The First Half Hour

Mark Sparks | May 2020

Attitude, Alpha and Omega

   When you practice, turn your brain to the on setting. Approach the flute with a positive attitude, care, and respect. What emerges from it is a reflection of yourself.
   In the first half hour of practice, we form and maintain the basic elements of success: Comfort and Consistency. Comfort is the Alpha of flute playing. It is poised relaxation, growing from good position, posture, and breathing. Consistency is the Omega. To be consistent, you must feel comfortable. Consistency is the doorway to artistry, which is a state of sustained balance and strength, allowing for creativity and ease with the fundamentals. Keep these goals in your mind every day when starting out.
   Comfort is about the Now. To be comfortable is to feel natural: a state of mental clarity, physical balance and relaxation. The mental and the physical work together in an energy loop. The body talks to the mind, and vice-versa. Your job is to be aware of that conversation, in the moment. This requires Honesty.
   Consistency is about the Future. This requires Gumption. ( gumption: noun, informal. 1. initiative; aggressiveness; resourcefulness. 2. courage; spunk; guts. 3. Common sense; shrewdness.) Get comfortable, stay positive, address tone and technique fundamentals with the same basic approach every day when starting, and the door to consistency will open.

Mental and Physical
  Start by observing either the Mental (…what’s bugging you?) or the Physical (…ouch that hurts!) It is good to feel mentally okay, and this is usually a lifetime goal. Of course, life can interfere, and the show must go on. We persevere.
  Alas, it is the body which must actually play the notes. A few simple stretches may help with this or perhaps an exercise or Yoga routine that encourages balance and strength. I like to cycle and often stretch for that activity, which helps with flute playing as well.
Posture, Breathing, Blowing, and Embouchure
  I focus on tone and technique in the first half hour of work. I start with tone and find it helps to have a little checklist. With proficiency, the checklist only takes a few minutes to complete.
  Tone: Play a few easy notes and ask yourself about posture. Is your head balanced on your spine? Is your pelvis balanced? This has a direct effect on head position. Ask yourself about pain (maybe you need a bit more attention to those stretches!)
  Breathe fully and expand the ribcage. The abdomen expands and contracts naturally, without interference. After sleep, sometimes opening the ribcage in the morning is a bit like opening a clamshell. Stand up straight and don’t force it.
  Some basic questions about air are in order.
1. Air Volume (Q: How much air you are blowing? A: Usually, as with butter and biscuits, the more the better, up to a point.)
2. Air Velocity (Q: How large is the embouchure aperture? A: No larger than needed.) 
3. Air Direction (Q: Where are you blowing? A: Generally down, and bisecting the blowhole as accurately as possible.)

   I have a little mirror nearby and, cautiously avoiding my general appearance early in the morning,  I periodically check my embouchure to see if I am actually blowing at the flute, Southwest, Southeast, or off into the great beyond.
   Take note of your embouchure. It should be natural and relaxed, but firm, without any pulling down, up or to the sides. The upper lip sort of floats on a cushion of air. Only gentle pressure with the flute against the lower lip; this is generally relaxing (especially for the jaw) and avoids pancake lip in which the lip plate mashes the lower lip flat. The flute should be at a proper right angle to the nose.
   Having established these things in the first five minutes, I move on to technique. I play some basic exercises to fill the remainder of the time. You can work on technique and tone separately or together if time is tight.

Melody and Warmup
   Often, I work on tone separately for about 10 minutes. Moyse’s De la Sonorite covers most bases for pure, non-applied development. Cycle through the exercises, judging what you need most. Legato with intervals, especially descending skips, deserve special attention. Incorporate good vibrato habits, practicing them every day. Sometimes, if things feel natural, you can apply these characteristics directly to melody. Make sure you have a good stock of great melodies from the operatic, solo, and orchestral repertoire to keep you inspired. Incorporate good phrasing and intonation habits. Assuming you can recover from the initial horror of hearing your tone, a recorder is most useful. I frequently like to start the day with a good melody.

No Notes, No Music
   A beautiful tone is not enough by itself. Technical ease and consistency are necessary for artistry. Good technique does rely on good tone production, but the development of technique is mostly nose to the grindstone stuff. Embrace the spiny bits and enjoy the work. Stay relaxed.

Technique: Cycle through a number of exercises that cover the basics and help you regularly establish relaxed, even technique. I mostly work through traditional exercises. I like Maquarre and Reichert for efficiently covering basics. With Maquarre be sure to vary articulations in the exercises. I also like Paula Robison’s jolly and useful Flute Warmups Book, and Geoffrey Gilbert’s (rather difficult) Sequences: Twelve Sets of Daily Exercises Based on Scales and Chords. I also always have my Taffanel and Gaubert handy. There are many great technique and warmup books out there. Explore and find the ones which really get you going in the morning.

Etudes: Some players are real etude fanatics, and others cannot stand them. If you are well trained, you will have been force-fed an entire smorgasbord in school. The great Thomas Nyfenger often went back to basics by working on his Andersen. I like to apply technique and phrasing in etudes now and then when I have the time, sometimes going to an etude after an abbreviated warmup. Occasionally I make a project of learning a new etude and trying to play it perfectly by week’s end. There are so many to choose from. Sometimes, it is best to just go directly to the musical promised land and work on some Bach. I enjoy Stallman’s transcription of 66 Pieces by J.S. Bach, and keep my volume within reach.

Bits and Pieces
    Whatever the flavor of the month is regarding basic technical work, vary your process.  Choose whatever feels right for the day. These processes consist of 3 primary categories:
1. Basic Metronome: This is traditional woodshedding. Work on small groups from slow to fast, increasing the metronome speed gradually. Layer the work, adding groups. Always start slower rather than faster. This can be tedious, but it is totally necessary.
2. Small Fragments: Organize bits of the scales, arpeggios, or technical passages into groups for comprehension and comfort. This can be done with or without the metronome. Amounts of time between fragments can be varied, rhythmically, or arrhythmically.
3. Partitions: Hold certain notes as placeholders in a group. Again, this can be subtle, as if creating a small tenuto, or you can go freestyle without the metronome, lengthening notes for comprehensive and comfort. Comfort is important here, and requires honesty. Tone work can also be incorporated nicely. Follow-up always has to be done to mold the groups back into the rhythm.
   Always test your work in tempo, without the metronome. If it still needs more study, either move on and live to fight again tomorrow, or go right back to the drawing-board and sort out where you went amiss.

In a Hurry
   Remember that time is easily wasted, and exercises can be used either more, or less intelligently. One of the hardest things about starting practice every day is patience. Doing the slow work saves you time in the long run because less repetition is required. This is probably the greatest challenge of practicing. We are often in a hurry to get to the repertoire. Schedules need to be met, and programs must be played. It is hard to work on the things which need hard work, but we are selling ourselves short by rushing.
   Take a little breather after the first half hour. Chill out. Stay off your phone. The tortoise wins this race.