The Practice Notebook

flutist Zara Lawler shares tips on learning music

The Value of Struggle


There was a very interesting story on NPR this morning about how different cultures view the value of struggle in the learning process. Although it did not mention music learning, I think the parallels are clear. Check it out here, and let me know what you think!



Process, not Progress


When you are careful to work on small sections, but the piece you are learning is really long, do you get worried that you’ll never learn it all? How do you keep yourself from COMPLETELY FREAKING OUT when you have a lot to learn?

In my experience, there is solace (and better yet, long-term benefit) in the idea of process, not progress.

I heard that phrase from my teacher, Carol Wincenc, when I was first learning a lot of music from memory.  Process, not progress is a particularly useful mantra for memorization, but over the years, I have found it to have many other applications, both for the day-to-day measuring of work and for long-term satisfaction and mastery in music.

To demonstrate this principle in the day-to-day, I’d like to use a sports analogy.  If you are a runner, you have a choice of how to tally up your training.  You can measure how much time you spend running, or you can measure how many miles you have run.  Similarly, you can measure how many minutes you spend practicing, or how far you have gotten in a piece. In order to value process over progress in music, I suggest that you practice for time (10 minutes of thoughtful work on this phrase) not “distance” (I’m going to practice till I nail this phrase, dammit!). You can use it on a larger scale as well:  “I’ll practice each piece for thirty minutes a day,” rather than “I’ll practice until I’ve mastered these pieces.”

In your daily practice, process not progress allows you to make wise choices about what and how to practice, and can make some decisions, like taking a break when you need one, or sticking to your small section, all the more easy. Taking a break becomes as much a part of the process of good practice as playing your instrument. Focusing on process can help you battle the temptation to bite off a big chunk of music instead of a small section.

This principle is equally important over the long term.  If you put in the time, with a sound process, progress will take care of itself.  Not only will you eventually learn all the notes, but with each passing practice session, you will become a better musician and a better instrumentalist.  If you do the opposite, practicing just for progress (getting all the right notes), process does not take care of itself. In fact, process is often compromised that way:  as you search for a quick way to get through a passage, you limit your ability to get thoroughly into the music, and to fully engage your instrument.  You do not become a good musician that way, only a good player-of-a-certain-piece.

When memorizing, it is very tempting to set concrete goals (I will learn the exposition today, and half the development tomorrow).  The problem is that memorization is so tricky and slippery.  In my experience, it just does not work to set that kind of goal when memorizing.  Successful memorization requires deep attention to small details, and it is impossible to achieve that quality of focus when you are thinking “Gotta learn the whole page…gotta learn the whole page…”

Process, not progress has implications for your performance as well—if you have practiced a process-oriented mindset, you are more able to be in the flow of the moment on stage than if you are fixated on progress.  Music performance is, in a sense, an artful way of carrying your audience through time with you. Process allows you to enjoy that journey—progress rewards only the destination.

PS.  As for completely freaking out, remember that process not progress means not constantly checking your daily work against your long-term goal.  Progress will take care of itself if you focus on the process. Remind yourself any way you need to—write it in your practice notebook, repeat it like a mantra, embroider it on a pillow…

Photo credits:  Runners’ feet by Josiah Mackenzie;  Process surrounded by progress by nattu

Experimenting with Drugs (don't try this at home!)


Usually, when preparing for a concert, I put in a lot of time practicing, and at some point along the way, I notice that I’m “in shape.”  I can count on my sound being beautiful every day, even at the beginning of my warm-ups.  My body feels relaxed and strong at the same time, and there’s a palpable sense of everything coming together and falling into place.  I don’t mean that I play everything perfectly all the time (I wish!), just that I gain that reliable level of physical confidence with the instrument that means I’m in shape.

I’ve always thought that being in shape was the purely physical result of doing a lot of practice.  I’ve never calculated the hours, but I’ve had that experience enough to expect it after a week or so of regular, intense work, meaning about 2 ½ to 3 hours a day. Recently, however, I had an interesting experience that taught me something new about being in shape.

I had a recital this past January, and began practicing the program in earnest right after Christmas. The days of practice became weeks, and, strangely, I never got that feeling of being in shape.  I was also really struggling to learn the new pieces on the program, even though it wasn’t particularly difficult rep.

