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, www.fluteworld.com, 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!

Practice Diary 7/27

Back at it! Maybe I should move these posts to a different section of the blog, I could make another page to post on. I’m afraid the main page will become too cluttered.

On to the practice:
– kind of rough beginning with EJ4, CM
– did Cm and am both slurred to get settled in
– the sound is good, takes awhile to get comfortable physically, though, if I ever get comfortable!
– feet not too angled, 90 degrees does not work for me, almost feel like my backside is sticking out
– let shoulders both be back so right shoulder does not engage
– breathe in through nose, etc, etc, and blow!!
– aim air at that very small strike zone rather than wandering all around
– new articulation pattern to add, pitched pops, all articulation, no tone, really hard to not make a tone, eventually have to expel some air since none really goes out
– end GbM

sound is more consistent overall, meaning that I have to spend more time ironing out the inconsistencies, which takes longer

played 3rd mvt of CPE Bach solo sonata
– biggest fix, on the leaps down, the first low note is not speaking quickly or clearly enough, work on smoothing that out with a lot of breath attack practice and ‘target’ practice
– neck is good, especially after doing yard work, organizing the upper back is the biggest thing

ready for more!

Practice Diary 7/24

started with EJ4 at CM
– focus is good, D#’s are much better today, must not be much of a leak
– air attacks and clipped articulation are pretty crisp, appropriately aggressive
– remember the good physical set up!
– arms are getting better
– tkt ktk is really awkward, I’m not always sure I am doint it, maybe should slow it down so I can be more mindful?
– Db’s in Gb M are so high! have to play it slower to add fingers and bring it down, errr…

Moyse triads CM to DM with tuner, up to DR
– keep root pitch in ear, match it internally, actively pursue the intonation
– keep good posture! bring flute to face!!!

wanted to play some music, so blew through the Sarabande and Badinerie of Bach Partita

I may be a bit Romantic on the Sarabande, but I belied that Bach was a very passionate man, and I like to indulge in making the gestures as clear and noticeable as possible

should try recording these things to see if they sound as rough (or polished) as I think they are, something to check out on the new Smartphone

feels good to just blow so openly, once I can add some time to practice, I will be able to do some serious work, maybe next week add a secont, shorter session, neck felt good all day, yay!

Getting Back in Shape: Intro to My Practice Diary

It is time to get back in shape for the fall performance season! I want to maximize my results while minimizing the wear and tear on my body. Sounds like I’m getting ready to run a marathon, doesn’t it? Playing an instrument for life is like running a marathon, you practice now so you can perform later. One of the ways that I am hoping to make my limited practicing effective is to keep a practice diary. I’ve done this in the past, and it really helps keep me on track, allowing me to build on the previous day’s work rather than repeating the same things over and over.

I’ve decided to up the ante by publishing my practice diary in the hope of motivating myself to move forward and maybe help other people along the way. Here is today’s entry. It isn’t long because I have to build up my playing time slowly because of physical limitations, but you’ll get the idea of how I work in my practice sessions. Exciting, I know, but I’m blackmailing myself into practicing better. Feel free to ask questions about or suggest solutions to any issues that catch your attention!

7/21
long tones, beginning on B2 and descending chromatically to B1
– hard time getting arms to be comfortable, some strain in right hand
– throat buzz on F to E
– concentrate on finding core of air stream so I can refine the embouchure size and on maintaining rib separation as air runs out
– pitch is getting flatter as notes descend
– if lower jaw is forward, there is less throat involvement, also the forward lean exercise opens the front of the throat, remember that openness

harmonics on C1
– rough ascents, but got up to Bb3
– took awhile to settle each level, but comparison pitches were good

EJ4 with tuner/drone
– got up to the triple-tonguing on Eb when time ran out
– D-Db-E, focus on finding the airstream direction through the flute, it is being disturbed
* do this with metronome to work on steadiness
– pitch is pretty good
* add more air bouncing and quick breath repeats into the routine, those are major weaknesses that need to be shored up quickly

Didn’t get far, but don’t seem to have hurt myself either, we’ll see how the neck feels when I get up tomorrow. This is a good start!

Music camp musings

I’m sitting in a camper near Fargo, ND listening to the sound of rain falling on the roof and on the field outside the window. I am attending my husband’s family reunion and the setting is a lot like most people’s images of summer camp. Except maybe for the whooping sounds of ‘Laughter Yoga’ drifting down the lane from one of the camp buildings. For me, though, summer camp means music camp and it just makes me want to practice, losing myself in the intricacies of exploring a piece of music.

I’m so out of practice right now that I need a good session at camp to get back in shape. A nice regimen of long tones and harmonics, articulated scales, working into Moyse interval exercises, then indulging in one of the Bachs for the wonderful voice leading, maybe Piazzola to sharpen up my rhythmic abilities, and finishing with the Oferman I want to learn , maybe even a little beat boxing. Sounds like heaven, doesn’t it?

Unfortunately, the kind of detailed, micro-practicing I like (and need) to do drives most people to distraction, so I’ve done very little. Maybe I just think other people will be bothered by it. Of course someone will always be bothered, but most probably wouldn’t pay it much mind. It’s a given that if I don’t practice now, I won’t be able to play well later. There are also the problems with my neck to deal with; they are worse when I don’t practice well and regularly.

The laughter from up the hill is quieting down now and the rain is falling more steadily. My husband is napping so I don’t want to disturb him, so for now I’ll listen to the sound of rain and bask in the memories of summer music camps past, surrounded by musicians on similar quests, when all we have to worry about is music and the flute. But later, I will take my flute out and begin the comforting routine, drawing on the beauty and vitality of my surroundings to re-energize my musical spirit, and bring the music in me to life again.

Don’t Practice Bad Tone, or Everything is a Tone Exercise

Everyone wants to play with a terrific tone, right? We spend hours on ‘tone exercises,’ contorting our embouchures, trying to wrap our heads around the concept of breath support and how to make it happen, and agonizing over whether what we are doing is having any effect. Then we finish the tone exercise portion of our practice routine and promptly go back to practicing everything else the same old way with the same old sound that we are so dissatisfied with.

Here’s a little secret that can help you make a lot of progress in a short period of time, ready? Everything is a tone exercise! If you practice with the goal of making every note you play equally great, your consistency overall will improve and you will sound much, much better. If you are playing a scale and one note doesn’t sound as wonderful as the others, stop and practice it. Figure out what is making it sound different. Is it the air speed, air direction, change in embouchure, change in support, fingering bobble, etc?

As an example, for me the D and Eb in the staff have been sounding extra airy lately, so they really stand out (to me, anyway) when playing a scale or notes adjacent to them. These notes do have a special consideration because the left hand first finger is up, creating a hole in the flute tube. To even out the sound, I needed to increase the air speed just a little, to keep the air moving past that open hole and keep the flute tube vibrating. Problem solved, scales returned to being lovely and smooth, with all the notes sounding like they were coming out of the same flute, rather than sounding like an alien had taken over for a couple of notes.

If you don’t address these inconsistencies, thinking that one or two notes aren’t going to make that much of a difference, you are essentially practicing bad tone. No one needs to do that, we already know how to do that! Practice something new, ironing out those little inconsistencies. You might be surprised how much of a difference it makes, not just in how you think you sound, but in how others think you sound. And that will be: BETTER!