Keeping "Long-tones" Fresh
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:
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