Wild confessions of a professional flutist.

Archive for the ‘Practicing? Blech!!’ 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.”

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The Tangents

I was delighted to stumble upon this wonderful post by a high school English teacher. As it turns out, my students aren’t the only ones who think starting a “random” conversation will save them from doing actual work. And, I am not the only teacher who believes the tangents are worth the time.

Check it out! (Click on the title below and you will be magically transported to her original post.)

THE TANGENTS.

You see, (I won’t go so far as to insert any of the student names here. . .), I know what you are doing. The joke is on you!

Thanks, Mrs. Roberson. You rock!!

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.

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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.

Kids Hate Classical Music

School music programs are on the decline, so parents often ask me one of two questions:  Why bother trying to expose kids to classical music (and other arts)?  And, what resources are there for exposing kids to classical music?

We should “bother” to expose children to classical music (and all of the other arts) simply because more exposure to high-end artistic pursuits helps kids to develop more complex thought processes, creative problem-solving, a better understanding of the world, a context for historical subject matter, a sense of wonder and appreciation, and a broader perspective on their place in society.

In short – the more children know, the more they know.

For a wonderful historical text on the demise of classical music (and literature and art) in American culture, please read Highbrow/Lowbrow by Lawrence Levine.  It is a spectacular and eye-opening book.  It’s also an easy read.

In my opinion, children’s (and adults’, for that matter) lack of appreciation for classical music is due primarily to a lack of exposure.  It has been my experience that children, especially very young ones, are delighted by all new experiences.  When they hear a “classical” musical instrument for the first time, their eyes get wider, they want to touch it, and they wriggle and giggle with the thrill of a new discovery.  Parents, however, often impose their own fears and biases on the children and the new-found appreciation is quickly thwarted.  Adults think if there are no cartoon characters or “child-friendly” musical themes involved, the kids will hate the experience, so they avoid exposing their children to the arts altogether.

I have been a classical flutist for forty years, and I have never had a young child react negatively to hearing the flute for the first time.  They, instead, reach out to touch the keys to see how it works, or cover their ears and squeal when I show them how high the notes go.  At my music school, children often lead their parents through the doors to look at the piano in the front room.  I love to take a few minutes to show them how it works, but the parent almost always projects a negative reaction to the child, “You would hate practicing,” or “Learning an instrument is too much work.”  I often wonder if they realize that they just nipped a sense of wonder in the bud.

Dwindling arts programs have left a gaping hole in children’s exposure to the arts, but parents can absolutely and easily fill that void.  All they have to do is demonstrate excitement about the arts.  Take the children to an art museum, symphony concert, ballet, opera (kids LOVE opera!), a modern dance show, a big band performance.  There are lots of inexpensive ways to do so:  most college/university/conservatory performances are free, professional matinees are often discounted, many museums have special free hours either weekly or monthly, local community music schools have live faculty concerts, sometimes there is even live music at museums!  Sure, children have short attention spans, so just plan to leave at an opportune moment – there is no need to stay for an entire performance.  Parents could also watch videos with their young ones or listen to recordings and dance around the house.  Any recording could be used to demonstrate loud versus quiet sections, fast versus slow tempos, happy versus sad moods, and many other discoveries.

Someone recently asked me to recommend a specific recording that would be good for introducing kids to classical music.  Sting and The Chamber Orchestra of Europe did a lovely recording of Peter and the Wolf several years ago.  Start with that!  Then, try anything by Holst, Copland, Bernstein, and every other composer you can come up with.

If parents and children could simply have fun exploring classical music and all of the arts, kids would grow up with great family memories, lots of enriching experiences, a passion for creativity, and a love of classical music.  Don’t be afraid – just grab your family and dive right in!

The Bad Trill

Years ago I was working on a piece for a flute lesson, and I was very worried about a long, high trill.  I wanted it to be brilliant and to really sparkle.  I also wanted it to be long enough, without running out of steam.  I was worried about having enough air to make it all work, so I practiced extra long tones and agonized over all of the breath marks.

At the lesson I did it!  The trill soared and was brilliant!  I was thrilled.

Then my instructor gave this comment, “When I was studying with Samuel Baron, he warned me to not allow a trill to sound like an alarm clock.”

It took me a moment to realize that she was talking about my trill – THE trill.  I was crushed. 

The next day, I quit.  Cold turkey.

After a few days and a bit of perspective, I pulled myself together and realized that she was right.  That long, high, loud, fast trill DID sound like an alarm clock.  My instructor’s criticism was right on the numbers.  And, it was time for me to get back to practicing my flute.

I have never played such an insensitive, assaulting trill since.  (And, to be honest, lots of my students have heard this story, shortly after playing their own alarm-clock-like trill. . .  They won’t do it again, either.)

Student Breakthrough

“It seemed so hard at first, but now it’s EASY!  And, it’s REALLY FUN!!”  – flute student, Joselyn Allin

YES!

This embouchure octave slur breakthrough happened during a  young student’s recent lesson.  She started as a beginner in the middle of this past summer because she wanted to join band with her friends.  These friends have already been in band for two years. . .

Practicing has been difficult and boring for her thus far.  And, when band class started, she discovered that the other kids know much more than she does.  She brought her band music to her lesson that week and told me she was scared.

That’s when I told her that if she practices my way, not only will she catch up to the other kids, but she will end up being one of the best ones.  She seemed skeptical, but I told her to trust me, and she did.

A few weeks later, she proudly announced that the other kids don’t know how to play a B natural.  Last week she was excited to learn notes lower than the ones the other kids know, and informed me that the other kids “don’t even do long tones.”  And, this week she learned to control high notes with her embouchure, and discovered that it sounds “way prettier” to do it that way.

She laments the fact that she can’t play the band music.  “YET!”  I interrupted.  “Never say that you can’t do something.  Say that you can’t do it yet.”

“I can’t play the band music YET.”  She announced.  Then she flashed me a gigantic smile.

She gets it!

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