How to Learn New Flute Repertoire:
Results Guaranteed! (Part 1)
When I asked one of my students at UTA what topic she would like me to write about last week, she said she would like to see a post about how to learn a new piece of music.
So... here we go!
Though most professional musicians have their own tried and true ways of digging into brand new repertoire, I know there are countless flutists out there who haven't yet figured out their own process. Perhaps you love to practice a piece only after it's "in your fingers" or only after you fall in love with it. It's tempting to drag your feet when a piece feels unfamiliar, awkward or inaccessible. Maybe you even want to bond with your new piece, but there are so many options, you don't know how to get started.
If you Google "How to Learn a New Piece of Music," you get over 250,000 results, so I'm obviously not going to pretend like my way is the only way or even that this is the way I do it every time. I will, however, give you some concrete steps to take if you are not sure how to get started. I feel so strongly that following these steps will yield wonderful results that I even "Guaranteed" them in this blog post title. If you literally (and patiently!) try every single step I outline here and still don't feel like you have bonded with your new flute piece and/or have an amazing start to your journey with it, I will... I guess... buy you a cup of coffee or something...
Practice Session 1: Listen to a recording of your piece 5 times in a row.
Yep, you heard me! 5 times before you ever even get your flute out. Get your hands on as many (high quality) recordings as you can (YouTube, iTunes, Naxos, Spotify, the library, the music store - whatever floats your boat). Listen to a different recording for each of the five times if possible, but if you only have 2 or 3 different recordings, that's okay, too.
First Listen: Listen with absolutely no distractions, all the way through your new piece. I recommend lying down on your bed, sprawling out on the floor, assuming a meditative pose or some other relaxing posture. Keep your eyes closed and don't try to over-think anything. Simply listen. Whether ideas present themselves or not, don't force anything.
Second Listen: Be intentionally creative. If this piece was a movie, what kind of movie would it be? If two dancers were dancing to this music or two ice skaters were skating to this music, what kind of moves would they make? What colors suit this music? What memories are brought up by this music? What other associations come to mind while listening?
Third Listen: Follow along with the score, putting a star by any parts in the flute and/or piano part that catch your attention. It might be an exciting moment, a tender moment, an exquisite harmony, a flashy technical passage or any other memorable musical event. Don't waste energy trying to figure out how you personally are going to "pull off" these musical tasks. Instead, be more like an audience member noticing your favorite parts and mark each of them with a penciled in star.
Fourth Listen: Before your fourth listen, transfer the stars from the flute and piano score to your flute part, even if you have to mark them in the middle of rests. (If you're learning a piece for solo flute, you're already done with this part!). When you listen for the fourth time, follow along with the flute part and enjoy each starred moment, noticing again what makes it interesting to you.
Fifth Listen: Keep your flute part handy, but also have a separate sheet of paper (or your PJ: Practice Journal) to make a list. As you listen this fifth time, pause the recording when you notice a particular challenge and add that challenge to a list before you resume listening. For example: m. 3 - needs a gorgeous sound, m.55-79 - very fast tempo, m.174 - high notes need to be in tune. You might have anywhere from 3 to 53 (or more) challenges on this list. Don't judge, just list!
That's it for your very first practice session with a brand new piece of flute music! Spend the rest of your time this first day on warm-ups, technique practice, other pieces, etc. Stay tuned for Part 2 next week, filled with a TON of practice techniques (I call them practice "games") that will propel you quickly into the effortless muscle memory and expressive interpretation you need to transform this piece from a listening experience to a performance experience!
P.S. If, by chance, you already find yourself loving your new piece after listening 5 times, feel free to enjoy any practice momentum you might have already kicked in gear...