The Practice Notebook

flutist Zara Lawler shares tips on learning music

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.

Memorization: The Post-it Trick



One of the keys to successful and pain-free memorization is to only memorize very small sections at a time.

The Problem

Working on only small sections sounds simple enough, but memorization is a tricky business.  It can be really tough, psychologically, to make yourself concentrate on only a very small section at time when you really want to be playing the whole piece.  Good music has a certain feeling of inevitability about it:  one phrase naturally leads to the next and seamlessly carries you and the audience through time.  And the better the music, the stronger that sense of inevitability.  So it can be really hard to make yourself stop at the end of a single phrase.

Flutists, try the first page of the Martin Ballade, and you’ll know what I mean.

If the music is very complicated, with lots of notes and accidentals, you might find yourself deciding to work on memorizing only a portion of a phrase.  And that, my friends, is an even tougher discipline:  to play, over and over, just half of a phrase!

The Solution

So what’s a flutist (or any other musician trying to memorize) to do?  My solution is to put blinders on, just like one puts on a horse drawing a carriage.  The easiest way I’ve found to do this is with Post-its:  I cover up the music that I am not memorizing, making it way easier to focus on only the section I’ve chosen.

Usually it’s enough to just cover the next few notes with a single Post-it:


But if I’m really having a hard time focusing, I’ll cover up the whole next phrase, and even some of the previous one:


A Related Problem

Another common memorization pitfall is giving in to anxiety about learning the entire piece, when what you need to be doing is simply concentrating on a small section.  This is totally normal, of course:  who hasn’t said, or heard a colleague say, “I can play the little sections, it’s playing the whole thing that’s hard?”

When I get caught up in that particular brand of anxiety, my inner monologue goes something like this:  Well, this phrase may be important, but what about the next one?  And the one after that?  And that tricky one at the end? I sometimes get so caught up in the enormity of the task (Play the entire Ibert Concerto from memory?  Seriously?), that it’s hard to concentrate on the small, manageable task of learning one small section at a time, even though in this blog I’m always singing the praises of small sections.

The Same Solution

The Post-it trick is not just a visual focus aid, it also helps you psychologically by hiding the enormity of the job.  It’s similar to when long-distance runners use “short focus:” they look only a few steps ahead at a time, and then can run a whole marathon that way.  It’s also a great trick for getting up hills, since at a short focus, it’s hard to perceive the slope of the hill.  Which is just like using the Post-it trick to keep you looking only at a small section, and not thinking about the whole piece.

Some Details

I’ve also learned to use Post-its in dark colors, or to use two of the light yellow ones, so that I’m not tempted to just read the music through the Post-it.  Another good way to maximize Post-it opacity is to put the sticky part a little above the music you want to hide, as the part of the Post-it that sticks off the music is less see-through.

If you don’t have a stack of Post-its at the ready, you can just use folded up scrap paper:


Horses wear blinders so that they don’t get spooked by other traffic on the road, and musicians need them for a similar reason.  By putting Post-it blinders on, you make it easier to concentrate on the small section you want to practice.  And, perhaps more importantly, this keeps you from getting spooked by the things you are choosing not to concentrate on.



In this photo, the horse is you.  The people on the motorcycle are the phrase after the one you’re practicing, and the tanker is the looming fear of playing the whole piece from memory…I think you get the picture!

Photo Credits: Black and white photo of horse: DMahendra Color photo of horse in traffic: Randy Son of Robert Other photos: me!

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.

How I Memorize Music



When I was first starting to do a lot of playing from memory (preparing for a big competition in my first year of graduate school), I wanted to have some sort of method that would help me feel certain that I had studied the music enough to know it for sure.   I thought that if the process of memorization felt systematic, I could be sure my preparation was thorough, which would translate into more confidence on stage.

I developed the following system at that time, and it has served me well in the years since.  I will devote future articles to some of its finer points, and why it works.  For today, however, I’ll cover the basic steps, so you can start using this system immediately.

The first thing you need to do is choose a short passage to memorize.  The principle of small sections is absolutely crucial to successful memorization – I can’t stress this enough! Please read my previous post on the topic of small sections if you need more information.

Once you’ve chosen your section, here’s what you do:

First stage:  Learning the passage mentally

1.    Play the passage twice through, reading it from the music, with the metronome on.
2.    Now, without looking at the music, think the passage through once at tempo (i.e., keep the metronome on).
3.    Play the passage once more while reading the music, noting anything that you forgot or didn’t know when you thought it through.
4.    Look away from the music, and think the passage at tempo another two times.

