Thursday, October 24, 2013

How to Learn New Flute Repertoire: Results Guaranteed! (Part 2: Patient Practice)

How to Learn New Flute Repertoire:
Results Guaranteed! 
(Part 2: Patient Practice)

Photo by Brooke David, UTA Flute Studio

On to your second practice session! Carve out a few hours in your schedule for this one, either all in a row or split up throughout the day.  (To read about your first practice session with a new piece of music in Part 1, click HERE).  Get comfy, grab a cup of coffee or a bottle of water and settle in for a patient and productive experience!

Use your "Ta-Da" list as your guide ("Ta-Da" instead of "To-Do" puts the emphasis on how wonderful you will sound as you complete each task!).  Glance through your list and find any items having to do with technical passages, quick tempos, tricky fingerings, etc. Isolate them in your music in one of the following ways (or make up your own way). 

1. Light penciled in brackets
2. Small post-it notes at each end of the technical passage
3. Tempo tape (removable highlighter)

Time to start practicing!  Depending on your preferences, you can use any number of the following practice techniques (in any order) once, twice or as many times as you like. If you enjoy variety in your practice, feel free to mix it up.  If you like structure and you just want me to tell you what to do, then simply follow the steps below. Follow all the steps on one technical passage at a time OR use one step for multiple passages before trying the second step. 

Step 1: Deep Practice (or... 4, 3, 2, 1)

Turn your metronome on quarter note = 60 beats per minute.  If you don't have a metronome handy, try this free online metronome or download a free metronome app to your phone.  Play each note of the technical passage as a whole note. 

Yes. A whole note.

As in 4 beats on every single note.  Depending on the length of the passage, this could possibly take the patience of a saint.  It's worth it, though! Be sure to play every whole note with your best sound, intonation and body position.  You are programming this passage into your mind and body, so you might as well program it in with high quality!

Now... play every note 3 beats (dotted half note). Now... play every note 2 beats. Now 1 beat and.... you're done with Step 1!  You've laid a very strong foundation for the next steps.  Your eyes, ears, fingers and imagination have had a chance to bond with each of the notes in this passage.  If you were not able to make yourself do Step 1 or are not convinced of its merit, take time to watch the following video. 


Step 2: Grouping Games

I pretty much call all practice techniques "games" because they are fun!  I even made up special names for each of my standard grouping games that make them more entertaining, help with style and also with keeping track of notes.

Perky 2s: Completely ignore the actual rhythm and articulations in your technical passage. Play through it in light, lifted tongue/slur pattern (2 notes at a time, tongue the first one and blow through the second one). Don't repeat any notes. 

Tip: Leave a gap between each group of two notes.  The silence does wonders for your patience, focus and retention. 

Now, do the Perky 2s again, on the same passage, but start on the second note.  You will get all new note combinations!

Passionate 3s: Play the same passage, starting from the first note, in a slow, luxurious, beautiful style (with lots of vibrato) in slurred groups of three (tongue/slur/slur), not repeating any notes. 

Tip: With grouping games, you will often end up with some extra notes at the end.  Just play them in the same style without having the same number of notes or you could add notes from the next part of the piece. 

Repeat the Passionate 3s with the same passage, beginning on the second and then the third note (new combinations each time!). 

Addams Family: You guessed it... we're on to four notes at a time now!  If you don't know the tune to the Addams family, take the time to listen to the video above.  By practicing your technical passage four notes at a time (tongue/slur/slur/slur) in a da da da dum pattern, you have now graduated to a more challenging game and are practicing the notes in quicker succession.  

Tip: The time left in between each group of four (filled with you snapping or tapping your toes twice!) allows your brain time to remember what you just played and time to anticipate what's coming next. 

Repeat the Addams Family beginning on the second, third and fourth notes of the technical passage. If any attempt doesn't feel 100% accurate and comfortable, just repeat that version!

Opportunities: Time for a true challenge.  By now, you've gotten the hang of grouping games and are hopefully staying on top of sound quality and leaving patient gaps in between groups.  Opportunities are groups of five notes at at time (tongue/slur/slur/slur).  You can do five different versions of "Opportunities!"

Tip: You can make grouping games even more challenging with higher numbers of notes. I think "strawberry strawberry" for groups of six (sextuplets), "superficiality" for sevens (septuplets), and "huckleberry huckleberry" for eights (octuplets). You can do as many versions of each game as there are notes in a group!   

Still with me? If you tried 4, 3, 2, 1 and Grouping Games (with patience!), you will have noticed by now that muscle memory is setting in.  If you watched the Talent Code video above, you will know that muscle memory actually takes place in your brain.  You have been "upgrading" your brain by doing these practice games. You don't even have to wait for a 2-year contract to be finished before you upgrade your brain. You can do it anytime!

Step 3: If you can say it, you can play it.

Time to go back to basics!  Use traditional counts like "1 ee and uh," or "1 ti te ta," or perhaps fun words like "huckleberry" (or a combination).  I want you to count your technical passage out loud!  If you are an advanced flutist, it may have been years since you've done this.  If you are a flute teacher, you may only count out loud with your students but forget to do it for yourself!  Even if the passage is straight sixteenth notes, I want you to count it (try an easy tempo - maybe half of your target performance tempo). 

Go on... try it!

Tip: When it comes to rhythm, attitude is half the battle.  If you count something in a monotone voice and low energy, you will most likely be making tiny rhythmic errors (delays, usually).  

Before you get your flute into the mix, let's add articulation.  Still in rhythm, speak the passage out loud with a "too" sound when it's time to tongue and an "oo" sound for slurs.  You can also use a "tah" and an "ah." (Some musicians even like a "yah" for slurs).  

To get the maximum benefit out of this step, incorporate the style, character, note lengths, pacing and gestures you would like the "real" version to have.  If you have truly listened to recordings of your new piece at least 5 times (as described in Part 1), you will have a pretty good idea of the approach you want.  (You will, of course, refine this each new time you practice and listen to your new piece).

Tip: You may feel silly, but speaking your passage out loud with personality and even movement can help bring a passage to life when you transfer it back to your flute. 

Step 4: Old School Work-it-ups!

With the muscle memory you acquired with 4, 3, 2, 1 and Grouping Games PLUS your new found familiarity with the rhythm and style, playing your passage through at half tempo should feel relatively effortless.  If you try it at half tempo and are finding some remaining challenges, be sure to "Spot Clean" and do touch up practice games to fill in little issues that may have snuck past your first two patient practice steps.   


After you have played your technical passage through at half tempo (with your metronome, leaving out any ritardandos or accelerandos for the moment), enjoy working the tempo up, old school style.  I call it "Old School" because I'm pretty certain that musicians have been starting passages slow and scooting the metronome up since the first metronome was invented. 

Each time you play the passage comfortably and accurately, bump up the tempo.  Each time it is not up to your standards, slow the metronome back down.  I'm strange and go up and down by seven clicks, but you could try 5s, 10s or... if you're truly patient... 1 click at a time!

Tip: Don't try to accomplish extremely fast tempos on your first day of learning a tricky passage.  Starting half tempo and even making it to a moderate tempo is a wonderful accomplishment, especially since getting started is the hardest part.  It takes weeks/months to accomplish truly virtuosic tempos with some passages, so be sure to keep patience as the main ingredient as you work the tempo up in future practice sessions. 

Step 5: Review your "Ta-Da" list. 

Evaluate your second practice session.  How many technical passages now feel familiar?  Have you noticed that some now feel easy and others feel like they deserve another round of grouping games?  What were your favorite games? If you liked "Opportunities," you could go through your challenging passages with just groups of five tomorrow.  

Plan your third practice session.  Circle or star all of the items on your "Ta Da" list that involve lyrical passages, intonation challenges and tone/breathing work.  Part 3 of "How to Learn New Repertoire: Results Guaranteed!" (next Thursday) will include techniques for the physical and musical challenges that come with playing beautiful, long phrases and smooth, effortless intervals.  

Happy Practicing!

New Message posted on 10.27.18

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Terri Sánchez