On Jean-Pierre Rampal's recent visit to Washington, the French flutist had two gold flutes with him.
"I have a new baby, just 1 month old," he said in describing his newest Haynes flute, and sounding just like a proud father. "Personally, I like gold because it has more warmness in the tone. I like silver very much. I don't like platinum at all. It's very cold. Cold and heavy."
But, like many fathers, he was having some problems with the new baby. "I have these two gold flutes now. And there are these two mouthpieces. The mouthpiece made for the new baby I don't like so much. I have tried many times, but I have not been very comfortable.And I would be stupid to continue with this one. After a few months, maybe I will make the point: Maybe this one is better than the other one, better for me."
For a while, however, in public, Rampal is favoring the older flute, while he gets better acquainted with the new one. He explained the necessity of having each mouthpiece suited to the player. "If you have a bad embouchure, it may be bad for me, good for someone else." ("Embouchure" in French means the "mouthpiece," but in English it has come to refer to the mode of applying the lips to the instrument.)
What is a good age for children to start playing the flute? Rampal said, "Now just any time, for two reasons: first, for the fingers. If the fingers are too small, you are obliged to play the piccolo. Second, I think, for the breath. The flute is not like the oboe or the clarinet. They have a reed.
"With the reed, you can keep the breath all in, the same," he went on. "With the flute, if you are not strong enough, you lost the breath immedidiately. If you start when you are very young, you do not have enough breath. I suggest not before 10."
That discussion sparked a question about practising breath control. Does Rampal practice it as some singers. No? "No," he answered at once. "Maybe some flute player does, but I must confess I never did. It's natural, the same as you breathe when you speak. For a very long phrase, you take a big breath and you keep your diaphragm tight - in, in, and you release it little by little."
In that explanation you may find an answer to how Rampal managers those long phrases in Bach sonatas where his breath seems to go on and on.
All this talk about managing the breath brought up another question: Why does a flute sometimes seem to produce a breathy tone? It's not the fault of the flute, it turns out, but of the flustist. "When it sounds too breathy," Rampal said, "as if it had too much ari, then it's a question of the air column. It means that the player is not sending all the air in the good direction." He held his fingers at an angle to illustrate, and continued.
"The air goes across the hole, so, like think, at a rightangle down. Across the edge of the embouncure, and it cut and gives the sound."
"Is there a great difference in the amount of tone some flutists produce?" He was asked."Yes," Rampal nodded. "I think it's a question of, first, the way you send the air column, the direction of the column, and then the flute you play. And also there is a certain gift. Some people have a beautiful sound, some big and some small."
How many fingers are used in playing? "All the fingers," came the answer, "except this one," and again he held up his right hand, keeping back the thumb. "That one supports the flute. All the others are playing."
It is the fingers that Rampal named as the source of trouble, in the unlikely eventuality he ran into any.
Asked what might be difficult for him, he replied, "For me, for everybody, velocity.I don't mean that I can't do it. But if I have something that is difficult for me, I would say in the technique of the flute, I will say the fingers. I have no problem - I must say without pride - with sound, with the breath control, with the 'detoche ' - the staccato. But the fingers, I can have problems, If I don't practice, if I am a little tired, the weak point would be the fingers."
Vibrato for the wind player is a very different thing from the vibrato that must be cultivated on the strings. Rampal expained, "You cannot play without vibrato, you have to force yourself to play without vibrato, because if it is coming naturally from the diaphragm, you get a vibrato. Like when you speak, you ahve a virbrato.
"I don't think about vibrato," he seemed to conclude, with some emphasis. But a moment later, he said, "Of course when I play the Reinecke sonata it will be different, because I will have more vibrato because I will vibrate myself more, bacause it's romantic. Sturm und Drang. Then you have a little more."
How much does one of the world's top flutists practice? "It depends," he began. "I'll be very frank with you. I practice when I need it. It's like the animals, a dog for example. You take you dog out and he eats herbs to get better. They do it when the body needs. When my body needs to practice, I practice. I have no special schedule for that. Sometimes I can practive one day completely, and sometimes I can stay 10 days without practice. I practice what I am playing or what I will play or what I have played. No scales. You get plenty of scales in a piece.
"But young students? Tell them 'Practice, practice, more and more practice. When you are still young. Because afterwards it's difficult. You have to live on your capital.'"
Suddenly a determined look came over Rampal's face. "Tomorrow I will practice. Tomorrow I have a master class in Philadelphia. I will practice because a master class is worse than a concert."