OBOE MASTER FERNAND GILLET’S
Joe Armstrong Boston, 2006
A shorter version of this article appeared in The Flutist Quarterly, Winter, 2004, entitled "Oboe Master Fernand Gillet's Legacy to Flutists: His Methods for Developing Superior Technique and Expressive Control"
Fernand Gillet 1882-1980
INTRODUCTION I. LONDON AND CASALS II. BOSTON AND GILLET III. LESSONS IV. ACCENTS, PORTATOS, AND LEGATO V. MOZART, BACH, ET AL VI. EXERCICES VII. USING THE SCALE POSITIONS VIII. THE ALEXANDER TECHNIQUE AND WORKING WITH GILLET POSTSCRIPT
Not many people realize today that the legendary Fernand Gillet frequently taught advanced players from the entire woodwind family who found that his unique way of developing superior technique and expressive control had something crucial to offer them beyond what they received from the expert teachers of their own instruments. As a flutist, I’ve found that my own experience studying with Gillet for two years in the early 1070s—when he was over 90—radically transformed my playing, even though I had already worked seriously with two extraordinary flutists and played professionally for several years. In fact, the essence of what he taught me continues to guide the way I work on music and maintain a refined technique.
To my knowledge, the only published accounts of Gillet’s teaching are two fine ones by Alan Vogel and Jean Northrup—which appeared in the IDRS Journal—but since they very naturally focus on specific aspects of oboe practice and performance, other reed players and flutists are not very likely to look to them to learn how Gillet’s principles can be applied to their particular instruments. So, after three decades of applying Gillet’s ideas and thinking about how to pass them on to musicians I’ve encountered as a teacher of the Alexander Technique, I’d like to describe what he gave me in lessons and demonstrate the value to us all of his famous Exercices sur les Gammes, les Intervalles et le Staccato, which he intended to publish in editions for each of the woodwinds.
But first, a little about Gillet’s background and career. Of course, he was best known for being first oboist of the Boston Symphony under Serge Koussevitzky from 1925 to 1946. He had spent his years before that in France, where he was born in Paris in 1882, entering the Conservatory there at the age of fourteen as a pupil of his uncle, Georges Gillet, who had also been his first teacher. By the age of nineteen, he had become first oboist of the Lamoureux Orchestra, and a year later he became first oboist of the Paris Opera as well. While serving as a flyer in World War I (for which he received the Croix de Guerre), he spent his off-duty time writing his well-known oboe studies, now published by Alphonse Leduc. After coming to America to play in the BSO, he joined the faculties of the New England Conservatory, Boston University, and the Montréal Conservatory. Teaching well into his nineties, he died in 1980.
I first heard about Gillet from an oboist friend, Charles Miller, when we were playing in the U.S. Army Filed Band during the late 1960s. Charles had studied with Gillet as an undergraduate and still went up to Boston from Washington for lessons whenever he could. After each trip, he would be ever more inspired and convinced of Gillet’s brilliance and uniqueness as a musician and teacher, bubbling over with tales of his lessons. At the time, though, I took Charles’ enthusiasm mainly as a sign of the adulation that most of us had at that age for our favorite teachers, and I listened to his praises of Gillet with a sort of detached respect. I felt that my own study with my first flute teacher, the remarkable Carl Petkoff, had been just as unique and extraordinary; so I wasn’t more than mildly interested in what Charles had to say because I assumed that Gillet’s approach was really only relevant to the oboe’s very complex demands on breathing, articulation, embouchure, and fingering. I also felt confirmed that I was on the best track then in my career because of what I had learned through flute lessons based on the Alexander Technique, which another brilliant flutist, Alexander Murray, and his wife Joan had introduced to me before I went into the Army. Along with my predisposition to be only mildly interested in Gillet, whenever Charles spoke about the specifics of his
teaching, it often seemed like it focused on technical development in a mechanical way that was very separate from musical expression—something I was trying to avoid then at all costs because of a very divisive experience I’d had with another teacher.
However, since Charles and I were roommates on the Field Band’s long concert tours, I often heard him practicing. I’d be puzzled by his faithful daily playing of Gillet’s studies because they seemed so unrelated to any melodic framework that it was hard to believe they could do anything but cultivate a very unfeeling way of playing. But when Charles would go on to practice or play a piece, he’d sometimes come through with such beautiful and exquisitely crafted phrases that I had to acknowledge the possibility that his careful work on the studies was somehow paying off. Even so, I tended to put it down to the extra labor oboists were obliged to do because of the instrument’s mechanism and reed, which, of course, were of no concern to flutists. And then we had our own stock of flute studies, which, I took for granted, supplied us with all the material we could ever need for our fullest technical development—even though I hadn’t found any of the particularly useful, but I figured that was just because I hadn’t worked at them diligently enough.
