Practice what you don’t know first and most.
Seems obvious, doesn’t it? It is all too easy to start our practice with what is most familiar and comfortable. But that does not help us conquer what is difficult and uncomfortable. Especially when we have limited practice time and are overwhelmed by what we feel we need to accomplish. The simplest and most efficient approach is to start with what we are most unfamiliar with. After all, why practice what we already know when there is so much we want to learn and improve?
I learned this firsthand when there was a period of time where I had a lot of unfamiliar music to learn and limited time in which to learn it. I tried to make the most of what little time I had, ten minutes here, maybe a half hour there, if I was lucky. Subsequently I was amazed that by concentrating my full attention (and please note that I am emphasizing attention and not pressure) on the passages that I was least comfortable with, I made quick progress toward being performance-ready.
I credit my teacher during this time, Alex Murray, for this approach. He gave me many practical, common sense ideas to use in my practice, and this is one of what should have been one of the most ridiculously obvious of ideas.
So if you have little time to practice, start with the passages that give you the most trouble. Give them that laser-like focus that you have when your time is limited. You might be amazed by what you can achieve.
When I haven’t been practicing regularly, one of the things I tend to do is something I beg and plead students not to do. Simply put, I chase the notes with the airstream. I shoot the air up at high notes and dive down to scoop the low notes, drawing the shape of the melody with the air. This results in a very inconsistent tone. To my ears it’s like having several different flutists playing the different notes in a melody. One person plays the high notes, one the middle, etc. Yecch!
This was made even worse recently when I had to play a concert on piccolo after not practicing regularly or well on either flute or piccolo for too long. My piccolo and I had been getting along great in the earlier concerts, hitting all the notes and displaying admirably consistent tone and decent intonation. Not this time! I could not find a good center to work from, and the pitch was way out there in ways I had never experienced. Very embarrassing, to say the least!
Obviously the airstream ‘strike zone’ on piccolo is smaller on flute and small adjustments have bigger impacts. Because of this, my tendency to chase the notes with the airstream made playing piccolo decently almost impossible. Only when I could convince myself to blow consistently more forward and maintain a steadier center did anything remotely decent come out.
To get back in shape, I play exercises with wide intervals, such as the Moyse Daily Exercises. Having to find the ‘middle ground’ of ever wider intervals is the best way for me to break the chase habit. It is true that small adjustments have to be made to play different pitches, but most of those adjustments are so microscopic that as soon as you think about making a change, you’ve already done too much. I tell students that they are working much harder than they need to, chasing the notes all over the place with the air. Guess it’s time for me to listen to my own advice!
I think one of the benefits of getting older is that I have had the opportunity to hear many different ideas and perspectives on flute practice. Every once in awhile one of these ideas will spark an epiphany, a little bolt of intellectual lightning that lights up my brain. The solution to a problem suddenly becomes clear, the reason for doing something finally makes sense, or an idea that seemed unrelated to anything in my personal life hits home. I had one of those epiphanies last week.
I was rehearsing with a flute quartet and I realized that I was leaning more forward than I needed to be. I don’t play this way when I stand so it confounds me that I do it when I sit. Consequently, I am very uncomfortable when I have to play sitting and my sound isn’t as full. But I wasn’t just leaning forward from my seated position, EVERYTHING about my playing position was forward, my embouchure, my head, my neck, on down. I seemed to reaching out for something with every part of me.
When the little alarm bells went off a light went on and something that flutist Diane Boyd Schultz said in a presentation on playing posture popped into my head. She is a very engaging and entertaining speaker and I was struck by the theatricality with which presented the following concept. She described the flutist’s head as the queen and the arms as her servants. The servants always come to the queen, the queen never goes to the servants. At the time I recognized that this was good advice for better tone production, but I didn’t think I needed it. In my rehearsal I realized that I had gotten into the habit of making my queen go to the servants as much as possible, distorting not just my posture, but my embouchure, too!
After that I sat in a more neutral position, supporting my torso on my sit bones so I could breath easily and fully, unkinking my spine and neck so my head was properly supported and free to float, and bringing my flute to my face and lips rather than the other way around. My sound automatically opened up, my playing was more musical, and best of all, my neck didn’t hurt after rehearsal!
As a student, you never know when something a teacher says will strike a chord with you, so try to gather as much as you can. And as a teacher, you have to accept that you will not see most of the effects that you have on your students, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t give them as much as you can. Who knows when that light bulb will go off!