When I first began my journey of learning to play the flute, I thought if you just played a lot, you’d magically get better. I’d spend hours playing and playing and playing--but I never went back to work on the hard parts. I’d just skip right over them. Then, when it came time for my lesson, I still couldn’t play the difficult parts. It wasn’t until many more hours of practicing that I finally figured out these secrets to practicing efficiently. And that’s when my flute playing abilities began to take off.
Secret #1 You don’t have to play the whole song every time you practice: Great musicians never practice their pieces by playing straight through the piece until they are ready to perform it. They always work to fix the problem areas first. For example, if you start at the beginning of your two page solo, read through it, then put it away, you’re only reinforcing the incorrect things: the sloppy runs, the missed notes, the incorrect rhythms, or other things. It’s like practicing bad habits--they’ll never go away!
Tip: Work your music out in sections. It may begin with small section, like one or two measures, or even only one or two notes. When you practice, try learning a small chunk, say two or four measures, or anytime you struggle with a group of notes.
When you sight-read a new piece of music or a new line in your band book, do the following first:
1. Mark any flats, sharps, or natural signs throughout the section you may need.
2. If you are learning how to count, write the counts below your music. As this becomes easier, you can reduce the writing in to the most difficult sections or groups of notes until you don't need to at all.
3. Say AND Finger through the notes in rhythm.
4. Finally, try playing that section with the metronome on.
Secret #2 You don’t have to play the entire scale every time: When I hear students play their scales, the part they struggle with the most is what I call the “Scale Pyramid.” In a two octave scale, the pyramid consists of the highest three notes played up and back down. They are usually the trickiest fingering patterns for flutists, so if you practice them in a group before adding them into the scale, you’ll find those high notes aren’t as scary as they seem.
Scale Pyramid Technique: For this example, I will use the second octave of the Ab Major Scale.
Step 1: Use a metronome set at 80. Play the following in half notes, all slurred until you can play it smoothly with no mistakes. Play: High F, High G, High Ab, High G, High F.
Step 2: Gradually increase your tempo by one click on the metronome (usually three or four beats per measure), until you can play the pyramid at quarter notes = 80 with no mistakes, all slurred.
Step 3: Increase your tempo with the metronome slowly so that you can play the pyramid in eighth notes = 80. Remember, make sure you can play it with no mistakes and all slurred.
Step 4: Now try playing the scale and see if you’ve improved.
Note: This may take several weeks or months to work up to the eighth note tempo. It varies on length of time you have played the flute.
If you are a beginner, try this approach on lower scales, such as Eb, F, or G major. For more advanced players, try this technique with the three octave C Major scale, the B Major scale, or the full range Chromatic scale.
Secret #3 You don’t have to play fast all the time: Our brains learn at a much faster rate than our muscles. I like to use the example of training for a marathon. In order to run the race, I understand that one foot has to move front the other, back and forth for 26.2 miles. That’s the easy part. Our muscles, however, have to be conditioned through constant repetition in order to complete the task. If I don’t train purposefully and daily, I’ll never be able to run that marathon.
Learning to play fast on the flute is the same thing. When we practice our scales and arpeggios, all those pages of technique and long tones really do have a purpose. We have to train our "muscle" memory, which includes our fingers and embouchure, plus all of those other muscles that help us breathe. When you practice slowly, it's like you're building a super highway from your brain to your muscles, so that way, when you are ready to play that particular passage or run faster, you’ll be ready.
Tip: The more time you spend practicing your exercises slowly, methodically, and with a metronome, the faster you will be able to play with an amazing, beautiful sound.
When was in P.E., I understood quickly that I needed to get the basketball through the hoop. Without the purposeful practice throughout the week, I’d never be able to score the points when the game came.
Enjoy practicing and see how much time you save. Remember, always practice playing beautifully and you’ll achieve beautiful results.