Listen up students, this one’s for you!
This week, it seems like almost every student came in complaining about issues with their flute playing. For one it was articulation. For another, it was pitch. For another, tone. For a couple of the younger players, there were things they couldn’t necessarily identify specifically, but they knew something “wasn’t good.” With each of them, I did like I always do and asked them what might have changed in their practice habits, and are they working on that specific thing in their daily practice.
Let’s take student A for example, who was having trouble with articulation. When I asked the student if they were working on articulation in their practice they replied “um, no, not really.” Or how about the student who is having a “sucky tone week” (their words, not mine).
Me to student: Hmm, are you doing long tones daily – or even somewhat regularly?
Student: Um, no.
Me: When is the last time you did long tones in your practice?
Student: Um, a long time.
Me: Well, maybe this might explain the “sucky tone week” you’re having.
I got each of them back on track with their respective exercises, targeting the weak links in their playing, and working to rebuild their stores of technique. Listening to each of their tales of woe, I thought about what my teachers have taught me, and about how and what I practice, regularly. I’m not going to say daily because as a freelance musician, admittedly there are days when I’m swamped with music to prepare for various concerts that I simply am not able to get to everything in my routine. But, make no mistake, I have a routine. Sometimes it’s the long version and sometimes it’s the abridged version. Regardless of which version it is, it’s always balanced, and I like to vary it, too. That is to say, the basics are always there, but I like to mix it up a bit so that I never get tired of things.
So, how does one build a practice routine? What might one include? What do I practice? (I thought you’d never ask ….)
I have a large physio-ball that I got at Target, and I use it for a few different things, one of which is breathing. I get on my knees and drape myself over it and breathe. That’s it. Just breathe; long, slow inhalations and exhalations. Doing this gets my air going and gets me thinking about what happens when I breathe; the excursion of my ribs, my lungs filling with air and then expelling it, the gathering and lengthening of my spine, and the three dimensional movement that is taking place upon my inhalation and exhalation. I like to devote about 5 – 10 minutes to this, sometimes more.
2. Long tones
We as musicians all do some type of long tones. Besides being a great warm-up, it’s an opportunity to work on a variety of sounds we can create on our instruments – with or without vibrato, varied dynamics, etc. I have about 20 or so long tone exercises and I rotate through them so I don’t get bored, stare out the window and stop listening. In this part of my practice I also include things like whistle tones, signing and playing, vibrato, and harmonics, as well as tuneful tone studies like Moyse’s “Tone Development Through Interpretation” (a personal favorite!) or “24 Little Melodic Studies” or even Schubert lieder. Sitting on one held note and moving to another held note is great, but putting it into action with a slow melody is the natural progression for tone studies, at least for me, anyway. That way you begin the process with thinking about how and when to breathe, always mindful of the phrase. Students: I highly recommend a metronome and a tuner for this part of your practice, especially for piccolo tone practice. Your ears can play tricks on you, but the dial never lies.
Scales are great but if we only do step-wise technical studies and avoid things like major and minor 3rds, 4ths, and 6ths, trills, or arpeggios, we’re missing out. Like pretty much every other flute player out there, I’m a big fan of Taffanel and Gaubert’s “17 Daily Exercises,” but I also love Moyse’s “Daily Exercises” as well as some others I’ve gotten from various teachers along the way. A number of years ago, my former teacher and now colleague and friend, John Barcellona, implemented a scale study for all of the flute students at CSULB. It’s very comprehensive and I do it about every other day – again, rotating with T & G, Moyse and others. His scale study is simple: starting from low B, major scale, natural minor scale, harmonic minor scale, and melodic minor scale. All two octaves, slurred, two times each scale, working up to high D major. With the exception of JB’s scale study, I mix-up the articulation styles during this part of your practice. Don’t just settle into the land of the slur. Decide beforehand what articulation you will use for that exercise and stick to it. It goes without saying, this part of my practice is with a metronome. I have a Boss DR-3 drum machine that I enjoy using because it gives me interesting subdivisions which help to even out even the most clunky passages. (p.s. drum machine practice on clunky technical excerpts from solo, chamber, and orchestral repertoire is excellent, too!)
Etudes are a must. Period. Find some you like and do them. I know, I know, you don’t like etudes. Too bad. They’re essential because they bridge the gap between your tone and technical studies, and your solo, orchestral, and chamber repertoire. With etudes, you become aware of where and how to phrase and where to place breaths so that they work musically. My teachers had me do those of Andersen, Boehm, Donjon and Karg-Elert. My high school flute teacher, Robert Patrick, used to practice Andersen Etudes daily throughout his professional career. I was slightly horrified to learn this when I was in high school because I was sure that with each passing lesson and etude, I was done with it. D. O. N. E. Nope. Mr. Patrick, who was the Assistant Principal Flutist of the Detroit Symphony at the time, was a remarkable musician and flutist, and former student of the great William Kincaid. After studying with him, I moved on to Clem Barone, the then Solo Piccolo of the Detroit Symphony – also a remarkable musician, flutist, piccoloist and former Kincaid pupil. Turns out, BOTH of them were big fans of revisiting, reviewing, and reworking Andersen Etudes. Somewhere along the way, I realized that by practicing etudes religiously, old and new, I’d not only maintain my playing, but would actually get better. (Yes!)
Now, I’m such an etude nerd that I will sit down and play all of Op. 37, Op. 41, or Op. 33, in a day, 1/2 on flute and 1/2 on piccolo. For the more challenging opus #’s of Andersen or Boehm, I like to spend several days working through the book. As for the demands of Donjon and Karg-Elert, I really take my time with these. I’m in no hurry, after all, so why not enjoy the luxury of time and savor the experience? As for how to approach etudes; my Dad, Santo Urso, used to tell me to prepare them as if they’re short, unaccompanied solos. Play them as musically as possible, with obvious attention to a beautiful sound, well chosen breaths, impeccable intonation, and fluid technique.
Building stores of technique is essential for all of us. Don’t wait until a hard piece comes your way and then start building your technique in order to be able to play it. Prepare for it now by building a solid foundation: impeccable intonation, a beautiful tone that you can vary to fit the mood or style as needed, fluid technique that is 100% under control regardless of the tempi, and musical choices that are appropriate for the style and piece. Avoid the bewilderment of the “sucky tone day” and stay on top of your game. Now, go practice!