The Practice Notebook

flutist Zara Lawler shares tips on learning music

Questions for Astronaut-Flutist Cady Coleman


As many of you know, there is a flutist living and working at the International Space Station.  Cady Coleman, astronaut and musician, has been delighting many earthlings with her Skyped earth-space duos with famous flutists.  Here’s her duo with Ian Anderson, of Jethro Tull fame:

I have a few questions for her!

Actually, I have submitted them via PBS’s NewsHour.  You can go there to ask your own questions, or vote for mine if you like it (you can find it by entering “flute” in the search field on the right sidebar).  This is time sensitive:  you must enter a question or vote by Saturday April 30, 2011, at 11:59pm.

Below is an expanded version of what I asked:

Many flutists have noticed that, here on Earth, it is easier to play your scales descending (do, ti, la, so, fa etc) than ascending (do re me fa…).  I have always assumed, and told my students, that it is because of gravity.  As you play an ascending scale, you tend to be lifting fingers (making the vibrating tube of air shorter as the notes get higher), and as you play a descending scale, you tend to put fingers down (making the tube longer).  I’ve noticed the ‘gravity assist’ factor in descending scales, and have learned to resist it a bit in order for my scales to be the same speed going up as going down.

My question is, in the zero gravity environment of space, has she noticed the absence of that phenomenon, specifically?  And generally, has she noticed any change in her technique–do those small finger and hand muscles have to work differently when they are not alternating between working with and working against gravity?

I am also curious about the experience of breath control.  Many earth-bound flutists know that at higher altitudes, we have to work harder to get the same volume of air in and out of our lungs, because of the difference in air pressure.  Also, playing while lying down is a totally different experience from playing standing or sitting up–your diaphragm and lungs just work better vertically.  So, is that different in space?  Since there is no “vertical?”  And what’s the air pressure like on the space station?

And where does she practice?

What are your questions about playing music in space?  If you’re ahead of the deadline, post them to PBS.  If it’s after the deadline, leave them below…maybe we can figure out a way to get them answered!

posted under Inspiration Gallery

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