The Practice Notebook

flutist Zara Lawler shares tips on learning music

Postcard from Yellow Barn

October20

My marimba partner, Paul Fadoul, and I just got to spend 5 days in beautiful Putney, Vermont, in a residency hosted by the Yellow Barn Music School. It was so beautiful and peaceful there–it was like being at a music spa.

I made a video comparing the experience of practicing in New York City with practicing in Vermont:

How about you?  Any experiences practicing in beautiful locations?  Did the beauty of the place change your experience of practicing?  Did it have any lasting effects?

You can read more about our time at Yellow Barn here.

The Whine Rack

September24

Let’s face it, sometimes you have to practice when you really don’t want to.  Like during the summer, when everyone else seems to be out romping on the beach, but you have to get ready for an audition when school starts back up again.

As many professional and young musicians know, it can be easier on your psyche if you allow yourself to whine about it, just a little.  Try it right now; say “I have to practice,” in a nasally whiney voice.

Everybody has to do it from time to time, so to that end, I am instituting The Whine Rack, videos of musicians whining about having to practice.  I hope to accumulate a nice collection of them, from friends and readers, famous and obscure, young, old, and in-between.

Please send yours. No need to get fancy, just you, saying “I have to practice,” in the best whine you can muster.  You can post them to my YouTube channel.

To get you started, the above video is a little montage of me and some of my colleagues from the New York Summer Mahler Project.  And if whining doesn’t work for you, at least you’ll realize that you are not alone.  Please check out the websites for the featured musicians:

Eric Lamb:  http://fluteaddict.weebly.com/

Andrew Roitstein:  www.toomaiquintet.com

Roberta Michel:  http://robertamichel.com/

Enjoy!

(And please send your whining video, too!)

Inspiration from John Steinbeck

August18

Into the Light

I was going through some old notes and quotes the other day, and came across this one from East of Eden, which I think is a nice follow-up for Process, not Progress.

In human affairs of danger and delicacy successful conclusion is sharply limited by hurry.  So often men trip by being in a rush.  If one were properly to perform a difficult and subtle act, he should first inspect the end to be achieved and then, once he had accepted the end as desirable, he should forget it completely and concentrate soley on the means.  By this method he would not be moved to false action by anxiety or hurry or fear.  Very few people learn this.

Nicely said, don’t you think?

Photo credit:  Memotions

Another Chest Opener

August11

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

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

Process, not Progress

July26

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!)

June18

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

How do I want this to sound?

May20

In my last post, I suggested starting each practice session with the question, “How do I want this to sound?”  It’s a simple idea, and it has given me lots of inspiration since I was inspired by Jean Ferrandis at the New York Flute Club Flute Fair (see previous post).

This psychic stance, starting from “how I want it to sound” has been very refreshing for me. I think most of my previous practice would start with “how it sounds now” and be focused on trying to make it sound “better.”

Starting with “how do I want it to sound” gives me so many more options, and so much more joy as I work.

It’s also cool as someone who is no longer a “new player.”  I’ve been playing the flute for 30 years now, and pursuing the sound I want, and what I want to share with the audience, is a lot more interesting than just making a piece sound “good.”

Thinking about “how I want it to sound” has been very illuminating, giving me a new perspective on a range of pieces. I recently performed the following works on a recital: one piece I know very well and have performed many times (the Poulenc Sonata), one piece that is new to me but that many flutists have performed and has a ‘history’ (CPE Bach’s Sonata in A Minor for solo flute) and two pieces that are new to me, and relatively recently written (both by Anthony Newman ).

For the old chestnut, the Poulenc, asking myself how I want it to sound has re-opened my imagination, giving me a new and refreshed sense of discovery about the piece…and a new level of confidence in my own interpretation.

For the two Newman pieces, this approach has helped me to get deeper into the process of interpretation sooner than I usually do with new works.  With these new pieces, not only do I start with “how do I want it to sound” but I keep coming back to that question and refining my answer as I learn the pieces better and better.

The CPE Bach falls somewhere in between. I have only just been learning it this year, so in some senses it’s a new piece.  But there are many recordings out there, and it gets taught in master classes*, and so there are lots of opinions about this piece floating in the ether of the flute world (yes, all you non-flutists, there is an “ether of the flute world” and it does have opinions floating in it). Those opinions can feel like a standard to which I must aspire…maybe not so much “how I can play” it, but “how I should play it.”  The Ferrandis approach, however, helps me to move past the “should.”

All of which adds to a better experience not only while practicing, but while performing.

*In fact, it’s the piece that was being played in the Ferrandis class I heard, as well as the subject of Paula Robison’s class this year at Diller-Quaille.

Photo Credit:  Mel B.

Why bother with good practice, anyway? Part 2

May10

I recently had the chance to attend a master class by the wonderful French flutist, Jean Ferrandis. It was at the New York Flute Club’s Flute Fair (yes, all you non-flutists, there is a New York Flute Club and they do host a Flute Fair!), on March 28.

Jean Ferrandis

I only got to see the last student play, and over the course of his coaching, Ferrandis said a very inspiring thing:

“Most musicians settle for how they can play, not how they want to play.”

Actually, now that I see it written out, it’s kind of a depressing statement on the world of music. But if you tweak it so that it’s about practicing, which I think was Ferrandis’ implication, it can be quite inspiring:

Why do we practice? So that we can play how we want to play

OR:

Why do we practice? To transform how we can play into how we want to play

OR:

Why do we practice? So that our musical abilities need not be limited by our physical abilities

OR, more how Jean Ferrandis might put it:

Why do we practice? So that the audience can hear our music, and get to know us

In fact, he also said,

Music is not about doing a good job, it’s about sharing yourself.

And

The problem is never technical, it is always musical.

When you open your mind to greater possibilities, not just how you can play something, but how you want to play it, your body finds the way to achieve it.

That’s a good practice principle that is also a reason to bother with good practice.

Try it in your own practice in the next week or so. Begin every session with the question:

How do I want this to sound?

See if it brings up anything new or interesting for you, and please share your experiences as comments below. My next post will detail some of the ways this approach has affected my practicing in the last few weeks.

(And if you need more inspiration, check out Why bother with good practice? Part 1)

Bounce!

April24

Hello, everybody!

I’ll be back soon with more practice ideas and techniques.  In the meantime, check out this cool radio program I just heard.  It’s an episode of the Leonard Lopate Show, one of our favorite NPR shows here in New York.  Lopate’s guest is Matthew Syed, a sports columnist and the author of Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success.

With a title like that, it’s obvious why this book is of interest here at The Practice Notebook.  One of the main topics Syed and Lopate discuss is the great debate about which contributes more to success:  talent or practice.  Syed comes down quite squarely on the practice side of the debate, and has quite a bit of scientific evidence to back up his argument.

So take a moment to listen–I think you’ll find it inspiring.

Reader Question: New Instrument

March25

Greetings, all, and happy spring!

Thanks to all who have been reading, and sending in questions and comments.  I intend to post some more reader-inspired articles from time to time.  So, if you have a question, feel free to email it, or add it as a comment to a post.  I will try my best to reply (though as Richard, today’s question author, can attest, it may take a while).

Below is Richard’s email on a very interesting topic:  adjusting to a new instrument.  He has kindly accepted my request to post his email and my response.

Hi Zara,

I came across your website while trying to answer a question for myself.  I recently got a good flute – a Muramatsu DS – and am finding that it is teaching me a lot.  I’ve never had a good flute so it is quite eye-opening.  I can find a great sound on every note, but it seems I don’t get to the point of the sound being fairly consistently good until I’ve played for 45 minutes or so.  I think the flute may be forcing me to work my embouchure in ways that my previous flute did not. It rewards me for the work - eventually  – with a great sound – but I think I’m also fatiguing my embouchure – over practicing a bit.  Oddly enough it’s feels more like it’s my lower lip – not my upper lip – that gets fatigued.   My lower lip seems to not be able to hold the position it needs to get a good sound.

