1. What to practice over the summer
& HOW to practice, for intermediate
Jonathan Brahms re-printed with author's permission
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
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
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
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
"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
Jonathan Brahms, Flutist. New
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