Back in grad school, I took a year-long class about how to be a teaching artist; that's someone who performs but also does musical workshops in the community. Part of the preparation for creating a workshop about a particular piece was to come up with as many questions as possible about that piece.
This deep level of inquiry is key for teaching artists, but it's also great for any performer who wants to be as well-versed as possible in the music that they play. Try going through the questions below with a piece you're working on.
I started learning how to play the guitar recently, and it's been a great reminder of what my students are feeling during their lessons as they work hard to take their playing to the next level.
I've played the flute for about 15 years now, so I don't have to think too hard about the basic mechanics of getting from one note to the next. It's something I've been doing for so long that it feels as natural and easy as breathing. This makes for good performances, but doesn't really help me as a teacher; a great educator remembers what it's like to struggle.
Being a complete novice at guitar is a chance to go back to the stage of musical learning in which I discovered how to shift smoothly from one configuration of my hands to the next, and how to arrange my hands in the correct way without looking at the instrument. Being able to do those two things with comfort and ease is key to mastering any instrument, or any physical task for that matter.
It's also a chance to remember that playing music isn't about perfection. It's possible to enjoy the process of creating music even if you aren't a virtuoso, and it's no less valuable or nourishing if you're just noodling around on an instrument for fun.
Are you learning something new? Share your adventure in the comments!
I was talking with one of my adult students this weekend about how much practice time is appropriate for a beginning flutist, and a point came up that I wanted to share here.
When you're learning anything new, the novelty of learning is what keeps you coming back to practice and get better at whatever skill you're trying to acquire. With this being said, QUIT WHILE YOU'RE AHEAD.
What I mean is this: when you are a novice at anything, you should end each practice session while you still feel joy and excitement in your heart. If you go to the point where you feel frustration and disappointment, you'll burn out and not want to continue learning. There will be plenty of time down the road to work through tough stuff even though it's not the most appealing thing to do, but the time for that is not when you're just starting out.
Lay down a foundation of love and respect for your instrument, because you'll need that to draw upon when the time comes to work on things that are beneficial but not all that fun while you're doing them. There will come a point when you need a reason to continue slogging through that etude or to keep working to get that technical passage just right, and the thought of how much you love what you're doing will help to see you through.
You'd be surprised how many challenges to learning the flute can be overcome by following these three simple guidelines.
Use lip balm liberally and often.
If your lips are smooth, the air stream that you produce will be focused and your sound will be cleaner. If you let your lips get chapped, all the little flaky spots and cracks on your lips will interrupt your air stream and create "fuzz" in your sound.
Keep your nails short.
Good hand position requires the fingers to be curved. If you allow your nails grow past the tips of your fingers, then the nails will hit the keys when you play and cause you to use a flatter finger position to compensate.
Swab out the inside of your flute and wipe down the outside of it after every use.
Getting moisture out of the flute before you store it keeps the pads of the keys dry and extends their life, while cleaning the oils from your hands off of the keys and body of the flute keeps your instrument from tarnishing.
What are your rules? Let me know in the comments!
The end of the school year is approaching, and summer will be here before we know it. I've always found it to be a little harder to stay motivated to practice during the warmer weather; even though there's more free time at your disposal, there are so many fun outdoor activities that can only be enjoyed in the summer months that can tempt you away from the music stand.
Having a project or a goal is a good way to keep your practice momentum; why not try a sight reading challenge? Choose a short piece to sight read each day for a month, and use the 30-day graph from Musician's Way to rate the following:
1.) How difficult the piece looks like it will be to sight read
2.) How well you did on the sight reading
Use two different colors to mark difficulty and level of success. For example, you might use a red dot to signify how hard the piece looks on a scale of 1-5, and a green dot to indicate how well you played it. Each day will have two dots. You might be surprised to see how well you do at even the most difficult sight reading after a solid month of practice!
