Welcome to Your Summer Vacation! In some ways, I like to think about the summer as a chance to make a fresh start, almost the musical answer to New Year's Day. Do you have any New Year's - really, summer vacation! - resolutions? One thing to consider is the day-to-day demands we put on ourselves to survive as a busy instrumentalist. Is it time for a technique make-over in your playing? Now's a great time for it! Getting around the instrument with mechanical confidence and comfort is essential to a long and enjoyable life as a flutist (or any instrumentalist!). Here are some thoughts to personalize your own make-over and develop a workout. Some of this is from one of my great flute mentors and inspirations, Trevor Wye! As Trevor notes, if we solidify how we relate to the technical demands of the instrument, rather than the challenges of a particular passage in a piece, we'll have more time for the beach!
1. Start with the fundamentals. In my approach to playing, this relies on developing a strong body awareness away from the flute as well as when we play. Watch how you carry yourself throughout the day, how you balance your head, how much you rely on your core, and how you treat your back. Do you carry a heavy backpack, slump you shoulders forward, or other habit that doesn’t promote a balanced and centered stance? Consider taking a dance class, Alexander Technique lessons, or yoga to build a connection.
2. Your tone is your calling card. Spend quality time building a rich, resonant tone while in as balanced a state as possible. Examine how you can best “ring” while releasing unnecessary tension. Have a battery of your favorite “go to” tone exercises that help you lock into your sound quickly, while introducing new tunes or melodic sequences to keep things fresh.
3. Amass different technical exercises in these areas: scale forms, arpeggios, thirds (etc.), trills, different chord patterns, chromatic/whole tone/modal patterns, and finger patterns or sequences. Try to hit some (if not all) of your major and minor keys per day in each of the categories, while playing some materials from the other categories. You could make a chart to progress through all the keys over the week (scale, thirds, arpeggios). The next week you could change the pattern (improvise a new form or jump to a new set). Over time you will be able to cover more material in one session. You may find you’ll have more fun and confidence combining some exercises you feel comfortable playing with others that are new, vs. all new ones.
4. Make a list of your technical strengths and aspects you wish to improve. These could include low register articulation, upper register facility, middle register right hand coordination, the “Little Devils,” balancing the flute, double and/or triple tonguing, soft attacks, diminuendos, or other areas. Consider these qualities when you make up your chart so that you practice some things that are comfortable and others that challenge you. Do this until you are ready and in shape to push yourself a bit.
5. Use a metronome to touch base and track your progress. This will keep you honest. Try to move it up just a touch beyond what is completely comfortable.
6. For optimizing technical development, mix things up. Try to play different exercises or in different ways from one day to the next. If you play all of your major and minor scales one day, choose a different scale exercise the following day (ex. – Taffanel & Gaubert Monday, Reichert 1 on Tuesday, Moyse extended scales on Wednesday, etc.). Try to add “doodles” to basic fundamental exercises, such as T&G 1 and 2.
7. Start on different keys – not always C Major! Play them in chromatic order, descending chromatic order, parallel majors and minors, etc. Anything to make your brain work a little harder will help you in the long run!
8. Try practicing sequentially. Once we get in the “groove” of a pattern, it becomes much easier. Try practicing Reichert No. 2 for 5 minutes, then Reichert No. 1 for 5 minutes, then Reichert No. 4 for 5 minutes. Return to the key you stopped at for Reichert No. 2 for 5 minutes, etc.
9. Create exercises out of any technical challenges in your etudes and pieces, rather than just woodshedding your piece. Mozart concerti: T&G 4 slur two/tongue two, etc.
10. End with a round of finger patterns to try to move with ease. Avoid stopping and correcting – you’ll do better tomorrow!
11. Reward yourself! Improvise, sightread, or play your favorite piece for two minutes – whatever helps you regroup and feel connected to music making!
*Key points to remember: strive for best body use and awareness, full breaths, a full tone, and a sense of ease.
So now, make a list and include today's date. Take a personal inventory of your playing to identify your strengths and your weaknesses. Be sure to play some of both each day, especially as you start your make-over. After you've built confidence and stamina, it can then be time to really experiment, push the envelope, and take things a notch higher with the metronome. That way over time, you'll have even less work to do on the technical challenges of your repertoire - more time to focus on music making, and more time for the beach!
After being totally inspired by hearing Aaron Goldman play and teach this weekend at the Florida Flute Convention, I feel compelled to share an idea he expressed that really stuck with me: the concept of finite vs. infinite.
