Originally Published in Flute Talk, February 2002
By Michel Debost
Before attempting to elaborate on practicing, It is necessary to accept the fact that many young flutists are not pursuing the flute as their life-long raison d’etre. This is a mixed blessing because it is a very crowded road already. This is not to imply that practicing does not apply to them. It is perfectly legitimate to aspire to become a Tiger Woods, but however great the passion, the average weekend golfer does not practice the same way. Being an old professional and teacher, my thoughts naturally tum to the future artist, to the budding flute dreamer, to the ambitious student of any age, and to my sister and brother, the flute player.
Glory is only bestowed upon those who have dreamed of her. 1
For most of us, the dream goes through practice.
Why do we practice? Sometimes it is to come to terms with our guilt. Often it is just to play the pieces we like. Always it is because we just love to blow the thing. Those with professional ambitions practice to get better: more efficient instrumentally, more beautiful tonally, more relevant intellectually, and more touching musically.
When we should practice depends on individual schedules and preferences. I have always practiced better in the morning, but others prefer the night. It would be ideal to practice every day, or six days a week. Even God decreed that we rest one day a week. If obligations intervene, even four or five days a week can be very productive. I don’t think cramming practice into one or two days is a good idea, for reasons I will try to explain.
How much time we should practice on any given day is a matter of preference. Pianists and violinists clock upwards of six or eight hours, while singers and high brass players stay closer to two. I think flutists can go a long way with three, if it is done intelligently and consistently over the week.
Practice is an acquired skill that builds endurance and memory. Look at Olympic swimmers for whom training improves speed and endurance, but the start and the turn are skills that gain precious hundredths of a second. These are repeated over and over, decomposed, analyzed, and finally can be performed under stress without thinking.
Without technique, a gift is just a dirty habit.2
The flute is comparable. Intricate finger combinations can be mastered in the peace of the practice room and finally can be played under stress without thinking. The only place where mediocrity and sloppy playing are inexcusable is in the practice room. Sometimes licks that have been well practiced still fall apart at the wrong moment, and they certainly will if they have not been cleaned up in practice.
The great question is what to practice. When we have to get a piece ready for a lesson or a performance, the first temptation is to play only that, over and over again. However, I think that regular practice should always include basics:
- Long tones in moderation, played with technical care, i.e. checked in the mirror; good posture, good hand placement (especially right hand) and attention to finger movements.
- Always scales, not the perfunctory two-octave kind, but full length, such as Taffanel-Gaubert #4, and played with attention to tone, smoothness, and pitch. There are many others.
- Arpeggios, tonal studies, such as Moyse 24 Petites Melodiques and Reichert Daily Exercises.
If you succeed in becoming a member of an orchestra or a professional group, what with traffic and delays, you might not have time to warm up. In school the schedules are so tight that many students barely have time to put the flute together at the beginning of the rehearsal. Practicing the basics regularly certainly improves performance in the long term. Practice is next year’s warm-ups. The basics should be practiced on familiar things that can be played with ease and, above all, with a musical feeling. These should not be finger twisters that are played with pain in the body and hate in the soul but relatively simple patterns that can be played perfectly and beautifully.
Work on basics should take up a third or half of the practice session. These exercises become daily companions, and it is through them that we improve the fastest. Play everything technical with a full beautiful tone; play musical passages with a smooth and easy technique.
Once well memorized the basics can be played at any speed. For instance, scales can be played in fast bursts interrupted by rests or with changed dynamics, or played so fast that they take only one breath, or so slow that each note sings. I am not a lover of the metronome, which is a stupid machine. Of course, it is useful to check a tempo, but the darn thing can’t be running all the time. If you must use it, don’t play with the metronome but against it. The essence of phrasing is a "struggle between time and space."3 Certain subdivisions of time must be stretched to produce tension. Then the stretched space must be compensated for by a return to tempo.
The worst possible way to practice is with the metronome increased by notches. I will try to explain the reasons for my opinion. My old professor in France4 always said to practice a technical difficulty "with very slow broken rhythms" and then to leave it alone, to sleep on it until the next day. I did as I was told (sometimes) without understanding. The logical and medical reasons were given to me in an article5 about, precisely, the acquisition of skills. When a skill is practiced, it is stored in the frontal area of the brain which holds recent and temporary data. After approximately six hours this data is moved to the back of the brain, to the cortex or gray matter. This is where permanent data or skills are stored. If the skill is tested in less than these six-hour digestive processes, the effectiveness of the storage process is hampered, and a lot of good work thrown away. This is why cramming for a lesson or for a term paper is really not the best way to learn.
An unfortunate consequence of this storage process is that our memory of skills is stored indifferently, the good with the bad and the ugly. If a wrong note or a bad hand position becomes ingrained, the chances are that it will be very difficult to eradicate.
This is why I implore my fellow teachers to be wary of posture and position very early and not to assign the great pieces of our poor repertoire too soon. When young players tackle the Mozart concertos, the Bach Partita, and the Prokofiev Sonata before they are ready, they often develop bad habits in tone, technique, breathing, and interpretation that will be very hard to correct. I give them pieces from the French book, 6 which are short, a bit technical, and have color, and students learn a lot with them. It takes weeks to learn Enesco; it takes years to learn Mozart (even without bad habits).
Finally, half of our practice problems come from misread notes (and articulations, rhythms, and dynamics). Difficulties can be purely technical (finger twisters with antagonistic actions between fingers). These need breaking down and patience because many are just optical and psychological problems. For no reason A# minor is harder than Bb minor, and B major is easier than Cb major. Again scales fix that.
What’s the use of practicing something before reading it? Learn how to read music. Read as much as you can, whether duets or etudes. Learn to read ahead and don’t ever stop. Stopping only shows that students are thinking with guilt of the recent past when they should be looking to the very near future. Reading and thinking, looking at the full score, using a pencil: isn’t this practicing?
1Charles de Gaulle
3Marcel Tabuteau, former principal oboe of the Philadelphia Orchestra.
4Gasron Crunelle, professor, Paris Conservatoire, 1941-1969.
5Science, August 1995.
6Flute Music by French Composers, Schirmer.
Bio from 2002:
Michel Debost, professor of flute at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Oberlin, Ohio, is a world-renowned solost, and consulting editor and regular contributor to Flute Talk.