How do we keep our favorite exercises - our go-to, tried-and-true, most comfortable and comfort-offering routines - alive, useful, invigorating, sustaining (look, Ma - no thesaurus - yet!)? In other words, fresh and not dying on the vine. This question can apply to so many things...we like our creature comforts, our "things" and habits that help us feel more secure and safer, especially when we face the day's uncertainties. For musicians, this is an especially interesting question to pose, as we like our confidence-inducing activities to remain skill-building, yet sometimes we wander into the desert of automatic pilot/self-driving cars/phoning things in/just basically not really being present. . .
While a college undergrad, I remember walking up to the practice room building's top floor (since this is where my favorite rooms were located) for each day's first practice session, wondering what exactly kind of tone day it was going to be. Tone is everything to a flute player (and to all musicians, right?!) - it's the ears to the soul, the personal calling card of an individual. It's a big deal. So, sometimes my heart would pound as I unzipped my bag, unlatched the case to my flute...was it going to be a good tone day? A not so great one? A fabulous one? And what to do about it? Here's an average mental exchange from back then: "Yesterday was a pretty good tone day - I'd better start with EXACTLY the same long-tone exercise on EXACTLY the same pitch as I did yesterday."
Naturally, sometimes that approach would work, and of course, sometimes that would not. Now that I refuse to play Eight Ball with my sound or my playing (!) I celebrate the wisdom of balancing exercises and knowing what I need to do to keep things fresh: be creative, participate, experiment, and play. So I'm attacking the much-revered exercise, the long tone.
What exactly is this important component of a wind player's practicing? Long tones are generally exactly what their name implies: sustained pitches, under which we play a smooth crescendo and decrescendo, to help us focus on the beginning, development, and release of the tone. Here's a good explanation by a horn expert, Bruce Hembd, including the key of developing the right mindset to practice these particular exercises effectively, as well as the importance of changing things up (that's our fresh-picked ingredient!).
For examples from flutists, here's an overview from Jeff Khaner, exercises from Jennifer Cluff, and an explanation from David Cramer on Moyse's De La Sonority. Overall, I adopt these "long tone generalizations" in my own playing:
Here are some great resources for long tones, including different concepts and exercises, videos, and other creative projects, including Flute Pro Shop's project with Danny Dorff. Some other ideas to consider:
So perhaps your goal is to get back into playing shape. We’ve all been there – perhaps you enjoyed your summer break just a little too much away from your instrument (Hello! Beach calling!), or you suddenly have an adjustment in your work load or schedule that’s cramping your practicing style, or you experienced a period of “forced rest” due to overuse, illness, or instrument woes, or you needed to help a family or friend for a while…there are as many real reasons as there are circumstances in life, including joyful ones! But the issue remains – you just know you’re not getting around the instrument so that it feels like “home” when you play. What to do?
First off – a DISCLAIMER. Like all of my blogs, these are my ideas, and things that help me. I write these blogs in the hopes they may help someone else, too, or inspire a discussion and a sharing of ideas in the practice room hallway or over coffee with a friend. The important thing is to know you’re not alone! That being established:
PAUSE for commercial: why am I writing about emotional and mental connections? You’re interested in getting back into shape so you can sprint in the upper register with the best of ‘em! Well, I believe the above are crucial steps to opening up your heart, mind, and (then) body in order to release unnecessary tension. When we are not “in shape” this is especially important. So be strong and take one step at a time.
Try a mixture of the above ideas – 5 minutes of this, 5 minutes of something else, and then read through an etude, and take a break. Then for your next session later in the day, start again with some music-based tone exercise and build your way up to faster finger activity. Build on this tomorrow, and then again, step by step, you’ll be back to where you were in no time.
It’s very important to come up with a plan – small steps of just 30 minute sessions at different times of the day can then progressively build up to longer sessions of 45 minutes after a few days. Even if you feel great, take breaks in between your practice sessions spread out over each day. You may feel tightness and fatigue in your muscles after your “playcation,” so take care to stay connected to your body to monitor how you feel, what you see, and also what you hear.
Finally, and to look at this from another perspective, try welcoming your break. Many professional and serious flutists actively take planned breaks over the year, just as professional and serious athletes pursue “detraining.” The mind and body accrue tremendous fatigue – or worse – if the state of training is constant. Be open to the possibility your time off will help you emerge stronger and refreshed in the long run!