The Practice Notebook

flutist Zara Lawler shares tips on learning music

Two Stages of Practice


There are two main processes that need to happen while you practice, and they are:

Experiment, then rehearse.


First, experiment. Try out different things and different ways of playing. This method applies to to musical/interpretational questions like: Does this sound better a bit louder? Does the poignancy of this phrase come through more effectively if I diminuendo on the last note? It addresses technical ones as well, such as: If I move my embouchure this way will the pitch be better? If I concentrate on my left ring finger, will the notes come out more clearly?

When you find the way you want it to go, rehearse it that way. Play it over and over (4 to 7 times is a good rule) the way you’ve decided upon. I like to call this stage “putting the ‘re-‘ in rehearsal.”

It sounds nice to call these processes “stages,” and you might think that implies you will always do them in that order. In reality, however, it’s rarely that organized. You will probably find that you will sometimes experiment, then rehearse, then experiment some more, then re-rehearse.

This is one of my favorite things about practicing: the sense of discovery I experience as an interpretation emerges out of my experiments. I also find that using this method leads to a certain amount of confidence in my own interpretation, knowing that I’ve tried things several different ways and chosen the one that seems the best. And the repeated opportunity to experiment is one of the things I enjoy about all the repetition involved in practicing technically challenging passages.

This technique is of course related to the principle of being willing to sound bad. That’s why I like the experiment stage to be explicitly stated as such: it makes it easier to be willing to sound bad if you can say, “well, it was just an experiment.”

So give it a try the next time you practice. Think of yourself as “in the lab,” instead of on stage. Take advantage of the fact that, in music, practice is not a performance. In the lab, it’s just you tinkering away with your interpretation. Give yourself the freedom to experiment, and then, once you’ve found what you like, enjoy the repetition of it.

Credit where credit is due: I heard this idea in a lecture at the Banff Centre for the Arts given by Froydis Ree Wekre, fabulous Norwegian horn player and teacher.

The picture is by:  Alejandro Hernandez

Two Cautionary Tales about using a Metronome


So, if you’ve read my entry on why you should listen to me, you might remember that I alluded to some embarrassing moments when I was learning these practice techniques.  Here, both to satisfy your curiosity and to illustrate the point that a metronome only works if you listen to it, are two of those stories.


Picture this: the young Zara Lawler, in her first semester of music school, studying with the renowned flutist Carol Wincenc at Indiana University (now the Jacobs School of Music).  I was so psyched to be there!  I practiced all day, tried to play like the grad students, was early for my lessons, and called my teacher “Ms. Wincenc” – I felt much too shy to call her “Carol” like everyone else did.  Basically, I was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.

Ms. Wincenc assigned me an etude a week from Andersen Op. 15.  I worked really hard on them, but always found them very difficult.  At one lesson, we had the following exchange:

Ms. Wincenc:  Did you practice this etude with a metronome?
Me:  Yes, of course.
Ms. Wincenc:  Then why doesn’t it sound like you did?

While that might sound harsh, it was an “a-ha” moment for me.  I knew right away what had gone wrong: I had been practicing with the metronome on, but not listening to it.  It’s amazing that it’s even possible to ignore something as insistent as a metronome, yet, that’s exactly what I had been doing.

Story number two takes place earlier in my schooling, while I was at the BUTI Flute Institute, the summer after my senior year in high school.  I was again eager to do my best, in my bright-eyed and bushy-tailed way, in master classes all day long with Doriot Anthony Dwyer and Leone Buyse (then principal and associate principal flutes of the Boston Symphony, people).

So there I was, in front of the class, playing a different Andersen etude.  This one was running 16th notes in ¾ time:

(click on this link for the first few bars of Andersen Op 15 No 1, played as written in three-four)

Ms. Buyse (of course I called her “Ms. Buyse!”) stopped me and said it sounded like I was playing in 6/8, not ¾. Here’s the same section of music, played in 6/8—I’m sure you can hear the difference:

(click here for the same passage played in six-eight)

So I started again, and she stopped me again, and said it STILL sounded like 6/8.  I tried a third time, and she stopped me a third time — you can see how this is getting embarrassing, right?  Well it gets worse, because eighties fashion plays a key role in this story:

I was wearing a Swatch.  Remember Swatches? If you’ve ever seen one, you’ve probably noticed how loud they tick.  Well, the Swatch in question was ticking out seconds, which I was hearing as dotted quarter = 60, exactly the tempo that you would play this in 6/8.


Here is that same passage again, but with a metronome on, so you can really hear the effect (it’s really too bad I don’t have the Swatch anymore, so I can’t use it as the second metronome. Heh. )

(click here for Andersen Op 15, No 1 in three-four, with metronome)

(click here to hear it in six-eight, with the metronome)

So it was the opposite problem of the first story.  At IU, I was working with a metronome but not listening to it.  At BUTI, I was listening to a metronome without realizing it. But the moral of both these stories is the same:  a metronome only works if you listen to it.  It is not enough to just have it on in the same room with you.  You must learn to listen to it, and play with it. Losing the 80s fashion doesn’t hurt either, though I hear it’s coming back.

[Note:  The videos in this entry were shot by the multi-talented Mary Dicken.  The Swatch photo is from]

Be Willing To Sound Bad



So I want to talk about a key principle in good music practice:  in order to sound good, you must be willing to sound bad.

