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!