I. LONDON AND CASALS
After my stint in the Field Band ended in 1969, I had much less contact with my friend Charles and his experience of Gillet’s teaching because I moved to England to take the three-year training for teaching the Alexander Technique, which I felt was essential for my career both as a performer and as a flute teacher. But at the Alexander training school a very important thing happened that paved the way for my being much more receptive to Gillet’s ideas later on. A wonderful cellist, Vivien Mackie, who had studied intensively for three years with Pablo Casals, also joined the course. We quickly got to know each other, and I eventually persuaded her to give me beginning cello lessons in hopes that I could get a better understanding, at least second hand, of the magic of Casals’ music making—hoping that the actual, concrete cello experience could become another important guide for my flute playing, since I, like so many, had come to regard Casals as the greatest instrumentalist of our time.
The cello lessons were everything I could have hoped for since Vivien was able to transmit so much directly to me through her hands because of the way we were being trained to impart the experience of the Alexander Technique. She gave me the feeling of the resilient “elasticity” that Casals understood as a central element in cello playing—not just in your arms, hands, and fingers, but throughout the whole of you—to achieve the most expressive results. I was amazed at how she helped me avoid the usual beginner’s constrained and uncertain sawings and scrapings and at how she was able to bring me very swiftly into a way of getting around the entire range of the cello with considerable freedom and ease. Ultimately, the kinesthetic sensations of a refined bowing and fingering based on this elasticity in my fingers, hands, arms, and torso, conveyed directly by a master cellist’s hands, gave me an exciting new model for using breath, lips, and tongue on the flute; but I was still very far from making the transfer at that point. I didn’t imagine, either, that anyone would ever be able to help me accomplish it.
II. BOSTON AND GILLET
Then, in 1972, after finishing the Alexander training, I moved to Boston, where I soon decided to get a master’s degree in flute—which, of course, would require me to study further with someone. But by then I had come to feel very strongly that I didn’t want to be influenced by any other flutist’s ideas about the fundamentals of playing. I had my
own strong convictions about tone, vibrato, breathing, flute balance, and general self-integration in playing based on my Alexander training; so I was very reluctant to put myself in a position where a teacher might challenge any of these elements. I still felt somewhat lacking in rhythmic exactness and consistency of control, but I didn’t think that those aspects were likely to be helped by a teacher. Just more performing experience and hard practice seemed the best course to follow, since I had such a clearer ideal to work toward because of my cello lessons.
But it also turned out that my friend Charles Miller had returned to Boston for his master’s degree, and one day I decided to talk over my situation with him. Without trying to dissuade me from studying with a flute teacher (James Pappoutsakis was the only one I was considering), he suggested that I think about working with Gillet, who, by then, had become well known for teaching non-oboists too. Charles even offered to ask Gillet if I could come with him to an oboe lesson to meet Gillet and get a better idea of his teaching. I gladly accepted the offer, Gillet agreed, and I went along to Charles’ next lesson.
Since Charles had studied with him so long by then, their work together was on a very high level of musical understanding, and I saw quickly that there was much more to Gillet’s teaching than I had thought and that he possessed a supreme knowledge of the central factors common to all woodwind playing. It only took a few minutes for me to realize that his approach could provide me with something I very much needed. So when they finished I wasted no time in asking him if he would consider taking me on as a student. To my delight he said he could, though he also made a point of telling me that he “didn’t know anything about the flute” and that he could only offer me help in the basic elements of playing—which was, of course, mainly what I was looking for. I left profoundly impressed with Gillet’s dignity, his charming wit, and especially the rigorous scrutiny he brought to every fragment of a phrase. I could hardly wait to see what would unfold in my lessons.
Over the next two years, the main thing Gillet gradually transmitted to me was a very effective and refined way of practicing, even though he never actually stated at the outset that this was what he was aiming to do. But, in fact, each lesson was really a kind of guided practice session. Whatever might have seemed formulaic and mechanical in my earlier impressions of my friend Charles’ practicing and in his accounts of lessons with Gillet, Gillet himself soon revealed as a superb means of identifying and clearing away any excesses or uncertainties that get in the way of the fullest expression of every figure and phrase—and of bring out the subtle “inner rubato” that can exist even within a very steady tempo.
