Going to the beach and collecting shells have become almost as meaningful as the wooden spoons I have written about. Although I was born in New York, I grew up in Florida, where I have stood for many hours scouting about and wading for shells over the years. Like many activities we often no longer have time for during our busy lives, this is a simple activity that allows my mind to aimlessly wander and provides a chance to just....be. Perhaps its nature's form of the ultimate bargain shopping, but this activity allows me to just take in the colors and shapes of countless polished bits and pieces of ornately decorated former "houses." With its incredible soundtrack of crashing waves and calming breezes, shell shopping is a cleansing and rejuvenating activity I miss and dream about in each land-locked state I have resided.
That means that from time to time I have to recharge my batteries and collect shells. Every time I visit a beach I follow an unspoken rule of pocketing a shell or smooth small stone. Sometimes this is an overwhelming task, as you can see from above, which was taken during my recent hunting expedition. When I finally stop and crouch down to examine my options presented on the shore before me, I'm amazed by the gazillions of shells, shell bits, shark's teeth, sand, etc. - where to begin?
This is a metaphor for so many things in life, but right now I'll apply it to practicing. It's so easy to become overwhelmed by all the bits and pieces that make up our piece. The more we focus on one tiny attribute of the piece the more flawed it usually becomes. It's so tempting to just chuck the whole thing in the ocean rather than really appreciating what insight that bit of shell offers...
In observance of my shell-a-visit rule, sometimes I'm struck by this self-imposed pressure to find the one good treasure worthy of safekeeping. Again, the practice room comes to mind here. Do we succumb to the desperation of finding some source of redeeming value each time we near the end of each practice session? Or are we able to take a step back and trust that our invested time will offer great rewards? At the beach, I always find that I need to back up a few inches or feet to cast a wider view of what's before me. Silly as it sounds, this offers a sense of calm and trust in my abilities to spot today's perfect shell...perhaps calm my worries enough to hear the shell whispering to me, "Take me home to inspire your practicing!"
This concept is especially helpful for material we are preparing to perform at auditions and recitals - anything we are revisiting time and time again. Try this in your own practicing, taking care to acknowledge all the bits and pieces that helped bring us to this point - while not becoming overloaded with them. Get that bird's eye view of one section so that you appreciate a broader perspective, not trying quite as hard to find that perfectly shaped phrase or technical passage, but trusting that it will unfold if you make the investment!
A shout out to my student Ashley (!) and TMEA for getting word out about
TONAL ENERGY - which is probably the best $3.99 a musician can invest if an iOS user. For all you iFans out there, this is definitely a great thing to check out if you have not done so yet!
A terrific user's guide is located online . Although billed as a tuner, this powerful app is a chromatic tuner, metronome, and recording device all rolled into one convenient package. When using the tuner option, you can use your iDevice as a tuner or select the tone generator instrument (and temperament) to sustain a reference tone (or multiple tones). It's also possible to select these options while using the metronome, which also offers great options.
The analysis option allows you to see feedback for each option - tuner and metronome. While selecting the tuner or tone generator option, the sound you create (input) registers on a graph indicating your tuning (cents sharp, flat, or in tune). The metronome clicks are also visible, so you can check the precision of your attacks or note shifts. Even better is the ability to record the track, which provides a recording of not only the audio but also the visual graph track! You can then save the file on your iDevice or even email it or upload it. [Keep in mind that in order to be correctly in tune you'll want to make sure you take into the account the tendency of that note. For example, if you're playing the third of major chord, you will need to place that note 13.7 cents flat (officially!). Here's a handy chart to help with this.]
some ways to get the most out of this app
Although I am sure I will keep learning new things, here are a few tricks to plug into your practicing strategies:
1. Tone generator: pick the best instrument to enhance yours, and choose registers to give you optimum resonance (and the most overtones). If you're working on piccolo excerpts, for example, avoid assigning the same register in which you're currently playing. Although this may be more challenging at first, you can add lower octaves and sustain multiple tones simultaneously.
