TMEA flute

Customize Your Warm-Up: Two Ways To Get More Out of Exercises

When I first learned about the four-part formula for a practice session (Tone, then Technique, then Etudes, then Repertoire), I committed to it completely. However, I found myself spending a lot of time on tone and technique exercises, often running out of time or energy before making it all the way through repertoire. In addition, my fundamental work was very often exactly the same each day. I implemented the same pretty good ideas over and over again each day, but rarely had a new a-ha moment from them. Does this sound familiar to you?

Here are two ways to freshen up your warm-up and fundamentals and make your warm-ups work for you and your repertoire.

Bring Context To Your Exercises

When you’re doing your exercises, warm-ups, scales, long tones, harmonics, etc., place whatever repertoire you’re working on in front of you. Choose a section and consider the mood, character, type of air stream needed, the articulation patterns, dynamics, phrase lengths and breath marks.

Now, apply some of these musical ideas to your exercises. For example, if you're working on Moyse's De La Sonorite, play what's on the page, but in the style of the opening to the Dutilleux Sonatine. Now try it like Jolivet, C.P.E. Bach, or the Firebird excerpt! Each one feels different, right? Bringing specific musical contexts to your every day exercises will bring a fresh perspective, and ensure that you're thinking musically while observing. The warm-up should prepare you to play, and you're now ensuring that your warm-up is specifically warming you up for the repertoire ahead. Playing a complete exercise in all keys in the specific styles needed for a piece will give you lots of opportunities to refine your set-up, too.

"Bringing specific musical contexts to your every day exercises will bring a fresh perspective, and ensure that you're thinking musically while observing."

FIND EXERCISES WITHIN REPERTOIRE

Okay, now let's try the opposite. Put the actual notes from your repertoire into your exercise. This can be very simple, such as choosing several notable intervals to sneak into your De La Sonorite. Or, add the broken chords from Mozart's G Major Concerto into your arpeggio exercises in Moyse's Gammes et Arpèges or Taffanel and Gaubert exercises. You can even take a note from Robert Dick's Tone Development Through Extended Techniques, and turn a Bach Sonata into a Throat Tuning exercise.

Altering repertoire to learn and improve is something that you're probably already doing! The difference, however, is that now we are borrowing the notes and applying them specifically to familiar exercises.

Here's My Breakthrough:

During a recent warm-up on long tones, I found myself working towards a set-up that was conducive to playing luscious high notes at a soft dynamic. I found myself playing notes from the Daphnis et Chloe excerpt, and realized I was playing them more freely than usual! Normally, I look at Daphnis and start panicking about rhythms, the opening run, changing colors, etc. Taking only key notes while I was in sound-exploration mode helped me understand what kind of mind-set and airsteam I'll need for that excerpt. Once I felt that I was producing those sounds naturally, I played the excerpt in full and had a very different experience.

WHY IS THIS HELPFUL? CHANGING CONTEXT CHANGES YOU

Where do you spend more time luxuriating and observing a small collection of notes? During warm-up / fundamental practice, or while practicing a piece? When I’m on actual exercises, I’m super focused on improving. When I'm at the repertoire stage of practice, more factors come into play. It can be easier to feel distracted and start jumping around too quickly before solving a problem. 

One of the greatest benefits, however, is injecting actual musical context into fundamentals. If you need a fresh idea for which character you'd like your Taffanel and Gaubert scales in, look no further than your repertoire!

What We Can Learn From The Beginner's Attitude

I recently pulled out some old repertoire and read through it for fun. Specifically, the Mercadante Concerto in e minor. The third movement is especially difficult, and as I approached the moment where the intense triple-tonguing begins, my thoughts were:

"I wonder if I can do it..."

To my amazement, I made it through with success! Of course, I went back to re-create the same outcome a second time, but noticed an immediate shift in my mindset: 

"I probably won't be able to do that again..."

Sure enough, I couldn't repeat the passage at the same level I had achieved the first time.

Experience and Pressure

This was not the first time I've had this experience, be it with the first read-through of a new piece, or re-visiting an old one, and it proves the power of our own thoughts.

What is the difference? Trial number one is free of pressure. I am genuinely curious about what will happen, watching myself through the passage. Immediately following this trial, pressure increases. Experience tells me that the passage is difficult, and I'm running through the list of things I need to do to make sure it happens - I'm overthinking. Curiosity is still present, but self-doubt has crept in, telling me that I was just lucky the first time. 

This article explains the similar phenomenon of beginners' luck, and the way an expert feels an increase in pressure, unlike the beginner, who is open to the possibilities of a new experience.

in the practice room

Adopting a beginners' attitude in the practice room is the key to ensuring we improve daily, remaining teachable in any situation. If we begin each day with a similar routine of tone exercises and scales, seeking to learn something new about ourselves each time, we can always grow. If we get bored or as though we've completed or exhausted an exercise, we close ourselves off from new possibilities. There is always room for more!

The attitude of a beginner isn't just for the process of experimentation while practicing, it is coupled with a mindset that should be carried into our approach to performance. Whenever my thoughts involve self-doubt, the result is less than desirable. When pressure is replaced with curiosity and joy, however, I remain free, and what seemed difficult becomes easy.

Notice your thoughts as you approach a difficult moment. Try actively choosing words that are affirming and free of judgement, and practice incorporating this mindset just as you'd practice the notes. The beginner's attitude is all about exploring and reveling in what is possible, approaching the process with joy and self-compassion.

Yoga Poses to Incorporate into Your Practice Session

I recently came across some old practice journals, and found a page I'd written after a yoga warm-up. I was reminded of several poses and breathing exercises that are especially beneficial for musicians.