Total:  six times, three times playing from the music, three times thinking it through without the music

Second stage:  learning the passage physically

1.    Play the passage twice through, reading it from the music, with the metronome on.
2.    Now, without looking at the music, play the passage once through at tempo (keep the metronome on).
3.    Play the passage once more while reading the music, noting anything that you forgot or didn’t know when you thought it through.
4.    Look away from the music, and play the passage at tempo another two times.

Total:  six times through, three times playing from the music, three times playing from memory

Grand total:  twelve times through

For a slow passage, one or two times through this whole process is often enough to get it memorized.  Even if this process takes less than 10 minutes, I only do it one time through in a single practice session.  I come back to it the next day if I feel the passage needs another cycle through the memorization process.

For a fast passage that is technically challenging, here’s my routine:

  1. First I do the whole process, all twelve repetitions, at a slow tempo (often a tempo even slower than where I would start if I were merely working on the passage technically)
  2. Then I work on the passage using Metronome Trick No. 1, and at every tempo level I do the following:
  3. a.    One time through mentally, at tempo
    b.    Two times through playing while reading
    c.    One time through playing from memory
    d.    One time through playing while reading
    e.    Two times through playing from memory

Basically, at each tempo level you go through the passage once mentally, and then go through the entire second stage of memorization.

If you would like a cheat sheet that lists the basic steps of this memorization technique, here it is: memorization-cheat-sheet (click to download as a pdf).

As you try this technique, know that your skill with it will develop slowly, but it will improve over time. If at first you don’t succeed, try again with a shorter section of music.  There have been occasions (most notably complicated music like the Ibert Concerto) when I have memorized one beat at a time!

I find that working from memory is like developing any other skill—it gets easier as you get more proficient.  Your memory, just like your muscles, can be ‘in shape,’ and when it is, memorization happens faster.  And when you’re just starting, you need to start with small units, just as you would start with small weights for your first day at the gym.

NOTE:  This is the first in a series of articles about memorization.  If there are any particular aspects of working from memory that are of interest to you, or you have questions about the techniques I share, please leave a comment below, and I will endeavor to answer those questions in future posts.

Photo Credit:

What to do on breaks


This is going to be a short entry, because here’s what is the best thing to do on your breaks from practicing:


And nothing doesn’t need explanation, does it? Well, for me, it did.

Nothing means:
Do not call your friends, do not read The New Yorker, do not track down the Super of your building to ask about when the exterminator comes, do not see what’s doing on Facebook (to name a few examples of things I’m tempted to do on MY breaks).

Just lie down on the couch or the floor, or sit comfortably somewhere, and do nothing.  Think if you have to, but do nothing.

My niece demonstrates proper napping technique

My niece demonstrates proper napping technique

Try it.  I think you’ll find that 5 minutes of just sitting there is just as refreshing, if not more, than reading a magazine for 15 minutes.

I will admit that sometimes I feel a little embarrassed I’m so obsessed with time and practicing efficiently that I even have found a method to take breaks efficiently.  Some people might see that as a pretty major 21st-century malady…

However, it really works.  I first tried this method of break-taking (I mean, really, method of break-taking?) when I was preparing for a big audition while performing full time with Tales & Scales.  It was like finding extra hours in the day.

Now that I’m no longer in the structured environment of T&S, I find this method a bit harder to maintain (since I’m not totally desperate for practice time and I really want to read the New Yorker), but I find it even more useful and important now that I’m trying to manage a life as well as a playing career.

Let’s say you practice in 30 minute segments, with breaks in between, like I do.  If your breaks are only 5 or 7 minutes, you can do two hours of practice in two hours and twenty minutes.  If you take 15 to 20 minute breaks, you end up spending three hours of time for those same two hours of practice. (a savings of 40 minutes… which you can spend any way you like once you’re done with practicing.)

I would also add that I don’t think it’s really the same two hours.  I find that when I do nothing on my breaks, the quality of my practice is noticeably better:  my focus is clearer and I learn faster.  I’m rested, but not distracted.

Plus: honestly, when else do you get to do nothing?  Enjoy it!

Credit where credit is due: It was my partner Aine who suggested this and it saved my life; and the picture is by my sister, Sukey.

Make a Loop



Here’s a trick for working on certain difficult technical passages. I say “certain” because this only works for passages that begin and end on the same note – as I will demonstrate later in this post. But first, the trick:

It’s simple–just take the passage, and make it into a loop. Play it through, and when you get to the end, that is the same as the beginning, just keep going like a tape loop.

Here is a phrase that I’ve been working on recently that works well this way. It’s from Judith Sainte Croix’s beautiful and mysterious piece for solo alto flute, Arctic Wind, written for and premiered by Andrew Bolowtosky, and I will be performing it in March (see end of post for details):


My goal was to get it to quarter note equals 92, so you can see that the 32nd note passage would be very fast. It conveniently ends just like it begins, so I was able to practice it as a loop, playing bar 58 over and over, like so:

I practiced it using Metronome Trick No. 1, and at each tempo level repeated the loop at least 4 times.