2. Check your vibrato. Using the analysis option, use the graph as a visual check to explore the options available to you - amplitude (width) and velocity (speed). Are the pulsations regular? Tending to creep up or down (sharp or flat)? Stopping the vibrato while you switch from note to note? Having the visual feedback can powerfully reinforce the aural information we often neglect.
3. Record yourself! This is a sure-fire way to improve quickly and significantly. Even more powerful here is the ability to recording yourself while NOT looking at the screen, save the file, and then view the analysis. OUCH. Start to make the connection between what you hear and what you see regarding intonation tendencies, releases of phrases, attacks of notes, and other important details.
Try this app today and share some ways you've found!
Since it's Monday, the final day of classes for 2013, I will share a dark secret: there are many times I have wished playing the flute was closer to playing the bagpipes - not that I really know a lot about the art of mastering such an instrument. However, there are a few things that are readily apparent to even a complete novice, such as me: the player fills the instrument with air prior to its actual sounding, and the instrument has a tremendous ability to project. The flute lacks both of these enviable abilities!
All that aside, there are days when nothing seems to be coming together....sometimes a flutist may feel that taking up the bagpipes might be a good change of pace! A common lament by a dedicated instrumentalist is "I can't find my sound today!" and "I'm so frustrated! My tone is terrible and I don't know why!" I personally remember being an undergraduate assembling my flute with a bit of trepidation, wondering what kind of "tone day" it was going to be during my first notes of the morning. Well, here are a few ideas to shake that mindset off:
1. Drink plenty of water. At this time of year (end of the semester) we might be pushing ourselves to get stuff done, and that could involve additional cups of coffee or tea. Stay hydrated and combat the mild tendencies of caffeine to dehydrate. When in doubt, drink more water - boring, wonderful water! I also sense articulation is more difficult if I haven't adequately hydrated myself.
2. Use your breathing bag. Available at medical supply stores or even Amazon, these are great ways to just get the air moving. Practicing with a bag can help us focus on the quality of our inspiration as well as what we do with that air.
3. Practice different tone exercises (stir the pot!) than the "usuals." One of my favorite "change it up" method is to practice singing and playing simultaneously. Here are some great exercises and advice from Will Offermans.
4. Just plain singing, using your best body awareness, core energy, and enjoyment of creating a musical line without the stress of transferring that energy through an instrument. Here are some fun vocal exercises designed to help vocalists warm up, so try them out gently and easily to see if they help you in your flute playing.
5. Of course, getting adequate rest is important. I've alluded to this key to success previously, but here's another article on Power Sleep to file away and refer to after final exams.
6. Sight-read music and just power through your tone funk. Do it the old-fashioned way and take a study break at the library, or scour through public domain PDFs online. Your goal is to check out all kinds of interesting repertoire you haven't played, heading off to a practice room. Another great activity is to snag a duet partner and just play through Kuhlau (yes!), Briccialdi, and any other fun works for two flutes you can find. If you haven't done this yet this semester, chop-chop!
7. My students are probably tired of hearing this, but I believe body use is key. Fundamental to my tone - and just about everything else - is my focus on being fully engaged beyond my embouchure, hands, and fingers. Developing this awareness made all the difference in my own playing.
8. Listen to a great recording of a flutist, singer, or other musician you admire, and imitate their sound. Try to capture the breadth of their tone, vibrato, dynamic range, and every other nuance you can master. Do this on an easy, comfortable warm-up exercises or tune you can pick out by ear. Then transfer it over to your piece or etude, enjoying the fact that today's guest of honor in your practice room is Emmanuel Pahud, Itzak Perlman, or Charlie Parker.
If these ideas don't shake things up, just assume that TODAY is the day for all the pieces to come together! Simply hearing the tone in your mind, head, and heart before you start to play - truly audiate a rich and resonant, vibrant sound - will help clearly define your goals and also your sense of self-trust!
Being Italian, wooden spoons have been a big part of my life. It was always the tool of choice for cooking, and I remember wielding a wooden spoon to make sauce (yes, tomato sauce, not gravy - in my house). Nothing seems to work quite as well, not even those handy silicone spatulas that I can conveniently toss in the dishwasher. I have my favorite wooden spoons, some with wider bases for expert pot-scraping, some with longer handles to reach all the way to the bottom and not get lost in the sauce, and some that are just very important for sentimental reasons over the generations.
When we practice, it's often tempting to "let it rest," not wishing to unveil all the sticky clumps that are lurking at the bottom of our piece. It's certainly easier to not disrupt things - after all, the practicing pot is on simmer so it will eventually cook/be "done." There's a lot to be said for a slow and methodical approach, like a low simmer..but what about a pressure cooker, or induction burner, or other materials that speed up the cooking process to increase results in less time? Are the results the same? Different? How?
What is our go-to cooking technique for practicing? In our approach to life? Sometimes stirring the pot sheds new light on things...perhaps it's time to really scrape away and give things a good but careful mix. Are there practicing strategies we've shied away from because they're new, and therefore a little uncomfortable? Do we always begin our practicing session with long tones? With vibrato? Without? How can we stir the pot?
This morning in our Wednesday tone/tech class we went through a bunch of "standard" exercises we tend to go to and play a bit on automatic pilot. We purposefully were creative and changed things up together as a group, brainstorming and having fun bumbling through the challenging variations we were able to create. We made our neurons fire differently and although it was challenging it was completely engaging. The time flew by and we had fun!
I'd also like to add that in the larger picture, it takes mental, emotional, and physical strength to stir the pot...to invite change, and to make things "happen." Check out this great list (!) of things the mentally strong avoid. Here's to all the wooden spoons out there!
Put your chef's hat on and think about it. How often do you hesitate to stir the pot, both in the practice room and in general? What's keeping you from giving things a good swish, mixing everything up, and offering fresh and invigoratingly new perspectives? Be the wooden spoon and accept this throwdown: stir the pot both in the practice room and in your life, even just one small way - today.
Region and Audition Strategies for Success!
So – your region auditions are coming up, or your college auditions, or end-of-the-semester juries are just around the corner. That means your heart might be pounding a little as you read these words! And that’s ok – that’s a good sign. You care, you’re invested, and this matters to you. These are all important factors. Putting yourself out there for possible rejection is a brave thing to do, and there’s just no way to authentically grow without taking this risk.
Let’s take a step back and put on our white lab coats for a second…so that we can be objective in a little experiment. At this point, with just a few days to spare, what exactly are some factors we may be able to control? As you know, I like to make lists…so let’s consider these possible options:
1. How much rest you get between now and then. Ok – so you might have a couple of finals and/or big assignments between now and the big event. What if you push a little extra now at the beginning of the week so you can get additional (or better!) rest closer to the audition?
2. Speaking of rest, as Jeanne Baxtresser notes, we are athletes of the small muscles. Therefor, we need to make sure these muscles get time to recover and rest. This is not the time to double your practice time. Take breaks, make sure you stretch before a session, and set a timer to avoid tackling too much at once. See Janet Horvath’s intelligent article on injury prevention.
3. What kind of fuel are you putting in your car? If you expect to go the distance to have a rewarding road trip, you’ll probably make sure you fill the tank, check the oil, look at the battery, make sure you’re not carrying excess baggage in the trunk, maybe even get a car wash, clean out the interior to make things comfortable…Do we take care of our cars better than we do our bodies? That’s probably fuel for another blog, but for now consider what you eat and drink between now and the audition. Even if you think it’s a little boring, drink lots of water, eat vegetables and protein, avoid processed everything, watch the salt. Again, it’s probably not the best time to start a diet or quit caffeine, but just keep things moderate for now. Bring water and fortifying snacks to keep your blood sugar stable.
4. Like all performance experiences, make sure your clothing is comfortable. Are your shoes sturdy enough so that you feel grounded and completely able to perform your best? Does that shirt bunch a little or your earrings clank? These sound like silly considerations, but anything that’s going to take your attention away from your objective is a distraction. Pick something out to wear and play through the audition list. How do you feel?
5. Manage your remaining practicing and preparation wisely. Not sure how to go about this? Start by making a recording – just record yourself, using your phone or laptop. There are tons of great apps out there (and THAT’s another blog entry!). Write down your observations after you’ve played, and then listen to the recording. How accurate were you? Did you notice other things? Important aspects to consider are rhythms, intonation, dynamics, note lengths, and accuracy. Write out a few objectives for yourself to address in your next practice session, and make them achievable so you feel empowered but not overwhelmed. That might mean just selecting ONE big goal, not twelve small ones. Be strong!
6. Image your material. This is one of the most powerful practicing strategies I know: study the score, no flute, and go through slowly and hear everything exactly as you want to play it. Nail each rhythm, place every note in the most resonant place, sing the phrase. Image it like this until you feel confident you’ve created a positive and successful track record! If there’s even the tiniest hiccup or hesitation, that’s information: spend a little more time working out that spot by imaging, s-l-o-w-l-y and purposefully.
7. Take a break! Do something to reward your inner artist, something that’s really fun and inspiring and meaningful to you, something that reaffirms why you’re doing this and why you care about music. Do this each day between now and you-know-when.
Now, go out there and have a good time playing! There is absolutely nothing we can control about so much in a performance experience, such as when we’re asked to play, how the panel might react, how many other responsibilities might be on our plate that week…however, managing things like this list above can help us feel empowered, prepared, and able to manage the little unpredictable things that can really add up. Let me know how things go for you!
I love to write things down, sometimes as lists and sometimes just a way to organize my thoughts, like a family-tree styled flow chart. Just the action of writing things down really helps carve an item into my memory, and then sometimes I simply take special enjoyment out of crossing things off that list!
At this point in the semester, I'm starting to hear a few grumbles about being a bit frustrated. Most typically, though, this grumbling stems from having personally set goals and being a bit overwhelmed by the rapidly-approaching end of term, if not year. A life-changing experience I had was attending Burton Kaplan's Practicing Marathon Retreat (yes, you read that correctly!) a few years ago. It was rewarding on so many levels for me, even as an established professional musician, primarily because it carved out time for me in which I could totally focus on my playing, my being a flutist and musician. I'm sure I will write more about that experience, so to get to my point here: a terrific strategy Burton writes about is goal-setting. This may hardly seem revolutionary, but I think we often don't really determine exactly what our objectives are other than playing well and being successful. How does that all happen, anyway?
One of the great things about the Baylor School of Music (if I may toot my own flute, so to speak) is that we embrace and encourage studying music education. All music ed majors here have every opportunity afforded performance majors. This path may not be right for everyone, but I still believe that if you're studying music, you'll be teaching in some form at some point in your life! That means that if you're great at multi-tasking and time management, this career path with a pretty established occupational trajectory could be a good undergraduate plan. As a music education major, something you will have to do is write a lesson plan, so let's all start this activity together for our OWN practicing sessions:
For one week, come up with a basic plan. Here's a helpful website that uses this trifecta, through my personal practicing lens:
1. What do I want to learn during this week's practice sessions? This particular session?
2. What strategies will I use to accomplish this?
3. How will I measure this "new" skill to see?
*If nothing else, check out the steps for outlining learning objectives. Often we practice and just figure that we are putting in the time, therefore it will improve somehow. Define goals and see how that changes your perspectives, your skills, and the next steps!
Ok - there's one more important step:
4. At the end of your practicing day (split your sessions up, right?), sit down and make a list (!) of what you did, what you accomplished, and what needs to be done. Try to be fairly specific but this shouldn't take more than ten minutes so that you maximize your time. NOW, make a quick lesson plan for tomorrow - no more than five minutes on this task!
See how this works for the week. Believe it or not, this list-making is actually part of your practicing! Even if it takes 15 minutes, this saves me tons of time, gets me in a totally different zone for getting things done, and I feel a greater sense of accomplishment. It also helps me see the long-scale trajectory of development, rather than just being overwhelmed by where I currently am and where I really want to be in my playing. Try it out and let me know what you think!