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/

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. 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!

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 Naivete; Be Kind to Your Listener’s Ears

Image result for ear hearing music

 

When I was young and naïve, I liked to program unaccompanied pieces, because I thought that I didn’t have to pay as much attention to intonation. If there was no other instrument to compare my pitch to, nobody would notice if I was a little (or a lot!!) flat on the low notes or just a tad (or a mile) sharp on the high notes? After all, only those extremely rare people with perfect pitch could tell the difference and even that was about the notes, not the intonation, right? HA! I was so wrong, and if you think this way, too, so are you!

Learning to play in tune isn’t just about learning to play in tune with others, it also about learning to play in tune with yourself. If you are playing without accompaniment, the pitch of the first note you play determines the placement and intonation of every note that comes after. EVERY NOTE.

In the listener’s ear, the intonation is always relative to some reference point. As a piece progresses, the reference might shift a little, but the listener’s brain is constantly measuring and comparing each new pitch to pitches that came before. The proportions of the intervals are dictated by mathematical proportions that occur naturally. Your brain recognizes them, even if you don’t know specifically what they are. Even if no one in your audience has perfect pitch, there is something in each of their brains that says “Hm, the notes seem like they fit, but something is a little off.” If the intervals between the reference pitch and succeeding pitches are too big or too small, you run the risk of sounding ‘off-key’ if it’s really bad, or just not quite right if it is only a little. So, yes, your intonation matters even when you are playing unaccompanied pieces.

To address this, practice your unaccompanied pieces against a drone pitch,  usually the tonic pitch of the piece or section you are working on. I advise you to practice this way for two reasons. First, so you can work on keeping a consistent pitch center, not letting your overall pitch wander around. Second, so you can work on learning the sizes of the intervals between the tonic and the other notes in the piece. It’s not enough to know the notes and which keys to press and how to make each note sound pretty, you have to learn the actual sizes of the intervals.

Just like when you sing and you don’t have keys or finger positions to help you find the pitches, you have to learn the size of each interval from one note to the next and from the tonic to each note. (Knowing the pitch tendencies of your instrument and how you play it is very helpful in this endeavor, hint, hint) This is what ear training courses are supposed to teach you, though most forget to teach you why you might want to know how to do this.

I’m starting to ramble now, and maybe rant a little, so I’ll summarize by saying this. Yes, your intonation does matter when you play unaccompanied pieces, so you have to subject them to the same careful intonation practice that you would anything else. Your audiences will thank you for it!

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.)

Advantages and Disadvantages of Improving Your Sense of Intonation

The other day I was thinking about the advantages of improving your sense of intonation, the ability to hear and respond to pitch fluctuations, and it occurred to me that there were also some disadvantages (yes, I said disadvantages) that go along with it. Here is my list of 5 advantages followed by my list of 5 disadvantages. Ready?

5 Advantages to Having a Good Sense of Intonation
1. Because you play well in tune, you sound better and are perceived as a better player. Everyone wants to be thought well of.
2. Your tone is usually better and more consistent because you are managing your air better in order to play in tune better. Your technique has to improve in order to make the adjustments necessary to play in tune.
3.You are better able to convey musical ideas both because your intonation is good and because you can concentrate more on other aspects of playing when your intonation is well-managed.
4. Other musicians enjoy playing in ensembles with you because your intonation is good. Directors notice, too, and are favorably impressed.
5. You feel more confident and at ease when you know your intonation is good. Playing is more fun!

Now for the opposite side of the coin.

5 Disadvantages of Having a Good Sense of Intonation
1. Playing with musicians who don’t play in tune becomes increasingly frustrating. But now you know how others felt before you got better!
2. You may develop a bit of a superiority complex, and become less tolerant of other’s intonation flaws. Worse, you might start trying to tell them what to to, resulting in them thinking you are bossy or snobby.
3. You have fewer excuses for playing out of tune once others become used to you being able to play with good intonation.
4. Once you develop a good sense of intonation, you will never be able to listen to music in the same again. You will constantly be aware of inconsistencies and clashes in the intonation of everything you hear. And you will never be able to sit through a beginner band concert with a straight face again, no matter how much you love the sibling, niece, nephew, son, or daughter you are there to hear. My hat is off to all the directors of beginner bands. Every day your ears must take a terrible beating, but you keep at it anyway, and we all benefit from your sacrifice!
5. I couldn’t come up with another believable disadvantage. If you can, or there are advantages I have missed, please put them in the comments and share them.

Don’t get me wrong, I definitely believe that the advantages greatly outweigh the disadvantages, especially being able to fully convey the music while feeling good about it. For most of us, it takes a lot of work to develop a good sense of pitch, then it takes more work to develop the ability to adjust pitch on demand in order to play in tune. But it is well worth the work, and the personal enjoyment of playing well is the reward.

Articulation Inspiration

Every year at the Florida Flute Association Convention I see or hear something that inspires me, something that I try to integrate into my own playing or musical philosophy. This year I was so busy with presenting a teaching session, conducting a flute choir performance, and giving a performance presentation, that I feel like I didn’t see all that much. But, I still got my moment of inspiration!

This year’s featured performer was Aaron Goldman, principal flutist of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington DC. After reading about him and his experience auditioning for the NSO, I looked forward to hearing him perform and learning about him. My events were all finished by Saturday evening’s gala performance, so I was free to attend and listen without the distractions of having my own things to worry about.

 

I will admit that I was not captivated by his performance in the gala concert. Yes, his technique was flawless and fluid, almost effortless, and his fast articulations miraculously clean, consistent, and consisting of more tone than tongue. However in my state of fatigue I was not moved and did not stay through the whole performance. Isn’t it odd that when a performance seems too effortless, it also feels as if the performer is not really engaged? I like a little of the performer’s personality to come through, a sense that he or she is excited by the music, and that was not coming through for me.

I was sufficiently impressed, though, so that I attended the next morning’s warmup session led by Mr. Goldman where he introduced people to exercises he uses to improve and maintain his sound production. The exercises were not new to me, ala Moyse, but I was impressed that Goldman actually explained why he used certain exercises, and how he used them to continually challenge himself to make better sounds and increase his skills. Teachers and presenters often don’t give you the why of a thing, resulting in students blindly trying to  recreate something that was never defined for them in the first place.

My revelation came in the masterclass Goldman taught. With one of the performers, he was given the opportunity to address articulation and how he approaches it. This was of particular interest to me, because my own double and triple tonguing are not what I would like them to be, so I was anxious to hear what he might suggest. Simply, he put the emphasis on the tone of the notes, rather than the tonguing.

This makes so much sense! Listeners don’t care so much about the mechanics of your articulation, they are interested in hearing the notes so they have something to follow. Think of the articulation like this: each articulation has a little t or k (or whatever syllable you are using) and uppercase AH:  tAH, kAH, dAH, gAH. This fits right in with the idea that the articulation only begins the note, and that once the articulation has been made, you have to get out of the way of the note.

Personally, I have been starting out OK on lengthy articulated passages, but after a few measures I start to really bear down on the articulation and the tone disappears. This is exactly what I needed to hear about right now. It is a reminder of what I already know to be true and at the same time, a new insight. I have new goals to work on now and a method of achieving them.

Mission accomplished, my yearly inspiration has been provided!

Developing effective dynamics in the flute choir

This season the music my flute choir is working is filled with dynamic effects. Some are simple and straightforward, others include big, quick changes. All of them need to be done cleanly and provide big impact. Wishy washy dynamic changes will be worse than none at all.

I have made plans for developing these in every rehearsal. Here is my strategy so far:

1. Practice big effects in isolation. Practice the special effects first, then integrate them into the piece. This draws attention to them, reinforces their importance in the player’s minds, and helps the piece feel more exciting right from the beginning, leaving room to create even bigger effects as the piece comes together.

2. Encourage, nay, DEMAND that players make the biggest effects possible. I want them to really punch that sfz, turn the volume way down on the piano after a fp while keeping the intensity going, etc. It always amazes when I ask for MORE, BIGGER, and players draw back, and give less, play smaller. When I can get someone to really let loose, get into the characterization, it is such a thrill for me, and them. Really, the world will not end if you play something so big that the note cracks, or heaven forbid, you draw someone’s attention. That is what those effects are for, to get the listener’s attention!! Maybe I should get a mannekin to put in the back of the practice hall and encourage people to play to it, give them a target. Hmmmmmmm.

3. Dynamic levels are relative. The particular dynamic level of any one part at any one time, depends on the role that part has in the music. There are no concrete dynamic levels. Excellent ensemble playing requires sensitive, ACTIVE attention to individual dynamic levels every single second. If every part is marked at mezzo forte, and everyone dutifully plays their concept of mezzo forte, but the melody line is indistinguishable, that doesn’t work. It may be ‘proper’, but it is not good music. The melody line has to be louder than the supporting parts, so either that player has to play out or the others have to play quieter, or both. Then as soon as the melody line moves to another part, the players have to balance that out. This requires engagement on the part of every player and attention on the part of the ensemble conductor or coach if there is one. I feel an idea for an ensemble balancing exercise blossoming!

Really when you think about it, while dynamic levels can be quantified using a decibel meter, who does that? I have personally practiced an exercise that required the player to make distinctions between 8 dynamic levels, from ppp to fff. This is great for developing awareness and control, and is an area that I don’t pay enough attention to in my own practicing. However, the most musical concept of dynamics is not to try to play at numerically defined levels, but to make sure your dynamic levels are discernible to the listener, fit the context of the music, and have the desired impact.

That’s more than enough for now. Time to put this into practice!!

Try Gary Schocker’s trick of using a wine cork to improve flute tone

I’ve been concentrating on improving my tone lately, and came across these videos from Gary Schocker. He demonstrates how he used a wine cork to develop and improve his sound. It sounds totally off-the-wall, but it makes good sense! And since Schocker does have a glorious sound and amazing air management, this technique must be doing something good for him!

The basic idea is that positioning the cork helps you open inside your mouth and create a freer path for your air to move through. Take a look and give it a try!

www.youtube.com/watch?v=36X5xlrPzg0

Intrigued? Here is more!
www.youtube.com/watch?v=0IvvKXxm3r4