Does any of this sound familiar?  Is it possible to over practice and fatigue the embouchure?  Thanks for any advice you might have, particularly how I can get to the point where I can practice 2 – 3 hours and just be fine.

Richard

P.S. – If you have CDs I can buy please let me know.

Dear Richard,

Thank you for your email and question.  I want to apologize for taking so long to get back to you by way of saying, yes, that does sound familiar.  In fact, I spent part of the month of January over-practicing myself!  Hence the decreased time for keeping up with my blog and for writing thoughtful replies to good questions like yours.  Sigh.

First of all, congratulations on your new flute!  A good instrument can be a good teacher, as you are finding out.  I’m guessing that some of your frustration is due to a phenomenon that I haven’t covered in my blog yet:  your brain is ahead of your body.  Now that you have a new flute, and you hear yourself sounding so much better than you have in the past, your brain has made a cognitive leap, and decided that you should sound that good, or even better, all the time.  And trust me, with your drive and willingness to work, you will.

The problem is that it takes your body a lot longer to learn a new skill than it takes your brain to set a new standard.  Your ear hears yourself sound even marginally better on your Muramatsu, and instantly your brain gets all sorts of grand ideas about how you should sound all the time.  It might take your body weeks or months to learn how to sound that way—not only to figure out what the various muscles of your embouchure need to do, but to develop the strength to do them consistently.  In the meantime, though, your lips are straining to achieve that sound all the time, and getting fatigued in the process.

If you have friends who play brass instruments, you’ve probably heard from them about how over-practicing can really harm their “chops” and compromise the quality of their sound.  The same is definitely true for flute players.  I think, though, that because our embouchure is, by definition, more gentle (we don’t buzz, we are not squashing our entire embouchure against the mouth piece, the air pressure we use is so much less, etc), we can generally go much longer than brass players before this happens, and that’s why you don’t hear about it for flute players so often.

This is one of the reasons I stick by the 30-Minute Rule .  Even on days that I practice 4 hours, I take breaks every 30 minutes, because without them, my sound starts to suffer, because my lips (and brain) start to get overtired.

Every once in a while I break the 30-Minute Rule, and I always notice that my sound gets worse, and I start to go a little crazy. This January I was trying to learn some new pieces for a recital, so I kept saying to myself, “Well, I’ll just practice a few more minutes, since I REALLY need to learn this music…”  And after a few sessions like that, I find myself thinking, “Wow, why do I sound so bad?  With all this practicing, I should be sounding great.”  Then I remember the 30-Minute Rule, and get back to it, and suddenly I sound better again.

So, when you say that you’d like to be able to play 2 to 3 hours at a time, I counsel you strongly to integrate breaks into those hours.  If you think about it, a professional orchestral flutist not only has breaks written into her contract, but she isn’t playing for every moment of the rehearsal.  There are rests written into the score; the conductor takes time to work with the strings alone; etc. You need to build that same kind of rest time into your practice routine.

Try sticking to the 30-Minute Rule, and working regular breaks into your practice time.  Try taking the long view, and trusting that your physical abilities will develop over time to match your new instrument’s potential.  If after another couple of weeks you are still feeling this same frustration, particularly that it takes you so long to get to the point of feeling warmed up, then it may be that you need a better warm up routine, or some other fix.

Hang in there, and enjoy your new instrument.

Sincerely,

Zara

PS.  At the moment, I don’t have any CD’s for purchase, but I hope to have one in the next year.  I’ll keep you posted.  In the mean time, you might enjoy this webcast of a recent concert.

Photo Credit:  D Sharon Pruitt

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