Perfection and Procrastination in Daily Practice

Recently I have spent most of my practice sessions “warming up” and playing exercises. The repertoire I am working on is singularly uninspiring, so this is mostly a maneuver in procrastination.

But it’s great: taking the time to do and re-do an exercise while focusing your awareness of what’s going on under your skin is never boring. Did I miss that high A? Yes, great, have to do it again. This time keep the air going. The high A takes care of itself. Missed the triplet arpeggio? Good, have to do it again, this time don’t loose connection to left arm. Damn, time to do repertoire….just one more exercise, though.

I remember Pat Morris, piccolo and Feldenkreis teacher, setting the shoulders of a student to rights. After the student played again she said, “see, you improved without having to practice!”  As followers of the Alexander Technique rightly point out, it is the opposite of “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again”. Instead: “If at first you don’t succeed, never try again, at least not in the same way”. That is what I like to think what I am doing with my exercises. Sometimes I play without a mistake, but it is not perfection I am after.

In know, I know, I should carry this attitude into the repertoire-learning part of my practice. To comfort myself (and further procrastinate) I carry a book with me to practice sessions: Pedro de Alcantara’s “Indirect Procedures – a Musician’s Guide to the Alexander Technique”.

The objective of daily practice should be to cultivate the best possible use of the self on a general basis, and to apply it correctly on a specific basis …In other words, working on right living should take precedence over working on right playing.


 Patanjali (author of the Yoga Sutra) would probably agree, and he would have certainly something to say about my procrastination. Most wisdom traditions teach the concept of non-attachment (which I suck at). What often gets missed is that they also teach one to practice non-aversion (which I have a slightly better chance at). In the end, it might be the approach of the concert date which changes my attitude. So much for wisdom.

One last quote from Pedro de Alcantara:

I believe there are four separate but interrelated factors … in achieving truly free action: giving up trying, giving up judging, ridding yourself of hesitation and eagerness, and timing your actions precisely.

Here I have a chance in hell of making some sort of progress :-)




Are intervals born of air or lips? Let the leopard decide.

On forums and in masterclasses there has been a lot of discussion about which element plays a more important role in producing intervals on the flute. Aside from the change of fingering, do we change more with the lips, with the air speed, or with air volume?

Take the fingering element out of the equation and try playing through the harmonic series on low C or D. How do you produce the upper partials?

The trend these days is to say the air makes the changes. Emily Beynon makes a good example and case for air speed:

In this (long) masterclass series, Phillipe Bernold has a student start the day on a rising dominant 7 chord. Here he suggests the most important thing to start the day is to wake up the air column. There should be a natural increase of both volume and speed of air as you ascend. The lips stay neutral. This is very important for legato.

Here is why I agree that the air, either volume or speed, rather than the lips should play the major role in interval moving. Please note I do not deny that the lips must remain flexible, and that exercises for suppleness also include playing intervals and harmonics (at least some of mine do).

As humans, which is more necessary for survival, fast reflexes of our breathing apparatus, or of our facial muscles? Imagine a pre-historic flutist out strolling, searching for good material to build the perfect bone or wood flute. She is set upon by a leopard. She screams and runs. The lightning-quick reflexes of that sharp intake of breath to make sound and to get enough oxygen for the muscles to run is what saves her life. Fast-talking a leopard has been a known fail.

A Cro Magnon Bone Kingma-System, gimme gimme!!

“A Cro Magnon Bone Kingma-System, gimme gimme!!”

So it is my unscientific opinion that the muscles controlling the breathing apparatus, including the diaphragm, have much quicker reflexes, thus can make quicker adjustments than the facial muscles used in the embouchure. Of course, we all know some fast talkers, but they are a scientific law unto themselves!

Wildlife disclaimer: when stalked by a predator in real life, do not act like a prey animal and run. You will be chased. And caught. Unless they are bees.



Scale Practice – Superlocrian!

If you are a diligent scale and arpeggio practicer, you might get tired of the major-minor-chromatic (and seconds, thirds, fourths, etc) routine. I want to share my enthusiasm for my scale of choice this week: the Superlocrian. If you have studied jazz, it won’t be new to you. This scale goes my many names. I actually prefer the term Diminished-Whole Tone, because that is what it is (see below). According to the Wikipedia entry, other names for it are Altered, Dominant Whole-Tone and Locrian flat four.

First you take the melodic minor scale but don’t alter it coming down. (Yes, you are allowed to do that in jazz!) The modes of this scale are a gold mine for other jazz scales, but that will be another post.


Now, start on the 7th degree of the scale, and presto:DWTb

The first 4 notes are a diminished scale (alternating half and whole steps), the remaining notes form a whole tone scale. How cool is that? Plug this in to Taffanel-Gaubert no. 4 and you have a new flavor for your routine and scale games. There are a number of books for jazz flutists that may have other exercises, but I have not surveyed this literature yet. Any suggestions?

For more information on the web, especially about the chords that this scale generates, here are some links.

How to use the diminished whole tone scale by Pete Swiderski

Reverse engineering our dominant scales by Anton Schwartz (great graphics)

A diminished whole tone lick by Bob Hartig



Robert Winn: Musical Exercises to Develop the Technique of the Tongue

In many ways this is a book after my own heart. My years as an undergraduate with Bernard Goldberg were fraught with the re-working of my articulation. It would have been very useful to have such a book as this, with its written explanations (provided in English and German), numerous excerpts (some not found in other compilations), and standard as well as original studies.

When one takes on the task of trying to describe the mechanics of articulation and relating it to one’s native language, there is a risk of getting bogged down in linguistic terminology. For the general flute-playing public I think this book walks the line very well between Too Much Information and the vague “finger-pointing-at-the -moon” sort of stuff you find elsewhere.

Once you do mention linguistics though, pedants like me crawl out of the woodwork with fingers and tongues wagging. There are several things I would like to wag on. Mind you, I am a pedant, not an expert, so my comments are below in the “Pedant’s Corner”.

It was very enlightening to read about some of Winn’s key concepts. He points out that some articulation difficulties are linked to the fingers in a way I hadn’t thought about, and going through some of the studies helped me sort that out. The position of the teeth, in front and in back, was something I had also not considered before.

All in all I enjoyed reading this book as well as playing the studies, although the text could have used a good editor for English punctuation and clarity. (I can’t comment on the German). I do hope that future editions will see to this.

Pedants Corner:

1. One basic aspect is ignored, that of aspiration in English and German consonants. If you are an English speaker, you will say the “T” in the name “Todd” differently from the “T” in “stick”. Todd’s “T” is aspirated. The tendency to puff air rather than release it from the mouth can pose a problem for beginning flute students of languages that do this.

2. In mentioning the tendencies for Russian and Bulgarian, Winn is correct that there is a large build-up of physical tension for the consonant “T”. One reason for that is it is produced with the tongue much further back than in English, touching the alveolar ridge. And it is never aspirated. However, that is only half of the picture. I don’t know about Bulgarian, but each Russian consonant is paired with its palatalized twin, a much softer version. A crude way of explaining this is to imagine the consonant followed by a “Y” (as in “you”) “TY” is very soft, produced very forward in the mouth and is more of a release than an attack. I spoke to someone who believes this linguistic ability is responsible for Denis Bouriakov’s amazing articulation.




Paul Edmund-Davies: 28 Day Warm Up Book

Recently I have enjoyed working from Paul Edmund-Davies “The 28 Day Warm Up Book, for all flutists…..eventually!”. Its (English-only) text is extremely clear, with touches of humor that engage the reader from the start. His approach is extremely practical and humane. There is advice on how to approach your practice, how to structure it, and the empty staff paper at the end of each section encourages further thought and creativity for your own exercises.

The daily exercises cover four areas: sonority, fingers, articulation and intervals. I felt compelled to write about my experience with these exercises because it is a lesson in humility. With several decades of professional playing under my belt, I took a look at some of the pages and thought “how simplistic, I don’t need that stuff”. But playing them, I realized that they were quite challenging. So I got to work. And they sound nice! My family particularly likes to hear me practice Articulaton no. 7.

A number of exercises I find useful for piccolo practice. Intervals no. 2 is not only good for intervals, but makes a great intonation study if played with a drone from a tuner or computer. (How I wish I had a live tambura player to assist me :-) ). Articulation no 6, with its combination of repeated and moving notes, is especially good for controlling the sometimes tricky middle register of the piccolo.

