Mindful Practice

Better Low Notes: Optimizing Air, Space + Lips

When it comes to low notes, some players have a natural ease while others struggle to find consistency. I frequently spend a good deal of practice time problem-solving in the low register, and have found the following ideas to be the most useful for me and my students.

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Breath Is The First Priority:

Keeping A Low Center of Gravity in the Body

  • I discovered this phrase in an article by Helen Bledsoe filled with ideas on playing low notes. In the article, she mentions an idea from Robert Dick: "Drop the belly. A trick from brass players, it keeps the center of gravity low." 

  • Releasing excess tension in the upper body (arm structure and abdomen) allows the center of gravity to shift towards the body's natural middle- the hips joints! A body in balance is supported by the floor, with the the upper half balancing on top of the legs. From here, the torso is free to enjoy the movements of breathing - Our inhalations can be efficient and we can maintain spaciousness to support the airstream.

  • Are the arms overworking? Release the weight of the arms, allow the elbows to hang, and keep the hands and fingers light: There's no need to squeeze the keys if your flute is functioning properly without leaks!

  • All-in-all, squeezing is a sign of effort that can get in the way of breathing, and we can redistributed this effort in a more useful way! Try singing and playing to encourage and open and well-supported airstream and notice the resultant feeling.

SECOND: JAW FREEDOM + SPACE WITHIN THE MOUTH

How Do I Drop The Jaw?

  • In addition to releasing tension in the upper body, releasing excess tension in the jaw and face is important, too! If the direction to "drop the jaw" involves forcing or pulling downward, you may begin to feel discomfort over time, as well as excess tension in the face. Consider the feeling of releasing or softening the face.

  • Do you clench your jaw as a habit? As an emotional response? Have a look at the muscles that move the jaw and lips! The masseter is a strong muscle used in chewing that helps us close the jaw, and it's attached to the cheek bones! Consider a feeling of softness surrounding the cheeks to encourage a more natural, neutral jaw feeling.

  • The tongue can lie low within the mouth to encourage a feeling of spaciousness. Imagine a warm, window-fogging airstream gliding across the floor of the mouth. What is it like to play with an "ooooh" vowel shape? What about "awwww?"


Finally, Embouchure:

Mushing the Lips Forward + Freeing the Lower Lip

  • Releasing and softening the face forward can also encourage us to release the embouchure forward, especially the corners. (We can get away with playing higher notes with corners that are pulled back, but the low register is especially difficult to play this way!) What is it like to release the face and the lips toward the lip plate?

  • Low notes need the embouchure to be available in order to be flexible, which means the lower lip also needs to be free and available. Use a mirror to experiment with a lower position if the lip plate is covering too much of the lower lip. 

  • With greater possibility for embouchure flexibility, we have more possibilities to uncover the optimal air angle needed for low notes. What is it like to roll out? What is it like to aim down toward the elbow? Does my airstream aim left, right, or straight? Is the aperture focusing the sound?

 


In Conclusion

The best way to get better at low notes is work on them daily with a sense of curiosity! Improving should involve a spirit of experimentation and trial and error, so be patient. Use a mirror, try out different ideas, and be kind to yourself if you make messy sounds, they're just information! Every day is a chance to become a little bit better than yesterday, no matter where you are!

recommended exercises: 


#PRACTICEROOMREVELATIONS

Instagram: @joleneflute

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What Your Test Notes Are Trying To Tell You

Do you or your students rely on test notes before playing?

If the first test note is undesirable, we play a second or third with the goal of improving. Ultimately, we want our actual first note to be the best. The process often goes like this:

1. Play Test Note

2. Judge and Adjust

3. Play Test Note Again or Begin Piece

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Ultimately, removing the need to play a test note is an important goal:

In a performance or an audition, every note is judged, and the ability to begin a piece confidently without playing additional notes after approaching the stage is a necessary performance skill. 


Test Notes Can Reveal Performance Habits

 

Long tones and isolated tone studies provide a lot of information about how we create our best sounds.

When we remove the other variables of playing in context, we can focus on embouchure, air speed, vowel shapes, and more, and this process involves a high level of awareness.

Quick test notes, however, can tell us how we actually respond under pressure when we're about to begin a specific piece, and how we may change certain things when approaching different musical contexts.

