Thursday, July 26, 2012

How to Cope With a Bad Tone Day

We all have bad tone days. They are usually accompanied by the words: "I can't play." Or "I sound like a third grader." On such days, I typically want to crawl back into bed or change my major.

I don't dive right into long tones on "bad tone days." I use long tones to memorize how it feels to play with ease and resonance. I start them once they feel more productive than frustrating. 

These things make me feel better:
  1. Warm up your body. The body moves best when it is free of tension. Try some tension relieving stretches or yoga poses. Go for a run. Dance in front of a mirror. At UNH, I would walk up and down three flights of stairs to get a drink of water. When I got back to my practice room, my blood was pumping and I could breathe more naturally while playing.
  2. Relax. Reduce stress. Meditate. Take care of something that's taking over your thoughts.
  3. Lay in constructive rest for five to ten minutes. Place your hands on your ribs to feel them moving. Watch your body breathe. Think about the gathering and lengthening of the spine. Release the A-O joint.
  4. "Bobble" at the A-O joint while playing to avoid unnecessary tension.
  5. Check your flute: Leaks can cause an unfocused sound. Some people recommend a COA every year, but I get them done twice a year. It depends on your flute and level of activity.
  6. Is your cork loose?
  7. Blow warm, moist air onto the pads. (James Galways does this in a masterclass video on YouTube. It especially helps with footjoint notes.)
  8. Change rooms, if possible. A livelier room is more forgiving. I like to spend some time warming up in a better room, then return to a dull room so I can hear myself better for tone exercises.
  9. Sing. Do vocal warm-ups. Sing, then play the note.
  10. Sing and play simultaneously. For some reason, I've resorted to sing-playing through the exposition of Mozart's G Major flute concerto as a warm-up. I sound better playing it normally after I've done this.
  11. Do other extended techniques (from Robert Dick's Tone Development Through Extended Techniques) such as whistle tones, timbral trills, multiphonics, bamboo tones... Play through one of Robert Dick's Flying Lessons etudes. These let you work on embouchure flexibility while avoiding straight tone.
  12. Harmonics. Harmonics. Harmonics. There are so many ways to practice them. The most effective for me is playing a harmonic, then slurring to the true fingering. This really helps me to feel a sense of openness and resonance when I play the actual note.
  13. Keep your flute warm. From then end of August to about the end of October, the band room at UNH is about 12 degrees. My flute is cold. My body is cold. It's impossible to sound good. I resorted to bringing a scarf for my flute. Also try complaining until someone turns the air conditioner off. (This does not work at the University of New Hampshire, however.)
  14. Change vowel sounds. Experiment with each possible vowel sound. You might find that your natural tendency isn't the most effective for creating a resonant tone: On "bad days," I realize that my tendency is "eeee" or "ehhh" which results in a thin tone. "Ahhh," "ooooh," and "augh" allow warmer air, producing a warmer sound. Think of how each vowel sound changes the space inside the mouth. Greater volume increases resonance.
  15. If time allows, come back later. I always sound best at night because my body is naturally warmed up from moving all day. As a personal note, I typically have less IBS pain in the evening, making it easier to practice.
  16. Listen to a great recording. Get the flutist's tone in your head.
  17. Mentally practice a tone study. Think about how it would feel and sound when played with ease and resonance. Imagine it three times in a row. Then play it. 
  18. Inclusive awareness. Stop analyzing and just play. Listen back. Get to know the space behind you. Let your sound "open" by not trying
  19. Play in the dugout position, while squatting, while laying on the floor, while bouncing on a balance ball, while pretending to sit on a bench...
  20. Are you covering too much of the embouchure hole? Is your flute too high or low on your chin? If your flute is open-hole, are you covering the holes entirely?
  21. If all else fails,  vivid mental practice can be extremely effective. (Spend time mentally practicing in the morning, then return to your instrument later. You might be surprised!)
How do you cope with a bad tone day?

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Late-Night Kitchen Recitals // Who Do You Play For?

On Sunday night, we had a late-night visit from two friends of my host family.

One of them went to school for music and is now working in insurance.

My host mentioned that I am a musician, and at 11 pm said, "Go get your flute!"

I played some C.P.E. Bach in a kitchen recital while my roommate was making Muddy Buddies, (known in this house as 'puppy chow.')

The musician in my audience of five was an interesting person to talk to. At first, he didn't say much, but I could he was really thinking. He asked to see my score.

He started asking me questions. The first was, "which part is the hardest for you?"