As I went on studying with Gillet, I also found that this inner, more “disciplined,” rubato seemed to resonate with Casals’ exhortation to players: “Fantasy, but with order! Freedom, but with order!” It grew clear that Gillet was giving me the key to realizing that broad ideal simply through his careful attention to the basic matter of getting from one note to another most effectively and accurately—an “order” that also opens the door to a profound level of “fantasy and freedom.”
It wasn’t that Gillet set out to work on developing this inner rubato in any direct way. It just happened gradually over time—mainly through his attention to anything that interfered with what he called “perfect legato,” and through his identifying where the subtler, more intrinsic accents and portatos needed to happen within a figure or phrase. A fundamental principle of his teaching grew clear: that these expressive elements are often not fully realized in woodwind playing because the different strengths of individual fingers, in combination with each instrument’s mechanism and fingering system, tend either to short-change certain notes or to make others slightly too long.
So, without any pre-set plan of progression, we simply began to go through most of the major flute repertoire. Gillet let me decide which pieces to bring in, and as I got out my flute he would usually ask, “What is on the menu today?” I’d hand him the music to look over, and especially if it was a slow, lyrical movement he knew and liked he would often exclaim, as he started to solfège the first notes of it, “Ah! This lovely Andant’!” But whatever piece I brought in, his prime interest was always in finding the most effective way to deal with any difficulties I might have in it, which often wouldn’t fully reveal themselves until we went over it together carefully phrase by phrase. It was soon clear that, in his approach, the sequence of pieces you worked on didn’t matter too much in the long run. It was much more important to experience a broad and frequent application of his principles for them to become an integral part of your playing and your working on your own.
As you can probably see, Gillet was mainly interested in what I couldn’t do well, rather than merely listening to I’d prepared, passing judgment over it, and maybe offering a few general suggestions here and there. It was really more as if he was performing each piece with me in the lesson. He always stood right beside me for the whole hour and a half—even in his mid-nineties—cueing every entrance in solfège and feeling every nuance of a phrase with his whole being, yet staying constantly alert for the places where I’d fall short of a full-fledged rendering. As soon as something cropped up that I didn’t manage with complete finesse even after a couple of attempts—he would stop me and say, “Play that passage again, and let me watch your fingers while you do it.” Then he’d come around in front of me and look very closely to find out exactly what was required in the movement of my finger(s) just at the moment of the difficult change of notes. Without fail, he’d spot the problem right away and say “Ah! It’s there, when you move from the high E to the F# (for example, in the scale entrance to the long Daphnis and Chloé solo). Then he’d usually have me do one of two things, depending on what was needed. It could be just a slight raising of the particular finger or fingers that were to take a key down for the next note, or else he’d say, “Pensez bien” (“Think well”) of the finger or fingers that were going to raise a key already held down—which would amount to making just slightly more pressure on the key or keys before raising them to play the next note.
Gillet also saw that these subtle alterations need to happen in your fingers while you are still on the note just before the difficulty. In fact, this was also a chief element of his approach. For instance, when I had trouble with the F# in the Daphnis and Chloé passage I just mentioned, he found that it was really on the E just before it where I needed to provide myself with the best chance for successfully playing the F#—as well as the rest of the thirty-second notes right after it heading on into the long G#. So his chief concern, then and there, became devising a way to work on that specific transition from the E to the F#—but one which also included the notes leading up to and immediately following it, instead of just isolating the E to F# transition to be practiced by itself. Often, as with this passage, his remedy involved deliberately and concisely extending the time of the note just before the difficulty by at least one beat—without altering the tempo or the values of any of the other notes surrounding it—so that I’d give myself more time in tempo on the preceding note (the E, in this case), so that I could send a much clearer and fuller message to the finger(s) (R2 and L2) that I needed to lift in equality with the fingers I was about to lower (R3 and L3) to play the following note (F#). As soon as he found out exactly how the rhythm should be altered, he would sing it that way for me and then have me play it back several times to be sure I’d remember how to do it on my own.
In the case of the Daphnis and Chloé passage, Gillet’s practice solution would look like this if actually written out:
Sometimes when Gillet had figured out how I should work on a particular passage, he gave me a special assignment of playing it this altered way twenty times a day for a whole week and not once as it’s actually written, until I came again—entirely avoiding the chance of my setting off and building in any faulty coordination patterns. When I would finally play the passage for him as written at the next lesson, like magic it would, without fail, be wonderfully smooth and effortless. He would smile, shrug his shoulders in the typically French way, and say “Yes! You see?” I think the main thing that made this kind of success so impressive to me was that his altered versions were always so easy to play. I could get all the notes accurately each time I played the altered passages even though they were still at performance speed, and they required none of the extra effort that I usually would have made in practicing them as written, inevitably building up unnecessary general tension not only in my playing of those particular passages but also in how I played the rest of the piece—which would only make it all the more likely that I’d still have difficulty in those spots when under pressure of an actual performance, no matter how well I’d been able to play them in my practice sessions. I was continually astonished by how Gillet’s solutions were always so effective and so simple. Passages that I had always thought would take years of slaving away on could now be reckoned with fairly quickly.
I think it’s also important to emphasize that the way Gillet had me work on difficult passages didn’t involve “slow practicing” as such. Not that he didn’t feel that practicing slowly has its place; but in this note-value-altering approach you can keep the actual performance, or near-performance, tempo going throughout so that you’re even playing the note you extend in length with a steady beat underneath it and therefore keeping much closer to the true character of the piece. Since most passages and figures tend to have fingering, embouchure, or articulation difficulties in them somewhere, going over every phrase of a piece to see if it can benefit from this kind of constructive reinforcement seldom hurts. In fact, this “processing” often helps uncover and bring out new dimensions of expression in passages whose depth of beauty and excitement you thought you had long since fully plumbed.
Sometimes you may find that adding only one extra beat on the note just before the difficulty still doesn’t give enough time to be fully precise about, or to “think well” of, what needs to happen to remedy the ailing place, especially if it’s a very complex fingering change that may also be combined with a slur demanding an extreme embouchure change. In this case you can extend the value of the lengthened note yet another beat or more (again, instead of slowing down the tempo of the whole passage), as long as you have enough breath to play it easily. Like this, for instance—still keeping the pulse going al the time of course:
At first glance, this approach may not seem much different from the usual tactic of practicing awkward or demanding passages by changing their rhythmic configurations in as many ways as possible so that you can gain more general control over playing them as written. But with Gillet’s way, your work becomes more immediately productive because you get very skilled at pinpointing the exact place where the note-value of the figure or passage needs to be altered for practice purposes, just as you get very skilled at determining the exact fingers in which the thought of a slight extra pressure, higher raising, or swifter striking should occur. This acuity not only helps to save precious practice time by cutting down on unessential work, but it often—in just moments—also adds new vitality, freedom, and security to the phrase, figure, or pattern you’re working on. It never ceases to surprise me that you can get such quick and effective results with so little repetition if you can find just where the energy and attention need to be focused and directed, rather than leaving things more vaguely to chance and merely “trying harder to get something right” by putting more energy into your general control of fingers, breath, embouchure, etc. while just playing a passage over and over as written. Of course, Gillet’s approach really pays off when it comes to preparing for a performance on very short notice.
IV. ACCENTS, PORTATOS, AND LEGATO
Another of Gillet’s subtle devices for bringing more life to a figure or phrase was to add what he called “instrumental accents.” He used the expression “musical accent” for the usual kind you find placed in the score by the composer for deliberate, stronger emphasis of a note. By “instrumental accent” he mean one that comes more from thought than from much direct effort of breath or tongue, but one the nevertheless brings just enough extra energy and clarity to a note that otherwise might stay inert or dull. He would write these instrumental accents in parentheses above or below the place where they should be “thought.” If managed well, this inner accentuation is particularly helpful when you need a little more spring of breath for moving off a note that’s tied over into the first part of the next beat and is immediately followed by a series of notes that need to move ahead more energetically. Here are some examples of very effective instrumental accents:
In the same vein, Gillet penciled “instrumental portatos” over or under a note that might benefit from a slight lengthening of the sound. He would also place a small accent on grace notes, and on the first note of each grupetto and trill. The clarity and aliveness that comes when you play these ornaments with just the right amount of extra spark always makes me think of Casals’ proclamation that the ornament is “an exultation of the note.”
