The joys of spring for music students: recitals, dress rehearsals, juries, auditions for summer music festivals, lots of practicing, not enough sleep and, for many, the onset of performance-related injuries.
When I work with musicians who are dealing with pain and discomfort, a few of the things I always want to know are these: how long has the pain been happening? When did it start? Were there any changes in practice habits around that time? Often, I find that the injury coincides with a huge increase in practice time. Two common times are towards the middle/end of the fall semester for first year students in music school, and the middle of spring semester for those doing recital and audition prep. There are definitely movement issues that can contribute to pain, but there are also other causes. One big contributor is the lack of efficient practice skills. Mindlessly practicing for hour after hour can and does take a physical toll on the body. As an undergraduate, I thought that I had to practice for at least 4 hours every day, not counting ensemble or chamber rehearsals or lessons. I vividly remember just playing pieces again to fill up my practice time and I most certainly would have benefited from understanding how to be more effective and efficient in my practice. Teachers spend a great deal of time teaching students how to produce a good tone, how to play in tune, how to play musically with style and tone color changes, yet many assume that students know already know how to practice and neglect to teach this valuable skill.
Here are some tips that can increase your efficiency and effectiveness during practice session:
1) Practice should start with a plan. There should be goals for each practice session, each week, and each semester. How do you get to your destination if you don’t know where you’re going? Ideally, these goals should be written down somewhere – in an old-school notebook or on your phone/tablet.
2) There needs to be a musical intention, which means you have an idea about what you want your etude/piece/Telemann fantasy, etc. to sound like. How do you figure out your musical intention? You study the score, looking for melody, harmony, meter, form. You decide where you want your phrases to be, where you think you should breathe. Listening to recordings is also helpful at this stage. If you are a young flutist reading this article, you might not know about key changes and harmony yet. But you can still figure out ahead of time how you want the music to go. Your musical intention doesn’t have to be permanent … if you don’t like it, then revise. The point is that you have an idea what you’re working towards. If you’ve studied movement or have a teacher who has, then you know that there’s a movement choice that will give you the sounds you want to fulfill your musical intention.
3) All is not more. Playing through the whole piece every time isn’t always necessary. Neither is starting from the beginning each time. If you can already play it, do you need to spend a big chunk of time on it, or would it be a better choice to work on the specific chunk that you can’t play? Yes, there does come a point in time when you need to run your recital rep in its entirety, but never 7 times in the same practice session.
4) Identify the specific problem spots. Be honest—you know where the hard parts are in your music. But do you know exactly why they are hard? Figure it out. Is it a note/finger problem, a rhythm problem, or a combination of the two? Where we all (beginners to professionals) tend to make mistakes is where the pattern changes; places, for example, where you’re playing a sixteenth note run with major thirds and then there’s one augmented fourth thrown in, or you’re playing a bunch of sixteenth note patterns and you encounter a triplet or quintuplet tossed in the mix, can throw anyone off for a moment. For beginners, it can be the change from playing 4 quarter notes to a whole note or some quarter notes with quarter rests tossed in.
Note/finger problem strategies:
1) Is the tricky thing part of something that you already know? For example, upon closer study the thing turns out to be a c# diminished 7th chord arpeggio. You know how to play that, right? When working on the first movement of the Muczynski Sonata, did you find the multiple examples of octatonic scales (alternating whole and half steps), such as Ab Bb B C# D E F G Ab? Would it make sense to practice these scales before starting in on the piece?
2) Try the “blip” method. I learned this practice strategy from my teacher, Mary Kay Fink, but I don’t remember what she called it. My middle school students provided the current name. The idea is that you play the tricky section in blips of two. Within in each group, you need to go as fast as possible, slurring one note to the next, but you can take as much time as you need in between the blip groups. For example, here’s a tricky thing I just made up: Bb D G F# A Bb E Eb. Your “blips” would be this: BbD GF# ABb EEb. Repeat eight times. The key is that it has to be perfect each time. If you go too fast and make a mistake, then you have to start all over again from zero. The second step is to switch the “blip” groups by starting on the second note (DG F#A BbE Eb) and repeat perfectly eight times. Usually one set of “blips” will be harder than the other, and that’s the set that needs more repetitions. After successfully completing the first two steps, play the thing up to tempo and see what happens. In my experience, the “blip” method has been the most consistent way for both my students and me to learn tricky fingering patterns. This works because your brain is practicing fast connections from one note to the next. There are other effective strategies, as well, such as changing the grouping or playing it backwards. Experiment and find out what works best for you and your students.
3) Use your eyes to help your fingers. Stand your flute up with your head joint on or near your left shoulder, foot joint on your right knee, and fingers in playing position. Finger through the tricky section while watching your fingers. Can you see where the problem is happening? Does your left hand index finger come flying so far off the key that it’s late when closing the key the next time? Is your left hand pinky finger doing something crazy on the g# key? Is there a right hand/left hand finger coordination problem? If you can find the specific reason that the tricky thing is tricky, then you can direct your attention to that spot.
4) Play the thing with a giant slur to see if it’s really an articulation problem. It might be a finger problem in disguise. If you can’t play it evenly with a slur, then there’s no chance that it’s going to be evenly articulated. Think of the 16th note passages in the first movement of Mozart’s Concerto in G.
Rhythm problems strategies:
Many of these are standard things we all do, but do we teach them consistently?
1) Play it all on one note.
2) Count out loud.
3) Clap and count.
4) Conduct it and sing your part, especially for things in asymmetrical meters like 7/8 or 5/8.
5) Walk or march around the room with the big beat in your feet.
6) Fill in the long notes.
I learned this one from another of my teachers, Katherine Borst Jones. If there’s a tricky rhythmic section with a bunch of dotted eighth-sixteenth pairs and tied notes, play the entire thing as sixteenths. Instead of the dotted eighth, play three sixteenths on whatever note is printed. This forces you to keep track of the subdivisions.
5) Practice Room Myth #1: If you’re not actually playing the flute, then it doesn’t count as practice. This is not true! There is tremendous value in mental practice, if you are mentally practicing every movement of fingers, body, and breath. In full disclosure, I didn’t do this much until I had a newborn baby, a toddler, a reconstructive hand surgery, and most recently, unplanned back surgery. Your brain doesn’t know the difference between real practice and mental practice! This strategy has been used by sports psychologists with athletes for a long time. I have learned many pieces in a relatively short amount of time with the majority of my practice being exclusively mental practice. It gets the job done and saves wear and tear on your body.
Here are some links to great articles about mental practice.
6) Practice Room Myth #2 – if you’re not hurting, then you’re not practicing enough. This is a big one with my college students and it’s just not true. They buy into it because it’s so pervasive. Pain is your body’s request for change. If it hurts, then you need to figure out why and do something about it. After all, it’s your choice and your responsibility.
7) Sometimes, practicing just doesn’t go well. It’s a disaster. You keep trying and trying and nothing is going well. It’s 100% acceptable to put the flute back in the case and walk away. Go do something else and try again later. Go take a nap. Go for a walk. When you’re mentally checked out and not engaged in practice session, are you making effective use of your time? No! All it does it put minutes on the both practice clock and the “wear&tear on your body” clock with no tangible result in sight.
The final piece of the puzzle for efficient and effective practice for everyone, regardless of the level of expertise, is evaluation. Did you meet your practice goals? If so, great! If not, what are some other things to try during the next practice session that might help improve your result? This brings us back to the very first bullet point about planning. Engaging our brains before entering the practice room is the single most important thing that can keep us from hours of mindless, potentially injury-producing practice.
Here’s another great article about practicing:
If you have specific topics that you would like to know more about, please email me at email@example.com.