At first it was a little mysterious.  As time passed by, though, it became frustrating, and as the recital approached and I kept putting in the hours, I became quite worried. I tried to explain it to myself as a symptom of my flute being a bit overdue for its yearly clean-oil-and-adjust, but troubling questions kept bubbling up in my mind:   Was I losing my touch?  Doing something fundamentally wrong?  Being abandoned by my own talent, or by god?  Were my skills failing with age?

Although my recital went well, it wasn’t until a few weeks later that I figured out what was actually wrong, when I began to try and memorize one of the pieces for my next performance, and I couldn’t do it. Not only did I not feel physically in shape, I also felt like nothing was sticking mentally either.

I had worked for days to memorize a single phrase of the music (This Floating World by Edie Hill). I tried all of the practice tricks and tips I have mentioned here on this blog.  I tried smaller and smaller sections, but to no avail. Finally, I narrowed it down to a string of 7 notes, and I spent 20 minutes on it (breezing right past the 15-Minute Rule in my desperation), and still couldn’t learn it successfully.  Since that’s no more information than a phone number, I began to suspect that something was quite rotten in the state of Denmark (or at least the state of my mind).

Finally I realized that my problems could be related to a medication I was taking.  I had been taking topomirate, a drug designed as an anti-seizure medication, but often prescribed (as in my case) to prevent migraines. I had been taking it since November, gradually increasing the dose as prescribed by my doctor.

Once I thought about it more, I realized that I had actually noticed a couple of cognitive side effects prior to the memorization incident:  I had mysteriously lost my ability to parallel park (up until then a point of pride), and was having difficulty reading non-digital clocks.  I had dismissed both as symptoms of pre-concert stress.

After the memorization incident, however, I immediately began to wean myself of the topomirate.  The first day on the lowered dose, my ability to read clocks was instantly restored, and I knew I was doing the right thing.  Over the next week, my ability to learn new music gradually, but definitely, came back.

Here’s the most interesting thing, though: some time in that first week off the drug, I started feeling in shape again.

I had always thought that feeling in shape was purely physical, but the only thing that had changed was that I was off the meds.  That is, the only thing that had changed was that my brain was working better.

Do you realize what this means?  Being in shape is as much a result of your mental state as it is the result of your physical state. It’s not just how much you go to the “practice gym” that counts, it’s what and how you think while you’re there!

So, what’s the optimal way of thinking to generate that feeling of being in shape?  While I don’t know yet, I will be exploring this in practice and in future posts.  If you have any opinions on the topic or similar experiences, please share them in the comments below. I would love to hear from you – I am sure your thoughts on the subject will spur me on!

Photo credits:  Shutr & digitalbob8

Amateur Neuroscience meets Actual Neuroscience



Learning (and teaching) the flute can be quite a creative challenge sometimes because so much of the important action (the use of the diaphragm, position of the tongue, etc) happens inside the body, where you can’t see it.  This challenge is found with all instruments when dealing with the cognitive aspects of music—you can’t see how you think!

Or can you?

One of my favorite events at the National Flute Association’s Annual Convention was a lecture by Peter Westbrook entitled “Brain Function during Improvisation.” Peter Westbrook is a flutist, saxophonist, musicologist and member of the NFA’s Jazz Committee.  His lecture brought together a recent study on brain function during music performance from Johns Hopkins University, an older study on brain function during meditation, and his own ideas and considerable knowledge of those topics.

In the Johns Hopkins study, the researchers did functional MRI’s of jazz pianists as they performed a number of tasks.  A functional MRI tracks the amount of blood flow to the different parts of the brain, and neuroscientists believe that this demonstrates which parts of the brain are being used. While that didn’t allow the scientists to see how the musicians were thinking, they were able to see where they were thinking.

They found that while playing a memorized jazz tune, the lateral cortex was used.  This is the part of the brain that monitors and judges activity while learning a task.  It’s the part that says things like, “Now make sure you are keeping your fingers nicely curved, and that your wrist is relaxed, and don’t forget about that B-flat in the next bar!”

By contrast, during improvisation, the prefrontal cortex was most active (and the judging lateral cortex was virtually shut down).  The pre-frontal cortex is the part of the brain that handles the free flow of information, tasks of creativity, the integration of diverse elements, and, get this, autobiographical storytelling.  So, a jazz solo is like a musical autobiography of the performer.

jazz attack

The study did not include any classical musicians, so I don’t think it would be scientifically appropriate (even by the low standards of amateur neuroscience) to draw any conclusions about classical music from it, or even to use it as the basis of a comparison between classical music and jazz.

This study is useful because it makes a previously intangible aspect of music-making into something more concrete.  It gives us an image and a description of a vital cognitive process.

It seems to me that the study’s description of brain activity during improvisation is also a description of what it feels like to perform classical music (from a score or from memory) at a high level.  Have you ever had a great performance experience?  It sure feels like ‘the free flow of information,’ ‘autobiographical storytelling,’ and the ‘integration of diverse elements.’  In fact, this was a big topic of audience discussion at Westbrook’s lecture.

Westbrook posed several questions.

  • What does this study imply for “the curriculum?”
  • Would it be beneficial to teach jazz and classical to all musicians, rather than separating them?
  • Is there a way to teach music that gets the student to use her brain in this free, non-judgemental way?

I have a few questions of my own:

  • Do you need to go so far as to learn the skill of improvisation to experience that pre-frontal cortex flow in classical (i.e. non-improvised) performance?
  • Is there a way to bring that approach, that sense of freedom, into the study of classical music that you are already doing?
  • Does just knowing that cognitive goal get you a little closer to it?
  • Is using your pre-frontal cortex a skill you can practice?

What do you think?  Have you had experiences like this?  Have you incorporated any improvisation into your classical practice?

I’d like to know!  Please leave comments below, or email me at  And stay tuned for later articles incorporating reader comments, and the second study Westbrook cited, about brain function during meditation.

Photo credits:  MRI by erat, Jazz Attack by evoo73

Fall Break


fall leaf

If you are in the New York area, join me and colleagues marimbist Paul Fadoul and pianist Margaret Kampmeier for a free lunch time concert on December 3.  The program will include my Flute Story Set (classic flute solos performed in a storytelling style) and works by Enesco, Piazzolla, Part, Ravel, and Brooklyn’s own Randall Woolf.

December 3, 1pm, Trinity Church, Broadway at Wall Street, NYC, Admission:  free. Info, including live and on-demand webcast:

Photo credit:  Memotions

When in Doubt, Slow Down


snail 1

I had a great learning experience recently.  It was the night before a big performance, a featured spot at the National Flute Association’s Annual Convention . The event was called The Flute on its Feet and combined several staged and choreographed works for solo flute with workshop activities to introduce the audience to interdisciplinary performance.

I was having a pretty typical night-before-the-big-show practice session.  I felt good about my preparation up to that point: I had put in many hours of practice and rehearsal, done quite a few practice performances, and I was really excited to be able to present this material at the Flute Convention.  That night, however, I found myself making mistake after mistake, and getting more and more wound up as time passed–not exactly what you want in a final practice session.

I was rehearsing my version of Density 21.5. It starts with me telling the story of the piece, alternating phrases of speaking with phrases of music.  Here’s the funny thing:  I wrote the words and crafted the performance myself, but that night I was stumbling over the words and saying them wrong, or awkwardly. It was really unnerving the night before a show!

I needed to solve this problem, but practicing speaking is a little different than practicing playing.  I don’t know any good tricks for speaking like I do for playing (such as Metronome Trick No 1), so the only thing I could think of to try was to slow it down.

It solved my verbal flubs INSTANTLY!  It also made my shoulders relax noticeably, and gave me more expressive possibilities.  It’s always cool when a technical fix opens up more communicative horizons.

Next I moved on to Lowell Liebermann’s Eight Pieces, some of the most challenging music I’ve ever memorized.  Take a look at the first half of No. 2 for example (complete with my markings):

lieb no 2

As you can see, it’s got a lot of notes, and if you look closely, they repeat themselves, but not quite (for example, just compare the ends of the first two lines).  There are many opportunities to go through the wrong door mentally, and many opportunities for your fingers to end up in a knot instead of a note. By the night before the show, I had been performing these pieces well and consistently.  But what do you know?  My night-before nerves were at it again, and I couldn’t get through a single one of the eight pieces without crashing and burning.

I tried the “slow down fix” again and it worked.  It was almost like magic: I’m used to incremental improvement, but this was an instant solution.

