April 2023

Getting in Shape When You’re Out of Shape

My regular practice routine includes plenty of tone exercises, etudes, technical work, and repertoire. I do the same routine on piccolo, and alto flute, and bass flute, and contrabass flute, and then my traverso. Suddenly, I wake up and realize that by the time I get through a regular practice routine on every instrument, I would need 36 hours in a day and not have a day job. Let’s face it, reality is not having hours a day to devote to each instrument in great detail. Many of us work towards a gig and focus on what we need for that particular performance. Lately, I have been playing flute, bass flute, and contra, and my piccolo has been neglected. I am definitely not in the same piccolo shape I was during my doctorate days. So, what if I get a call to play piccolo? 

My first thought would be, “can I do myself and the performance justice in the amount of time to prepare for the gig?” If the answer is no, then I humbly pass the gig to someone who will do a great job. This saves me from additional stress and gives a colleague an opportunity to network and perform. Since the pandemic, I have found that eliminating stress and anxiety is a huge priority for me. No shame in saying no, especially if it means keeping my good reputation AND my sanity! If the answer is yes, then the planning and workouts commence. Here is my basic workout to get in shape when I am not in shape!

First, I identify my timeline. For the purposes of this article, let’s say I have a six week timeline to get ready for my gig. It does take time and planning to get in shape again but there are certain aspects that take far more time to develop, like technique. If I am already gigging on flute, then I continue to include that as part of my practice routine. I will often practice my new piccolo part on flute in the first three weeks of the six week prep session. This allows me to learn the notes without straining or hurting myself or learning bad habits because my embouchure is not up to par. Technique takes time and applied work to develop and problems in technique can’t always be undone or corrected while trying to get ready for a gig. Learn the piccolo music on flute from the beginning. This way you are getting the notes and the feel of the piece without fighting an instrument.

Technique aside, the two most important aspects of playing piccolo are building up the embouchure strength for control and pitch flexibility. I don’t have five hours to practice every day anymore, so I try to multitask my efforts. I continue the routine from week to week and incorporate each step into every session, in order, without variation. This builds consistency and stamina.

Week 1 – My first week into my piccolo prep is, quite honestly, long tones with a tuner and with a drone. Simply holding a steady tone in tune may be boring, but it lays the ground work for building up the stamina in the embouchure again while also reacquainting me with my instrument. I am getting the tone and pitch in my ear again. In that first week, I tend to keep to the first two octaves just to prevent injury and so as not to build up tension early on. Be patient and trust the process.

Week 2 – In week two I continue with the long tones (with a tuner and a drone) but I begin adding some exercises from Taffanel and Gaubert 17 Daily Studies. Exercise 1 through the first two octaves is a favorite to start building some lip flexibility and get the fingers used to the much smaller mechanism on the piccolo. I sometimes will also include exercise 5 (chromatic scales) just for a few minutes, for fun but staying in the first two octaves. Exercise 7 is like a tongue twister for your fingers and I also use it for some articulation practice working through the articulation patterns suggested but still keeping to the first two octaves.

Week 3 – I do all work from the previous weeks but add in exercise 10, slurred, and practiced with a drone on the pedal tone (the lowest note of each pattern). I start with the low D pattern, set the drone to sound that D, and work my way through each of the arpeggios with that pedal D. Then, I move to D#, then E, then F, etc… I do allow myself to go beyond the second octave on this exercise to start extending my range and working through the embouchure and air changes that have to happen in the third octave. I pay close attention to my embouchure to make sure I am staying relaxed and not over taxing the muscles. At the first sign of exhaustion, I stop. Pushing the embouchure too hard, too fast, can cause strain that can take days to recover from. After I have worked on the patterns slurred, I go back and do them with a “ha” articulation, using a diaphragmatic pulse to navigate the arpeggio rather than my tongue. This engages the breath support system and helps to work into the support needed for the upper register. I find that this approach avoids pinching the lips for the highest notes and really connects my breathing and articulation in the end. A little coordination goes a long way.

Week 4 – Continue with all previous exercises as a warm up. DO NOT SKIP THESE! We are still building up the endurance so these exercises are like stretching and weight training. Endurance is the goal but we also want control, pitch, artistry…all we want is everything, so be patient. At this point, I am now working through the full range of the instrument but limiting how much time I spend in the third octave, especially sustaining up above high G. This is also a good point to make sure you have hearing protection!! This is also the week I add exercise 11 (broken arpeggios). This really challenges the lip flexibility and breath coordination. I continue using a drone to keep my pitch in check but I may change the pedal tone to the mid-range octave to give me an anchor between the lowest and highest pitches. This is also the week when I incorporate my rep for the gig. Remember, I have been practicing it on flute, so now it is just about converting things over to piccolo. Now I start figuring out what nuances are more challenging on piccolo and start working out the parts I need to spend more time on.

Week 5 – I continue my previous warm up routine and am still starting with my Taffanel and Gaubert exercises 1, 5, 7, and 11. I tend to drop exercise 10 and move strictly to 11 for the remainder of my sessions because it is more challenging with the larger intervals. Week 5 for me is about isolating specifically difficult passages to identify any areas that I may need to consider alternate fingerings for pitch or ease of technique. I also make it a point to take more breaks during my practice sessions. This is more realistic to a gig with rehearsal breaks and pauses for corrections. It also allows me to come back to passages to check my retention and consistency. These short breaks give me a few moments to rest and my dog a chance to leave the room if he so chooses.

Week 6 – The final stretch is the most important. Do not change your routine. Do not try to cram or overdo the sessions. Any strain, overuse, or extra practice could cause tension and embouchure strain and make all your hard work null. Be patient. If something isn’t going well. Take a break and come back later. This is not the time to power through. 

This is the routine that I have found works best for me to get me ready for a gig. The key is not to do too much too quickly or you may actually set yourself back a few days. I honestly apply this routine to most of my instruments, from contra up to piccolo. A wrong note can fly by and no one may notice, but playing consistently out of tune with poor dynamics and control will draw all the attention. Take your time and be patient. If you can improve your playing 3% each day, at the end of the six weeks, you will where you need to be (for math geeks that approximately 126% improvement). May the Force be with you!

  1. […] The Flute Examiner (Keith Hanlon): Getting in Shape When You’re Out of Shape […]

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