Thrilled about trills

“Do you practice trills?” asked Sir James Galway during a masterclass. The student hesitated. He replied, “If you have to think about it, you don’t.” It seems we take trills for granted and don’t really spend time practicing them. In many important books written by great players and teachers such as Paul Taffanel, Philippe Gaubert, Peter-Lukas Graf, Trevor Wye, we find exercises to practice trills. Apparently it’s important to practice trills.

Trills fascinate me. They can really make or break the music. Very often I hear performances of flute players who trill too fast and without imagination. And when I started to listen really closely, I discovered that it is possible to support one of the two notes in a trill and ignore the other note. That’s exactly why we need to spend time working on the trills. What I mean is that when we play a trill on G-A, for example, many players seem to focus only on the G (the main note). So the G gets enough airspeed, but the A doesn’t. As a result, the trill sounds uneven. We tend to work on finger movement, but that’s not the main problem. The biggest problem is the difference in support and airspeed.

You can try it yourself. This is a well-known exercise for practicing trills:

1. Play the trill and focus on the G. Hear only the G in your head while playing the trill.
2. Play the trill again and now focus on the A. Hear only the A in your head while playing the trill.
3. Now that you know what it feels like to focus on one note, now focus on both notes and give them the same airspeed and support (the same attention).

I’ve been thinking about what extended technique can help to practice trills. First of all, I think harmonics can be useful. Just play the trill (start slow) and overblow the notes. This will increase the airspeed of both notes. If it’s not possible to overblow the notes because you’re playing a very high trill or it just isn’t working for you yet, remember that trying will be enough to benefit from the effort.

A second technique that came to mind is bisbigliando trills, or color trills. Working on these kinds of trills is different. The resistance of the flute is different, because of the fingerings, and that makes it interesting to observe the result. On the website you will find exercises and pieces including bisbigliando trills.

To me, it feels like magic that we are able to ignore one of the notes in fast trills. That’s why I got thrilled about trills. Once you know and can hear it, a whole new world opens up to you.


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