Thursday, April 04, 2013

Time charting of Practicing?

The Pitfalls of Practice Charting
(click to enlarge)
Question to Flutenet:
K. writes:
I have a few questions about practicing.
Usually, I play 3.5 hours per day. On a really good day, I can get 4-4.5 hours in; that's if I'm REALLY feeling it that day. If I'm not feeling good, I'll usually do 2-2.5 hours, but focus more on one specific piece of music.

I spend about 30-45 minutes warming up.
I do an extreme register exercise (it's a bunch of variations on high G to high D and low G to low B),
12 different articulated scales, and arpeggios.
Then I'll do Anderson Etudes. My teacher gives me a major and minor every week. I'll do those for about an hour.
Then I'll move on to whatever piece I may be working on (for example, I'm working on the Chaminade Concertino right now)
for about a 1.5-1.75 hours. After that, I'll do a piece I'm working on for school related purposes.
I'm going to do a competition in a month and I'm performing Syrinx.
That, I'll work on for about 50 minutes to an hour.
So I guess my question is time allotment. Am I spending enough time on each?
Am I spending too much time on each? I'm really trying to get into a nice conservatory, so I do my best to discipline myself to tolerate AND benefit from long hours of arduous practice time
(I'm in my second year of high school, by the way).
Any comments or advice is greatly appreciated!! K.

Jen's Answer:
As others have suggested, it's not really about time spent it's about the quality of the work.
When you listen to yourself play, are you hearing exactly what you need to really work on?
Do you know how to make improvements?
Are you getting to the nitty gritty of the skills you need?
Or are you repeating whole pieces, etudes, and scales with mistakes in them over and over?
Are you practicing past the point of excellent focus for your brain?
Are you preventing injury to muscles by relaxing completely every few minutes?
The real skill in flute practicing are found in 2-3 moments at a time of really focusing your mind, and releasing tension, and really listening to the result.
You can actually do better work if you also audio-record sections of your practice and then sit down, relax completely, and really really  listen; you can even take notes.

It's also important to add the following to a five hr. practice regime:

- walking outdoors (to hear natural sounds and get some fresh oxygen)
- playing for the sheer fun of it
- listening to great works of music
- listening to fun works of music
- score reading while listening to music
- investigating the other Arts; dance, theatre, photography, fine arts, etc.
- living a varied and rich life
- engaging with others
- engaging with other musicians
- living life to the full so you will have something to say in your music

So in five hours you can actually incorperate several of the above, and spend less time practicing by the clock, and more time practicing who you are and what you have to say, musically, and discovering which skills you want to work on first, through listening back to your  playing on an audio-recording....etc.

So less, work, more focus, more broadening of the mind, that's my advice.

For sheer focused practice:
There's an article "Technique with a Purpose" here.
And there's a list of flute skills and resources here (Word document)

But your own teacher will be the best coach you have on how to work at home.

For more FUN flute practice go here:
All free Jen's Warmups and Scales in pdf to print out and play.

For example:
When I work on pieces, (ie: Syrinx, Chaminade), I work on the skills:

Good tone middle, low and high register
Smooth legato scales (chromatic especially)
Playing in tune with The Tuning CD (
Adding clear articulation - improving clarity of articulation
Creating musical phrases
Creating musical architecture (How the phrases fit together to express the arcs of drama in the whole piece.)

Specific flute technical skills:

Creating short, useful, focused exercises on  flute techniques contained in the piece is also a great way to engage the mind. For example you might be noticing you need work on:

Effortless leaps of larger and larger intervals keeping good tone
Ringing quality of high register
Larger dynamics and phrased dynamics
Moving breathing markings to accomodate your dynamics
Clarifying articulation

When you're getting close to a major performance you're working on:

Playing with form and style
Playing with humour and drama
Practicing actually performing the piece in front an audience (pre-views)

But you often are also solidifying a specific flute skill at the same time, when you're student.
Here are some Chaminade skills for example, for an intermediate student:

So your teacher knows which of those skills you need to work on this week, and assigns the exercises that give that skill the fastest development.

So to summarize in general, I don't just play my scales or pieces over and over again when I practice.
I let the skill requirement present itself, and then I go to the exercise that creates progress in that specific skill.
Then I take a break, and incorperate the big wide world of art and sound into my life.

 I don't want to become a practice-hermit, nor do I want to court a (duhn duhn duhn!) muscular injury.

More general advice here: How to Practice.

Hope this helps.
K. writes:
Thanks so much! I guess this would've been important to mention earlier; I do record myself/listen/take notes. I just write down where I hear problems and work on what I'd like to fix. It's certainly not going through the music with tons of mistakes. I guess I could incorporate some of the "breaks" so suggested. :)
Jen writes:

Dear K,
A great book to buy, own, read and markup with lots of bookmarks, is:
Gerald Klickstein: 'The Musician's Way'. Link to Author's Blog & Book.

