Thursday, July 02, 2020

Getting Back in Shape (after years away)

Question: Getting Back into Shape; How to proceed?

Colleen wrote in the comments:

Q: I've only just discovered your You Tube videos on embouchure work* and I have a question. I've only recently started playing again after 40 years. I was a flute major in college, and so I have some background and am not a rank beginner (although sometimes it feels so).... But I am back to working on my embouchure (and *everything*) and am keen to get better control but am not sure exactly what the best strategy is. Of course I worked those many years ago with Marcel Moyse's de la Sonorite and so forth, but now am sort of starting again but am having trouble loosening up. I can manage a quite lovely sound for awhile, but when I apply it to solo work, and especially with intervals, everything goes increasingly tight and the registers fall apart. At your suggestion, I've just ordered Werner Richter's "Conditioning Training for the Embouchure." But so my question is, how long do you suggest I work strictly on the embouchure technique before moving on to etudes, solo pieces, etc. Do you recommend a strict regimen of only the embouchure work for several weeks alone? Or a graduated approach. Am not sure how to proceed now, and would appreciate any suggestions you can offer. Thank you so much.

A: Dear Colleen,
This sounds typical of what happens: we tighten up when we try to play pieces or larger intervals. It's the kind of topic that I've been working with for years. Probably deserves an article of its own! Basically you "relax completely" (your face/lips/throat etc.) every three minutes, like you've put an egg-timer on, and every three minutes it reminds you to check in with your tension level and reduce it from 10, 9, 8, 7, 6......down to about a 0, 1, 2 or 3 out of 10 in tension. If you keep doing this every three minutes, you'll catch yourself before your facial muscles start tightening without your knowing it.

Here is a link to my article "How to get back in shape after a flute-playing hiatus:

One on warming up (with links to all kinds of practise pages);

How to warmup to practise flute:

And one on soul satisfying summer practising:

And lastly, "Technique with a Purpose" about setting up two music stands to alternate between; one fun, one technical work (done in short, poised sessions of 5-10 minutes.)

The main question is: How do I get back into playing my best without tightening up?

And I have to assure you is that is what happens to all of us.
Here's an article on observing your own tightening when playing at a music stand:

You ask: What order should I practice in when coming back to the flute?
And that deserves its own answer:

Whenever you're out of shape with the flute, the first thing to go missing is abdominally-assisted air compression.
We used to call it "support of the airstream" or "diaphragmatic support", but what I see it as is:
Pre-compressing the air so that it leaves the body in a fast and precise stream of air. The "pre-compressing" is the action of the abdominal muscles, the lungs, the open throat and the nasal pharynx.
The air becomes ready to exit the body at "100 miles per hour".
This requires a certain co-ordination and balance of internal air-motion systems inside your body:

There is an article on this here:

So whenever you're "out of shape", no doubt, you are not yet doing the above air speed improvements.
Instead, what happens is that you accidentally tighten your throat, lips, upper chest, face, jaw, tongue, and other body parts, in order to control the air-speed right at the exit-end of your air production.

This shows itself as "pinching" for the high notes, and over-manipulating the embouchure and squeaking in the low register.
It is easily corrected if you stick to low register only for the first few weeks back when you haven't played for years. Get your air moving freely first, and don't expect much from your embouchure (wide leaps or high register need careful stepwise practise first.) over the first few weeks.

So, low register tunes of all kinds are your friend. I especially love old slow airs from the Irish/Scottish/ stuff, or self-created duets of Celtic tunes, played really low, all-slurred, take your time, with lots of colour and lots of air. I would do that for at least two weeks, if not longer.

I would also use your first few weeks back to play "headjoint only" and "right hand on the barrel" so that you get your lip placement just perfectly poised and balanced, for YOU.
There's nothing like taking it slowly and with precision and constant, flexible experimentation to get your best embouchure, (covered in Vol.2 of Mather's book) based on a really good placement of the headjoint on the chin!! Many people overlook the benefits of mirror work at this stage.

