The Practice Notebook

flutist Zara Lawler shares tips on learning music

Memorization Question


In August of this year, I gave a lecture on my memorization technique.  A few weeks later I received this question from one of the attendees, Janel Caine, a private flute teacher, freelance performer, and founding member of Category 5 (Woodwind Quintet) in Tallahassee, FL.

What does one do when the number of notes is too many to say at a given tempo?  (Such as a run of 32nds?  Or even sextuplets that are easy enough to play, just difficult to speak out with a metronome?)

I thought the answer might be of general interest, so here it is:

Keep in mind that you do not have to say the note names aloud, you just have to think them, and thinking is usually much faster than speaking!  Then, if you are working on a really long string of lots of lots of fast notes (like say, the opening of Daphnis, though why you would memorize that I don’t know!), you can start thinking in a kind of short-hand once you get up to a prohibitive tempo for thinking all the note names.  For example, “then up a B-flat major scale to an F,” or “D Maj 7 chord” or some such.  For me, it feels kind of like the difference between reading whole words and reading by sounding out each letter.  The better and better you know your music, the more like words it will seem, and the less necessary to think of each individual note.  

I will say, though, that the more I work this way, the more note names I can hold in my head.  You may find that ability growing as you go!

Good luck!


If you were at my lecture at the Convention, and did not get a copy of the handout, you can download one here.

PS.  Don’t you think Category 5 is a great game for a woodwind quintet based in Florida?

The Value of Struggle


There was a very interesting story on NPR this morning about how different cultures view the value of struggle in the learning process. Although it did not mention music learning, I think the parallels are clear. Check it out here, and let me know what you think!



Out of the mouths of Babes


An inspirational speech on practicing, from a kid who’s just learned to ride a bike.

Thanks to Polly Washburn for finding this!

Questions for Astronaut-Flutist Cady Coleman


As many of you know, there is a flutist living and working at the International Space Station.  Cady Coleman, astronaut and musician, has been delighting many earthlings with her Skyped earth-space duos with famous flutists.  Here’s her duo with Ian Anderson, of Jethro Tull fame:

I have a few questions for her!

Actually, I have submitted them via PBS’s NewsHour.  You can go there to ask your own questions, or vote for mine if you like it (you can find it by entering “flute” in the search field on the right sidebar).  This is time sensitive:  you must enter a question or vote by Saturday April 30, 2011, at 11:59pm.

Below is an expanded version of what I asked:

Many flutists have noticed that, here on Earth, it is easier to play your scales descending (do, ti, la, so, fa etc) than ascending (do re me fa…).  I have always assumed, and told my students, that it is because of gravity.  As you play an ascending scale, you tend to be lifting fingers (making the vibrating tube of air shorter as the notes get higher), and as you play a descending scale, you tend to put fingers down (making the tube longer).  I’ve noticed the ‘gravity assist’ factor in descending scales, and have learned to resist it a bit in order for my scales to be the same speed going up as going down.

My question is, in the zero gravity environment of space, has she noticed the absence of that phenomenon, specifically?  And generally, has she noticed any change in her technique–do those small finger and hand muscles have to work differently when they are not alternating between working with and working against gravity?

I am also curious about the experience of breath control.  Many earth-bound flutists know that at higher altitudes, we have to work harder to get the same volume of air in and out of our lungs, because of the difference in air pressure.  Also, playing while lying down is a totally different experience from playing standing or sitting up–your diaphragm and lungs just work better vertically.  So, is that different in space?  Since there is no “vertical?”  And what’s the air pressure like on the space station?

And where does she practice?

What are your questions about playing music in space?  If you’re ahead of the deadline, post them to PBS.  If it’s after the deadline, leave them below…maybe we can figure out a way to get them answered!

Zara’s Interpretation Tricks


When practicing music, one of your most important jobs is crafting an interpretation.

Sounds very nice, but how do you go about it?  A lot of the time, an interpretation develops organically, as a musician studies a work of music, experiments with different ways of playing it, thinks about how she would like it to sound, and makes decisions accordingly.

