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!