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Three Secrets to Efficient Practicing

When I first began my journey of learning to play the flute, I thought if you just played a lot, you’d magically get better. I’d spend hours playing and playing and playing – but I never went back to work on the hard parts – I’d just skip right over them. Then, when it came time for my lesson, I still couldn’t play the difficult parts. It wasn’t until many more hours of practicing that I finally figured out these secrets to practicing efficiently. And that’s when my flute playing abilities began to take off.

Secret #1
You don’t have to play the whole song every time you practice: Great musicians never practice their pieces by playing straight through the piece until they are ready to perform it. They always work to fix the problem areas first. For example, if you start at the beginning of your two page solo, read through it, then put it away, you’re only reinforcing the incorrect things: the sloppy runs, the missed notes, the incorrect rhythms, etc. It’s like practicing bad habits – they’ll never go away!

Tip: Work your music out in sections. It may begin with small section, like one or two measures, or even only one or two notes. When you practice, try learning a small chunk, say two or four measures, or anytime you struggle with a group of notes.

When you sight-read a new piece of music or a new line in your band book, do the following first:
1. Mark any flats, sharps, natural signs throughout the section.
2. If you are learning how to count – always write the counts below your music. As this becomes easier, you can reduce the writing in to the most difficult sections or groups of notes.
3. Say AND Finger through the notes in rhythm. Always use a metronome!
4. Finally, try playing that section only with a metronome.

Secret #2
You don’t have to play the entire scale every time: When I hear students play their scales, the part they struggle with the most is what I call the “Scale Pyramid.” In a two octave scale, the pyramid consists on the highest three notes played up and back down. They are always the trickiest fingering patterns, so if you practice them in a group before adding them into the scale, you’ll find those high notes aren’t as scary as they seem.

Scale Pyramid Technique:
For this example, I will use the second octave of the Ab Major Scale.
Step 1: Use a metronome set at 80. Play the following in half notes, all slurred until you can play it smoothly with no mistakes.
Play: High F, High G, High Ab, High G, High F
Step 2: Gradually increase your tempo by one click on the metronome (usually three or four beats per measure), until you can play the pyramid at quarter notes = 80 with no mistakes, all slurred.
Step 3: Increase your tempo with the metronome slowly so that you can play the pyramid in eighth notes = 80. Remember – no mistakes and all slurred.
Step 4: Now try playing the scale and see if you’ve improved.

Note: This may take several weeks or months to work up to the eighth note tempo – it varies on length of time you have played the flute.

If you are a beginner, try this approach on lower scales, such as Eb, F, or G major. For more advanced players, try this technique with the three octave C Major scale, the B Major scale, or the full range Chromatic scale.

Secret #3
You don’t have to play fast all the time: Our brains learn at a much faster rate than our muscles. I like to use the example of training for a marathon. In order to run the race, I understand that one foot has to move front the other, back and forth for 26.2 miles. That’s the easy part. Our muscles, however, have to be conditioned through constant repetition in order to complete the task. If I don’t train purposefully and daily, I’ll never be able to run that marathon.

Learning to play fast on the flute is the same thing. When we practice our scales and arpeggios – all those pages of technique and long tones really do have a purpose. We have to train our muscle memory, which includes all of the muscles in our fingers and embouchure, plus all of those other muscles that help us breathe. When you practice slowly, you give those muscles time to remember where they need to go so that way, when you are ready to play that particular passage or run faster, you’ll be ready.

Tip: The more time you spend practicing your exercises slowly, methodically, and with a metronome, the faster you will be able to play with an amazing, beautiful sound.

When was in P.E., I understood quickly that I needed to get the basketball through the hoop. Without the purposeful practice throughout the week, I’d never be able to score the points when the game came.

Enjoy practicing and see how much time you save. Remember, always practice playing beautifully and you’ll achieve beautiful results.

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A Simple Strategy to Boost Your Practice Productivity

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Stepping onto a stage in front of hundreds of people is a terrifying thought for most of us. But we’re musicians, right? Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do? So why is it always so scary?

Over the years, I’ve spent thousands of hours in practice rooms, but when I’d step in front of the crowd, the nerve-demons always got me. My performance never went as I had hoped. Despite an endless practice road, I still felt unprepared, never knowing what would come out on stage.

