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For the Contemporary Flutist

introducing the 12 flute etudes on extended flute techniques from the etude book 'For the Contemporary Flutist' by Wil Offermans

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Etude 7: Singing Unisono & Parallel

Since ancient times it is said that the flute intends to imitate the human voice. Also in old flute literature we find many reference to the voice. One important aspect in this context I would like to mention here is the vocalization, since the vocalization is such a great tool to help develop our flute sound (for more on vocalization see Etude 2: Harmonics and Etude 4: Bamboo Tones). In this chapter, as well as in the next chapter on Etude 8: Polyphonic Singing, we will look at singing while playing the flute.

VIDEO Etude 7: Singing Unisono & Parallel
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Etude 7: Singing Unisono & Parallel

This short sample video is on Etude 7: Singing Unisono & Parallel from the book For the Contemporary Flutist by Wil Offermans, which contains the 12 studies on contemporary flute techniques. Offermans recorded the etudes on the CD Daily Sensibilities.
* for copyright protection scores in the videos are partly blurred.
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This short sample video is on Etude 7: Singing Unisono & Parallel from the book For the Contemporary Flutist by Wil Offermans, which contains the 12 studies on contemporary flute techniques. Offermans recorded all the etudes on the CD Daily Sensibilities.

Historic samples of singing while playing the flute

Singing and playing simultaneously can create a most expressive and personalized sound. It is a technique used in many styles of flute playing, especially in traditional and ethnic flute music around the globe: in Papua New Guinea (using a bamboo tube as a voice-resonator); Laos (singing a message-like text mingled with the flute sound); India (creating a vocal drone while playing the nahr flute); the Solomon Islands (a panpipe-like flute used as a voice-resonator); Central African Republic (complex interlocking of voice and flute sounds); and Australia (not a flute: singing into the didjeridu); but also in more recent music styles, like in jazz (e.g. the musical superhero "Rahsaan" Roland Kirk) or in pop music (e.g. Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull).

Rashaan Roland Kirk playing various instruments simultaneously
Rashaan Roland Kirk playing various instruments simultaneously

Audio samples: Unison and Parallel Singing while Playing

1. Flute and voice mingling, Laos
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2. Panpipe-like flute as a voice-resonator, Solomon Islands
00:00
3. Ain't no Sunshine - Rahsaan Roland Kirk (rec. 1971)
00:00

Your Voice is Unique

In general, singing is a happy and healthy thing. But it also can make you aware about the physical aspects involved, especially concerning the throat. It is a great thing for a flutist to understand more about the throat since this will help to further shape and develop the flute sound. The throat is the basic space for creating the vocalization. Besides, to sing along the flute sound can add some exciting, new dimension to your flute playing. We all have different voices, which makes using the voice a most personal and unique experience and expression. Since the male voice sounds an octave lower as notated, it can be confusing which octave should be used when singing along the flute sound. But in general, just use the octave you feel most comfortable with. Don’t forget that the use of the falsetto voice can also give great results. When singing and playing simultaneously, sing with a comfortable feeling and preferably not loud. Whenever you feel any stress in the vocal-cords, try again with less tension or either take a break and try again later.

We sometimes think that we have to sing really beautiful to reach a good effect. Fortunately that is not true. It is not the beauty of our voice itself, but a well-balanced cocktail of voice and flute sound, which can create interesting sounds. Imagine, if you would be able to sing perfect in tune, the result could be sound quite dull. A little ‘out-of-tune’ may sometimes create more complex and interesting interferences and difference tones (see the page on Etude 3: Difference Tones). The singing, or speaking, while playing is also a great effect on the bigger flutes like alto, bass flute or contrabass flute, since these larger tubes are wonderful voice resonators.

The etude book For the Contemporary Flutist has actually two etudes dedicated to singing and playing simultaneously. In this chapter we will look to Etude 7: Singing Unisono and Parallel. In the next chapter we will look to Etude 8: Polyphonic Singing.

Exercises on Singing Unisono and Parallel

Etude 7: Singing Unisono and Parallel uses the technique of singing unison as well as parallel with the flute. Concerning the notation, we use the word ‘voice’ with some dotted extension line to indicate where we should sing unison. In the second part the voice is singing parallel with the flute. Here both are notated on its own staff. To prepare ourselves for the Etude 7, below we first will have a look at some most enjoyable exercises. Add your own creativity and extend each exercise in the your own way.

Exercise for Singing and Playing

  1. First, let’s use the tube as a voice resonator. So without creating any flute sound, we sing the pitch of the corresponding fingering. Use a vocalization like [o] (like in ‘york’), so that you will use a wide mouth-cavity. Since here you don’t need the embouchure to play the flute, you can experiment with changing your embouchure (more like a whisper-tone embouchure). Also experiment with varying the dynamics. Especially the pp can give some really attractive sounds.
  2. Next echo the flute sound with the voice, which again uses the flute as a voice resonator. Make quickly changes in embouchure position between the flute-playing and the singing.
  3. Again we alternate the flute sound with our voice resonating in the flute tube. This time you don’t play like an echo, put sing different notes, like indicated in the score.
  4. Now we are going to add the voice to the flute sound. So each pitch initiates with a flute sound, followed by a mixture of flute and voice in unison.
  5. Here we will sing and play unison, literally singing through your flute sound. You choose the octave to sing where you feel most comfortable.
  6. Here we will sing in parallel with the flute sound. This is indeed getting really exciting. While performing this study, try to focus on both sounds individually.

You should now be ready to study Etude 7: Singing Unisono and Parallel.

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