Long phrases under pressure
One of the most famous examples of a long phrase for flute players is the opening of Debussy’s L’après-midi d’un faune. This appears on almost all orchestra audition lists, and there is a common expectation to play this all in one breath.
In performance, one can generally do what one wishes and take more breaths (for example, after the 2nd G natural, or after the B in bar 3), but this gives us a good example of a stressful stimulus and how we respond to this directly affects our breathing mechanism. Factor in that some conductors like to conduct the opening (sometimes very slowly!) and you have just upped the ante!
Whilst it isn’t necessary to play this in one breath, I have outlined below some tips that can aid you in developing your breathing, using this melody as an example.
A Practice Guide
Let’s take a look at the opening solo:
Opening of L’après-midi d’un faune by Debussy
In the practice room, we can practice various different exercises to make things easier. When in the practice room, accept that it won’t go to plan every time and don’t allow any judgment when you run out of air. Instead, observe any tension and make a note of it, so you can let go of that the next time you play.
1. Practice without dynamics, all on one note (harmonic C sharp)
By doing this, we get a sense of a calm, travelling airstream, undisturbed by intervals or finger movements. Set the metronome to what you feel comfortable with. I usually aim for something like dotted crotchet = 30. You can go faster or slower.
2. Practice with dynamics, all on one note
Try not to overdo the crescendo and thereby waste air. Instead, think of transitioning from “head voice” to “chest voice”. The change in resonance gives the impression of a crescendo. You can also think of this as a change in colour (pale/light — darker — lighter). Inside the mouth, think of changing from vowel “oo” to “ah” and then back to “oo”.
3. Practice the skeleton with and without dynamics
This gradually introduces back some of the intervals. Be careful not to allow a collapse in the torso or airstream as you move down to the G natural. Keep in mind the sustained C sharp that you practiced in step one.
4. Add some more of the notes back, then all of them
This rhythm gives a nice lilting feeling and helps me phrase forwards. When you add all the notes back, use this framework to keep your sense of phrasing and not allowing all the smaller notes to disrupt the overall rhythm.
5. Practice all the above an octave higher
See what the difference is when you play with a higher airspeed. If it is more successful, it’s possible that your air speed in the low register is too slow (embouchure too open/wasting air).
Tips for Breathing
1. Blow all your air out first
When you feel pretty empty, smile, think of a nice scent (roses, for example), wait, and allow a breath to fill you up without forcing (silent). Then, blow out again (without playing) and hear the phrase in your head. Allow another breath in and play the solo, thinking of where you are going in the phrase.
2. Work backwards
Start by playing just the last note and add one more note after each in-breath until you can comfortably play from the beginning. This may take some time, but it is worth it!
3. Think in larger beats
If we subdivide the beats into quavers/eighth notes, it is quite daunting because there are 32 quaver beats in the solo. If we think in dotted crotchets (dotted quarter notes), there are only 11 beats. This reorganisation allows us to feel more in control and will also help us phrase forward and have more of a sense of where we are going. Intention is everything!
4. Give yourself small victories…
…by playing it through faster. Then, gradually reduce the tempo only when you can comfortably do so. It is good practice anyway to play this at different tempi since conductors will have different ideas.
This is easier said than done, but the process will stand you in good stead for any situations which require you to play long phrases. In performance or in an audition, the stakes are raised and we put pressure on ourselves to do well, which often results in tension, which will lead to gasping etc, and a downward spiral ensues.
In my opinion, the most important thing to remember in an audition and in a performance is that we are making music and that is what needs to come across. Use this melody as a chance to improve your approach to breathing and work on the process or the means whereby, rather than trying to accomplish the end gain of playing it in one breath.