by Leonard E. Lopatin
These two articles were originally published in the Gazette of the Greater Boston Flute Association, and reprinted with their gracious permission.
So, you’ve all been really anxious to read an article in the Gazette about practicing, right? No, huh? Sure, what could be more boring? “But wait!” you say. “There is that piece I’ve been working on and I do seem to be in a bit of a rut. Hmmmm … maybe a new perspective could loosen things up a bit?!” I, for one, find practice boring only if I feel that I’m getting nowhere, but if I make even a small improvement, I feel great about it for quite some time. So each time I speak to you here, I will discuss an approach to a particular problem, talk about my “flute philosophy,” or perhaps question some bit of conventional wisdom.
Let me start with what might seem to be the most obvious thing possible: “One practices to get better.” That is obvious, but the ways in which we can thwart our own efforts may be very subtle and not so easy to see. We’re all human beings and affected by our emotions. I’m sure everyone at some time has taken out his or her flute, played one note, and felt like putting it back in the case. But, if you did, you may have missed an opportunity, an opportunity to work through difficulties, which contributes to our overall goal of continual improvement. This is mostly a mental process. If you know that “one practices to get better” then you realize that there is no need to get discouraged if you sound lousy on your first note (or for your first hour, for that matter). If every day were automatically a “good day” there would be no need for anyone to practice. And realize, too that most improvement is so gradual that you are not aware of it yourself, so, patience is paramount!
Sometimes I start practicing and things don’t feel quite right. But I know from experience that doing the work as I originally planned will help me build strength and stamina, maintain flexibility, and sharpen my ear. On days when things just seem to be coming out right by themselves, I will sound even better as a result of working through the harder times. If, for example, you are working on long tones and you hear that the sound is very breathy, do you simply go through the motions because you feel that you are supposed to? Or do you try to be aware of what you are doing with your embouchure and air stream? I recommend the latter approach. Obvious? Yes, but if you feel discouraged, your choice of approach may be guided by your emotions rather than your mind!
Now suppose you are practicing scales and you know for certain that you can usually play them evenly and smoothly at a certain speed, say mm=138. Today, for reasons unknown, your fingers are not following orders. Here’s what I think: speed is not the problem; control is the problem. So, slowing down is no shame. In fact, it’s the best thing to do. Set your metronome at a tempo that you find presents absolutely no problem (say mm=92), and play your scales. Now try them at the tempo halfway between (112). Then slow down again, only not as much (96). Then at 116, 100, 120, 104, 126, 108, 132, 112, and finally 138. You’re going five steps forward and four steps back, gradually sneaking up on the tempo you want. Try the same type of approach with difficult passages in music you are learning.
The bottom line is: practicing carefully and intelligently on “bad days” can help you have fewer bad days.