As flute players that are learning online at home, it can be easy to slip into some bad habits that ultimately make flute playing more difficult for you. I’ve had a brainstorm, canvassed the crowd and collated some of the most common practise mistakes that beginners (and certainly even long-time players) make. Only a few are made out of deliberate laziness (and I’m calling you out of them folks!). But many of them you may not even realise you’re doing, let alone the flow on effects they can have on your playing.
So let me hit you with these simple practise tips that will set you up for success.
In no particular order…
- Sitting on your bed while playing. Are you guilty of sitting cross-legged on your bed, resting your arms on your legs and bending forward to reach the flute and your music you’ve placed on your mattress?? I think most of us have done this at one time or another! Not only will it become seriously uncomfortable for your neck after a while, but breathing properly is made difficult! Flute players need lots of steady, well-supported breath. We rely on deeply filling the lungs, drawing the diagram down and the rib cage out. It’s pretty tricky if you’ve crushed your torso. ALWAYS practise at the very least sitting straight in a chair with both feet on the floor. Even better, standing up! Bring the flute to your lips, don’t slouch forward to reach down to your flute. Have a proper music stand and your music set up at about shoulder height.
- Stopping EVERY time you make a mistake! Train yourself to just keep playing. The reality is you can’t stop and start during a performance. Once the mistake is made, you can’t fix it so move on, shake it off and concentrate on the rest of the piece. (Nine times out of ten the audience won’t even pick it up!)
- Neglecting your tone. Make sure you set aside some time to experiment with your embouchure and develop that beautiful rich, clear focused tone. (Click here for some step-by-step Embouchure Tips). All the right rhythms and notes are completely wasted if they simply don’t sound beautiful! Whilst describing tone is shown to be quite subjective between people, descriptors like rich, full and focused (as opposed to weak and airy) are what you should be aiming for.
- Playing too fast too soon when practising. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of thinking playing faster is somehow more masterful. Slow it down, build speed incrementally to ensure that tone, articulation, dynamics, note fingerings etc are all being practised at the same time too! When performing, its all of these elements that need to come together.
- Learning to make a sound with the entire flute assembled. Ditch the body and foot and simply start to make sound with the head joint only. (Get help finding your flute embouchure are here). Concentrating on your lips, jaw, cheeks, breath speed and direction is enough to start with (trust me!). Once a clear sound is produced you can familiarise yourself with the positioning of arms, hands and fingers…
- Practising for too long. When you are just starting its common to feel breathless, dizzy and sore in your facial muscles. So if you feel yourself fading after only 10 or 15 minutes don’t despair. Just like building fitness slowly at the gym, you’ll build playing stamina. It’s far more productive for you to practice more often for shorter periods than to try and struggle through longer sessions.
- Practising infrequently. I know this one’s obvious, but If you only pick the flute up once a month you’re unlikely to build any kind of playing momentum. ‘Muscle memory’ develops over time as you repeat an action over and over again.
- Skipping your scales. Most students shudder when scales are mentioned, but they are literally the foundations of music. Scales will help you to sight-read new pieces more easily, develop your ear training and give you the perfect chance to polish aspects such as tone and articulation patterns.
- Play only on your own. If you never play with other flutes or even other instruments, you’ll never know the importance of intonation (the ability to play in tune), timing and counting and balancing dynamics. Learning to communicate ‘non-verbally’ with others during a performance is key to these three areas and does requires practice. You can begin by playing along to the accompaniment tracks that are provided with a lot of sheet music on CDs. I’m a huge fan of digital sheet music providers like Virtual Sheet Music. Much of their music comes with accompaniment tracks you can download and play along to at variable speeds.
- Don’t be afraid to write on your music. I’m a big believer in marking your sheet music. Add breath marks, circle accidentals or problem areas, translate musical terms and add your own reminders. It’s not cheating – it’s smart!
- Use a metronome. This will help you keep the main pulse or beat of the music while playing. It’s quite common for players to gradually speed up during playing without realising. It can be a result of nerves and an almost unconscious desire to ‘just get the piece as quickly as you can’. Often unnoticed while practising alone, this quickly becomes problematic when playing with others. A metronome will help to improve your overall sense of rhythm. If you encounter a new or tricky rhythm, clap it out slowly to the beat and gradually increase to the required speed.
- Remove distractions. Turn your phone to silent, the TV off and focus!
- Forget that your flute needs some love. You’ll only ever be able to play as well as you treat your flute. A regular service to make sure pads seal and mechanisms move smoothly without sticking and clicking is a must and will make your flute easier and more pleasant to play. After EVERY practice session, swab the inside of your flute, wipe the outside with a soft dry cloth and disassemble into your case for storage. A build up of dust and moisture will eventually deteriorate the pads, causing leaks and lead to tone and intonation problems