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Smart Practice

Patricia George | January 2012


   Flutists like everyone else wage a battle with time. With the turn of the New Year, resolutions are made, “I will practice every day. I will play scales and long tones. I will learn all the Andersen Etudes. I will memorize the Mozart Concerti. Etc, etc, etc.” Let’s be realistic. Are you really going to have more time this month to practice than last? Probably not. So, the resolution should be, “I am going to practice smarter.” 
   Smarter practice means you creatively organize practice sessions, plucking minutes here and there throughout the day, and when busy, select only the essential exercises to keep your playing in tiptop shape (maintenance practice). 

Relax and Separate Vocal Folds
   Relaxation is a key to great playing. Whether you practice yoga, swimming, karate, or just deep breathing, learn to relax quickly. Sometimes just turning off the lights and reclining on the floor for a few minutes will rejuvenate you for a good practice session. Short naps of 20 to 30 minutes are quite beneficial. 
   The goal when playing is to have the vocal folds separated on the intake and exhale of air. Pant quickly several times to experience what it feels like to have the vocal folds separated. Play exercises or repertoire in a one-inch chunk of notes followed by a rest. The breathing used when chunking is a slower version of panting. If the entire practice session is based upon panting and chunking, your tone will be open and free. This will make you sound and feel great when performing. 

   I do not know why exploring and practicing on the headjoint has been omitted from the flute pedagogical curriculum for so long. Other woodwind players spend hours refining their reed-making skills. If you ask any good oboist why he shaves some here and some there, he knows the answer. It may be to make the response of the reed better, improve intonation, or produce a more elegant timbre. However, flutists spend very little time exploring the headjoint. Many flutists do not even know where the sweet spot is in their headjoint or if their  headjoint predominantly has a quicker response versus a wide palette of colors. Time spent on the headjoint can answer these questions. And as a bonus, the headjoint is much lighter than the entire flute, so it is less tiring to practice with the headjoint alone than balancing the entire flute in your hands. 

Maintenance Exercises
   There are four areas of concentration to practice regularly on the headjoint: moving the air, articulation, vibrato, and embouchure flexibility. These quick exercises require only ten to twelve minutes of time, but produce the results similar to what is achieved after several hours of traditional practice. When practicing these exercises, hold each end of the headjoint with your thumb and index fingers. Keep all fingers away from the embouchure hole area.

1. Moving the Air (1 Minute) 
   Begin by playing a perfectly shaped note on the headjoint. It should have a clean attack (Thi). The air is fast at the beginning of the note, and the vibrato initiates with the attack. Use a tuner to check the duration or length of the note. If while blowing, you can keep the needle of the tuner still, the air is even. If the needle wiggles, concentrate on making the air speed even. Even air is a novel and useful concept for flutists. 
   Taper the end of the note slightly by making the aperture in the lips smaller while continuing to exhale the air. After a few notes hold the headjoint with the left thumb and index finger only. With your right hand, find the air stream of the spent air. Where you place the right hand will vary from one headjoint to the next because of the upper and undercutting of the embouchure hole. The air stream should be strong and the air moist. Experiment by blowing with a stronger column of air. Increased air speed often improves the overall tone quality. Air speed and the angle of the air are two important concepts to explore. 

2. Articulation (4 Minutes)
   For the first two minutes, practice articulation in chunks. For example, play one beat of any rhythm, followed by one beat of rest. For this exercise, alternate playing and resting. Use the following articulation strokes: Thi, Key, TK or TKT. Practice in both the lower and upper octaves (end of headjoint is open). 
   For the last two minutes, practice the “minute of tonguing” exercise. On the upper note, tongue four 16ths per beat for eight counts, followed by two counts of rest. Repeat this exercise eight times. In total, you will have tongued for over a minute. Use a metronome to increase the speed from day to day. 

3. Vibrato (3 Minutes)
   For the first minute play three breath attack notes followed by a rest (HAH, HAH, HAH, rest). Repeat this several times. Be sure there is no movement in the abdomen. Once each note is staccato and the same length, play one group of notes staccato and the next group slurred. Vibrato is produced in the vocal folds by slurring the breath attacks. Once again the body should be quiet. If there is movement in the abdomen, try playing the exercise pianissimo. 
   For the next two minutes play two, three, four, five or six counted vibrato on the lower note on the headjoint slurring to the same number of vibratos on the upper note. The lower note will be a flat A and the upper note will be a flatter A. Listen carefully to make the slur smooth and clean. 

4. Embouchure Flexibility (3 minutes)
   Stop the end of the headjoint with the palm of your right hand. In this position you will be able to produce three pitches (A4, E6 and C#7). Slur up and down these three pitches with two, three, four, five, or six vibrato per note. Work to achieve flexibility and ease when slurring. Think about the size of the aperture and the speed and angle of the air. Each flute will respond differently. The goal is to discover what works best on your headjoint. 

5. Watch TV
   If you find you are really stressed out, watch a thirty-minute television show that makes you laugh. Laughter is excellent for rejuvenating yourself after a tiring day. During each set of commercials, play the above exercises. Typically a thirty-minute show has eleven minutes of commercials so you will easily be able to complete this sequence of exercises and have a good time too. If this is all the time available to practice each day, you will not learn any new repertoire, but you will keep your basic skills at a high level.