After a much needed and relaxing break over the Christmas holiday, I’ve returned to my practice room with renewed inspiration, enthusiasm and creativity. Breaks are great that way. Although the first few days back might not feel or sound so great, it’s worth it to give our bodies and our brains a rest. My Yogi tea bag wisdom from last week said it perfectly: a relaxed mind is a creative mind.
My go to practice routine includes the usual suspects such as tone and technical studies and lots of études. I love playing through old Andersen études, sometimes a whole opus in one day. I like to be creative; sometimes I do every other one on piccolo, find the hidden (or not so hidden) melodies and go overboard bringing them out, or see how many different ways I can play each one. This time around I’ve been playing through Andersen Opus 30. I’ve been doing this Andersen review for nearly my whole flute playing life. My high school flute teacher, Robert Patrick, got me in the habit doing that early on. Of course back then I saw it as some kind of cruel punishment whenever he’d remind me about the importance and value in reviewing past études. I mean seriously, I didn’t like them the first time through and now I have to do them again!?! He couldn’t be serious! Fast forward a few years, my next teacher Clem Barone suggesting the exact same thing, and I finally caved: revisiting Andersen études became a new habit for me. All except for Opus 30. For whatever reason that book was my least favorite. It was firmly on my “do not play” list. Maybe I had developed some weird hang up about that particular collection, leftover from my high school/early undergrad years and not being 100% prepared to play them at my weekly lessons. Both Patrick and Barone regularly stressed the importance of Andersen études. Both were students of the great William Kincaid and they had to play their Andersen from memory, week after week when they were students of his at the Curtis Institute of Music. In fact, Patrick would quiz me on them from time to time. With the book closed, he’d ask me to play a bit from this key or that, from this opus or the previous opus. As a high school student, that was pure torture. Now, I am grateful to have had that.
This past semester, one of my grad students at CSULB began this opus and I decided it was time for me to put my big girl pants on and find a way to like it. In fact, I think I said said those exact words to her at her lesson. Right there and then in my cozy little back room studio, we made a deal: she’d learn Opus 30, and I’d do it right along with her … again. About a week or two into the process, a funny thing happened; I began to wonder why I ever put that book on the list in the first place. I can say with confidence and glee (OK, I may be exaggerating a little, but you get the point), it’s off the “do not play” list and back in the regular étude rotation along with Opus 33, 15, 63, and the others.
Come to think of it, only one piece remains on my “do not play” list, but honestly, it’s not worth mentioning here. For several years, however, that list was considerably longer.
I’m not really sure why each thing earned a place on the list, but I am quite clear about how each of them found their way back to regular rotation.
It all began with Griffes Poem. Several years ago, my friend and fellow flutist Phil Dikeman and I were talking about various pieces in the flute and piano repertoire, and when Griffes came up, I expressed my disdain for it. You couldn’t pay me to play that piece. Phil gave me a fair amount of crap for that, and in fact went so far as to say we were going to program it on a recital someday, and he would accompany me on piano. Ha! As if. There was no way that was ever going to happen, because I was never going to play that piece ever again. Shortly after that, several of my high school students were working on the Griffes for All Southern and All State Honor Band auditions. There we were, in a cramped little back room teaching studio at Diamond Bar High School, dissecting a particularly tricky passage, and it was like a light switch clicked. All of the sudden I cared about what to do with the line musically, it wasn’t simply about the mechanics of it all, it was about the music. Boom. Griffes was now in the “like” pile.
Same basic happened with Moquet’s La Flute de Pan, except it was a undergrad student and her preparation for her upcoming senior recital. To be fair, that piece wasn’t on the list for too long, so it was an easy one to like again.
The big one though was Kennan’s Night Soliloquy. I have disliked that piece since I was a teenager. About 3 years ago, one of our former band directors at CSULB approached me about playing a solo with one of the bands. He asked if I knew Kent Kennan’s Night Soliloquy, to which I replied with a very reticent yes. In that exact moment, it would have been so easy to make up some ridiculous, over the top excuse all to say I ultimately wasn’t available. But I didn’t. I gave it a little thought and decided that by agreeing to perform the Kennan with the band, it would mean finding a way to like this piece that I had disliked for most of my life. Just to be clear here, dislike is too kind of a word. That said, I took it as an opportunity; an opportunity to grow, get a fresh start, wipe the slate clean, and pretend like I was learning this piece for the very first time. After all, if I could find a way to like the Griffes Poem, then I should be able to find a way to like the Kennan Night Soliloquy, right? Guess what? It worked. I tore it apart harmonically, analyzed it, worked it from every imaginable angle and pretty soon it was actually growing me. The performance was a total success but more importantly, I had a lot of fun!
After this recent Andersen étude thing a few months ago, it got me thinking about the deals we make with our private instructors, and the deals we make as private instructors. Students show up for their lessons week after week, hopefully having prepared what was asked of them. Sometimes it’s music that truly resonates with you, practice is enjoyable, you’re enthusiastic, and the process is positive. Sometimes, however, that’s not the case. Sometimes it’s a solo piece, an étude or even an entire volume of études, that you just don’t like. Nothing comes easy, and not in an easy or difficult sort of way, but more in a less than enthusiastic sort of way. You and that piece of music are like a square peg and a round hole. Yet, you’ve made this deal to yourself and your teacher, that you’ll practice this piece and have it learned by the next lesson. We don’t always have the luxury of playing pieces we choose, or even like. As an orchestral player, there are more times than I care to count that I’ve had to practice a piece for a series of concerts and it’s not something I like in the least. And sometimes that piece that is so insanely difficult that it demands a great deal of practice. What am I going to do? Not learn the piece because I don’t like it? Obviously not. You’ve gotta make the best of the situation, roll up your sleeves, put your big girl pants on, and get to work. Who knows, when all is said and done, that unlikeable piece may just become likeable.
So, with that said…
Students, here are a few thoughts you might consider taking with you into your practice room, as you make your own deals with yourself and get back in shape for the upcoming semester:
1. Learn to love it. Especially the pieces you’ve put on your “do not play” list. Take them back out and revisit them with an open mind and renewed enthusiasm.
2. When it comes to études, review them for life. Be creative and challenge yourself to see how many different ways you can play them. Odds are you’ve improved since the last time you worked them up and maybe you’ll be able to play them faster or with more fluidity in your technique this time around. Maybe you’ll be able to lose a few of those extra breath marks that you no longer need. Maybe you’ve gained more flexibility and can play those large intervals more seamlessly. And, always remember to mine for the melodies. They’re in there. Bring them out.
3. And for that matter, play them on piccolo. You’ll notice a marked improvement if you add études to your daily piccolo practice regime.
4. Approach your tone and technical studies with the same attention to detail, mature musicality, consistency of tone throughout the range of your instrument, fluidity in technique, and well planned breaths that you would your solo repertoire. Let each thing take you to the next and connect them all like a string of lights…breathing…tone…technique…études…solo repertoire…orchestral excerpts…
5. Practice in small increments of time. Your mind and body will thank you for this. We shouldn’t sit down and hammer away at things for hours at a time without breaks. Shorter practice sessions will keep your mind fresh and prevent injury.
6. Awareness without judgement is key. Always be aware of what you’re doing in your practice, fix what needs fixing, and do your best to avoid the harsh judgement and self talk.
Happy New Year … now go practice!