Two concepts have come up for me in recent lessons and practice that I'd like to explore today: legato, and air.
In general musical terms, legato refers to a smooth and connected style of playing, in which there are minimal breaks between notes. Legato can be produced as an articulation with the tongue, but it is also created by how a wind musician uses their air to move between the notes, playing the complete arc of a phrase rather than note-by-note through a consistent, horizontal air stream. As flute players, however, we don’t spend very much time talking about or working on legato for multiple reasons. For one, we often have so many notes to learn that technical facility becomes the main priority. But more importantly, unlike other woodwind players who have the resistance of a reed, we have a completely free-blowing instrument. This makes connecting between notes a lot more difficult for us, and we end up not spending a lot of time getting this concept of legato in our ears. Listening to non-flute players, however, can give us a more informed approach of legato. This can be especially helpful when working on flute solos that were also written for another instrument (such as oboists on the Mozart D Major Concerto, and violinists on the Prokofiev Sonata). That being said, try listening to how professional oboists, violinists, and singers move between notes. You can also integrate more “legato thinking” into your warm-ups. Moyse’s De La Sonorite exercises are quite appropriate for this. However, you can also add something more melodic to your palette. Use Moyse’s 24 Little Melodic Studies, or etudes with a mix of intervals, such as Etude No. 1 from the Anderson Op. 30 book. Breathing whenever you need to, notice how you use your air to make the shapes of each phrase in these exercises.
Air is closely related to legato, because the extent to which you are able to control the speed and volume of your airstream is what allows you to create the resistance necessary to fluidly move between notes. As flutists we ideally want the usage of our air to be separate from the usage of our throat, fingers, and tongue. At a recent lesson a teacher noticed that sometimes she would hear something stuck in my through, a sort of catching in between notes, that made each note its own entity rather than one long, connected line. I need to make sure that I am keeping my throat open and using my throat (i.e., closing my vocal folds) to assist in articulation. During my practice this month, I’m aiming to be mindful and periodically ask myself if I am carrying the same homogenous sound completely, from note to note. As my teacher described, ultimately it can be very freeing to get that separation between air and throat, and it really comes through in a performance. The audience can pick up on a sense of freedom in a sound that is continuous and doesn’t depend on what type of notes, (articulation, rhythm, etc.) that you are doing. Always return to the air.