A Flute Talk reader recently wrote asking me to write about motivation. I am assuming he meant lack of motivation to practice. The lack of motivation is an issue for us all at one time or another. A well-known professional musician was asked to take a talented young musician as a student. His response, “No, I have enough trouble motivating myself each day.”
Set a Practice Time
Failure to practice is often due to a lack of a designated practice time each day rather than a lack of motivation. Most students like to play and practice the flute, however, the events of the day are also exciting and time consuming, and it is easy to get to the end of the day without finding time to practice. Doing something with others is also more inviting than doing something alone. For adults, practice sessions may be on the agenda, but other projects or family responsibilities occur leaving little time for flute work. Setting a specific time each day will help you remember to practice. Rather than setting one longer time, explore the idea of setting several shorter twenty to twenty-five minute sessions throughout the day. This may work better with your schedule, and research shows that this produces better results based on peoples’ ability to concentrate. Practice five or six days a week. It is beneficial for your mind and body to have some time off. (This should be guilt-free time off.)
Find a location to practice where it is quiet, and you will not be disturbed. This means no phone or television. It does not have to be a glamourous practice studio. For years, I practiced in the basement while I did laundry in the morning before I went to the university. It worked well because all of my music was in filing cabinets in the basement, and anything I needed was at hand. In addition to getting my practicing done, I always had clean laundry. The chart below is a practice routine that my students dubbed The Laundry Routine. It uses the Taffanel et Gaubert 17 Big Daily Exercises. The goal is to complete this in 25 to 30 minutes. Vary your approach to these exercises. Think about what your playing needs and practice those things.
If this is too much material for your current level, slow down and stay on the Monday exercises for a longer period of time before going on to the other days. Everything does not have to happen right away. The goal is to have it happen one day.
The exercises covered in this plan is the theoretical material that all professional flutists should have in their brain and fingers. Many professional flutists have commented that when they arrived at the conservatory, they felt their technique was lacking in some way. Most spent five or six months where they studied nothing except these exercises. This material makes up about 95% of all music. In a sense by mastering it, you are learning much of the repertoire.
Lack of motivation is a cousin to boredom. When practicing this material, vary your approach. The goal is to lay a foundation of great flute playing which encompasses good posture, excellent breathing and blowing habits, independence of air stream from the fingers, an even technique, and of course a beautiful sound. In the Taffanel et Gaubert there are articulation projects at the top of each page. Start with these and create your own. The more creative you are, the more engaged your brain will be. The more engaged your brain, the better the outcome.
When I was studying with Julius Baker, he remarked, “To make it professionally today, you need to be able to play the T&G at mm = 144.” Now I would say the tempo has moved up to 200. You will not achieve this in a day or a week, so be patient. Start each week chunking by beamed notes (four or six notes) to improve reading skills and motor coordination. Alternate slurring everything one day and single, double, or triple tongue the next. Practicing everything with the HAH (breath attack) will improve vibrato control.
Any exercise played slowly enough can become a tone/vibrato exercise. Practice putting 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6 vibrato cycles on each note. Practicing with the metronome and a tuner will help you determine things to concentrate on and improve. You are your own best teacher, so use your brain and ears to develop your skills. Record your practice at least one day per week and play it back in the car when you are running errands. Listening is part of practicing too.
Often when trying to become motivated, we set goals that are too ambitious. This reminds me of going to a buffet where all the foods look amazing. Rather than selecting one or two items, we take a little of this and a little of that and suddenly we have a plate that is overflowing with food. Don’t let your practice plate become unmanageable, or you will never practice because it will seem there is simply too much to do. Start small and then as you progress, add more.
Many great players have shared that once a year they go back to square one in their playing. This means starting over like a beginner and rethinking everything. I have done this for years using some of the great treatises of our time such as Heinrich Soussmann’s (1796-1848) Complete Method, Joseph Henri Altes’ (1826-1899) Mèthod Complète de Flûte, and Paul Taffanel’s (1844-1908) Method Complete. I begin on page one and read and play the exercises as if it were my first time learning this material. The only difference is that I have been playing the flute now for many years, so I can easily read and finger the notes and play the correct rhythms with a pleasing sound. My goal this time through is to reread any instructions and insights these flutists have shared and to play this material as perfectly and beautifully as I can. I focus especially on the attack, connections from one note to the next, intonation, and musical line. The music in the early parts of the volumes is easy which means all my flaws are easily detected. It can be depressing, but I know from past experiences that this is a way to get to the next level of performance and to rejuvenate my motivation for practicing and performing.
