Jennifer Cluff

Canadian Flutist and Teacher





1. What to practice over the summer & HOW to practice, for intermediate flutists, great article here. 

2. For advanced flute students:

Intensive summer practicing

 by Jonathan Brahms re-printed with author's permission

Student question:

I am having difficulties figuring out how to accomplish a huge list of repertoire/excerpts for the summer. I'm working on about 6 tough orchestral excerpts for school ensemble auditions, and also I am working on stuff for my Junior Recital, which will take place at the beginning of the school year. I just can't figure out the best way to learn this material, most of which I am learning for the first time.
_______________________
Jonathan Brahms replies:

Here are a few guidelines for an intense practice period:

Theoretically, we should play better each day than we did the day before. Think long-term. You have 60+ days. Don't put yourself into a situation where you could burn out quickly, mentally, physically, or both. You need to put yourself in a framework in which you start each practice session physically fresh, able to build on the previous day's work and mentally eager to learn, neither desperate, depressed nor bored.

I assume you are not working and are more or less free to use a day as you please. If this is the case, break up your practicing day into 3 sessions of 1.5 - hours each.

If you are working, try to practice some before work. Having gotten your embouchure working when you are fresh, even for a short while, makes it much easier to warm up later, when you are tired. If you have an hour and can find some privacy, you might put in 30-45 minutes at work. After work, take a shower and a short nap so you are refreshed mentally and physically. Rest and hydration also make a big difference.

Don't turn yourself into a slave driver or a marine sergeant. Train yourself as you would train a small child or a beloved pet; with patience,perspective, proportion and humor.

Our minds are full of voices, especially those of our parents and teachers as well as our conductors, critics and peers. Leave those voices at the door of your practice studio. Whenever you play, imagine what *you* think is the ideal flute sound, and find a way create it, minus the voices.

Whatever your spiritual, religious or moral beliefs, leave them at the door, outside your practice mind and studio. Your work is about training yourself to make music, not saving yourself or the world. Do not attempt to purify yourself of whatever guilt or sin you may believe you are carrying with you through over-practicing. No, you do not have to finish every exercise. You do not have to play in every key, every day, etc. When you are tired, stop, without completing whatever you were doing, or you will feel it the next day and the world will remain as it is.

Separate each large practice session by at least one hour, or more if possible. Before, between and after practice sessions do something for the whole body - run, swim, work out, take a nap or do chores.

After you have done something strenuous, such as running through an etude non-stop at a good clip or a lot of scale work or large intervals, complete the exercise by putting down the flute and WALKING AWAY. Give the work time to settle. Give your muscles and mind time to recover. We build ability gradually. If you immediately follow one strenuous session with another, you are not building, you are breaking down.

If you break down your muscle's ability, you will have to give them time to recover. This means that if you overdo it, not only will you lose one day to recovery, you lose another to catching up gradually. Instead of making progress, you lose two days and on the third, you will find yourself in the same place as three days prior.

Flute performance is an intensely physical and mental activity. Running, swimming and working out are not just for breaking up your practicing. These activities will contribute to your sense of well- being, confidence and self-esteem. They also help you develop the stamina you will need onstage and enhance your breath control. Judicious work with weights enhances your digital control.

Quality always trumps quantity. Less is sometimes more. Play only when focused. Stop playing when your mind or body is tired, even if you have not done much. One of the most important things we can ever learn is when to stop practicing. The last run of the day is the most dangerous.

Listen to yourself and take stock of your mood. Sometimes you need to push away distracting thoughts, sometimes you need to let them run their course, but not while playing.

To sound fresh, you must keep your mind and body fresh. Take one day a week completely off, on principle. Either take that day off when you are bored, tired or frustrated or when you can socialize and/or do something different and fun. You will be amazed at how good you sound and feel after giving yourself a rest. Don't be afraid to "lose" the time. You are actually gaining something, not losing anything.

Don't try to be a practicing machine or you will sound like one. Even overused machines break down; overused embouchures certainly break down; they are made up of very small muscles. Alternate long practicing days (4+ hours) with shorter days (3 or fewer hours). Build up to longer days gradually.

On one hand, the more capable you are technically, the faster you learn. On the other hand, don't waste time going over familiar ground out of a misguided sense of duty. If you want to be a professional performer, you must learn to learn fast. Now is a good time to start.

You have many pieces to learn. Strike a rational balance between warming up, technical work and learning new pieces. Save the most time and energy for the learning. Figure out how you learn.

Create a blended, flexible program. On some days, as soon as you have done enough in the way of sound/dynamics/vibrato work, scales, arpeggios, articulation, large intervals and an etude to feel limber and capable, ready to work, go to the new pieces. On other days, do lots of abstract technical work and less work on the pieces. If you play your pieces too often, you will stop listening.

If you are ready to play right off the blocks, do so. Don't waste good playing time on warming up mechanically. The purpose of warming up or technical work is to get you to a certain stage. If you are already there within minutes, the warm-up is unnecessary. Skip it. Just be careful about attacking high or loud spots too soon.

Don't neglect your etudes; they give you something scales and arpeggios do not, a specific technical and artistic goal within a harmonic and melodic framework; but don't work on new ones either. You have lots of new material to learn and etudes are essentially compositions. New etudes will compete with your new pieces for your energy. Each day, run through a different etude that you already know and have worked on intensively, as the final part of your warm-up. Doing so is also good for your reading comprehension.

Whenever you are playing your new material, do so as if you are on stage or in front of an audition committee; give everything.

Memorize. Whether or not you will perform from memory, it is the slow fast way to internalize. You want the music in your ears, mind and your muscles, not your eyes. Looking at the same old dots and dashes is the fast slow way and allows your mind to wander. Your mind is the most important element that you bring to bear upon the work.

Isolate the difficult spots in the new repertoire and touch them daily. Don't do complete run-throughs until all the details have been ironed out. Then, run a piece from start to finish, even at a low speed, no matter what happens, every day or every other day, which allows them to "settle". Note what works and what doesn't - polish the latter.

Use your mind as much as possible instead of your body; it has more endurance and stamina than your embouchure, back or abs. Your body takes its cues from your mind. Learn difficult passages by hearing them mentally and singing them. Use note names sometimes. Let your mind rest too. If it is not rested, it will wander when you are playing.

Keep the work pleasurable. If you want others to enjoy your music, you must enjoy it. In order to be successful, the music you make must sound vital, alive, energetic and sincere. That takes complete focus.

If you want to produce nourishing art, you must consume nourishing art. Read novels and poetry, go to museums and concerts, and listen to cds. When you are intent on high cultural achievements, as we are, you can use some contrast too - TV and movies have their place.

When you audition, compete or perform, it is expected that you will be able to cut the part as written; what your listeners want is to find out how YOU play it, as opposed to how someone else plays it. A beautiful sound, musical phrasing, fluid technique, crisp articulation, accurate intonation, dynamic range, etc, are not the goal, they are the means, only the pre-requisites for bringing music to life. For that final stage which is built on the foundation of a solid technique, you need a rich personality: a heart, mind and soul. If you want to be an interesting musician, don'tt neglect those. Unless your music is imbued with the uniqueness of you and genuine emotional understanding, your playing will sound vapid. Don't be another flute machine.

There is an ugly, destructive maxim circulating out there for many years:

"When you aren't practicing, someone else is."

Ignore it. Teachers, peers, audition committees, conductors, reviewers and audiences will measure you against other flutists, and that is as it should be. Measure yourself only against yourself.

Basically, we practice to sound good. We also practice to develop our skills, learn new pieces and to feel confident when we go in front of listeners. If your practicing is resulting in anything less than sounding great and feeling confident, you are hurting yourself, not helping yourself, and you should rethink whatever it is that you are doing.

Jonathan Brahms, Flutist. New York, U.S.A.

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Copyright 2007 Jennifer Cluff