The Practice Notebook

flutist Zara Lawler shares tips on learning music

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!

Postcard from Yellow Barn


My marimba partner, Paul Fadoul, and I just got to spend 5 days in beautiful Putney, Vermont, in a residency hosted by the Yellow Barn Music School. It was so beautiful and peaceful there–it was like being at a music spa.

I made a video comparing the experience of practicing in New York City with practicing in Vermont:

How about you?  Any experiences practicing in beautiful locations?  Did the beauty of the place change your experience of practicing?  Did it have any lasting effects?

You can read more about our time at Yellow Barn here.

Inspiration from John Steinbeck


Into the Light

I was going through some old notes and quotes the other day, and came across this one from East of Eden, which I think is a nice follow-up for Process, not Progress.

In human affairs of danger and delicacy successful conclusion is sharply limited by hurry.  So often men trip by being in a rush.  If one were properly to perform a difficult and subtle act, he should first inspect the end to be achieved and then, once he had accepted the end as desirable, he should forget it completely and concentrate soley on the means.  By this method he would not be moved to false action by anxiety or hurry or fear.  Very few people learn this.

Nicely said, don’t you think?

Photo credit:  Memotions

How do I want this to sound?


In my last post, I suggested starting each practice session with the question, “How do I want this to sound?”  It’s a simple idea, and it has given me lots of inspiration since I was inspired by Jean Ferrandis at the New York Flute Club Flute Fair (see previous post).

This psychic stance, starting from “how I want it to sound” has been very refreshing for me. I think most of my previous practice would start with “how it sounds now” and be focused on trying to make it sound “better.”

Starting with “how do I want it to sound” gives me so many more options, and so much more joy as I work.

It’s also cool as someone who is no longer a “new player.”  I’ve been playing the flute for 30 years now, and pursuing the sound I want, and what I want to share with the audience, is a lot more interesting than just making a piece sound “good.”

Thinking about “how I want it to sound” has been very illuminating, giving me a new perspective on a range of pieces. I recently performed the following works on a recital: one piece I know very well and have performed many times (the Poulenc Sonata), one piece that is new to me but that many flutists have performed and has a ‘history’ (CPE Bach’s Sonata in A Minor for solo flute) and two pieces that are new to me, and relatively recently written (both by Anthony Newman ).

For the old chestnut, the Poulenc, asking myself how I want it to sound has re-opened my imagination, giving me a new and refreshed sense of discovery about the piece…and a new level of confidence in my own interpretation.

For the two Newman pieces, this approach has helped me to get deeper into the process of interpretation sooner than I usually do with new works.  With these new pieces, not only do I start with “how do I want it to sound” but I keep coming back to that question and refining my answer as I learn the pieces better and better.

The CPE Bach falls somewhere in between. I have only just been learning it this year, so in some senses it’s a new piece.  But there are many recordings out there, and it gets taught in master classes*, and so there are lots of opinions about this piece floating in the ether of the flute world (yes, all you non-flutists, there is an “ether of the flute world” and it does have opinions floating in it). Those opinions can feel like a standard to which I must aspire…maybe not so much “how I can play” it, but “how I should play it.”  The Ferrandis approach, however, helps me to move past the “should.”

All of which adds to a better experience not only while practicing, but while performing.

*In fact, it’s the piece that was being played in the Ferrandis class I heard, as well as the subject of Paula Robison’s class this year at Diller-Quaille.

Photo Credit:  Mel B.

Why bother with good practice, anyway? Part 2


I recently had the chance to attend a master class by the wonderful French flutist, Jean Ferrandis. It was at the New York Flute Club’s Flute Fair (yes, all you non-flutists, there is a New York Flute Club and they do host a Flute Fair!), on March 28.

Jean Ferrandis

I only got to see the last student play, and over the course of his coaching, Ferrandis said a very inspiring thing:

“Most musicians settle for how they can play, not how they want to play.”

Actually, now that I see it written out, it’s kind of a depressing statement on the world of music. But if you tweak it so that it’s about practicing, which I think was Ferrandis’ implication, it can be quite inspiring:

Why do we practice? So that we can play how we want to play


Why do we practice? To transform how we can play into how we want to play


Why do we practice? So that our musical abilities need not be limited by our physical abilities

OR, more how Jean Ferrandis might put it:

Why do we practice? So that the audience can hear our music, and get to know us

In fact, he also said,

Music is not about doing a good job, it’s about sharing yourself.


The problem is never technical, it is always musical.

When you open your mind to greater possibilities, not just how you can play something, but how you want to play it, your body finds the way to achieve it.

That’s a good practice principle that is also a reason to bother with good practice.

Try it in your own practice in the next week or so. Begin every session with the question:

How do I want this to sound?

See if it brings up anything new or interesting for you, and please share your experiences as comments below. My next post will detail some of the ways this approach has affected my practicing in the last few weeks.

(And if you need more inspiration, check out Why bother with good practice? Part 1)

A word of advice from Albert Einstein



I first came upon this quote in the “Spiritual Warmups” section of Paula Robison’s Flute Warmups Book.  I have often though of it since, when I am hit with a case of I-Don’t-Wanna-Practice Syndrome:

Never regard study as a duty, but as the enviable opportunity to learn to know the liberating influence of beauty in the realm of the spirit for your own personal joy and to the profit of the community to which your later work belongs.

