Back to Square One

Patricia George | July August 2011

   A few years ago on the final Saturday evening of the music festival where I teach each summer, I had dinner with Mickey Moore, Tuba Professor at the University of Illinois. I asked what he was going to do during the weeks before the fall term began. He answered that he was going home to take his playing apart and put it back together. He was the first professional musician who ever admitted to me that he was going back to square one. I told him that I did the same thing but in May at the end of the spring term. He seemed equally surprised that someone else did this each year.
   I have found that each fall I start the year off with enthusiasm and a great practice schedule. As the year progresses, I have less time for comprehensive practice sessions and bad habits begin to creep into my playing. I take the weeks between the end of the school year and the beginning of the summer season to go back to square one, but you could do this at any time during the year.

Physical Evaluation
   Once the spring semester has concluded, I send my flute in for its yearly COA (clean, oil and adjust) appointment. You should plan on a complete overhaul every three to five years. Before getting started, your flute should be in the best playing order.
First examine how you feel when playing. Notice whether it feels easy and pain free. If there is any pain, determine where it occurs and why. Most pain comes from improper stance, body alignment and balance of the flute in the hands. A mirror, video camera, or colleague can aid in the assessment. Then with a little research, design a practice and exercise plan to avoid pain when playing.
   Most recently, I have placed a cello seat cushion in my chair when working at the computer or practicing. This wedge cushion is taller at the rear of the seat and shorter in the front. The slant of the wedge is approximately 30 degrees. This slant keeps the curve of the spin in the same position as when you are standing. In the five months that I have used the cushion, I have had much less fatigue and stiffness after working at the computer or practicing. Flutists can experience pain when playing that is caused by something else in their lives. 
   Another option is to visit a physical therapist who will analyze your body use during playing. In many areas there are physical therapists who specialize in working with musicians. The physical therapist can design a stretching or strengthening program. Although I would rather play the flute than exercise, I have gotten to the point where I know that stretching and exercise is part of a successful practicing plan.

Playing Evaluation
   The next step is to make a recording and carefully listen to the results. If possible study recent solo, chamber and orchestra performances. The number one concern is always sound. Pay attention to whether the sound rings. Notice whether you are using colors or blending with colleagues when appropriate. Then listen for intonation and clean, expressive connections between the notes. Make sure there are no­ extra notes unintentionally floating in.  Another area to check is the overall phrasing and whether you are expressing the musical ideas strongly enough to reach the audience. Other points are even fingers, rhythm, the quality of articulation, and whether technical passages sound easy.
   After listening critically, make a list of the most obvious problem areas. In a small notebook, make a practice plan noting long- and short-term goals with a few notes of suggested exercises to practice in order to solve the problems.

   When I get busy during the school year, I continue to warm-up carefully each day. However, because of the lack of time for good practice sessions, I often go directly from my warm-up routine into polishing the music that I am playing that week. This might be solo, chamber or orchestral music. The main thing missing from this practice session is etudes.
   One January I was starved for etude practice, so I started at the beginning of my file cabinet and played every etude. I told my students about the etude project, and it became a tradition at the weekly masterclass for someone to ask “what alphabet letter are you on now?” The project continued well into mid-summer; but I was pleased with the results on several levels and now make etudes a major part of the yearly overhaul.
   Through the project I found some etudes that I should have been teaching. Especially interesting were the advanced etudes in the Soussmann Complete Method. I also liked what the Kohler etudes did for my playing and now keep them in my personal etude practice rotation. The Kohler studies are not used in the United States as much as in Europe, but they should be. The last few etudes are in what many theorists would call the fantasy keys, ones with six or seven flats or sharps. Playing these keys is terrific for polishing sight-reading skills. The Furstenau, Twenty-Six Studies, Op. 107, volumes 1 and 2 became favorites because of the delightful prelude written before each etude. Joseph Mariano, the legendary Eastman School of Music flute professor, said “never leave an etude untongued.” By this he meant, first play it as the composer intended and then repeat tonguing the entire etude. His idea was correct, because in the tomes of exercises there are very few “tongued only” etudes.
Some of the etudes I played were old friends. With these etudes my goal was to repackage what was written on the page and play the etude in a different way. This might mean playing the etude an octave or two higher, with a different rhythm or articulation pattern, or a different dynamic design. Find something new to think about when practicing familiar studies.
   It is also helpful to revisit elementary and intermediate level etudes. Beginning books are the best tone exercises and as a bonus are quite inexpensive. Another good project is to record yourself playing a beginning book. Because of the simplicity of the material, every flaw that you make is obvious. Correcting these mistakes is will improve your playing in the long run.)
   As you work through etudes, play each one with a metronome. Daily metronome practice has the added benefit of improving sight-reading skills. I quickly remembered to keep in real time when I came upon something difficult rather than doing what we usually do – rush. Rushing at a time of difficulty is your enemy.
   During this process, a tuner along with the metronome should be your closest companions. Use both during most practice sessions. If you change the batteries every few months, then you are using these devices as intended. I start with whole note scales and no vibrato. The goal is to keep the needle still, signaling the air to produce the tone was even. If the needle twitched, then there was an air problem. After playing several scales keeping the needle on the tuner still, the tone is greatly improved. Once you have conquered even air, repeat the scale striving for even air and exact intonation on each note. With eyes closed, play five-note scales up and down landing on the tonic. Then open your eyes to check the intonation of the tonic note. If it is perfect, start a half-step higher to play the next five-note scale, continuing until you reach the top notes on the flute. A few days of practicing this concept cleans up many intonation flaws.
   When students learn that I studied with Julius Baker, they ask what I learned from him. His first assignment probably helped my playing the most. He told me to memorize all the slow movements of the Bach Sonatas playing counted vibrato on every note. You would never perform the solo movements in this fashion, but practicing with counted vibrato increased my rhythmic awareness of the notes so that I could accurately subdivide. Another invaluable by-product of this assignment was that I learned to move from one note to the next without stopping the vibrato cycle and then starting it again. I am sure that this was something that Baker used in his own practice. His attention to small details is what made him a spectacular flutist.
   Each year when I go back to square one, I find things in my playing that are good and some that should be improved. If you embark on a similar practice plan, be patient and remember quality of practice is better than quantity.