That might seem counter-intuitive.  I mean, after all, you only practice so that you can sound good, right?  There are lots of layers and implications to this idea, however:

  1. In order to find the best way to play something, you have to experiment with lots of ways to play it, and some of them will sound bad—but you can’t know until you hear them.
  2. You need to work on the worst aspects of your playing—I’m not saying never play things that sound good, but you need to practice and work on the things that sound bad—so you need to be willing to hear them.
  3. An implication for rehearsal is that you are willing to try your colleagues’ (and your own) ideas in real time (as opposed to in your mind), even if you think they will sound bad.
  4. For you professionals out there with a big personal stake in Sounding Good, you might also want to take this one step further and try out being willing to sound like a beginner.
  5. It means dropping your ego about yourself (‘I always sound good!’), and putting your focus on the music (‘how will it sound if I try it this way?’)

This idea is maybe not so hard for beginners—you expect to sound bad at the beginning, and there’s nowhere to go but up.

For professionals and conservatory students, though, this can be a real stumbling block. We have such an investment in sounding Good with a capital “G.”  Particularly for conservatory students who are practicing in little rooms sandwiched right in among your colleagues, it can be very hard to let yourself sound bad in the experiment stage.

For me, this is never more true than when I am working on a new piccolo piece.  The piccolo is not easy, people! I was working on a beautiful piece by Lowell Liebermann, Forgotten Waltz [it's available in a flute version on iTunes] a few years ago.  It’s a sweet, nostalgic tune, but very soft and very high, a particularly challenging combination on the piccolo.  I was on tour with Tales & Scales at the time, and we’d all be staying in the same hotel, and I’d usually wait till everyone else was gone out to dinner to practice it, just so that I’d be the only person hearing myself play those screechy high notes!

And honestly, even then, it was hard to bring myself to practice it at all because it sounded so terrible to me…  the notes would crack, or be so loud, and SO out of tune.  Disgusting, really.  But I survived, and eventually could play it.

Now this does not mean you need to try to sound bad, or that the beginning stage of work on each new thing will sound bad, just that you have to be willing to go there.  That small mental openness can make a huge difference.  In fact, I might be go so far as to say that is one of the main differences between people who really excel at their instruments and those who only get to a certain level of skill and never progress to greatness.

After all, you have to start somewhere.  And trust me, you will sound better, but letting go of that attitude of “I always sound good” or “it’s only fun when I sound good” will go a VERY long way to allowing you to sound even better.

photo credit:

Winter Break


Happy Holidays!


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

Note:  this image is from:

The 10-Minute Rule


If you’ve been following along at home, you have hopefully tried Metronome Trick No. 1 by now.  Hopefully you’ve tried it more than once, hopefully everyday or practice session for a whole week.  And you’ve probably noticed that, what with all that repetition, it can take a long time to get from your starting tempo to two clicks above performance tempo.

Here’s the basic rule:  never practice any one thing more than 10 minutes at a time.


What do you mean, any one thing?

If you are working on getting a technical passage up to speed, “any one thing” means a small section of that passage that you have chosen to practice.  If you are working on the sound and expression of a slow movement, “any one thing” means a reasonable section of the movement, maybe one or two phrases.  If you are working on a technical exercise (scales or arpeggios), “any one thing” means any one exercise (i.e. for all you flutists out there in practice-land, Taffanel & Gaubert’s famous scale pattern No. 4).  If you are working on a particular skill (i.e. smooth legato leaps, “any one thing” means that particular skill.

What if it’s going to take more than 10 minutes to master?

Then come back to it during another practice session and give it another 10 minutes then.  Even if you think you could nail it in 15, you’ll get it even better if you give it two separate sessions of 10 minutes.

Really people, if any one thing deserves more than 10 minutes of your time, you might as well give it 20, and get it done for sure.

But why, and wherefore?

I invented the 10-Minute Rule in response to two things:  fear of tendonitis, and fear of going crazy.

The 10-Minute Rule can help prevent overuse/repetitive stress injury by the obvious mechanism of restricting how much repetition you do at a single stretch.  It also gives your brain a time limit on obsessing about some small detail of your playing, thus preventing craziness.

The 10-Minute Rule also has a much more subtle but equally powerful benefit:  it carries with it the assumption that there will be a next time, that you will get 10 more minutes on this particular passage, and it’ll get better then.  That assumption of a next time goes a long way toward removing the feeling of desperation that often comes with a real desire to be good at an instrument.

Seriously, though, never?

I make two, and only two, exceptions to the 10-Minute Rule:

  • The 12-Minute Rule:  if you are SURE you will get your one thing mastered with just two more minutes of practice, go for it.  Once the clock strikes twelve, though, your metronome turns into a pumpkin and you have to stop, even if you’re just one click away.  Come back to it next session with another 10 minutes.  And if you are more than a few clicks away from done, don’t go past 10 at all.
  • The 15 Minute Rule:  this is only for when you are memorizing something, and will be dealt with in a later article, I promise!

Note to beginners/amateurs: Try this idea as the 5-Minute Rule, as most of your issues can be solved in shorter sessions than those of more advanced players.  You can work your way up to the 10-Minute Rule as you get more experienced.

Another note: the cool picture above is from

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