Making a loop is effective for two reasons. First, it takes the passage out of context, and makes it an abstract unit. This makes it easier for your brain to conquer. As you repeat the unit, it creates a particular neural pathway (maybe this one was called Arctic Wind, bar 58), and because you are looping it, this neural pathway gets super-strong, even stronger than it would be just repeating it in the context of the phrase. Looping a passage out of context relieves some of the anxiety associated with its difficulty, making it easier for your brain to focus on how to play it, rather than how daunting the task is.

The second reason is that playing something several times in a loop is harder than playing it once by itself. It’s kind of like when baseball players get warmed up by swinging several bats at once. Once you’ve mastered the phrase as a loop, it’ll seem easy-peasy in context.

Sometimes a tricky phrase is too tricky for this trick! Check out this passage from Righteous Babe by Randall Woolf:


You could loop it, repeating bar 100 a number of times before going on to 101. However, the goal tempo of this passage is quarter equals 96. Only a bit faster than the Sainte Croix, but even more difficult for two reasons:
1. The fingerings are very awkward (flutists, give it a try, you’ll see what I mean!)
2. There are no slower notes in the loop, like the dotted eighths in the Sainte Croix) where you can get a break.

So, I did eventually practice this as a loop, but not before practicing it just two quarters at a time, and then 4:

You may be wondering why bother to loop it if you can play it all 4 beats already … Since this is one of the most technically difficult passages of the piece, I wanted to feel extra confident that I had it down, and looping it gave me that peace of mind.

So, the next time you are faced with a particularly difficult passage that happens to end the way it begins, give this method a try. Become a live-action tape loop in your practice, and enjoy increased confidence and success in your performance.

Note: If you’re in the New York area and you’d like to hear Arctic Wind and Righteous Babe, please come to one of the following performances:
• 7 March 2009, 7pm, South Nyack Recital Series
• 15 March 2009, 3pm, Rockland Conservatory of Music Faculty Recital

Another note: The reel-to-reel photo is from:

Small Sections


Practicing an instrument is both like and not like playing video games. Discuss.


Practicing an instrument is like playing video games:

  1. When you first begin, you must start at the lowest level.
  2. The more you do it, the better you get.
  3. If the video game in question is Pong, it sounds like this:

Practicing an instrument is not like playing video games:

  1. You get to choose what section of the music you practice.
  2. You can practice that section however many times you want—you are not forced to move on to the next level.
  3. When practicing an instrument, your goal is to be able to perform on that instrument (there are two stages, performance and practice).  Playing a video game is both performance and practice simultaneously*.

1:  Choose your small section.

Which to choose? Whatever you need to practice—you can start with the hardest part, start at the end of the piece, alternate between easy and hard sections.  I like to start with the hardest part, because once mastered, it makes every thing else seem even easier.

How small? However small it needs to be for you to learn it.  In some cases, maybe a slow movement, it can be as long as a phrase.  In many fast passages, though, a whole phrase is too long.  I often just practice two bars at a time, sometimes just one, and yes, even less than one.

This is so important!  You cannot practice the whole piece at once**.  In order to efficiently and effectively learn a piece of music, you must break it up into small sections.  Your brain and your body can only learn so much at once.

When you are practicing small sections, you are creating and strengthening neural pathways in the brain that allow your body (and, at best, your soul) to perform that “dedicated series of acts” that Martha Graham wrote about.  Those neural pathways are best created one tiny bit at a time.

2:   Keep practicing even after you’ve “got it.”

In a video game, as soon as you successfully get through a level once, you are immediately advanced to the next level (woohoo! up from the dungeon!).  In music practice, one success is not enough—now that you know how to play it, repeat it 4 to 7 times so that you will be sure to be successful in performance.

3:  Number 2 above is only possible because in music we separate performance and practice. And we’ll talk more about that in a later entry.

It’s surprisingly easy, when practicing music, to forget that we are in the driver’s seat.  Sometimes, we think of the music as a beautiful, organic whole, and we want to just play it that way. Sometimes we think of it as a daunting, huge task that we will never be able to achieve.  Sometimes it seems like a magical force beyond our control.  Any of those ideas can stop us from practicing in an effective way.  But just remember, it’s not a like a video game because you are in control of what parts you play when, how many times you play them, and you don’t have to try and do the whole thing every time.

*OK, OK, some recent video games, like Guitar Hero, sort of let you practice, but the point here is that in music practice, YOU are in control.  In video games, the video game is always in control.

**In fact, you can’t even perform the whole piece at once.  In performance, you play every small section, in succession, without stopping, but you are still only playing it small section by small section.

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