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



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