Sunday, June 22, 2008

How to get back into flute after a hiatus

It's been over a year since I was practising 2-4 hours a day, and now I have full time employment in another job field that leaves me only 1 to 1.5 hrs. a day for flute.
I haven't played in months, and really want to get back to it.
What would you recommend for getting back in shape on the flute after a hiatus?

Dear Hiatus Flutists,

I always use Moyse's "De La Sonorite" and focus on getting back "my lip" with the low register whole note crescendo diminuendo exercises. Since the low register responds more readily to lip changes, it gives you quicker feedback on precise embouchure positions. You also might want to read Moyse's "How I stayed in Shape" if you can interlibrary-loan a copy, or want to use your newfound income to purchase a copy. Cheers you up, no end.
I also got fabulous tips from reading the works of those who'd studied with Geoffrey Gilbert and Rampal in the two books "The Gilbert Legacy" (by Floyd) and "Bel Canto Flute: The Rampal School" (by Cohen).
There are also great tips in "The Simple Flute from A to Z" (by Debost).
But by far the best book for ease, poise and simplicity of getting your skills back in a short time, has got to be "The Physical Flute" by Fiona Wilkinson. That book is worth ordering the minute you read the title. :>)

Additionally, there are some erudite, pithy practising articles on the net that may be worthwhile reading over. (more links below)

Firstly, there's a page from the Brooke's Flute Method book that was written by James Pappoutsakis.
It's sheer brilliance. See a copy here: James Pappoutsakis advice on daily practise.

What I like about the above page is that it covers several important points:

1. Listen to your overall playing, and spot any weaknesses that you want to improve. This is important because good practise skills really rely on HEARING your flute playing in all its details.
When you hear a problem (especially when you're rusty or out of practise) make a note of it, and design an exercise that will make an improvement.
When you're short of time, a short exercise of ten minutes or so can make a difference if done for a week or two everyday.

2. Begin to play in a "natural manner without using force or exaggeration. Exercises should be simple so that you can focus on listening to one skill at a time.
This is tremendous advice. I believe that most discouragement when your flute playing is rusty comes from overwhelming yourself with just how many things sound wrong.
Instead, allow your body to adjust to the skills by starting out in a mellow and unforced manner.
I find that simple Irish melodies (or other ethnic folk tunes) give a great deal of pleasure without forcing the technique.
Some great celtic tunes or beautiful simple melodies are easy to play mezzo piano-to mezzo forte, and with long legato lines.
These allow your lips and tone to develop gradually from the low and middle registers without strain and fatigue while enchanting you and keeping you in the mood to practise further.
See suggested Celtic music here.

3. Start with easy longtones in low and middle register without too great a change in dynamics.
Only gradually extend the range over several weeks, never playing high register when tired. Release tension in jaw especially when coming back to the flute after a hiatus.

4. Once your tone has started to become centered and reliable, practise easy leaps from a single note to every other chromatic note.
Keep the range small at first.
Note: "The Physical Flute" by Fiona Wilkinson has EXCELLENT exercises for the returning flutist. Find this book at Fluteworld or order it using Interlibrary Loan.
She not only has brilliantly thought out note-leaping exercises for flexibility, she also has great melodious warmups that have all the pointers spelled out alongside, such as remembering to release tension in the body, and embouchure.

5. Tonguing can be practised on repeated notes to focus on the neatness and clarity of the tongue stroke.
At first, I suggest all slurred playing of a short passage. Then tongue repeated notes to hear the clarity of the tongue (choose one or more notes from the passage, and repeat-tongue it until the tongue sounds clear and feels easy and simple in motion.)
Then listen to the various types of tonguing patterns suggested in the Pappoustsakis: Portamento, Accented, Staccato.
Double and triple tonguing can be done slowly and neatly (listening carefully to the ease of the tongue) on chromatic scales.

6. Fingers: As Pappoutsakis states: The objective of fingering is even effortlessness rather than extreme speed.
I think this is very important. The tendons that operate the finger movements on the flute extend all the way to the elbow and beyond.
If you use an easy straightened and relaxed wrist you can feel the tendons slide in the forearm.
Easy sliding tendons are super important to fast finger action.
Cocking wrists back to choke off tendons in the wrist makes too much work for the finger-movements and can lead to injury.
Pappoutsakis uses the the five-note exercises (123454321) at a slow speed for evenness and then doubles the tempo immediately using the identical relaxed finger and arm sensations.

