Improvement Series

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!

Maximizing Improvement With Video Recordings

If you've been following this blog, you may notice the theme of focused self-improvement. I approach my practice sessions with great awareness in observing from within, but often have difficulty perceiving myself from the outside. I know how it feels to play, but how am I coming across? Am I effective musically?

Maximizing Improvement with Video Recordings.png

Video recordings are a perfect solution. Many of us dread listening to ourselves, or dwell on mistakes from recordings of live performances. Rather than judging the performance, choose to use it as information and focus in on smaller chunks, either from a performance or from a practice session, and examine specifics. 

BOEHM GRAND POLONAISE

My example is from Boehm's Grand Polonaise. I recorded an early progress video of this small section, and when listening back, I noticed several things right away that could be more effective.

1. Listening and Score Study

Identify the Bigger Picture of the Piece. What is the context? Allow the score to guide musical choices. Commit to the character of each section, you will then use your own recording to measure whether your contrasts are effective.

Listen to as many recordings as possible of these few measures. Search on YouTube, Spotify, SoundCloud, and more, to hear a range of interpretations, and take notes on how the character is achieved, as well as details that make for an effective (or less effective) performance. It won't take long to hear 15-20 recordings when comparing only a small section. (Observe the ideas of others to learn, do not judge.)

  • Here are my notes from the many different recordings I studied: 
    • Maintains a flow and grace through the fast moving notes and resonates through each - every note can be heard without sounding overly athletic or held back - flows forward with solid tempo rhythm.

    • Follows the piano as a guide for taking time, growth, direction, and “punctuation” of phrases.

    • Flows, effortless in the upper register, not forced, stays graceful throughout, even through technical passages. Takes time and makes a statement when piano drops out.

    • Peppy and Bright! Faster than the others, but with clarity and always energetic in character.

    • High notes sing and connect as melody notes. Brings out style contrasts within this small section by singing on the higher notes. Push and pull of tempo to shape the phrases, moving forward with the piano, and lingering when along (high notes), punctuating each as a statement.

    • Flows - Second phrase begins small and graceful, tension and release but always graceful and singing - every note is heard, and each has the supple and warm tone, never forced. Triplets flow and move forward, not static.

    • Effortless light upper notes, she has lots of flexibility to shape them and keep them singing, warm, and alive at soft tempo, never forced or closed, and moves effortlessly through all registers with consistent sound.

    • Other performances that seemed less effective did not let the longer, high notes ring out at the ends, could not hear every note projected and placed as clearly. High notes may feel too aggressive and less resonant - maintain AHH openness and add vibrato to these notes to keep them warm. The last notes of phrases should ring and have vibrato, even the shorter notes at the bottom of runs.

    • Drive through the triplets if lingering on the higher notes to keep energy up and to make a contrast and add character! Don’t let it slow.

    • Effective to make choices on how the longer notes relate to one another. Where do we want to come in lighter.

2. SELF-RECORDING + NOTE-TAKING

Listen back to your recording and identify specifics of what was unclear, not effective, out of tune, not in tempo, and so on. Some of the notes I made were:

  • I made note of the dynamics - the opening is 'mp' with no written crescendo in the repeated triplet figure. Measures 13-14 feature a crescendo to the height of the phrase, the high G, and decrescendo down to the end of the phrase at m. 16. The new phrase begins at piano, and should feel much lighter and contrasting. 
  • Allow the high notes to sing effortlessly, translating the same open sound to each, rather than closing down just before leaping up to the high notes.
  • Lengthen the last note in m. 16, and maintain intensity to avoid losing presence and pitch.
  • Make a contrast in beginning the new phrase at m. 17 by coming in with a new color at a distinct dynamic level lower than the opening, and keep the notes short and light.
  • Make a greater distinction between the articulation noted in m. 9 and m. 13.
  • Clarify the first note of measure 12.

3. Practice, record + repeat

Address and practice the ideas listed. Find solutions to each through trial-and-error or personal reminders, and record the selection again. Listen back to hear your progress and repeat!

The Takeaway

 CLICK TO DOWNLOAD PDF GUIDE

CLICK TO DOWNLOAD PDF GUIDE

In choosing to focus on a very small section with heightened detail and immediate feedback, we're ultimately learning more in less time. I am guilty of listening back to my recordings of live recitals, wishing I would've spent more time studying recordings ahead of time. I always find sections where I regret not having been more intentional in my musical choices, finding out too late that I needed to do more to achieve the appropriate character. Taking it section by section requires you to make musical choices and practice with intention. 

 

FREE DOWNLOAD

CLICK HERE to download the Self-Lesson Guide for Improving with Recordings! 

The Treasures Hidden In Mistakes

The night before my junior undergraduate recital, I dreamt that I performed the Bach Sonata in E Major on a mechanical pencil instead of a flute. The most terrifying part of the dream wasn't the fact that I was attempting to give a recital on a pencil, but all the mistakes I made while playing.

Many musicians fear mistakes. We may base our self-worth on our ability to play without mistakes, and go to great lengths to avoid them. In some, fear of mistakes leads to an overly cautious approach that compromises exploration of the full range of musical expression. 

 

Fear + Hesitation

A common issue, especially in younger students, is hesitation and pausing when a difficult spot approaches. Many times, students stop in their tracks, then continue through the difficult section perfectly. They've learned the piece, and are able to execute, but fear creates a fragmented presentation.

 

Embracing Mistakes

While mistakes may be the stuff of nightmares, we would be unable to grow without them. In a previous post on 5 Things Body Mapping Has Taught Me, a quote of Barbara Conable stands out as a simple, yet crucial concept for redirecting the fear of mistakes: 

"Mistakes are information."

Something I teach my students early on is to embrace mistakes. Beyond accepting that they happen, we make them happen on purpose, and even celebrate our cracked notes! Getting past the fear and judgement associated with making mistakes provides freedom from anxiety and self-loathing, and gives room for growth. 

 

Put a Microscope On It

 Sophia Amoruso #GIRLBOSS

Sophia Amoruso #GIRLBOSS

I love the expression "put a microscope on it" because it encourages us to slow down and inspect all facets of what we're doing with a fine-tooth comb. The amount of things we can uncover about ourselves and our playing can be quite surprising when approaching our mistakes in this way. Explore your mistakes, and experiment by making subtle changes to find a more desirable result. Going beyond the surface with patience allows a deeper understanding, and this is where I find myself in breakthrough moments!


Take the Risk

In performance, overcoming fear of mistakes comes down to taking risks and allowing guidance from an emotional connection to the music we're performing. It can be thrilling to take the leap of faith and play continuously despite fear. Listen, feel, and enjoy the moment. Should a mistake occur, reconnect to the support of the ground and the space, and continue to focus on the present. Practice performing and recovering from mistakes, and notice how it feels to approach a difficult moment with trust and ease.

 

Takeaway

When a note does not sound how we want, we can be quick to correct it and pretend it never happened, or we can treat it as a perfect opportunity to investigate. Replace self-judgement with excitement! In the words of Ian Clarke, "Brilliant!" There truly are treasures to be found when diving head first into mistakes. 

Mental Shifts to Improve Double Tonguing

Double-tonguing is an important and popular topic for flutists, and can present quite a challenge. We are constantly looking to improve speed, clarity and evenness, especially in the notorious excerpt from Mendelssohn's Scherzo from a Midsummer Night's Dream.

While working on my next etude from my Repertoire Action Plan (Update: So far I've been committed to what I've assigned to myself!), a double-tonguing etude, and the Mendelssohn excerpt, I noted that I was having difficulty maintaining clarity for a length of time. 

I know that a consistent, supported airstream is the most important aspect for optimal double tonguing, and slurring the entire passage is the first thing I did to achieve this. Without the interruption of the tongue, we can let the air move through with ease. Sometimes, this helps right away, but today, telling myself to "support" or "maintain the airstream" was not putting me in the right mindset to achieve what I was looking for once I added the written articulation back.

 

I decided to observe. Here's what I discovered:

First, I noticed the amount of air in the mouth and cheeks. I have been playing with air in my cheeks for a long time, but for the first time, I really noticed it! I mainly hold air in my left cheek, not the right, so I played around with switching cheeks, filling the whole mouth, and playing with no air in the cheeks. 

With a wider awareness of the mouth, I also noticed the feeling of the airstream moving across the roof of the mouth. While single and double tonguing, I really began to feel when I stopped the air by watching the roof of the mouth closely! 

