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Pick a Letter

Cynthia Ellis | February 2015


    Pick a letter, any letter, and see how a collection of words beginning with that letter can be inspiration for your practicing and performances. I selected the letter C.

    It sounds basic, but turn off the computer, iPad, and phone and get away from any distractions in your environment. This would include text messaging as well, which is just as distracting as a phone conversation. If your practice room has a window, perhaps turn away from it if you become distracted by passersby.

Calm Your Mind
    I find mental chatter can be really difficult to turn off at times, so when I face this, I write down my thoughts, and then I can be done with them. Another great habit that I learned from a sports psychologist is to touch a spot in the room and symbolically leave all your worries and distracting thoughts there at that place. Then you are free to touch the same spot on your way out the door, symbolically picking up your worries once again after you have finished your practice session.

Create a Plan
    Goals in practice sessions are very useful. For example, if you only have 45 minutes in between classes, try to work on a specific etude or choose two excerpts that need your attention. Further, decide which aspect of your playing you are going to improve upon, be it dynamics, articulation, or simply working on finger technique goals with a metronome. Try going up one metronome marking, say from 104 to 108, with no stumbles. Making a small but attainable goal will leave you with a feeling of accomplishment when you are short on time. Longer practice sessions must be planned out as well, including breaks for stretching and relaxation. Listening to recordings with a score gives me a break from the physical work, but I am still in the zone to get some work done.

    If you are getting frustrated, change something, even if it is your mindset. I see countless Facebook posts from students who are angry at the world because their practice session is not going well. Don’t get mad. Get smart, and try something different. Relax, breathe, analyze, and find a new approach for the same problem. Most frustration happens because we are working in the same way and expecting different results. 

Constructive Criticism
    Use only constructive criticism in your internal dialogue as well. Remember that you would not teach a student by swearing and yelling at them, so don’t use that approach on yourself either. Telling yourself that you sound terrible is not going to help you improve. Instead tell yourself what to change in order to sound better. Remember, your subconscious will listen to the negative chatter that you foolishly think is productive and will believe it.

    Center your tone. With the piccolo, tonal control is essential. Remember to place the piccolo slightly higher on the lower lip than you place the flute since the instrument itself is smaller. Also, if your aperture is off-center, remember to locate the piccolo at the center of the aperture, even if it is off to the side a little bit. The corners are firm but never pulled back tightly (it should never feel like a smile). If you say the word pure and notice that the eyeteeth are in contact with the lips near the corners, this will give you some stability. The center of the lips comes forward as if you were blowing a kiss to someone across the room, creating a space bubble over the top teeth. Try not to pull the top lip down tightly over the teeth, as this will result in a pinched tone. Likewise, tension might create a buzzing sound if the lips are pressed together (like a brass player or the Bronx cheer). If this happens, you will need to create a larger aperture by opening up a tiny bit more. It is best to practice the piccolo up to E3 until it is stable and reliable before going all the way up to the highest notes of the instrument. Build the stability first and then build the range.

    Create consistency in all elements of your practice. Mark your breaths, and take them as you marked them. I hear lots of students who make a last minute decision to ignore planned breathing spots, only to produce disappointing results. What is the first thing we do when we make a mistake? We stop. So if you ignore a breath and feel short on air, your tricky brain might just create a distraction – a mistake, to get you to stop and breathe. So once you have made these decisions based upon phrasing and musical needs, stick with the breathing plan. It goes without saying you should maintain consistency in technical areas. Build a good foundation with good practice habits, and you will be consistent. In fact, try to be a consistent person in general. Be on time, be reliable and be pleasant to all colleagues in ensembles. These building blocks of professional behavior need practice also.

    It takes courage to play the piccolo. You are a soloist in the band or orchestra. Do not try to hide the high notes but soar on top of the ensemble’s sound. As you get confident with your role in the group, you will be able to crown the group with a tonal luminosity. Never try to force the tone through the tutti.

    Take command of alternate fingerings as they are helpful in so many circumstances. The piccolo is its own instrument, and there are several basic fingerings that flutists would never really consider using that are essential to the piccolo for intonation and clarity of sound.

    Captivate your listeners with your innate creativity by playing with flair. The piccolo’s role is one of great duality: soaring on top of the tutti and playing as a soloist. When you play as part of the group, it helps to match everyone or slightly exaggerate articulation as you are the top voice of the pitch ladder. As a soloist, piccolo players should step outside their comfort zone and strive to create great beauty. Many times students believe they are making a crescendo, but when they listen to a recording of their playing, they hear that it is indeed missing. I love to use the analogy about stage makeup. If you have ever seen an actor after a performance wearing their makeup, it looks grotesque in the normal light of day, but it appears just fine from the stage. Sometimes piccoloists might feel like they are exaggerating, but it is only to get that idea across the stage to the audience.

    Lastly, celebrate the small victories of your practice. Did you reach the tempo on that etude? Savor that moment and do a little happy dance in the practice room as you are all alone. Did you play that phrase exactly as you had heard it in your head? Smile about that and decide that taking risks is worth it for this kind of result. Don’t forget that rewards, even tiny ones, make all the work in the practice room worthwhile.

    As the popular phrase Keep Calm and Carry On implies, do continue the good work of building your piccolo skills so that you enjoy the forward momentum created by consistent practice. Each week pick a different letter and continue an exploration of vocabulary to center your practice.