He credited the National Symphony's Artist Director, Christoph Eschenbach, with this quote (my version here): working on technique (technical aspects of our playing), is finite; working on phrasing (artistic aspects of our playing), is infinite.
Think about it. It is very easy to become discouraged when practicing - there is SO much to do, so many things to fix, so many notes to learn, so many skills to develop... Yes, that's all true, but developing skills to command the instrument is fairly quantifiable. That means there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Granted, we can always improve, stretch even more, develop new skills, grow. However, there is a certain limit to how we can execute certain concrete aspects of our playing, the things that just don't really change. These are the basic tools we develop and work to maintain so that we can create art and adeptly wield a musical paintbrush. This is the infinite, limitless part: how many different ways can each of us execute a particular phrase? How many clouds are in the sky, grains of sand at the beach?! How many shades of a middle register g can we play (infinite), vs. how many fingerings for that note can we create or look up (finite)?
Where does technique stop and artistic expression begin? When I feel in command of technical aspects of my playing (vs. eliminating other demands/easing the load), I truly enjoy blending the two, if not primarily trusting the technical parts of my playing to serve the music. That's more "performance state," which I feel I must also practice reaching as well. I try to really embrace this advice of my former and pivotal teacher, Robert Willoughby: "Often the most musical solution addresses the greatest technical demands."
Perhaps the concept of infinite expression possibilities, too, can be overwhelming. The good news - or the take away, I believe, is that we can conquer the technical aspects and demands. We truly can - if we work enough (smart enough, hard enough, and with patience, great care, and trust). Conquering technical demands can therefore almost be a given. Will this be fun? Maybe not always, and especially depending on our perspective! For me, knowing that the technical challenges are finite really helps. The flip side of the coin = infinite possibilities of expression - can also be overwhelming. Just try one option at a time. Like defined technical progress, though, this requires work - that precious investment. It's WHY we develop the technical expertise, though, and where the magic happens. This is the key to the beauty of human expression, of sharing each unique moment in live art. Be brave, be bold, and test those clouds, or create new ones. Limitless possibilities await.
At this point in the semester we may forget the power of music in our lives, even while we are likely surrounded by it. How often do we really stop to listen - really listen, and immerse ourselves in the sounds around us?
As musicians we may take listening for granted, but many professions cultivate a variety of forms of listening in order to achieve success. Musicians are no exception! Although generally considered an interpersonal skill, active listening can be a musician's wide-eyed and wide-eared, fully-engaged and ever-faithful companion.
Wilton Elder makes a clear and simple point in this post: the opposite of active is passive. Actively listening to music consumes our attention and focus. It is a skill that requires practice to acquire, flex, and stay in shape. Like other similar skills in the "use it or lose it" category, we need to exercise this ability to not only maintain it but also keep it fresh. Being invested in creating music takes practice, as does being completely engaged in and focusing on actively listening to music. Musicians should practice actively, exclusively listening on a regular basis - and consider this a form of practicing.
When we practice, however,we may be challenged to actively listen while we are also focusing on the many activities and processes necessary to play at the same time. We may need to shift our attention away from these elements, pushing ourselves to trust our playing skills a bit more and use other "cues" to help us execute a passage, in order to listen more carefully. In a practice session, musicians often consider this to be critical listening rather than active listening, since our overall goal for listening while practicing is to assess our progress.
The cost of this effort and trust can tempt us to take an easier, shorter path and simply not listen actively when practicing. If we find ourselves not actively listening while we play, we can slow the tempo, reduce the demands (make one or more practicing tasks simpler), or shorten the length of the passage we are playing. We can also record ourselves - and then actively listen!
It's ensemble placement audition season, but as a musician there's likely always something looming on the horizon where we will be performing and (thanks to human nature) evaluated. How do we make lemonade if we're blinded by all the lemons (or limes) life seems to have set before us?
Prepare the best you can. If your deadline looms large, make a chart to attack things logically and in an organized way. What are you most worried about? Start there, and practice in a reverse-timeline format. At this point you may need to assess strategically, recognizing in a realistic way of what is achievable in the amount of time remaining.
Listen to recordings. This time counts as practicing as well, but strive to find the best material you can. If none is available of your piece, listen to other works by the same composer or those in a similar style.
