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.