Over time, I gradually found that an elasticity of legato and a clarity of articulation and accentuation never before conceivable in my playing began to emerge from this way of practicing with altered note-values and from providing for these subtle accentuations and portatos. The most striking results were in legato playing, because all the slurred notes could move more inside the breath, rather than being merely “stuck on top of it.” The smooth and more concise raising and lowering of keys caused fewer and fewer jolts to the column of air that had required a constant extra force of breath just to keep the line of sound going “above,”or in spite of, the fingering changes—an extra breath pressure that, in turn, had contributed to a coarser, less focused sound as well as a more superficial, pitch vibrato rather than the more expressively variable intensity vibrato I prefer to use. Eventually, Gillet’s expression “perfect legato” took on a meaning far greater than I could have imagined. I seldom hear such legato in flute playing today.
Ultimately, Gillet’s approach provides us with a way to get more “inside” a phrase or figure and guide it intelligently into ever fuller and richer expression. And his Exercices sur les Gammes, les Intervalles et le Staccato—which I’ll describe e in detail later—beautifully lay the groundwork for this refinement.
V. MOZART, BACH, ET AL
Of course the Mozart D Major flute concerto was one of the first pieces I decided to take to Gillet, since I knew he would be thoroughly familiar with it from playing and teaching the C Major oboe version. As I handed him the music he was obviously delighted to see this dear old friend. I could sense that I was in for a revelation or two, and just before we launched into the first movement he paused to turn and look me straight in the eye, and rather formally recited an axiom that he’d obviously repeated many times—“Always remember to play Mozart with impunity.” I don’t know if he had coined the phrase himself or if it was a quote, and he didn’t explain what he meant by it; but his tone of voice and facial expression clearly implied that we should beware of playing Mozart—as some musicians seem to—as fast as we can. The tempi Gillet carefully wrote on my part before we began were: I. Allegro Aperto: quarter note=108-112; II. Andante ma non troppo: quarter note=84-86; III. Allegro: quarter note=108-112—all considerably slower tempi, I note, than most flutists usually take.
During my next two years with him, I brought in the Mozart C/D Major concerto numerous times—as well as the G Major flute concerto, the D Major flute quartet, and even the F Major oboe quartet. And Gillet progressively brought all of them “down to earth” for me by taking the usual care over each phrase. The nuances of expression that he evoked through the use of instrumental accents and portatos were astonishing—ones that would be next to impossible to include at the generic flutist’s speed I was used to. (Of course, the same deepening transformation happened when we worked on the Bach flute sonatas and solo partita—maybe more dramatically so, since I had been influenced even longer by many prominent flutists’ faster renderings of them.) He also recommended many articulation changes throughout the Mozart and Bach editions I used, sometimes writing in several possibilities for a single phrase.
Because our work on the Mozart C/D Major concerto was so enlightening and inspiring, I eventually brought in other pieces from the oboe repertoire, such as the Poulenc and Hindemith sonatas and even orchestral oboe solos. When I handed the music to him he would usually very charmingly say—since, after a time, we’d begun working in French—“Mais Monsieur, vous marchez sur notre plate-bande!” (“Why sir, you’re treading on our flower bed!”) We also went through many of the opera arias and string works in Marcel Moyse’s Tone Development Through Interpretation. Working on pieces like the slow movement of the Beethoven violin concerto and The Swan was revelatory. I’ll never forget Gillet exclaiming just as we arrived at one glorious point in the Beethoven, “Now you are in heaven!” And from the way we’d journeyed there, I felt I truly was.
Here are some examples of what Gillet might suggest in the C/D Major concerto for working on difficult places to achieve clarity and ease. At the solo entrance in the first movement, the trill and the run up to the long C could be practiced like this—still in tempo:
As usual, Gillet urged me to play it many times in this configuration; and then, magically, it would come to life in a completely new way when I ultimately went back to playing it as written.
Then, with the trill further on, in bar 50, the same idea:
This gives you much more of a chance to “spring” elastically from the G to the C (that is, unless you choose to tongue the C—but even then the springing helps bring the C to life).
Of course the earlier, extended sixteenth figure passage for flute in bars 44 and 45 could be practiced this way, particularly because it’s difficult to manage the leaps to the high notes at tempo, and because the following low notes don’t often speak clearly and fully when you jump back down to them:
When Gillet found that the slurs on some of the wider intervals sounded less flexible and arching than they might, he wrote at the top of the page as a reminder of a more elastic legato—for example when playing the octave slur in bar 69 of the Andante—to think:
I could cite many more such examples, but I hope these give a little bit of an idea of applying Gillet’s principles. It would be very valuable, I think, to create handbooks of numerous select passages from each woodwind instrument’s repertoire re-written with Gillet-type note extensions that would allow players to take themselves through something like the same process Gillet guided his students through over an extended period of lessons such as I had with him.
Gillet told me that he felt the main model for all refined woodwind playing (especially in terms of legato, staccato, and portato) should really be that of good violin, viola, and cello playing. And his saying this, of course, made me feel all the more that he was giving me the means I needed to translate Casals’ string understanding into my own playing.
For developing and maintaining this refinement, I find Gillet’s book, Exercices sur les Gammes, les Intervalles, et le Staccato the most valuable of all his “general technique” studies. He presented me with a copy of his manuscript of the flute version which he finished shortly after I began studying with him, and I was soon struck by its transformational effect—as I still am every time I come to it today. I find the studies can strikingly enhance clarity, accuracy, and fluency, as well as bring you very quickly back into shape if you’ve been away from practicing for a while. The legato scale exercises in particular (see Première Position Binaire Diatonique below) can bring you more deeply into the key of piece—especially one with many scale-wise passages—so that when you come to the piece even after having only done one of the exercise “positions,” your fingers, breath, and embouchure feel like they’ve been all showered and scrubbed up to play in that key far more cleanly and clearly. The binary and ternary positions given in the Exercices are designed—almost mathematically—to take you progressively through the rhythmic combinations of various interval arrangements from each scale that give you the best chance to “think well” on both sides of the intervals, to let your breath carry the tone smoothly through each interval, and to let the action of your fingers happen at the best moment to allow your embouchure and breath to produce “perfect legato.”
The same binary and ternary position formulations occur in the chromatic scale exercises that come next; so, along with the legato interval studies and the staccato exercises (which are also exercises in accentuation) that follow, you have a fairly broad range of work available to you in this one volume—especially if you extend it by using the “Barême” of alternate scale articulations included in the front of the book. Gillet once said, “There’s not one note of music in these exercises!” All the same, even after doing just one scale position—if you work on it with enough attentiveness to absolute legato, exact articulation, and concise finger movement—you can experience a wonderfully satisfying freedom and grace when you play through the regular scale again afterward.
VII. USING THE SCALE POSITIONS
On the scale exercises, you start out merely by choosing a key and then playing, at the quickest speed you can manage comfortably, the regular sixteenth-note legato scale written on the top staff of that position (as “No. 1” in the example below), trying to be fully aware of how it sounds and how if feels under your fingers during that first attempt. Pause after playing that “test” scale, and ask yourself: How smooth and even was it? How accurate was it? Where did any unevenness or inaccuracy occur? How did it feel in my fingers? Was it truly, “perfect legato” all the way up and down? Take plenty of time to file these early impressions in your memory because they will be very important to refer to later when you’ve completed the whole position and play the scale again to compare the “before” and “after” versions.
NOTE: On wind instruments which have a number of options for fingering a single note, as on clarinet, and as distinct from "alternate fingerings," you will obviously prefer to use a different fingering for a particular note as it occurs in the altered passages than you would use in the scale passage at the beginning of the Position. I don't think this necessariyly has to lessen the effect or the value of doing the whole position with varying fingerings, in contrast to flute, where we would generally use the regular, unvaried fingerings throughout.
You continue by playing through each A section with careful attention to legato and concise fingering action and repeating it, followed by its corresponding B section and a repetition of that to see how the B segment’s fluency and legato is affected by having played the A section first. (I recommend doing all sections without vibrato, so that you can have the best chance to attend to legato as simply and directly as possible.) You’ll soon realize that the irregular rhythms of the A sections give you time to get the smoothest transitions in legato that you need in order to play the even rhythms of the B sections with ever more perfect legato. I never play these sections any faster than mm. 58-60 per quarter note; but it might be better for some players to start working on them more slowly than that—especially if you’ve chosen a difficult or less familiar key—and even allowing for pauses anywhere you need them to give yourself plenty of time for releasing any residual breath (in the case of reed players) and to let your breath return freely and fully, rather than taking quick, shallow breaths just for the sake of plowing on through to the end of the section. There’s nothing at all wrong with pausing—especially if you keep a pulse of the tempo going during the pause. You’ll probably find, like I have, that you’ll eventually build up a much greater natural breath capacity if you avoid pushing through to the end of each section by forcing or squeezing every last drop of air out of your lungs just because you might still have some there to squeeze. Allowing your breath to return by itself—rather than taking a breath in—is the best approach here.
Fifteen minutes or so later, after going through all the A and B sections of that particular position, you go back to the top and try the straight scale (“No. 1”) again to test your results—especially noticing how it feels now compared to when you played it at the same tempo at the beginning. As before, ask yourself: How smooth is it now? How accurate is it? Etc. You’ll usually find that the whole scale is transformed, above all, in ease. And you’ll probably realize that you can also play it much more fluidly at an even faster tempo if you give that a try. I’ve often thought that this sudden experience of ease might be like the freedom and ease that dancers must feel when they finally take off their thick rehearsal leggings just before going on stage, and it still surprises me that it happens every time I play through a position—particularly because the transformation comes about so indirectly, from doing something very different from practicing the scale itself.
Here is First Binary Position (diatonic) in the flute version. I hope you can try it out even if the configuration would normally be different for the lowest and highest notes of your instrument.
VIII. THE ALEXANDER TECHNIQUE AND WORKING WITH GILLET
It’s also important for me to add that I believe my study with Gillet and my learning to use his Exercices were even more meaningful and effective than they would have been if I hadn’t first spent a number of years meticulously applying the principles of the Alexander Technique to my flute playing. Studying the Alexander Technique includes developing the ability to STOP, wait, free yourself from unuseful habit patterns, and refocus on integrating all your energies in the best way to accomplish whatever task is at hand, instead of pushing ahead hard to achieve your goals no matter what poor habits you might be ingraining more deeply or what negative side effects you might be developing (e.g., repetitive strain injuries from excessive tension, dystonia, etc.). So when Gillet introduced me to the idea of “taking more time just before the difficult place” and I found the same concept pervading his Exercices as well, it fit right in with Alexander’s discovery that your “critical moment” for most effectively guiding and directing yourself as a whole is the one just before you act or respond.
So I believe that my Alexander experience helped me to take more advantage of the extra time Gillet’s methods allow for executing more refined fingering, embouchure, or breath changes because my overall self-direction had become so much more accurate and dependable in every aspect of my life. In the Alexander Technique, the general accuracy is cultivated as you develop the skill of freely refraining from an action (“non-doing”) until you’re integrated enough throughout your entire musculature so that you can rely on the power of that integration to counteract any tendency to make too much localized effort (“doing”) in controlling the individual parts you move in order to achieve your results. Alexander called this extra, inappropriate effort “end-gaining,” and students of the Technique often compare the results of Alexander’s “non-endgaining” approach to what people claim to achieve through the practice of Zen—for instance as described by Eugen Herrigel in Zen and the Art of Archery, where the student archer, hard as he may try, never manages to hit the bulls eye consistently and with ease until the master tells him that he needs to learn “to wait properly” before releasing the arrow. When the student finally discovers what waiting properly really means, it feels to him as if the arrow shoots by itself with none of the earlier sense of “trying hard” on his part. So, since the way we control our fingers, embouchure, and breath in woodwind playing is inextricably connected to the way each of us uses him- or herself as a whole, an in-depth study of the Alexander Technique can be a vital addition to working with Gillet’s approach, particularly in his Exercices, where it’s so crucial to take full advantage of all the extra moments he provides for cultivating the greatest precision and smoothness.
It’s fitting to let Gillet himself have the last word here though. In Jean Northrup’s tribute to Gillet, she quotes a story told by Jack Holmes about Gillet speaking with George Humphrey at Tanglewood in 1973: “Gillet said, ‘You know Humphrey, I will soon be 93.’ George replied, ‘Well, the calendar says you have to be, but how do you do it?’ The typical Gillet answer was, ‘By waiting.’”
The more I go on working with Gillet’s principles and his Exercices myself and introducing them to other woodwind players, the more remarkably effective and valuable I find them to be. I hope that what I have had to say here about Gillet and his approach will help in making these studies a mainstay of every woodwind instrument’s repertoire.
Unfortunately, Gillet wasn’t able to complete his plan to transcribe Exercices for clarinet, bassoon, and the saxophone family. As I mentioned before, Leduc has published a clarinet edition of the scale exercises, and I hope they will see fit to bring forth the other versions soon.