Circular Breathing Progress

June 28th, 2013 § Leave a Comment

A couple of years ago, I made an attempt to learn circular breathing. It was a frustrating process and I didn’t stick with it, so I didn’t become proficient at the technique. It was probably a decent introduction to the idea but I’m not sure how much benefit I got from that initial failed attempt.

As I focus more heavily on contemporary music, the likelihood that I will encounter the specific requirement to use circular breathing within a piece becomes more realistic. I recently started working on a piece that does require circular breathing. Obviously it’s time for me to figure this out.

I have Robert Dick’s Circular Breathing for the Flutist. I also ran across a helpful video by Helen Bledsoe, which can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UQyAotWQjZQ. Reading descriptions of how to learn the technique is helpful, but sometimes it is necessary for me to see it being used to really understand what should be taking place.

At this point, I am able to inhale and exhale simultaneously for short bursts. I’m practicing this using a glass of water and a straw as well as just inhaling and exhaling without using the glass. When using the glass of water, you blow bubbles into the water through the straw while taking in a breath through your nose. Apparently it is rather common for people to accidentally inhale water while trying to coordinate these. Fortunately, I haven’t done that yet.

I haven’t been able to move past this stage at this point but I have been practicing it for only a week or so. I feel good about the consistency of my practice, even though I’ve been going a bit beyond the recommended 10 – 15 minutes a day. It takes me a while to get the hang of it each practice session, and once I do, I try to get as much as possible out of it. This has resulted in sore embouchure muscles after a couple of sessions, so I’m trying not to overdo it.

I hope to be able to start using this technique in an actual piece of music in a couple of months, while still keeping in mind that it can take years to be truly proficient.

I plan to keep track of my progress here, which will hopefully keep me accountable. If you are also in the process of learning how to use circular breathing, feel free to share your experiences.

Flute Lesson Grades!

November 26th, 2012 § Leave a Comment

As a college professor, one thing that can be difficult for me to assess at the end of the semester is how much progress my students have made in the preceding 14-or-so weeks. When grades are tied to assessing this progress, it makes things even dicier. Feelings, scholarships, and progress towards their degree completion makes the stakes high. After seven years of college teaching, some things have worked and some haven’t. Here are some ways I organize my assessment of my students’ progress, which can also be used by students for some self-reflection.

At the beginning of each semester, during the first lesson, I determine where that student is as far as tone, technique, and musicianship are concerned. Obviously this task is easier if I have taught the student before. It can be a little tricky if the student is brand new, but there is always room to make adjustments later. At that point, we decide together on various materials that will be used during the course of the semester. It depends on the student; if this is a young or inexperienced student, sometimes I will primarily use one method book. If it’s an older student, we tend to include etudes, technical exercises, repertoire, and other materials from a variety of sources. While I think there are certain materials that every student should eventually work through, I don’t feel like every student must be playing from the same sources at the same time. (This also makes lessons more interesting and varied during the week!) We come up with an approximate amount of material that can be covered; for example, we might outline one etude a week, three heavy technical exercises, tone studies, and two works to focus on for the entire semester. We talk about a reasonable amount to cover each week and try to identify performance dates for the pieces. This way we have benchmarks to hit at various points throughout the semester and can pace ourselves accordingly. I make sure to get students’ input here, as well. Maybe their vibrato doesn’t strike me as something that needs to be heavily addressed during the semester, but the student is quite uncomfortable with it. I will make sure that we cover that. Perhaps they know a piece that they would really like to work on. As long as it is appropriate for their level and is well-balanced with their other repertoire, I’m happy to allow them to make those decisions.

I also do a mid-semester “check up” to see if we’re making sufficient progress towards our outlined goals. If we’ve decided to finish one etude a week, and it’s taking three weeks to get through one etude on average, it’s time to reassess. Are the etudes really that difficult, or is the practice time spent on these insufficient or badly organized? This can be tricky to determine. Sometimes there are circumstances that we aren’t aware of as teachers, and it takes a good amount of trust to know whether a student is being lazy, has a mismanaged life, or is really having trouble with the material.

