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Improvement in a Month

Patricia George | September 2010

    We all have a wish list of things to do to improve our flute practice and performance. The mistake that most of us make is in trying to fix everything at once. Trying to fix too many things at once is overpowering and may lead to frustration. This guide of 30 tips should calm you down and also act as a springboard to discovering other tips to help you achieve your goals.

1. Keep a journal. A simple spiral notebook or word document on your computer is a good way to start. Be honest. This journal is only for you. If you are studying with a teacher, you may want to share the information, but that is your choice.
    Start by noting your long term goals. A long term goal might be taking an audition or entering a competition that is six months away. Or, it might be memorizing the Ibert Concerto.  Note short term goals. A good short term goal might be to learn two new etudes this week or to fix your hand position.

2. Plan your practice. Each day write your practice plan in your journal. A good practice plan will encompass stretching, warm-ups (including scales, arpeggios, tone work etc.) etudes, solos, chamber works, and orchestral works. If you have an exceptionally good practice day, note it in your journal, and later when you reread your entries, you may discover why you were more successful one day than another.

3. Treat yourself to a COA. This stands for a clean, oil, and adjust on your flute. Many of us put checkups off until a few days before a performance and then realize that some of the problems that we have practiced so hard to eliminate were actually caused by a poorly adjusted flute. Most professional flutists treat their instrument to a COA every six months.

4. Audio or video record your practice.
Many of my college students share good practice days with a practice buddy by sending the recording as an attachment in an email. If you are having difficulties solving a problem, a practice partner may have the answer for you. Most of the time you are your own best teacher and you will be able to figure out what you should do once you view or listen to your practice.

5. Stand as if serving in tennis or volleyball. The flute should be parallel to the music stand (or the end even slightly a bit more forward). This means that your body is turned 45 degrees to the right and your left foot is in front and your right foot in back.

6. Hang your arms and hang your jaw.

7. Spend more time on just the headjoint. Be creative. How many things can you practice with just the headjoint? (Hint: articulation, vibrato, dynamics, embouchure flexibility)

8. Try to keep the embouchure hole level
or parallel to the floor and ceiling. This is difficult for many flutists because the embouchure is not fully developed. At first you will sound airy, but with work, your tone will be fuller and you will have fewer intonation problems.

9. Practice some counted vibrato.
Vibrato generally spins in uneven numbers (5) per pulse in simple time. To develop a fluid vibrato, practice counted vibrato, keeping the pulses high in the vocal folds. Try HAH, HAH, HAH, rest played staccato and then repeat letting the HAHs slur together. Keep it simple. Remember that vibrato speed has a lot to do with the internal rhythm of the music you are playing.

10. The left hand thumb should be straight
and pointed to the ceiling. The bottom of the thumb key should touch the left hand thumb at about the first knuckle.

11. All finger movements (except that of the left index finger) should come from the third knuckle back from the nail.
Keep the right hand third knuckles at the same level as the key pad.

12. Think separate your vocal folds,
rather than thinking open your throat.

13. Think of tonguing as being a horizontal stroke
rather than a vertical one. The tongue should move through the teeth, touching on the top lip.

14. Place the aperture on the left of center if you have a tear drop embouchure.
Remember to tongue in the center of the aperture no matter whether your aperture is centered or off-centered.

15. Practice playing your best sounding note with the tongue positioned in the following ways:
long A, short A, long O, short O, long U and, short u. You may find a position of the tongue that gives you a sound that you prefer.

16.  Do not practice when you are exhausted.

17. A regularly set practice time each day
will help you remember to practice.

18. Buy new editions of the Bach Sonatas and Mozart Concerti because the latest scholarship will be reflected in them. Be informed. Keep up to date.

19. My favorite book on style: Franz Vester On the Playing of Mozart for Woodwind Instruments.

20. When playing a three-octave chromatic scale (required for many auditions), most flutists naturally move forward onto the left front foot when beginning the scale. Try moving back to the right foot. Then your body and your pinky will be moving in the same direction and your slur will be smoother with no jerking or bumps.

21. Counting is not just feeling the pulse. Counting is counting: 1 e + ah, 2 e + ah. When you count well, you have a great sense of power because you know where you are.

22. Intonation is not optional. Neither are dynamics.

23. Subdivision (counting the internal parts of a beat) is necessary for accuracy.

24. A metronome and a tuner are your best companions.

25. Buy a music stand that allows you to have good alignment. Many stands do not go low or high enough.

26. Reading about music, studying theory and history, listening to music, and attending concerts should be catalogued under the heading of Practice.

27. Chunking (playing in one inch segments with a rest in between each segment) is the greatest advance in practice techniques in the last 25 years.

28. Practice for 25 minutes, then rest for at least five or ten minutes. During the rest, perform some stretching exercises.

29. Practice what you cannot do, rather than playing what you can.

30. Read Flute Talk for the many great playing and teaching tips.