Practicing Consistently

Practicing Consistently

Winter vacation is the perfect time to discuss ways to implement a consistent practice plan. Even though, as students, you are now just getting settled into your relaxing and recharging weeks off, it is a super time to make a plan to improve your flute playing.

Even though vacation is a great time to put in some of those long practice sessions, I am more interested in a plan for when school is back in full swing. How many days per week do you want to be practicing? If you are a music major, how many hours per day do you want to plan for?

Keep in mind that every person is different, and every person's goals are different. If you are in middle school, you might want to practice towards your first solo competitions or auditioning for a youth orchestra. In high school, you might be trying out for a summer music camp or auditioning for all-state band. University students might be working on a concerto competition piece or preparing for a solo recital. All of you can work towards improving on basic performance skills, such as tone or technique. A few of you may need to emphasize work on scales or high range exercises. Musicality is another part of practice that we can all keep improving upon.

Before actually tackling a whirlwind of practice sessions, I'd like you to take a minute to do some planning. Think about your “normal” week when you are in the middle of a school term (or regular work-week for those of you who are past school age). Is there a daily time that you can find that you can pull your flute out? Even if it is only for 15 minutes? If so, grab it (the time . . . . and the flute as well)!

If you have a more inconsistent schedule, find those days that are similar, and plan a regular time on those days. Always shoot for at least 3-4 days per week. If you schedule less than 5 days per week practicing, then plan longer, more involved practice sessions.

One important thing that you might want to consider is this: have you written down the times that you are planning to practice, and put them on a calendar where you can see them every day? Holding yourself accountable to a schedule can help keep you on track, even if you “fall off the horse” for a day or two. Remember that you can always pick up your flute again and make a difference today and tomorrow, even if the last few days haven't worked out like you had planned.

If you are like most musicians, the hardest part about a good practice session is convincing yourself to take out your flute. Once you get over that hurdle, you are home free. Making a schedule will help turn practicing into a regular habit, and only good things will come from a consistent practice habit.

Now, if you have always spent your practice time just playing whatever music you have from band, or solos that your private teacher has given you, it's time to rethink your practice sessions.

I encourage my students to always warm up at the beginning of a session. You wouldn't sprint down the street without warming up your legs first, would you? The muscles of your embouchure need warming up in the same way.

Ideas for warmups:
Tone exercises – such as long tones or slow scales. These get your lungs working, and turn on the muscles that support your tone (from all the way down in your diaphragm). It's also a superb time to listen, and focus on making your tone the best that it can be.

Technique Exercises – such as scales or scale patterns, arpeggios or trill exercises. These get your fingers working. Always remember to use consistent breathing patterns, and use your ears to make sure that your exercises are even, and without any finger flubs.

Embouchure Exercises – such as harmonics, octaves, or jumping patterns. These help warm up all the small muscles that are so important when we play soft dynamics, especially in the high range.

Tonguing Exercises – such as alternating slurs and staccatos, double or triple tonguing. These are important for warming up both the front and back of the tongue, and making sure that articulated notes are steady and even (both T's and K's). These can sometimes be combined with technique exercises to save time.

It's important to plan to spend about 1/4 – 1/3 of your practice time on the warmups shown above (depending on how much total playing time you are putting in). If you have a very consistent daily practice regimen, it will also work to rotate through different warmups on each day (i.e. have three different tone exercises that you rotate through on consecutive days).

If you are crunched for time, the most important warmups are those for your embouchure and your tone. I find that students who warm up with only technique exercises tend to have less successful lessons.

We often think that since we are flute players that technique is king. That isn't true. Warming up your diaphragm (with tone exercises) and the small muscles of your embouchure will give you more staying power for longer rehearsals or practice sessions.

After you have spent some quality time on warmups, the rest of each practice session can be as flexible as you need it to be. Sometimes getting the less “fun” pieces out of the way first can be a good incentive to keep going, and to get to the stuff that you like a lot better.

Any way your practice schedule shapes up, just remember that it has to be fun and it has to WORK for YOU! If you can't figure out a way to make practicing fun for you, it will be hard to stick with it. We wouldn't be flute players if we didn't love making music. Be sure that you get a chance to do that EVERY TIME you pick up your flute!

Happy Practicing!!