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The Sensible Flutist

The Sensible Flutist: February 2012

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Engaging the right brain in the practice room

I've been reading and researching this week to begin preparing for my presentation later this year at the National Flute Association's annual convention in Las Vegas. I've started the fleshing out process by reading My Stroke of Insight by Dr. Jill Taylor. This has been a fascinating glimpse inside the mind of a stroke victim. I'm grateful that she made a complete recovery and was able to gift the world with this book.

Prior to reading the book, I haven't really put too much thought into the differences of the left and right hemispheres of the brain. I'm a thinker. I carefully reason, plan and analyze everything I do. Doing something like playing my flute forces me out of my left brain analytical thinking and shifts me into an artistic mode which is right brain driven. But I want to be able to explain what I do so that I can return to that place consistently. That's why I have this blog. I record my experiences which allows me to keep reflecting and thinking.

Perhaps my dominant analytical self is why I suffer from performance anxiety. Reading Taylor's book has made me realize that somatic disciplines like Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais and Body Mapping all help us just be without excess effort. These disciplines help us "step to the right" as Dr. Taylor says and lets our bodies work with our minds in efficient, effective and natural ways.

In my daily practice (or exploration as I've been thinking of it recently), I have been using techniques such as inclusive awareness and constructive rest to keep awareness of my body as I play my instrument. I've also been following guitarist and AT student Patrick Smith's blog as he recounts his experiences in the practice room. It's helpful to see how someone else explores the music and the body in their practice.

Dr. Taylor says to step right away from the mental chatter and away from your ego center in order to be mindful and present. When we're in the practice room, we have to balance our practicing with compassion and non-judgment. We are there to explore and produce a better artistic product than we were could the day before.

When I approach the practice session as a process and not because I have a deadline, I'm happier and more fulfilled with my daily exploration. When the left brain is chattering all sorts of judgmental things at me, I can simply "step to the right" and engage in the music and let it flow through me.

The biggest lesson in all this research so far is the reminder that we have the power to choose at any moment what to do, but more on that later. Happy exploring.

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Monday, February 20, 2012

The latest in my journey with managing performance anxiety

I was excited to play as part of Classical Revolution Philadelphia's monthly gig at One Shot Coffee. I've been wanting to hang out with them for a while and this was my first opportunity to come out and meet up with them. I was fortunate to have my husband be able to come so he could film my performance on my iPhone.

This was the result:

I'm OK with this performance, although I didn't feel in complete control and it is why I'm using these types of opportunities to sort out current issues before my Philadelphia and Virginia performances. My experience with performance anxiety has evolved into a delayed response that starts only after I've begun playing. Rather than mental chatter being front and center, it bubbles under the surface. Breathing becomes labored to the point it feels like I'm hyperventilating especially in softer passages.

So I certainly don't think it's a coincidence that I heard Alexander Technique teacher Jessica Wolf mentioned by Keith Underwood in his class I attended last Friday or again in another circle. What I wasn't aware of is her post graduate training course for Alexander teachers titled, The Art of Breathing.

As I reflect on yesterday's performance, I realize even more now that physical and mental stress is affecting my ability to breathe without interference while I'm performing. Essentially, performance anxiety induced tension is interfering with my ability to breathe well. Once I stop playing, muscular tension subsides and my breathing returns to a normal state.

I see improvements in my playing that I'm happy with but I'm on a neverending journey to produce the best musical product that I can. Focusing on one thing alone isn't the solution, but I want to continue bringing awareness to my breathing in my daily practice.

Here's a couple of great articles I've come across recently that have helped put things back in perspective for me so that I don't begin to overthink all the delicate complexities of playing a musical instrument:

Thinking vs Awareness by Jennifer Schneiderman

Frank M Sheldon's thoughts on consequences of End-Gaining

One of the greatest joys of playing music is the lifelong learning that accompanies it. Constantly learning, constantly reflecting, constantly sharing. Here's to the next one.

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Monday, February 13, 2012

Part Two: "...but I practiced!" A technique practice strategy

In Part One, I discussed strategies for learning a new piece especially if you’re a very detail oriented person. The suggested strategies should help you maintain the overall feel of a piece while working.

In Part Two, I want to discuss a technique practice strategy that B and I devised for them to cover more material while regularly rotating through every major and minor key. This is particularly useful for adults, amateurs and professional alike, who may be squeezed for time to cover everything. I tend to practice technique largely in only the areas I feel need attention. I do try to get through a larger technique practice once a week (a la Practice Like you Train), but sometimes I just don’t have this time. This strategy is a four week cycle, allowing you to visit all your go-to technical exercises once a month while rotating through all keys once a week.

The books B is using are The Flute Scale Book by Patricia George and Phyllis Louke, Marquarre Daily Exercises for the Flute, and the classic Taffanel and Gaubert 17 Big Daily Finger Exercises for the Flute. Since the Flute Scale Book is founded on the Taffanel and Gaubert, most of the work can be done from the Flute Scale Book. In the plan below, I will notate both the Flute Scale Book exercise title and the corresponding Taffanel and Gaubert exercise.

First, decide what you want your material to consist of. You may have a goal of getting through the practice plans listed in the Flute Scale Book or you may want to devise a strategy for getting through all of the Marquerre exercises. The point of this strategy is to devise a plan that will help you achieve your goal. This works because it’s breaking a long term goal into smaller manageable bits. The key to this plan is consistency. You won’t get bored practicing the same things everyday while you’re building or maintaining a strong technical foundation.

There are infinite possibilities when working with E.J. 4 (corresponding Tone Color Scales in the Flute Scale Book) so I keep these scales as a constant every week while rotating through the keys. This sample plan is good for an amateur flutist who only has 10-15 minutes a day to work on technique. This is based on a 6 day practice schedule, practicing 2 major/minor key pairings a day with varied articulations.

If you're more advanced, please adapt to fit your time constraints technical areas of weakness. Please feel free to share other plans based on your material. I’d love to see them!

Week 1:
Flute Scale Book Tone Color Scales (T&G E.J. 4)
FSB Ascending and descending arpeggios (T&G E.J. 8 and 9)
Marquarre Exercises 1 and 2

Week 2:
Tone color scales
Scales in thirds (T&G E.J. 6)
Marquarre Exercises 3 and 4

Week 3:
Tone color scales
Broken arpeggios (T&G E.J. 11)
Marquarre Exercises 5 and 6

Week 4:
Tone color scales
Modal scales in 3rds and 6ths, flats on MWF, sharps on TRS (T&G E.J. 6, played in 6 note chunks)
Marquarre Exercise 7

*For more suggestions on technique books, read Flute Warm Ups

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Monday, February 6, 2012

How I warmed up with a phrasing study and a coffee stirrer

I took some time to read the February 2012 issue of Flute Talk over the weekend. I was overjoyed to see Phyllis Louke recap a class (“A Fresh Look at Breathing, Tone, Articulation and Dynamics”) that Keith Underwood gave in Oregon recently. After reading this article and Patricia George’s Phrasing Study on Barret Melody No. 1, I was ready to play with a hefty dose of motivation.

The Barret melody looked vaguely familiar. I pulled one of my old copies of Mrs. George’s Flute Spa handouts (I have handouts from 2002 and 2003 when I studied with her) and there she had included first four of Barret’s Forty Progressive Melodies. I credit Mrs. George for teaching me so many of the phrasing ideas that now have become second nature to me. I felt inspired to explore these melodies again so the phrasing study and a coffee stirrer became my warm-up.

The week I spent with Keith at Ghost Ranch became a week with the coffee stirrer. This is a great way to figure out where you are placing articulations inside the mouth. It also encourages you to open up behind the embouchure rather than moving your jaw and lips with every note. Using the coffee stirrer to practice tricky rhythms and articulations maintains the most efficient embouchure so that you do not overshoot the notes. It’s a great, inexpensive tool to improve your tone, breath control and articulations.

In order to practice on the coffee stirrer, place the stirrer inside the mouth (with the tip above the top teeth) at a 45 degree angle. Blow into the stirrer, take the air back and play. The challenge is to take in your air through the coffee stirrer when you need a breath. Since the stirrer doesn’t change size, practicing on the coffee stirrer addresses embouchure size changes between registers and makes the breath more efficient. A three step process to practicing with the coffee stirrer is to play a passage on the coffee stirrer, then without and finally with the flute.

As I practiced, I stayed inclusively aware to recognize tension as I played. I practiced the phrasing study within the context of contour and stayed aware of the places where I felt less efficient and began trying harder to achieve the sound and shape I wanted. I practiced those specific phrases on my coffee stirrer in order to feel how I could open up behind the embouchure while breathing with less effort and movement. By the end, I felt like I was beautifully contouring this first melody with efficient, organized movement.

With this smart, efficient practice, I felt an ease that usually doesn’t happen until after a good warm-up. With a little creativity and inspiration to try new things, I feel that I’m arriving into a new level of practice. Quite simply, it was nice.

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