Sunday, March 6, 2016

Intention and Curiosity

Many of our challenges as musicians involve overcoming mental barriers. When something goes wrong while practicing, it can be easy to repeat over and over, and judging each repetition as good or bad.

Mindless, repetitive practice has been outed as potentially destructive and sometimes harmful, and can be a source of anxiety versus learning. In its place, mindfulness and intention open us up to opportunities for discovery and help us learn with greater efficiency.

Setting an intention changes our mental state, allowing us to refocus on a simple musical or physical idea. Unlike a goal with an ending or point of achievement, an intention is on-going. If we stray from our intention, we can always come back at any time, reducing the pressure of perfection that can be associated with goal-setting.

An intention can be a simple word that we choose to embody or experience as we play. We can also phrase an idea as a question of curiosity to deflect anxiety and reduce self-judgement.

Here are some examples:

- What is it like to experience awareness of the entire room while I play?
- Why is so easy to play beautifully?
- I intend to embody brilliance.
- Feet Grounded
- Smoky Color
- Easy Fingers
- Why is is to easy to play pianissimo?
- I intend to continually release my jaw as I play.
- Brilliance
- Like a Violin
- Openness
- Listening to the sound in the room
- I intend to see and feel color as I play.
- Softness of Limbs
- What is it like to listen and experience each moment?
- What is it like to play as if I composed the piece myself?
- Play Gracefully
- I have plenty of breath. (Even if I feel I don't, I always tell myself this in the last phrase of the Mendelssohn Scherzo excerpt and it works!)

See more on the benefits of intention for overcoming performance anxiety in this post from The Bulletproof Musician:

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Grounded and Floating

During a difficult practice session featuring Paganini Caprice No. 5, I found myself asking: "Are my feet grounded?"

Nope. Definitely not.

"I Am Rooted But I Flow" - Virginia Woolf

The thought of ease beginning with a grounded, rooted connection between the feet and the floor has not found its way into my practice session for a while. After making this subtle change, all the difficulties I experienced with breathing, discomfort, and supporting the airstream while double-tonguing improved.

From the place of grounded feet, I began to find ease in the legs, reminded myself of the hip joints and movement of the pelvic floor while breathing, and the gathering and lengthening of the spine.

While my feet remained rooted, I resisted the urge to shift my weight from the floor during difficult moments or while taking a breath, and instead focused on simultaneously grounding further while the rest of the body floats upward during these moments. I also felt better able to relax the arm structure while the torso released upward.

Another breakthrough (that I have over and over), was finding ease in producing soft high notes, the most difficult thing for me. Resisting the urge to change my rooted-but-flowing state, and instead floating and grounding even more made pianissimo high notes effortless.

What is it like to play with grounded feet?

What is it like to remain grounded at points of difficulty? 

Grounding Yoga Poses:

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Warm Up Essentials: Armpit Spacers and Earplugs

A few weeks ago while warming up for my first concert with the Cinematic Symphony (STAR WARS: The Music Awakens!), I posted a photo of my warm-up essentials, Armpit Spacers and Ear Plugs.

A few people asked what the arm spacers are for, so I recently followed up with a quick demonstration and explanation:

"Skeleton's first video is an armpit spacer explanation by request! Placing pool noodles or smaller foam cylinders under the arms while playing serves as a reminder of the space available between the arms and the ribs. Notice how much space exists beneath his upper arm and notice the honey comb shape of the ribs! I certainly have a habit of clamping my arms down over the ribs and compromising the width across the collar bones while playing. Encouraging both space for the ribs to move naturally while breathing, and freeing the arm structure can make a world of difference in breathing and resonance. The spacers serve as a reminder and resting place for the arms. These were provided to me by Andover Educator Andree Martin, and are made of pipe insulation found at Home Depot or Lowes."

In the warm-up-before-the-warm-up, or the pre-opening-the-case-warm-up, I typically take time to do several yoga poses including child's pose or wide-leg child's pose to simply focus on breathing while letting go. I stay for several minutes and take the time to make myself aware of how it feels to breathe. Is it tight in certain spots when I reach the peak of inhalation? Do I flow between inhalation and exhalation without adding extra tension or effort? How do the muscles of my arms and legs react to the various stages of breathing?

I take a few moments to find balancing in standing, translating the ease of breath from child's pose into an upright position closer to playing. At this point, I will add armpit spacers to enhance the experience of the arm structure moving over the ribs while breathing, and lightly swing side to side to allow the arms to move freely with the help of the spacers. When I finally pick up the flute for my first notes, my mindset is focused and I am consciously encouraging release.

If I were to simply put my flute together and charge full-speed-ahead through Taffanel-Gaubert scales, there's a greater chance of feeling scattered and frustrated with throat tension and a stifled tone, which only increases nervousness. Taking time to focus and release before taking the flute out of the case puts me in the right mindset to focus and achieve ease and resonance right off the bat. When my first notes feel effortless, my pre-concert confidence gets a boost.

On this particular day, I put in earplugs for my first notes to continue to mindset of feeling versus hearing. Professor Eva Amsler introduced this idea to me at FSU, and I have learned so much about myself and practicing in the process. The idea of becoming process-oriented versus results-oriented provides an opportunity to fine-tune without judging the results. My first go-to warm-up of the day with earplugs is Robert Dick's first singing and playing exercise from Tone Development Through Extended Techniques

See more on Instagram and follow me @joleneflute!

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Practice Wisdom from Julius Baker

In an effort to pass time at work, I've been reading book after book after book. (It feels good to finally read all the books that I impulsively bought from Amazon over the last school year!)

I just finished reading "The Mastery of Music: Ten Pathways to True Artistry" by Barry Green, author of the prominent book, "The Inner Game of Music."

I highlighted a number of passages and folded tabs on half of the page corners to be able to go back and reflect on my favorite tips, which will likely result in a follow-up post.

In The Mastery of Music, Green interviewed a number of musicians and teachers in an effort to report on what he considers to be the ten pathways to artistry, which he relates to various groups of musicians. Not surprisingly, the chapter that resonated with me was, "Discipline," which he associates with woodwind players.

Green articulates wonderful advice about how to practice versus how much to practice, and includes the wonderful quote from Julius Baker:
"You'll never make a mistake if you never make a mistake."

Green emphasizes that mindless practice for prolonged periods can be counter-productive. (Also see Bulletproof Musician!) If we practice things too rapidly or mindlessly, we have a higher chance of making mistakes. There will come a point where we will have to undergo the difficult task of unlearning and inhibiting our bad habits and replacing them with new ones, which proves to be an inefficient use of practice time. Baker ingeniously articulates that it is possible to avoid this laborious process by not ingraining mistakes in the first place.

What seems to be the best advice for what should be happening when we practice?

Practice slow enough to avoid making any mistakes. Yes, it feels too easy.
If it feels too boring, however, there's a good chance your focus is not on the present.

We like to think that we're not really accomplishing anything when we remove the challenge of speed. (I am guilty of this.) However, slowing down to avoid mistakes altogether provides the opportunity to put a microscope on what we're actually doing. We are able to answer the questions of "what am I doing?" and "how am I doing that?" when we play slower. We will more likely be able to figure out why the E-flat cracked or why the C-sharp was too sharp when we're going slow enough to make more critical observations. (Also called "micro-discoveries!") This gives us the opportunity to observe and learn more about ourselves and the music, which can result in faster, more notable improvement.

A point that Green emphasizes is the importance of learning first, then practicing.  
Observe what you're doing, learn how to best achieve the desired outcome, then practice the optimal solution.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Today's Practice Notes: Melting Like a Snow Cone in Phoenix


What's more fun than warming up with long tones in the morning? Singing and playing! What's more fun than just singing and playing? Playing Ian Clarke's Tuberama while blasting the backing track on surround sound speakers!

Singing and playing is one of my favorite ways to warm up. I play a few test notes, then spend 5-15 minutes improvising with singing, beat-boxing, extended techniques, breathing exercises, and so forth. (Rhonda Larson's warm-up class at the Florida Flute Association Convention featured dancing while improvising to a beat track! Who says you can't have fun while warming up?)



  • When the airstream has a sense of forward-moving energy, phrases have a sense of forward-moving energy. 
  • The phrase is supported by the airstream, and gives a sense of direction.
  • When the body is tense, frozen, or still, so is the airstream. The phrase lacks direction and life.
  • The airstream has fluidity and ease when the body has fluidity and ease. A phrase has life when the body is free, moving, resilient. Freedom leads to resonance.


My first flute teacher and band director is retiring after 27 years at my elementary school, and I have the great honor of performing at his retirement celebration, along with many other former students.
I decided to play Movin' On by Rhonda Larson: It's symbolic, it's beautiful, and it's a less-than-five-minute piece for solo flute!

I recorded myself playing close to tempo after I had warmed up, and felt as though I had a grasp on the sound and body feeling I wanted.

After watching the recording, I noted several things:
  • I noted the places where I stumbled the most, and used this as a guide to break the piece into chunks that I will focus on over the next week.
  • The first note of each measure is a low note, generally followed by higher notes. I observed my embouchure changing in every measure.
  • Because I felt the need to re-set my embouchure for the low notes that started each measure, I failed to blow through more than a measure at a time. It disturbed the phrase, and the notes lacked the "shimmering" quality I was after.

I chose to work on the first section that had a lot of hesitation, which begins on a low F.

"What would I tell my student?" 
Watching myself on the recording put me in the position of the observer, much like I am when I'm teaching. I am able to watch and think about what I could do differently, which is why recordings are an essential tool for speeding up the learning process.
  1. "Play a really tense low F. Lift the tongue in the mouth, tense the lips, jaw, throat, toes..."
  2. "Keep blowing, then melt into the floor. Melt the body around the airstream. Let go of everything. Go through a mental checklist of things let go of: A-O joint, tongue, ankles, fingers, eyelids, tailbone, jaw, eyebrows, ears... Keep going until you've gone too far, then begin to add back." (Try Kay Hooper's "Goldilocks Effort" from the book, Sensory Tuneups!)
  • When my body was tense:
    • I felt overwhelmed and consumed mentally.
    • My sound was muffled and lacked "shimmer" or resonance.
    • I felt that I was not in control.
    • I couldn't hear myself due to the mental cloud that bodily tension caused.
  • After instructing myself to "melt:" 
    • I immediately sensed a mental shift: I became an observer and felt less panicked.
    • I felt that I was in control.
    • I could hear myself better.
    • My sound opened and resonated through the house. 
    • There was a natural vibrato that added life to the spinning sound.
    • There was direction and a sense of phrase in a single note. (See above!)
I went back to the original measure, playing slowly to maintain "melted-snow-cone-status." (I can't help a good Mrs. Doubtfire Reference!)

I love savasana in yoga, especially when the instructor gently guides you to relaxation from head to toe. (I always say, "Oh, wow!" when they mention "relaxing behind the eyes.")

Practice letting go in savasana, and try a guided meditation video. Observing and releasing tension in the body without a flute makes it easier to become aware of tension while playing.

Try Savasana-Inspired Long Tones to release tension while playing!

Monday, May 20, 2013

Open Sound: Why I Love Middle C!

I'm thrilled to pieces. I want to stand on a roof and scream, "I like my sound!" Even more, I like how it feels to play this week. Why?

A colleague recently told me about a sound exercise that our teacher loves, which involves an etude with a lot of intervals and octave changes. She suggests moving everything into the comfortable middle register and practicing with the goal of staying open.

I did this several days ago, and remembered what it felt like to just breathe and let sound happen. I wasn't forcing anything into place, just exhaling. (With a flute on my face.) I allowed air in my cheeks, and I felt resonance happen, instead of trying to make it happen.

I found it easiest to achieve this open feeling when I left the tongue out entirely. I simply let the air start the sound. I also stopped worrying about where my lips should go or if my tongue was tense or in the way.

I was so thrilled with my sound, I immediately tore my bookshelves apart looking for more and more things to play! (I'm supposed to be packing to leave for the summer...) It became fun to play everything with this exact same open feeling. I've been trying to overcome my habits of making micro-adjustments from note to note, and in doing so have added some unnecessary panic and therefore tension.

