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 Coming Up!

It has been forever since my last post, but I have been productive in the meantime and more will be appearing here. I’m conducting two flute choirs now and the orchestra I play in has started up again, so I’ve been trying to balance all that while not overextending myself TOO much.

So, the Florida Flute Convention is this weekend and I’ll be conducting a performance by the Tampa Bay Flute Choir and presenting Intonation in Action, an extension of all the intonation stuff I post about. It has taken forever to come up with the structure of this particular presentation, but, by Jove, I think I’ve got it! If you read this after seeing the presentation, I’d be thrilled to hear what you think. And if you can’t be there and want to know what this is all about, contact me through the website and I’ll send you the PowerPoint, but only if you promise to give some feedback.

More next week, after I catch my breath. Happy Fluting!


Practice Diary 7/29

EJ4 from GbM to am
-clipped articulation exercise is easier if I remember to pause and expel excess air
-don’t practicing straining, you already know how to do that!
-overall focus is good, air doesn’t wander as much, especially when I think of playing out to an audience
-remember to push for better, it is easy to go with OK, to forget there can be much more, push for better!

CPE Bach am solo sonata
-the big leaps downward in the 3rd movement, the air attacks seem OK, but when articulation is added, notes are still not as clear as a pianist might be
-tried slurring through the figures, maybe the problem is the disturbance of the air on repeated notes, jaw and embouchure are opening on the 2nd note in the group, having to get back into position to play
-this is a case of expression getting in the way of technique
-opening in embouchure is too wide, how to address that; haven’t found a way that is effective for me yet
-feel like I’m just getting going when the timer goes off. tomorrow – 45 minutes!


Explanatory notes about Practice Diary

In the Practice Diary, I’ve made some references to exercise books that I use. In the posts I’ve referred to them using mostly commonly known abbreviations, at least for people who had experience with them, but not everyone may know what they mean, so this is a short post explaining what the are. In a later post I plan to explain why and how I use them.

‘EJ’ stands for 17 Grands Exercises Journaliers (Daily Exercises) by Paul Taffanel and Gaubert. This is one of the most enduring exercise books, I call it one of the flute Bibles. I use Exercise number 4 (EJ4) almost every time I practice to establish a baseline for tone and articulation consistency in many keys and all registers.

‘Moyse’ is another flute Bible. The exercises in Marcel Moyse’s Exercises Journaliers are designated by letter, but there are several exercises that share the same letter so I’ve been referring to what the exercise actually is. So far I’ve only concentrated on one of the C exercises, triads, mostly for intonation and tone. If you’ve heard of James Galway’s scale challenge, this is the book you would be working out of. It covers much more than scales and is great for developing a good core tone that will work in all registers. You also need all the technique it offers.

I’ve also referred to one of Trevor Wye’s Practice Books, Book 1: Tone.

These books are all available through Flute World,, if you can’t find them other places. The first two are not cheap, but they have been standards for many decades, and for good reason! Used properly and practiced conscientiously, they will help you develop the fundamentals of technique that will give you the tools you need to play just about anything.

Any time you want something in the Practice Diary explained, just let me know! It may take a couple of days, but I will at least get the basic explanation to you ASAP.

Happy Practicing!