The Practice Notebook

flutist Zara Lawler shares tips on learning music



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!

Guerrilla Practicing: Dispatch from the Front


MISSION:  Prepare for solo recital

PERFORMANCE HORIZON:  Recital is in less than a week, but had to pause preparation for performance with River Oaks Chamber Orchestra

SITUATION: In transit all day, Houston to NYC, with a stop in Atlanta

DATE:  President’s Day

TIME:  08:15, an hour and a half before flight time

LOCATION:  Houston Airport

RECON:  Wandered the terminal for 15 minutes, looking for a prime guerilla practice location; located an empty gate

OUTCOME:  Acquired permission of the gate attendants and then practiced there immediately

WHAT:  physical warm ups, a few long tones, chromatic scales, Taffanel & Gaubert No. 4


  • calling it “guerrilla practicing” makes it feel dramatic, which is fun
  • great to get in my scales before sitting on an airplane for hours
  • great to feel like I’m doing everything I can to get ready for the recital


  • practicing in public inhibits my willingness to sound bad , so it’s not the most effective practicing I do
  • practicing in an airport has the added worry that people will think that I’m some sort of flute-playing-terrorist-spy (best not to tell them that it’s “guerrilla!”)

COLLATERAL PRACTICE:  mental practice and score study on the plane


  • college dorm laundry room
  • hotel pool rooms and conference rooms (for early morning practice—no guest rooms overhead; ask permission from the front desk first)
  • the tunnel under Barnard College
  • airports:  Detroit, El Paso, Laguardia
  • my grandparents’ basement


  • relative privacy
    • ideally, no one is around
    • if there are people there (like in an airport), look for a spot where people are passing through (like a passage between terminals), rather than sitting in one spot
    • not too much noise
    • not too hot or too cold


  • anything that you are generally already pretty good at (so you don’t have to worry too much about being willing to sound bad)

REQUEST FOR FURTHER INFORMATION:  Where have you guerrilla practiced?*

*NOTE Guerrilla practicing is not the same as vista practicing, in which you practice outdoors or in some beautiful vacation spot.  Vista practicing will be covered in a later dispatch.

Your Practice Notebook vs. Hypothermia


When I had a lesson with Judith Mendenhall, years ago, she told me a memorable story.  She and a friend were backpacking in Colorado when they were surprised by a bad storm. As they were above the tree line, they were worried they were going to get hypothermia.  Since they knew that one of the symptoms of hypothermia is losing the ability to make good decisions, they tried to make as many decisions as quickly as possible.  For example, they decided that if things got really bad, they would leave their packs behind.  This would make it easier for them to get down the mountain faster, ahead of the bad weather.

mountain climbers

This dramatic story has stayed with me, and I think it can illustrate an important function of the practice notebook:  you can use your notebook to make difficult decisions ahead of time.  Obviously, you aren’t facing hypothermia in your practice (!) but you may have times when you are faced with other things that could cloud your ability to make good decisions, and I will explain how your notebook can help you weather those storms.

This hit me in November when I was getting ready for a recital at Trinity Church here in New York [click the link to see a webcast of it].

I was working on Georges Enesco’s beautiful and impressive Cantabile et Presto for flute and piano. The fast and furious Presto is full of double-tonguing passages and tricky chromatic sections where the articulations go across the beat:

enesco 99-102 final

I must admit that I HATE practicing this kind of thing (my own ‘storm’ if you will…). Anything that involves articulation—double tonguing, triple tonguing, complicated slur patterns…*  Consequently, I put off practicing tonguing sometimes.  Yes,this happens even to me, author of The Practice Notebook!

Cut to Thanksgiving weekend, 2009.  My performance of the Enesco was just one week away.  I knew I had to get busy on some of those tricky passages.  Like a hiker facing hypothermia, I made my decisions ahead of time. At the end of each practice session, I decided what I would practice at the next one, and wrote it down in my notebook. In this way, I solved the problem of inertia before I even had it.

Let’s take bars 99 to 102 for example (shown above).  The only way to master them was to practice bar 102, then 101 and 102, then 100 through 102, etc, and to work on it everyday. I planned to do 6 repetitions at each metronome level:

  • once all slurred (to give the tongue a break)
  • twice as written
  • one more time all slurred
  • twice more as written

It felt like a double blow:  I would have to spend lots of time on articulation, and my ego had to accept that I was struggling with something that I like to think “should be” easy.  When it’s mastered, it sounds easy, anyway!

I wrote the protocol in my book, and stuck to it.  It was like throwing myself a lifeline.

notebook enesco cape cod 1

When practicing, I get very rational, and into problem solving mode; I can see clearly what needs to be done next, even if there isn’t time that day to do it.  That clear-eyed version of myself then can send a note, in the practice notebook, to the future version of myself, the one who will be coming to the practice room with fear and loathing in her heart, thinking, “Ugh, not another day of articulation practice!”  That note says,

enesco notebook cape cod 2

and the bad decision of hypothermia (i.e. to not practice bars 100-101 again) is averted.

As you can see from the page above, I had to throw myself two life lines that day.  The first was to practice bars 100 and 101 of the Enesco again (before moving on to working on three bars at a time).  The second was the more tough-love note to “suck it up” when working out the opening of the Piazzolla with a metronome.

Sometimes our desire, as musicians (and people!), to sound good all the time (even while practicing) or to wrap up a practice session quickly can be like hypothermia to a hiker:  your brain goes a little foggy and you have a hard time making good decisions.  The practice notebook can be your lifeline—the small thing that tips the balance in favor of good short-term decisions that serve your long-term goals.

You can see a video webcast of the performance of the Enesco and Piazzolla here.  For a pdf of the program, with webcast timings, click lawler trinity 09 program webcast timings.

*note: I think it’s for two reasons:  1) a natural preference for things that are smooth and clean, like slurs, new ziploc bags and modern architecture and 2)the tongue is a lazy muscle, and so practicing tonguing is arduous.

Photo Credit: Jeff Pang

11 (or 12) Tips on Practicing over the Holidays


snow crystal

They’re here!  The winter holidays, filled with family visits, parties and gatherings, travel, chocolate, new toys, a surprising amount of stress, and hopefully, more chocolate.

Many of these things can mean major interruptions in your practice routine.  If you’ve been away at music school, you may suddenly find yourself back at home with people who want to see you, not hear your scales from behind closed doors.  For professionals, you may have gigs sprinkled randomly throughout the season, interspersed with long travel days and social obligations that trump professional considerations.

Practicing over vacation, while everyone else is playing with new toys, can be a real challenge.  Here are a few strategies that I’ve employed over the years to make practicing work over the holidays.

  1. Let your family know ahead of time that you will be practicing. The delicate balancing act of family and practice is a LOT easier if my family knows about it ahead of time, and knows why it’s important. If you have a concert or audition coming up, let them know!
  2. Get creative about where you practice. I remember several Christmas vacations spent practicing in my grandparents’ basement.  It was not the most pleasant place to play, but it was the only spot that was quiet and that I could call my own for a few hours a day.  Find your own private practice spot.
  3. Get creative about when you practice. It’s a tough discipline, but sometimes getting up early is a great way to get in some quality time on your instrument before family madness is in full swing.  (Especially if you can practice somewhere far away from sleepers, like the basement!)
  4. Plan ahead. Decide ahead of time what you are going to practice, when, and how much.  At the end of each practice session, make a plan for the next day’s work, and write it in your practice notebook.  Then when you drag yourself away from the Playstation tomorrow, all you have to do is follow your own directions, not reassess your practice needs.
  5. Be reasonable with your goals. Winter break is NOT the time to up your practice routine from 3 hours a day to 5. Let’s be real, people!
  6. Practice big ideas. Winter break often means an interruption in your normal lesson schedule, if you are a student.  Maybe you have 2 or more weeks between lessons instead of just one.  That makes it a good time to spend some focused effort on big ideas that your teacher has been working on–like changing your posture or your embourchure.
  7. Practice a new piece of music you’ve been wanting to play, or a piece you really love. Make sure you have a compelling reason to take yourself away from family activities:  music that you love, or music that you haven’t been able to find time for during the school year.  I’m going to be working on Edie Hill’s This Floating World and I can’t wait!
  8. Find time to enjoy casual chamber music with family or friends. Normally, I would say that playing duets with your dad doesn’t count as practicing, but over the holidays, it’s a great way to keep your chops up, and to reconnect with the reason you became a musician in the first place.

    portrait of the author as a young flutist (in fifth grade, playing Christmas carols with my father)

    portrait of the author as a young flutist (in fifth grade, playing Christmas carols with my father)

  9. Perform for your family. This one is especially good for younger musicians, and music school students. Just make sure you choose your pieces carefully.  As an enthusiastic student, I once played some weird “new” music for my partly tone-deaf grandmother, and she stopped me in the middle of it, saying it was so loud, it made her stomach hurt!  I should have stuck with the Ave Maria
  10. Give yourself some external motivation. Bart Feller, principal flute of the New Jersey Symphony, just mentioned to me that he is headlining the Kentucky Flute Fair in January, and that not only is he looking forward to the Fair itself, but to having a reason to stay in shape over the break.  Everyone needs external motivation, and a performance or audition scheduled for early January is a great reason to practice over the holidays.
  11. Cut yourself some slack. It is vacation after all, and we all need a break from time to time.  If you want a break, but you have to keep practicing (because you have an audition in early January…), schedule some off days, and stick to them. Enjoy them, even!  You might find that a day or two of rest improves your playing. It’s a phenomenon my colleagues and I call The Magic of Gestation, and will be the subject of it’s own post next year sometime.
  12. Eat lots of chocolate. I’m pretty sure there are studies that show this helps with your music performance…

Happy New Year!

Photo credits:  Snow crystal:  elif ayse;  Me & my father playing together:  my grandfather.

The 30-Minute Rule


Are you wondering how much to practice?  And how to organize your practice time so that you get the most out of it?  You know you’re supposed to take breaks every once in a while, but how often?  How do you keep yourself from practicing too much at one sitting, when you’re really on a roll?

clock for 30 min rule

For me, part of the answer is the 30-Minute Rule.  I practice in sessions of 30 minutes, separated by breaks of 5 or more minutes.

I find that anything longer than 30 minutes starts to yield diminishing returns—my mind wanders and my sound gets bad, usually around the 32-minute mark.  I know that sounds comically precise, but I’ve been keeping track of these things in my handy practice notebook for years, so I know!  In fact, every once in a while I break the 30 minute rule when I’m feeling desperate to learn a lot of music, and it ALWAYS yields the same things:  more frustration and a bad sound.

Knowing that there is a time limit to your session can help keep your mind focused.  Practicing may be challenging, but you know it’ll be over soon.

It can also make it easier to start your session—OK, today I really have to tackle those nasty octave slurs, but it’ll be over in half an hour.  I mean really, you could probably do anything for half an hour, if you had to.

The 30-Minute Rule is also for your physical well-being.  Playing a musical instrument is physically intense and your body, just like your mind, needs regular breaks from the rigors of practice.  Breaks help you to recover, and need to be built into the structure of your practice day.

Back in ye olden times, I used to try and practice at least 45 minutes or an hour at a stretch.  The thing is, when I tried to practice that much in one sitting, I usually found myself staring blankly out the window for any number of those 45 minutes—effectively I was taking a break.  Then I would berate myself for spacing out, and force myself back to work.  Eventually, I figured, why not just make it official, and work 30 minutes at a time, then take a real break?

The 30-Minute Rule also fits very nicely with the 10-Minute Rule.  You can do 3 10-minute segments within one larger 30-Minute session.  This can give you a good idea of what you can reasonably accomplish in your practice session. Knowing what you can do in 30 minutes will help you know how much you need to practice all together, and you can use your 10-minute units to divide up the time sensibly.

If you are professional musician, or music school student, give the 30- and 10-Minute Rules a try for a week or so and see if they are the right time units for you (brass players, for example, might want to plan breaks after a shorter time period).  While you’re experimenting, listen to your body, and adjust until you find your ideal practice time unit.  Then give it a fancy name (i.e. The 27 and 1/2 Minute Rule) and stick to it.

If you are an amateur or younger student, start with a smaller unit of time for your session of practice, maybe only 20 minutes, and divide it into shorter segments that make sense and feel good to you.  Then you can work up to longer sessions.  Remember, two sessions of 20 minutes with a break in between will yield far better results than 40 minutes in a row.

Keep an eye out for more on how to organize your practice in following posts.  And for more on breaks, see What to do on Breaks.

