Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Tips for creative practice

I spent last week travelling around the state of Montana giving master classes, generously sponsored by Altus flutes and the Montana Flute Association, then went home for long enough to swap dirty for clean clothes before hitting the road again to run University of Wyoming's 6th annual flute festival. One of the most salient features of my classes in every location was the need for more specific and varied practice techniques. In fact, with all-state and all-Northwest auditions coming up, I even gave a 45-minute class on the subject at a couple of schools! It's what we spend the majority of our practice time doing: learning to control the instrument and make technique easy and predictable on stage. The poetry only comes after we have mastered our vocabulary words--in this case, correct notes, rhythms, dynamics, etc., all done with beautiful tone. I still feel like I'm improving upon this, and I still enjoy swapping practice room pointers with colleagues and students. Here are some of my indispensable habits; readers, I encourage you to add to this list in the comment section below!

For the class on how to practice creatively for efficiency and to alleviate boredom, and I used a scale as a model for applying each practice technique so that the whole group could play it together. I wrote a B-flat major scale in 16th notes on the board as a reference, and then we talked about (and play together) all of the following:

1. super slow, with big, fat sound and a thick air column, keeping track of keeping fingers close to keys, etc. Play it like a super-Romantic,sappy love song.

2. Metronome on quarter note downbeat, 8th note downbeat, and then moving each of those two pulses to the upbeat. This keeps forcing us to prioritize different notes within beamed groups. Great for correcting the tendency to rush between downbeats.

3. Practice rhythms (the usual dotting, but also re-beaming to make sixteenths into triplets, etc.)

4. Change articulations (including taking it out)

5. Identifying the note that first makes you stumble in a technical passage, make what I call a "problem note sandwich": practice a small chunk of notes repetitively starting from the problem note with only one preceding and following note on either side, then add one more note from the pattern on either side, etc.

Then we talk about how many reps to do (10 perfect repetitions without errors or loop with the stopwatch for 1 minute daily) and wrap it up with a discussion about recording yourself regularly to "check in" and stress test application and concentration skills.

Here are a few other tricks I like to use:

For rhythm/articulation problems: play the entire passage on one note

For technique: rough analysis of the composition (identify scales, arpeggios, etc.)

For tone: cracking--slurred breath attacks; freeze on problematic note; for a tight high register,play down an octave; to alleviate tight throat or lack of air flow due to any other reason, sing and play

General note familiarity: play backwards, find the skeletal line

Sing a phrase: notice how you use your air to push through to the goal note, how relaxed you are internally, what the resonance feels like on each pitch in your throat, how you use your vibrato and where you are producing it.  Now copy that sound (when you like it) onto your flute.

Making phrases musical: Choose one goal note per phrase, put a * over it, and make everything go towards are away from that. sing as described above.

Side view of part of the mass flute choir at flute day

At University of Montana

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Back to School Inspiration

I'm a few weeks late, but I hope this can still provide some inspiration for my students and others! 

Welcome back: you career starts now!

As a music major in college, you’re not just a student trying to better yourself-- you have embarked upon a rigorous program of professional training. And we keep you very busy during those college years, prescribing intense course loads and applying high expectations to your musical development.  It’s easy to momentarily lose sight of the reason you chose to study music in the first place, but you can take charge of your own direction (and happiness)! Just remember these things...

PRACTICE FLEXIBLE THINKING EVERY DAY Your new flute teacher just told you to do something completely different from what you learned in high school? Dedicate yourself to this new idea wholeheartedly and with faith in your teacher. If it doesn’t work for you, you’ll both know it and can make adjustments, but you’ll never really know if you don’t thoroughly test the new technique. You were first chair in all-state band four years in a row and now you’re at the bottom of the heap in your studio? Embrace the opportunity to learn from your older, more experienced peers and be inspired by all that the people in your studio have accomplished--you will become a leader, too, in time. Be always open to new ideas and ready to learn from other people.  Not just now, but forever. 

DEVELOP MEANINGFUL RELATIONSHIPS Let your teachers get to know you so that they can be the best mentors possible. Your relationship with your mentors can (and should!) last a lifetime. Be a good colleague to your classmates. Seek out classmates who inspire you and cultivate musical friendships. Your classmates today will be your colleagues in the future.

LEARN THE ART OF TIME MANAGEMENT When I was a student, I thought that my schedule was artificially crazy.  I was sure that when I graduated and was more “in charge” of my own schedule, life would be much more manageable. I was so wrong. The the lost time that goes into attending classes and doing homework as a student has merely been replaced by other things, like emergency coachings of student ensembles at 10pm, long drives to gigs, developing and updating self-promotional materials and acting as my own business manager, and much more.  It’s all stimulating work and keeps life exciting, but you can easily lose track of the hours and neglect certain responsibilities, like (ahem) practicing.  Learn now to account for your time down to the last minute so that you can practice sufficiently every day, even if it’s broken up into lots of small units of time, and don’t forget to

TAKE YOUR CLASSES SERIOUSLY  Your music theory and history classes are making you a better, smarter musician and teacher. Take general-credit classes (those much-bemoaned “gen eds”) that interest you and might feed into your career goals. And even when you can’t see the point in a class, take it seriously and get an A. If you’re planning on going to graduate school, that high GPA will put you at the top of the list for scholarships and assistantship consideration.

TACKLE CHALLENGES HEAD-ON If you know that you suffer from performance anxiety, make sure you are forcing yourself to perform regularly to become more comfortable on stage. When you’re in the practice room, don’t waste time playing the things you already know; tackle the tough passages systematically and thoroughly so that you have conquered the piece entirely.  Making yourself uncomfortable leads to incredible growth; avoiding challenges leads to absolutely nothing.

FIND YOURSELF The musical community is becoming a more creative, dynamic place.  Never before have there been so many opportunities to develop your own path as a music entrepreneur. Explore every opportunity you are offered and get to know the different paths you could take (or create for yourself!) as a musician. By the time you’re looking at graduate schools, you should have an idea of your particular strengths and special interests as a musician to help guide you in the next steps. If you go on to teach in the public schools, your diverse experiences will give you a wealth of ideas and techniques for keeping your students engaged and in love with music.

STAY POSITIVE  It’s easy to get bogged down in the minutiae of day-to-day assignments, lectures, and all of the less inspiring requirements of the degree. Don’t let it take all of your energy--it kills morale and creative thinking. Make time to dream about your future, and practice creative thinking every day; try to think of a problem or flaw in some part of your life and imagine all the different ways in which you could fix it.  You’ll train yourself to see the world this way, and you’ll never run out of inspiring ideas to fuel your career.

SEEK INSPIRATION Surround yourself by positive, talented people who are doing exciting things. Listen to great players and attend guest lectures and master classes given by people who amaze you. Be aware of how you fill your free time and assess what it’s doing for you. For instance, I have found that browsing Facebook seems to sap my energy and deplete ambition. Conversely, checking to see the latest projects my musical heroes are posting on YouTube or their personal websites makes me want to do something great. Be honest with yourself: what makes you excited to be alive? Keep doing that. You are in charge of your own motivation to create, practice, and keep getting better.

SAY YES Beyond the incredible flute studio that you have chosen to be a part of, your school will offer you a wealth of opportunities to enrich yourself. Hear the lecture given by that Nobel Prize-winning scientist across campus this semester. Go to any and all faculty and guest recitals, regardless of instrument. Make a habit of attending the local art museum regularly, and see your classmates’ art shows. And when you’re invited to participate as a flutist in some weird and wacky way as part of another’s creative endeavor, do it! Allow your university and its surrounding community to amaze you every day.

A good student diligently completes every assignment with purpose and clarity; an inspiring artist also looks to wring every last drop of life from his or her surroundings. Make the most of your time in college by thinking creatively and fully exploring your opportunities. Not just now, but for the rest of your life.

Nicole Riner ©2016

Sunday, September 4, 2016


Hello friends! Over the years I have shared my thoughts in scattered ways across the internet and print media; I thought it was time to collect everything that might prove useful in one place for ease of use.  I look forward to creating a dialogue with you all about topics relevant to flutists of all ages (practice tips, pedagogical topics, literature and recording reviews, etc.) and sharing news about upcoming performances and publications. You can plan on posts once or twice a month, and I welcome your suggestions on topics you'd like to see covered here.

I am currently preparing for a short tour of Montana with performances September 19-21.  My schedule is here; I am grateful for the invitation by the Montana Flute Association and generous sponsorship from Altus Flutes. It will be my first time in the state and I cannot wait for all the photo ops!  You can check back at the end of the month to review my shaky, inept instagram shots.

Please visit my website for full bio, recording samples, and other projects I currently have going.

Thanks for reading!

: )