Tag Archives: flute playing

“What Should I be Practising?”

Learning the flute (or any musical instrument) is not always a smooth process of steady improvement. We all learn in different ways with our own strengths and weaknesses, so there will be times when things can get frustrating if one feels they are not improving as much as they would like. Other factors also affect our practice, such as limited time due to busy schedules (school or work), or having a lot of repertoire to learn and juggle for competitions/auditions/exams etc.

Time

Setting aside time and having an effective and efficient practice plan is a great way to make sure that you can progress and stay on top of things.

How much time you set aside is really up to your schedule, but anything between 1-4 hours a day is good. However, quality of practice is far more important than quantity, so if you only practice for 30 minutes but in a detailed, mindful way you will get a lot of benefit from that. Consistent, daily practice is key to improvement since it is our “muscle memory” that we need to train, i.e. the coordination of our body and mind to successfully execute difficult passagework or big interval leaps etc.

Breaks

It is important to take regular breaks to make sure you are fully engaged and aware of what you are doing. I find 45-50 minutes of practice, followed by a 10-15 minutes break is good if I’m doing 2 or more hours. You could also do a bit in the morning and a bit in the evening if you have work during the day.

Schedule

What you include in your schedule can and should vary (“variety is the spice of life!”), but I would try to include the following to ensure you’re covering all bases:

Warm up

With the notion that your body is your instrument, warming up the body should be part of your practice. This might be simple stretches, some breathing exercises, or some basic flexibility exercises for the embouchure (pitch bending, crescendo/decrescendo, whistle tones, harmonics). Have fun by thinking of different exercises and also relating it to whatever piece you are learning, e.g. some pitch bending on C sharp for finding a good starting note for Debussy’s L’apres-midi, or harmonics on an E for Schubert’s Trockne Blumen.

Good books for warm ups:

Mastering the Flute with William Bennett

Melody

Play a simple melody such as Fauré’s Pavane in all registers and in different keys. Pick a melody from Moyse’s Tone Development Through Interpretation and be aware of what you are doing. Try some different dynamics and colours, listening closely to intonation, articulation and quality of sound.

Tone exercises

Developing our tone is one of the most important things we can do as flute players, like a singer develops their voice. Make sure to include some flexibility and evenness of tone exercises, such as those found in Moyse De La Sonorité. Long tones are often suggested by teachers, but it requires a great deal of imagination to make long tones interesting. Try varying them, e.g. start soft, crescendo and then get softer; add two or three notes and work on a really smooth legato between notes; add octaves or harmonics to match the sound in all registers; change the vowel shape in your mouth to work on playing with different colours (aah, ooh, eee etc). Clare Southworth’s The Expression of Colour is a great book for working on tone colours

Sequences and scales

Try not to switch to auto-pilot mode at this point! It can be very tempting to bash one’s way through all the keys, but this is not very efficient and not very rewarding. Instead, give yourself something to focus on each day in your sequences and scales (intonation, evenness of tone, fingers, dynamics etc). Slow, mindful practice of scales is very beneficial. String players often practice their scales incredibly slowly and I think this really helps build on solid foundations. Quick practice is also important, but make sure you are still listening carefully. Vary the articulation: work on getting a good sound in all variations. Remember that music is full of scales and sequences, so try to play them as musically as possible. Think of some different characters to play in (a warm sunny day, or a thunderstorm, or Mickey Mouse etc!)

Good books for sequences:

Scales:

Etude/Study

Take your technical practice a stage further. Before you start playing your study, take a look at it and find out what it is for. Articulation? Intervals? It could be more than one. You could then practice that technique first and then you’ll find you can make music more easily with the etude since technical difficulties won’t be such an obstacle. There are many etude books out there to keep you occupied!

Repertoire and orchestral excerpts

The last section of your practice could be repertoire. Having done a lot of technical work, your focus here can be on making beautiful music. Making the phrases come alive with shape and direction, telling a story and bringing out all the characters and colours with constant self-observation and feedback. Notice where you tend to tighten up and see if you can practice that particular area with more ease and freedom. Take note of the tricky areas and be sure to tackle those in your technical practice. Technique and music making are inextricably linked – a good technique will allow you to make music without restriction and imagination and playing musically will help you enjoy your technical practice.

Thanks for reading and Happy Fluting!

The Whole Musician: Becoming Happy, Healthy Musicians

Are you inclined to criticize yourself for the smallest things? Are you overly concerned about what others think of you and your playing? Are you fearful of getting it wrong? Are you stuck in a rut? It is very likely that we all have some emotionally charged reactions to these questions in some form or another. Their effect on our musical lives can shape our playing and alter the pure enjoyment we can attain from one simple note.

