The Practice Notebook

flutist Zara Lawler shares tips on learning music

Another Chest Opener


Remember the Reverse Volleyball Stretch?  It’s really a stretch that opens and relaxes the muscles of your chest.  It’s great for musicians of all kinds because we all spend so much time (and muscle tension), hunched over our instruments.

I think counteracting our habitual closing of the chest is so important, I’ve recently added another chest opener to my routine.  I particularly like this one as a post-practice warm-down.

The Ritual Power of Physical Warm-ups


yoga on beach

Do you need another reason to add physical warm-ups to your daily practice routine? Here it is: As a ritual, your physical warm-ups can have a profoundly positive impact on your experience of performing. Those stretches and exercises that you do every day can eventually become a ritual that  focuses your mind and readies your spirit for the act of making music.

If you’ve ever been to a religious service, you’ve seen many examples of rituals:  from the small and simple gesture of bowing one’s head in prayer to the more involved actions surrounding Communion or Baptism (can you tell I have a Catholic background?). A secular example is the ceremonial taking down and folding of the flag at the end of the day.  Simple or complex, a ritual is a physical pattern one follows that has symbolic meaning.

One of the important things about a ritual is exactly that symbolic meaning, its spiritual/emotional/mental component.  Let’s take genuflecting as an example: the physical act is touching the floor with one knee, at the end of a pew, but the symbolic meaning is something along the lines of “I bow before God to show respect and receptivity.” Compare this to the case of your physical warm-ups:  while you are literally stretching certain muscles, you are symbolically saying, “Now I am getting ready for my regular practice.” (The key word in that sentence is “regular.”  A warm-up routine will not become a ritual unless you do it every time you practice.)


Yet the benefits of your warm-up ritual go beyond just signaling your readiness to practice. First,
you can use your warm-up ritual to great effect before performances.  Performing can be so anxiety-making because it is so unusual; relative to how many times you practice, you perform very little.  Doing your daily ritual warm-up before a performance can put you into (or closer to) your daily mindset.  It’s like saying to yourself, “Ok, no big deal.  This is just another practice day,” which in turn makes you feel more calm, and lowers the emotional stakes.

Another benefit is a little harder to describe, but no less important in the long run.  When you incorporate physical warm-ups into your daily practice, you eventually create a higher meaning to the physical work.  You not only ready your body to play, but you ready your mind and even spirit to play.  Your mind gets focused, and your spirit opens up to the power of music.  In short, you become more fully present.  There’s a reason all religions have rituals:  they work.

I experienced this in a very strong way last year—not before a performance but before my wedding!  [include pic]  On the morning of the big day, I was pretty excited, and pretty nervous, and was not at all sure what to do to get ready.  I had carved out a little bit of ‘alone time’ in the morning, and found myself pacing around the room, at a loss for how to prepare for this once-in-a-lifetime event.  You know when you’re so nervous that you feel trapped inside yourself, and not present to the place or other people around you?  That’s how it was.

I don’t know what possessed me to do it, since really, a wedding is not a concert, but I thought I’d do my flute stretches.  I guess it’s just because that’s what I usually do to prepare for something big.


The happy brides (I'm the one with blond hair)

It was amazing how effective it was. I went from feeling a little crazy and a lot nervous to thinking, “Oh, I’m me.  I’m ready to go.”  I felt like not only did my shoulders drop from up around my ears, but I became present to the moment: my mind focused and my spirit relaxed.

So if a few stretches, slowly crafted into a ‘get ready’ ritual over years of practice, can do that for a nervous bride, imagine what they can do for you before your next performance!  Get started now, and you’ll experience the benefits over your whole career.

PS.  If you’d like some suggestions on what stretches to do on a daily basis, click on “Physical Warm-ups” on the Categories sidebar at the right, and you can watch my video instructions on neck, shoulder, arm and hand stretches.

Photo Credits:  Yoga on the Beach by mikebaird, Prayer by prakhar, Wedding photo by Derek Goodwin

7 Ways to Make your Practicing more Efficient and Effective Starting TODAY



1.  Do a thorough physical warm-up. Physical warm-ups not only prevent injury, they make your practice more efficient. If you start practicing without doing a warm-up first, your body is going to be trying to do two things at once:  warming itself up to the task of playing and learning the new skill you are practicing.  Eventually, you will probably accomplish both those tasks, but you’d be able to do it faster and easier if you did them one at a time.  You can find my suggestions on physical warm-ups by clicking on “Physical Warm-ups” on the Categories tab at the right.

2.  Incorporate mental practice into your routine. Study after study has shown that some form of mental practice, separate from physical practice, enhances any skill you are trying to develop, whether it’s playing a sport or playing an instrument.  Why not experiment with one of the following techniques, even for just a few minutes a day?

  • Visualization: Imagine yourself playing beautifully in your upcoming concert or audition.
  • Score study: Notice how the piano part fits with yours.  Look for melodic and harmonic patterns.  Apply some of that stuff you learned in theory class to your own music!
  • Memorization: Try beginning the memorization process away from your instrument. Study the music phrase by phrase as you would if you were practicing with the instrument.
  • Practice the thought process you use while playing the piece. Page through the score while reminding yourself of the various things you need to think and do while playing the piece (make sure not to play this phrase too loudly, match the pitch of the horn on this note, use this long rest to relax the shoulders, etc).

