Flutist Dawn Weiss, teacher, event performer
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Playing and Studying the flute after age 39
by Dawn Weiss

The legendary flutist, Marcel Moyse, composed a wonderful exercise book ideal for aging flutists called "How I Stayed in Shape" (in French, "Comment j'ai pu maintenir ma forme"). In the introduction he writes, "For good tone quality all wind instruments depend upon the air column, the quality of the lips…the most important…is lip flexibility. This flexibility is necessary not only for the beauty of the tone, but also: …wide interval slurs flexibility … inflections… the unity of a melodic line…evenness of slurs between notes and groups of notes… good attacks (especially in the extreme registers)…and finally for better control of quality and intonation during crescendi and decrescendi." He says about this book: "It was conceived with a definitive purpose in mind: To assist professional flutists with little practice time at their disposal, those who want to preserve their acquired skills, those who wish to acquire new ones, and finally all those who love the flute without forgetting music."

Indeed, I have found this book to be a fantastic aid for getting and staying in shape - especially for the aging flutist! Up until fairly recently I didn't consider age to be a deterrent for flutists. After all, my role models were Julius Baker, Jean Pierre Rampal and Marcel Moyse, all great artists who performed well into old age. And, I recall other maturing clarinetists, oboists and conductors who had notably long and wonderful careers. My generation has always had a "can do" attitude and a sense of eternal youth, which causes us to forget or ignore that we are aging. However, as I work with my adult students and talk with my colleagues it is becoming increasingly apparent to me that age related issues impact learning and performance for MOST people, eventually. The good news is that, when understood and accommodated for, many of these issues can be overcome, allowing us to successfully continue our careers and/or hobbies.

To begin with, it is important to have a good practice regimen to develop and maintain flexibility of the embouchure and use abdominal muscles efficiently and productively. Having an experienced teacher is a big plus in helping achieve and maintain body awareness and tone concept. But even on your own, you can make great progress by playing large interval jumps. I call those exercises "sit ups" for the lips. Practicing large jumps and covering all of the extreme ranges of the instrument demands maximum lip movement. This helps with blood flow to the lips. I believe the most effective interval exercises involve playing "perfect" intervals such as octaves and fifths. These are ideal because they require large lip movements, while establishing an intonation base. A person tends to hear the intonation more clearly while playing these "perfect" intervals. By lining up the intonation, the tone will become more pure and the lip placement will tend to be more accurate.

Some aging problems affect women more than men. For example, hormone changes often cause lips to swell or dry out or become thin. However, hormones are not the only cause of water retention in lips. The influence of diet and drugs on an aging body can be a big factor. Be aware when taking new medications and notice if your tone is being affected! (Water retention of the lips would not necessarily be included on a list of drug side effects because most non-flutists would not notice it!) Hormones can also affect mental focus and concentration and/or can affect dryness in the throat or tightening in the air passageway, as can such medical conditions as acid reflux. Other assaults on a person's health such bronchitis or pneumonia can have lasting negative effects. Long after a respiratory illness, breath capacity may still be reduced. Even without such assaults on one's health, aging bodies tend to require extra effort to keep abdominal muscles firm and flexible and to keep the diaphragm elastic. Just as in other athletic endeavors, as a person ages it is harder to bounce back and training can take longer.

So, what can we do about this? First, get out your old standard exercise books that you studied when you were a teenager! Books such as "How I Stayed in Shape" are great for jump-starting tone when needing a quick fix. There are other great books worth using such as Moyse's widely used "Daily Exercises" ("Exercices Journaliers") which are ideal for both the developing flutist, and the aging one. Other excellent exercise books that help keep the embouchure supple are Taffanel et Gaubert's "17 Big Daily Finger Exercises" ("17 Grand Exercises Journaliers de Mecanisme") and Andre Maquarre "Daily Exercises for the Flute." It is important to not underestimate the value of these wonderful tools. It is easy to get complacent and just jump into pieces without adequate warm-up. That may work when one plays a lot daily and when one is young, but, as people age, they need to keep the circulation going in their lips for maximum flexibility. In an effort to keep your embouchure flexible and your brain attentive, a helpful tactic is to alternate practice material, being sure to focus on different interval combinations and different ranges.

Second, awareness is the key to making progress! We all need to be our own "health detective!" We need to pay attention to how certain foods or medicines or supplements affect our lips, concentration or breathing. I have discovered that my lips puff up after consuming such simple things as certain teas, and herbs for relaxation and sleep (whether in tincture or individually brewed form). I know of other musicians who are very sensitive to sodium content in foods and have to be on an extremely low sodium diet for 24 hours prior to morning rehearsals! Certain medicines cause similar effects. Foods can also create deleterious effects for some people. For example, I've found some foods tend to dry out my mouth (peanuts and beans), interfere with breathing (dairy products), interfere with mental alertness (dairy and pasta) and trigger hot flashes (chocolate and sugar). I've also discovered that drinking hot liquid directly before playing affects my lip control -it seems to interfere with lip sensitivity.

When working on tone and the flexibility of your embouchure, it is important to be sure to listen musically! It is helpful to play a favorite piece that inspires you. Some composers I use to stay in shape are: Bach, Debussy, Faure, Schubert, Reinecke, and Telemann. It is important to avoid playing mechanically or mindlessly. By playing something you love with a musical focus, you can make tremendous strides. For example, one of my adult students has been recovering from Bells Palsy, which he contracted many years ago. He performs with several groups locally, but still has less than optimal lip mobility. We have found it very effective to have me play a phrase and have him imitate it. By working in this way, his ear gets focused on the desired result. By using his ears as his guide, he is able to get his lips to be more responsive. Similarly, when you play a piece that you emotionally connect to, it allows you to go into the sound more fully. As you conceive of the piece internally, you will tend to play it better.

Most people don't think about the fact that playing the flute is an athletic activity! When a person is in great physical shape, they just go about playing their instrument and don't give it another thought. However, I've noticed over the past two decades, as schools have cut back on daily physical education, there seems to be an increasing number of flute students much younger than age 39 with problems supporting the sound due to lack of abdominal muscle tone! Pitch, tone color, projection, and the speed and width of vibrato are all affected by these muscles. Lack of abdominal support is most obvious in older singers, but it affects all musicians who use air to support the sound. Many singing teachers, having become aware of this problem, have developed wonderful exercises to keep these muscles taut and firm. So, if you can't find a flute teacher near you, it might be worth trying a voice teacher!

The body is comprised primarily of equal yet opposing muscles. This means that in order to move a muscle, an opposite muscle must relax. When we demand movement from our bodies, we tend to focus on the muscle we wish to move, however, there is a reciprocal action that is necessary to allow that movement to take place. Because of this phenomenon, sometimes, a hand or shoulder or facial massage will do more for a person's playing than several hours of practicing! For this reason, I highly recommend stretching and relaxation exercises such as doing yoga postures, working with a personal trainer or using a form of physical therapy to help relax muscles that have become too tense to allow the other muscles to take over their appropriate function.

Some students come to me with arthritis, joint problems and overuse syndromes. Sometimes there are certain physical and mental limitations that make it hard to progress, but working with your body gently and with loving care can produce positive results. A good Physician, Naturopath or medical practitioner is an important first step to discover what the physical problems are. Nutritional support, avoidance of allergens, and, possibly a good physical therapist, can all do wonders. Over the last 40-50 years there have been tremendous strides in the fields of physical therapy, health practices, learning technologies, etc. The options for support with general health, physical movement and stress reduction are vast including: osteopathy, craniofacial and craniosacral therapy, Feldenkrais, Alexander Technique, Rolfing, Aston Patterning, Body Talk, Eurythme, homeopathy, acupuncture, massage and many more. Other modalities are available for dealing with performance anxiety, vision problems and learning issues: One Brain Integration, Neurolinguistic Programming, EMDR, Biofeedback, etc. These holistic approaches may have significant potential to help us function better. As we attempt to enhance our performance skills, we will inevitably come up against some physical blocks. It is wonderful and reassuring to know that there are many methods that can help us work through these blocks.

This article is obviously not meant as an exhaustive dissertation on all the challenges and remedies for age related playing issues. My goal here is to reassure you that: 1) you are not alone 2) there are some tricks and aids to get through many age related issues 3) it is possible to continue to grow musically, and, most importantly 4) continuing to learn and challenge your body and mind is beneficial for you!

The joy of making music can be very healing and personally satisfying. Recent scientific evidence shows that musical effort on your instrument can actually increase the number of synapses in your brain! Being a musician has always been a courageous activity! Handled properly, playing the flute can slow the aging process, and be well worth the effort!

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