I pointed out a section in the third movement of the Concerto in D Minor, and explained that it was so difficult because there wasn't a place to breathe. He asked me to play it for him, and he was interested to see how I would handle the passage.

He complimented my technical ability, and then proceeded to analyze my score while I snacked on Muddy Buddies.

He then explained to me and my roommate that he once had a professor tell him, "choosing a major is simply choosing a point of view." Choosing what you study in college influences how you view and interpret the rest of your life. He chose music. So did I. He "views the world in harmonies," and admits that he is influenced by music in his work with insurance. Interesting thought.

Looking at my score again, he asked me if I enjoyed the music I was playing. I was quick to say yes, but he had a different angle in mind. He showed me what he meant by asking me to play one phrase from the Concerto. He asked me to cut the tempo in half. Then again. "Watch this, it's going to feel like a lullaby," he said. He pointed out that there is SO MUCH in that one phrase that needs to be enjoyed. At full speed, most of it gets tossed away. There are complex harmonies in the movement that need to be appreciated.

I read the recent article about slow practice from the Bulletproof Musician the day before, so the idea was on my mind. I told him that I try to practice slowly, but it's mindless. I'm usually just trying to get the notes. The idea of enjoying it, however, was really encouraging. Slow practice is about discovery.

He later asked me, "who do you play for?" I could tell that he was challenging me with a deep and personal question. First I said, "myself." He then led me to answer, "People who appreciate it...People that do this, too." He respected my answer, and told me that I do have a choice.

I recalled the most exciting performances that I've given, and they're the ones in which I was playing for other musicians or a room full of flute players. That might be selfish, but it's honest.

Though I've thought about what I want to do when I graduate, I haven't thought of it in a "choose your audience" kind of way. Music is about communicating with people. Who do you want to communicate with? This is an interesting question to grapple with.

Who do you play for?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Tools for a Creative Practice Session

Every time I need to order something from Flute World, I spend hours carefully shopping for everything else I might need so I can have it all shipped at once.

A FluterScooter bag has made its way onto my wishlist, so I've spent an entire day online shopping for anything else I could possibly need until (at least) September.

I came across Jennifer Keeney's Creative Practice Recipes. I've heard wonderful things about them, and I'm currently trying to make my own practice sessions as creative and inspired as possible; I definitely need some outside ideas. There are two sets of Creative Practice Recipes, and unfortunately, set one is back-ordered.

I'm impatient. So in the meantime, I created my own.

I love craft projects. And I REALLY love Staples.

I was showered and at the store before 10am. (On my day off!)

I had two ideas for creative practice tools:

1. Index cards similar to Jennifer Keeney's Creative Practice Recipe cards.
2. Popsicle stick practice prompts.

For the popsicle sticks (which were hard to come by in the Hamptons), I bought pencil cups and sticky labels. Each cup is a category: 

I have tons of tone and technique exercises that I love doing, but I can't do all of them in their entirety every day. There are just too many. I've tried making calendars and schedules for each, but it was too complicated and overwhelming. 

I'm excited about this.

The popsicle sticks in the Technique cup each have a different technique exercise, such as Taffanel-Gaubert #1, thirds, extended scales, arpeggio trill study... etc. The tone cup is similar.

I created a stick for each major and minor key, and a variety of articulations, as well. 

The "How?" cup contains adjectives that can govern style, color, vibrato, and so forth: Dark, ethereal, Baroque, stormy, tenderly, mysteriously, sensually, like a cello...

I'm planning to use them in several ways:
  • Choose three major keys each day (and their relative minor keys), and do all of the technique exercises in those keys. Don't put them back in the cup until you've gone through all keys.
  • Choose several technique exercises, do them in all keys, and use different articulations/styles.
  • Experiment with different styles in etudes and repertoire.

I also bought an index card box to contain my own Creative Practice Recipes. I'm planning to include my favorite Body Mapping reminders, stretches, yoga breathing exercises, quotes from teachers and master classes, and anything else that might be a helpful reminder or a creative solution.

I'm looking forward receiving a new FluterScooter bag and Jennifer Keeney's Creative Practice Recipes soon!

Jennifer Keeney's website features tons of wonderful and inspiring articles. As does her blog:

I'm thinking of purchasing her ebook as well:

I've created new inspirational flute boards on my Pinterest, too:

Have you used Jennifer Keeney's Recipes?

How do you practice creatively?