Sometimes, though, that organic process needs to be kick-started.  Many people have noted that learning about other art forms can enhance your musical interpretation (for example, see Paula Robison’s interpretive guide to Frank Martin’s BalladeWhile I do recommend that approach, it requires that you leave your instrument and head to the library, museum or internet.

I think that it’s important to have a repertoire of ways to get the creative juices flowing in the practice room.  Here are a few tricks that I’ve developed and learned over the years:

1. Play as if you’re a movie soundtrack. Even the most abstract or dull music can sound deeply meaningful when it’s in an emotionally packed movie.  Picture yourself as Helena Bonham Carter in A Room with a View*, tempestuously playing the piano, and see what comes up musically. 

2. Imagine it as a conversation. This is a trick from Paula Robison, and it works best if you can practice with a friend.  You play the first phrase, he plays the next, then you play, then he plays…etc.  It can instantly transform a narrative into a dialogue (and it’s fun too).  Then, when you are back on your own, just imagine that you are two people having that same conversation.

3. WWID? What would I do? If you are stuck on something in a piece that seems weird—like you really don’t know what the composer was thinking when she changed the rhythm of this one passage—change it to what you would have done if you were the composer.  Then compare the two versions—yours and the composer’s—and see if that reveals anything about the composer’s intentions.

4. Start with your favorite part of the music, and work your way forwards and backwards from there.  What’s the best way to build up to your favorite part?  What’s the best way to recover from it?**

5. What is the craziest or silliest way you can play it? Play the phrase at the wrong tempo, or change tempo half way through.  Try it with extreme dynamic shifts.  Try to be as schmaltzy as possible, then try to be as deadpan as possible.  You will often find a grain of truth in the crazy versions, which can then become the basis of your “real” interpretation. 

6. Free association. Just asking yourself “What does this remind me of?” is often enough to engage your imagination.

7. What’s the story? This is a slightly more elaborate version of free association.  Let free association set the scene, and then create a narrative to go with the music.

8. Pretend you’re a musician you admire. How would your teacher play this?  James Galway?  Richard Goode?  Jon Bon Jovi?

9.  That Old Song and Dance. Even if you can’t do it very well, singing or dancing a phrase is sure to help you get an idea of how you really want it to sound.

10. If all else fails, just keep playing it until you get an idea.

The common theme running here is engaging the imagination. You can use any of the above techniques as gateways to your own musical creativity.

*Or Denzel Washington in Mo’ Better Blues, or what’s his name in Tout les Matins du Monde, or Wilhelmenia Fernandez in Diva…! It doesn’t even have to be a movie about music. Leave a comment below with a movie that has inspired your playing.

**I learned this “trick” from coach Nancy Garniez.  She has even more interpretation ideas up her sleeve.  Check them out here.

Photo credit:  Hamed Saber

Memorizing a Whole Program


Recently, I received a question from a reader about memorizing a whole program.  (You can read his question at the bottom of this post).  He is learning 17 songs. He noted that it was not possible to cover each every day, and asked about how to learn so many pieces at once, and more generally, how to prepare for the act of performing them all on one concert.

I’ll start by talking about managing such a long list of works:

First, rank the pieces, so that you know which ones will take the most practice time.  Make three categories:

  1. The Majors: pieces that will take the most time and effort to learn (this will include pieces that are brand new to you, are technically challenging and/or are especially long)
  2. The Minors: pieces that you have studied but not yet memorized, shorter works, and/or pieces that are more simple
  3. The Worry-free Zone: pieces that you already have memorized or you know will be easy to get into performance shape

When you choose the order in which you will study your pieces, make sure that the Majors are at the front of the list!  It’s OK to throw in a Minor from time to time:  it will help you to feel like you are making progress.  Just don’t give in to the temptation to put off the scary pieces—that only makes them scarier.  Think of the Worry-free Zone as dessert, and work on them last.

Work on as many pieces at once as you can, balancing the study of new pieces with the review of old ones. For example, if you have two hours for memory practice, you could spend 30 minutes on each of 4 songs.  Once you have learned those 4 songs, adjust your practice routine to be 30 minutes on each of 3 new songs, plus 30 minutes of review of the first 4.

As time goes on, your ‘review’ list will get longer and longer, but since you’ll know all those pieces better and better, 30 minutes might still be enough time for review.  When you feel like you really know a piece, you can downgrade it to something that you only review every other session, leaving you more time to review the pieces that are less settled.

So, no, you do not have to cover all of every piece every day.  That’s the whole point of memorizing!  When you have done good work, thoroughly learning a piece in small sections, then larger sections, and then tying it all together with mental practice and rehearsal, you can trust that you have it, at least for a day or two.  It’s a little like juggling:  you keep many balls going in the air, though you are only actively working with one or two at a time.

Please notice: I did not suggest waiting until one piece feels finished to move on to the next.  With a big load like this, you want to be making progress on several fronts at once-that way, when the performance rolls around, you won’t feel like you’re cramming.

Now, a few words about putting it all together into a concert:

Playing a whole program without music in front of you is a big challenge—and can be a wonderful experience for you and your audience.

Once you’ve memorized the pieces individually (do not skip ahead to this stage!), start devoting some of your mental practice time to learning the architecture of the program.

Some things to observe in your study:

  • Key, time signature, last and first note of each piece, in program order (so you can imagine yourself ending one piece and then starting the next)
  • A few important words or thoughts for each (In the Brahms I have to remember to not rush the middle section.  In the Debussy, I want to keep my tone light and fluttery.)
  • If you are performing with an accompanist, who starts each piece?
  • If you are planning on doing any talking in the performance, make sure that is part of your mental practice, too.

Rehearsal, especially if you are working with an accompanist or other colleagues, is also a great way to get comfortable working without a score.  Use that time to drill your pieces, especially in sections.  Learning to feel comfortable taking a piece apart without the score is a vital stage in feeling confident in your memorization. Nonetheless, have your score with you at all rehearsals, and don’t hesitate to refer to it when needed.

Also, make sure you have practice performances scheduled!

And last but not least, I want to emphasize a principle that will be covered more in a later post: practice, don’t test. This psychological stance is crucial for optimal memory work, especially when large amounts of music are involved.


Photo credit:  ethanhickerson

Check Out The Musician's Way Blog


Hi, all.

I am deep into practice and preparation for a concert this weekend in NYC.  If you’re around, I’d love to see you there.  You can find details here.  It is going to be quite the extravaganza, with music of Bach combined with dance and martial arts from Brazil.  Really!

If you want to read some more thoughts on practicing right now, I’d like to direct you to Gerald Klickstein’s insightful and beautifully written blog, The Musician’s Way.  I particularly recommend his post “The Ultimate Practice Shortcut.”

I’ll be back with a new post soon–stay tuned for Memorizing a Whole Program and my Interpretation Tricks.

Lawler & Fadoul


Hello, readers!

This is just a quick post to invite you to check out my other blog, written with my duo partner, marimbist Paul Fadoul.

We have a new website, and you can read our blog here.  We write a lot about what our duo is up to, and you might particularly enjoy our satirical video series, Notes “on” Performance .  Here’s a sample:



People occasionally ask if I practice what I preach here in the blog.  The answer is that, yes, I really do practice this way, and that my tips and suggestions are born of many years of experience and effort to find the most efficient and effective ways to learn music.

There is one exception, however:  taking breaks.

You may remember an article on What to do on Breaks in which I suggested that the only thing to do on breaks is nothing.  Of all the things I suggest on my blog, this is the one that I have had the most trouble actually implementing.  I manage it when I am really under a lot of time pressure, but when I am doing more routine daily practicing, I have found it almost impossible to resist the urge to read a magazine or check my email on breaks.

That is, until recently when I had a cool experience with this blog that has changed my approach.

Remember that game, Operator? (also known in some regions as Telephone?) You whisper something in your friend’s ear, and they whisper it to the next person, and at then end it has become gibberish.  It was sort of like that, only better.

A percussionist friend, Greg Jukes, recently mentioned to me that he has really enjoyed reading my blog.  I asked him if there was anything that he found particularly helpful, and he said, “That thing about taking breaks—where you set a timer for 5 minutes, lie on the floor and let your mind go blank.”

Now, that’s not quite what I suggested in my post about breaks.  I suggested just not doing anything. But Greg had heard it in his own way — just like in the game Operator– and added the timer and “let your mind go blank.”

At the time, I just nodded and smiled and accepted it as a compliment, but what I was thinking was, “Hmm, that sounds like a good idea.  Maybe I should try that!”

So, his re-transmission of my original message has made a huge difference in how I take breaks.  I tried Greg’s method, and it’s awesome!  Now I look forward to my breaks as a delightful vacation from the pressures of work. I set my timer for five minutes, and then pretend to take a nap, only I don’t fall asleep.*

Give it a try.  Allow yourself five minutes of blank time, and see if it helps keep your active practice time engaged and effective.

[Regular readers may think I have some fixation with time limits, but I find that using them is a singularly powerful tool for enabling the self-discipline necessary to practice effectively.]

*FYI:  Pretending to take a nap is actually an “official” meditation technique from Meditation Made Easy by Lorin Roche.

Credit where credit is due:  Phone photo is by aussiegall, timer photo is by pasukaru

Greg Jukes also has a cool ensemble:  The Fourth Wall

Practicing Free Gestures


I talk a lot about using a metronome to practice–but how do you practice musical gestures that aren’t metronomic, like accelerations and ritards?  Today, we have a guest post on that very topic from the wonderful flutist Linda Chatterton.

Hi, I am delighted to be your guest blogger for the day! Many thanks to Zara for inviting me.

Zara asked me to write a bit about how to learn music that doesn’t lend itself well to strict metronome practice. For example, in Edie Hill’s Harvest Moon and Tide from “This Floating World” the flutist is asked to evoke the rising and falling of tidal waters:

When faced with a passage like this, you need to do two things: present the music that makes logical sense to you and the listener, and capture the musical gesture.

For the first, know that we process music in “chunks.” When we hear a piece of music, we naturally want to group notes into phrases, phrases into sections, sections into pieces. This is similar to language (letters into words, words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, and before you know it you have made your way through War and Peace.)

In the passage above, the natural grouping, in my mind, is 4 notes + 4 notes + 5 notes.  (This also helps with the acceleration into the e-flat dotted quarter note, because you will naturally play the five-note group a little faster that the four-note groups.)

When I started learning the piece, I practiced it with that rhythmic framework in mind; within those groupings, I made sure the notes were technically even – no finger glitches or rhythmic stumbles.

Once that was done, I went on to step two: capturing the musical gesture. Edie has made it easy to do this, as she is both a very gifted composer and gave really clear indication what the music should feel like. So I (literally) played around with the phrase, experimenting with the pace and the acceleration, until I found something that I liked. And I generally keep it like that, through many performances of the piece. But I have to add that, having performed Harvest Moon and Tide at least a hundred times, I am so comfortable with the piece that I do tweak the phrases in performances depending on my mood. These differences are very subtle, but they serve to keep the music sounding spontaneous without sacrificing either the composer’s intent or the technical parameters.

What to do if a passage still sounds awkward to your ear despite everything? In that case, I would record myself using different note groupings, if that’s the issue. If it’s a musical issue in that something doesn’t “feel” right, again, I would record myself, experimenting with different patterns of acceleration/ritard/rubato, maybe different dynamics, different phrasing, whatever. Play around with it and then listen to the results. Many times what I thought sounded one way to myself as the performer sounded different when I was the listener. If we take away our instrument and just simply listen to the music and trust our own musical instincts, we’ll find the phrasing that feels right to us.

You can check out Linda’s performance of Harvest Moon and Tide from “This Floating World” by Edie Hill at

Or hear her live:

  • Wednesday, October 27, at 8:00 pm, Williams College, Williamstown, MA
  • November 11-13, Texas tour including:  Texas Women’s University, the University of North Texas and as a guest artist with the Texas Flute Society
  • Tuesday, November 16, at 7:00 pm Schmitt Music, Burnsville, MN, talk on overcoming performance anxiety and attaining peak performance, “It Sounded Better at Home!” sponsored by Yamaha Flutes.

Linda’s website is – bio, sound clips, her own blog, concert schedule, and more!

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