 

That's an important difference!

 

If you begin a piece on a soft high note and go for a test note to make sure it will happen, your body is probably giving you a lot of information before you even begin. 

In my experience, I stop myself and realize that I've lost all sense of my head balance in relation to my spine, my throat feels more tense, and my thighs have started gripping!


Next time you find yourself testing notes, pause and gather some information. 

Here are Some Useful Questions:

 
  • Do my feet change? 

Ground yourself in preparation to play, keep awareness on your feet and their contact with the ground while inhaling, and continue to notice through the first sounds.

Do your feet attempt to leave the ground? Do you feel a sensation of pulling upward caused by excess tension and doing?

Noticing if the feet feel less contact with the ground is a sign of the body gripping and pulling upwards.

 
  • Do I Hold At the Top of The Breath?

During your inhalation, do you attempt to help the body inhale by adding tension at the top of the breath?

I feel the arms gripping over the ribs and a tense feeling near the sternum when I'm consciously gasping in air.

To go from activating to a state of simply allowing optimal breathing, watch the journey of air, beginning with watching the air coming into the mouth. Lay on the floor to get to know the feeling, as the entire body can be supported by the floor while we observe.

*The most important tip for beginning sounds with a free feeling in the body is to move slightly and fluidly while breathing and into creating sound. Holding the body in a rigid position for the breath and before the initial sound can reduce the feeling of ease and increase anxiety.


Cultivating Trust + Alleviating Test Note Dependency

Once the body has given information, notice what information the mind can provide when you play a test note.

 

  • Does the test note involve the same level of mental imagery and preparation as an actual performance?
  • Do you hear the same level of detail regarding the initial attack, intonation, vibrato, and color before playing? 

 

Overall, thinking musically and imagining the sound you want (in all its dimensions) before playing can alleviate the need to test the first. Thinking this way builds trust with your inner performer.

 

If your test notes are aimed at the practicalities of creating sound, considering the intention of always beginning with a musical intention and cultivate trust with your inner performer each time you initiate sound in the practice room!


What have you learned from your test notes?

How do you cultivate trust with your sounds without playing a test note first?


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How I Beat "Bad Tone Days" Using Ear Plugs

You put your instrument together, play a few notes, and things just aren't feeling or sounding right. You're cracking notes and struggling to find comfort. All of a sudden, your tone is gone.

In an effort to sound better, you force your sound to come out. All in all, nothing is working, and it's frustrating.

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Where Did My Sound Go?

There are several reasons why a bad tone day can happen. Here are a few reasons I find to be true for myself:

  • I'm physically tense, fatigued, or congested.

  • I've just eaten something cold.

  • My headjoint is slightly off the ideal mark.

  • My flute has a leak.

  • I've gone several days between practicing and feeling "out of shape."

 

Let's look at that last one...

 

I've gone several days or weeks without playing many times. (Such as that time I slammed my finger in a door and couldn't play for a month.)

I've found that it is possible to come back and feel like nothing's changed. In some cases, I'm so refreshed and excited to play again that I sound even better than before.

 

A Deeper Reason

This week, however, my two days off were associated with guilt and fear because a deadline is looming only a few weeks away. When I came back to playing, I was nervous about having diminished my own progress and worried about how much work I still have to do. 

Before I even played a note, I was imagining my sound as being closed off and stuffy.

I convinced myself I was out of shape, and I played that way.

 

Beating the Cycle of Frustration

  1. Before I began practicing, I told myself I was "out of shape."
  2. I played with the closed off sound I heard in my head before I even started.
  3. I heard my sound and confirmed I was playing poorly and without ease.
  4. I judged myself for taking two days off and began self-loathing.
  5. The frustration extended to my physical use, and I tried forcing sound out.
  6. More tension meant more frustration, more judging, and more self-loathing.
  7. The cycle continued until I became too frustrated to continue.

 

END-GAINING VS. MEANS-WHEREBY

I've recently been reading Indirect Procedures: A Musician's Guide to the Alexander Technique by Pedro de Alcantara. One of the first Alexander Technique concepts discussed is the principle of End-Gaining vs. Means-Whereby.

