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Practicing Technical Passages

Ah, practicing. All the flutists these days are doing it. Unfortunately, many of them never develop thoughtful, efficient practice techniques and methods. How we practice is just as important as actually practicing, so if you're finding yourself going in circles in the forest of "Why can't I get this right?!", then, chances are, in order to play better, you don't to practice more, but just practice differently. I know I used to commit every practice sin under the sun, but I learned the following techniques from my flute teachers at Carnegie Mellon. They've worked for me, so I hope they work for you.


Practicing in rhythms

"I can play it slowly, but I can't play it right when it's fast!"

We've all been there, grasshopper. Fortunately, there's a trick to learning to play hard things at full tempo. The problem, as we know all too well, is that it's easy to play things slowly, and the slow practice isn't helping you learn to play it up to speed. What a lot of flutists do is play it at a variety of tempos, starting very slowly and working their way up. Thatís fine, and it works... eventually. Slow-practice-on-fast-sections is useful and has many wonderful qualities, but eventually, if you want to learn to run, walking is going to have its limitations.

Why isn't slow practice more effective in these situations? The problem is, that even if you break a hard passage down into playing a measure at a time, itís still too much for the brain/fingers to process when youíre working for speed. Hence, the all too familiar routine I call music-bashing: mindless, endless repetition of tricky spots where the same mistakes happen over and over and over despite the flutist's increasing frustration.

So, the trick is to practice that technical passage up to tempo... but in rhythms, using basic long/short and short/long patterns. Your goal here is to train the fingers to get from one note to the next quickly and without mistakes without trying to play everything fast in one fell (and flawed) swoop.

First, as an example, the arpeggiated passage from the famous flute excerpt, Peter and the Wolf by Prokofiev.

Say you've been practicing and practicing this and you just can't get it right. (Yes, I know there's harder excerpts in Peter, but as they would have involved drawing extensive ledger lines and accidentals, I stuck with something basic.) Now, try applying a simple long-short-long-short rhythm to the passage instead of the steady sixteenths (Example B). Make the long note as long as you want (no vibrato), and focus on making a clean, quick switch on the note. The short note should be as quick as you can, with the goal of going from the short note to the next long note in the ultimate tempo for the piece. (But for practicing purposes, try to get a little faster than your goal tempo, as it's always best to have a little wiggle room so your concert speed isn't also your top speed.) Although it's not indicated in these stellar diagrams of mine, slur everything, no matter what printed articulation you have. This lets you forget about the tongue, plus, you can hear all the finger changes very clearly. Later, if it's an articulated passage, then you can practice rhythms while tonguing.

You don't have to play real sixty-fourth notes... the numerous flags on the short notes are just to show you that they aresupposed to be as fast as you can play them correctly. In the beginning, that might be quite slow as you get the fingerings down, and that's fine. A good rule of thumb here is never to go faster than you can play it right.

When that's easy, flip the rhythms around, so you're working on the other half of the finger changes:

Whatís happening here is that you are playing half the passage up to tempo, and allowing your mind and fingers to prepare during the other half of the passage. Itís much less overwhelming than having to attempt to spew out a whole line of sixteenths over and over, while probably making a lot of the same mistakes again and again.

When both rhythm patterns are comfortable, time for rhythm pattern level two. Instead of the 1 long / 1 short pattern, now try in groups of 4 notes. First practice making the first note the long one, and the next three as short and clean as possible into the next held note (Example C).

When thatís comfortable, then practicing holding note 2 of every 4. Then note 3 of every 4, and finally the last of every four.

What this is doing is ratcheting up how many notes youíre able to play up to speed. With rhythms in groups of 2, you're playing 50 percent of the passage at your goal tempo. With groups of 4, youíre playing 75 percent in tempo, while still relaxing on the long notes and focusing for the next set of fast notes.

That's the key - relax and focus. Don't just hold the long notes because you're supposed to, but use them as a time to mentally regroup and focus on the next fast set. Relax, breathe if you have to, and then, most importantly, think about what your fingers have to do.