Happy Practicing!

Photo Credit: apesara

Just say "No"


I was practicing the other day, and in my practice room is a book I’ve been reading about teaching music theory using fun games (Music Mind Games, by Michiko Yurko).  It’s a pretty cool book that I bought about ten years ago and am only just reading now.  As I was doing my warm-ups the other morning, I started to wonder if Yurko has a website.  I actually put my flute down, and was part way out the music room door before something kicked in and I said to myself “No, I am not Googling Michiko Yurko right now, I am practicing the flute.”

chess player

Which reminded me of a topic I want to write about for this blog: using the power of saying “no” to improve your concentration.  (Ironically, then I wanted to make lots of notes for the article, but I had to say to myself “No, I am not writing my blog right now, I’m practicing the flute.”)

I learned this mental trick when I was taking Alexander technique lessons.  Alexander technique is a system of body use and body awareness that aims to solve and prevent physical problems, and to promote optimal body use. In Alexander technique, you inhibit your old physical habits in order to replace them with new, healthier ones.

In the realm of music practice, I like to call this idea “Strategic Inhibition.”  It’s funny to think of inhibition as a positive thing–usually, we get advice on how to loosen up and get over our inhibitions, and few musicians would say that they are hoping to be more inhibited in their playing! When used strategically, however, it can be a useful tool to help you get and stay focused.

Strategic inhibition is pretty straightforward.  If you find yourself getting distracted, you can use the following phrase to bring yourself back to the matter at hand:

No, I am not X-ing right now, I am practicing the Y.

(Where X=the distracting thing you want to do, and Y=your instrument)

It’s kind of like a negative affirmation, and it is surprisingly effective for such a simple tool.  I think it works because of a few key things:

  1. Saying “no” is powerful—that’s why they teach it in self-defense classes.  Here, you’re defending yourself against distractions.
  2. It acknowledges what it is that’s distracting you.  Trying to pretend that the attraction of the Internet didn’t exist would not be as effective.
  3. By using the words “right now,” you give yourself the option to come back to whatever it is later—the Internet will still be there when you finish practicing.
  4. It ends on a positive note, “I am practicing the flute.”

And you can use it as many times in a practice session as you need to—it only takes a few seconds.

So, give it a try.  Harness the paradoxically positive power of “No.”

Let me know how it works for you.

NOTE:  Another form of strategic inhibition is the Post-It Trick.

Photo Credit: Tony the Misfit

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

Defense against the Dark Arts for Musicians


stop voldemort

Sometimes a life in music can feel pretty crappy.  You love the music so much, it’s hard to ever feel satisfied with the way you play it, or a big concert is coming up and the stakes seem so high that you walk around with your stomach a knot of fear all day.  Negative voices in your head say you’ll never be “good enough.”  When the negativity really gets going, it can feel like a Dementor attack, straight out of Harry Potter.

For those of you who aren’t up on your Harry Potter, Dementors are the guards of Azkaban, the wizarding prison.  They feed on all human negative emotion, and when they attack, they literally suck the soul right out of you.  If you haven’t read Harry Potter, but you HAVE gotten all worked up about a concert or an audition, you probably know a little what it feels like to have the soul sucked out of you.  Sure, Harry Potter is fiction, but the ability of negative thoughts to suck at your soul is, unfortunately, all too true.

So what’s a musician to do?

I recently got a great pep talk on this very topic from my dear friend, soprano Mary Ellen Callahan.  I was confessing to her the great fear I have been feeling while practicing for my upcoming performance at the NFA Annual Convention.  It’s that kind of fear that just sits at the bottom of your stomach, present as you do your daily routine like practicing or washing the dishes.  It had gotten to the point that I had a hard time even doing positive visualizations, because the fear was dominating my mind.

Mary Ellen suggested thinking of a time that I felt really good performing—even if it was a different piece, and then once I was nicely in that memory, I could just slip in a new visualization of me playing the music I’m working on now, but feeling as good as I did in the memory.  It’s like reminding yourself of what feeling good was, and then bringing that feeling into the present (and, ultimately, the future).

It just so happens that later that same day, I watched Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban on TV, and realized that basically Mary Ellen was suggesting a kind of real world Patronus Charm.  You remember the Patronus Charm:  that’s when a wizard thinks of his very best memory, a time when he was really really happy, and thus can conjure up a magical shield that protects him from Dementors.

So, for my practicing, I’ve remembered a few times when I felt really in the zone, when time slowed down, and I felt like I could do anything.  Then, as Mary Ellen suggested, I pull a fast one on my mind, and switch the original piece with Lowell Liebermann’s Eight Pieces. It’s worked pretty well so far.  Not only has it helped me to feel more calm as I practice, it has also made my practicing more effective.  On a couple of occasions, things that normally would take me two 10-minute segments to learn got done in less than one!

Also in The Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry and his classmates learn the Riddikuls charm to ward off boggarts.  A boggart is a magical creature that takes on the form of your worst fears, and it is disarmed by turning it into something funny.  For example when Ron’s boggart takes the shape of a giant spider, he envisions it on roller skates and the hilarity of the image of a spider skittering around on eight sets of wheels robs the boggart of its fear-fuelled power.

I’ve been using the Riddikulus Charm like so:

Fear:  Me at the NFA Convention:



Yes, that IS Sir James Galway’s head on my body.  Riddikulus indeed!
What do you think is riddikulus?  How would you re-envision a scary performance to make it funny?  Whose head would you put on your body?  Send them in, please!

PS.  In case you need a little more Harry Potter inspired humor, go here and watch my Asterisk colleague Meaghan Heinrich doing her amazing “Baby Got Wand” as H. Pizzle himself.

PPS.  Photo credits:  Stop Voldemort by Ellie, Me in Krishna pose by Mike Wheatley, Sir James in Krishna pose by me.

Separate Like from Like


[Note: This principle applies to regular practice as well as memorization, but for the purposes of today’s post, I will focus on memorization.]

record player

An old fashioned LP works like this:  it has a single groove that spirals around the record.  You place the needle in the groove, and as the record spins, it traces the entire length of the groove seamlessly from start to finish.

Your brain is a little bit like that when you have learned a piece of music really well.  You have created a neural pathway, or series of pathways, that are as smooth and inevitable as the groove in a record.  And though ultimately that pathway will carry you from start to finish of a piece, you create it by making only small sections, (the length of a phrase or less) at a time. Each phrase you learn is like a little groove in your brain.

Most pieces of music repeat themselves at some point: it’s compositionally sound to do so, for example, at the recapitulation of a sonata form piece. Similar phrases have similar grooves, and they need to be practiced with special care.

She Moved through the Fair from John Corigliano’s Three Irish Folksong Settings is a good example.  I was just practicing it for Asterisk’s performances at Old Songs Festival last week.  Here are two phrases from the piece:

corig 3-1
corig 3-2

As you can see, they are very similar, though they are not strict repetitions of each other.

You might think, on first glance, that you could be extra efficient with your memorizing by learning both phrases at once, maybe by alternating between the two over the course of your repetitions.  That method, however, turns out to be much less efficient than memorizing them one at a time.

You need to make a separate place in your brain for each of those phrases.  The grooves are similar, yes, but they have to be separate.  And try as you might in this age of multitasking, your brain can only learn one thing at a time.

So start by learning the first phrase, all by itself.  Use the Post-it trick, or do whatever you need to resist the temptation to learn both phrases at the same time.  When you work on the second phrase, it’s OK to use your knowledge of the first as the starting point in your process.

In the example of the Corigliano, that would mean saying to yourself something like: “This is just like the opening phrase, but the rhythm is reversed in the second beat, and it ends with a trill on the A-flat and accents.”  Then, the more you practice it, the more it will start to take on its own character and its own place in your brain.  You will find that learning this second version of the phrase takes way less time than the first.

Not only do you need to practice similar phrases each on their own, but this can be most effectively done by separating the practice sessions in which you practice them.  For example, if you’re working on the fist phrase of the Corigliano on a Monday, come back to the second phrase on Tuesday, or better yet, on Friday (practice something else on the days in between).  This gives the first phrase a nice long time to gel in your mind before you challenge your brain with something that is so similar to it.

If you come back to the second version too quickly, before the first has had that time to sink in, your brain will think you’re just adding new information to the first groove, not that you are creating a new one, and you’ll find yourself confused in performance over which is which.

Photo credit: jonathan.youngblood

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