It is no secret that yoga is beneficial for musicians, especially for the foundations of breathing, awareness, and the mind-body connection. Here are some of my favorite ways to incorporate yoga into my practice session, along with some favorite yoga videos courtesy of YouTube.

If You're Anxious...

 

Alternate Nostril Breathing

Alternate Nostril Breathing will encourage slower breathing and has a calming effect. If you're seeking greater focus or mental clarity, try this first.

 

Guided Savasana (Corpse Pose)

One of the first notes I made in my yoga warm-up entry came after laying on the floor in corpse pose. I allowed myself to watch the journey of the air into the nose or mouth, and watched for any tendencies to help, force, or tighten at any point during the inhalation and exhalation. A crucial point is allowing a natural wave-like flow between the inhalation and the exhalation, avoiding any urge to hold at the top of the breath. Understanding tendencies such as these outside of playing provides greater awareness of anything that could interrupt a natural breath while playing.

 

WIDE-LEG CHILD'S POSE

Child's Pose provides an opportunity to observe the movement of the spine while breathing: Upon inhalation, the spine gathers. Upon exhalation, the spine lengthens. Additionally, I allow the abdominal muscles to release during the exhalation in this pose. When playing, releasing the abdominal muscles allows for greater ease in breathing and improved breath capacity!


To Energize...

 

SUN SALUTATION

Moving the entire body as a warm-up before practicing is a great way to feel energized before practicing, especially if you're feeling tired. The more warmed-up my muscles feel, the easier it is to play! 

 

Pigeon Pose

I love hip-opening poses, and Pigeon Pose is my favorite! Hip openers bring awareness to the lower body, and this pose provides an opportunity to feel the movements of the breath and their relation to the legs and hip joints. In addition, this provides another chance to allow the abdominal muscles to release, inhibiting a habit of gripping while enhancing the stretch. 

What are your favorite yoga poses or stretches? Does your warm-up include a full-body warm-up?

(*Note, guidance from a certified instructor is recommended for proper pose execution to prevent injury. Always consult with a doctor if you experience pain or injury.)

Life-Changing Performances: Never Apologize

Today's post from The Sensible Flutist, 'Enriching your artistry through life experience' inspired me to reflect on my most life-changing experience as a performer. When I consider my most thrilling experience on stage, this is the performance that I think of. It was the first time I truly connected to my own emotions while listening to the piece I was playing. Personal experience truly does enrich one's art.

Last summer, as a part of my Musicians' Wellness research, I attended Amy Porter's Anatomy of Sound workshop at the University of Michigan. The guest artist was Ian Clarke, and I was to play Sunstreams for one of the first classes: Clarke compositions with little or no extended techniques.
After I played it through once, Ian asked me what I thought I could improve upon. I really didn't know what to say, so I mentioned something about giving the piece more character. Then he asked the audience what they enjoyed about it. I was surprised when many participants offered kind, positive comments.

Mr. Clarke hadn't quite made his point yet, so he decided to show me what I needed to improve by taking away my music stand
   
He asked, "How do you feel now?" 
I responded with a very honest: "Horrified." 
Everyone laughed.
  
He told me to let go and play. "Just make it up if you have to." Listen to the piano and hear the music.
   
Panicked thoughts flooding my brain: 
"BUT I HAVEN'T MEMORIZED THIS. I ONLY STARTED LEARNING IT TWO WEEKS AGO. YOU WROTE THIS PIECE AND I'M ABOUT TO BUTCHER IT. AMY PORTER IS SITTING OVER THERE WATCHING ME. THAT GIRL STUDIES WITH (FILL-IN-THE-BLANK FAMOUS TEACHER) AND SHE'S GOING TO JUDGE ME. I DON'T KNOW HOW TO IMPROVISE."
   
Tim Carey began playing the opening bars. I felt confident in my ability to come in on my first E-natural at the beginning. The first phrase was a success and I started to relax.
I managed to play almost the entire piece from memory. Without having a music stand, I felt an incredible sense of fear and risk, but it was thrilling.
   
I have never felt more "in the moment."
I was looking out at my audience, and I felt personally connected with each person. Everyone was making eye contact with me, and it helped me to feel more alive than anything. I already knew they were on my side after their verbal comments. I could feel their support and encouragement.
  
I was hearing the music. I was completely aware of Tim Carey playing behind me. I watched Mr. Clarke run to the middle of the hall to egg me on, and I started to really play to the large recital hall.
   
I looked to the top seats at the back of the hall while I played, and I pictured an individual that stirred an emotional place in me. I poured my heart out. I vented, expressed anger, sadness, disappointment, asked questions... I said things that I had yet to express verbally. I experienced a feeling of strength and healing.
   
I filled the hall. I felt huge. I felt powerful. I embodied the "stand-and-deliver" ideal. I was in control and free. I have never felt so connected. To myself. To an audience. To a piece.
  
The audience demonstrated that I had moved them. Some were actually crying. For me. Because of me. They applauded excitedly when I finished, and Amy Porter let out a "WOOOHOOO!!" (I cried for 3 days after this.)
  
A recently certified Andover Educator was in attendance, and she offered me a wonderful observation: "After he removed the music stand, you moved more. It was really beautiful."
   
According to Mr. Clarke, before, during and after my initial performance, I gave the impression that I was apologizing for myself: "It looked like you were saying, 'I'm about to play Sunstreams, I'm really sorry. You don't have to like it. You don't even have to listen. I'm just going to hide until it's over.'"
  
The thing that I thought was giving me confidence (my music stand), was actually crippling me. Mr. Clarke taught me that I have nothing if I don't believe in myself.
   
Stop apologizing. You are capable. You have something to say. Be in control, and believe that you deserve to create something amazing.
  
Lesson: You have everything when you believe in yourself. Show them who you are and what you have to say, and never apologize.