As described by Alexander Technique teacher Hilary King:

"End gaining is the tendency we have to keep our mind and actions focused on an end result whilst losing sight of, and frequently at the expense of, the means-whereby the result is achieved." 
(Click here to read the full article on End Gaining by Hilary King!)

I'm discovering that this concept can appear on many levels, from the action of a single note, to long-term life goals. When it comes to sound, I was desperate for the end-result of "sounding better," and I found myself forcing sounds and feeling frustrated. I lost sight of the means-whereby.

 

EAR PLUGS

When I was first learning about the benefits of singing and playing in relation to support and optimal body feeling during grad school, Professor Amsler had me use ear plugs to turn attention to feeling rather than hearing. With the work we were doing to change and improve sound, the dramatic difference in tone from my ears often sounded strange from my own perspective: my sound no longer sounded big to me, because it was projecting and sounding big for the room. 

 

using ear plugs, the emotional response of hearing and judging can be replaced by feeling and observing.

 

Since my sense of hearing caused me to end-gain, adding ear plugs re-directed my reliance on hearing and allowed me to include more senses into my approach.

I could invite my kinesthetic sense (the sense of movement) into my awareness, and observe the movements that would allow me greater freedom:

  • The 6 Places of Balance
  • Can I Release the lower back and abdomen to allow freedom for breathing and support?
  • Where do I lose support from the ground?
  • Where is my tongue?
  • What is the space between the teeth like?

 

Singing + Playing

Singing and Playing naturally encourages me to notice optimal support within the body without forcing. Doing this with ear plugs is a powerful way to observe the body with greater clarity, and the first thing I lean on when I'm bringing my best sound back.

 

20 Minutes Later...

After using ear plugs and lots of singing and playing, I was out of the loop of self-misery and enjoying a more resonant sound with ease! I could move on to a more productive practice session, feeling grateful for having worked through it!

 

Want 20+ Ideas For Bad Tone Days?

One of the first posts I wrote back in 2012 is called How To Cope with a Bad Tone Day.

Reading it again now, I still rely on these same things! (Minus travelling up and down 3 flights of stairs to the practice rooms at the University of New Hampshire!) 



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Notes From My Practice Journal: Uncovering Finger Precision

I recently shared The Cycle: Awareness of Ease, a video by violinist and Alexander Technique teacher Jennifer Roig-Francoli, on the July Inspiration Calendar.

If you haven't watched the video, the basic idea is to notice places of ease in the body in a rhythm that prevents over-thinking.

After watching this video and following along with The Cycle, I went ahead with my warm-up as usual, but with a heightened awareness of ease and effort.

I specifically found myself noticing the hands and arms in a way that I typically do not. 


Practice Notes

Here are a few of the statements from my practice journal that I noted during my warm-up:

  • If I observe and perceive the length of the whole arm, my arms and fingers gain a sense of ease and connection that I didn't even realize I was missing before.
  • I hadn't realized that I perceived my arm only in separate parts until surrendering to ease and noticing the connection of the whole.
    • Specifically, my biceps and hands are easily perceived, and I barely perceived the forearms at all!
  • I also noticed the left arm more so than the right. In fact, the right hand was barely in my awareness at all. 

A Simple Change For Greater Clarity

I began by only bringing the flute up with the right arm (letting the left arm relax by my side) so I could focus on really feeling the right arm as a whole first. I aimed to notice the entire length, from the collar bone to the tip of the pinky.

Then, I kept the right arm in my peripheral vision while lifting the left arm, and while playing, I actively kept my awareness open to the full length and connection of both arms.

In making this shift, I was able to feel ease and length of the arms, and more importantly, the hands and all ten fingers felt free and light.

I especially gained a new perception of both pinky fingers which really helped me to navigate the footjoint notes with precision!


powerful finger awareness

A heightened awareness in the hands and fingers brought up a new question:

"Do I perceive the keys beneath the fingers?"
  • Does this question elicit a different feeling than the statement: "Keep the fingers close to the keys?"
  • While the fingers hover over the keys, can you perceive the amount of space below the fingers and above the keys?
  • Can you perceive whether they're directly above the key or slightly off-center?
  • Are some fingers higher or further off-center than others?
  • Do you perceive some fingers with greater clarity than others?

Pausing to observe my perception of the fingers in relation to the keys has provided powerful insight into issues of coordination and excess effort. 

Having a greater awareness of the whereabouts of each finger has immensely improved my ability to problem-solve technical difficulties, including low note issues, trills, and awkward finger exchanges.

 

What is it like to invite each individual finger into your awareness? 


Share your own comments and discoveries below or on social media!

#PracticeRoomRevelations / @joleneflute


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A Simple Trick for Better Breathing

Have you ever stopped to notice whether your breathing experience is different when your instrument is in playing position versus when you're not about to play?

The key physical difference for me is a tighter feeling in my chest and abdomen when my flute is on my face.

When I'm not about to play and my flute is down, my breathing goes back to being natural and automatic. 

Why do I experience these symptoms when I'm about to play?

Fear, expectations, perfectionism...

The feeling of tension comes and goes in varying degrees depending on how I'm feeling, what's on my stand, or whether or not I'm about to play on camera or for another person. 

I've also noticed that visually, having a flute up seems to block my view of anything below my chin, and this has a way of clouding my awareness of anything below my chin.

Suddenly, the easy, whole-body feeling becomes restricted, and I'm hyper aware of my upper body when the fear that I may not get enough air takes over.


The Quest for a Natural Breath

In order to translate naturally free breathing to my ready-to-play position, I've utilized a variety of poses while practicing to find comfortable, free breathing:

  • A generous bend in the knees
  • Bent over at the hip joints to free the abdomen
  • Standing on one leg, bent forward
  • Laying on the floor
  • Squat or Dugout Position

All of these encourage my abdominal muscles, back muscles, and arms to feel free, allowing efficient breathing, open sound, and the ability to play longer phrases with ease.

However, they aren't necessarily something I can call upon in a performance when I'm likely to need them the most.

(But if I could lay on the floor in the middle of an orchestra for the Afternoon of a Faun solo, I probably would!)


The Simple Trick

In order to translate the naturally free breathing that occurs when the flute is down, I decided to simply breathe while lifting the flute to my face, and once it was there, just start playing. 

I am certain this idea has been shared with me before, but I just recently realized how significant this is for maintaining a more naturally free experience.

I didn't need to actively free my chest and abdomen, they were simply free to begin with and stayed that way as I began playing!

Inhaling felt like no work at all.

I was no longer doing, taking, sucking in air. It was naturally a full-body experience, and I had plenty of air and great sound while playing.


Give it a Try!

Have you noticed a difference in how it feels to breathe? 

  • Take a breath without your instrument in playing position.

Notice the chest, the arms, the neck, the jaw, the abdomen, and so forth.

  • Next, bring the instrument up as normal, and take a breath as though you're about to begin playing. 

Is there a difference? What do you notice in comparison to the first breath?

  • Finally, bring your instrument back down, then inhale while lifting to playing position.

Is this a different experience? Has your awareness shifted? Does the length of you inhalation increase? 


Share your own experience in the comments below or on social media!

#PracticeRoomRevelations / @joleneflute


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Don't Forget About The Legs! 5 Awareness Exercises For Today's Practice Session

Does your awareness have a tendency to narrow as time goes on while practicing? I often begin with good intentions of feeling my feet grounding my entire body, but at some point, I lose full-body awareness and become only aware of what feels uncomfortable in the upper body or the notes on the page. 

Perhaps you've never considered the way your lower half influences the entire body while playing! Try the five exercises below while playing, and scan the body carefully for changes in tension and release, holding, or ease. 

1. Shifting Weight Forward and Back

  • Are you habitually standing with more weight on the heels or the balls of the feet as you play?
  • Scan the body for changes as you slowly shift forward and back from the heels to the balls of the feet.
  • Do you feel a change in the legs, the back, the abdominal muscles? Does the sound change as you play?
  • Notice your breathing as you do this:
    • I recently realized I felt quite locked and without breath, so I rolled from my heels to the balls of my feet, and felt a tremendous difference in my ability to play with freedom once I rolled forward from my locked position on the heels!

2. Shifting Between Left and Right Legs

  • Uncover which leg habitually receives more of your weight while playing.
  • By slowing shifting your weight side to side while you play, you may notice changes all the way up the body. 
    • Do you notice a release and increase in space in the opposite side body?
    • How do the ribs feel?
    • Does the opposite arm change in effort?
    • Does anything happen in the neck?

3. Standing on One Leg

  • Take it one step further by standing on only one leg, lifting one leg behind and leaning forward to maintain balance. (Something like this image of a Modified Warrior 3 Pose.)
  • Do you notice a change in your sound? Breathing? 
    • This elicits a change in resonance for me, and naturally allows the abdominal muscles to release, making breathing easier!

4. Walking in Place Along with the Tempo

  • Invite ankle movement by lifting the heels off the ground to the tempo. 
  • Embody the tempo beyond listening to the metronome or tapping one foot, while avoiding a locked-in-place stature. (Try this if you're prone to locked knees!)
    • What is it like to watch leg movement while you play?

5. Bend the Knees

  • Take the knees from locked to generously bent.
  • Notice the relationship between the abdominal muscles and the muscles of the back. 
    • Going from the extreme of locked knees to bent knees, I notice just how much my torso and abdominal muscles release and allow easier breathing and resonance.

 

Are you aware of your lower half and the relationship to the whole body while playing? Take the time to observe changes in the body while trying these 5 ideas during your practice session! 

#PracticeRoomRevelations

Leave a comment below to share your own discoveries, or use #practiceroomrevelations and tag @joleneflute on Instagram!

How I Learned to Put Paralyzing Perfection Aside and Improve A Little Bit Each Day Instead

Recently, perfectionism and procrastination have come up in one way or another for myself, my colleagues, and my students, and it has encouraged me to take a look at my own patterns and find real solutions to break out perfectionist habits.

What is Perfectionist's Procrastination? 

Have you ever thought about the immense amount of work standing between yourself and your ideal perfect self, and been paralyzed or discouraged from taking any action at all?

Here's what it sounds like for me:

I should really improve A, B, and C, but I'll tackle all that next time when I feel really ready and focused and have lots of time.

I'll wait until I can dedicate a full hour to tone exercises, then I'll finally work on those tapers I need to improve. 

Perfectionist's Procrastination Latches onto ideas like these:

  • Waiting for Ideal Conditions 
  • Waiting for "Enough" Time
  • Waiting to Sound Good
  • Waiting for More Energy

Ultimately, my mind creates an unrealistic to-do list in an effort to fix everything all at once, and when I think about the amount of work ahead of me, I tell myself: next time, next time, next time.


Perfectionist's Procrastination can be deeply rooted in fearing failure and mistakes.

For example, a more honest inner dialogue to the above example might sound more like this:

I could work on my tapers today, but I don't know what I'm doing. I know I'm bad at it, and I don't want to face my weakness.

In addition, the fear of not doing enough leads to fear of not being enough. And that's paralyzing.


Perfection-Oriented vs. Process-Oriented

For at least the past eight years, I've been organizing my practice sessions in the order of tone first, technique second, and repertoire after that, and attempting to do at least an hour of each thing.

However, I often spend most of my energy and focus on the initial stage, losing motivation before I've given the next stages any attention. 

Why do I keep falling into this rut so often? 

  • Perfection in the Practice Room

Perfection wants to finish everything immediately and achieve perfection now. Our faults can give us tunnel vision, and we can throw all our energy into one task, like tone work. While we're giving tone good attention and improving, we can burn out out entire supply of energy and focus, and we have nothing left for anything else.

And musicians need all the skills. Perfection knows this, too, and feels like a failure when giving up before moving on.

Perfection doesn't like to Let Go.

  • Process-Oriented Practice

Process-oriented practice puts in the highly-focused practice that perfection loves, but it comes with permission to let go and move on to the next task.

 

The following two ideas led me to break out of perfectionist mindset and find breakthroughs in process-oriented practice in the past two weeks.


A. "Improve A Little Bit Each Day"

I recently raved about Dr. Terri Sanchez's Epic Flute Warm-Up, which ultimately led me to purchase her book, The Aspiring Flutist's Practice Companion.

In her book, the smallest phrase came up in the Epic Warm-Up 2.0, and it really struck me:

"Improve a little bit each day."

I've consistently been doing her Epic Warm-Up almost every day for three months because it's fun and manageable, only taking 15 minutes total to feel thoroughly warmed-up. And you know what? I've improved a little bit each day in those three months! 

This was a huge lightbulb moment.

B. Set Yourself Up for Success To Prevent Early Practice Burnout

Now that I've given myself permission to improve a little bit each day, I've created room to realistically invite more tasks into my practice session without feeling overwhelmed.

My next goal involves organizing my tasks in a way that ensures I don't burn myself out too soon, as I was consistently doing before.

I came across a video on Facebook by Denise Tryon, Adjunct Horn Professor at the Peabody Conservatory, on practicing. 

Essentially, she separates her day into three separate sessions, practicing in the morning, afternoon, and evening with ample time in between.

Right away, I realized that I could be improving a little bit, three times a day.
Lightbulb moment number two.

Tips for Beating Perfectionist's Procrastination + Improving a Little Bit Each Day:

After re-approaching my practice mindset based on the above ideas, I implemented a few more ideas to really help motivate me towards consistent, well-balanced, process-oriented practice experiences.

1. Get yourself excited for tomorrow's practice session tonight

  • Re-set your practice space: Tidy up and re-organize your materials, placing tomorrow's first to-dos on your stand so you're ready to go! (Or, place your materials in your bag in the order you're going to use them to make it easier on yourself once you arrive at your practice space.)
  • Listen to recordings, watch videos, or read words that inspire you.
  • Write down or e-mail yourself your schedule for tomorrow, which leads to the next tip!

2. Give yourself a completely reasonable to-do list

  • It is way too easy to prescribe yourself an 8-hour practice session, because your perfectionist self would love that, but I've never executed anything I've planned for myself when it's unreasonable and unattainable.
  • Set yourself up for success! If your to-do list allows you to easily complete every task, you'll feel accomplished and begin craving more rather than feeling burnt out.

3. Use a timer (And actually listen to it!)

  • Many times, I've put a timer on while practicing certain exercises, and have continued on long past the buzzer. When this happens, I usually end up feeling frustrated, exhausted, or both.
  • If your inclination to work past the buzzer comes from feeling antsy or incomplete, learn to give yourself a pat on the back for really focusing and putting good work in, and move on! It'll still be there tomorrow. And the next day. If you leave it feeling like there's more to continue on with, that may motivate you to pick back up and put more work in the next day!
  • In addition, you can now channel all that energy into the next practice task!
  • Timer Tips:
    • Try 3-minutes for one-measure chunks within a piece, 5-minutes for shorter exercises, and 10-minutes for longer ones as a starting point.

In Conclusion

  • I've come to realize that I'd rather put in a highly focused 10-minutes-each on six aspects of my playing every day than one hour of work on only one area. 
  • The best way to improve your weaknesses is by working at them daily. Put your timer on and put in the work!
  • Make the most of your minutes, and keep yourself feeling fresh and focused for each aspect of your practice session.
  • You don't need to "finish" everything. You don't need to solve every issue every time you practice. In order to be sustainable, there must be a point at which you let go and move on. If you feel like you're not done, you'll know right where you need to go tomorrow, and you'll still have energy left to focus on the next tasks on your list. 
  • If you find it difficult to move on before achieving perfection or completion, just remember that there is no end to the possibilities of improvement.
http://media.boreme.com/post_media/2013/pablo-casals-cellist.jpg

Here's permission to put perfection aside and enjoy the process!


Finally, I came across this video the other day, and found it particularly fitting in the context of doing a little bit of work each day with a lot of focus and care. A few months later, the results are beautiful

#practiceroomrevelations

8 Ways to Practice Effectively Without Your Instrument

I recently sent my flute to the shop for a COA, and in the midst of preparing for upcoming events, I began thinking of all the ways I can continue to improve while it's away.

Perhaps your living situation limits you to quiet hours, or you've slammed your finger in a door and cannot hold your instrument for a month. (I can speak from experience.) 

Instead of considering the limitations of being unable to play your instrument, consider the ways it can be beneficial:

  • You won't feel distracted or discouraged by a "bad tone day."
  • You'll be able to focus purely on the composition and musicality.
  • You'll have the opportunity to practice being mindful, present, and focused.
  • You won't feel the temptation to mindlessly repeat passages and risk learning mistakes.