The section on fingers I find very practical. He points out that scales are all well and good, but they don’t really train the fingers to lift and close with swift independence. The exercises, some of which are based on Taffanel & Gaubert, reinforce this idea. Because its familiarity makes for easy memorization, I am a great adapter of T&G myself, and am always happy to learn other approaches.

Here on YouTube, you can watch Paul Edmund-Davies demonstrate some of his exercises in the context of learning Anderson’s Op. 15.

For those who are interested, my complete warm-up these days goes as follows:

  • harmonic studies, with and without articulation, add trills
  • finger and articulation exercises, including scales and written exercises from this book. As I have written elsewhere, I find Peter Lloyd’s approach works well with me: Get really warmed up first, and then do sonority work.
  • combined melodic sonority/intonation/interval exercises from this book and others

You see, I have gotten away a bit from long tones. They can be useful, and I may come back to them at another point. But for now, I find melodic studies and other exercises from “de la Sonorite” more useful. Gotta do what works!




Breath, Its Infinite Cycle

The breath cycle

For those who work well with visual imagery, have a look at this adaptation of one of my clever student’s drawings. The mid-point of the “8” represents your lungs as they are when speaking normally, just havin’ a conversation. Michel Debost calls this “mid-breath”, and describes its usefulness in his book The Simple Flute. The white arrowsheads, hopefully discernible on your screen, show the flow to and from this mid-point.

I love how the figure “8“, when turned on its side, also represents infinity.

Once you pass this point by actively filling or actively emptying the lungs, it can be helpful to realize that the next natural step is a passive one.  I find this helpful when having to take a quiet, quick breath when playing, say, a fast movement from a Bach Sonata.



Shiri Sivan Masterclass, Mental Preparation

On May 24, 2012 Shiri Sivan, principal flutist of the Bremer Philharmoniker (Bremen Philharmonic) gave a masterclass for our flute studio at the conservatory in Bremen. This semester our students played a project as guests with the Bremer Philharmoniker and came back with glowing reports of the young new principal, recently graduated from the Von Karajan Academy of the Berlin Philharmonic. It was very motivating for them to play next to a player of such high caliber who was roughly the same age, so I immediately invited her to give an informal masterclass on orchestral repertoire.

I want to focus here on her talk about mental preparation, but first I will mention several points she made about technique during the lessons.

A general observation of hers is that our students don’t use the flow of their air to carry their phrases.  She also encouraged them to let the air flow work and use less movement of the embouchure and jaw to reach intervals and register changes (not to the point of inflexibility, of course). And because modern-day flutes are so well made, if you use good air flow, and focus the air into a good sound, your intonation will automatically be very near the mark without having to make excess movement. This was nice to hear in light of the recent hoopla about flute intonation and tone-hole placement.

An interesting point about articulation: her strategy to achieve lightness is to practice single tonguing rapidly, working your way up to sixteenth notes at 132. In real life, you would double tongue passages that quick, but if you practice short passages with super fast single tonguing, say, a one-octave scale up and down, your tongue can’t help but move lightly. It can’t move quickly in a heavy way. Then try to transfer this lightness to double tonguing.

Her talk on mental preparation for auditions was based on her own recent experiences. Listening to her, I wondered if she had done a lot of reading research, since what she said resonated with what I have read over the years. But in fact, she said she had done little or no reading. Here is a synopsis:

Long-term preparation
1. Gain good experiences, not necessarily through major concerts or auditions, but any positive performance. Oscar Wilde said “Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes”. You can learn from mistakes but it is absolutely essential for our confidence building to learn from your successes, what were you doing right?

2. The journey of self-acceptance. Some of those with a strong sense of profession and passion may have   defined themselves in terms of what they do at an early stage, and missed the adolescent self-searching phase of asking “Who am I”? But if you know and accept yourself you have an unlimited source of power. Know that you are a worthy human being, no matter how well you play the flute. Judge yourself harshly on your effort, but never on your result! This is the most complicated and important topic in this context, because your peace and happiness as a person is also important.

3. Keeping in proportions. Think big, looking for an orchestral job may be a journey, either short or long, but it is a phase (like your studies at school) and must pack a lot of positivity and patience. No audition is crucial!! It is a process of learning and gaining experience which will end in the right place when you are ready for it.

