The oldest instrument in the world is the flute; to be specific, a couple of 42,000 year-old bird-bone flutes found in a cave in Germany. The last few centuries have transformed the Western concert flute from a hollow stick or bone with holes in it into a shiny, intricately wrought metal tube with a complex mechanism of keys, springs and rods. However, the musical character of the flute is still closely tied to its history as a ceremonial instrument and with the natural world of wood and bird-bones from which the earliest flutes were fashioned. With its shimmering tone and ability to play very high and very fast, the flute can evoke the calls of birds, rolling hills and soaring skies, while it’s dark and smooth low register conjures up an air of mystery and ritual.
It’s an amazing feeling to play an instrument with such deep history, but that’s only part of the flute’s story…
Over the last century there has been increasing interest into the sound-world of the flute beyond its beautiful and rich tone. When I first began delving into this world in my early years of college at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music and more recently at the Manhattan School of Music, I was astonished by the variety of possible sounds: the low beat of a distant drum, the sound of a passing jet, gentle rapid fluttering (the sound of amplified hummingbird wings?), very high whistling, the crisp POP of popping corn, a train horn, a siren… the list goes on (and beyond easy comparison with environmental sound).
These sounds are known as extended techniques, and the flute has one of the most diverse ranges of extended techniques of any instrument. Extended techniques have been increasingly explored by performers and used by composers over the last century because as well as being fun sounds in themselves, they broaden the expressive possibilities of instruments. If you think about it as an artists’ paint palette, extended techniques have broadened the color range of instruments from the primary colors of traditional tone to a vast range of mixtures and shades.
As well as expanding the expressive potential of instrumental music to fit with our ever-changing world, extended techniques can be extremely useful practice tools. An important reason for learning music is that it sharpens our ears and it teaches us to listen. However, the attention to detail necessary for productive practice can be frustrating for students, and this is where extended techniques can be very helpful. Incorporating extended techniques into learning an instrument can re-introduce the freedom of play into a context that can quickly become obsessive and un-creative.
Sometimes when that high note just won’t come out the way we want it, rather than repeating it over and over and becoming annoyed and disheartened, playing a few multiphonics (for example) can help press the re-start button: refreshing the ear, re-connecting with a spirit of experimentation and in this case approaching the issue of air-speed (the problem behind the troublesome high note) from a totally different angle.
Learning an instrument is many things, and it is something different to everyone, but without a doubt it should be fun and creative! The best music comes from a place of imagination as well as great technique!