Click the image below to download the graph from Musician's Way:
If you don't have a lot of sheet music at your disposal, try using the "Tune of the Day" from FluteTunes to find something new to play every day; they post a different featured piece of free sheet music each day, so it's a great resource for a project like the Summer Sight Reading Challenge. Best of luck, and happy sight reading!
Deconstructing Andersen is back! Today we're talking about Etude No. 4 in E Minor from his Op. 33 collection. Here's the original etude (click the image to download a printer-friendly version):
There are four major aspects that are important in this etude:
1.) Endurance. This is a full page of 16th notes, which means it will test your ability to maintain agility and control for a long period of fast technique. Try breaking up the etude into smaller chunks of 4 or 8 measures and seeing how light your fingers can be on the keys, then string together those chunks. The goal is to remain released and mobile in the fingers; the tendency will be to tense up.
2.) Breath control. Again, because this is a full page of 16th notes, you will need to be economical with your air and plan your breathing out ahead of time in order not to get winded halfway through the etude. Remember to exhale fully before taking another breath. The tendency will be to take "sips" of air to make sure you don't run out, but this is counterproductive; when you're constantly topping up on air, you never fully exhale the old, used-up air. You end up winded even though you feel like your lungs are full, because you've used up all the oxygen you took in and need to exhale the carbon dioxide you've created.
3.) Dynamic control during fast technique. It's easy to ignore changes in dynamics when you're trying to play something that requires a lot of finger work. However, the dynamics are what lend interest to an etude that would otherwise be maddeningly repetitive. Work slowly and pay attention to the dynamics as you go. Remember that the audience (or your teacher) won't be able to hear as much contrast as you can, so really bring out the changes.
4.) Creating a sense of syncopation through accents. The exercise below shows how the placement of accents on certain beats creates the "short-long-short" sense of a syncopation. The melody created by the accented notes should always be present in your mind as you practice this etude; it will help keep you from getting bogged down in the repetitive technique.
Click any of the images below to download the full 4-page exercise.
Practicing an instrument and teaching an instrument are pretty similar; both involve listening, assessing, and seeing what can be made better. Whether you are an active performer, a music student, or a teacher, I think it's important to be mindful of how you phrase your suggestions for improvement.
It's easy, especially when you're practicing alone, to start thinking things like "DON'T play that so loud" or "DON'T screw up that 16th-note run again." And yes, you should strive not to make mistakes. However, "DON'T" is a paralyzing word. Even before you get to the suggestion that follows it, "DON'T" creates tension. In taking away the option to do things how you were doing them without providing a useful alternative, it creates a vacuum that is easily filled with insecurity and hesitance.
This is especially damaging in students who are trying to learn an instrument. Music can be such a personal thing that when you tell a student--in an unproductive, "DON'T" way--that they're doing something wrong, it makes them unwilling to take risks in their future practicing and music-making. This produces boring, by-the-book musicians. You only grow as a musician by being willing to dig around in the sandbox and try new things.
So instead of using "DON'T," try providing an alternative. If you have a student who bends their wrist too much when they play, suggest a new way for them to hold their wrist and explain why it's more beneficial for them to do it that way. If you find that you cut off a note too soon in a long phrase when you practice, try practicing that passage in a bunch of different ways instead of just punishing yourself for not getting it right the first time.
Practicing is about inquisitiveness, and hesitance is the death of experimentation. So when you're tempted to use "DON'T," try using "What if you tried it this way?" instead.
The position of the right hand during flute playing is one of the things I find myself correcting most often in my beginning students. This is partly because it's hard to be aware of what the hands and wrists are doing when you're first learning an instrument, and also because improper hand position can lead to overuse injuries down the road. My goal is to help my students avoid these injuries so they can play their instruments pain-free and enjoy as many years of music-making as they want.
Take a look at the pictures below: the images on the right and left show the different ways the wrist can be forced into an unnatural, damaging position, while the center image shows what a healthy, neutral wrist and hand look like.
This isn't exclusive to flute players, by the way; everyone should be aware of this. Whether you play the flute, another instrument, or none at all, take some time during your day to check in with your wrists. They'll thank you for it!