Wild confessions of a professional flutist.

Archive for the ‘Practice Tips’ Category

“I Tried To” Means “No”

I often wonder about conversations doctors have with their patients, especially follow-up conversations.  I imagine a patient visiting the doctor to deal with some sort of ailment.  The doctor gives a diagnosis, then prescribes a course of action.

A week later, does the conversation sound like this?

DOCTOR:  How are you feeling?

PATIENT:  Not good.  That toe is still infected.

DOCTOR:  Did you take the prescription and apply the cream?

PATIENT:  I tried to. . .

DOCTOR:  So, you didn’t do it every day?

PATIENT:  No.  Just once or twice.

DOCTOR:  Well, do it every day for a week, and you’ll see improvement.

I find this scenario to be fairly common in flute lessons.  The student needed help with something challenging, I gave them a daily course of action, and a week later the student expresses frustration over not having made any progress.  When I ask if they did the exercises, they respond, “I tried to.”

If you don’t take your doctor’s advice, you won’t feel better.  If you don’t take your mechanic’s advice, your car won’t run properly.  If you don’t take your carpenter’s advice, your roof will still leak.  If you don’t take your trainer’s advice, you won’t get those rock-hard abs.

And, if you don’t take your flute teacher’s advice, you won’t have gorgeous high notes, or control of your pitch, or perfect rhythm, or the ability to play that technical passage.

After seeking professional advice, when your problem hasn’t improved and you are asked if you did the exercises every day (or took the prescription, or changed the oil, or put a tarp over the hole in your roof, or did those crunches), and you respond, “I tried to,” I (and the doctor, mechanic, carpenter, and trainer) actually hear, “NO!”

People who worked hard to follow the expert’s advice, when asked if they had done the exercises, always respond with, “Oh, YES!  I did them every day!”  They then go on to explain what worked, what didn’t, how they felt about the assignment, and how they scheduled it into their routine.

No one works on something every day for a week, then says that they “tried to” do it.  They DID it!  And, because they did it, they probably have very strong opinions about it and want to discuss the outcome.

Take my advice – when you seek out advice from an expert, do what they recommend.  If, for whatever reason, you are not able to fit the suggestion into your life, just come clean and say you didn’t do it.  Please don’t say “I tried to,” because we all know that means “no.”


Flute Students, Read This Post!

Ah, practicing. . .  It’s the thing we hate to do but are completely dependent upon.

What an interesting problem – in order to be successful at something we love, we must consistently do the practicing we do not love so much (to put it politely).

There is good news, however! Learn to practice well, and the results will be so fabulous you will become hooked on the process and practice time will become something to look forward to. It happened to me, and it happens to my students!

How does one find the time to practice?  For starters, please understand that no one can do everything (an unpopular viewpoint in this 21st century). Anyone who attempts to be on a varsity sport, and in the school play, and in another club, and in a youth group, AND play the flute, will only be able to scratch the surface of each of these activities, and they all will suffer. It is essential for each of us to prioritize our activities based on our personal goals and time requirements.  If you love softball, but want to become a professional flutist, perhaps the weekend softball club at a local gym is the best answer. If you hope to compete on a college level swim team, be realistic about how much time you can commit to flute lessons and practice.

Once you have evaluated your schedule, figure out how much practice time is necessary.  My recommendation is SOME EVERY DAY. It is more important to get used to a daily routine than it is to fret over specific time allotments.

That having been said, a great guideline for your daily practice amount is the length of your private lesson. A student who takes a half-hour lesson will do well by practicing thirty minutes per day. Students who take longer lessons should generally practice longer. But remember, the first goal is to get into the routine of doing SOME every day.

What should you do with this time once you have found it? Good question! I like to teach students to break practice sessions into four parts: Tone, Technique, Repertoire, and Other. I could very easily write entire articles (books, even!) about each of these categories, but in the interest of time, space, and the potential reader’s attention span, I will make one or two suggestions per topic:

TONE: Do five long tones in a row EVERY DAY. Even if you only have five minutes available for practicing, this exercise is the one that should never be skipped. A good long tone should be done on any note which is easy for you (I like low G), very quietly, for as long as you can possibly hold it and then some. Time them.  Then, do a few quiet octave slurs – that will get your embouchure moving.

TECHNIQUE: Figure out the chromatic scale (three octaves) and every major scale in chromatic order. Do not try to learn them from the written page – just close your eyes and figure them out. Even if you learn only one or two per week, you will memorize them permanently if you figured them out in your own head, and the finger patterns will be mastered. Play every scale every day. Be as virtuosic as possible.

REPERTOIRE: You and your teacher will choose the repertoire (and etudes!) which are most appropriate for your level. I will give you one tip for clearing up any tricky parts. Circle (with pencil) the spots that are difficult, messy, annoying, etc. The next time you practice your repertoire, DO NOT start at the beginning. Start by drilling everything located within a “nightmare circle.” This routine will actually clean up problems. And if you have only a few minutes available, solving one of the circles will be much more beneficial than playing the pretty parts or staring into space.

OTHER: This category contains any other projects that you may be tackling with your teacher – double-tonguing, rhythm, vibrato, sight reading, etc. There are many, many variables in this category, so instead of specific advice, I will take this opportunity to recommend Trevor Wye’s Practice Books for Flute. They are absolutely indispensable.

Practice time can be a challenge, but learn to do it efficiently and the work will pay off. As Mr. Wye says in all of his books, “It is a matter of time, patience, and intelligent work.” And it will all be worth it when you hear that applause.


Photo by Kathy Joyce Photography.


The Bad Performance

Have you ever had a bad performance?  One in which you aren’t sure whether to keep hacking through or to stop and start over?  I find that performers often feel crushed by such an experience and then wonder if they can ever move past it.

If you know me well, you know that I have a strange and intense obsession with Cat Stevens (and not just because I was born on his 17th birthday!).  I grew up with his music and was too young to understand why he walked away from his musical career (my mom told me that he had joined a cult).  I have been enjoying his new music as Yusuf Islam and have been thrilled to learn the truth behind his career change and the beautiful life he has been living.

So, you can imagine how thrilled I was to hear that Cat Stevens will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014.  To celebrate, I wanted to recommend a video for students and families at my music school to enjoy.  One of my favorite songs of his is Bitterblue, so I looked for a video to recommend.  Although I have seen them all a million times (seriously), I had somehow forgotten about the amazing lesson contained in one of the videos.

Follow this link to see the video – I strongly recommend that you do so with the volume cranked up.  And, while you’re at it, give yourself plenty of room for dancing (even if you pretty much just flail about like I do. . .).

This performance is perfect for all of us (performers, students, teachers, music fans, ALL OF US) to watch in its entirety.  It is a live performance, but Cat had to restart the piece because he “messed up” – twice!  We performers and students of the art form often feel like failures after a less-than-perfect performance, and as audience members we are often quick to pass judgement on a musician who has a bad day (or bad moment!).  While watching this Cat Stevens video, keep two things in mind – he never gives up (and the final try is fabulous), and he went on to be chosen for induction into THE ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME.

Remember: a bad performance or lousy audition is not your defining moment.  Put it behind you and move on.

I Quit Flute

An amazing young colleague recently had this as her Facebook status:

  • I quit flute.

Her friends responded with comments like, “Oh, no, you are SO GOOD!” or, “Don’t quit!!!” and “Nooooo!”

My response?  Do it.  (But, it’s not what you think. . .)

The late, great, Ed Gobrecht – bassoonist, conductor, educator, master inspirer – once horrified a group of undergraduate music majors at Ithaca College by recommending that we all take a month off from our instrument every summer.  His point was that no other professionals practice every day for their entire lives and everyone needs a break in order to avoid boredom, stagnation, and injury.  Professional athletes take a break in the off-season.  Surgeons, lawyers, and engineers take vacation time.  Writers and artists take time off to seek inspiration.  Why should musicians be compelled to never take a break, or feel guilty for leaving their instrument at home when going on vacation?