Klickstein is really up to date, and covers all the topics you need in the next decade of your musicianship and practicing development. He talks about "deep practicing" and really explains it well.

The most important point is not to injure yourself by over-doing it.He says "Breaks every 10 minutes for 2-3 min. is a good idea".

So use your breaks to really relax and never "pound away" at your instrument. Serously. Never.

 Let the muscles and posture of playing be  super super natural and easy (think of Tai Chi), and don't ever force yourself past the comfort zone. (Think of Yoga)

If you're commonly reaching a point of fatigue with your flute-playing, you're going too long without a break, and playing only with sheer physicality, and without mental focus.

No mental focus? Not good.
 Focus only uses up about five minutes or less. More on this in an upcoming blog post.

The second most important point about being a music student working toward a musical life, is to really absorb all aspects of music and human life, and combine them in your very own day to day life.

You are not a negatively-enhanced practicing maniac flute-hermit.
No siree. Not the good direction to be going in.

Seriously. Danger Will Robinson.

You don't want to be confined, all manic-minded, or "competitive-minded" to a tiny practice room where you're too alone.  It doesn't help you reach out as a performer.
It makes you kind of mental, in the long run. ha ha.

Thirdly: You need to embrace many technical and stylistic details, but not superficially.
So what you're doing sounds good; record, listen back, focus on what's needed, and set goals etc. Glad to hear you're already doing that.

Klickstein's book is full of explanations of how this works.

Looking back over 41 years of playing, myself, I'd say to grade 10 person:

1. Music is a huge topic. If you're really serious about going into music, you could also open up your schedule to spend some of your practice singing, dancing,  air-conducting, out loud score singing when score-reading, or playing piano......

Developing your ears and your heart and your ear-heart connection are really what you're doing.

So rest up, listen up,  and loosen up your stiff little flute-arms and open up to experience music in other ways. This makes you more muscularly flexible and your music deeper.

2. Enrichment and personal commitment comes from being wholly fascinated; so you need to be ever-creative in feeding your musical "soul". (this is why I suggest branching out too, so that you're not locked in only to flute-practice, but equally value other musical input.)

3. You need to interact with other humans, more and more, as you move closer to musical lifestyle choices such as competition preparation, rehearsals with groups, and creating musical friendships:

So do consider:

a) A successful performer understands the score as the composer communicated it.
So studying the score, learning to compose yourself, playing through scores at a keyboard to hear chords etc. area all fun and useful ways to enrich your musical ideas.

b)  A successful performer understands human emotion/poetry/drama from having lived it, and communicates openly with his/her audience. So you'll want to attend different arts presentations, get involved in expressing yourself in other genres of art, and have rehearsal-based
relationships with other musicians who you can play with.

c) A successful performer 'plays well with others' in rehearsals with other musicians re: give and take; optimism/encouragement/creative openness etc.
So you'll want to develop friendships, look for groups you can join, and maybe sing in a choir, or take dance workshops, or attend rehearsals of other groups to learn from the way they interact....etc.

I got some of my greatest inspiration from attending open rehearsals of our City orchestra when I was in grade 10.
They also have rush seats (last minute cheaper seats) for evening orchestra concerts; and the enrichment of listening to orchestras live, really made me want to practice on a deeper level.

So those are some of my thoughts.
What does your own flute teacher say?
If you could write the Flutenet group about that, it would of interest to those of us trying to answer your very good questions.

The topic is a bit on the HUGE side.
hahahhahaa. :>)

Best, Jen

P.S. Not to blow the Mather-horn of my own flute blog, but the best second book you might like is:
The Art of Playing the Flute. Volumes 1-3, Breathing, Embouchure, Technique Experiments.

This will also tell you what, as a flute-player,  you want to mentally focus on to make the fastest progress.

A fantastic book that has important flute warmups in it is:

The Physical Flute by Fiona Wilkinson

Here's the link to my free warmups for printing out:

But relaxing and taking breaks between bouts of focused practice is super important, so read Klickstein first.  ha.

Other good flute books listed here.

Flute Distractions:
Today's Inspiration: Arranged,memorized and played with panache!
Jasmine Choi plays Saint-Saens Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso (pdf sheetmusic for violin free)
Stunning performer, now first flute with Vienna Philharmonic: interview

youtube link here.

Oh my gosh, that makes me want to go practice!
Hear a Louis Lot flute played today:

The Louis Lot Flute Tone Quality is much adored. Have you heard it?
University of Minnesota flute professor Immanuel Davis performing on his 1865 Louis Lot flute the works of Gaubert.
Listen Again Radio - Davis Interview

Comments welcome! :>)