Some Practice Ideas

A few thoughts after some days of intensive practice. My focus has been awareness of tension, since I have a few sore points on my hands due to an old injury. One concept from yoga has helped me. According to what I have learned, the arm structure is considered an open system, whereas the legs are a closed system due to the fact that they end with the feet on the ground (at least when standing). In flute playing, the arms are also sort of closed system; they end with the fingers on the flute. But I like to imagine that in spite of that, they are open systems. Just that feeling that they could continue to extend if they wanted. Same with the legs while performing, even though they are grounded, I like the idea of them being an entire structure that could extend if needed.

It is very important for me to think of extension not only as motion away, but with a twist. Pretend you have a knob that’s straight in front of you and just beyond your reach. Bring your right arm out to reach for the knob. Bring your shoulder blade from the back with you while reaching out, but make sure the shoulders are not raised. Rotate the entire arm outwards (as if you want to turn the knob to the right with your whole arm).  Then, leaving your upper arm (the part nearest the shoulder above the elbow) as is, rotate only the lower arm and your palms in (as if turning that knob back to the left). Then bring the arm into playing position (let the shoulder blade come back with the arm). When I do this, I have a better feeling of security and freedom. Repeat with the left arm, first turning the knob to the left with the entire arm, then back to the right with only the lower arm.

The other thing I have to tell myself is not to get tense about tension. If at the end of a phrase I notice my leg is stiff, so what? Just unstiffen it and get on with it. The point is, I noticed it. I have to remind myself this is a process. If there is time, repeat the passage with better awareness, to find out which action made me try to support with my leg. And then hopefully laugh at my ridiculous notion that a locked knee can help with my high note. Better than beating yourself up.

And Mula bandha really helps! (It is NOT the squeezing of those other cheeks that some refer to.) Awareness of the pelvic floor is a positive way to exercise awareness, to get away from being too vigilant about the negative or unproductive things. I once had a male flutist tell me “but I don’t have a pelvic floor” and I was gullible enough for a microsecond to actually look down to see if his insides had spilled out onto the ground from between his legs. Guys, you do have pelvic floors. It is part of the blueprint for human anatomy.


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 🙂




Wannabe Yogi – and some breathing ideas

I am writing this in honor of my lapse in yoga practice. Once I confess this sin, I can go and sin no more – that is, get back into my practice. Don’t know what happened, I was ill at the end of Feb. and since then the dark, grey days of late winter have left me unmotivated for movement.

Why is yoga practice so important? I have enough to do, cuddling my boy, practicing flute, teaching and rehearsing. Why? Because I feel like a dog’s breakfast if I don’t. Or like a rusted-out car.

I have a great teacher, we’ve been working privately for the past 6 years. At first we did Ashtanga, then more mixed with Hatha and Universal Yoga. I think she deserves a separate blog entry for the future.

When I was in school, I had wonderful flute teachers. Since graduating, I joked that my Alexander Technique teacher was my best flute teacher, and she was for those three years after school. Now, I think my yoga teacher is my best flute teacher, although she says for my Ayurvedic type (Vata), flute playing is not the healthiest activity for me.

After all these years, I should know something by now about my body and how to use it to breathe and play the flute. Abdominal breathing helps – pranayama (breathing exercise) helps too. These are calming, expanding concepts. I also love Michel Debost’s ideas from The Simple Flute about expansion and retention.

Sometimes, however, I find that Uddiyana Bhanda works. That’s what all flute teachers tell you never to do! It’s the diaphragm lock – you inhale while drawing the abdomen in and expanding the ribcage. This gives you a rush of energy in your upper body. No, I don’t play like that, but if I need a kick, this is what I do. Peter Lukas Graf’s 2nd breathing exercise in Check Up for Flutists partially uses this concept – although he doesn’t use the yogic terms.

Speaking of diaphragm! I learned through Lea Pearson’s book Body Mapping for Flutists that the concept of breathing through, or using, the diaphragm is pointless. You cannot control it or feel it directly, as its movement is regulated by the abdominal muscles.

These are the muscles you need to control: these in turn are connected to the long, long muscles psoas major, (if I remember correctly), which are connected to the outer edge of the diaphragm and run all the way down to the legs! That’s why it’s important to keep excess tension out of the legs, it really can inhibit the movement of the diaphragm.
More research is needed on my part, so I’ll stop here. I thought I’d pass this on though, because it really makes sense to me anatomically.