Thursday, February 27, 2014

All By Myself: The Flutist's Guide to Facing the Practice Room

All By Myself: The Flutist's Guide to 
Facing the Practice Room

Photo by Kayleigh Miranda, UTA Flute Studio

When I was younger, I thought I was alone in my struggle to face the practice room.  I had a complicated love/hate relationship with practicing my flute alone in a small, claustrophobic space. I suffered through hours of punishing practice while I tried to become "good enough." After teaching for many years and talking with flutists and other musicians of all different ages, backgrounds and levels, I've come to realize two things:

1) For musicians, the struggle to face the practice room is an almost universal one.

2) The true challenge lies not in facing the practice room, but in facing yourself in the practice room. 

Look at the picture above.  Can you identify?  Even in a quiet practice room (or not so quiet if you're lucky enough to hear the pianist above you, the saxophonist beside you and the timpanist down the hall), you are surrounded by all of your hopes and fears.  Simple tasks, like starting a tricky passage slow and working it up to tempo with your metronome can be either energizing or soul sucking, depending on what kind of thoughts you bring to the table.  Musicians often discuss practice strategies, but what about thought strategies?

In my humble opinion, I think that the best musicians have a clear mind, open ears and an overall sense of availability when they perform.  In order to be flexible, spontaneous and expressive, they cannot be bogged down by a head full of heavy thoughts or a busy brain with a never ending list of "to do"s.  When you are prepared, confident and immersed in the mood of the music, the voices in your head are quietly enjoying the performance.  When you are unprepared, insecure or trying to be perfect, the voices in your head can be loud, disruptive and excellent saboteurs.   

Negative voices in a musician's head may come from past teachers, conductors, a sense of competitiveness or anxiety, and be from memories of lessons, rehearsals and practice sessions in the past. These echoes or remnants can pile up in the mind much like physical objects can pile up in a person's living space. When a person cannot let go of their physical "stuff," it could end up looking like the picture below.  When a musician cannot let go of the thoughts clogging their mind, it's not as obvious to the outside world (or even the musician), but it can severely limit their ability to play expressively or even accurately, quickly causing frustration levels to rise. 

If your home was filled with clutter like the photo above, what would be the solution?  My instinct would be to put on some rubber gloves, get out a ton of trash bags and start sorting trash, items to donate and items to keep.  Similarly, I think it's important for musicians to sort out the "trash," "set aside" and "keep" thoughts that affect them while they practice.  The following are examples of thoughts that deserve a (not so fond) farewell before you head to the practice room:

1.  "I always play too loudly.  I remember when my high school band director would constantly put his hand in my face so that I would be quieter."

2.  "I have a horrible low register.  That was so embarrassing when my flute teacher did an imitation of my low register in my lesson last year."

3.  "I have a short attention span.  I've never had an easy time staying in the practice room very long without getting completely stressed out." 

By recognizing these thoughts when they creep into your practicing (or even writing them in a journal to feel like you are actually extracting them from your mind), you can view them more objectively and realize that they may not even apply to you anymore.  At the very least, you can remind yourself that you always have a choice and then design a practice project to address the issue, rather than let it frustrate you and stall your current practice efforts. 

Sometimes while practicing, you might feel like you are trying to keep track of all the advice you've been given so that you can make all the improvements you are supposed to make.  You try and try, but all the advice swimming around in your head can make you feel like your efforts are blocked by a giant brick wall.

I consider thoughts like these "set aside thoughts."  They're not trash (because you know that the concepts are important), but they're not helping you at the moment either.  When you feel like you've hit a wall, it is often wise to set aside those thoughts (or long term projects) that are causing you anxiety and switch your focus to one accessible thing at a time.  The following are examples of thoughts that you may want to set aside for another practice session (or even later in the same practice session) when you are feeling more available to take on the challenges.  

1. From a flute teacher: "You need to get better at your intonation in the middle register.  You're constantly sounding sharp every time you play C#, D or D#."

2. From a conductor to a flute section (but you might have taken it personally): "You all are constantly late!  Please play on the downbeat exactly in time.  I'm tired of these delays!"

3. Your own thoughts: "I'm so tired of cracking when I try to play loudly.  I wish I could just once and for all play smoothly like all the other flute players in my studio."

If you are not in a strong, motivated frame of mind, the above thoughts might be keeping you from warming up properly, learning your new music or even listening for other elements of your playing that you have more control over fixing at the moment.  Set them aside for a time when you can see them in a more positive light and really do something about them. 

Some voices in your head are definitely in the keep pile.  I see these voices like inner coaches that prompt you to bigger and better things.  In the practice room, they can be the best kind of company. As these positive voices help your confidence, they begin to melt into the music and you can eventually let go of them all together (arriving at a quiet, available mind).  The following are examples of voices in the keep pile:

1.  "Come on, I know you can play this louder!  It's so exciting when you put that operatic vibrato on your high B!"

2.  "Be patient, always patient.  Take a little more time between repetitions and you'll find that they are much easier."

3.  (In the style of a mantra): "I love music.  I love my flute.  I love it when I breathe fully and play with a gorgeous tone. As I enjoy this warm-up, I am sounding better and better."

Thoughts like these can open up a space inside the brick wall that was holding you back before. 

Next time you're in the practice room and feel your stress level rising, realize that you definitely have a choice in the matter!  

At first, you may not even understand that the voices (or memories, insecurities, expectations, etc.) in your mind are clouding your judgement.  The major clue that this is happening is when you feel stuck, agitated or overwhelmed.  Rather than forcing your way through a long to-do list or trying to improve everything you feel that you should improve right away, take the time to clear your mind.  

It may take some breathing exercises, journaling or another method that you design yourself, but learn to recognize those thoughts that are trash (ditch them!), thoughts to set aside (you can take care of it later, I promise!) or thoughts to keep (these are powerful guides!).  Once you clear your mind of all the clutter, there is so much more space to do what you want to do! 


As you grow more accustomed to identifying the voices in your head, you will get more skilled at deciding those thoughts you would like to keep while you practice.  Imagine that while you are frustrated or overwhelmed, you are sitting in the window seat of an airplane, looking out at the clouds all around you.  As you clear your mind and prepare for productive work and effective music making, you rise ever higher until you have broken through the clouds and see the blue sky above.  From this vantage point, no practice task is beyond your grasp!

With a clear mind and a determined spirit, the practice room can become a haven for any musician.  Take the time to change your perspective and you will see the practice room transform itself around you.  It's completely worth it.

Happy Practicing!
Terri Sánchez