Flute Swabs

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. They are also washable so when they get grubby, just throw them in with the regular laundry (using fabric softeners may not be a great idea, though).
Very practical!

Silk is nice, but it can be fragile and tends to flatten out after a couple of uses. A 10″ or 12″ handkerchief 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 things 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!

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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.

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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.

 

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Calming Pre-Concert Nerves

Before our flute choir concerts, I like to do a calming exercise with the group so they can play with more relaxed bodies and clearer mental focus. It is a simple breathing exercise that has had good results so far.

I have them breathe in through their noses for a slow count of 4, then breathe out through their mouths for 4 counts. I count off out loud to get them started, then transition to holding up fingers for the counts.
Breathing in through the nose automatically opens up the throat and chest, making it easier to take a fuller, more relaxed breath. The slow pace of the breathing helps get heart rates down, calming pre-concert nerves. It also makes everyone be quiet for a few minutes so we can get focused on making beautiful music together.

We do this for a couple of minutes at most, then proceed with our regular playing warmup. It is amazing the effect this has! As I lead the group through it, the pitch of my voice drops as my own body relaxes. The slightly worried looks on some faces ease, raised eyebrows return to their normal positions and stiff postures relax. When we are ready to pick up the flutes, everyone looks more confident and eager to play, rather than afraid of how that first note is going to come out.

This exercise is helpful in just about any situation when you want to get your heart rate down a little, or take the edge off jittery nerves. I even used it during a concert I played in last weekend, between pieces. My nerves were threatening to get the better of me, though I knew there was no good reason for them to. My heart was beating double-time so I did the exercise for a few breath cycles. It took enough of the edge off that I was able to launch into my part on the next piece with less fear and more gusto. Simple, but effective!

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