Everyone who has ever played an instrument knows that “Practice makes perfect.” Flutists, like all woodwind players have to fine-tune embouchure, fingers, brain and ears to create beautiful tone. We apply many different techniques to do this.
I recently had a very unpleasant encounter with a hoe while working in the garden. Result: A sore, swollen lip. Of course, being a flutist, I knew I was in trouble immediately. As I sat with a cold compress on my lip I wondered how I would ever be able to finish preparing for my upcoming “challenge” recital.
Our teacher has assigned each student a specific challenge for them to meet. Mine is a set a studies which I’ve written as a tool to wrap my brain, fingers, ears and mouth around those final notes in the third octave which I haven’t yet mastered. We also had to present a short talk on our specific challenge. I was to play my original chord and scale studies, based on the chromatic and whole-tone scales, and the diminished 7th and augmented 5th chords.
Naturally, I wanted to play them perfectly, with no errors or hesitations. I wasn’t to that level yet. The two weeks remaining to recital date would have been enough to polish it up. I was still struggling with the notes of the third octave in all of the studies.
After a few days I tried to play. Miserable. I simply could not lift the air column up for the third octave because my swollen (upper) lip was in the way blocking the air.
This is what led me to focusing my practice efforts on fingers only. It’s really an amazing experience to put the instrument up (but not resting on the lips) and simply “play” the notes, in rhythm. You can’t use your ear to catch when a note is wrong, so you have to rely on knowing which fingers move up and down to the correct notes. It is really quite a “freeing” experience to practice this way!
I made a few surprising discoveries:
1. My fingers still don’t know for sure how to finger D, E and E Flat in first octave.
2. I really DO know the correct fingers for the third octave…well, at least I know them in chromatic order. It’s a different story when you change intervals!
3. I began to identify the individual movements of fingers from note to note. For instance, I had been having trouble getting my pinky to lift for B natural, third octave. Well now that I wasn’t focused on playing or hearing the note, I could put my brain on lifting the pinky as I came to that note in the exercises.
The incredible thing is that after practicing this way–fingers only–I showed remarkable improvement when I finally could put flute to lip and actually play the notes. Sweet.
And the recital? Well, I didn’t manage to play the exercises perfectly. But as the day approached I realized that maybe if I was still struggling a bit here and there, then that would be OK. After all, the only ones at this recital were our teacher and the other students. We were sharing learning techniques with each other. My talk was about learning techniques, and each of the studies I had written were in a different point of the process.
So next time you have a spot in a piece of music that is tripping you every time you come to it. Stop playing and just do some finger practice for a day or two. Then try to play it and see what happens.
If you do this, I’d enjoy it if you would let me know about your experience by posting a comment here, or on my Facebook page.