3.    Practice the hard parts first. (after having done a good warm-up of course!) Jump into the deep end! When you practice the most challenging part of a piece of music, you are not only getting better at the piece, you’re getting better at your instrument.  So mastering the hard parts of a piece first will make the easy parts even easier, and therefore take even less time to practice.

4.    Be ruthless when isolating the problem spots. Sometimes the main obstacle to playing a difficult passage can be narrowed down to a single interval.  Tedious though it may seem to practice just two notes, it is way MORE efficient (and way LESS tedious) than slogging through an entire phrase over and over again.

5.    Close the door. Having a private space in which to practice can have a profound impact on your ability to concentrate. While you’re at it, you could also try turning off the phone and putting the computer to sleep.  If you don’t have a room in which to practice (for example, if you practice in your family’s living room), you can still find a way to metaphorically close the door—face your music stand away from the hall where people might be walking by or away from your sister sitting on the couch…


6.    Plan and take breaks. Give yourself a time limit and stick to it.  If you’ll be practicing for an hour, take a 5-minute break after half an hour.  You’ll come back refreshed, and your second half-hour of work will be more productive than it would have been if you had just plowed through.  Pilots are required to take breaks, and musicians should be too! For more on breaks, see this post.

7.    Keep a log. Think today about what you need to practice tomorrow and write it down.  It’ll save you the time of idly playing through your piece at your next session, trying to remember which spot you thought needed attention. I saved this one for last, since technically, it won’t improve your practicing until tomorrow.  For more on the value of keeping a practice notebook, check out my first and second posts.  And be sure to read the comments, as readers have posted some interesting ideas on the topic.


Photo credits: Stretch is by That Guy Who’s Going Places;  Clock is by inocuo;  Notebook is by *spudballoo*

Physical Warm-ups: Two Hand Stretches


The following are two hand stretches that I learned from the composer Michael Colgrass.  He gave a class at IU, back in ye olden times when I was a student there and before it became the Jacobs School of Music.

I’ve been using these stretches as part of my warm-up routine ever since.  I hope you will find them as useful as I have.

And a little prize for those of you who have made it to the bottom of this post:

Physical Warm-ups: Arms (Promoting the Flow of Ch'i)


Promoting the flow of what?

Ch’i is the life force, as interpreted by Chinese medicine.  It’s often Romanized in different ways, so you might have seen is written as Qi, or Ki.

I learned the exercise in the video below from an acupuncturist, when I was living in Hong Kong (and playing in the Hong Kong Philharmonic ).  It’s one of my favorite warm-ups because it is so gentle and easy, and feels really good.

While that acupuncturist might be surprised I use this exercise as a warm-up for playing the flute, I find it quite logical that if you’re going play music, it’s a good idea to have ch’i flowing through you as freely as possible…

Give it a try:

You can also do this exercise on your legs if you like.

Physical Warm-ups: Shoulder Stretches


This is the second in a series of posts about physical warm-ups. For a little bit of intro, please see the first post. For the entire series to date, please click on “Physical Warm-ups” under the heading “Categories” on the right side-bar.

Today, we’ll do two shoulder stretches.

The first will  get you moving, and is that old standby, the shoulder roll.

The second stretch is one of my favorites, but I don’t know what it’s called. For now, I’ve given it the title “The Nameless Shoulder Stretch.” I learned it from a chiropractor in Hong Kong, when I was playing in the orchestra there.

It may be familiar to many of you from other athletic pursuits, but please watch carefully as proper form for this stretch is the key to getting the most out of it.

A Special Note to Flutists

Have you ever had that “flute pain?” The one just under your shoulder blade? The Nameless Shoulder Stretch healed me of that pain. Watch the video below for a little bit more about that:

PS. If you think of a good name for the Nameless Shoulder Stretch, let me know!  I’m currently leaning toward “The Reverse Volleyball Stretch,” but I’m open to suggestion.

Physical Warm-ups 1: Neck Stretches


Playing an instrument is physically demanding, like playing a sport.  So, like an athlete, it’s a good idea to start your practicing with a physical warm-up.

The first thing I do every time I practice — before I play scales, or long-tones, and definitely before I tackle any thorny technical problems– I do a set of stretches for my whole body.  I start at the top (the neck) and work my way down.  In this and following posts, I will share my physical warm-up routine, and hope that you will find it useful.

Today, we’ll do three neck stretches.

The first is just to get you moving, and is the most simple, and most familiar:  the neck roll.

The second is more intense and focused.  I learned it from a book promising “natural ways to beat a headache.”  It didn’t lead to the end of any headaches for me sadly, but it has proved very useful as a warm-up for playing the flute.

The final exercise is from The Paula Robison Flute Warmups Book.  I like it because it emphasizes movement.  Much of our practice time is spent holding relatively still, which can lead to all sorts of tension.  This exercise is a nice counter-movement to the habitual stillness of practice.