Saturday, July 21, 2012

( r e v e l a t i o n s } Friday July 20th

Blogging from work now. Oops.
I made a discovery about tone and resonance in an incredibly concise practice session yesterday.
At the ARIA master class in 2010, Judith Mendenhall instructed us to play with "3 balloons in your chest and 3 eggs in your mouth"  to help us remember that space in the mouth is important for resonance.

I was reminded of the space in my mouth while practicing Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. I played this excerpt for my Ohio State audition in January and it led Katherine Borst Jones to give me a mini-lesson on resonance right on the spot. She instructed me to "drop my Adam's apple" at the time.

Yesterday, however, I noticed that when I try to "drop my jaw" or "open my throat," I do just that. I try. I did achieve some slight improvement after I instructed myself to "open my throat," but before I got too excited, I considered that there might be a better way. 

Effortless is the way to go!

I released tension in my mouth. I stopped forcing and just allowed myself to feel a larger volume of space. Simply changing my approach to become less "do this" and more "allow this" made a wonderful difference. I noticed that "open throat" feeling without actually having to do anything. 
The "It-feels-like-I'm-doing-nothing-and-yet-my-tone-is-gorgeous-and-I-have-enough-air" feeling is the best. 
Asking myself "How effortless can I make _________?" helps me get there.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Play the Music, Not the Flute

Have you ever heard a recording of a 'standard' that seems to trump all others?

There are more than 50 videos of Poem by C. T. Griffes on just the first three pages of YouTube. There are at least 16 recordings available from Flute World. 

So why do I prefer Amy Porter's performance above all others?


She holds my attention from start to finish.
In my opinion, this is the most engaging recording of Poem that I've heard: I'm able to get a grasp on the entire piece. I hear a journey from start to finish. I hear more of Griffes.

Her interpretation is so compelling not because it is more perfect than any other, but because it is well-planned and the piece is effectively communicated.

{ r e v e l a t i o n s } Monday, July 16th

It's been a while since I've felt productive. I decided to really work on tone today until I actually noticed an improvement that I could describe in words.
I have played while lying on the floor in Body Mapping lessons to note how reducing effort can increase resonance.

 Semi-Supine Position
Today's revelations while practicing on the floor...
  • "Feel air entering through the nose or mouth and let the rest take care of itself." I find myself trying to help my body move to inhale, but it just leads to tension and awkward movements. My body does a better job taking air in when I get out of the way and simply observe the journey the air takes.
  • Alexander Technique teachers suggest placing a book under your head when lying in this position. Without the book, I was very much aware airway restriction. With the book, I noticed an improvement in breathing.

Life-Changing Performances: Never Apologize

Today's post from The Sensible Flutist, 'Enriching your artistry through life experience' inspired me to reflect on my most life-changing experience as a performer. When I consider my most thrilling experience on stage, this is the performance that I think of. It was the first time I truly connected to my own emotions while listening to the piece I was playing. Personal experience truly does enrich one's art.

Last summer, as a part of my Musicians' Wellness research, I attended Amy Porter's Anatomy of Sound workshop at the University of Michigan. The guest artist was Ian Clarke, and I was to play Sunstreams for one of the first classes: Clarke compositions with little or no extended techniques.
After I played it through once, Ian asked me what I thought I could improve upon. I really didn't know what to say, so I mentioned something about giving the piece more character. Then he asked the audience what they enjoyed about it. I was surprised when many participants offered kind, positive comments.

Monday, July 9, 2012

{ r e v e l a t i o n s } Monday, July 9th

The words: "I thought I wanted a job, but it turns out I just wanted paychecks" best describe my attitude about work. I sit around thinking about practicing. Which is good. But also terrible. (I literally burst into tears one day. I really wanted to walk out the door and run home in the rain to be reunited with my long lost love...I shouldn't watch the Notebook anymore.) Anyway, making the most of my free time at home is becoming crucial, and I'm also starting to overcome my post-work tiredness to practice as efficiently as possible.

I've been decently successful with my original "Summer To-Do List" plan, though there are still a few things that I haven't even started. I've been recording myself every time I practice, and it is wonderfully helpful. If I'm limited for practice time, I record various sections at different tempi then analyze them from my bed. It's actually working out. (Nothing makes me happier than being productive from my bed.)

After practicing tonight, I have one simple revelation to report. It's almost ridiculous.


The idea to consciously listen to the music I was playing popped into my head, and VOILA! Enter effortless musicality via inclusive awareness. 

My tone was more resonant.
I was able to fill the space more.
I was no longer stumbling through difficult technical passages (even the ones I had barely practiced).

Let me just say it again:



Get out of the way and let the composer's intentions guide your performance.