Tenuto, Sostenuto, Ritenuto
Long ago, I had a passion for a German soprano called Elizabeth Schwartzkopf. She had an etherially pure voice and she was the ideal leading lady in Mozart’s and Strauss’ operas. In spite of a dubious past during the Nazi years, she won her public back with her miraculous lieder abends (song evenings): Schubert, Schumann, Hugo Wolf, etc. Her ease in the high notes and soft phrasings was a model for the young aspiring flautist that I was. It was also a contrast with the technique of male singers, especially helden tenore (heroic tenors!) who often relied on pure force to hit the high Bs and Cs, which bel canto fans cheered as in a World Cup match.
I worked at emulating La Schwartkopf in my quest for control in all dynamic ranges and developed my own way, which I call Tenuto, Sostenuto, Ritenuto, (held, upheld, withheld). The Italian version sounds more beautiful and that’s the one I will use in this article.
When I was appointed to Oberlin College in Ohio, I met a well-known voice teacher, Richard Miller, who unfortunately passed away in 2009. Singers came from all over the world to study with him at Oberlin. His books are his legacy and I will be quoting them often. He came at my first recital: he was curious to hear how I managed breath control, which he said was often the flautist’s Achilles tendon. I must have passed the test, for we had long talks about the same matter, which he called appogio (leaning).
Appogio is a technique to isometrically balance air support from the abdomen (sometimes construed wrongly as diaphragmatic support), and the air release controlled through the chest muscles.
“To sustain a given note, the air should be expelled slowly; to attain this end, the inspiratory muscles, by continuing their action, strive to retain the air in the lungs, and oppose their action to that of the expiratory muscles, which is called lotta vocale or vocal struggle”.
Isometric is the result of forces operating in opposing directions on the same vector, resulting in balance. The most amazing example is a satellite, immobile in space due to the isometric equilibrium between gravity and the centrifugal force imparted by speed.
Back to earthly flute playing, if the chest muscles did not counteract the support of the strong abdominal muscles, there would be a rapid deflation of the lungs. “You have to brake your exhaling with the chest muscles to keep the chest volume from decreasing too rapidly because of its own elasticity”.
By tenuto (held) I mean the stability of the lip plate on the chin, without which, in my view, there can be no reliability of the sound, no workable focus, no musical articulation, slow or fast. To be sure, it would seem obvious that lips and embouchure in general be the most important agent of playing. It is not totally untrue, but I think that relying on these weak muscles. Stability is achieved by strong muscles, namely the left arm for the embouchure and the abdomen for tonal support. The flapping cheeks that seem to be in fashion reduce stability and focus.
Sostenuto is this abdominal support located not at the diaphragm (which is an organ that goes up and down in a unconscious manner, that cannot answer to will power) but at what I call the cough (or sneeze) point deep in the abdomen, below the navel. Try coughing or sneezing: you will feel the energy of this point.
This is the hardest to understand. The chest muscles (called intercostal, between the ribs) act in an isometric fashion to counter-act the support of the abdominal muscles. Without this, we would deflate in a second. Our main effort, therefore, especially when we need to sustain a long phrase, is actually blow very little with a lot of focus, maintaining the expansion of the chest and resisting its collapse.
Tenuto, Sostenuto, Ritenuto is a complicated technique to understand at first. But once it’s become natural, it is an element of comfort, of safety, of pleasure, of fright management, and of pitch control. For me it is an artistic alternative to the current fashion of blasting away at all times on flutes, which are built to have the big tone, but devoid of any subtlety or color.
© Michel Debost