Pretending that EVERY note was the same as an easy-breezy middle C did the trick! Whenever I felt my throat begin to tense, I just played middle C again and memorized the feeling.

The feeling of support that accompanies this is the natural exhale, which provides an easy, constant airstream. One of my favorite exercises is from David Vining's Breathing Book.

Watch his video demonstration here:

I played through two whole books of etudes, and realized (for the hundredth time) that sound is the most important part of practicing technique. It's really about finding the most ideal "tone set-up," and inhibiting habits that could disrupt it. Somehow, it becomes easier to move fingers faster and more evenly when you are able to trust and stay open.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

First Year? Check! Hello, Summer!

Mid-May? Already? (Does every post start with something about how time flies?)

Summer seems to be the time for blogging since I'm left to my own devices to improve as much as possible before the fall semester begins. I'm thrilled to be returning to Bridgehampton this summer, and I look forward to having plenty of time to practice, write, relax at the beach, and add to my collection of creative Starbucks misspellings. And work, of course. This whole thing started because I had plenty of "thinking time" at work last summer! (What a difference a year makes!)

While finalizing summer plans, I'm still in disbelief that I've finished the first year of my Master's degree at FSU. Of all the wonderful things I learned about music performance and pedagogy this year, the lessons I've learned about myself and life in general are by far the most prominent.

Before I go into the deep, human revelaions of my first year of grad school, here's a recap of some of my favorite moments, and of course, exciting flute tips!
  • I traveled to Orlando in January to attend the Florida Flute Association Convention. I performed with the FSU Flute Choir and the Graduate Flute Ensemble. My top 3 favorite things about the convention? 1. Hearing Rhonda Larson perform Be Still My Soul, 2. Finally buying an Altieri flute backpack (in navy!), and 3. Eating at Steak n' Shake for the first time ever.
  • I had the wonderful opportunity to play piccolo with the FSU Symphony Orchestra this semester! The high level of commitment and artistry from my colleagues was awe-inspiring, and Dr. Alexander Jimenez is an incredible musician and a wonderful human being. (I was also very happy to spend more time with the beautiful Burkart piccolo I purchased last fall!) Exciting moments include: Performing Dohnanyi's Symphony No. 2 and recording it for the Naxos label, and performing Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade last month!
  • I took beginning baroque flute this semester I found it extremely enjoyable. I'm thrilled to take the advanced class next fall. I learned a lot about Baroque music and style, and I finally came to understand the importance of the lumbar spine in support. I have previously over-exaggerated the arch of the lumbar spine in an effort to feel my sit-bones. I thought I was maintaining the curves of the spine, when I was actually adding tension to my lower back, making it very difficult to support by maintaining resilience in the pelvic floor. I'm spending a lot of time practicing while sitting or leaning against a desk to let go in my lower back, and was reminded to bend my knees while standing.
Okay, the best things I learned this year:
  • I became aware my ability to positively influence the people around me and to offer my views in a non-threatening, understanding way. Although I did not necessarily intend to change others' opinions, I noticed that I could persuade others to value my views.
  • I'm becoming extremely courageous. After learning Ian Clarke's Hatching Aliens and Joseph Jongen's Sonata, Op. 77 in a very short time for my first solo recital, I realized just how much I am capable of. (And don't think I didn't complain about "having to rush to learn difficult pieces," and said things like: "I took 6 months to prepare my senior recital!" for most of the experience!) I'm more willing to take on challenges for the experience to learn, rather than turning them down due to self-doubt.
  • Self-respect comes first. Put it on your priority list. (Also, my semester got much better when my teacher assigned me to put "Eat chocolate cake" on my to do list as a gesture of self-kindness.)
  • I became aware of my physiological reactions when nervous or frustrated, and learned that accepting negative feelings is the only way to feel in control of them.
  • I learned to be okay with being uncomfortable. (By accepting that I feel uncomfortable!) I feel ready to give up expectations and "safe" options for the chance to seek something greater- true self-fulfillment. It's okay to change the plan! 
I learned something new every day this year, and have spent the past two weeks simply reflecting. I'm sure these things will continue to sink in, and will lead me to think and practice in new ways. I'm excited for things to come, and look forward to more frequent posts from all of my summertime-fluting!