Record yourself in a run through. Do a quick intake on what you perceive as uncomfortable sections or weaknesses. Then listen, and write down your observations of the recording. Compare both sets of "before and after" to see which areas really need more attention. You may be surprised that things aren't as "bad" as they "feel" but we must strive for comfort to achieve ownership.
When preparing excerpts, play for people. Have different combinations of "sets" of excerpts, always including those you are most dreading! Better yet, allow your listeners to choose selections randomly, while still including the ones that make your heart race a little faster.
Practice playing under pressure. Welcome this anxious state so that it is familiar and that you are accustomed to playing - and playing well. This helps you reclaim your power under fire and channel your energies forward. Find your center, shape the line, and focus on your musical goals. We will always feel a little anxious and excited - these ingredients make live music exciting and individual, rather than flat and processed powdered limeade mix.
Maintain perspective. This is just one snapshot of one moment in your life. It does not predict or limit your potentials, but it is time to deliver as best you can. It's not the time to berate yourself on what you did up to this point - that will only undermine your success in playing your best. What advice would you give a friend, or your student, in a similar situation? How would you help them make lemonade?
Learn from this playing opportunity. Every time we play, every time we put our ideas out there in public, we take a chance and we learn about ourselves. That's what this is all about, I believe. Be open to the possibilities and have fun playing - really!
Why attend a flute convention, or a music conference, or even a concert? As we approach the end of summer and look ahead (perhaps with trepidation!) toward our jam-packed semester and year ahead, why is it important to go support these events when we could be in a cabin in the woods or walking on a beach or reading a novel?
As artists, we all require nourishment, we need to recharge our batteries, we learn from our colleagues through sessions and conversations providing the healthy exchange of ideas . . . although tempting to just be a vegetable for a bit (and we need that decompression, too!) or shrink back to our practice rooms, here are some "wow" factors we can enjoy from supporting these events:
As a student, I remember attending a lecture by Jeanne Baxtresser regarding time management. She spoke of how each of her students make lists at the start of each academic year to identify summer festivals, competitions, and any major performances (like degree recitals, concerto appearances, etc.). Together they make lists of repertoire in order to plan out the year. My own students know this impacted me greatly, as I begin hounding to start working on their list. Preparing for competitions can assist us in wisely multi-tasking repertoire preparation (and giving us more opportunities to perform prepared material), help us strengthen our mental and emotional "muscles" during challenging times, and generally just provide motivation through these determined goals. So - have you started your list yet?
Here are a few opportunities to keep in mind:
There are many other competitions through flute organizations around the country, so be sure to do a search!
It's already mid-July...do you know where your summer has gone?
Actually, it's been a great summer, full of lots of inspiration, rain, quality time with loved ones and friends, time for reflection, and thoughts for the future. I'm getting ready to teach out of state, followed by the annual whirlwind of NFA Convention/blast off to the semester, so here are a few practice blogs and sites to help get revved up for the Fall semester:
Nicholas Walker, bassist:
Practice Monster. This is a great blog by a former UMiami classmate, saxophonist David Pope. A must-read for all of us who wrestle the balance and discipline that skill requires.
The Musician's Way by Gerald Klickstein. This is an amazing resource of much fantastic information, ranging from practicing to career development to wellness. Spend some time checking out this website, including the terrific downloads.
The Bulletproof Musician by Noa Kageyama. This is another rich website, full of inspiration and practicing ideas. With a searchable blog and an online course, you can find great information here.
Study Hacks Blog decoding patterns of Success, by Cal Newport: "exploring how people build interesting and meaningful lives." Here are some different viewpoints to push us further (below) but there are many other entries you may find interesting:
The Courage Crutch
Flow is the opiate of the mediocre
Is Talent Underrated?
The Practicing Musician - scroll down for lots of entries.
A few lists (with links and other insights):
Music in Practice by Sue Hunt. Here's a post on Two Tips to Cure Mindless Fast Practice, but there are many other entries, including a category on how to practice.
10 Easy Ways to Optimize Your Practicing
5 Strategies for Effective Practice by Nick Baskin, offers ideas on how to avoid getting overwhelmed by the piles of new music awaiting your ensemble and lesson activities.
14 Sites That Help You Practice
Essential Music Practice has helpful ideas, but check out the Top 5 Habits for Effective Practice, located on the bottom of the page. Get it right the first time so you're not practicing being overloaded!
Happy practicing, everyone!
This quote from Bill Gates has been stuck in my mind since I saw it at Seattle's Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI!) not long ago. I teach and believe that we practice to be successful, that we work to achieve a successful outcome...but what is the definition of success?
Dictionary.com defines success as "the favorable or prosperous termination of attempts or endeavors; the accomplishment of one's goals." Ouch! That first part really changes things for me. One of the things I celebrate as a musician and teacher is that the process never ends . . . there's always more to learn, to try, to investigate, to listen to, to play, to see; and perhaps a better or different way to try all of the above. Granted, it's important to acknowledge meeting one's goals - that surely IS an achievement. The desire to accomplish a goal is highly motivational; it moves us forward. However, Dictionary.com underlines the end of action ("a termination of attempts or endeavors"), preceded by the end of inquiry, because there is no more need to look further or deeper or differently. We're "done."
Getting back to the Gates quote, does being successful promote a state of "doneness"? A state of having exhausted all the possibilities? To me, this quote captures that sense of playing a piece really well, or winning an audition, and then suddenly feeling . . . invincible. You all know what I mean, as experience is often the best teacher. Go ahead and experience that sense of accomplishment, but remain curious before human nature kicks in. Prepare for the unexpected, try new things, and ask questions. I may get tired, especially during the final week of classes, but I hope I remain curious!
The other issue with this quote that continues to nag me is the fact that we will all fail at some point and at some task. Failure is not nearly as glamorous as success, and yet it is a very common, if not daily, occurrence. Although not pleasant, if we're not failing at something during the day, then we may not be taking enough chances. The safest arena for us musicians to experiment with this is, of course, the practice room. Be willing to go there, and then we do fail, let's figure out why. That's at the heart of Bill Gates' wisdom: we equip ourselves with knowledge and insight gained through the experience of failing. Remember that quote attributed to Einstein about the definition of insanity? It's doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results. How often do we resort to this in our practicing (and living)? Be willing to fail and to figure out why.
So with all of this in mind, consider that Success can be a Lousy Teacher, while Failure can likewise be a Fantastic Teacher. Success can terminate action, while Failure can drive us forward, if we take the initiative to use it, learn from it, and move through it.
I'm getting ready to visit a friend and have the opportunity to work with some of her amazing students, so I put together a guide for them I'd like to share here. Many of these ideas represent the wisdom of my teachers, family, friends, and sources of inspiration over the years. Thank you all for helping! Now it's time to "pay it forward" . . . .
How to make the cut, passing on to the next round and into the live audition after pre-screening recordings, or succeeding after graduation, or practicing after1. Write out goals: make a timeline for the following:
2. Just like the above, practice for next year, not just next month or even next year. Be realistic about where you are in your playing – check your ego at the door and listen critically but positively. Record yourself and listen to it!
3. Use tools to help you. Really.
1. Tonal Energy: http://tonalenergy.com/ is an amazing, one-stop-shopping kind of app that combines reference tones, a sophisticated metronome, a tuner on multiple levels, and a recording device. This is a must-own app for iOS.
2. The Tuning CD: http://www.amazon.com/The-Tuning-C-D-A-440/dp/B002COP51Q Great for playing Reichert No. 2, excerpts, and anything else you’re working on – S L O W L Y!
3. Read an inspiring blog on a regular basis for ideas and practicing strategies, such as this one by Dr. Noa Kageyama: http://www.bulletproofmusician.com/
4. Do something to further your career each day. Write a thank you email, listen to a great recording of someone from the past as well as current trends, read Letters to a Young Poet (Rilke), read some of Mozart’s letters, journal your thoughts for five straight and unedited minutes, etc.! Be thankful for the opportunity to make music, connecting with yourself, and connecting with others.
5. Take care of the fundamentals, each day. These basic tools provide our foundation upon which we build artistry. Take care of body use, balance, and coordination during your technique practice. Evaluate your sense of ease vs. tension in muscles during this time. This is money in your playing career bank! Take care of all those little things that are holding you back so that your passion and energy shine through your playing. Listen critically to your rhythm, intonation, vibrato, tone, articulation, and technical coordination. Are they inhibiting your interpretation, sense of pacing, and overall delivery of your piece?
6. Discover your sound. Our tone is like the eyes, which many consider windows to our soul. Create a sound you love, sharing it with the rest of the world. If you don’t know where to begin, listen to ALL kinds of instrumentalists and singers, considering what you love about their sound and what ideas help you find YOURS.