I’m sorry I don’t have more time this week for a longer post, but since that quote pretty much says it all (after all, Einstein was a genius), I’ll leave it at that for now.

A Story about Metronome Trick No. 1, what a small world it is, and how the world sometimes gives you the information you need.


I started writing this blog last fall, and publishing it in December, as is probably obvious  to you if you are reading this now.  This week, I was going to post an entry on how practicing is like and not like playing video games, but since something incredible happened this weekend, you’ll have to wait to hear about video games and music practice.

It all started with the first draft of my entry on Metronome Trick No. 1. (but as you will read, it goes back even further in time than that…) Here is a paragraph that I cut from the final entry about that metronome trick:

I learned this technique the weekend I auditioned for Eastman.  I was staying with a friend of mine from high school, and his roommate, a violinist named (I think!) Tom, told me about it.  I forget the exact context of the conversation, but what I do remember is that he made it sound like no other practice technique was worth bothering with, because this one was so superior.

So, did I make an effort to track down the identity of the mystery violinist so that he could be properly credited and included in my entry?  No, I did not.  I confess it just seemed easier to cut the paragraph from the article.

But the small world of music did the job for me.  I spent the last few days at the very awesome Chamber Music America Conference where I was talking to the cool flutist Laura Barron. When she casually mentioned that she had just run into a violinist friend from Eastman 20 years ago named Tom, I did not immediately leap on that tidbit of information (I didn’t want to appear crazy, after all.)  I bided my time, and later in the conversation I asked if she knew my friend from high school, the composer Brian Schachter, with whom I had stayed lo those many years ago.  When she said she did, I knew it had to be the same Tom.

Sure enough, I got to meet him later at the conference and solved the mystery of his moniker: it turns out his last name is Stone, and he plays with the Cypress Quartet. When I told him the story, he said, “Yeah, that sounds like me.  I had pretty strong opinions when I was a teenager.”

me, contemplating the small world we live in, writing this entry on the plane after the conference.

me, contemplating the small world we live in, writing this entry on the plane after the conference.

I cannot tell you how cool it was to re-meet someone who inadvertently had such a big effect on me.  That was the only conversation I had with Tom when I was there for my audition, but I was so green, so wanting to be in music school, and to know all the things people like Tom knew, that it had a huge effect on me.  He said it with such force and conviction — I wanted to feel that confident about playing and practicing!  He just swept into the room, anointed me with his wisdom and swept out – and didn’t even know how much he affected me.

And what a pearl of wisdom it is, people.  Metronome Trick No. 1 has been my main way of practicing ever since.  Probably 75% of my practice time is spent going up two and down one on ye olde metronome.  And there he was at the conference:  Mystery Tom, from the mists of time!  Talking to me!

So, thank you, Tom Stone, for having strong opinions when you were a teenager, and for being at the CMA Conference. And thank you, world, for twice giving me information that I needed.

Why Bother with Good Practice? Part 1


We don’t become musicians (and this applies to amateurs, beginners and professionals alike) because we want to stay at home and practice.  We become musicians because music is awesome, and playing it is a powerful tool for self-expression. When we play classical music, we  collaborate with the composer (yes, even the dead ones!), expressing our own inner understanding of the music to an audience. In doing so, we can reach a transcendent communicative state between ourselves, the music and its composer, and our audience. Seriously, people, it’s the best!

Practice is what makes that expression possible, and good practice brings our actual performance closer and closer to a true representation of that inner thing we want to express.  This is why we practice: to discover the content of the music and our connection to it and to make sure our playing communicates this to the audience, every time.

Now having said all that, can practicing be fun?  Can you like it?

Good practice isn’t just a question of doing everything in the most efficient (fastest!) way possible, so you can get on with the rest of your life already.  It is mindful, attentive, and ultimately, very interesting.  It offers you the chance to get to know the music and the instrument better, but also to get to know yourself on a very detailed and intimate level.  Admittedly, that might fall a bit short of fun, but that process of discovery will carry you through a lot of practice time over the years.

At its best, I find practicing to be meditative:  the focused repetition and exploration of small ideas, one at time.  It’s kind of like combing my brain.

If you can see practice in this light, you are in good company. Here’s what Martha Graham had to say about practice:

I believe that we learn by practice. Whether it means to learn to dance by practicing dancing, or to learn to live by practicing living, the principles are the same. In each, it is the performance of a dedicated, precise set of acts, physical or intellectual, from which come shape of achievement, the sense of one’s being, the satisfaction of spirit. One becomes in some area an athlete of God. Practice means to perform over and over again, in the face of all obstacles, some act of vision, of faith, of desire. Practice is a means of inviting the perfection desired.*

That’s pretty beautiful and inspiring, right?  You already know you want to play as well and beautifully as possible.  Why not learn to practice as well and beautifully as possible? It can only help your playing and your experience of music.

So stop reading this blog and hop to it!

*Excerpt from “An Athlete of God,” written by Martha Graham. From the book THIS I BELIEVE, edited by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman. Copyright ©2006 by This I Believe, Inc. Reprinted by arrangement with This I Believe, Inc.  To hear Martha Graham reading this essay in its entirety, please visit:

**photo credit: