Some Thoughts on Practice

As a flutist who learns and performs a lot of new music every year, often in situations that aren’t the most conducive to effective practice and effortless performance, I’ve been on many different points in the learning curve right before concerts. As a teacher, I’ve certainly witnessed this in my students before competitions or auditions. And as a workshop presenter on the topic of overcoming performance anxiety, I’ve heard numerous stories of fatal memory slips, technical back-firings and other musical crashes while on stage.

As musicians, we all want to perform our “best” on stage – the point at which we sound like we know we can sound and are able to share our music confidently and comfortably with our audiences. The first step in this process is so obvious but is so often overlooked: Know the Music. If you can’t play a piece of music cleanly in the comfort of your own home, chances are there won’t be a miraculous occurrence when you’re on stage and you’ll suddenly sail through the difficult passages.

By knowing the music, I mean learning it much more in-depth than being able to “read” it. When I was a young flute student, I got really good at zipping through music without a whole lot of thought or comprehension behind what I was reading. I see this in my own students: I’ll ask students to take away the music and play a passage by heart, and they’re completely unable to do it. Or I’ll ask them what key the piece is in, or what key they’re in now, or what the piano accompaniment is doing while they are resting, and they have no idea. Some of my students who are good at playing by ear will adopt what I call the “hunt and peck” method: they’ll be cruising along on a scale or piece of music until they hear a mistake, at which point they will musically poke around at random pitches until they hear the right one. Not really great ways to learn!

There are five ways of learning/memorizing music:

  • Kinesthetic – get all the fingerings into muscle memory.

  • Visual – have a picture reproduction of the sheet music in your mind

  • Aural – be able to “play it by ear”

  • Theory/structure – what are the main themes and where are they throughout the piece? What are the harmonic relationships throughout the piece? What key is it in? Does it change keys? What scales and arpeggios are used at specific points? How does your part relate with the piano or orchestra part – do you know what the other parts are doing at all times?

  • Solfège – be able to sing what you play

There is no “best” method of these five. You need to figure out which way or ways you learn best, rely on those, and supplement that with the other methods. I don’t think it is wise to rely solely on one particular method, because there is always the danger that a lapse in concentration or a distraction will occur during a performance, and you don’t want to put all your performing eggs into one basket, so to speak. For example, many musicians who have a superb kinesthetic sense and rely solely on that may be able to fly through difficult technical passages but flounder when performing a slower melodic line.

To develop your visual recollection, try closing your eyes and recalling the music on the printed page. Follow along with your part while imagining yourself playing, and check for any blank spots in the music. Another trick is to write out your part on some staff paper. It’s interesting to discover the parts that come readily as you write and the parts that you have to finger first on an imaginary flute in order to recollect what the notes are!

Knowing the ins and outs of a piece and how it’s put together structurally is invaluable. As a teenager, I was lucky to have some music theory classes taught in my high school, and I also studied some advanced theory at summer music camps. Even if you don’t have formal courses available to you, there are plenty of online resources and books. One of my adult students came into his lesson once with “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Music Theory,” which I discovered, once I got over chuckling over the title, was a really wonderful, informative book.

Solfège is probably the most underutilized way to learn music (unless, of course, you are a singer!). When I was a student at Eastman, we had to take sight-singing classes. We sang assigned tunes on scale degrees, so that we also understood the relation of each pitch to the whole of the piece. This was a source of no small amount of dread in some of us instrumentalists – if we could sing, we wouldn’t be playing an instrument, right? – and invariably our turn would come after a really fantastic voice major that would make our own vocal mumblings seem that much more dejected.

When I began teaching, I unintentionally and inadvertently started singing a lot in lessons. Many times it was just too time-consuming to pick up my flute constantly and demonstrate for students, so I would sing out notes or passages. I discovered that not only did my ear and sense of pitch and intonation improve, so did my ability to really internalize phrasing and musical ideas: it was as if singing “anchored” the music in my body on a deeper level than just playing it on my instrument.

So while I do acknowledge students’ qualms about singing in front of people, I encourage them to sing their music, even if it’s only in the comfort and privacy of their shower! Fast passages can be sung slowly to really focus on placing the notes correctly in your vocal cords.

I think most musicians who perform a lot by memory use a synthesis of these of these five methods. Personally, I find that when on stage, my primary method is to just trust in my kinesthetic sense and the habits I’ve formed from consistent practice, but if there’s a really tricky technical passage coming up, I’ll briefly focus on a technical element to “ground” the passage so that I don’t lose control but at the same time don’t give up the feeling of spontaneity. I also always have a visual “back-up copy” of the music in my head; in addition, I know how the piece is put together theoretically, and how all the parts work together.