Modern playing techniques: deviations, additions or natural explorations?

As a child I loved staying with my grandmother for the weekend. She lived in a beautiful big house right across from a small aerodrome. Grandma practically lived in her kitchen, a large square room with a big round table in the middle, overlooking an expansive garden. Waking up on Saturday mornings I would sit myself on this table facing the garden to play my recorder (the instrument I played at the time). For a while the world stopped existing, I was completely immersed in my music. Not only did I love playing the more traditional pieces, but I also enjoyed exploring the potential of the instrument itself. Did I find some of the sounds produced odd? Not at all. I loved them! At the time I didn’t realise that what I was exploring was in fact what is known as ‘modern playing techniques.’ To me I was just playing the recorder.


A ‘young’ instrument’s wild side

In the Dutch language we often speak about ‘modern playing techniques,’ even though the techniques in question have been around for centuries. Circular breathing for example has been practised for thousands of years and flutter tongue is a devise used in Baroque music: not such modern techniques after all. The Boehm flute however originates in 1847 so compared to many other musical instruments the flute played nowadays is relatively modern. It was in the 1950’s that both composers and flutists began exploring and experimenting with this ‘new’ flute. No longer was the flute merely this shiny instrument able to pour out divine sounds: we also started to get to know the flute’s other, less docile, side.


Extended techniques

In the English language modern playing techniques are called ‘extended techniques.’ This name suggests the techniques to be an addition to the standard playing techniques, which is why I prefer this name to ‘modern playing techniques.’ However, in both approaches there’s a differentiation between the default way of playing and ‘another’ playing method. I believe this is a shame as I do so hope that these techniques will one day be completely integrated into the general flute playing methods, to the extent that we’ll merely be speaking of ‘techniques.’ If we keep treating these ‘modern’ or ‘extended’ techniques as different or special, integrating them remains problematic.


A solution

In 2010, while researching ways to make modern playing techniques more accessible for musicians of all levels of experience, I found an interesting article by the English flutist Dean Stallard, who currently lives and works in Norway. In his 2001 article Extended techniques for New Beginners he proposes to differentiate between primary and secondary techniques. Primary techniques form the fundamentals necessary to play the flute. Without these there is nothing to build on. All other techniques can be categorised as secondary. Primary techniques are the control over one’s breathing and breathing support, command of the embouchure and finger techniques as well as mastery of the instrument’s tube with the aid of said finger techniques. Secondary techniques are the ones that will suffer if the primary techniques are inadequately mastered, for example dynamics, articulation and all the other techniques that at present are still called modern playing techniques.


In short: regarding techniques there are three different approaches. It will be obvious I prefer the third one, especially as I believe this attitude might provide a lower threshold for people to start exploring. Does this mean every secondary technique is suitable for all flutists, even the younger ones? More on this in the next magazine.

Translation: Elise Bikker


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