Here are 8 ways to practice effectively without your instrument:


1. Research

Spend time researching your repertoire. Dig deeper into the life of the composer, important influences, the history of the instrument at the time of the composition, and so on. This is a crucial step is that is often cut short when tempted to get started learning the notes. There are boatloads of articles and resources available online. Even in five minutes of searching, you can learn something new! A heightened awareness of the background and context of a piece allows for an informed interpretation. 

2. Pre-Record

If you're anticipating being without your instrument and can pre-record at least one performance of your piece, use your video as a tool for self-study. Watch yourself practice and take notes. Be your own teacher. This will be immensely useful in Step 3!

3. Listening 

Find as many recordings of your repertoire as possible, in addition to related works. Listen first as a whole, then on a granular level. 

Go phrase by phrase listening to all of your recordings back-to-back, taking specific notes. Oftentimes, we limit ourselves to only a few possibilities when playing. Hearing many possibilities from others opens your ears to fresh perspectives, and gives you the chance to determine which is the most effective.

Once you've determined the way you'd like a certain phrase to be played, listen to your own recording if you pre-recorded yourself. Are you already playing it exactly as you want? Great! Now you've confirmed that you should keep playing it that way! Are there areas to improve? Great! Now you have a detailed plan. 

I've written a whole post on this process! Click here to read: Maximizing Improvement with Video Recordings.

4. Visual Aids

Make a copy of your music for personal note-taking. Write notes on your own playing while you listen to your own recordings, and add notes and ideas from your favorite recordings.

Most importantly, add reminders throughout: Anticipate where you'll need to remember to "stand tall and sing" or "remain soft," for example.

Use color to enhance the visual road map of your piece, and gain a visual of the bigger picture. You can also add color to imagine the tone color you wish to use in each phrase. 

5. Staying in Shape

Do you notice when you first play your instrument in the morning, the muscles tend to tight when taking a full breath? After warming up, however, the muscles become more mobile and breathing feels more free. Without your instrument, you have the opportunity to shift awareness to the full-body experience of warming up, rather than simply listening to your sound. Try stretching and movement exercises, notice patterns of tension in movement, and uncover an effective full-body warm-up to use before playing your instrument.

6. Breathing

Take the last step further by laying on the floor and observing the experience of breathing as a whole. Notice patterns of tension in the abdomen, the neck, the arms, the legs, and replace holding with subtle movement. Feel the movement of a full, efficient breath, and maintain effortless expansion while exhaling. Breath is the foundation of sound, so this is essentially tone practice without your instrument!

7. Sing

Sing your part! Oftentimes, singing a note with a feeling of space in the mouth just before playing it on your instrument translates a beautiful, natural singing quality. Attempt to sing your parts with ease and beauty, and imagine how this feeling relates to your instrument. You can also practice hearing and singing intervals in tune!

8. Mental Practice

Actually practicing through imagination only. In addition to mental practice with the goal of learning notes and patterns, try a mental performance as well. Practice increasing your heart rate through jumping jacks or jogging in place, then come to a focused, grounded, and accepting state.

The benefit of practicing mentally is that you can imagine yourself playing your best. Imagine physical ease, clear musicality, a luminous sound, and captivating presence. You can even attempt to memorize the notes and rhythms through mental visualization.


How do you find ways to improve without your instrument? Let me know in the comment section below!

 

One Way to Reduce Throat Tension

While practicing recently, I noticed that I was feeling very tense - pulling upwards, and leaning into and over my music stand. Upon investigation, I realized how much my shoulders, face and throat were tensing.

Forcing Vs. Allowing

When instructed to open your throat, be aware that this can occur by either forcing openness or allowing openness. 

I was forcing. 

When I let go of my "smile" and allowed the face to drop, (not just the jaw, but the cheeks, forehead, ears, eyes, tongue, and corners of the mouth), my throat tension went away, and everything felt easier. This was especially useful in the low register. Releasing from a smile embouchure and allowing the corners to come forward toward the lip plate led to much more flexibility and consistency! 

Do you experience throat tension?

Do you find that it occurs when there is more general tension all over the body, especially the head?

Tell me in the comments below!