And again, it fixed more than just the technique.  The benefits were musical:  it was like space was opened up in each phrase, and expression and beauty were welcomed in.  It also fixed my anxiety:  with each passing mistake, I had been feeling worse and worse about the next day’s performance.  But by slowing it down, I felt in control, relaxed, and even joyful.  I was literally giving myself time to enjoy the music.

Hopefully everyone already knows to start slow.  The lesson of my experience at the Flute Convention is that sometimes it’s good to finish that way as well.  If you’ve been doing good practice, and you know you can play a particular passage well, but find yourself having sudden, unexplained problems with it or anxiety about it, try it slower.  If possible, use a metronome to make sure you keep it slower for the duration of your practice session.  Performance jitters can do all sorts of crazy stuff to our perception, so rely on a metronome to keep you slow when you’re nervous.  It’ll feel like magically creating space in time.

Photo Credit: suika*2009

Summer Vacation!


ice cream

I hope everyone has been having a great summer.  Regular posts will resume in September, including several about the National Flute Association’s Annual Convention, which had the bulk of my attention for the month of August.

As we begin a new school year, I’d love to hear what kinds of things you’ll be working on in the upcoming months, and if there are any particular issues you’d like to hear about on this site.  Please leave a comment!

Photo Credit: Per Ola Wiberg

Postcard from Old Songs


I’m here at the Old Songs Festival, with my ensemble Asterisk.

old songs stage

We are having a great time, and have spent so much of the last week rehearsing and practicing that I haven’t managed to put together a post about practicing.

If you are in  New York, and can get to the Albany area, come and check us out.

I’ll have a full post for you next week…in the meantime, happy practicing!

New Category: Amateur Neuroscience


hands for amateur neuroscience

One of my favorite things about practicing and writing about practicing, is thinking about how the brain (ok, ok, MY brain) works.  There’s a fancy word for that which I just learned from an article in the New Yorker:  metacognition, or literally, thinking about thinking.

I like to think of myself as an amateur neuroscientist, and the practice room (and my own brain) as my lab.  (On a side note, it would be cool to have one of those yellow and black warning diamonds to hang up on the door that says, “Amateur Neuroscientist At Work.”) Over the years in my lab I’ve learned a lot about how my brain works, and what things I need to do to keep it working at its best. I’ve reflected on how my colleagues’ and students’ brains work, too.

I’ve recently had the gratifying experience of  discovering that actual neuroscience backs up some of my observations.  For example, in developing my memorization technique, I didn’t know about working memory as a scientific concept.  I merely observed that I could remember a phrase for the duration of a practice session and then it would be gone. It was only years later that I learned it has a name, and that people have studied it, and given it the names “working memory” and “channel capacity.”

Also, I’ve always had the sense that when you first learn something (like in the first stages of memorization), it just goes into the front of your brain.  To me, it literally feels like it’s right there, just tucked into my forehead.  Well, it turns out, that’s where working memory happens!  It’s mostly all in the frontal cortex, which is “the overhang of brain behind the eyes” (New Yorker, May 18 2009 p 31).  How cool is that?

All this thinking about thinking about thinking has led me to think (whew!) that a new category of post is in order:  Amateur Neuroscience.  You can click on it from the “Categories” sidebar at right and see all the posts organized under this topic.

three beakers

Let me clarify what I mean by “amateur.”  The vast majority of the writing that I have done about how the brain works is based on close self-observation, not on scientific study!  When I can back up a concept that I use with some actual science, I will note it, as I have with the New Yorker article citation above.

If you are looking for more actual neuroscience, let me point you to a few resources. In the interest of full disclosure,  my research on this topic has not been exhaustive, but I do have a few recommendations for reading. Should you have some books or sites that you’d like to recommend on the topic, please let me and the readers know via the comments section below.

Below are a few books and articles that I have found interesting, though none of them directly address the relationship of neurological ideas to the study of music:

And below, a list of sites and books that I have only dipped my foot in but look like they’ve got LOTS of cool information:

Three books worth checking out, about the study of music:

See you in the lab.

Photo Credits: Hands by Q U E E F, Beakers by skycaptaintwo

Spring Break


Happy Spring-almost-Summer!


We’ll be back next week with more ideas to put into practice.

If you’d like more information about a particular topic, or have a practice dilemma, send me word by clicking on “comments” below.

Photo by lepiaf.geo

« Older Entries