Mid-term preparation
1. Mental readiness. This should start as soon as the audition raises your stress levels when you think realistically about it, it may be six months or two weeks ahead. There is no reason why the performance should be any different from in your imagination, imagining it negatively is not a good sign.
Try to imagine the situation as specifically as possible, every piece of information, the hall acoustics, the jury members, the pieces, your clothing. The twist is: you need to imagine the situation as accurately as possible, but also positively. Maybe in the beginning it will be hard, but with persistence it will change slowly. Stick to those positive feelings. Remember them from past performances where you played well, and make it part of your daily practice. Run-throughs are important, but take them at a distance of one week from the audition, so you have time to draw conclusions and get emotionally detached from the positive or negative experience.

2. Keep positive. Words have more power than we think. When we make excuses like “I am not ready”, “only the students of …….. can win”, “I’m just doing this for practice”, etc. we think that we are reducing the expectations from outside and inside, but actually, we are unconsciously convincing ourselves of failure. We are doing a mental preparation for a bad performance. Mantras can influence our consciousness if you really stick to them, even when you don’t believe in them. Actually, a mantra would be quite useless if you already do believe in it. Just find one and repeat it again and again, as stupid as it sounds.  It will be your immune system for negative, “what if” thoughts or expectations. Another important point is belief, belief that you are worthy of the position, and to accept success as an option.

3. Did I mention be well prepared?

Short-term preparation
1. The obvious: Sleep. Eat. Rest. Put the flute in its case 24 hours before the audition. On the day of the audition, make sure to organize yourself so that you have enough time to warm up before the audition. Wear something you feel comfortable in.

2. You may find yourself warming up in a room with 20 other flutists, which is tiring, distracting, stressful and unhelpful for your sound and mood. If you have a long time to wait, it is better to keep your energy and find a quiet place to rest. The most important thing in auditions is concentration. It cannot be achieved in a second, it must be achieved with some kind of meditation. Find a way to make your body run slowly, and to let your mind focus on one thing. Find a place of silence, even if it means that you close yourself in the toilets 10 minutes before your audition. Go through your difficult parts slowly in your mind, breathe deeply, move slowly, do stretches, don’t talk to anyone, and don’t play with your iphone. Concentration is the best antidote for stress, it routes your mind to the right place. If in the audition you don’t manage to concentrate on the music, concentrate on being concentrated. Knowledge reduces the levels of stress, gives confidence and the ability to talk to ourselves during the performance, to be our own teacher. If we have in mind a clear image of how we want to sound, and how we want to achieve it, this inner discussion will not only provide good results, but will also take the focus away from the stress factors.

Stress is good
Having said all this about managing stress, I believe it is an integral, important part of our profession. It is a motivating factor, and in the moment of performance can keep us alert and concentrated. It is only a matter of proportion. The key is not to eliminate fear, but to gain some control over it.

An audition is a concert. If you don’t have fun, no one will. The jury has heard 100 flutists (less fun for them) and they just want to enjoy your performance, they want you to succeed. The jury is not looking or mistakes, and no one loses an audition because of making one. Of course the jury is looking for a good flutist, but mainly for a musician who suits their personal taste, and who they believe would suit the orchestra well. And that is not something you can control, so just do your best.

 Thank you, Shiri!


The Radiant, Gradient Way: Color Practice

No one can watch the inside of your mouth when you play the flute, thank goodness. However, when talking to students about color changes, an X-Ray machine might come in handy. You could demonstrate how the position of the tongue, the jaw, and so many things come into play when you change the sound of the flute from loud to soft, harsh to light, bright to dark. Using such words is usually the best we can do when trying to describe musical timbres. That can be tricky though, one flutist’s dark can be another’s bright. Words are not always sufficient.

Thank goodness for imagery. Here is a collection of ideas to help stimulate the aural imagination. I was inspired by Photo Shop’s gradient tool to make the following images.

Let’s take one note and see what kind of spectrum can be produced. I chose B natural because it is the Moyse thing to do, but choose a note that is good for you. The purpose is to take a full breath, play a single note while going from one aural extreme to another. What happens in the middle can be quite interesting, I find. You can also practice these exercises backwards.

Some people work well with color imagery, so an exercise like this might work:
Another exercise could be to imagine a trumpet-like sound, then go to the extreme of complete air noise. I thank Harrie Starreveld for this suggestion.

You can also consciously control the position of your tongue by producing different vowel sounds. For example thinking a deep, open O sound, to a rather closed I (think of the word “eye”). I spelled it “aye” in the example. In preparation for this, I like to sing the exercise first to get a feel for how the tongue moves and how it changes the harmonic components of the sound.

Peter Lukas Graf also has an interesting approach. He describes different categories of sounds starting with those that are rich in overtones, think of the opening of the second movement of Cesar Franck’s Sonata in A, to those that are poor in overtones, think of the opening of Debussy’s L’Apres Midi. Of course it is a simplification, the music of Franck and Debussy require a variety of colors, but these are the associations that stick. If such imagery is useful, here is an illustration:

Any other ideas?


Finger Exercises Based on Tai Chi

 This entry is cross posted on the musikFabrik blog

Anyone who works with their hands can benefit from the energy flow these exercises provide. I am no expert or student of Tai Chi, but I have had to work a lot at injury prevention. You can do them at the beginning of your warm up, then as necessary during the breaks. Breaks are very important in injury prevention. Any exercise that stretches or gets the energy flowing during your break will allow you to practice more in the long run, and keep your money in your own pocket and not the doctor’s.

I don’t mention the pacing of the exercises in the video. For me, they take four to five minutes to complete. This is a good investment of time when I have a long practice session, especially if there’s much to be done on alto or bass flute. Enjoy!


All music is an articulation exercise (or could be made into one)

In response to the question “How should I practice articulation?”, I always answer “everything is an articulation exercise, or can be adapted into one”. Spending more money on expensive Leduc editions will not help your tongue. Reading theories about where the optimal point of articulation is (behind the teeth, on the palate, between the lips) can give you ideas but not answers, since nobody seems to be in 100% agreement.

Since nobody can look into your mouth and tell you where to put your tongue, I’ll repeat another truism: all articulation practice is tone practice. Your ears will tell you what works. Good articulation requires just as much awakening of the ears as the tongue.

“But I have an OK tone, it’s just when I use my tongue for any amount of time it starts to sound bad!”, you may answer.

“Good!” I say, “So the ears are switched on.”
The short answer to this problem is that when you engage the tongue, the air behind it has to keep going despite a short interruption. Many players forget this and instead of increasing abdominal support to keep the energy behind the air stream they tighten the embouchure, or even worse, use the jaw to help the tongue! This is what causes fatigue and lack of control in long articulated passages.

It could also be the tongue is working too hard. My former teacher Bernard Goldberg used to admonish me be saying “you are only slicing air, not last week’s bagels”.

There are a few checkpoints: maybe the distance between the Du and Gu of double tonguing is too great. Some find it useful to shorten this distance by thinking the Du Gu action as having a vertical (up and down) dimension to it as opposed to just a back-and-forth motion.

How to establish efficiency? There are no shortcuts. I’ll go out on a limb and say that if you seriously, seriously devote time to this aspect of playing, your body can’t help but adopt the most efficient means possible – if you include your ears and brain in the process. The ears tell you when it’s good and your brain tells you to stop, re-investigate when it’s not good or when you’re fatiguing yourself. This process will repeat itself a zillion times. Like any muscular activity we need diligent, consequent practice and patience to establish new habits.

Try the following with Mendelssohn’s Scherzo, it’s an adaptation of Aurèle Nicolet’s method:

Break the solo into manageable passages (for example, the first passage could be the first 13 complete bars)
Play the passage slowly legato – each note focused and resonant
Play the passage slowly with ha ha articulation (no tongue!)
Play the passage with flutter tongue (either kind, throat or tongue)
Play the passage double tonguing every single written note (g,g,b-flat, b-flat,c,c,d,d,etc…)
Play the passage as written

You notice I try to avoid advice on placement and mechanics of the tongue, and mention of particular “schools” like the French School, which is supposedly the ace of articulation. That may well be, but listen to old recordings from the early 20th century English virtuosi, holy smokes, they could hold their own! Also, South Indian musicians, whose native Dravidian languages use retroflex sounds, where the tongue is actually pointed backwards, can move their tongues at lightning speed. Just listen to any mrdangam player doing the rhythmic solmization of konnakkol (that ta-ki-di-mi stuff)!

In a nutshell:
Ears are just as important as the tongue.
Remember the air produces the sound, not the tongue.
Invest wisely, get more on your return! In this case it means a long-term committment to intelligent practice.