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by Yulia Berry
Leonardo da Vinci was not only a great artist, but also a great scientist, inventor and philosopher. Among his innumerable inventions are the machine gun, the mechanical knight, also called Leonardo’s robot, the parachute, the flying machine, the Ariel propeller, which outlines the idea of the modern helicopter, various musical instruments, a scuba gear, which also has a mask with holes for breathing, glass goggles and an inflatable waterskin that allows you to sink and float. He invented a prototype of modern tanks, a self-propelled cart – an ancestor of the automobile, an anemometer – an instrument for measuring wind speed and direction.
Leonardo da Vinci was a genius, but more than that, he was the embodiment of the universal mind. One who sought to understand all of creation, including how we fit into it.
Leonardo da Vinci and music
He affectionately called music “figurazione delle cose invisibili” or “the formation of the invisible” and invented countless new kinds of musical instruments, some of which he may actually have built.
Did you know that Leonardo da Vinci invented the glissando (or so-called fissure) flute?
A page of Leonardo da Vinci’s notes in Codex Atlanticus Folio 1106r (1498) is full of drawings. Among the various topics and drawings there is a paragraph related to the sketch of two unusual end-blown tubular flutes that allow musicians to change pitch from one note to the next in a continuous fashion, without fixed intervals, thanks to a smooth, continuous fissure(s).
The figures are accompanied by a brief description (written in reverse order, as Leonardo was left-handed and used a form of mirror writing.):
“These two flutes do not produce sounds at intervals but rather in the manner of the human voice. This sound is produced by moving your hand up and down, as on a folded trumpet and more so on pipe a; and you can also produce sounds at tone intervals of 1/8 and 1/16, just as you want.
Unfortunately, there is no indication in the text about the size of the flutes or clear indications of their intended use. In experiments done in 2019 by the Italian recorder maker Giacomo Andreola, the flute b proved to be the most efficient and effective, with each slot 5.5 cm long.
Listen to the glissando flute, reconstructed by Giacomo Andreola.
La Bassa Castiglia by G. Ebreo da Pesaro (c.1420 – p.1484)
Madrigal Forsi che sì, forsi che no, by Marchetto Cara (c.1465-1525)
What can flutists learn from Leonardo da Vinci
We can learn from Leonardo da Vinci the power of curiosity, especially as an artist. He taught us that we should never stop learning and discovering, and at the same time not be afraid to experiment. As a prolific writer, he showed us the power of the written word and the ability to learn from nature.
Being a genius is not just about being super smart. Smart people are a dime a dozen, and many of them mean nothing. Creativity is very important – the ability to apply imagination to almost any situation.
“Learning never exhausts the mind.”
Your mind has an endless space and possibilities where new ideas, concepts and skills can be generated and stored. This is potentially the greatest human trait that is never depleted from learning new things. The more knowledge it receives, the sharper it gets.
People with a high level of intelligence and agency are constantly learning more and expanding their learning abilities by taking a more open and collaborative approach to everything in life. To do this, you need to develop your curiosity and allow yourself to explore new ideas, skills, and people. As flutists, we can explore forgotten composers, new music, skills, contemporary techniques, methods, the performing art of musicians playing other instruments, collaborations, projects.
We need to keep learning at all levels. This is what makes us better persons, be useful to the world, improve our life and the lives of those around us. This is what helps us enjoy life and wake up in the morning. This is what helps us to become better flutists and musicians.
‘I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.’
Learning is a beautiful thing, because when we are in action, it makes us feel like we are moving forward and doing something, but for the most part learning is just a passive activity. Knowledge is useless if you don’t use it.
What’s the point of sitting on a couch and reading a book or scrolling social media on how to play the flute if you don’t actually practice, don’t find a good teacher, don’t take master classes, or don’t perform in public?
Every time you learn something new, you change your brain, but it doesn’t just happen when you read and reread. This is only the first step. To complete the learning cycle, you need to process the material to understand it, apply it, reflect on it, practice it, and then repeat it several times until it becomes ingrained and easily retrievable.
Most people prefer to consume rather than create. The average ratio fluctuates around 90% consumption and 10% output. But how would you feel if your ratio was 50/50? Imagine that every time you sign up for a masterclass, online course, learn a new flute skill or a new concept, you immediately apply it. This experience is sure to be transformational.
‘Want what you can do.’
Often we want to do things in life that are not our strongest talents or abilities. What is natural ability? These are your innate talents and your strengths, which you can always use anytime, anywhere. We all have these abilities, skills and talents in life.
For some flute players, it is a gift for musical performance or a talent for teaching, the ability to research or create a teaching method, a talent to blend in with an orchestra, or to organize flute festivals.
Wish to do what is in your ability, use your strongest natural power, and you will succeed!
‘An artist is not admirable unless he is universal. Some may distinctly assert that those persons are under a delusion who call that painter a good master who can do nothing well but a head or a figure. Certainly this is no great achievement; after studying one single thing for a lifetime who would not have attained some perfection in it?’
We modern people like to specialize. We think this is the secret to success. What made Leonardo great was that he didn’t specialize; he summarized. He studied everything – botany, sculpture, architecture, human body, painting, drawing, light, mathematics; “the whole world was his oyster” (Everything is open to one, and with luck, he may encounter something special.)
So do not dedicate yourself to only one thing in life. Don’t specialize. Seek universality in your art of flute playing. As a musician, don’t limit yourself – learn and play different types of music. Make music from anything.
Make other kinds of art. Create art with your voice, body movements, sketching, painting, write your own music or poems. Be creative and try different things.
Allow yourself all your life to be in the process of finding yourself and trying everything in more and more new roles. Another benefit is practicality. By trying different roles, you can also create different sources of income.
Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt, and poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen.”
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what tool you use as long as you create art in any form that evokes a feeling or emotion in you. And for us musicians, the most important thing is to create a feeling in our playing, because music without emotions is dead. And then let’s bring it to the audience, touch their hearts and give unforgettable moments of emotion and beauty.
The most powerful musical performances come from performers who understand that music is a form of communication, not a virtuoso sports performance. They are not trying to manipulate the reaction of the listeners, they are simply telling the truth they see in the music and in themselves, using the language of music. True feeling in music comes from the true feeling of the performer and requires detachment from the ego and a high level of honesty with oneself.
‘Principles for the Development of a Complete Mind: Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses— especially learn how to see. Realize everything connects to everything else.’
His observation and belief that “everything connects” informed most of his work. Making connections between seemingly unimportant things is perhaps one of the most crucial creative thinking skills you can ever master.
Keep your mind focused on more than just one topic, for knowing many others will open your thoughts more, and your way of describing and seeing things, understanding things in the background creates a solid foundation in our mind that helps it grow.
Become a renaissance man. Learn everything. Do everything. Don’t limit yourself. Study science, art, architecture, painting, drawing, mathematics, music, human body. Know that everything is connected. This will deepen your understanding of music, which will bring you to the level of a real artist.
‘Painting declines and deteriorates from age to age, when painters have no other standard than painting already done.’
Like a photo copier: every time you copy something, it loses resolution, detail, and beauty. If you want to become a great artist, look to the art of the past for inspiration, but strive to surpass your masters.
Find inspiration from the masters of the flute, but don’t try to copy them. Otherwise, your “photocopies” will have a poorer performance, both technically and emotionally. Use their playing as a model, be inspired by them, let it through you, and then try to play better than them. Find your unique sound, bring a fresh approach and a different interpretation.
Like Leonardo says, excel your master:
‘He is a poor disciple who does not excel his master.’
“Time stays long enough for anyone who will use it.”
Slow is not always bad. Yes, today we live in an era of high intensity of life, we want everything at once, after this “everything at once” comes the desire for a new “everything at once”, we do not have time to enjoy the moment we have achieved. When we go to something desired for a long time, the effect is sometimes unexpected and surprising. The author painted the famous portrait of Mona Lisa for 4 years, he “couldn’t finish it for the client”, so the portrait remained with Leonardo, and now we can observe it in the Louvre. If he had done it on time, we might never have known about it.
Another aspect of “slow” is applyng it to your practice. Many students want to play their piece fast right away. However, all musicians also know the importance of slow practicing, which allows to focus on technique, fluidity, and understanding of the music.
For example, in difficult passages, take a slower tempo. Then evaluate and select several smaller sections from the same passage and work on them as slowly as necessary until you understand what is wrong, why, and what are the solutions.
Increase the speed, phrasing, dynamics, and then try the original passage again.
“Slow” teaches patience, painstaking work, attention to small details, anticipation and evaluation of results. And great results are sure to come!
‘Movement will cease before we are weary of being useful. Movement will fail sooner than usefulness. Death sooner than weariness. In serving others I cannot do enough. No labor is sufficient to tire me”
Leonardo da Vinci put service to others above all, because to be useful to other people is the highest achievement in life and the most true thing in the human soul.
In our age of general indifference, arrogance and the desire for self-affirmation and narcissism at any cost, this is especially valuable advice from the greatest genius of mankind.
Let’s keep helping others, even if they are ungrateful. Let’s be useful all our lives. Professional flutists can help students with advice and support. We musicians can ignite the spark of love for music and art in our children, students, audience. We can transform the hearts of the listeners with our beautiful playing. We can come to an important concert when another musician needs support. We can give the performer kind words and flowers after the performance. We can help with donations and fundraisings. We can volunteer at schools to promote music education. We can perform and promote music of new composers to educate the audience on the new repertoire.
Many flutists have written the articles for The Babel Flute that you are now reading, putting in a lot of time and effort, sharing their years of knowledge and experience for the benefit of the global flute community. The Babel Flute team spends their own finances and endless hours of volunteer work to create and maintain this platform, so flute players from all over the world have free access to this platform and invaluable knowledge. We all do this work to be useful and make a difference, to help and inspire others. You can show your appreciation by sharing your favorite articles and writing comments.
Being useful to others gives people a feeling of purpose and satisfaction. Doing good deeds and helping others will fill your heart with special joy. Leonardo da Vinci knew this joy and dedicated his life to make a difference in this world.
What other lessons from Leonardo da Vinci do you know that can be applied to flutists and other musicians? Leave comments below.
In this article you find more information and further references, if you are interested to learn more about Leonardo da Vinci’s music instruments experiments.
Lander, Nicholas S. 1996–2022. Recorder Home Page: Snippets: Leonardo da Vinci’s Recorders. https://www.recorderhomepage.net/leonardo-da-vincis-recorders/
Yulia Berry is an American flutist of Russian origin, founder of Web Flute Academy, The Babel Flute and New England Flute Institute, creator and developer of the popular “All about Flute” Mobile app, highly experienced flutist and mentor teaching at all levels, with a Doctor of Music Arts degree focused in Flute Performance, Pedagogy and Music Education from the Saint Petersburg State Conservatory named after N.A. Rimsky-Korsakov (Russia).