“But, my tone will go out the window!”  Or, “I’ll lose my technique!!”

Gobrecht said that it will all come back and will very likely end up being better than before.  Why?  Because the break was refreshing, invigorating, perhaps even inspiring.  And, returning to your instrument will feel like reuniting with an old friend.

One month before taking graduate school auditions, I travelled to Mexico for a week with my husband (and no flute!).  I planned my practicing prior to the trip so that I would be ready to audition before I left.  I planned a week of embouchure exercises and regrouping when I returned, and that gave me three weeks to polish my auditions.  I returned refreshed, excited, and on a mission to have some amazing auditions – then got accepted to my top two schools.

So, my amazing young colleague, do it.  Quit.  Go hiking with friends or roll in some sand.  Eat a fancy meal and visit a museum.  Give yourself a few days of not being a flutist.  Then, pick the thing back up.  You will be excited to get back to work, and your practice time will take on a whole new enthusiastic meaning.


(Here’s a photo of me with Ed Gobrecht at the Ithaca College band reunion, just one year prior to Gobrecht’s death.  His inspiration lives on.)

Practice My Way

“Practicing YOUR way takes too long.”

Most of my students know better than to make this statement during a flute lesson, but it has been blurted out with some regularity over recent weeks.

I find it interesting to note that the students who make this assertion are typically those who can’t play their assignment.  The one-week assignment turns into two, then four, then five or six.  “It’s HARD,” is the most common explanation.  Or, “I just can’t get it!”

Well, allow me to prove you wrong.

So, we isolate one “impossible” measure, put the metronome on super-slo-mo (perhaps even – gasp! – a subdivision speed), then figure out the notes and rhythms.  Once SLOW works, we go one notch faster, then another notch faster, then maybe two notches faster, and faster, and faster.  We usually get the speed up pretty darned fast before the passage starts to feel tricky.

“Aha!”  I say.  “Three minutes ago you couldn’t play it at quarter note equals 50.  Now you’ve gotten that measure up to 126!”

“But, your way takes SO LONG.”  (Said with just the right amount of pathetic whine.)

That’s when I point out that THEIR way has taken five weeks thus far, and they are not yet able to play the assignment.  After three minutes of doing it MY way, one tricky measure is now amazing and fast.

Which is longer – five (ineffective) weeks, or three minutes?  The eye-rolling is all the response I need. . .

Nightmare Circles

Summer is tricky.  Either there are lots of fun things to do, so practice time becomes rare OR you get a bit bored and don’t feel like doing anything, especially practicing.

This practice tip will help you to get better even when your motivation gets a little low.

Take some time to play through everything you are currently working on, and have a pencil handy.  When you come to a spot that is tricky or not readily playable for any reason, circle it.  I call these spots “nightmare circles” because they are little nightmares in the middle of the music.

On the days when you either don’t have much time or don’t feel like doing anything, commit to working on at least one or two of your nightmare circles.  There is really no need to play through all of the easy spots every day, but if you spend some time solving actual problems, you’ll hear your playing improve.  Nightmare circles can become your little musical vitamins!

When you are able to get in a better practice session, be sure to play through the whole piece to see how much progress you have made and to circle any new problem areas.  Use your nightmare circles as little stepping stones toward mastering your musical projects.

Perform It

This practice tip may sound ridiculous, but it will help your playing right away.

When working on a new piece of music or technique, it’s really common to move on to something else before the project is truly mastered.  To bring it to a new level – play it for someone else.  In fact, play it for anyone you can get to sit still for a few minutes:  parents, siblings, the kids you babysit, your best friend, your spouse, a colleague, a neighbor, your favorite clergy member, your worst enemy, ANYONE.  When you play in front of another person, you will quickly realize what still needs work, what can go wrong, and what sounds fabulous.  It can be a great source of motivation (no one wants to play badly in front of anyone!) and can go a long way toward building your confidence.

Make playing in front of people a regular part of your practice routine (even force someone to listen to scales, if that’s what you are working on!) and see how ridiculously prepared you will be for your next big gig! 


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