The Practice Notebook

flutist Zara Lawler shares tips on learning music

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

posted under Techniques & Tricks
5 Comments to

“Your Practice Notebook vs. Hypothermia”

  1. On February 25th, 2010 at 10:45 pm Nancy Horowitz Says:

    Beautiful playing, nice program! Your “Syrinx” was awesome!

  2. On March 4th, 2010 at 5:36 pm admin Says:

    Thanks, Nancy! I’m glad you liked it.

  3. On March 30th, 2010 at 2:58 pm Helen Bledsoe Says:

    Super advice!

  4. On March 30th, 2010 at 6:12 pm admin Says:

    Thanks, Helen.

  5. On August 19th, 2010 at 2:16 pm Cathy Says:

    Great analogy, great reminders!!

Email will not be published

Website example

Your Comment: