Jennifer Cluff

Canadian Flutist and Teacher

  Question about having very little flute practice time:
Question: I do not have the time to practice these (5 daily) hours (as outlined in the "rotating technical practice" aritcles). I have a half-hour lesson every week. Most days I try to find an hour to practice. Given that, should I just give it up totally, or accept status quo? Or... is there a specific schedule of practice in that hour a day, that would give me gradual and steady improvement?
Answer: Now that's an excellent question, and one that I'm sure will be interesting for several of us to try and answer.
Here are some of my ideas for minimal practice time below: (I teach quite a few people in your position! :>)

How about:
Tone 20 minutes
Scales 10 minutes
Piece study or duet 15 minutes (becoming familiar with it.)
Bits of piece, study or duet broken down into workable fragments: 15 minutes

If your practicing time is even less than an hour, use the practice techniques and ideas you have gleaned from the files on "Rotating Technical Practice" and re-focus them specifically to suit the exact piece, study or duet that you're working on with your teacher.

It's kind of like inverting a wide-angle lens so that it, instead, magnifies each bar of music that you are actually preparing for your weekly lesson and makes an area of special focus out of bits of the piece.
Instead of spending a daily *hour* on each of the areas of tone, technique, scales and etc. start with the piece you're working on and find within it miniature applications for each of these areas of focus.

For example if you have 30 minutes only and if your lesson assignment is a duet....

1) Play through your part looking for the fun of it, to get a real joy out of the piece. If it doesn't yet *sound* fun, look for creative musical ways to make a real musical statement with it. Have a ball, make an emotion come to life, do the best you can to get an overall view of what the piece might sound like once it's "rockin' and rollin". Stretch it and roll it around like you're playing with dough, to see what surfaces while you experiment.

2) While you're playing through in a fun way, make a mental note of the tough bits, and maybe even lightly circle them in pencil so you can isolate them for later work.

3) Now, take one of the bits you've isolated, or alternately (to keep your spirits up) choose a bit that has a soaring and touching melody. Play it with your best possible tone, repeating a fragment (or even 2 or 3 notes) of it with every increasing beauty of tone.
Think that you're singing it, relax your lips and allow them to re-adjust many times until you find your best tone.
Play the fragment over several times at different speeds, or with varieties of emotion, improving your tone all the while. (all advice about tone improvement can be used here in miniature.)

3) If one of the bits you've circled has tough or uneven fingerings in it, take the flute down and watch the fingers move, until you can figure out who the "too slow" culprit, or "too fast" finger is, and then make a mental connection to the fingers so that they move with more co-operation and co-ordination.
Slow the fragment down at first, and then gradually (over a period of days) speed it up again.

4) If one of the bits you've circled has tonguing patterns in it that twist your tongue into knots, or if your tonguing sounds too explosive, or even too fuzzy, make a mini-tonguing study out of it, and repeat each note in the fragment several times saying: "tu tu tu tu (change to the next note) tu tu tu tu....etc"
With each bit repeated several times, the tonguing will become clearer and more precise, and you can fix the tone more easily when you're hearing several identical versions of a given note.

5) If there are scale type runs in the piece, extract them and make a melodious full-sized scale out of them that sounds thrilling and beautiful...just like a cadenza. Add airspeed as you travel up the scale, and land the top notes with gorgeous tone.
As you come back down the extracted scale, focus on making the descending notes gorgeous in tone too (full and rich in the middle and low registers).
If you don't know *what* the scale is, grab one of your books with scales in it, and seek out and compare, or ask your teacher how to figure them out.
Knowing the scale away from the piece, mentally, and being able to play it freely, will really dramatically improve the bit of the piece where the scales appear, and knowing the scale of the key that the whole piece (or duet) is in, will give you greater freedom in general. out the scale and play it several times with great tone and verve. (you can try several "tu"'s on each note of the scale too, to add variety and double up on your tonguing clarity goal.

6) After spending five or more minutes on each of these above ideas (tone, beauty-of-melody, fingers, tonguing, scale-of-the-piece) see if you're ready to try a super simplified rhythmic version of the piece.
Play all the easy bits with the metronome going, and when you hit a hard part that you can't yet play, just play the main beat-notes (ex: if there's a fast run that you still stumble on, just play the first note of the run, and then skip to the next main note on the next click of the metronome.) This is like "outlining" the piece rhythmically. It will give you a version that can sound beautiful but simplified, and you can fill it in later.
Use dynamics in this "outlined" version, in order to see the overall form of the piece in terms of pure impact and sound/soul.

The reason behind this "outlining" is to get the pulse of the piece steady and compellingly musical for yourself, and for the listener.

See if you can feel the pulse as pure and strong as if it were coming from the earth under your feet, and compelling you to stay as steady as an African drummer looking for the "true beat of the earth herself".

Later you can fill back in any of the holes where fast notes are missing, but meanwhile, your body is absorbing the overall rhythmic structure, and keeping a compellingly musical pulse, no matter what.

And lastly:
7) When you've improved the piece in all it's fragments enough to put it back together again, and filled in some or all of the hard parts on the outlined framework.....tape record yourself with the metronome, and listen back to find further bits that sound as if you'd like to add more of any of the above finesse areas.
You may find that your ear demands more dynamic contrast, or that your tone at one point still wants to be more open and singing etc.

You can also, if it's a duet, now play the other flute part overtop of the tape playing back, so as to create a full piece of harmonically interesting music, to spice up your practice sessions. (Learning both parts of fairly easy duets can allow you to have a fabulous musical experience waiting for you at the end of your practice sessions.)

I like to put pure fun at the beginning and the end of such a practice session, to keep me enjoying myself, and willing to go through a few moments of "work" on the harder bits. So, whatever
you find the most fun to do, do it first, (to get the flute out of the case), and also do it last, so that you have something to look forward to.

Each of 1)-6) above can be done in miniature in about 5-10 minutes if you keep the fragments small and slow enough to really "sculpt" into an improvement.

Try these ideas, and write back to the Flutenet with your input.
You may be able to help people like me be better teachers with your feedback.
Basically, all the suggestions I've made are a miniature version of what professionals who are short of time do, to get a piece of music to "sing out and be joyful", etc.

Good luck, and I'm glad you enjoyed my Rotating Practice docs. even though you have to morph the ideas to fit your tighter time schedule.
Sometimes I only have an hour a day too, to practice, and the above is exactly what I would do, too.

Cheers!!! Jen Cluff.
David writes:
I have a similar problem of wanting to improve my playing but having a busy
daily schedule of work and other activities. I attended a summer school
last year and was given this advice by Clare Southworth :

Try to focus practice by working on the following

Elements of Tone:
Pitch Control
Lower Register
Middle Register
3rd and 4th Register
Whistle Tones
Ghost Harmonics
Elements of Technique :
Every finger
Elements of Articulation :
Single tonguing
Double Tonguing
Triple Tonguing

Each week work on a number of these, I find 4 or 5 as much as I can fit in,
ideally trying to set an objective for each. Select suitable exercises from
any of the many books available (I use Marcel Moyse and Clare Southworth

I think this has improved my playing. Definitely don't give up but ensure
your practice is enjoyable!

Sally Ann writes:
David posted this list about practice routines from Clare Southworth :
Try to focus practice by working on the following
Elements of Tone:

Pitch Control
Lower Register
Middle Register
3rd and 4th Register
Whistle Tones
Ghost Harmonics

I'll add a comment or 2 for Lucinda. But, wow! that's a great set of things to work on!

Often times students don't know what to be listening for or improving when the teacher says practice "tone". Just blowing a long note doesn't go a long way towards building up stronger habits, better tone. I find if I give my students a variety and combination of things to do, they develop the ability to better listen to themselves. After all, they are with themselves each practice session and their own ears have to critique what they do so they accomplish something, not get bored playing long tones.


Sally Ann from Flutenet adds:
To the list above I would add Legato and Brain.

For Legato, Moyse is just fine, if you follow how his exercises slur first between 2 notes and gradually add more notes under the slur. The student must pay particular attention to what is happening in the space between the slurred notes. There must be sound (air) going on there, and that will make the legato alive. No finger clunking. Supplement Moyse with octaves (low, middle, back to low, in a crescendo/diminuendo), after the example from Kincaid that is in John Krell's book. Also Robison's Bell Warmup.

For Brain, use your mind to think about the pattern you are playing - do them from memory. In addition to T&G, good examples are the Galway warmup (portion of scale, arpeggio, resolution to next harmony) - he gave it out at the Chicago NFA convention, and for anyone who doesn't have it, I'll dig it out and post it again. Mo Sharp also had a thinking warmup starting on low C, playing a chromatic scale, but with each change in note skipping to the next octave up or down. Get a great attack and tone in each register! Brain works because you must think when to change direction.

Well, that ought to keep you busy for a few practice sessions!

Above are posts from Flutenet ~ January 2001:

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