Going along with last week's notes to maintain the "ahh" feeling, versus closing down inside the mouth, I added in the following intention:

"Feel the airstream moving continuously across the roof of the mouth."

Instead of trying to support and maintain the airstream, I simply observed the air traveling through the mouth. The effortlessness that comes from observing versus trying always leads me to feel capable of doing more and expressing exactly as I want to!

 

Double-Tonguing SyllableS + MENDELSSOHN

I find double-tonguing with short, lighter notes to be more difficult than legato double-tonguing, which naturally encourages a more supported airstream. I tend to go for D-G-D-G whenever double tonguing is required due to its reliability, but sometimes, the notes need to be staccato. In the case of the Mendelssohn Scherzo, I felt the need for greater clarity, lightness, and bounce. I felt brave enough to try T-K-T-K now that I felt more secure in my airstream! Normally, I cannot maintain this for a long time, as I begin to feel my mouth closing in. Shifting my focus to feeling openness and watching the movement of the air through my mouth allowed me to maintain the short, light, crisp T-K-T-K double tongue for the entire excerpt!

How exciting to have options!

Feeling a great awareness of how my airstream moves allowed me the choice to let the air stop or continue flowing, and the greater sense of confidence in support allowed me the flexibility to interchange syllables.

 

PRACTICE TIPS:

1. Airstream is Everything. The number one idea for improving double-tonguing is to maintain a supported airstream, and nothing is more helpful than slurring the passage and getting the tongue out of the way. While slurring, use the opportunity to observe. Observe the journey of the air and find ease in maintaining expansion in the ribs to encourage support.

2. Next, slur the first few notes of a phrase, then sneak in double-tongue to the remainder of the phrase. We may find that the moment we begin the note after inhaling is the point where we lose space in the mouth and compromise ease of the flowing airstream. Getting to know the feeling of openness that the slur allows right away helped me continue the phrase with the same feeling. 

3. A third exercise that I love (introduced to me by flutist Angela Kelly!), is to blow through a straw with a large and very fast amount of air, then add in a double-tongue. Getting the air out very fast and intensely with the straw naturally encourages a faster airstream once we go back to the flute. In addition, the straw allows us to hear the air alone, rather than a note, and we can hear whether or not our airstream loses intensity when we add in the tongue.


MORE INSPIRATION + TIPS

I had double tonguing and the idea of short versus long on the brain after being inspired by Mimi Stillman's wonderful double tonguing videos! 

She perfectly outlines lots of exercises for getting faster and clarifying syllables. I especially find backwards double tonguing and "K" only to be very helpful!

What are your favorite ways to improve double-tonguing?

Action Plan Part II: Repertoire Plan

 @joleneflute

@joleneflute

While part one of my Action Plan for Improvement provides a guide for focusing on aspects of our playing we'd like to become more aware of and consciously improve, part two is all about focusing in on a repertoire plan. My repertoire library began in high school and has moved with me from Massachusetts to New Hampshire, New York and Florida, and now resides in Texas. I have plenty of pieces that I've worked on all the way through one or more performances, and brand new pieces I've never even opened. I have studies and exercises from numerous teachers that I've accumulated over several years, in addition to tone and technique books I've picked up along the way just for fun. When I jump between these things sporadically, I always end up putting my flute down and saying, "Yep. I should really work on this. I'll work on this next time." So I'm taking myself back to University life, where, with the help of my professors, I maintained a specific. focused plan of attack, especially with fundamentals.

1. Extended Techniques: I LOVE Robert Dick's Tone Development Through Extended Techniques. I enjoy utilizing extended techniques in tone work and warm-ups for several reasons. 

  • Extended techniques are beneficial for my action plan because they naturally encourage focus. They create sounds that are so different than our usual sounds. With multi-phonics, for example, there are an array of special fingerings with varying degrees of difficulty that immediately require focus and make us observe and experiment to get the sound.
  • We tend to play our favorite regular notes when improvising a warm-up because we know what to do: habits can take over to let a the sound come out naturally. We sometimes rob ourselves the same beginner's experimental attitude with long tones, and judgement can step in when our minds aren't occupied on a task in this way. With extended techniques, many of us don't have to try at all to adopt a beginner's attitude! 
 @joleneflute

@joleneflute

2. Taffanel-Gaubert #1: This was one of my first technique assignments as an undergraduate, and some time has passed since this has been routinely involved in my go-to series of technique exercises, which mainly involves #4.

Benefits and Focus Areas for TG #1:

  • Things we don't get in TG #4 is the opportunity to repeat a shorter series of notes. Moving through each repetition allows more chances to observe and make micromovements. In addition, TG 1 allows us to focus in on one register at a time, slowly progressing higher and higher. 
  • A variation to find relationships between octaves, play all octaves for each key back-to-back.
  • Also, fingers close to keys. Make a list of the most difficult keys/note transitions to spend more time on, making the most difficult parts my new favorites!

3. Taffanel-Gaubert #4: This has been a staples for years, along with the huge array of varied rhythms and articulations.

So what do I want to improve in TG 4?

  • Supple tone throughout, creating space in the mouth, soft palate rises. Noticing tendencies to alter mouth space as I move through octaves. (The previous exercise will provide some insight into these tendencies.)
  • Translating ease in finger movement and closeness to keys in TG 1.

4. Etudes

  • Robert Dick's Flying Lessons for more Extended Techniques. In addition, finding performance focus despite challenging material.
  • Mary Karen Clardy's Etude Book for variety. It contains some familiar etudes and some new ones. In addition, my goal is to pull these etudes apart to better assist my students in seeing the big picture as well as the small details in these festival etudes.

5. Read-Through Pieces: I'm prescribing myself time for playing through pieces I love and a time for sight reading new pieces. Rather than pulling things off my shelf to put on my to-do list, leaving me feeling overwhelmed with an impossible mountain to accomplish, my focus goal for Read-Through Pieces is allowing spontaneity, self-trust, letting go and simple enjoyment. 

What areas are you focusing on? Maybe this is repertoire assigned by your teacher, required pieces for a competition, or, if you're like me, repertoire you're prescribing for yourself to find improvements as your own teacher.

 

Making an Action Plan for Improvement

I first started this blog during my summer before grad school as a means of focusing ideas and personal discoveries to continue the process of improvement before moving on to a new studio. Since graduating from FSU, I have had ups and downs in finding similar focus. Lacking the structure of school leaves me wondering: What should I do now? At the same time, everything feels like a possibility. Having no real goal in sight leaves me standing in front of an abyss. I'm constantly pulling pieces off my bookshelf saying: I'll learn this next! However, I have reached a point of feeling so sporadic (with everything from my bookshelves landing in piles around my room every week) that I'm ready to focus back in on improving mindfully with the bigger picture in mind.

I always tell my students to approach their practice sessions with this goal: Leave having made a specific improvement that can be described in words, regardless of how much time was spent.

Here's what I'm committing to in my own Personal Improvement Journey

Decide to Improve in 20 Minutes: Instead of letting time pass by while playing through the gamut of exercises assuming progress will occur, decide to practice on purpose. Don't let your practice session happen to you. Stay present and do work.

1. Make a decision. Focus in on what you're going to practice and commit.

2. Where are the issues? Record yourself for a fresh perception of areas to be improved. This can be an exchange of several notes in a scale, certain middle register notes in tone exercises, or technically difficult passages in a piece. The big picture and context within a piece are crucial points to be aware of when making musical decisions. Understand the big picture first, then extract the difficult spots for examination. To avoid the urge of straying back to the easier spots, cover the rest of the page with paper or sticky notes.

3. Why is it hard? Articulate what specifically makes this area difficult. Maybe the issue is a series of difficult fingerings. Why are these fingerings difficult? The more fingers that need to travel to change to another note, the more difficult coordination can be.

4. How can I address these difficulties? What action steps can I take to improve now that I know the 'What' and the 'Why?' To address the above example, put a spotlight on how you're moving your fingers. Observing which fingers tend to lift high off the keys allows the choice to keep them closer. Slowly and precisely move fingers exactly together to improve coordination.

Decide to fix the issues. Put a timer on and spend 3, 5, 10 minutes working through each step of your action plan. Observe, experiment, learn, and make an improvement you can describe in words when you're done.

Get your planner:

Download my Improvement Action Planning Template and commit to making more improvements every time you practice!

#practiceonpurpose