The Practice Notebook

flutist Zara Lawler shares tips on learning music

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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