“Don’t practice when you are overtired.” Easier said than done for most of us! I am sure that every flutist has felt the need to practice when they were really too tired to get any good out of it. Besides being unproductive because you can’t concentrate well, you run the risk of physical injury when you practice under strain. If you are truly too tired, stop, get some rest, and get up a little earlier tomorrow so you can practice when you are fresh.
Are you swabbing out your flute before you put it away? Hopefully so, it is critical that you keep your flute clean inside and out. But what are you using to swab out your flute?
I advocate using a simple, 100% cotton handkerchief or bandanna. They are absorbant and nonabrasive, readily available and inexpensive. Cotton works great for wiping off the tenons so the joints go together smoothly, too. Cotton is also washable so when it gets grubby, just throw it in with the regular laundry (using fabric softeners may not be a great idea, though). Very practical!
A silk swab is nice, but it can be fragile and tends to flatten out after a couple of uses. A 10″ or 12″ bandanna or kerchief will stay full enough to clean the whole tube for several uses. You could just use a strip of cotton or a square piece of cotton, but I think the edges should be finished so stray threads don’t get caught in the mechanism.
As for the fuzzy flute swabs that are so popular, I do not recommend them. They are supposed to “wick the moisture away from the pads”. Great! But what do you do after you have done that? You stick it right back into the flute! Where is the moisture supposed to go? I live in Florida and any moisture that is allowed to sit around leads to one thing, mildew. While I haven’t heard of too many cases of “flute mildew”, I do know that once you get the moisture off the pads, you should keep it away from them. If you feel you have to use the fuzzy things to swab out your instrument, fine, but do not store them in your flute or inside your case. Besides, you will still need a soft cloth to wipe off the joints and the fingerprints, so why not just get a cotton cloth or two and leave the fuzzy things alone. I also suggest that your flute cleaning cloth not be stored inside the case with your freshly swabbed out flute.
This is all part of good flute maintenance, which results in better flute performance. It’s easy, it’s practical and it’s cheap. Besides, you can create a collection of cool “flute” bandannas that will make you the most stylish and hip flutist around!
Whether we are talking with teachers or students, fellow musicians, conductors, etc. we are constantly talking about playing. The language that we use is extremely important to how we think and feel about playing. I’m not talking about terminology here; what I’m talking about is much more subjective.
The words we use when talking about our playing can have a huge impact in how we think about what we are doing. We all know the effect that using judgmental language, especially negative words, can have on a player’s attitude. This is actually pretty simple to address by just avoiding negative words “no”, “not”, “bad”, “wrong”, etc. Other words have a more subtle, sinister, effect, and while they do not sound like negative words, they can have negative effects. For me one of those words is “control”.
I have spent years working on breath “control”, “controlling the air stream”, etc. and, while I have had some success, in general this practice ties me up in knots. To “control” something really means to inhibit it in some way, keep a tight rein on, or hold it in check. These ideas are all antithetical to what we need to do to make any sound at all on the flute. The air has to get out before we can make any sound, so why am I trying to restrict it? I now substitute the word “manage” for the word “control” and immediately the air flows more freely and I am able to accomplish the things I wanted to do when I was trying to “control” the air. Neat, huh?
Different words affect different people differently, and maybe this example doesn’t do anything for you, but unless you are the most positive, balanced person on the planet, it is likely that there are words that affect you negatively as well. Take a look at your practice journal, listen to your conversations about playing, and pay attention when a word causes you to tense up or groan a little, anything that is less than positive. A teacher at a masterclass I attended made a similar point with this little test. She asked us to notice what happened to our bodies when she said different words, like ‘ice cream’, ‘sunshine’, then she said the word ‘flute’. Immediately everyone in the class gasped and some even groaned a little. (What reaction did you just have?) We all had an ah-ha moment when we were made aware of the tension that one little word could cause in us. And this word represented something we loved! Many of us had come to associate the word ‘flute’ with tension and strain. For me, working on ‘control’ magnifies that tension, so I don’t try to do it. Rather than trying to hold things in, I work on managing them as they are happening.
Of course, some things are just wrong, terrible even, and it’s OK to acknowledge that. Just make sure your approach to fixing what’s wrong is as benign and productively oriented as possible.
In case you didn’t know, I have a sidehustle that includes designing Tshirts. And surprise, surprise, many of them have musical themes. Might be a little weird, but it’s fun. It’s even more fun with people like them and buy them, makes me feel like I’m making a connection with them. Below are links to my newest efforts, available on Amazon’s newest POD Tshirt service. You can also search for Practicing Flutist to find them. If you like them, share them! Or send me ideas for what you want to see on a Tshirt.
Are you practicing scales on autopilot? Perhaps you turn on the metronome and then tear through them as fast as you can to get them over with for the day. There’s nothing interesting about practicing scales after all, is there?
If this is what you think, you are short-changing yourself. Practicing scales or anything else on autopilot, without engaging your powers of observation and problem-solving, is only minimally productive. And it is boring!
Here are some things you could be improving in your scale practice, besides speed!
Fluent, relaxed finger technique, full, relaxed inhale, tone quality and consistency, articulation, rhythm, intonation, air management, dynamics, musicality, posture, alternative fingerings, beatboxing techniques. . . . . what am I forgetting? Probably at least a half dozen other things.
Here are some recommendations of what to listen for the next time you practice scales.
1. Tone first, always. Everything is a tone exercise! Each and every note must be as beautiful as the one before and after it. Any inconsistency in the sound is caused by an inconsistency in the air or the fingers. Listen for it, diagnose the cause and eliminate it. Keep the beautiful stuff going through every note!
2. Intonation, always. Good intonation and good tone go together, so improve the intonation and the tone will also be improved. Are you stretching your octaves by going sharp as you ascend the scale or flat as you descend? Set your tuner or other drone generator to the keynote of the scale to use as reference, then tune each note of the scale to that drone. Then play the scale at a medium tempo and work on landing the keynote (or tonic) perfectly in each octave. (Great for arpeggio practice, too!)
3. Articulation. Use your scales to practice as many different articulation patterns as possible. Staccato, legato, slur, air only attacks, double tonguing, triple tonguing and every variation you can think of. Do a different pattern on each scale, then tomorrow rotate the patterns so you practice different ones on each scale.
And as in the tone exercise, make each and every articulation at least as good as the one before it and the one following. If a note doesn’t ‘speak’, stop and figure out why. What is keeping the air from getting to the flute so that the note speaks clearly?
I’ll skip going into practicing with a metronome for evenness and speed because I assume you are probably already doing that. If not, then please do! What I’ve described will help you form a good foundation for productive scale practice. You can expand on them to include much more, but the most important thing is to always be engaged and actively listening and problem solving as you practice. This makes practice much more productive and hopefully endlessly interesting. So switch off the autopilot and put your scales to work!