Thursday, June 12, 2008

Soul satisfying summer flute practising

Dear Flutists,

Some handy hints for all of us who want to do some soul-satisfying practising this summer, want to improve our technique by leaps and bounds, and have a meaningful musical time while doing it.

Here are all the best pointers:


Questions to ask yourself while practicing:

1. Is the tone fantastically beautiful? Is my embouchure without strain or fatigue?

2. Do I have the option of many tone colours and dynamics? Which ones are easy? How can I make the hard ones easier?

3. Am I using musical ideas, line, phrasing and emotion?

4. While playing all-slurred, is the fingering absolutely neat and even? (check with metronome?)

5. Are my large intervals as effortless as possible? (may need to roll out 1 more millimeter)

6. Am I using a combination of free tempo (for relaxing hands) and strict tempo (for keeping fingers even.)? Do I want to keep a record of the metronome markings achieved?

7. Are articulations crisp and stylistically varied? (Mozart/Bach/Prokofiev etc.)

8. At speed, do I need stabilizing fingerings?

9. Is the intonation perfect? What is the key? Which notes should be higher or lower than in equal temperment?

10. Can I improvise based on this pattern? Do I relax and balance my body more when I improvise?

11. Can I create an etude or mini-exercise to smooth out any fingering pattern or embouchure motion?

12. Can I sight-read material in this key or using these musical patterns? Is there an etude that would amplify and develop what I’ve just learned?

How to learn, creatively practice and improve your scales.

1. Learn the notes of a single scale by heart. Play it beautifully and with confidence. Make music with it. Make it soar!

2. Play the scale with the tonic note droning on a tuner or using The Tuning CD ( Improvise, listen and match the tuning of each interval to the drone.

3. Add notes at the top and bottom. If you can play one octave, learn two. If you can play two, add one note at either end very slowly and surely to extend the scale.

4. Play the scale on different starting points and end at different points. Start high and swoop downward and back up, or start in the middle and end in the middle. Create.

5. Create rhythms with a metronome to add spice to the above and to gradually regulate the fingerings.

6. Create rhythms of long and short notes (and the reverse) in order lighten fingers individually.

7. Cycle any rough areas of the scale, slowly and cleanly, and then gradually faster as James Galway suggests: 12345-54321 can also be played 345432123 or 234543212. Try and discover all combinations of five note in the scale. Make them all as even and as effortless as eachother.

8. When the scale is perfected all-slurred, start adding a variety of articulations. If any articulation pattern is unclear or uneven, practise it on a single note, slowly and with abdominal air support (ha!ha!)

9. When the articulated scales are sounding great, add the metronome and add rhythmic variety. Scales are much more fun with both rhythm and creative composition.
If you're not feeling creative, grab a scale and exercise book and discover all the scale patterns that THAT flute teacher has created.

10. Create the most brilliant, musical, confident and soaring scale patterns you can imagine. Sing through them like an amazingly moving vocalist. Express them in all styles.

11. The next time you practise, choose a different scale. There are only 12 with three versions of each. Major, and two forms of minor.
If you did three a day (ex: A major, A minor times two) you will have covered them all in two weeks.

Do you take your summer practising so seriously that you might over-do it?
If so, read some excellent summer practice advice here:

How to practice Technique:

There are as many ways of practicing technique as there are flute players.

Every flutist, over time, develops a method of rotating the basic areas of practice:

Tone, Scales, Articulation, Arpeggios, Finger Exercises, Dynamic Control, Studies, Sight Reading, Special Techniques, etc. And the success of your program depends on developing your own ways of challenging and rewarding yourself, and finding out how the technical practice relates to an actual musical context.

I think the best advice I can give about designing your own method of rotating your technical exercises on flute, is to stay curious and excited about it. Practicing "technique" will certainly not hold your interest long if it is frustrating, repetitive, non-musical or "forced" out of you. So therefore you must design a program that:

a) Balances intensity with relaxation (endeavour to play arpeggios as relaxedly as you play a the slow movement of a beautiful sonata, for example)

b) Balances pure "technique" with a musical application.
(ex: evenness in scales is directly related to the evenness of the scale-passages in your pieces)

c) Balances the challenge of creating something beautiful with challenging yourself to systematically cover all the basics of flute playing during your practice schedule.

The knowledge of balancing your practice regime comes with time and a lot of personal "trial and error". What is perfect for one person isn't any fun at all for another. Highly organized people may keep a chart of their accomplishments, with notes jotted down after completion of each practice area, while others are happier with an "intuitive" approach that allows them to switch from intense concentration, to fun things, from disciplined and focussed, to free and expressive.

I think that many of us fall into the latter category, and like a change every twenty to thirty minutes (sometimes even every 10 min.) during our daily practice sessions. So with this in mind I'll give you some hints of what has worked for me, and you can see for yourself whether any of my methods are useful to you.

Hints for success in practicing technique:

-Try having two music stands; one for technical practice and one for music that you are really looking forward to playing that day. Try switching back and forth from one to the other as you practice, so that you are rewarded for long bouts of technique with a gorgeous piece of music (that you'll suddenly hear has improved from your technical exercises.)

-Stretch out or shake out, and breathe deeply in between bouts of technical practice. Keep your body aware of tension or "holding" so that you immediately know when to stretch it out and relax it again. The worst thing you can do during daily exercises and scales etc. is to play stiffly, and "hard", not allowing yourself to play with musicality and a sense of "soaring".

-Try and relate every technical item to a musical use. For example if your piece or study has huge interval leaps in it, it might be a good idea to spend time on leaps in your technical practice. This method of going from the pure technique to the piece can also be applied in the other direction: in fact going backwards from your repertoire to your technique is exactly what Taffanel and Gaubert, Andersen, Boehm and Moyse etc. were doing when they wrote their technique books. They looked at the individual technical challenges in the repertoire of their day, and took tiny motives or fragments of a demanding technique, and built etudes and daily exercises out of them. If you're creatively inspired you can actually design your own technical exercises out of tiny tough parts that exist in your pieces.

Remember: there is always a musical nuance for each flute technique that presents a challenge. Always make your technique sound like real music!

-Try telling your body that all technique is just one long glorious longtone. If your body is "set up" in a poised and relaxed manner to play the most beautiful long note, the airstream and breath support will make 'technical' fingerings and embouchure leaps much more subtle and gentle. There's no point playing your tone exercises with perfect poise only to start gesticulating wildly and pounding the keys when you come to a page full of scales and arpeggios. See if you look the same in the mirror when your fingers are moving rapidly as when they are still. Finger movement should not disrupt the equilibrium of the whole body. Fingers need to be comfortably close to the keys whether they're moving quickly or staying still.

Avoid sacrificing tone for speed. If you want to go fast with your fingers focus on your tone quality as the metronome is set faster, and slow down again if you lose your full rich tone. Otherwise you'll only teach yourself to lose your tone as soon as you see lots of fast notes, (and there's no piece in the world that actually asks the flutist to do that :>). If you do lose your tone, simply return to your Moyse Sonorite exercises and regain it before you continue your technical exercises. Why not? It'll relax you and rebalance you physically to play long slow notes.

Make things enjoyable for yourself. If you hate the sound of a certain exercise, maybe you could be interpreting it differently, or give it a different musical "character".

For example scales can be "sung like an opera singer", or Taff. & Gaubert Daily Exercises might be interpreted as "Merlin's Magic Spells" (E.J. 14), "Swallows in the afternoon sun" (E.J. 12), "La Mer", or the Sea (E.J.10). Be creative with your sound.

Make everything you play sound magical.

Best, and happy summer practicing!
Jen :>)
Comments (7)
Blogger Sheila said...

Sounds strangely familiar??? :P

Thanks for writing all this out. My plan, since about 2:30 yesterday, has been to basically drop piano for the next week or two (permission was granted 2 weeks ago) and spend the next two weeks doing 3 hours of flute a day, hopefully 2 of which (broken up) will be dedicated to the happiness of my fingers in the scale department.

I'm actually excited about this now! Off to re-organize my music and get practicing!


Thursday, June 12, 2008 8:44:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jen -
I've always been a huge fan of your site and as a high-school senior (soon to be a freshman in collge) the advice on your page is priceless! I really like all of your articles, but this one is especially helpful as this summer i'm going to kick some flute butt! I really want to work hard and grow a lot as a flutist as next year as a flute major is going to be quite an experience! Thanks for all of your help and your awesome site! Keep up the great work!~ :)

Thursday, June 12, 2008 9:23:00 AM

Blogger jen said...

Thankyou for your great comments Sheila and Ianusa! Yes, the pointers are drawn from other pages of the site, and that's why they might sound familiar. :>) I was going to write a completely new article, but then discovered that I already had the highlights on other parts of my site; so reprinted here.
Thanks for your great responses! Jen :>)

Thursday, June 12, 2008 10:38:00 AM

Blogger Sheila said...

Ah, but it sounds even MORE familiar because you waxed eloquent on it quite a bit yesterday. :)

Thursday, June 12, 2008 2:11:00 PM

Blogger jen said...

I don't recall that moment of waxing, honestly I don't. :>)

Perhaps the favourite line from the Karate Kid movie "Wax On, Wax Off" as the true path to enlightenment has really rubbed off on me! ;>)
Laughing hard and somewhat offended by all this being preserved (ha ha!) Jen

Thursday, June 12, 2008 4:17:00 PM

Blogger Willie said...

I'm surprised one of the things that weren't mentioned was practice with a friend. It's always fun to practice with a friend. Look for music for 2 flutes and invite your other flute friend to practice or if they play another instrument, try to find things that can accomodate that. Or better yet, form a small ensemble with friends from band! I did that during school and it excited me about rehersing with them. My friend who plays oboe is going to work on a double concerto with me and I'm really excited about it. So practicing with a friend is always a great way to get excited about practicing.

Anyway, thanks Jen for the great article, I did find it very useful and insightful!


Wednesday, June 18, 2008 9:41:00 AM

Blogger jen said...

Hi Willie,
Yes, I've mentioned "practise with a friend" in other articles such as found on the article, and in a blog post about "why take flute lessons?"
It's a terrific idea, but in my experience it's a bonus to have a friend who plays at the same level or higher. Most of my flute students have difficulty finding an instrumentalist of the same ability level (unless it's their flute duet partner.) But, on the other hand, if you practise with and for weekly rehearsals with friends it will surely inspire you to practise more. :>) Thanks for your comment. Jen

Wednesday, June 18, 2008 11:46:00 AM


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