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Practice Notes

​by Leonard E. Lopatin

These two articles were originally published in the Gazette of the Greater Boston Flute Association, and reprinted with their gracious permission. For more information on the GBFA, check out their website at www.gbfa.org.

So, you've all been really anxious to read an article in the Gazette about practicing, right? No, huh?  Sure, what could be more boring?  "But wait!" you say.  "There is that piece I've been working on and I do seem to be in a bit of a rut.  Hmmmm ... maybe a new perspective could loosen things up a bit?!"  I, for one, find practice boring only if I feel that I'm getting nowhere, but if I make even a small improvement, I feel great about it for quite some time. So each time I speak to you here, I will discuss an approach to a particular problem, talk about my "flute philosophy," or perhaps question some bit of conventional wisdom.

 

Let me start with what might seem to be the most obvious thing possible: "One practices to get better."  That is obvious, but the ways in which we can thwart our own efforts may be very subtle and not so easy to see.  We're all human beings and affected by our emotions.  I'm sure everyone at some time has taken out his or her flute, played one note, and felt like putting it back in the case.  But, if you did, you may have missed an opportunity, an opportunity to work through difficulties, which contributes to our overall goal of continual improvement.  This is mostly a mental process.  If you know that "one practices to get better" then you realize that there is no need to get discouraged if you sound lousy on your first note (or for your first hour, for that matter).  If every day were automatically a "good day" there would be no need for anyone to practice.  And realize, too that most improvement is so gradual that you are not aware of it yourself, so, patience is paramount!

Sometimes I start practicing and things don't feel quite right.  But I know from experience that doing the work as I originally planned will help me build strength and stamina, maintain flexibility, and sharpen my ear.  On days when things just seem to be coming out right by themselves, I will sound even better as a result of working through the harder times.  If, for example, you are working on long tones and you hear that the sound is very breathy, do you simply go through the motions because you feel that you are supposed to?  Or do you try to be aware of what you are doing with your embouchure and air stream?  I recommend the latter approach.  Obvious?  Yes, but if you feel discouraged, your choice of approach may be guided by your emotions rather than your mind!

 

Now suppose you are practicing scales and you know for certain that you can usually play them evenly and smoothly at a certain speed, say mm=138.  Today, for reasons unknown, your fingers are not following orders.  Here's what I think: speed is not the problem; control is the problem.  So, slowing down is no shame.  In fact, it's the best thing to do.  Set your metronome at a tempo that you find presents absolutely no problem (say mm=92), and play your scales.  Now try them at the tempo halfway between (112).  Then slow down again, only not as much (96).  Then at 116, 100, 120, 104, 126, 108, 132, 112, and finally138. You're going five steps forward and four steps back, gradually sneaking up on the tempo you want. Try the same type of approach with difficult passages in music you are learning.

 

The bottom line is: practicing carefully and intelligently on "bad days" can help you have fewer bad days.

The flute's tone was the first thing to attract me to it.  It's what made me fall in love with it. It is always what I find most memorable when I've heard a really terrific artist perform.

Some have said that playing in tune is the most important thing, because average listeners (even non-musicians) tend to notice poor intonation.  They will sense that something is a little off even if they can't put their finger on just what it is.  Don't get me wrong; I'm rather fond of good intonation.  An out-of-tune note is wrong, just as a cracked note is wrong.  But to me, correct pitch and beautiful tone are like air and water.  One can live longer without water than without air, but eventually, well, you know - ultimately, they are both important.

That is why I say: make every exercise a tone exercise.  Basically this means listening to yourself and making the most beautiful sound possible, no matter what kind of exercise you are playing.  You may think: "Why does it matter what my tone is like if I'm exercising my fingers or my tongue?"  The first reason is obvious: these things come up in real music.  The second is more subtle and more complex: When playing various kinds of technical patterns, we have to be aware of specific parts of our flute-playing anatomy, primarily to execute the pattern, but also to monitor whether we are doing anything detrimental to tone production.

A prime example is double tonguing.  There is a strong tendency for the lower jaw to bounce around.  Ask yourself what would happen if you bounced while playing a sustained tone.  Of course, the tone would be uneven, so you can assume that when you double tongue, your "t" notes and your "k" notes don't have the same quality.  So you have to practice keeping your jaw still (not tense).  Find the position that works best.  You may even find a better position for all your playing.  Also, try practicing etudes with the "k" attack only and with "reverse" double tonguing ("ktkt"). This will strengthen the usually weaker "k" attack.

Another example comes up when practicing scales or arpeggios.  If you keep missing a note, especially in the third octave, it's easy to assume that the fault is in the fingers, and it may well be.  After all, the fingerings in the high register are more complicated, so smooth motion from one note to the next requires more careful coordination.  But other things can go awry and are easy to overlook.  In addition to more complicated fingerings, the third octave has a more uneven response.  E-flat is easy and stable, E-natural cracks to high A or drops to middle A, F-natural is easy and stable, F-sharp cracks to high B or drops to middle B, G-natural is easy and stable, and G-sharp does whatever it feels like doing (or so it seems at times).  You need to make sure your breath support is sufficient to sustain even the "worst" notes in the scale or arpeggio.  Be sure your embouchure is doing its part in smoothing the connections between notes.  If you practice doing this, it will be even easier to produce a beautiful tone when your fingers aren't quite so busy.

There are many things to learn and discover along these lines.  Ask yourself: When practicing crescendo/diminuendo to maintain proper pitch, am I maintaining a lovely tone as well?  Or is the tone "dry" or "harsh" when practicing staccato?  Maybe if "average" listeners don't usually notice differences in tone quality, we should get them used to such a beautiful sound that they won't settle for less!

Practice Notes - the Sequel