The Practice Notebook

flutist Zara Lawler shares tips on learning music

Back to School: 8 Tips for getting back into Shape


It’s that time of year again, the beginning of the school year.  Time for new backpacks, new notebooks, and new projects. And for many of us, it’s time to get back into practicing after a summer hiatus.

back to school

I always find getting back into playing shape after a break rather arduous.  Inertia is a powerful obstacle, and when I’ve gotten out of the habit of practicing it is hard to get back on many levels:  I don’t sound good, I don’t feel good, and I don’t think good neither!

With that in mind, and hopefully with better grammar, I’ve compiled a list of tips for getting back into shape.  They deal with the musical, physical, and psychological aspects of the process.  Many of the tips, as you might expect, are gentle reminders of good, basic practice technique.  A few of them (see No’s 4 through 6) are just the opposite of what I usually prescribe, and only apply for those first few practice sessions after a break.

  1. Know that all your skills will come back.  The first few practice sessions after a break are ALWAYS tricky (for me, day 3 is the worst), but trust me and your past experience: you’ll get back to where you were before.
  2. External motivation always trumps inertia, so give yourself a reason to get back into practicing. If you are a student, schedule a lesson.  If you are a professional, find yourself a low-stakes gig (like playing at a retirement home or for friends in a salon setting).
  3. Make sure you do your physical warm-ups.  This is so important, it warrants two exclamation points!!  Jumping right back into practice after a break is an easy way to get hurt, and physical warm-ups go a long way toward preventing injury.
  4. Speaking of preventing injury, make your first few practice sessions shorter than normal.  For example, my normal warm-up routine (stretches, long tones, scales, etc) takes 50 minutes to an hour.  After a hiatus, I do a “best-of” version that takes just under 30 minutes:  stretches, condensed long-tones, and my two favorite scale patterns.
  5. Play something you like, not something you love.  For me, one of the main obstacles to getting back into practicing is how bad I sound, so playing a piece of music that I have a big emotional investment in feels too discouraging.
  6. Don’t practice the hardest part first.  Ordinarily, that’s a great way to practice a piece, but not for your first few sessions back.  It can be disheartening, and can lead to the kind of poor practice technique that leads to injury. For me, this means no memorization work—it’s just too challenging right off the bat.
  7. Have you been thinking about something you’d like to change in your playing? Now is a good time to start experimenting with it.  Just remember tip No. 8:
  8. Go easy on yourself! The first few days back from a break are NOT the time to be berating yourself for lack of discipline, and they are definitely not the time to try and judge whether or not you are “talented” or “a good flutist.”  They are exactly the time to do whatever corny thing you can think of to make it nicer to get over the hump:  give your self a gold star in your notebook, take yourself out to ice cream after day 3, practice in your pajamas while lying in bed, whatever it takes!

gear shift

In a manual transmission car, first gear has only one function: to overcome inertia and take the car from still to moving.  The first few days of practice after a break are like first gear.  Their only function is to get you back at your instrument, and start you getting back into playing shape.  Don’t expect to solve any big problems on those few days, and don’t expect to learn volumes of music either.  Just getting over inertia is enough. You can shift into high gear in a few days.

Photo credits: School girls by zedzap, Gear stick by johnmarchan

posted under Techniques & Tricks
5 Comments to

“Back to School: 8 Tips for getting back into Shape”

  1. On September 17th, 2009 at 12:18 pm Anne Anderson Says:

    Great advice. Interestingly for me, a relative beginner, I’ve been finding that my travel breaks of two or more weeks primes me for surprising improvements in my playing…even my teacher notices. It might have to do with “gestation”, if by that you are referring to letting something sit within for a while, which I do while I’m away from my cello. I do things like imaginary practice, sing my music while I’m walking down the Champs Elysees, go to concerts and fantasize that the soloist throws up and I have to take over…..

  2. On September 22nd, 2009 at 9:46 pm Wayla Chambo Says:

    Great tips! If you are still looking for ideas, I would love to hear your thoughts about organizing practice time when you have a large amount of different repertoire to learn/work on at once.

  3. On November 6th, 2009 at 10:48 pm Kyle Says:

    Quick question,
    I’m a high school flute player but I’m in marching band (a very competetive one!) and I play alto sax in it! It’s horrible! The hours and hours of rehearsal prevent me from practicing (I also want to say that I hate marching band with a passion) my flute. On the days when I don’t have any after-school rehearsals, I’m too exhausted and swamped with homework that I need to catch up on. I want to play flute flute flute but these factors just prevent me from practicing. I even had to take a break from my private lessons because of my hectic schedual. So my questions are:
    Is there a trick to MAKE time with my flute and me, or is the only option to wait for marching season to be over? How do I keep my skills up? Even random advice/answer is appreciated :)

    Also, just because I’m bored, did you have any funny stories when you were in marching band? How did you like it and how did you DEAL WITH IT?


  4. On November 14th, 2009 at 2:20 pm admin Says:

    Dear Kyle,

    That is a tricky situation you find yourself in, and one that is not unique to the world of marching band. Lots of musicians, professional, amateur, student, etc. struggle to find the time they need and want to practice.

    The only “trick” I’ve ever found to make more time in the day is to get up VERY VERY early in the morning and squeeze in some practice then. I did that in high school when marching band and other activities made it hard to get all my practicing done in the evenings, and I did it just two years ago when I was preparing for a big recital while still in Tales & Scales (and I have the practice log entries to prove it!). It can be a bit grueling, and means you have to go to bed early, but because you do it first thing in the day, your practicing gets done, and that is a great feeling.

    Another way I found extra time in high school was to practice during study hall periods…if there is practice space at your school, maybe you can negotiate with your teachers to have free periods (lunch time if not study hall) be practice time.

    I am assuming from your email that you are required to be in marching band. I spoke to my percussion partner, Paul Fadoul, a little about your situation. He is a great marimba player, and also coaches drumlines. He suggested that you might enjoy playing in the front ensemble of your band instead of alto sax. It might be more fun for you, and would also be valuable musical training to boot, what with all those rhythms and playing several notes at the same time, etc.

    If you are not required to be in marching band, maybe you can start looking for some other musical outlets at school. Orchestra? Chamber music? Or is there a youth orchestra or band you could join outside of school, and maybe not be in marching band at all?

    And now to your last question…I did play in marching band for the entirety of my high school career, but ours wasn’t competitive—we played for the football games, and came up with new routines practically every week of the season! I remember making a giant pumpkin shape on the field the week of Halloween, and I remember all of us having red balloons hidden behind our backs for a dramatic moment in 99 Red Balloons (a German pop song from the 80’s—check it out on iTunes). And then there was the boredom of sitting through all the games, most of which we lost.

    The interesting thing is that now, as a professional musician who plays from memory, and moves as I play, I think of marching band not as a boring or comical experience, but as useful training. Maybe you’ll see it that way one day, too. In the meantime, start setting your alarm really early to find some practice time on the flute!


  5. On November 23rd, 2009 at 5:21 pm Lisa Dee Says:

    Twice in the two years since I started studying horn, I have been very sick and have missed a weekly lesson and had to “start again” after as much as two weeks of no practice. I would only add this thought to your really excellent points: sometimes, it seems as though when I have been away from the horn, when I come back, my “basics” are OK and what I have done is let go of my bad habits. It’s reassuring to realize that if I have a really solid base of good practice and lessons, having to stop practicing for a while (because it hurts my ears or I can’t sit up!) may just give me a chance to assimilate the good and release the bad.

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