For set-up, watch James Galway's video on the simplicity of lip work done with headjoint only: (link to video)

The above Galway embouchure exercise is unbelievably useful for EVERY flutist, not just those starting back after a hiatus!! It reminds us about where the contact on the chin is, and how to release the jaw, and how to make the embouchure effortless, and work without working, because it's ergonomic.

For getting your upper lip pulled down enough to create ease at the lip opening, also see "spitbuzzing101" by Keith Underwood.

And don't forget to get your flute mechanically checked over by a technician before you blame yourself for slow fingers; pad leaks are real on every flute, no kidding. (Flute care & repair article link.)

If you haven't played for years, you'll very likely need oil added to your flute too, or you'll grit-score the insides of the dry rods. Not good.
Oiling should be done once a year, and if it's dried out, you shouldn't play on it yet.....

Also, get your own posture and playing ease assessed by a good flute teacher via a video lesson or two online, to make sure your posture and holding position hasn't become "awkward".

Do yoga, tai chi, streching exercises, and make sure the tension isn't starting elsewhere in the body (and don't play statically; walk around for sure!)

I'd take it slowly, and stay in the low register, then middle register for at least a month or two, and stabilize all the best things you can do at those octaves, before sailing confidently into the high register.
The worst idea is to try and play complex pieces right away, when you're rusty.
That kind of over-challenge on a possibly leaking-pad flute can CAUSE tension.
And our ears always demand great tone, so remember: don't tighten to get great tone, send fast and accurate air while opening up your throat and chest. You need to release the air already at a fast speed, so that you don't need to compress your upper body to change the air-speed.
I know; it's complex. :>)

Anyway, hope this helps,
Best, Jen

ps. Beware practising Werner Richter's "Conditioning Training" when you're out of shape.
It's far far better to work on breathing and releasing sound with beautiful resonance for at least a year before concentrating on difficult wide-interval leaps.
Stay with simple things at first; don't push push push yourself; it does not help. :>)

*Jen's youtube videos:


Comments (2)
Anonymous Colleen Devlin said...

Thank you so much for your response, and that you've gone into every detail I'm needing answers to! I've worked with Galway's suggestions (headjoint only), so that's a start (didn't think I'd need to at first, but I knew I probably actually do). The breath and support is something I've been working on quite a bit, and isn't as much a problem, although of course is a thing we all need to be mindful of constantly (have done yoga and Pilates and breath work for years, so I don't have to start at ground zero there, although the application to flute is a whole nother ballgame). The two stands suggestion is fabulous, and the reminder that I need to take more frequent breaks after only a few minutes.... I get impatient and then it all falls apart. I'm so eager to play all the old flute sonatas and solo pieces I used to love (and still do). I'm also interested in finally applying the singing technique which I've too often been impatient to stick with. I do have a brand new flute, which I love, an Azumi 3 with a rose gold lip plate, riser, and crown, which suits me, I think. I know I'm capable of producing a lovely sound, and I know I could play difficult stuff as a student (was principal flute in the orchestra at DePaul University Chicago a million years ago,... studied with Donald Peck and also Joe Zverov -- can't remember if I'm spelling him correctly) Lyric Opera Chicago, but that was 45 years ago! The pandemic has pushed me to pick up the flute again, though I've been pining to for 40 years. I only got the new flute two months ago, and have been You Tubing fabulous flutist for good lesson info and frankly yours was for whatever reason exactly what I think I need. And the information everything I was looking for. I can't thank you enough. Looking forward to more of your blogs. Thank you!

Thursday, July 02, 2020 6:22:00 PM

Blogger jen said...

Dear Colleen,
OMG, what a great reply! So glad you have an Azumi 3, those are GREAT! The touch of the fingers can be so "butterfly-light" with a new flute. Congrats! This is going to be fabulous for you! I remember that it took me about 3-4 months to play Sonatas again (not difficult ones at that) after taking eight years off after university, so no worries; it will all come back! This is indeed your chance to put in the ground work, and take time to do the simple things WELL! Go man go! Can't wait to hear how fast it all comes back if you truly do the ground work, and don't push yourself, but just guide the process knowingly. Go gurrlll! :>D

Thursday, July 02, 2020 8:15:00 PM


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