The Practice Notebook

flutist Zara Lawler shares tips on learning music

Why listen to me?

February10

I have spent almost thirty years practicing the flute (that’s a lot!).  However, unlike many professional musicians, I didn’t start serious practice until I was a senior in high school.  I had always wanted to be a professional flute player;  I just thought I was well on my way to being “the next James Galway” merely by practicing 45 minutes 3 or 4 times a week. Seriously, people, I actually wrote that in my diary in eighth grade!

the author, in eighth-grade band, with Montiqua Andino, flute (photo by Heather Simpson, also in eighth-grade)

the author, in eighth-grade band, with Montiqua Andino, flute (photo by Heather Simpson, also in eighth-grade)

So what happened?  I had some rude awakenings in my senior year in high school, which helped me to Get Serious.  I will spare you the embarrassing details, but basically, my internal image of my own playing (playing my heart out equaling being on the way to being the next You Know Who) did not at all match the external reality of what my playing actually sounded like.

The realization of that discrepancy began the long-haul work of getting my actual playing to match my heart and internal sense of the music.  THAT is what practice is for, ladies and gentlemen: to get your external playing as close to your internal sense of the music as possible.

I came to that realization pretty late (senior year in high school), by professional musician standards.  As such, I was developing my practice habits in my late teens and early twenties, with the full self-consciousness and self-awareness that time of life brings.  And with my realization of needing to make up for lost time came my understanding that I needed to get good, and I needed to get good fast.

I started by just putting in a lot of hours, slogging through everything my teachers put in front of me. There were times when I felt pretty desperate to be a better player, and like I was up against a lot, having gotten off to a late start. I knew there had to be a better way.

I did have a couple of advantages, though:  because I had been lackadaisical about my practicing to that point, I didn’t have many bad habits to overcome—I had no habits!  I was a blank slate.  I felt free to try all sorts of techniques and free to throw out the ones that didn’t work.  I wasn’t attached to any old ideas that years of youthful practice might have developed.

The second quality that has served me well is that I am crazy-analytical.  I always want to know why something works, and how it can work better.

So, little by little, with the help of many people a long the way, I developed the practice techniques and principles I’ll be writing about here.  The vast majority of them were in place by the time I left music school, but some are newer developments.  That’s one of the things that’s so cool about music:  if you keep your mind open and aware, you always get better and better.  These techniques, rules and principles have served me very well over the years, and I sincerely hope they will serve you too.

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