, Asia, and the Americas, and has worked with notable conductors, including Bernstein, Leppard, Muti, Previn, and Zinman. Robert has performed at festivals, including Tanglewood, Ravello, and Aldeburgh, and as solo recitalist at such renowned venues as The Kennedy Center, Carnegie Hall, and Lincoln Center. An advocate for new music, he has premiered more than 50 solo, chamber, and orchestral works by Jennifer Higdon, Gary Schocker, Roger Hudson, Edgar Girtain, and others, and will soon be heard on the Albany and Centaur labels in premiere recordings of works by Eugène Ysaÿe, Colridge Taylor-Perkinson, Daniel Dorff, and David Loeb.
As a chamber musician, he is the founding flutist of the Fischbach, Merlino, Cart trio, a flute, viola, and cello chamber ensemble, and of PhillyQ, a woodwind quartet. Each summer, Robert is a faculty member at the Atlantic Music Festival in Maine (USA), where he also serves as flutist and coordinator of the Contemporary Music Ensemble.
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