I also like to read books by flutists that share teaching philosophies and practice habits. If I can get one new idea, then the reading for the day is worth the effort. One of my favorites is Carmine Coppola’s A Manual of Flute Instruction: Especially designed for the school music teacher as well as for private teachers and for self-instruction. The book, published in 1975 by Carmit Music Company and distributed by Charles Hansen Distributor, is a 64-page volume sharing Coppola’s life story as first flutist in the Detroit Symphony and NBC-Toscanini Symphony and also as a conductor and composer on Broadway. He also contributed the music to the Godfather, Part II movie directed by his son Francis Ford Coppola. Besides some charming photos of famous conductors Coppola performed with, there are excellent exercises to improve vibrato, embouchure flexibility, dynamic design, breathing, articulation, special fingerings, and a listing of graded literature. From Coppola’s writing you can tell he was an excellent flutist and musician. He writes, “I cannot emphasize the importance and value of the scales, thirds, and sixths in all keys; they will provide the necessary foundation for a good tone, intonation, and control of breath and technique.”
Another book I recently discovered is James Pappoutsakis: His Artistry and Inspired Teaching by Nina Barwell. One of my classmates at Eastman had been a high school student of Pappoutsakis, so I knew something about his life and teaching. Pappoutsakis was assistant principal flute of the Boston Symphony, principal flute of the Boston Pops (1937-1977), and flute professor at the New England Conservatory. According to Barwell, his approach to flute playing can be traced back to the French Flute School of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and especially to the teachings of Paul Taffanel.
The book begins with a half-step tone exercise which Pappoutsakis calls Matching Tones. The goal is to develop homogeneity throughout the range. He instructs “Use the correct fingerings and always play with excellent tone quality. Play evenly with absolutely strict rhythm.” There is a section on how to practice trills and another on practicing scales for legato playing. In practicing scales, he suggests, “Let the intonation be your guide. It will give you the exact angle for the best focus for low notes. You could say good low notes through intonation. If you let your ear be your guide for playing in tune, it is easy to hear if you are in tune or out of tune. You will arrive at the proper position or blowing angle. Use the lips and jaw to help direct the column of air into the flute.” On articulation, he instructs, “Say tu in the French manner, which has the tongue forward in the mouth and the lips puckering forward. Remember that it is the combination of the air stream and the withdrawal of the tongue from the palate that produces the articulated note…Blow strongly and tongue lightly!” Other good books for inspiration include Michel Debost’s The Simple Flute: From A to Z, Roger S. Stevens’ Artistic Flute: Technique and Study, and Thomas Nyfenger’s Music and the Flute.
Motivation to practice is an ongoing struggle for flutists of every level. However, an upcoming concert or job keeps most of us committed to daily practice sessions. In your practice diary, make a special section especially for motivation tricks that work for you. Next time you are in a slump, you will have some good ideas ready to go.
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1. Always have something on your stand that you love to play. This will be the last thing you play before you put your flute away for the day. Looking forward to this treat will help you through the less enjoyable tasks. And yes, some tasks are definitely less interesting but are still equally important.
2. Keep a practice diary. Assess what you want to accomplish. Make a plan – one for six months out, one for a month out and one for a week out. Write goals at the beginning of the practice session and comments at the conclusion of the session. The entries need not be long; in fact a simple comment or observation will help you begin your next session. Write any major discoveries you make during your practice session so you will remember them forever.
3. Find a practice friend and once a week play scales together before moving on to duets. Another pair of ears is always a good idea. If you hear your friend doing something you like, ask how he or she does it. Sharing ideas about flute playing is great for both parties. When I was in conservatory, the applied flute majors practiced four to six hours a day. In the evenings, several of us would gather in a practice room and play what we had worked on during the day. Since these students had come from various teachers, the comments offered were a smorgasbord of ideas. Many were things I had never thought about. They stayed with me in my practice, and I was richer because of them.
4. Practicing also includes score study, listening projects, and attending masterclasses and concerts.
5. Play with CDs. Play your repertoire with as many flute recordings as you can find. Playing with another flutist on a CD is like walking in another flutist’s shoes. Orchestral parts are an excellent option. Flute parts can be downloaded at www.imslp.org. Many of the pieces also have recordings on this site.