There is also the circumstance where something that wasn’t apparent in the first lesson reveals itself as an issue that must be dealt with immediately. Perhaps there are serious embouchure problems or major rhythmic inaccuracies in a student’s playing. Things so fundamental must be addressed before making progress towards other musical goals. In this case, a student might not get through all the material that was outlined in the first lesson, but if serious progress was made on these other aspects, it has been a successful semester.

If a student is making good progress towards the outlined goals, everything is in good shape. It’s still worthwhile to have that mid-semester reminder that there is still work to be done and grades do inevitably happen at the end of the semester. And of course, if a student is making progress beyond what was initially outlined, they will hear no complaints from me!

By making expectations completely clear at the beginning of the semester (and giving a reminder midway through), this lessens the possibilities of misunderstandings or hurt feelings when grades are due. Also, by making the student involved with the decision-making, that student has more ownership of the situation and hopefully feels more in control of his or her musical development.

Practice Tips

November 1st, 2011 § Leave a Comment

The following was a result of a handout I put together for a workshop. More detailed information can be found about these topics in separate blog posts on this site.

 

Establish a solid practice schedule: 

  • Actually block off time in your schedule designated specifically for practicing. Avoid using it for lunch, socializing, homework, errands, sleeping, and so forth. As a musician, practicing is part of your job, so treat it with professionalism. 
  • Write your designated practice time in your schedule. Enter it into your online planner. Make sure it ends up wherever you will see it until it becomes habit. 
  • Arrange your practice time for when you practice best. Some people love getting work done first thing in the morning before anyone else is around to be a distraction. Others work best late at night. Maybe right before or after lunch is when you’re most alert. Figure out when your most effective practice time is and make sure you schedule around that. A reasonable amount of focused practice is better than lots of unfocused practice. 
  • Your practice time doesn’t have to be one large block. Maybe you have 30 free minutes between classes early in the morning. That’s perfect for your warm-up! You can then schedule another practice session for technical work and repertoire, or you can split that work into two sessions. 

When approaching a new piece: 

  • Listen to a quality recording of the piece. Yes, this counts as practicing!
  • Do a quick run-through of the piece to get a feel for it and where the difficult parts are.
  • Actually write the tempos of each problem area in your music (in pencil) so you remember where you are the next time you practice. You will probably have different tempos for each difficult section of the work, but that’s ok. You’ll eventually work them all up to the same tempo. Don’t forget to update the tempo in your music after you’ve made progress.
  • In particularly difficult sections, it may be necessary to break your practice down into just 2 or 3 notes. This may seem too simple, but it’s a much more effective use of your practice time than simply running through the music and making little, if any, progress.
  • Save run-throughs. Start doing more of these as you approach a performance to get a feel for the work in its entirety and to start building endurance. It’s also helpful to do occasionally to assess how well your practice is going, but it’s simply not enough to be your sole practice strategy.

Handling especially difficult sections:

  • First, make sure you’re practicing slowly and with a metronome. Play it as slowly as needed so that you’re able to play the entire passage correctly. This may be half-speed or even slower. That’s ok; you’ll speed it up later.
  • Second, try playing the passage with different articulations. Try slurring the difficult passage, articulating it, slurring small and large groupings, and combining articulations and slurs.
  • Third, alter the rhythm of the passage. If the passage is made up of eighth notes, play a dotted eighth/sixteenth note pattern. Then reverse it and play a sixteenth note/dotted eighth note pattern.
  • Finally, try playing the passage backwards. This gives your brain and fingers a serious workout. Practice this section backwards until you can play it smoothly and comfortably.
  • Once you’ve practiced this difficult section with all of these changes, play it as written. Even after a short amount of practice, you should see considerable improvement.

How do you know when you’re improving?

  • Checking metronome markings. This is a pretty simple way to measure progress, especially in technical passages. Being able to play something a few clicks faster than you could at the beginning of your practice session is a pretty good indication of progress.
  • Being able to play longer passages in a work. Maybe you could play only small portions of a work previously. Maybe you could only make it through one movement before you felt fatigued or lost focus. Suddenly, you can make it through the entire piece successfully. This is a positive sign, especially if you are getting close to a recital date.
  • Noticing an improvement in tone quality. This issue becomes more subjective. Recording yourself, an eye-opening experience, is a great way to hear what your audience is hearing. The sound from the performer’s side of the instrument can be vastly different from what the sound is by the time it reaches the audience. Maybe you’ve been working on tone and you *think* it’s clearer, more resonant, more focused, and so on. Double-check it with your recording device.

Technique stuff

September 20th, 2011 § Leave a Comment

If  you are interested in following along with Sir James Galway as he overhauls his technique, check out the following video. He has issued a “Practice Challenge,” where flutists from presumably around the world will all be working out of the same technique book. He will be using Marcel Moyse’s Daily Exercises book. I will be following along with the challenge loosely. I usually work out of this Moyse book every day, so I am going to be adapting the challenge by fiddling around with the articulations.

http://galwaynetwork.com/scale.htm

I’m also feeling rather sheepish about my short-lived experimentations with circular breathing. I started work on it a little over a year ago but didn’t commit to it like I should have. Now I’m kicking myself; if I had stuck with it, I would have probably been fairly fluent in the technique by this point. I’ve dug out my book and am considering adding it to my practice regimen. Anyone out there have any experience with circular breathing?

Practicing Difficult Sections

August 3rd, 2011 § Leave a Comment

What do you do when you’ve practiced that one difficult section over and over and over again, and it still isn’t right? It’s not fast enough, or smooth enough, or loud enough, or …

It can be really frustrating when you’re making an honest effort to improve but you aren’t seeing results.

Next time you find yourself stuck in this situation, try the following tips. You’re still practicing the same musical material, but you’re making your brain (and fingers) think about it in a different way.

First – make sure you’re practicing slowly with a metronome. Play it as slowly as needed so that you’re able to play the entire passage correctly. This may be half-speed or even slower. That’s ok; you’ll speed it up later.

Second – Try playing the passage with different articulations. Take a look at this measure taken from Robert Muczynski’s Sonata for Flute and Piano:


Instead of playing it as written, try articulating each note:

Then try slurring pairs of notes:


Then try slurring larger groups:

Finally, play it again as written.
Third – Alter the rhythm of the passage. Instead of straight eighth notes, play a dotted eighth-sixteenth note pattern:

Then try a sixteenth note-dotted eighth note pattern:

Finally – Try playing the passage backwards. This gives your brain and fingers a serious workout. Work on this section backwards until you can play it smoothly and comfortably.


Once you’ve practiced this section with all of these changes, play it as written. Even after a short amount of practice, you should see a considerable improvement.

Have you tried any of these tips? Let me know how they work!

Perspective

July 27th, 2011 § Leave a Comment

Often, when you have been doing a considerable amount of practice, you suddenly feel like you’re getting much WORSE instead of better.

In my experience, this is actually a good thing. You aren’t getting worse. It’s just that your ears are now more acutely aware of the things about your playing that could be improved. You’re developing a more critical perspective.

Keep plowing through. You’ll get over the hurdle. Sometimes a little self-awareness is uncomfortable, but it means that you’re improving.

B-flat options

July 23rd, 2011 § 2 Comments

I will readily admit that I’m a bit of a nut when it comes to playing B-flat on the flute. I’m always very deliberate when it comes to which fingering I choose for this note. It’s really important to make sure that you’re using the most advantageous fingering for the passage you’re playing to make sure your transitions between notes are smooth.

How many ways do we have to play B-flat, you ask? Excellent question!

There are three unique fingerings for B-flat:

1. Most beginning band books introduce this one:

Obviously, this works. However, I find myself using it only very rarely because it can be very awkward. Try playing from B-flat to G. Notice that you have to press down two keys with your left hand while simultaneously lifting the pointer finger of your right hand. Any time we have to lift fingers while pressing down other fingers, there is the very real possibility of not exactly coordinating them perfectly. This can result in a clunky transition, or even an unintentional wrong note between the two notes you intended to play. This might not be an issue when you’re playing slow music, but when you find yourself facing a fast passage, efficiency is everything.

2. The B-flat thumb option:

If you weren’t sure about that key to the left side of the thumb key, you’ve been missing out! Try playing B-flat, switching between the Band Book B-flat and the one using the B-flat thumb key. You shouldn’t notice any difference in pitch at all. (If you do, you might have a leak somewhere!) This is a legitimate fingering for B-flat, and it isn’t “cheating” at all. In fact, you can use this key for ANY note requiring the thumb key to be pressed, except for high F-sharp and B-naturals. This means that the B-flat thumb key is really handy to use in any piece that features a flat key signature. Try the same exercise as above, playing from B-flat to G. This time, use the B-flat thumb key. See how much easier that is?

3. The B-flat lever:

Ever wonder what that strange-looking key was to the left of your right index finger? That’s the B-flat lever, and it is incredibly handy in certain situations. You can use this in what are called prepared fingerings. It works well in chromatic scales and in the G-flat major scale and helps us avoid that unfortunate predicament of having to pick up fingers while simultaneously pressing others down.  Here’s how to use it in the G-flat scale: Play G-flat as usual. When playing the A-flat, use the standard A-flat fingering. However, go ahead and press down the B-flat lever at this time. It doesn’t affect the pitch at all. Then, when you lift the appropriate fingers to play B-flat, you only have to lift instead of having to also press down a key to play B-flat. Pressing down keys in anticipation of a note is what is called a prepared fingering. This might seem overly-complicated at first but once you work it into your technique, it does make things smoother.

Make sure you choose the correct B-flat fingering for the music! Playing more efficiently is always a laudable goal, so streamline your practicing by familiarizing yourself with all of your options.

* Fingering charts courtesy of the Fingering Diagram Builder by Dr. Bret Pimentel, Assistant Professor of Woodwinds at Delta State University and all-around nice guy. Check out his work (including fingering chart builders for the other woodwinds) at www.bretpimentel.com.

Breaking down practice

July 17th, 2011 § Leave a Comment

To follow up on my last blog post, Practicing: run-throughs vs. small chunks, here are some ways to break down your practice to get more work done in less time. I’ve chosen an example from the Rubank Elementary Method for Flute, but these ideas apply to all music at all levels of difficulty.

Copyright by Rubank, Inc.

First things first: Check out the key signature and time signature. In this case, we’re in the key of G Major, so we have an F-sharp. (No B-flats here!) We’re in common time. These seem easy, right? It’s still important to take a look at these before starting, so you don’t play a B-flat in the first measure.

Next: Just scan the piece. What do you notice? I see three sections, which are offset by double bar lines. The first line of the piece is the first section. The second section includes the second line and one measure of the third line. The third section picks in the second measure of the third line and continues to the end of this example. It looks like the first section and the third section are quite similar. Why does that matter? Well, if you learn the first line, this means that you’ve also learned the majority of the last line. Now that’s pretty efficient!
Take special notice of how the two lines differ; there are only two notes that aren’t the same between those two lines.

What about the second section? How is this one different from the others? Well, the notes are faster. Instead of half notes and quarter notes, we primarily see quarter notes and eighth notes. Make sure you choose a tempo at the beginning that will allow you to play both the half notes as well as these later eighth notes comfortably. It’s no fun to pick a tempo that works well for the begining and then causes you to stumble when you later reach faster notes.

Other things to notice: What are the first three notes of this example? Right – it’s a G Major arpeggio. (Yes, this is why we have to learn scales and arpeggios!) If you’ve been practicing scales and arpeggios, your fingers will already know what to do at the beginning of this example. What happens after the arpeggio? We basically have notes taken from the G Major scale. We ascend to an E, and then descend stepwise to G and then go up a few notes to end on B. If you know your G Major scale, this is very easy. Look at the rest of the example to find areas that move stepwise and places where the line might be arpeggiated. If you have trouble with those jumps, mark them with a bracket to help you anticipate them.

