musicians blog

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!


What I've Learned In 6 Weeks Of Sharing Videos

About a year ago, I decided that I needed some sort of motivation to accomplish something new every week, specifically with etudes. I decided that I wanted to record one video every week with the goal to share it online. I recorded and shared one etude video as a result of this promise to myself. (This one!) Fast forward to January, when the Etude of the Week group on Facebook began a new book, Altes 26 Selected Studies for Flute. I decided to challenge myself and follow along!

The biggest challenge in recording these etudes in full is remaining focused and clear-headed to avoid slip-ups, but not forgetting to take musical risks to make for a more compelling performance. In the past six weeks, I've made several important discoveries about the process of recording myself and the weekly challenge of hitting the share button.

Self-Talk Determines the outcome

The number one discovery I've made in determining whether or not I'll complete a good performance in one take is 100% related to mind-chatter.

Here are some of the things I've said to myself that led to a less-than-desirable outcome while recording:

  • Wait, where am I going to breathe?
  • I'm going to run out of air before the end of this phrase.
  • I hope those low notes come out this time.
  • Here comes that spot that I might not get.
  • I should've prepared this next section a little more.
  • I forgot to eat lunch!
  • I wonder if the next etude in this book is more fun.

Self-doubt and mind-wandering have not yet served me well. To remedy myself before the next take, I look at any moment where I doubted my preparation and spend considerable time planning and practicing. When I'm ready to record again, I turn to positive self-talk.

The following are things I've said to myself before and during my best takes:

  • This is the take where I will be focused.
  • I am completely prepared.
  • I am confident to give a musical performance.
  • I can remember to move while breathing.
  • Before a difficult moment: Soften, stand, and just play.
  • When beginning to feel anxious: My feet can go back to feeling grounded.

You Need To Be Brave

More difficult than the etudes themselves is sharing them on the internet. I've challenged myself to not only share them on the very supportive Facebook group, but also on YouTube for anyone to watch. The commitment to sharing recordings has forced the perfectionist in me to let go and feel courageous enough to hit publish. I absolutely suffer with the idea that I am not good enough to share anything I produce with the world, and I must wait for special permission to be granted by some authority before I am allowed to share anything. This project has turned ruthless courage into a weekly requirement, and that has led to some really important and exciting growth. (If this resonates with you, I highly recommend reading Daring Greatly by Brene Brown!)

I Still Judge Myself Once I Hit Publish

I re-watch my videos once I hit publish with a critical eye and feel a little bit of misery about things that could be better, along with a twinge of fear that my permission-to-share-videos will be revoked. (Really. Is someone in charge of that??) Then, I let it go and move on to the improvement phase. Watching my completed performances has motivated me to make very specific changes to improve for the next video. For example, if my articulation was unclear this week, I will spend more time practicing breath accents. Did I take too long to breathe and interrupt long phrases? I'll spend more time looking at the bigger picture next time. I can begin to see different improvements from one video to the next, and that has been an exciting result of this project so far.

So What Have I Learned?

In short, it's an exercise in careful preparation, focus, positivity, and courage.

In the first weeks, I would blindly turn the camera on and hope for the best. Now, I take more time to prepare and work on a plan for breath marks, phrasing, and technical challenges. 

Feeling prepared helps me focus my thoughts and be in the present moment, and it takes constant awareness to feel the insecurities as they arise and turn them into positive statements.

My desire to improve after submitting a video is far greater than when I do not release a video of myself into the world. Having clear goals and a supportive group has given me great motivation to improve!