Christopher Lee: On Accuracy and Freedom

Christopher LeeWhen I first started playing in orchestras I remember it being one of the most stressful things in my life at that moment. You see, at the beginning, I (and I imagine lots of young musicians) felt I had something to prove. That I was worthy of sitting in that chair. So, I focussed on being an accurate player, and what that meant to me at the time was putting all the right notes in the right spot at the right dynamic and in tune. With that mindset, I never achieved this goal. There was something inside of me that made me want to play a phrase a certain way which in turn made it more difficult technically. Therefore, as every concert came up I’d be determined to have an accurate night. At the end of the concert I’d decide that the next night it was going to happen and so on.

Then, something changed somewhere. I forgot about my long-standing challenge and all it took was one concert where that focus wasn’t in my mind. It worked. It was an accurate concert, and also, musical! I realised then that my one-sided focus to be accurate was not going to work for me because my musical side was one to take risks and react to what others were doing in concert. Once my mind had switched to simply enjoying the music-making I found that the accuracy also became consistent.

This led to a freedom of feeling and thinking which runs through all the repertoire that I play. It takes me a long time to come to an interpretation of a piece simply because it’s always changing as I discover more and more sounds, colours and moods. At times I incorporate so-called “extended techniques” in old repertoire because it gives light to a more musical sound. These are not things I learned from school, or from reading a textbook. These are things that came from imagination, and, happy accidents in the practice room. So from there, every “mistake” I make in practicing is merely an opportunity to see if I hear something else in a phrase.

This constant search for colours in sound can be somewhat addictive! Yet, for me, it is the way to tell my story when I play for others. A natural extension of this is my belief that everyone has something to say. For some of us it could be bottled up inside and we may not even know what it is yet! I use some acting techniques in workshops to help free this creativity in others. For we are all actors the minute we step on stage to deliver our story.

Meg Griffith: On Perfection and Perception

Meg GriffithAt a crossroads in my musical life, I sat trying to decide which direction to take my career. With so many inspiring opportunities surrounding us all, one would think this would be an exciting pastime. Unfortunately, I was filled with negative energy – there was a lack of passion towards music and disappointment and sometimes disgust directed toward myself and my playing. I thought I had no idea how to get to my goals efficiently and positively so I just stared at the seemingly unattainable, building my own walls around me and giving myself permission to expend less energy towards my goals. I thought of quitting.

Then I began to consider why I chose the flute in the first place – simple enjoyment of the instrument and the music itself. This idea had become clouded during the busy years of musical schooling in which I focused on what I ought to sound like and what others thought of me. I dusted the idea off, made it the basis of every aspect of my teaching and playing, and let it guide me as I determined how to approach problem solving on the road to my goals. The difference in both my attitude and the attitudes of my students was incredible – we still worked hard, still competed, still performed, still obsessed over small mistakes, but the approach, both intellectually and emotionally, was hugely different and far more positive. We spend so much time trying to attain perfection (whatever that really is in the long run) that we forget to look at the beauty we offer in each moment.

That is all well and good you say, but easier said than done. For me, things began to come together when I stood back to watch my reactions during my practice sessions and then ask questions to better understand those reactions:

  • After intense criticism over the smallest things, how do I feel? Is this helping me get to my goal? Why am I being so critical?
  • Are my reactions helpful and detailed in ways that lead to decisions that can help me get to my goal? Or are they overly general? (That sounded bad. VS I liked the musical approach, but I lost control of the register and it became airy. What tools do I use to solve the sound aspect while keeping the musical idea?)
  • Why do my reactions tend to be negative or critical? Am I afraid of getting something wrong? What happens if I do? (Nothing – except that I find a new understanding of my mental or physical approach to playing which helps me avoid the same mistake in the future.)
  • Is my fear of getting something wrong based in shame or embarrassment within the view of others? Where does this comparison come from? Do I feel my offerings are not worth as much as others? Why should another’s offerings define my own?

Asking these types of questions, even if you find out you don’t know every answer, is the first step to understanding yourself and therefore having compassion for your challenges rather than frustration and shame. One of my favorite teaching moments after walking through questions like these is seeing the emotions on a student’s face when he or she fully realizes that not only is there nothing to be ashamed about (relief) but that they do know the answers and have every tool to lead them to success (pride).

On Where to Turn

Whole MusicianOpportunities for one-on-one coaching in topics dedicated to these challenges as well as discussions with people just like us who can provide anecdotes like the ones above make up one of our favorite aspects of being musicians: the support within our community. Expand your network and open your mind to new approaches by surrounding yourself with positive energy and supporting yourself in mind and body. Whole Musician retreats bring all these aspects of musicianship and more into our awareness with the aim of making us all happy and healthy musicians. We will be presenting workshops on these ideas and more in London from August 26-28. If anyone is curious about what goes on at Whole Musician retreats, by all means look for our registration information online at WholeMusician.net.