As the world is opening back up and performances/rehearsals are returning to our calendars, many of us are thrilled to be getting back to doing our thing (flute playing) for real! It might have been a bit difficult to practice consistently for hours a day by yourself during quarantine without the usual rehearsal and performance schedules. Here are some ideas about how to get back into top flute playing shape without hurting yourself. Many of these ideas come from Performing Arts Medical Association (PAMA) presentations by Serap Bastepe-Grey (Peabody), Dr. Christine Guptill (University of Ottawa) and Dr. Janice Ying (Head Physical Therapist at the Colburn School) which are geared towards helping injured musicians return to playing and can be also used for musicians who aren’t injured, but have taken a bit of break from practicing for whatever reason.
There is ample evidence that injury happens when there is a big increase in practice time, practice intensity, or both. For the collegiate musicians I work with, these times include the first month on campus as a first year Conservatory student, junior/senior recital season, graduate school pre-screen recordings and intense summer festivals. Too much, too soon, too fast, and/or too hard! Getting back into top playing form requires a thoughtful, detailed plan of action.
~ Consider breaking your practice time into chunks. Instead of doing one hour straight, consider doing 3 sessions of 20 minutes or 2 session of 30 minutes. Then increase to 3 sessions of 25 minutes, etc.
~ Take breaks. This idea fits nicely with the idea of chunking your practice time into smaller, but more frequent units of time. Serape Bastepe-Grey (Peabody) recommends no more than 50 minutes, followed by a 10 minute break. Practicing for 3 hours in a row without a break is not a really great idea, especially if you’ve been averaging 15 minutes a day for months previously.
~Adaptation takes time. For injured musicians, they are encouraged to increase 2-10% of practice time each week. They may start at 20 minutes for week 1, 22 minutes for week 2, etc. It’s a slow progression, allowing plenty of time for tissue adaptation. In a session at this summer’s PAMA Symposium, Dr. Janice Ying commented that by the time musicians are actually physically present at the intense summer festival, it’s too late! The adaptation and building up phase for that intense rehearsal schedule should have started 2-3 months before.
~ If there’s any pain or discomfort after playing, this is a sign that you’ve done a little bit too much. Return to the previous week’s schedule and then try again in a week or two.
~ Start off with slow, lyrical passages, building up to fast, technical work. Flute translation – long tones, harmonics and Moyse’s 24 Little Melodic Studies instead of Prokofiev or Ibert right out of the gate.
~ Practice planning—do you have a plan for exactly what you need to get to during your practice sessions? I am returning to playing following a broken finger and I have to think carefully about how I’m using my 25 minutes. Personally, I do lots of harmonics, sing and play, a chromatic exercise and a scale study, followed by a few chunks of two pieces I am working on. At this point, I do not play ALL of any of these exercises or play the whole piece yet. I don’t have the endurance, but it will come. This is a time for patience and rejoicing that 25 minutes is something that I can do!
~ Write it down. Hold yourself accountable by writing down your practice goals. How do you know if you’ve met the goals for the session if you did not clearly define them before you started? Write down how many minutes, including actual time and breaks, in your calendar, so you can see your progress over time.
~ Prioritize the problem spots. Identify the tricky spots and then spend a few minutes figuring out why they’re tricky. Is it fingers? Rhythm? Intonation? Big leaps? Isolate these bits and then put them back into the context of the phrase.
~ Allow time for recovery. After practicing, our bodies need time for rest and recovery. This means hydrating, sleeping, and eating healthy meals and snacks. Meditation or lying in constructive rest are two great things to add to your routine. Mental practicing counts and saves the wear and tear on your body.
The goal should be mindful practice, not mindless repetition. Pace yourself and you’ll be playing up a storm!