The Practice Notebook

flutist Zara Lawler shares tips on learning music

Practicing Free Gestures


I talk a lot about using a metronome to practice–but how do you practice musical gestures that aren’t metronomic, like accelerations and ritards?  Today, we have a guest post on that very topic from the wonderful flutist Linda Chatterton.

Hi, I am delighted to be your guest blogger for the day! Many thanks to Zara for inviting me.

Zara asked me to write a bit about how to learn music that doesn’t lend itself well to strict metronome practice. For example, in Edie Hill’s Harvest Moon and Tide from “This Floating World” the flutist is asked to evoke the rising and falling of tidal waters:

When faced with a passage like this, you need to do two things: present the music that makes logical sense to you and the listener, and capture the musical gesture.

For the first, know that we process music in “chunks.” When we hear a piece of music, we naturally want to group notes into phrases, phrases into sections, sections into pieces. This is similar to language (letters into words, words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, and before you know it you have made your way through War and Peace.)

In the passage above, the natural grouping, in my mind, is 4 notes + 4 notes + 5 notes.  (This also helps with the acceleration into the e-flat dotted quarter note, because you will naturally play the five-note group a little faster that the four-note groups.)

When I started learning the piece, I practiced it with that rhythmic framework in mind; within those groupings, I made sure the notes were technically even – no finger glitches or rhythmic stumbles.

Once that was done, I went on to step two: capturing the musical gesture. Edie has made it easy to do this, as she is both a very gifted composer and gave really clear indication what the music should feel like. So I (literally) played around with the phrase, experimenting with the pace and the acceleration, until I found something that I liked. And I generally keep it like that, through many performances of the piece. But I have to add that, having performed Harvest Moon and Tide at least a hundred times, I am so comfortable with the piece that I do tweak the phrases in performances depending on my mood. These differences are very subtle, but they serve to keep the music sounding spontaneous without sacrificing either the composer’s intent or the technical parameters.

What to do if a passage still sounds awkward to your ear despite everything? In that case, I would record myself using different note groupings, if that’s the issue. If it’s a musical issue in that something doesn’t “feel” right, again, I would record myself, experimenting with different patterns of acceleration/ritard/rubato, maybe different dynamics, different phrasing, whatever. Play around with it and then listen to the results. Many times what I thought sounded one way to myself as the performer sounded different when I was the listener. If we take away our instrument and just simply listen to the music and trust our own musical instincts, we’ll find the phrasing that feels right to us.

You can check out Linda’s performance of Harvest Moon and Tide from “This Floating World” by Edie Hill at

Or hear her live:

  • Wednesday, October 27, at 8:00 pm, Williams College, Williamstown, MA
  • November 11-13, Texas tour including:  Texas Women’s University, the University of North Texas and as a guest artist with the Texas Flute Society
  • Tuesday, November 16, at 7:00 pm Schmitt Music, Burnsville, MN, talk on overcoming performance anxiety and attaining peak performance, “It Sounded Better at Home!” sponsored by Yamaha Flutes.

Linda’s website is – bio, sound clips, her own blog, concert schedule, and more!

Email will not be published

Website example

Your Comment: