Practice – 1


by Leonard L. Garrison

Many flutists have written about practicing (see reading list below). The following notes present a summary of their views and some suggestions for working out technical problems.

I. What is practicing? As Samuel Baron points out,

Practicing is essentially repetition–you repeat things over and over. There is a goal in this activity. Through repetition you achieve something that might be called a groove in the brain or a habit.[“Practicing as a Way of Life,” 18]

II. Why practice? Sam Baron, again:

First of all through practice we achieve a oneness with the instrument and with music. When we go to a concert of a great musician we don’t hear a person on stage manipulating a machine. We hear a person singing through the instrument . . . Secondly, practice affords growth and improvement.[Ibid., 18-19.]

Be patient. Don’t expect immediate improvement. As Geoffrey Gilbert says, “Remember, you’re not practicing for next week, you’re practicing for next year.” [Floyd, The Gilbert Legacy, 123.] Trevor Wye points out that things might appear to get worse at first because your perception of problems is improving.[Wye, Proper Flute Playing, 7.]

III. “How much should I practice?” This depends on your goals. Some practice every day is more effective than occasional bouts of practice. To maintain your present level of ability, a half hour is the minimum. To improve, devote more time. If you are set on becoming a professional flutist, clear your schedule of other obligations and devote as much time as possible. Ours is an extremely competitive field, and most competitors devote three to four hours a day to the flute, some as many as ten! However, practicing beyond the point of mental or physical fatigue is counterproductive. Also, several short practice sessions each day are more productive than one mammoth practice-athon.

For college students, the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire offers a good rule of thumb (and all other fingers). They require each student to practice a daily amount equal to the number of credits of applied study. Students receiving one credit (a half-hour lesson each week) practice for one hour each day, those receiving two credits, two hours, etc.

IV. Effective practice. As important as the time spent is the efficient use of that time. Trevor Wye’s rules speak to this:

  1. Whatever time you have to practise, make it really effective.
    If you don’t know why you are practising an exercise, then stop. You should have an objective, apart from doing it because it’s there.
  2. If you hesitate frequently while practising then cut down on the hesitations. Try to maintain a continuous stream of sound.
  3. Practise at the same time each day, if possible.
  4. Avoid practising difficult technical exercises or tone exercises continuously for more than forty minutes; play a different exercise and go back to the first exercise later in the day.[Ibid., 11.]

Focus your attention on the most difficult things. Bracket passages you can’t play and spend more time on them.

Samuel Baron’s “first rule of practicing” is, “Don’t practice mistakes and don’t practice bad playing.” [Baron, “Practicing as a Way of Life,” 6.] Or as Julius Baker says, “If you never make a mistake [in practicing], you’ll never make a mistake [in performance].” [Nyfenger, Music and the Flute, 27.] This means practice slowly! Mary Karen Clardy suggests, “At the end of a practice session, practice technical pieces at half tempo.” [Clardy, Flute Fundamentals, 34.] This solidifies muscle memory in preparation for your next encounter with the piece.

V. Tools [Krell, Kincaidiana, 77.]

  1. Music stand—one that adjusts to a comfortable height and angle.
  2. Straight, armless chair—sit while practicing orchestral, band, and chamber music, stand for warm-ups and solos.
  3. Pencil—don’t be afraid to mark the music that you just bought for $37.95.
  4. Metronome—see below for practice techniques.
  5. Tuner.
  6. Recording equipment (a small digital recorder, a laptop, a cassette recorder, etc.)—musicians must play and listen simultaneously, but it is useful to separate these functions. Recordings reveal imperfections in tone, rhythm, dynamics, and intonation that one doesn’t notice while playing. Also, a recording shows the difference between how you sound “out there” and “right here.” Computer software (I use Amadeus Pro) is especially helpful because you can playback at a slower speed. This enables you to listen for evenness of fingering, articulation, vibrato, or trills.
  7. Mirror—watch your fingers, embouchure, and posture.
  8. Notebook—keep a log of your practicing. Outline what you intend to cover before each practice session. As brilliant solutions come to you, write them down.
  9. Reference books:
    1. James Pellerite, A Modern Guide to Fingerings for the Flute, 2d ed. (Bloomington, IN: Zalo, 1972).
    2. Theodore Baker, Schirmer Pronouncing Pocket Manual of Musical Terms, 5th ed. (New York: Schirmer, 1995)–look up terms as you encounter them; do you hammer away at a lusingando?
    3. Italian, French, and German dictionaries.

VI. A practice routine: Many flutists prescribe practice routines. The most common is:

  1. Tone
  2. Scales and other technical exercises
  3. Etudes
  4. Repertoire, i.e., solos, chamber music, and orchestral excerpts

The amount of time allotted to each of these elements varies with the school of playing. Some regard the first three as “warm-ups” and devote most of their time to the music. Others, notably the British school, reverse this proportion of work, spending only one fourth or one third of the time on music. [Floyd, The Gilbert Legacy, 126-131; Galway, “Thoughts on Playing the Flute,” 12-14; Wye, Proper Flute Playing, 11.]

Michel Debost offers a unique approach to organizing one’s practice time. Because warming up is sometimes impossible in real life, his first step is to play through the etudes, orchestral excerpts, and repertoire without any warm-up or preparation. He then devotes time to the basics (both scales and tone studies), followed by a mending of the errors from the initial play-through.[Debost, “Warming Up to Cool Down,” 4.]

A sensible approach borrows from all these ideas. Follow the general outline of Tone-Technique-Etudes-Repertoire but vary the proportion spent on each area depending on what needs the most work. To avoid boredom or frustration, keep your routine flexible. Doing things in the same way every day is like eating the same dish for dinner every evening. For etudes and repertoire, first challenge yourself to perform, straight through à la Debost, and then go back and fix what went wrong. Your private performance is most revealing when presented to a tape recorder, which tells you what needs improvement.

VII. Perfect the phrase. Write your breaths in the music. Then use the breaths as practice units. Practice from the beginning until the first breath. Then practice from the first breath to the second breath, and so on. If you stumble, do not begin merely at the note where the stumbling occurred. The problem is getting into this note. Thus, start at the beginning of the phrase. Make sure you can play each phrase in its entirety without breaking down. If you can do this, you can play the entire piece flawlessly.

VIII. Working out specific technical problems. Let’s assume you’ve identified the hard passages in an etude or a solo, and you’ve worked them slowly. How do you get to Mach 2?

A. Divide and conquer: We are like air traffic controllers at O’Hare. How do we keep track of all of the elements of music-making (finger technique, articulations, breathing, dynamics, intonation, rhythm, tempo, tone, emotional content of the music) and keep them from crashing into each other?

Land the planes one at a time.

The following tricky passage from the Allegretto movement of Godard’s Suite, Op. 116 requires coordination of trills, turns, octave leaps (and subtle manipulation of embouchure and air), rhythm, a perfectly timed crescendo-diminuendo, and a ritardando:
Practice in stages. First, play only the main notes with crescendo-diminuendo:


Next, put trills on these main notes. Start and end each trill on the main note, and retain the dynamics:
Now, leave out the trills and play the main notes plus octaves. Play the higher notes a little lighter than the lower ones:


Add the turns (not yet the trills):


Finally, play the passage as written (see first example above).

If a technical passage requires tonguing, practice slurred. If there is an accelerando, practice first with a steady tempo. If there are dynamics, practice first with a steady mezzo forte. Simplify, starting with only the main notes and then adding others.

On to Part 2