7. Pappoutsakis uses slurred intervals such as whole-tones and half-tones on his handout, to strengthen weak finger combinations. (Ex: Ab to G and then Ab to Gb)
These combinations are written out brilliantly in "The Flutist's Vade Mecum" by Walfrid Kujala, along with great finger-stabilizing fingering patterns.)
I enjoy working out tricky combination fingerings by doing super slow tremelos (A to F for example, played in slow half-notes, then easily in eighth notes) while sensing the balance of the flute in the hands.

8. Trills done in this manner, slowly, and evenly, with particular observation of the curved, light finger, are also a good starting point for balancing the hands, and being aware of the ease of the tendons in the arms, wrist and hand.
I like to trill very delicately without excessive pressure, and thinking "lift" everytime the finger rises. If you sense closely that you can allow the spring that lifts the keys to lift the key, and just release each finger to allow the key to be lifted for you, you get rid of tensions very quickly.

9. Controlling the air-stream. Pappoutsakis suggests sustaining notes at different dynamic levels without agitation or vibrato.
The idea is to produce very STEADY blowing that is not hard or forceful to produce.
A steady mezzo-piano at first, followed by gradual addition of dynamics. Again, you can use simple melodies to explore this as you go along.
Moyse's "Tone Development Through Interpretation" has many melodies from Opera grouped by such catagories as:
a) Low register piano and pianissimo
b) Middle register soft playing
c) high register forte playing
d) mixed dynamics low and middle register
etc. etc.

He also suggests slow scales so that you can listen to the note changes and be sure that they are smooth with no bumps or bulges.
Stay in the low and middle registers for several weeks before working on the refinement of the high register.
It takes several months, usually, to get back the embouchure poise to play with a refined sound in the highest register.

10. Intonation can be practised by playing chords and intervals and anticipating the sound of the next pitch before you play it.

I also use "The Tuning CD" for chords, arpeggios, etudes, pieces and scales.
This allows me to hear the beats (or the beatlessness) of each pitch against the open-fifth drone on the tuning CD, and also makes practising sound far more interesting.
Chords and scales sound GORGEOUS with the open-fifths droning in the background and make you want to keep practising.
Melodies and excerpts also sound more beautiful when tuned against the CD.
Playing feels more effortless. It's a wonderful tool.
The use of "The Tuning CD" simultaneously corrects everything from air-speed to embouchure changes to intonation when creating dynamic contours.
It's fabulous in all respects!

Some additional more modern pointers to add:

11. Use a recording device to listen back to your playing when you are taking your breaks every 20-30 minutes. This cuts down on wasted time.
You can hear clearly exactly what you need to work on and can make notes while listening. Then, the next day, you can develop short and easy exercises that gradually improve the problems you spotted in the recording.
Note: Many musicians are afraid to listen to themselves on a recording and so avoid it.
This is lunacy; you will improve FAR FAR faster if you can pin-point the exact problem immediately and avoid repeating that problem day after day.
Some musicians also think the listening back time will reduce the amount of time they have to practise. This is also lunacy, since listening back and jotting a note down may add 10 minutes, but it will save you hours and hours of repeating that same mistake for days and weeks, and then spending MONTHS un-doing the problem, later, when it's become habitual.
(examples: Poor tone, tight lips, throat noises, nanny-goat vibrato, sloppy tonguing, un-even fingerings, laboured arpeggios etc.)

12. Set up some reading rehearsals with fellow musicians: woodwind quartet with flute; guitar and flute; flute trios/quartets/duets etc.
Having the goal of "playing with others on Sundays" or playing with others once a month will help you to keep your focus and drive after a hard day working in another field.
We all need REAL MUSIC to look forward to in order to keep our spirits up when practising.
If there are no other musicians, create a flute duo using a recording machine and a metronome and all your old duets (or some new ones; Kuhlau has writtn TONS!)
The recording of the Flute 2 part can be re-recorded and perfected, and will then be there again tomorrow for a lovely chamber music sound as you play through old and new duets each day.

13. Have your flute cleaned, oiled and adjusted by a reputable technician so you aren't fighting pad leaks, or a leaking cork, and especially to give the mechanism the oil it needs to avoid mechanical wear during play.

14. Stretch out and keep muscles limber. Try and find a time of day when your body isn't over-tired (lunch breaks are good if you can find a good acoustic space nearby your work.)
You will especially want to keep neck, jaw, shoulders and chest free from tension. Yoga stretches, basic stretches, or musician's stretches in Janet Horvath's book "Playing Less Hurt" are good.

15. Don't beat yourself up. It can take up to a year to regain your skills. Allow yourself this time, and don't demand so much of your body that you end up with tension.
Stay with the middle ground of easy, beautiful, slow playing, with light and even fingers and slowly expand outward from there.
Stay optimistic, make beautiful sounds, explore lyrical pieces. All these things will allow the fastests possible re-development of your skills.

16. Listen to and watch expert flutists. If you witness effortless mastery you will be much more able to reproduce it.
Don't live in a flute vaccuum. There are many inspiring flute videos here:
Youtube videos of interesting and good flute performances.

You can also (with your new job) afford new music and new flute CDs. Feel free to shop for those items that peak your interest.
I have some good CDs for listening in the car to and from work listed here: Desert Island Flute CDs.

17. And finally, treat yourself to some inspiring reading about the flute.
A full list of great flute books (and "how to practise" books) are listed here.
For flutists getting back to the flute after a hiatus who are at the Novice or Intermediate level only, there are several other online practise pointer articles you may be interested in:

How to get back to the flute after a hiatus (for novice/intermediate players)

How to develop a good practise routine for flute.

Pointers from Rampal's teaching: Using Time Effectively for Flute Study by Starr.

How to Practise by Leonard Garrison.

Thoughts on Practising: (change "oboe" to "flute")

There is also a wonderful book called: "Conditioning Training for The Flutist" by Werner Richter, which is SUPER once you start to get back your tone and overall flute skills. It is also available through Fluteworld.

Happy practising and be sure and leave a commment below if you have other suggestions of good materials for this use.

Comments (10)
Anonymous Anonymous said...


You are Maravillosa!

Thanks a lot for your wonderful ciber-teaching.

From Mexico City...

A big hug for you

God Bless you

Violeta Cantu.
Escuela Nacional de Música. UNAM

Thursday, June 26, 2008 9:59:00 AM

Blogger jen said...

Thankyou so much Violeta. A big hug right back. Glad you found these articles helpful! Best, Jen :>)

Thursday, June 26, 2008 11:01:00 AM

Anonymous said...

Great article, thank you. I learnt to play the flute in my late 40's and played up to grade 5. Then my best friend died and I put my flute away. It has been 10!years since I played. I have begun to miss plying and wondered how best to do so. The recommendation you gave above, would thy still apply please?

Chrissy - Hampshire UK

Thursday, September 04, 2014 10:44:00 PM

Blogger jen said...

Yes, recommendations all still true, as far as I know. Jen

Thursday, September 04, 2014 11:37:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I played flute through college and took a break while starting my career. Then after 15 years, I started to play again. I found a fun community band to play in-that keeps you motivated to practice. My first year back to flute was frustrating because I wanted to play as well as I did 15 years ago. What helped me get my chops back-was playing harmonics until you get some stamina. Seriously, who wants to play long tones badly and get frustrated. Also, the best thing I did was to get a pneumo pro-my tone improved, and I stopped wasting air!!! I highly reccomend this device especially if you have a different lip shape, size, jaw alignment, etc. (I myself have an overbite with a tear drop on the top lip. None of my fancy, awsome flute teachers' advice ever helped me as much as the pnumo pro because it is visual-you can see and adjust/try something different until you spin the right fan!!! I hope this helps! And, no I do not work for that company. I found out about it on a Nina Perlove youtube clip. Good luck to all!!

Saturday, October 25, 2014 3:01:00 PM

Blogger jen said...

Hi there,
Yes, I have a Pneumo Pro, but I have not used it with any returning flutists.
Can you take a moment to explain what happened when you used it? Did it invite you to blow at a lower angle than you had before?

Saturday, October 25, 2014 4:41:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Jen

I'm so pleased to find this article; I'm getting ready to return to the flute after six years off due to the sudden arrival of severe rheumatoid arthritis. At the moment my surgeon is working with a flute maker to design modifications (definitely a new head joint, maybe some modifications to key work) so that I can safely play. In the mean time I am trying to manage my expectations and work out what I should start off playing. The reading list you suggested looks like an excellent place to start - thank you!

Friday, September 30, 2016 1:58:00 AM

Blogger jen said...

Dear Anon,
Thanks so much for your kind words; best of luck to you and hopeful that the new setup will be comfortable. :>) Jen

Friday, September 30, 2016 8:16:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jen,Thankyou for taking the time to
write this article. The things I
liked most about it was emphasizing
slow playing and all the different
suggestions for books to improve
skills that go with making a good
sound, etc. But most of all, taking
your time.

Monday, July 24, 2017 4:47:00 PM

Blogger jen said...

Dear Anonymous,
You are so right. We always want results so soon, we strain to get them, and then develop strain-playing.
Thanks for your comment. Good oh.
Best, Jen

Monday, July 24, 2017 6:10:00 PM


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