Wendy Webb Kumer
It is the dead of winter, the days are short and inspiration for practicing is waning. What can you do to motivate yourself? My first reaction is avoidance. Then, quickly on the heels of avoidance comes the desire to Netflix binge, plan lunch dates with friends, curl up with a good book, or purge closets for donations. However, musicians are compelled to play, so here are some ideas to keep your flute playing fresh during a gap in the performance calendar.
Make sure your flute is in good working condition. Then, brighten your practice space with plenty of light. Bring in more lamps, candles, or anything that chases away the dull gray of winter. Keep your music stand up and put your flute on a peg (covered with a scarf when not in use to keep the dust off the keys). The simple act of having your practice area ready to go can be an enticement and a motivator. Use a mirror to check your alignment, hand position, and embouchure. Set a timer to remind yourself to stretch to avoid overuse injuries. Mix up your practice times by experimenting with playing at different times of the day. Try short bursts of a few minutes of playing instead of one- or two-hour blocks.
Make goals attainable, but perhaps a bit off the traditional track. Find interesting topics to make your winter seclusion something to look forward to. Some ideas might include:
• Work on extended techniques. Robert Dick, Phyllis Avidan Louke, Ian Clarke, Nicole Chamberlain, Helen Bledsoe, and Greg Pattillo all have books or compositions to get you started. Matthias Ziegler has a repertoire database on his website,flutexpansions.com/repertoire.
• Search for interesting pieces and etudes online. Look at YouTube, Spotify, publishing websites, andwww.imslp.org.
• Go through the entire cycles of finger exercises from Trevor Wye’s Practice Book for the Flute: Book 6 – Advanced Practice. Spread these exercises over several weeks rather than one day.
• Expand your orchestral excerpt repertoire. Look at the music that major orchestras are programming this season. Pretend you are a member of the orchestra and practice the first flute or piccolo part along with a CD.
• Invite colleagues to play chamber music. In addition to playing with flutists, collaborate with string or brass players or try playing some early music. There are many free online repertoire options and also lots of inexpensive, easily downloadable material.
• Create a contest with friends such as learning an etude of the week for six weeks. Challenge yourself to play at the printed tempo, articulations and dynamics. Create a Facebook or YouTube channel where the group can post and discuss the performances. Another option is to select one of the Taffanel et Gaubert 17 Big Daily Exercises.
• Speaking of Taffanel et Gaubert, play No. 4 at various tempo markings and articulations while working on how far you can play on one breath.
• Learn how to record tracks and then play and record all of the parts to a flute choir or quartet piece. Upload to your Facebook page or just share with friends and family. These recordings make great gifts especially for birthdays and anniversaries.
• Play along with a recording of a popular song by ear. Once you can successfully do this, transpose it to other keys.
• Keep a practicing chart complete with fun stickers just like you did as a child. Categories could include tempo markings, dynamics, repertoire covered, scales practiced, or amount of time spent.
• Test drive some new headjoints. There is nothing like new equipment to keep one motivated. Try a wooden headjoint or even a gold or platinum one. Risers and crowns are fun to explore, too. Try some lefreQues, finger gels, BoPeps, or Thumbports. There are lots of options with big and small price tags.
• Rent a low flute for a month – it is more economical than you would think. Then, play your favorite etudes, solos, and technical exercises on it. There are more and more pieces being published for alto and bass flutes with both solo and ensemble options.
• Dust off an old concerto or sonata you have owned for years but have not yet learned. Listen to various artists online for interpretive ideas.
• Practice pitch bending and pitch matching with a tuner. There are terrific publications and online videos available for working on intonation. Work toward better flexibility, then go to your tuner with dynamic and color changes and make adjustments nearly effortlessly with your improved elasticity.
• Improve endurance and synchronization of fingers and tongue with pieces that feature extended tonguing passages. Play the Mendelssohn Scherzo, Altes 26 Selected Studies (the second flute part is in the complete method, volume 2 which is available onwww.imslp.org), the Presto movement of the Enesco Cantabile et Presto, Ian Clarke’s Maya (both parts), Saint-Saëns Airs de Ballet, Rodrigo Concierto Pastorale, mvt. 1, and the Bach Sonata in C, mvt. 2. (The Mendelssohn Scherzo is written in duet form in the Altes 26 Selected Studies.)
