The Number One Thing You Can do to Practice Better

What is the number one thing you can do to practice better? The one technique or strategy you can use to correct mistakes or even out bumpy passages?

It is something really simple, as are most suggestions I try to bring to you. If you don’t already do this, you should try it. It is to slow things down.

Slow Down Sign

It only makes sense that if you can’t play something slowly, you won’t be able to play it fast, so when you make a mistake, take a breath and take a close look at what just happened, look for the cause, and go over it slowly until there is no problem. Then you can work that spot up to tempo, slowly, if need be.

This Might Take Awhile

I’m always looking for new and better ways to make my practicing better so I often read the Bulletproof Musician blog to see what new advice he has to share. Check out this  post to see how your practicing methods compare with the 8 top methods identified in a study of accomplished pianists. And guess what the Number One method is! Yes it is to “Slow Down!”

http://www.bulletproofmusician.com/8-things-top-practicers-do-differently/

What I’m Learning From Bodymapping Lessons

I’ve recently begun taking bodymapping lessons and after only a few  sessions, I’ve learned that I didn’t understand nearly as much about how the body works as I thought I did.

I’ve struggled with physical limitations that affected my playing since my early twenties. Pain, numbness, tension, impaired function, etc. led me to work hard at avoiding injury. I thought my awareness of how I used my body was pretty good. I could usually manage the amount of physical effort and tension I put into playing and if I overdid it in a practice session or performance, I could undo the damage with careful, mindful practice.

I’d never previously never taken any real instruction in bodymapping, only read about it and attended some workshops, but I thought I had a good handle on it. I was so wrong!

Bodymapping is based on the idea that the image you have in your mind of how the body works, specifically how your skeleton, muscles, and nerves interact to as you do anything. This is something that I understood intellectually, however my body map was way off.

I discovered that I didn’t really know where my hip and shoulder joints were, how my back should have curves, how my shoulders/collarbone are supported by my neck, and most surprising, how my head sits on my spine.

I’ve spent years, decades thinking that I knew how my head should be positioned in relation to my spine, and that I had good posture, especially when playing, yet I’ve had terrible neck problems. My chiropractor told me that stretches would help, but that it would only get worse. Stretches did help, and yoga helped more.

However,  just a few minutes with my bodymapping coach correcting my misconception about how the skull and spine interact, and I can turn my head from side with almost no discomfort or limitation. Wow! And when I play, my tone has opened up tremendously, with my air flowing much more freely.

In my case, because I thought the point where my skull rests on my spine (the Atlanto-Occipital Joint) was further back than it is. This caused me to misuse the muscles in my neck and upper back. Besides the obvious discomfort, this  limited my ability to move my head and put unnecessary stress on the nerves and muscles in the right side of my body. Definitely not good for flute playing!

I had been wrong all these years and after just a few days after correcting this part of my ‘map’,  I feel so much better. It’s amazing how much impact a small change can make. Of course, making this change permanent will take some sustained effort, but it is definitely worth it if it improves my life and playing this much.

Are you experiencing pain when you play? Want to learn more about bodymapping? Here are some resources to get you started.

Body Mapping for Flutists: What Every Flute Teacher Should Know About the Body by Dr. Lea Pearson

If you think you might be interested in Body Mapping lessons or just want to find out more about it, take a look at Dr. Lea Pearson’s website, Music Minus Pain, for more information.


 

Language is important

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.

Practice What You Don’t Know First

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.

 

Intonation in Action Exercise

In my mission to help people improve their intonation, I’ve had to come up with exercises that people can do in their own practice. Once I’ve convinced players that notes need to be adjusted according to their context in the music, regardless of what any tuner’s meter says, it helps to have exercises to back it up.

The attached handout is part of a set of exercises that you play against a drone, the tonic note of each exercise. In this case, all exercises are in C Major, so set your drone, tone generator, or helpful friend to play the middle C. As you play each exercise, you pause to listen to how your note compares against the drone; e.g. is it sharp, flat, or in tune with the drone? Don’t move on to the next note, until you get your note in tune!

introductory intonation exercises

 

The exercises start out by working on matching the unisons and octaves in the context of ascending and descending scales and arpeggios. Then they progress to tuning more of the notes in relation to the drone. The arrows indicate which direction the pitches need to be adjusted in relation to the drone pitch, assuming that you are playing them perfectly in equal temperament, i.e. in tune with a tuner meter. You may not need to make any adjustments, but let your ears be the judge.

So, give it a try! Then play it in all Major keys. Minor keys will require different adjustments, but after practicing the major keys for a few weeks, doing this in minor will be easy.

Reminder: we don’t hear in equal temperament. In order for our ears to register different harmonies as being “in tune”, we have to play the harmony note either higher or lower than a tuner would tell us to. (If this is new information to you and you need more proof than my say-so, there are many sources you can look up on the Web or in the library.)