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What I Learned Judging A Round of Pre-Screening Recordings

I was recently asked to be a judge for a round of pre-screening recordings, and it was my first time being on the other side of a recorded round. Listening through each candidate, I began to think about how I was listening based on the recording, and I made a mental checklist of things to take into account for myself and my students in future recording sessions.

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Here's what a I learned while judging a round of pre-screening recordings:


1. Recording Quality

Recording quality is really important for showcasing your true sound. The listener will have to guess about your tone if the quality is low or the distance from the microphone is off. Your tone is the first basis for determining your level of playing when it comes to competition recordings, and it makes the difference between the listener falling in love with your playing versus trying to decide on your ability in the first few moments. (Don't make them guess, make them love!)

2. Microphone Set-Up

Microphone angle and distance are just as important as a good recording device. Too far, and the quality can seem too low - the intricacies of your sound will be lost. Too close and you'll hear loud breaths and possibly even keys moving. Both things can distract the listener from how great you are.

3. Intonation

Intonation translates no matter the quality of recording! Take the time to practice playing in tune, and tune well on your recording day. A recording with few technical flaws but poor intonation throughout is very distracting to hear. Bring a recording device into your rehearsals - a phone works fine for listening back for pitch issues!

4. Play for the Space

Know the space you're playing in. If it's a dry room, be intentional about creating vibrancy and spin in the sound, and releasing the ends of notes. If it's a live or echoey space, keep things clear and precise.

5. Take a Sample First

Listen to the recording tests for yourself. Are your contrasts coming across? Are you happy with the balance? How's the distance and location of the microphone? Take a moment to make sure you're happy before proceeding.

Thinking back, I never heard the recording tests for myself - only the recording engineer listened. I didn't know how I was coming across in the room through the microphone, and in some cases, I would've played differently had I listened first. This can also help you hear whether you've tuned well or not before you proceed with a full take!

6. Have a Back-Up

Use a back-up recording device when possible. If you had a great take, but the recording device shut off halfway through (or you forgot to hit record altogether), you'll thank yourself for having a back-up device!

7. Don't Forget About Your Collaborator

Don't forget, your pianist is most likely going to be using an instrument that isn't their own. They may have insights or a preference as far as the location of your recording based on the instrument available, so account for this before deciding!



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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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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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Improve Your Double Tonguing: Tips + Exercises [Video]

1. Air Stream and Support (0:20)

Without the instrument, get to know the feeling of support in the body. Use air sounds through the teeth to listen, and feel the natural response and engagement in the body.

2. Add Syllables to Your Air Sounds (1:09)

We often spend time practicing the double tonguing syllables away from the flute, however, using the through-the-teeth airstream exercise, we can multi-task. Airstream and double tonguing syllables should go hand-in-hand! 

Try the exercise of going from closed teeth and air sounds to a relaxed jaw and increased space in the mouth, and consciously keep the air speed fast. (1:24)

3. Breath Accents (2:12)

Improve single tongue articulations by prioritizing air speed and quality with breath accents. Once the attack feels clean and consistent, add in the T and the K syllables on top. This especially helps us understand the feeling of air when using the more difficult back-of-the-tongue syllables.

4. Double Tonguing Syllables: T-K vs. D-G (4:16)

Rather than sticking with just one or the other, I find it useful to understand the difference between both T-K-T-K and D-G-D-G, and practice them both. T-K tends to be more staccato and pointed, while D-G tends to be more smooth and legato. Having both under your belt gives you greater options in the context of a piece!

5. High Maintenance Notes: Low and Middle Register (5:07)

The low register and right hand middle notes tend to be the most prone to cracking if space in the mouth is not abundant. When we play a resonant long tone without articulating, we may be thinking of an "aww" shape in the mouth. Utilize that same "aww" feeling while double tonguing ("daww-gaww") to help these high maintenance notes!

6. Practicing For Longer, Faster Lines (5:58)

In the exercise linked above, use a single note to build up from breath accents to a long, fast line of double-tonguing. Holding the first note (as we did in the initial breath support exercise using only air), reminds us to get the speed going, and keep it the moment the tongue first moves.

7. 3-Stage Chromatic Scale Exercise (Beginning to Add Finger Movement) (7:03)

Use the notes of the chromatic scale to begin translating the single note exercises up the range. With each repetition, begin decreasing the number of articulations per note as you begin coordinating finger movement with tongue movement.

8. Coordinating Finger and Tongue Movement (7:53)

Try saying or whispering the syllables while moving the fingers slowly and precisely to encourage better coordination. This provides a chance to isolate the tongue and fingers without producing a flute sound, so we can really focus and uncover difficulties. Even if you're relatively coordinated, I always find this exercise enhances the connection between movements!

9. The First Note Influences The Rest! (8:31)

Use an expressive tenuto to translate the resonance of the first note of a run into the double-tongued notes that follow. Begin with a held note, and practice making the first note shorter and shorter without losing the sound quality.

10. 2-Octave Major Scales: Slur and Double-Tongue Back-to-Back (9:00)

Break up your 2 octave scales into one octave at a time, first slurred with a singing quality, then translating the feeling to double-tonguing. Try 2 articulations per note, and think of a smooth, legato sound that resembles your singing slurred sound.

11. Singing and Playing (10:56)

Using the first notes of Exercise No. 1 from Taffanel and Gaubert's Daily Exercises, sing and play, slur, and double-tongue in one breath to reap the benefits of a relaxed throat and naturally supported airstream!



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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!

My Go-To Warm-Up Routine

Have you ever gone grocery shopping and stocked up on really good breakfast food that makes you excited to get out of bed in the morning?

I've always wanted to find a warm-up routine that does the same thing for me. I consider myself to be a morning person mentally, but physically, my body feels closed off and lacks full flute-playing mobility until I've been awake for a few hours. As a result, diving in with notes right away often feels uncomfortable and frustrating.

However, there are times when I need to be ready to play very early in the day, so the remedy is a 5-minute cardio warm-up that stretches the body and creates mobility for breathing to happen more easily!

Here's my favorite warm-up from Blogilates!

Cardio Warm-Up

Blogilates Quick Cardio Warm Up (5 Minutes)

After completing a whole-body warm-up, I can MOVE and therefore, I can BREATHE! After just five minutes, I'm ready to have a better time playing my first notes of the day.


This warm-up makes me excited to warm up in a way that I've never experienced with any other! I've done this warm-up almost daily for the past two or three months, and I'm already excited to warm-up again tomorrow. 

 

Why Is It So Good?

  • Dr. Sánchez has achieved a fun, satisfying 15-minute warm-up with lots of useful tips and reminders for good physical habits sprinkled in.

  • It's written in such a way that it feels good to play, and it's easy to focus and complete the entire thing without getting frustrated or distracted. 

  • There are plenty of harmonics and singing and playing which I can't warm-up without!

  • It is well-rounded and hits on all registers, articulations, dynamics, vibrato, and more.

 

I've enthusiastically ordered her new book The Aspiring Flutist's Practice Companion, and frequently utilize her other resources and enlightening blog posts!

Click below to visit The Self-Inspired Flutist's website and access a free download of the Epic Flute Warm-Up!


In Conclusion

These two resources simplify the process of warming up the body to breathe well and play well. I can easily and consistently follow along to completion, and when I do, I feel totally prepared to continue on with my practice session or feel ready to perform!

 

Do you have a holy grail warm-up routine?

Share in the comments below or tag me @joleneflute / #practiceroomrevelations on Instagram to share!