My best efforts didn’t yield the results I’d heard in other great performers.

Think About Your Practice Time in a Different Way:
Recently, I stumbled onto Dr. Noa Kageyama’s blog, The Bulletproof Musician. Juilliard faculty member and performance psychologist are just a couple of his accolades. He blogs about overcoming performance anxiety. He shared a new practice strategy by Dr. Christine Carter of the Manhattan School of Music.

I tried the strategy myself and with my students, and I’ve been blown away with the results. Right away, some difficult passages became easier to play, and my retention level increased. The same happened with my students.

We’re encouraged to practice with set goals in mind and a certain number of repetitions on a given passage. But there’s a point when our brain says no more, and it goes into auto-pilot, making too many repetitions fruitless.

Hence, hours of practice does not necessarily mean hours of positive results.

A Simple Change
This simple change to the way you practice can dramatically boost your practice productivity and better prepare you for whatever performance you may have.

I call it the Change-Up Practice Strategy. I’m rephrasing the basics here in my own words and how I applied it in my student’s lessons. Feel free to adapt to your own needs, or read the original post with all the scientific research here.

Change-Up Practice:
Pick three sections of your music or scales to work on. They can be a measure, a portion of a measure, or a small group of measures – whatever your practice needs require.

We’ll call the three sections as A, B and C. Now, start practicing, Change-Up style:

Step 1:

  • Practice Section A, 3-5 repetitions
  • Even if it’s not perfect, go on to Section B, 3-5 repetitions.
  • Even if it’s not perfect, go on to Section C, 3-5 repetitions.

Step 2:

  • Repeat step 1.

Step 3:

  • Repeat step 1 again for a max of 3 rotations.

That’s it. You’re done for the moment. Depending on the amount of practice time you have left, try the same style on a different three sections. Repeat the process on future practice sessions as needed to review and continue building accuracy and speed prior to performance time. Then, start putting those sections into context with the entire piece.

Change-Up practice keeps your brain engaged and focused longer, thus boosting your retention of music and can help you learn the music more efficiently. I’ve seen it in my own practice time. How about you? Did it help?

* Dr. Noa Kageyama, musician and performance psychologist, Juilliard faculty member, blogs at www.bulletproofmusician.com.

The Secret to Fast Flute Playing

imageSure, everyone wants to play fast on the flute. Sir James Galway does it. Emmanuel Pahud does it. Even the first chair flutist in your band does it. So why can’t you?

If you’re like I was when I was younger, I thought you had to practice fast in order to play fast. I’d play a run in my music dozens…no hundreds of times, but it still didn’t sound right. Missed notes. Uneven rhythms. Out of tune notes.

And I could never play it consistently until I learned the secret professional flute players have used for years.

Slow Motion practice.

I know, that’s completely opposite of what most of us think. In order to build good habits and accuracy, slower is better. With thoughtful, deliberate practice, your technique will improve so that your ability to play fast will develop. And you’ll sound amazing at the same time.

5 Tips to Successful Slow Motion Practice

  1. Practice Slower Than You Think, Longer Than You Think: This allows your muscles and brain to coordinate all the details of the music, which is a very complicated process. You wouldn’t expect to drive a car for the first time at full speed. That would be crazy. When you’re learning a new piece, it’s the same idea. You’re familiarizing all the muscles and senses you use to perform with the new piece. As you’re ready, you’ll gradually speed things up. Depending on the level of complexity and your abilities, how long will vary greatly. If you’re not used to practicing Slow Motion, it’s good to allow yourself at least double the time you normally use.
  2. Use a Metronome: Always practice with deliberate tempo in mind. Keep track of your metronome markings in a practice journal so you know what tempo you have been practicing at. Start by cutting the marked tempo in half. Then, after you can play the piece all the way through with no mistakes consistently, move the metronome marking up one click. Repeat the process.
  3. Practice Slowly Until Your Fingers Know It: This is what is commonly known as muscle memory. If you’re thinking too hard about the music, you’re still in learning mode and not ready to go faster. In a performance, you need to trust your fingers. It’s not time to be reading the music and figuring things out. Slow motion practice will build the necessary muscle memory to let your performance sparkle.
  4. Practice Early: Procrastination doesn’t work. More practice sessions spread evenly through your week will produce more accurate, more consistent results. Five 30 minute sessions throughout the week does not equal a 2 1/2 hour marathon the night before the performance.
  5. Record Yourself: As you practice in Slow Motion, you must ask questions. Am I playing the note too long or short? Is my tone clear? Am I playing accurate rhythms? The only way to know for sure is to record your session and evaluate your work. Recording yourself is a great troubleshooting method.

Always practice deliberately, with your brain and senses engaged. Unfortunately, there’s no Instagram for practicing, but with the right practice tools, like Slow Motion technique, you’ll be more successful.

Photo Credit: Ian Britton, freephoto.com

Practice Smarter, Not Harder

Tip #1 – Practice Smaller Sections
Instead of playing through two pages of your solo at one time, pick out two or three specific measures or runs to work on each day.
Tip # 2 – More Repetitions
Give yourself a specific number of repetitions to play each section, say ten or fifteen times. Don’t stop at one or two. Your fingers need more repetitions than you think.
Tip #3 – Record Yourself
Use your phone or computer to record yourself. Listen back so you can determine what’s working and what’s not.
Check out my earlier post Six Strategies to Tackle Your Solo for more detailed strategies!

Avoiding Injury on the Flute

A lot of students complain of wrist pains, shoulder or neck strain, or other physical strains. It’s so important on the flute to make sure you are always holding the flute with the best hand position and posture to avoid long term injury. Many flute players suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome or other physical problems as they grow older. I’ve noticed several common mistakes in proper hand position and posture that you can easily fix.

1. Right hand wrist should be straight: There should not be any bend or dipping in the wrist. Some band directors inadvertently teach the incorrect right hand position without realizing it limits the ability of a flute player to facilitate technical passages with ease and fluid motion, and that it can cause long term physical damage to the wrist. A bent wrist can equal long term pain down the road.

2. Marching Band Position (or that’s what I call it): Sorry, I know this one may stir up anger in the marching band community, but the parallel flute with flute pulled back to be in line with the shoulders is one of the most damaging positions a flute player can use to hold the flute. Because of the transverse (out to the side) nature of the flute, the marching band position causes back, shoulder, and neck strain that can lead to long term physical pain. Trust me, I’ve spent many, many years in marching band and remember the constant strain. And, this position does nothing to benefit your sound.  Not only does it constrict the air passages and your ability to produce proper vibrato, but it contributes to a closed throat and sharp tone for flute players. (Note, you can correct the pitch but, your sound will not be your concert sound).

My recommendation is to gently push your right hand forward until the flute is slightly in front of your body. For most people, it creates an approximate 45 degree angle with the flute and shoulders. I also recommend a slight downward angle of the footjoint so that the flute is not quite parallel, but I would speak to your private lesson teacher to help you find the best angle. Every one is a little different. Keep in mind, you don’t ever want your right arm to touch the side of your body. It should be away slightly. Check out this video clip from a Mary Karen Clardy (professor of flute at the University of North Texas) for some great tips on flute angles and sitting.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0qdCCohdfcw

3. Moderate Exercise and Stretches: These will help you stay healthy and be able to withstand the muscle strain playing flute may put on your body. Stretches are very beneficial for flute players, so make them a part of your daily practice routine. These can include shoulder stretches, arm stretches, neck stretches, etc.

4. Balance the Flute: Make sure you are balancing, not gripping the flute. The three balance points I teach include the right hand thumb (slightly behind flute body – not sticking out in front!), left hand crook of the index finger and the chin. If you can balance the flute without the rods rolling back using only these three points, you will alleviate improper gripping and pressure as your fingers switch from note to note. It takes a while to develop the correct balance, so practice over a bed or couch so you won’t harm your flute if you drop it. Practice third space C to fourth line D slowly and with as little finger movement as possible.

My rule of thumb is if you are experiencing tension or pain while you are playing, then you are probably holding the flute in an awkward position or putting too much tension on some part of your body. Listen to what your body is telling you and work to fix it during EVERY practice session. If you allow the incorrect habits to continue, the pain will continue.

For more articles on Flute Pain Cures, check out Jennifer Cluff’s flute website at http://www.jennifercluff.com/deathgrip.htm

Dealing With Braces: 5 Steps to Reclaiming Your Flute Tone

20120830-151544.jpg You just got braces and your mouth hurts. Your teeth are sore. When you pick up your flute, only airy sounds whimper out. Relax. Don’t panic.