• Work on tone colors. There are lots of online tools for this. Read up, listen, then dive in. Challenge yourself to make color changes with and without dynamic changes and with and without vibrato. Do this in all registers.
• Memorize a previously performed work. If you have trouble in this area, there are lots of online tools to assist you in conquering memorization.
• Record practice sessions and then evaluate your playing and productivity.
• Compose your own cadenzas for concertos, or start writing down the musical ideas that have been rattling around inside your head for decades. You may discover a sonata, etude, or even a flute choir piece waiting to get out.
• Learn how to improvise in jazz styles or prelude in classic styles.
• Dress up as if for a fancy performance for an adrenaline rush in your practice space. Invite friends and family to listen to you practice. This is a great snowy day activity.
• Give performances in new places such as a neighborhood church, hospital lobby, bookstore, or senior living facility. Play alone, with a click track, or with colleagues.
• Discover YouTube accompaniments or old-fashioned CD accompaniments for standard repertoire. Playing with the full harmonic intentions of the composer is a true treat and an instant pick-me-up.
• To liven up your teaching, plan creative studio challenges and give awards. They might be anything from stickers to gift certificates or a wooden cleaning rod to those who reach their goals in January and February.
• Attend a flute festival. The Florida Flute Fair is January 24-26 and The Mid-Atlantic Flute Convention is just outside DC on February 15-16. Check your regional organization’s calendar for a day of inspiration.
• Make plans to attend a summer masterclass or festival. Some studies have shown that planning and anticipating a trip or experience can be as much fun as actually doing it!
• Students can prepare for upcoming auditions (youth symphonies, honor bands, NFA competitions, spring recitals).
There are thousands of areas to explore on the flute. Just be sure to commit to a variety of goals, a loose plan, and allow room for spontaneity and inspiration. Adjust your blueprint as needed. Make it pleasurable, challenging, and different.
Winter is a great time to regroup, set new goals, and get back in touch with old ones. Without the tempting distraction of the outdoors, you can turn that missed bicycle ride into an expansion of your dynamic range or a chance to finally nail that passage in the Prokofiev Classical Symphony. Take an inventory of what you have been working on lately (be honest) and try to come up with a game plan to fill in the holes in your regimen where they exist. Make a check list of the elements you really want to tackle. Set reminder markers to double back and check your progress every few weeks so that your resolution does not evaporate along with the last drop of eggnog.
Go to Concerts
Peruse arts organization websites in your area and seek out concerts of all types to attend. Listening to live music is critical for every musician. If possible, seek out a local orchestra, ballet company, or opera house. Listen intently to the flute section: to their tone color, how they blend with one another and with other wind instruments, when they are more of the background, and when they soar across the hall. If the opportunity arises to hear one of the major flute solos such as Daphnis or Bizet’s Ent’racte from Carmen, that is even better. Don’t stop with classical music concerts – try something new. Duke Ellington once said, “There are two kinds of music: good music and bad music.” The beauty of this statement is that we all get to decide what is good music and are not limited to any one genre.
Listen to Recordings
There are fantastic recordings available from countless sources: SoundCloud, Spotify, and Amazon to name a few, with a treasure trove of insight into the playing of several different generations of flutists. When learning a new work, start by listening to several different recordings to hear different interpretations, styles, and tempos. Listen to lots of different flutists, focusing on their tone. The only way to strive for that perfect sound is to know what you like in the first place.
Work on the Piccolo
The piccolo is the tiny, agile Cirque de Soleil acrobat of the orchestra who, upon making its entrance, steals the show. Retired New York Philharmonic principal flute Jeanne Baxtresser wrote, “A virtuoso piccolo player has the ability to add extraordinary brilliance to the sound of any orchestra. In addition, a great piccolo player can add a unique timbre to the woodwind ensemble and a magical intimacy to the color of an orchestra in the soft solos, as in the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra. In that piece alone, one can see the remarkably unique and significant importance of this small instrument to the total sound of an orchestra.”
However, the high-wire moves of the piccolo don’t come easily. What the instrument lacks in size, it makes up for in pesky, fiendish quirks that require such concentrated, regular practice to master that it easily usurps the flute in its difficulty. Start by exploring the wisdom of great piccolo players, including Walfrid Kujala, Jan Gippo, Zart Dambourian-Eby, Jeffrey Zook, and Cathy Payne. There are several excellent piccolo books new to the market that offer guidance.
Watch Internet Videos
In these days of internet access, continuing education is handed to musicians on a silver cyber platter. Many flute pedagogues such as Sir James Galway, Robert Dick, Nina Perlove, Jeffrey Khaner and others have posted online instructional videos on various aspects of flute performance. Flute masterclass lessons are also posted both publicly and privately on YouTube.
Take internet education one step further and schedule a Skype lesson with a teacher you do not regularly study with (with the blessing of your regular teacher). This can be eye-opening. More and more teachers are making themselves available through this means.
Memorize and Transpose
After those long tones and warm-up technical exercises in the practice session and before you open up any sheet music, noodle through some passages from the repertoire just for fun to see what you have memorized. Then choose a passage and put it up half a step, and then up another half step. Keep transposing until you have played the passage in every key. If this is too hard, start with a really simple tune, like Over the Rainbow. This is excellent for your ear and sightreading. Then try playing as much of the piece you are working on from memory to see how much you know. You will probably be surprised. Once you have established what you do not have memorized, work on that section. I tell my students to start practicing their solo pieces exclusively from memory one month before they have to perform it, whether or not they will perform from memory. This is the only way to guarantee that they really know the piece.
Practice the Piano
There is a good reason why music schools require piano study. It is the backbone for all instrumental music, composition, and theory. Even if you have never taken piano lessons, it is not too late to start. If you have let your piano skills lapse, use the extra time indoors to add piano to your practice regimen each week. In an ideal flute studio, the teacher knows and can play the piano parts for the entire flute repertoire and can accompany the students. Such an achievement is practically impossible, however, as piano parts often demand as much time and as high a level of skill as the flute parts. Do what you can to keep piano on your radar screen, though, and your chops as polished as you can manage.
Go to a Flute Fair or Masterclass
Just about every metropolitan area has a flute club or some form of organized flute activity, such as a flute choir, that offers a season of concerts complete with a mid-year flute fair. Consider attending one. Besides the masterclasses, workshops, and concerts, most also have an exhibit area where you can try flutes, headjoints, explore accessories and search out new flute music. Attending a flute fair is a great way to recharge your batteries and make new friends.
This pendulum shift occurs in flute playing as well. For students, the beginning of winter brings holiday and end-of-semester concerts. For professionals, it means Nutcracker and church gigs. Hours alone in the practice room are replaced with communal music making for festive and receptive audience members. Pressure builds as all-region band auditions and juries attempt to capture months of preparation through a rubric of one, singular performance. After the applause has died out and the results are posted, there is a mixture of relief yet also often a letdown of spirits. Shake off these doldrums by adapting some standard New Year’s Resolutions to the flute for a successful start to 2020.
Eat a More Balanced Musical Diet
My flute diet these last several weeks has consisted of sweet indulgences such as choir anthems and Christmas pageants, with a sprinkling of Christmas duets. While this repertoire is fun, it is not a sustainable practice routine. Everyone needs a steady diet of scales and long tones, but simply adding them to the daily routine with no clear goal is akin to popping 10 gummy vitamin Cs a day at the beginning of flu season – it probably will not hurt you, but it is not going to make a significant difference.
A more beneficial approach is to adopt the clinical mindset of a healthcare professional. Start with an evaluation of your flute health like a doctor would do at a checkup. Diagnostic measures for students could include a review of all-region and jury rubric results. If sightreading was scored high, but tone was scored low, it follows that supplements for tone development should be a significant part of the daily practice diet. For flutists who have not been assessed recently, books such as Don Greene’s Performance Success and online programs such as Noa Kageyama’s Beyond Practicing course offer guidance on how to create a diagnostic recording to be used in generating a therapeutic practice plan.
Once diet deficits are identified, meal practice planning can begin. Some people are glorious cooks and are able to combine elements from several different sources to create their own palatable menu. For others, the process of creating something from scratch is entirely too daunting. Fortunately, several flute pedagogues have published pre-existing practice plans for those without the time, energy, or creativity to create fully-balanced diets for themselves. Trevor Wye’s Complete Daily Exercises for the Flute, Robert Cavally’s Developmental and Progressive Studies for Flute, Patricia George’s and Phyllis Louke’s The Flute Scale Book, and Paul Edmund-Davies’ The 28 Day Warm Up Book all offer pre-made practice plans that are easily adaptable to anyone’s dietary needs. Once key ingredients have been identified from several different sources, a personalized practice plan can be established that borrows from the very best flavors of a variety of pedagogical styles.
I have been a member of the “Etude of the Week” Facebook group for about as long as I have been a member at my local fitness center. I am embarrassed to admit that I rarely make an appearance in either. In both environments I tend to be overcome with comparisons to others, so I avoid them both. I keep the memberships active with the thought that I will become active on that future day when I am finally good enough to display it all in public. Despite being reassured by members of both environments that works-in-progress are welcome, I simply cannot overcome my own mental hang-ups and often abandon both etudes and exercise in favor of other activities. Fortunately, my local gym has begun offering an online version of their live classes. I can log in, see the familiar faces, and sweat profusely with only my bulldog and cat staring at me. I lack the accountability that group exercise provides, but I gain the anonymity that allows me to participate without self-judgment.
A similar approach can be taken with “Etude of the Week.” If public posting of your playing feels intimidating, try adopting the curriculum without attending the class. Select one of the etude books the group has studied over the past few years (e.g. Andersen op. 33 or Moyse 24 Little Melodic Studies) and begin your own personal recording project. Videos taken with a phone can be uploaded to YouTube as unlisted videos, invisible to all but those with a direct link and available entirely online without fear of overloading your cloud or local digital storage. Once “good enough” has been achieved, you will have amassed a repository of before and after videos of your musical development.
Learn a New Skill
Within the past year, I can feel a slight cognitive decline that is surely related to age. While my melody harmonization and solfège fluency skills are peaking, my ability to recall simple words is definitely diminishing. After casually mentioning this to family and colleagues, my husband started slipping MCT oil into my coffee, and my Facebook feed was inundated with ads for the Lumosity brain-training application. I am not sure that the MCT oil has done anything, but Lumosity declares that my brain is becoming more nimble by investing time in activities that I would typically avoid.
If you feel that certain aspects of your musicianship are beginning to slip or not progress as you would like, consider exploring a new skill rather than investing frustrated hours in those areas. Perhaps my Liebermann will never reach the tempo it did in my younger years, but I can sing and play much better than I could in my youth, and the acquisition of that skill has resulted in better air management and intonation. Tone Development through Extended Techniques is more than a monumental work published in 1986 by Robert Dick; it is a recipe for growth. Embrace singing and playing for intonation, whistle tones for embouchure development, and beat-boxing for rhythmic and metrical precision in addition to expanding the repertoire available to you.
Spend Time with Family and Friends
My social life during the school year is limited to sharing lame memes to the polite laughs of my music theory classes, slouching on the couch in my colleague’s office to complain about ill-prepared students’ lessons, and gossiping in our faculty quintet rehearsal as the clarinetist tries out at least 15 different reeds between movements of Aires Tropicales. When the first winter gigs begin to arrive, I consider myself a social butterfly, flitting about before rehearsal to visit with musicians I have not seen since Easter. Once the semester and seasonal gigs end, I am struck with a profound sadness as my social life is completely upended and I am forced to beg my husband and daughter to play one more game of Scrabble or Overcooked to fill the void.
Flutists spend an inordinate amount of time in the practice room by themselves, yet most performances rely upon interaction and collaboration with others. Practice does not have to be isolating. Form a scales and tunes group in which you and your friends play through technical patterns together and transpose short tunes by ear. Develop a virtual studio class, in which you and your peers perform for one another by submitting videos to a group chat. Grab some friends and cheesy yet accessible chamber music, and share your craft with a nursing home or preschool. Improvise along as your kid plays Guitar Hero. Host a rehearsal to cram for an upcoming performance with a wine or coffee break built into the schedule.
Most people fail to keep New Year’s resolutions past February. If only one of these musical resolutions becomes a part of your routine for the remainder of the year, you are bound to be happier, healthier, and more well-rounded than you are now, simply because you tried something new. And, no one says that you can not create some Valentine’s Day resolutions when that holiday rolls around.