7. Be demanding of yourself, but frame it positively. Self-talk is very powerful….would you “talk” to your student the way you “talk” to yourself in your practice session? That doesn’t mean that everything sounds wonderful, or every passage is “great!” Listen critically, knowing that you are assessing what you are doing, not your character or essential qualities as a flutist or person! I guarantee you will accomplish more and in less time.
8. Surround yourself by inspiring people, events, and activities. Find the strongest players and musicians around, and ask them to play a piece with you. Support live music and touring art exhibitions, see an opera or a ballet, and attend a chamber music program. Learn from the performers, the conductors, the singers, the dancers.
9. Be teachable. Be curious. Be flexible. Be the kind of musician you would like to work with. Our work is never done – which is one of the cool things about music, as there is always more to learn! Although we need to recognize our strengths, we can always learn something, play better, and try something new. Be brave and secure enough to ask questions, wondering how something works, and why something else doesn’t. Think about the kind of second flute you would like to have if playing the most demanding first part, and BE that colleague….be prepared, kind, supportive, sensitive, listening acutely and responding, arriving early = on time, and committed.
10. Look at item No. 1 again. A most noble goal is to make a difference through music. It sounds a bit naïve but it is the truest goal, and one that will continue to nurture our passion and interest in being musicians. Sure – there will be rough and tough times ahead, but knowing you are making a difference will make just that: all the difference!
Where has the time gone? The last post I made was in January, and here we are in April already...the light is starting to blind us at the end of the tunnel, it's so bright - the end of the semester is in sight! Many of my students may be wondering the same thing, especially those finishing up their degree programs. It's exciting, something many have dreamed about and looked forward to - and it's also a little scary. Ok, sometimes it's very scary...and confusing, and terrifying, and exhilarating! Often we can't wait for time to pass....or we eagerly wait in anticipation for
an exciting event that can't seem to arrive fast enough, only to discover that it's over before we have a chance to really appreciate it. Time has so many implications in life and music, but especially when experiencing a life IN music:
Rhythm. We know that rhythm is vital to a musical experience, especially when playing with others. We are guided to be "on time" and "in time" in order to match those around us. Typically, the most important aspect considered in an orchestral audition is rhythm. We use our metronomes regularly to guide us rhythmically so that we are not late, early, or just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Do we teach ourselves to follow the metronome, or develop a rhythmic sense between the beats? Experiment with using your metronome on offbeats, in larger increments of the beat, on only downbeats, and other ways to encourage larger groupings. While you're at it, try having it play the subdivisions so you hear and even play every increment of the beat.
Breathing and time. Lately I've been thinking a lot about breath. As flutists we tend to sometimes feel that we need to apologize for taking a breath, or that we are less of a flute player if we actually take a breath here or there....it's important to have a totally energized use of one's air, but I think that it is liberating - if not JUST as important - to consider that taking a breath within the fabric of a melody is an artistic event, with just as much meaning as the placement and pacing of a particular note. If we had that approach would we take a different, more "nourishing" breath that creates a sense of ease and balance in the body? I think it's worth exploring! Many instrumentalists who do not rely on the breath to produce their tone actively breathe to effectively shape a phrase.
Creating space. By creating an "artistic" approach to breathing and breath pacing, we can also experiment with overall pacing and note placement. If we practice with a metronome, can we try to "not be with it" in between the beats, or downbeats? Assuming we are adequately prepared with a passage, what happens if we allow a touch of flexibility? Robert Willoughby always taught that if we take time to complete a phrase, we "start as we leave" - or take the general sense of time forward to get things going again after the sense of relaxation and completion. As they say, timing is everything - and it can really make or break a performance. Take chances, surprise the listener and maybe even yourself, and stretch/push a phrase to help it unfold in a new way. How can you play a piece in a way that also encourages the audience to breathe differently?
Preparation. Figuring out the best strategies to effectively attack what is holding you back in your piece or etude will make the most of your time in the practice room. It often requires practice and time to develop a discerning ear and a positive, constructive attitude. If you have many pieces on your stand in various stages of preparation, try creating a timeline so that you can plan out your practicing, listening, rehearsing, and overall personal lesson plan strategy for everything. Although this just takes a few minutes, it will save you a lot of time and boost your confidence. Try using a countdown app to help you, or an online practice journal (or practice app).
Well, it's almost time for my rehearsal! This is a topic that we could spin for many entries. . . I wish you all the courage to make the most of the time we have, and appreciate the time you invested in reading this!