I have always struggled with the concept of warming up. Exercises never excited me musically, and I found it difficult to stay focused while practicing through pages of scale patterns. If you had asked me to describe my routine in high school or college, I would probably have stared at you blankly. I thought I did not have one. Even after becoming a professional performer, I never felt I had a particular structure to my warmup routine. When I sat down to write this article, however, I realized that I had gotten myself wrong. Though my routine is constantly evolving to fit my musical needs and adapting to challenge my technical abilities, several exercises have played a critical role in who I have become as a flutist. Even more importantly, as I have grown as a musician, I have learned that my mental approach to exercises is just as important as the exercises themselves.
Any time you play the flute you are building habits. Any note you play can either contribute to a good or bad tendency. When I pick up my flute in the morning, I try to establish good habits from the first note. Even if my sound has not settled yet, or I cannot get the tonal focus I want, I never forget to keep my air moving forward and try to avoid letting my vibrato get too wide and slow. Sometimes it feels easier to play a low note with a slow, wide vibrato first thing in the morning, but if I do, it is more likely that I will start using this type of vibrato in my repertoire. Instead I try to keep the vibrato spinning tightly within the tone.
Focus and Variety
Every morning, I choose several aspects of my playing to work on. I am usually learning one to three programs for orchestra per week, so time is of the essence. Sound is most important to me, so even if I am working on a technical exercise, I play it with a beautiful sound and nice vibrato on every note. This way I never just work on one thing at a time. If you focus on always playing with your best sound in exercises every day, it becomes easier to have a consistent tone over time.
The following are exercises I might do, although I pick and choose among them depending on what I feel like I should work on. If I had a busy day the day before, I might primarily focus on slow sound work to give my hands a rest and make sure I am not pushing my tone. If I had a light day, I might spend a lot of time working on technique and pushing technical boundaries.
Vibrato is near and dear to my heart. For years I have struggled with it and with how and when I wanted to apply it. I have been every different type of flutist when it comes to vibrato. I have used very sparing vibrato. I have used slow and wide vibrato. I have used very fast narrow vibrato. I have used completely different vibrato on every note, and also the same vibrato speed on every note. Through all of this what I have come to realize is that no matter what your preference for vibrato is, you need to have full control over it.
Because of this I include a vibrato exercise in my warmup routine. My favorite vibrato exercise is very simple. Start with any note, put the metronome on 60, and vibrate one pulse per beat with as wide a vibrato pulse as possible. The speed of the vibrato should be quick and right on the beat – this is not a pitch bend; it should sound like one isolated vibrato pulse. Keep the vibrato from breaking the core of the sound. I do this by blowing the air down into the flute. It is a common mistake to vibrate over the top of the tone with your air instead of blowing the vibrato down into the instrument. This will also help the pitch from going too sharp and keep the sound focused no matter what speed of vibrato you use.
After perfecting one pulse per beat, I move on to two pulses per beat so that the vibrato is now in eighth-note pulses. I keep the pulses as wide and fast as possible while still blowing the air down. I then move on to triplets, sixteenth notes, and all the way up to groups of nine per beat. I love this exercise because it guides me through every possible speed of vibrato I will use in my playing and also helps me focus my sound. I change the note I use every day because the exercise is quite a bit different in every register. The high and low registers present their own particular challenges, which is why I never practice this exercise exclusively in the middle register.
For a long time, I have been unhappy with my technique in the high register, so this year I started practicing the first Taffanel et Gaubert exercise all the way up to the top of the instrument. I stole this technique from Les Roettges, a colleague at the Eastern Music Festival, when I heard him practicing before a rehearsal. I tried to play it too, and it was much harder than I would like to admit. Ever since then, I have added it to my daily practice. After a few weeks, I noticed a huge improvement in my high register fluidity and ease. Again, the most important part of this exercise is sound. I want my sound to be just as beautiful in the very high register as in the middle, and my vibrato should stay in the tone and not become forced or too slow.
Practice Your Weaknesses
Do not to ignore the things that are hardest for you. It sounds simple, but it is very easy to allow yourself to practice your strengths and ignore your weaknesses. It is much more fun for me to work on long tones because I have a nice sound and that is a strength for me. Forcing myself to play through finger exercises up to high F was brutal, but it has really paid off. I highly recommend pushing yourself out of your comfort zone in warmups.
Other technical exercises I have used are Taffanel et Gaubert numbers 8-13. I love these and have spent many months playing them every day, switching between numbers to keep them challenging. I love practicing them with all different articulation marks. Something that becomes easy with one articulation may feel like a totally different exercise when played with another. Broken arpeggios are great for focusing on legato and keeping technique as even and smooth as possible and fingers close to the keys. When I practice them staccato, I try not to add any extra tension into my hands and focus all the energy just on the tongue and air.
I would be remiss if I did not mention my all-time favorite warmup exercise: standard long tones. I put the metronome on 80 and play a chromatic four-note descending pattern. Each note gets two beats, and each beat has four vibrato pulsations. I play each group at a solid forte dynamic and repeat each four-note group for a total of eight notes.
I love this exercise because it sets up a nice standard vibrato speed that I can default to and also helps with breathing, pitch, tonal focus and many other things. For more variation, I have practiced long tones soft, loud, with crescendos and diminuendos. This exercise is the most essential part of my warm up routine.
When approaching my first half hour of playing, I always try to keep myself mentally engaged. I never do an exercise just to get through it. I find it helpful to inspire myself early in the day to have goals for the rest of my practice session. Staying inspired is difficult with a full-time job, so I save some time to play melodies I like. Recently I have been playing through Mark Sparks’ beautiful Strauss Nocturno arrangement. Gary Schocker’s A Gaspar is another piece that I play almost every day. It makes me feel at peace and reminds me of how much I love music. Every practice session should include something that you really want to play. Every time I play flute, I am building habits, and one of them is to have a good mental relationship with music and my instrument. Even when I am practicing exercises, I try to play them in a way that inspires me to think about beauty, sound and why I love what I do.