Spring has finally sprung, flowers are blooming, and we are all finally emerging from our winter hibernation! It is time to clean house and get out for some fresh air and to enjoy the weather.
For some of us, the college semesters are over, the papers are graded, the concerts are finished and we are left dragging ourselves back home to recharge until the next semester. For others, the main performing season is over and we need to relax but still keep the chops in shape for a summer concert season.
This is a great time to change up our practice routines just to freshen things up a bit!
Here are a few practical practice suggestions for the off season, or the in-between season, depending on your personal schedule. Long tones and sonority exercises are an important part of developing tone, pitch, and control. One of my personal favorites is singing and playing. This idea isn’t new, but it hasn’t been applied as readily to the piccolo—currently, I can think of only one piccolo book that utilizes this concept. I like to use this technique in combination with Taffanel and Gaubert #11. I begin by singing the fundamental or root of the arpeggio and maintain the droned pitch as I slowly play through each broken arpeggio. This exercise relaxes and opens the throat, thus eliminating tension that piccolo players can develop. It places the larynx in a lower position, creating a more resonant and open oral cavity, and it helps to solidify pitch by developing the player’s ear while also emphasizing the relationships between the intervals. The best part of this exercise is that it creates a more solid and supportive airstream by creating just a bit of back pressure, allowing the player to more efficiently and effectively utilize their airstream. It takes some practice but is well worth the potential initial frustration!
Studies that build technique are also valuable in a regular practice routine. As a teacher (and a life-long student), I have come to use Taffanel and Gaubert for everything. For technical practice, I use a combination of exercises # 4, #5, #6, and #7. I am a big fan of multitasking in my practice sessions, frequently combining two or more concepts in order to achieve goals in a shorter amount of time. Exercise 4 covers major and minor scales in relative relationships. Here it is important to go slow and continue your attention to tone; there are quite a few pitfalls as the natural, harmonic, and melodic minor scales are explored. Take time to listen, balance, and solidify your tone and support before raising the tempo. Slow and steady wins the race, especially if you want clean technique! Exercise 5 covers chromatic scales and is just fun to play. Listening and tuning the half step relationships while also being sure that fingers are moving together is the goal. These two exercises also create a great opportunity to incorporate alternate fingerings!
Exercise 6 focuses on intervals, and it is great for developing lip flexibility while also building familiarity and dexterity in all keys. Again, tone, pitch, and control should be the focus and the exercise should be done slowly. A little patience goes a long way. Exercise 7 is like a tongue twister for your fingers. Begin in the printed octave and eventually transpose the exercise up the octave. These patterns will expose any weaknesses or unevenness in your dexterity.
The exercise doesn’t seem all that difficult, but it is very deceptive.
I use this with all of my students, many of whom laugh at how “easy” it looks. They are usually quite surprised by how difficult it is to play #7 well!
With all of the above examples, it is important that tone, pitch, and control be at the forefront of the exercise. Speed and dexterity come with time and practice and should not be rushed. There is no substitute for relaxed fingers, good support, and even technique. I often refer to using Taffanel and Gaubert as my “flute yoga” and rarely push the tempo. By approaching these exercises in a positive way, with no expectation for tempo, I am better able to relax my body and mind and enjoy the workout. Playing in such a relaxed way allows me to be more aware of any tension issues and work through them as well. Tension and technique do not play well together!
This relaxed “yoga” routine carries good habits over into my performances, and I often find that I am better able to relax my body, focus my mind, and remain calm during recitals. This is my approach for all of my students and it works wonders. Even when woodshedding a new piece, I take this calm approach. I never allow myself to attack the piece and beat it into submission, but rather introduce the work slowly and calmly to my fingers, my ear, and my mind. I find, in the end, the technique that the piece requires is always there when I need it and is often better than I hoped.
Spring cleaning doesn’t mean you need to try something completely new or reinvent the wheel. Sometimes revisiting an old friend but taking a fresh approach is the best medicine. Stay calm, enjoy the workout and see what happens—you might just find that you enjoy practicing again!