There's nothing artistic about practicing technique. It's simply a matter of finger muscle memory. Once your fingers make a mistake, they think thatís what you want, and youíre likely to make the same mistake again unless itís carefully practiced out by doing whatever you have to in order to play it correctly. That's why the play-the-passage-dang-it-was-wrong-so-play-it-again-argh-still-wrong-play-it-again-still-wrong-oh-why-canít-I-get-it-right-play-it-again-etc.-etc. kind of practice doesn't work. They say "practice makes perfect", which has been amended by many to "perfect practice makes perfect." We're none of us perfect, but the more efficient and thoughtful your practice is, the better you'll sound.

So, thatís rhythm practice. You can tailor this to any technical passage, whether theyíre all even notes or mixed lengths. You can do triple rhythm sets (long-short-short, short-long-short, etc.), or groups of 8.... whatever works.


Adding one note at a time

Another method I use for technical work is aptly described as the "adding one note method." In this, you play the passage up to tempo, but starting with only two notes. Then add a third, then a fourth, etc. A variation of this is to just play two or three notes at a time, up to tempo. It should be easy to do if youíre not trying to play the whole passage in one fell swoop, and once the fingers get muscle memory working, itíll be easier to connect the whole passage later on. The hardest run instantly becomes easy when you play only a few notes at a time, so this is very useful.


Mental practice and imaging

And the other method I use is probably my favorite because it works like magic and I donít need the flute to do it, which means I can practice technical passages anywhere, anytime. This method is none other than mental practicing. Itís just like the mental imaging that athletes do before competitions. Itís not just idly imagining oneself playing the passage, but intensely concentrating on it. Itís seeing your fingers complete the tricky fingerings correctly, seeing the notes on the page (if youíre not using music), and hearing it in your head. It may be tempting, but when you mental practice, don't play the "air flute" by fingering the notes as you think. The trick is to completely get away from physical muscles and make it all mental. Just like athletes imagine themselves winning and go step by step through everything they have to do, we ďathletes of the little musclesĒ have to do the same.

This may seem crazy, but it really works. Great pianists routinely study their scores away from the piano, since their music is so complex compared to our single-melody pieces. There's even a story about Gieseking (of Gieseking Sonatine fame), who studied a new piece while traveling to a distant concert venue, and never actually played it at a piano until the concert performance. Of course heís an extreme case. :) The rest of us mortals DO need to practice on the instrument as well as mental practice, but thatís just an example of how well this can work.

The reason mental practicing works is because it truly is mind over matter and how we think affects how we play. So, if you really focus and concentrate on what you WANT to come out of your fingers, then itís more likely to happen. And if you really study the notes and picture yourself playing them, then you can really understand the note patterns and maybe recognize that, hey, this isn't a random jumble of notes, but a B major scale starting on G sharp. Bottom line, if you really engrave in your brain whatís in the music, itís more likely to send the correct messages to the fingers, as opposed to, ďWhoa, lots of black notes..... PANIC!Ē

However, this is not me telling you that you don't need to ever physically play the flute. Unlike the world of The Matrix where there is no spoon, here, mental stuff notwithstanding, there definitely is a flute. So, mental practice should be mixed in with regular practice. It's great for when you need a break for your fingers, or you can do it while waiting for the school bus or during TV commercials or anywhere, any time. If done right, mental practice decreases the amount of time you need to spend on tricky passages, since you learn them more quickly, but it doesn't replace regular practice. This is to be distinctly understood because I don't want to get any phone calls from your puzzled parents asking why I told you that you don't need to practice anymore but can do it all in your head. :)


Key words: efficient and thoughtful

In a nutshell, if you incorporate rhythms, the adding-one-note method, and mental practice into your flute routine, you should find your technical abilities improving more quickly than before. A lot of students get into this mindless repetition mode because when we first started learning music and were much younger and less keen to practice than we are now (riiiiight?), repetition was drilled into our heads as the one and only way to practice... e.g. "Play it five times a day and you get a sticker!" Now, what you're doing is thinking analytically about how best to get the fingers working right every time you need them to, so you can be creative, and try anything that will help. There is no one right way to practice, but hopefully these methods will give you somewhere to start.


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