Some final thoughts:

- There are no dynamics notated in this example. Otherwise, you would want to do a quick scan of the music to help you plan its dynamic shape.
- The form of music is made through repetition and contrast. Our ears crave both of these things. We like familiarity (the repetition), but we also get bored and require new sounds (the contrast). Realizing this concept will help you in your practice because you will find that lots of musical ideas are repeated throughout a piece, whether it’s from Rubank or a complex sonata. Instead of having to approach the entire piece like it is made up of new and completely different sections of music, you only have to learn it once and then apply those ideas the next time that section is encountered.
- After you’ve become acquainted with the example, you will want to introduce the metronome to your practice. This is just a quick look at how to start approaching a piece, so I haven’t included any metronome tips here.

What else do you notice about this example?

Practicing: run-throughs vs. small chunks

July 10th, 2011 § Leave a Comment

I was never taught how to practice, but I remember the point at which my practicing became much more efficient. And this is really what we want, right? To get the most out of the limited practice time we have? Often, I find that my students only tend to run through music during their practice time, and there are inevitably technical issues in their playing that remain, causing them to stumble time after time. Run-throughs just aren’t effective as more focused practice, which requires more concentration and self-discipline. But it’s worth the extra work; the payoff with more focused practice is huge.

Consider these ideas when approaching a new work:
- Listen to a quality recording of the piece. Yes, this counts as practicing!
- Do a quick run-through of the piece to get a feel for it and where the difficult areas are.
- Work on those difficult spots slowly and with a metronome. Choose a slow enough tempo that you can play it accurately and gradually increase the tempo as it becomes more comfortable.
- Actually write the tempo of each problem area in your music (in pencil) so you remember where you are the next time you practice. You will probably have different tempos for each difficult section of the work, but that’s ok. You’ll eventually work them all up to the same tempo. Don’t forget to update the tempo in your music after you’ve made progress.
- In particularly difficult sections, it may be necessary to break your practice down into just 2 or 3 notes. This may seem too simple, but it’s a much more effective use of your practice time than simply running through the music and making little, if any, progress.
- Save run-throughs. Start doing more of these as you approach a performance to get a feel for the work in its entirety and to start building endurance. It’s also helpful to do occasionally to assess how well your practicing is going, but it’s simply not effective enough to be your sole practice strategy.

Next blog post: Specific ideas on how to break down practice more efficiently!

Establishing a Practice Schedule

July 5th, 2011 § Leave a Comment

It’s really important to establish some kind of practice schedule. Many times, I have new students (college or private students) who realize they have to practice between lessons but just never seem to get around to it. Before they know it, a full semester is over and they really haven’t made any progress, which is frustrating for everyone involved.

Most of the time, I believe that the good intentions are there. And yes, music majors take lots of classes and participate in multiple ensembles and have lots to do. With careful, deliberate planning, however, it’s possible to schedule the practice time you need.

Some general ideas:

- Actually block off time in your schedule designated specifically for practicing. Avoid using it for lunch, socializing, homework, errands, sleeping, and so forth. As a musician, practicing is part of your job, so treat it with professionalism.

- Write your designated practice time in your schedule. Or enter it into your online planner. Make sure it ends up wherever you will see it until it becomes habit.

- Arrange your practice time for when you practice best. Some people love getting work done first thing in the morning, before anyone else is around to be a distraction. Others work best late at night. Maybe right before or after lunch is when you’re most alert. Figure out when your most effective practice time is and make sure you schedule around that. A reasonable amount of focused practice is better than lots of unfocused practice.

- Your practice time doesn’t have to be one large block. Maybe you have 30 free minutes between classes early in the morning. That’s perfect for your warm-up! You can then schedule another practice session for technical work and repertoire, or you can split that work into two sessions.

Next post: ideas on organizing your practice time.

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