Month: August 2016

Friendly Competition

Welcome to another Flute Friday/Saturday!

Competition 1

Every year during this time, high school and college-aged flutists return to various school ensembles to face the dreaded annual ensemble auditions. We all want to be first chair or the Piccolo Princes/Princesses of our bands and orchestras but often find ourselves in a rat race just to play 2nd flute (which can sometimes be more challenging than playing principal, might I add, but I will save that rant for a future blog). Competition can be fierce as our colleagues strategically select pieces and excerpts that will make them appear to be the strongest player on the roster. The pressure is on! Facing competition head on comes with the territory for most musicians and, like athletes, there are healthy and unhealthy approaches that will either enhance or weaken your position as a competitor. The bottom line is that the old cliché, “You are only truly competing against yourself,” still rings true, regardless of the contest scenario. Today’s blog is devoted to competition in all forms and ways that you may face the pressure cooker without necessarily succumbing to the pressure.

Competition 5

As I was watching the Olympics last week, I was fascinated by the different ways athletes from all over the world retain their composure under the glare of cameras and scrutinizing gazes from teammates, coaches and competitors. A perfect example of two very different ways to handle high pressure competition are from Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt. The meme seen across the world, Michael Phelps’ overly competitive death glare, as seen below, sent shivers of familiarity down spines of musicians far and wide from the Ghost of Competitions Past.

Phelps

Who hasn’t seen this glare from a close competitor or given this look themselves when so-and-so-flutist beat us out of an opportunity to play principal flute on a Beethoven symphony or was selected as the winner of a concerto competition that we placed a close second? What comes out of this angry effort? A psyche out for competitors? A ‘well deserved’ gold metal? What is gained professionally by using negativity to win competitions? Did we celebrate the victory of Michael Phelps in the same way we celebrated Usain Bolt? If Michael Phelps represented what not to do, Usain Bolt, by comparison represented the other side of that spectrum. In one of his final solo sprints, Usain Bolt shared a smile with his competitor from Canada as he crossed the finish line, finishing a close second ahead of the Canadian runner. Upon conclusion of the race, Bolt embraced his competitor and gracefully shared the spotlight. Usain Bolt thanked his fans and supporters with smiles and handshakes. He approached the track as a place to compete against himself and his own running time, not as a battleground to destroy his competitors.

Bolt

This is the way that we need to approach the stage. Perform at the edge of your ability. Showcase pieces that you love and play your heart out regardless of who is sitting on the other side of the room. Learn from your mistakes. If you are given second place or second part, ask yourself what you could have done better. Spend some quality time on fundamentals and examine how you interact with your colleagues. Learn from your competitors rather than scheme against them. What do you find inspiring about their playing? How can you incorporate elements that you like from their playing style into your own? Collaborate with them! Practice orchestral parts with your colleagues and pay attention to the difference between your approaches. What can you learn from each other? Is your Achilles heel simply your attitude rather than your playing? Keep in mind that an audition is essentially an interview. Put your best foot forward regardless of who is auditioning in the queue before or after you.

Competition 2

Another healthy way to approach any audition is to focus on the outcome. What types of pieces would you like to play and which parts would you like to be given if you could select the outcome of your audition? I realized in graduate school that the more I performed piccolo excerpts in the high/loud range (you know the ones I’m talking about! Rossini, Tchaikovsky, Lt. Kije, etc.), the more I was programed to play piccolo on the same type of pieces (Barber symphonies, etc.). In contrast, when I performed more lyrical works in flute auditions, I was often programed on lyrical pieces or given longer, melodic solos. With this in mind, select audition material that highlights your strengths but also somehow represents the types of pieces you would like to be featured on if selected for the ensemble.

Competition 3

Finally, a word about rotational seating. Many ensemble conductors far and wide have opted for a rotational seating model in their groups to give all of their strongest players an opportunity to perform principal parts (and alleviate the heavy lifting that sometimes occurs when a single performer is given all of the solos). The concept is a good one with many strong benefits, but it is a bit transparent to most players. There is always a show-stopper piece on each program that seems to go to one particular performer. I have made the mistake in the past of pouting in jealousy when I was not offered that part and instead took the principal parts I was given for granted. Learn from every part that crosses your music stand. Identify why you were given the part you were given. Is there a particular strength that your part showcases? Emphasize this during rehearsals and performances. Listen to the stronger players and identify their strengths. Again, identify what you find inspiring about their playing and incorporate that into your own. Help out the weaker players as well. Everybody can learn from everybody. Work as a team in any ensemble you play in and strengthen your playing both individually and collectively as a section.

Competition 6

Lastly , support your colleagues when they make a mistake rather than snicker. Snickering just invites in bad karma! When I was in the 8th grade, I was given an opportunity by my middle school band director to advance into the high school symphonic band. Unfortunately, this group was extremely competitive and did not like that a lowly middle schooler was encroaching on their turf. I often wished to return to my 8th grade band, but instead tried to learn what I could from the high school players surrounding me, whom were all amazing musicians. They snickered when the principal players made mistakes and even snickered when I made mistakes. I chose to rise above and use the experience to better my playing and strengthen my nerve. I began winning competitions and surpassing those snickering at my mistakes at regional and state competitions. The point of this story is that as I found ways to shrug off the haters and concentrate solely on strengthening my playing and overall approach to performing rather than sink into a petty, competitive, pointless abyss, I was transformed into a better musician. Follow this example and use competitions not as measures of your true ability but as opportunities to strengthen yourself as a performer.

Competition 7

How do you approach competitions? Do you find yourself developing arch enemies or working together with your colleagues? Do you have a story from your past in which a competition changed you as a musician. Please comment below!

 

Happy Fluting!

 

 

 

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Love at First Sight

Welcome to another Flute Friday. Hope all of your summers are winding down successfully and those returning to school are prepped and ready to go for an inspiring new school year.

Sight Reading 3

One of the most common weaknesses for any performer is the ability to sight read. Whether this is due to general, audition-induced panic or a lack of focus under pressure, many musicians struggle to retain their composure and musicality when faced with a piece of music they have never seen before. For many who struggle with this skill, poor sight reading performances may keep one from securing important chair placements, entrance into prestigious music programs, and higher scores in performance-based competitions. After years of trial, error, experience, and an incredible amount of research, I have compiled the following list of sight reading tips for those of you struggling with this skill. Sight reading skills do not necessarily make or break a musician but definitely give strong performers an important competitive edge over their contemporaries.

Learn your Key Signatures and Scales. This may be general practice advice, but it is very important to know how to identify all major and minor scales just by looking at the key signature and the first few notes. This will save you precious time figuring out which accidentals are likely to pop up in the music and which you know will be critical to the key of the piece. If you have an opportunity, warm-up by playing a single octave scale in the key of the work. This will help your brain anticipate the coming excerpt.

Sight Reading Keys

Pay Attention to Tempo Indications and Time Signatures. Another good general practice tip is to become comfortable playing in a variety of different time signatures. Make sure you know how to count the beat, how many beats are in a measure, and if there are any special tempo indications that will be helpful to you. I once auditioned for entrance into a very prestigious college music program and, although I played my prepared solos relatively well, I made a disastrous mistake misinterpreting the tempo of the sight reading excerpt that, without a doubt, cost me the audition. I had performed the excerpt twice as fast as it needed to be played and by the end of the work I realized too late that I was already familiar with the piece and had butchered it. Take the time to set the tempo in your head first before you begin to play.

Check for Any Complicated Rhythms. Adjudicators often test their strongest players by using sight reading examples that include tricky rhythms to see how well they can think on their feet under pressure. With that in mind, search for those “gotcha!” rhythms prior to beginning your sight reading example and work out quickly how to count these in your head. A good way to practice this ahead of time is by devising clever mnemonic devices for a variety of rhythms. The following chart has made its way around Facebook lately and it is a brilliant, simple, way to remember some basic and not so basic rhythms with clever word patterns:

Sight Reading Chart

Remember the Rests. Do not skip over shorter groups of rests out of nervousness. You must always count your rests. Take a moment to search for rests in the music and keep these on your radar as you perform. It is very easy to take rests for granted however sometimes the silence is the most difficult, yet most profound, part of the music.

Search for Repetitive Phrases or Common Patterns. Does the music repeat itself? Are there any commonplace scales or broken arpeggios? You can simplify the sight reading example by finding short cuts or patterns you already have underneath your fingers. Remember – music is often easier that it looks.

Sight Reading 5

Don’t Forget to Breathe. If you are anything like me, the first thing to go out the window under the stress of performance is breathing. Forgetting to breathe is detrimental to sight reading.  Taking a breath in an inappropriate place costs precious time and interrupts the flow of the beat. Quickly identify obvious places to breathe in your passage and take large enough breaths to last you longer than you anticipate. Be prepared for your breathing to weaken under pressure and use the moments before your performance to come up with a basic game plan. Sight Reading 2

Keep your Eyes Moving Forward. Instead of reading the notes you are playing as you play them, keep your gaze fixed on the notes in the upcoming measure and maintain this forward gaze as you perform the excerpt. The primary objective in sight reading is to keep the music moving no matter what. Looking forward will help you do just that.

What can you do to practice sight reading in your normal practice routine?

Set Aside 10-15 Minutes Per Day to Work on Sight Reading Skills. If you do not program a block of time to work exclusively on sight reading, you will likely procrastinate and come up with numerous excuses to avoid testing yourself (I have been there….it happens).

Open Up an Etude Book, Set the Timer, and GO! Etude books are great for working on sight reading skills because they are filled with short, technical excerpts in a variety of speeds and styles. Of course you should select an etude book that you have not studied or exercises you may have skipped over in other etude books to prevent a false sense of confidence at the end of your practice (you are trying to build up a skill, after all – no cheating!).

Sight Reading 1

Record Yourself Sight Reading. This is terrifying because you will need to be comfortable hearing yourself struggle through a passage. Get ready to hear yourself at your worst and look for ways to improve rather than kick yourself for not playing the correct rhythms or accidentals. Recording yourself helps you envision your sight reading practice as a real performance, complete with a clock ticking in the background. Speaking of the clock …. Set a timer. This is another way to make the sight reading exercise feel like a real performance and keep you on track.

Download and/or Purchase Principal Flute Parts to Major Symphonies for Sight Reading Excerpts. If you are preparing for an orchestra audition of any type (professional, community, school orchestra, etc.) you will no doubt be asked to sight read an excerpt from a standard orchestral flute part. You may find several First Flute parts available for purchase and download on Fluteworld.com or imslp.org. You may also simply exchange parts with friends in other orchestras or ask your director for a few parts he or she has used in previous sight reading tests.

Sight Reading 4
Finally, there are 2 very important “golden” rules to Sight Reading:

  1. Keep going no matter what!
  2. Brush off any mistakes. As Freddie Mercury reminds us, “The show must go on!”

How do you practice sight reading? Have any of the above approaches worked for you? Do you have a painful or successful sight reading experience that has helped you devise new ways to improve your sight reading skills? Please comment below!
Happy Fluting (and sight reading)!

Nose to the Grindstone

Welcome to a new Flute Friday/Saturday. Hoping all of you attending the NFA Convention in San Diego this weekend are having a blast and enjoying the beautiful California sunshine!

 Nose 1

As you may have noticed, it has been 2 weeks since I posted a blog and flute “Friday” has become an increasingly nebulous title.  I have had a bit of writer’s block recently and have felt creatively stuck in a rut. We all encounter those “what does it all mean?” moments now and then when we question the value of our time invested in various professional or creative endeavors. The outcome is generally a refocus of what is truly important to us or a weeding out of outdated or inefficient drains of energy. In my attempt to understand my present circumstances, I downloaded one of those cliché, change your life now!, audiobooks from Audible.com. On my morning walk the other day, I listened to the author explain a method of engaging left and right brain activities simply by practicing nostril breathing exercises. “This sounds made up,“ I thought to myself as I made my way to Starbucks for my daily cup of inspiration. Later that day I did a bit of research and discovered that there was some merit to this madness and that these practices could perhaps help musicians strengthen the ways we tackle different elements of practice and musical understanding.

 Nose 2

In a 1991 study conducted among 23 right-handed males, David Shannahoff-Khalsa found a correlation between nostril air intake and cognitive functioning on the opposite hemisphere of the brain. (Please see  https://www.researchgate.net/publication/21218159_The_Effects_of_Unilateral_Forced_Nostril_Breathing_on_Cognition for complete article text.) The nostril theory essentially suggests that if you breathe exclusively through your left nostril, you will activate properties associated with the right side of the brain and if you breathe only through the right nostril, you will activate the functions of the left side of the brain. The below chart beautifully illustrates the different operations falling under the left and right sides of the brain. Although music falls under “non-verbal information” in this chart, it is widely accepted that music actually utilizes both sides of the brain. How, you ask? As classical musicians, we process non-verbal information using numbers, notes and music theory which fall under the logical domain of the left hemisphere of the brain but also apply expressive, musical interpretation of those notes, therefore engaging the right side of the brain.

dyslexiabrain

Stop what you are doing right now and take a deep breath in through your nose. Which nostril are you dominantly breathing through? You may be breathing through both nostrils, but is one easier to breathe through than the other? I noticed right away on my morning walk that I was breathing predominantly through my right nostril which seemed to make sense as I was listening intently to the author on my audible recording and considering the logical implications that the nostril theory would have for musicians. I also noticed when I began to write this blog that I was easily distracted from my thoughts whenever my breathing was focused in my left nostril.

Nose 5

How can we use this knowledge to improve our study of music? I think we can use the nostril theory to monitor what our body is trying to tell us about our mind and focus our energies on the musical activities that will engage the corresponding hemisphere of the brain. For example, if you are struggling to keep a steady beat or consistent rhythm, try concentrating your breathing through your right nostril for 10-12 inhales to engage the logical left side of the brain. If you are working on a cadenza or an expressive solo work and struggling to find the correct inspiration, inhale through the left nostril for a few breaths and continue. Finally, keep track of the times of day that each of your nostrils dominate air intake. For example, I have found that my right nostril is quite active in the morning hours while my left nostril takes over in the evening. With this knowledge, I may reorganize my practice into two mini sessions each day, focusing on fundamentals in the morning session (such as scales, arpeggios and articulation exercises) and solo repertoire in the evening.

Nose 3

I am still in the experimental stages of this theory and will be applying nostril breathing methods to future practice sessions. I challenge all of you reading this to pay attention to your nostrils while you practice. Do you notice a difference in your playing when you are breathing through the left side vs. the right? Does breathing exclusively through your left nostril enhance your creative ability or help you interpret your music and a new way? I would be very curious to know how this theory works for other flutists and if there are ways we can expand on the nostril practice to enhance the music making process.

 Nose 4

Have you had any experience with this nostril theory? Which nostril do you find yourself predominantly breathing through? Do you agree with the nostril theory and how do you think we can use the theory to improve learning and practicing music? Please comment below!

 

Happy fluting!