It’s going to be okay.

With enough patience and diligent practice, your beautiful sound will sing out once again.

5 Steps to Reclaim Your Tone

  1. Be Patient: Don’t try to practice lots of technical exercises right off the bat. For the first week, play lots of low notes. Slow and slurred. Add the middle register the second week. When you’re ready (probably the third week), add the high register.
  2. Practice in Shorter Intervals: Start out in 10-15 minute intervals. Take breaks in between to rebuild your embouchure. Do this several times a day for best results.
  3. Tone Builders: Don’t worry about sound quality right now. It will improve over time. Just play! Start with the low register, then build higher. You may not want to even try high notes for a few days after you first get your braces on. (see tip #1)
  4. Octave Slurs: Add octave slurs when you can play both low and middle register notes. Start with low E. Play low, then high without tonguing. I recommend half notes or whole notes. Repeat several times on each note, then go to the next higher note (i.e.  F, F#, G, etc.).
  5. Use a Mirror: Chances are, your aperture location has shifted since you now have a further distance between your lips and teeth. Use the mirror ever day to see how you need to readjust your aperture with so it’s lined up with the center of the tone hole. You may also need to adjust your angle of air down into the flute more.

For some, adjusting to flute life with braces can take a few months. Others, only a few weeks. It really depends on how much you practice, and how smart you practice.

You may have to repeat these steps after future orthodontist visits. Most likely, they won’t be as difficult as the first time. Cool thing is, braces are only temporary. In the mean time, these tips will help your tone sparkle, even with braces.

* For further reading, check out this article on Jennifer Cluff’s Flute Blog. She has a cool idea of how to use masking tape on the embouchure plate to improve tone.

Overwhelmed? 5 Ways to Simplify Your Practice Schedule

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Homework. Marching band practice. Social life. Did I mention homework?

All of those things zap our valuable time to practice. When you feel like throwing your flute across the room…relax. Breath. These five tips will help you get the most of your practice time. Even if you have as little as 15 minutes a day, you’ll still see improvement.

1. Break It Down: Rotate what you practice. For example, play three scales Monday, a different three on Tuesday, etc. until you play them all by the end of the week.

You don’t have to start at the beginning of a piece and play straight through. Break it down into manageable chunks (say a few measures or a couple of lines). Most of us wouldn’t read an entire novel in one sitting, right? We’d read a chapter or two, depending on our free time. Practice the same way. Work one chunk on Monday, the next on Tuesday, review on Wednesday.

Keep track of what you worked on in a practice journal, iPad app organizer or whatever works for you.

2. No Speeding Tickets: Practicing slowly will build muscle memory, finger and embouchure control, as well as endurance and pitch accuracy. If you’re stumbling over a tough run, cut the tempo in half until you can play it accurately at that tempo. Then click the metronome up 3-4 beats. Repeat.

It’s much more difficult to play with control than to let your fingers guess.

3. Practice What You Think You Already Know: You can play your scales. But do you know them? Do you play them so well you don’t have to think about the notes? Do they float out effortlessly? Then practice them some more.

The key to technical virtuosity is mastery of fundamentals such as scales, arpeggios, chromatics, etc. Don’t skip them in your daily drill.

You will be amazed at how much control you gain over your fingers and your technique, as well as ability to read music by practicing scales and arpeggios every day.

4. Be a Time Jedi: Use the time you have wisely. Practice the hard parts – don’t skip them. Do more repetitions than you think you need. Slowly at first, then faster.

If you already know the low octave of a scale, try practicing the upper one by itself. Or even the highest few notes (aren’t they always the toughest ones?).

Use your time in band class to finger through tough scales or passages when your director is working with another section.

5. Routine: Same time. Same place. Carve out your routine and stick to it. You’ll remember more (and grow faster in your flute abilities) if you practice 5 or 6 days a week for 15-30 minutes at a time, than if you wait until Saturday to cram in two hours.

Simplify your schedule by practicing smarter, rather than harder. You’ll begin to master all the stuff that propels your music forward. And your music will take on a new life.

“Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing that makes you good.”~Malcolm Gladwell

More Practice Tips: