Greetings and welcome to a new Flute Friday!
I have been working on a book for well over three years now. A majority of this time was also devoted to a full-time day job, which made finding time to practice in between these, and all of my other life responsibilities, quite difficult. As I begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel in the form of a rough draft of my book, I can begin to find my way back to regular flute practice. Optimistic? Yes. Intimidated? Also, yes. I am like an athlete that has traded in burpees for burgers – Completely out of shape and in need of some newfound practice motivation. My story is not unique. Many of us, for one reason or another, fall off of our flute practice routines and struggle to get back on the horse. We need a plan to get back to our full flute playing awesomeness (or at least a few tips to help us get back on track). In today’s blog, I will discuss some of my best advice on how to get back into flute playing shape. The road ahead may be long and filled with lions and tigers and bears (oh my), but with a bit of optimism and a plan, we can all find our way back to the Emerald City of our flute playing.
GETTING BACK INTO FLUTE PLAYING SHAPE
First things first – Schedule a clean, oil, and adjust (COA) for your instrument. Fighting an uphill battle with an instrument that has fallen into a state of disrepair is like strapping 10-pound weights to your ankles before climbing 20 flights of stairs. Totally avoidable. Fix those leaky pads and troublesome keys. Make your flute play perfectly before you dive into regular practice routines again.
Block out specific practice times in your weekly schedule and commit fully to those practice times. That means no phones, no TV, no internet, no distractions of any kind (unless emergencies, of course). Find a place where you will not be interrupted and bring only the exercises and repertoire that you intend to practice for that session. It is very easy (and tempting) to pull up an old, easy favorite that you love but that does not necessarily challenge you. Getting back into shape also means getting out of your comfort zone.
Build up practice durations slowly. You don’t need to begin with a grad school 4 hours per day. In fact, that is the best way to burn out and burnout will likely lead you to abandon ship for Netflix and wine. Start with 10 minutes. Then 20 minutes. Then 30 minutes. Once 30 minutes is comfortable, practice 30 minutes every day for a week before upping your routine to 45 minutes. This makes practicing seem totally doable and not a huge commitment when you are starting back up after a break.
Keep a practice journal. No, I don’t mean just a list of how much you practice each day (like we all did in middle school for our band directors). Keep an actual notebook on your music stand with your goal(s) for the day, things to work on, ideas that spring up while you are practicing, what you are struggling with, what you enjoy, and any wins you have during your session.
Set a single challenging, yet achievable, goal for each practice session. Note that I said a single goal – not 40 different goals. This will help keep you focused during your session and help build back your skills gradually. More than one goal may be overwhelming and, if you are a perfectionist (like myself), not achieving every goal on your list may be discouraging during an already discouraging time. Start small yet realistic.
Meditate before each practice session. I know what you are thinking: Why be a buzzkill with a meditation before jumping into some Taffanel and Gaubert? Remember that embarking on a new daily routine will activate your inner critic who will no doubt tell you lies like, “you are too out of shape,” or “how did you let this happen??” or “you will not get back to your former glory.” Uhm, SHUT IT, inner critic! A simple guided meditation for 5-10 minutes will help clear your mind and give your inner critic a time out. Perfect way to start your session with a positive growth mindset. Remember, you are building your skills back (better than before!), not simply hopping into a musical time machine.
Start with technique. I know – It sounds crazy. What about long tones??? What about scales?? Don’t worry – they’re next! This is a bit of a mind trick and some clever musical motivation. Find your etude books and play through various exercises from a couple of mid-range difficulty collections. The Karg Elert 30 studies, Op. 107 or the Furstenau Grouping of Keys are good options, but you may select others that better fit your ability and skill level. Technical exercises will work out your fingers muscles and help your brain remember standard melodic patterns such as scales and arpeggios. This is your starting point. You will be able to identify exactly what your limitations are now and energized by the new challenges that technical studies provide. If an exercise is too difficult, find an easier one and work up to the more challenging etudes. Be patient with yourself and use this time to identify clear future goals.
Next, move on to harmonics. Harmonics are great for reconstructing your low register from scratch. There are a number of great etude books on the market that dive deep into harmonic exercises (future blog topic FYI) but as you are just starting back up the best ones to practice are those on page 6 of the Trevor Wye Practice Book on Tone. Simple, straightforward, easy to memorize. Make these a part of your daily warm-up routine and your low register will be in great shape in no time!
Long tones – Start with the middle register. Playing in the middle register requires less work from your embouchure, which you will be strengthening back up gradually. Again, Trevor Wye’s Practice Book on Tone is a great resource because it contains separate sections for the low, middle, and high registers. Once you’ve spent some time refining your middle register, move on to the low register exercises (if you’ve been practicing your harmonics on the daily, this register should be sounding good and ready to work more closely on). Save your high notes for later – these require more gymnastics from your embouchure.
Octaves. Once your long tones are in good shape and your harmonics are kickin’, add a few octaves to your daily routine. Start on a low G and make your way to a middle G, high G, and higher G, and back down before moving chromatically up the chain to a G#. Remember to let your embouchure do the hard work and avoid relying on your air to play in higher registers.
Redefine your vibrato. After taking time away, your vibrato may be all over the place. Add some simple vibrato exercises to your daily routine. My favorite exercise was taken from a Keith Underwood masterclass in my youth and is as simple and as useful as they come. Begin with a middle/high range B natural and descend chromatically for four notes (B natural, Bb, A, Ab), placing 8 beats of wide vibrato on each note. Then begin again on a Bb and follow the same patten descending chromatically four notes, but this time with 7 beats of vibrato on each note. Repeat starting on an A with 6 beats of vibrato, Ab with 5 beats of vibrato, G with 4 beats of vibrato, and Gb with 3 beats of vibrato each. Start again with 8 beats of vibrato on F and continue the same pattern into the low register. Really listen to your vibrato and work to create a vibrato that is integrated into your sound rather than one that sits on top of the sound.
Become better friends with Taffanel and Gaubert’s 17 Daily Exercises (especially Exercise #4). This is the best exercise to play to redevelop your articulation chops again. Start with slurs only so your fingers know where they are going. Then practice your “too”s (single tonguing), both tenuto (connected) and staccato (short). Next, move on to your “coo”s to strengthen the back of the tongue. Finally, practice your “too-coo”s (double tonguing) on all of the scale patterns. Make this a daily habit (they are called “daily” exercises, after all).
Schedule days to focus only on intonation. Why? Because working on intonation is frustrating (let’s be honest). Schedule periodic days where you patiently work with your tuner on intonation. What are your natural tendencies for each note? How can you counteract these tendencies (ex. aiming your air differently, using more/less air, etc.)? Be patient with this process. Mastering intonation is tricky but an essential part of flute playing.
Add improvisations to the end of each practice routine. As you are packing your music up at the end of your routine, spend a couple of minutes improvising. Play from your heart. This is what music is all about anyways! Walter White has created some very fun tracks to improvise along with if you need a little improv inspiration: https://walterwhite.com/product-category/wwshop/walterwhitelongtoneaccompaniment/. I highly recommend these if you are new to improvising or just want to make it a bit more fun.
Record yourself. I know it is intimating. Recordings are mirrors for your ears that you may not want to look into. But listening to yourself on play back is the best way to identify things you can work on (and even things you don’t even know you are doing). If it is scary, keep it short in the beginning – a couple minutes here and there. Once you are comfortable analyzing your sound on an audio recording, move onto video recordings using your smart phone’s camera. This will give you even more information about how your posture changes when you play and if you are holding yourself in ways that may be detrimental to your flute playing.
Dig out those old lesson notebooks and look for great gems of advice from your past teachers. You saved these, right? There may be a few very helpful tips buried in there that you completely forgot about. Or reoccurring tendencies in your playing that you can work on now before you fall back into bad habits. Learn from the past!
Set some performing goals. Okay – don’t freak yourself out at the beginning. The beginning is for restructuring your fundamentals and technique. But as you become more comfortable with the practicing process, add a couple of short term and longer-term performance goals to your radar. Perhaps you’d like to perform a recital in 6-8 months or audition for a local orchestra in the Fall and a not-so local orchestra come Spring. Write down your goals and anticipated deadlines. What are the action steps needed to make these into reality? Take the first step!
Watch and and listen to the pros. Spend some time on YouTube watching performances from your favorite professional performers. What can you learn from them? How do they make seamless tone color changes? What does their articulation sound like? Can you emulate it? What are they playing? Is there a great new piece that you could add to your repertoire? Take notes.
Attend free (or nearly-free) online masterclasses. These are great for gathering new ideas from the pros, often for a very nominal fee! These also provide good opportunities to ask questions from the experts and connect with other flutists in the chat box. The Chicago Flute Club features many of these types of masterclasses in the Fluting with the Stars Series: https://www.chicagofluteclub.org/page-18172
Take a couple of lessons from professional flutists. These can be formal lessons or not-so formal get-togethers (for example, if you are already at a professional level, you may ask another professional flutist to listen to you perform an etude or piece of repertoire and request some honest yet constructive feedback). Private teachers can help give you some great advice and help you with any specific challenges you may face. They are also great at suggesting ways to structure your practice routine to best work for your individual needs.
Look for new fundamental exercise books. There are new etude books published every day! Once you are comfortable with your good, old standards, look into newly published books to freshen up your routine. Check out Flute World for some great new options or simply spend some quality time on Google. Or, you know, email me for suggestions (of course)!
Speaking of adding something new to your routine, find a new interesting piece to work on. Working on a new piece is a great challenge and adds a bit of newness to your routine. Flute boredom is cancelled! Listen to a few recitals on YouTube or out in the world for some great new ideas or hit up your local flute community for some recommendations.
Always celebrate your wins! As you make progress, reward yourself for any wins. This could be mastering a new piece, performing an audition, or recording a video of your playing from start to finish. Rewards could be new flute accessories or concert tickets to a local orchestra. Whatever motivates you to achieve your goals!
Have you fallen off your flute practice routine? What techniques help you get back to your best flute playing life? Are there any tips listed above that work well for you? Are there any missing from this list? Please comment below!
Happy fluting (and practicing)!