The difference between being good and being great at something is rarely a product of sheer talent.
It’s no secret. It's your flute practise.
But you work. You study. You parent. You travel.... I get it.
Carving out a regular spot in your calendar to practise is hard.
So if you're like me, when you finally get the chance to pick up your flute, you want to be sure that the precious time you're spending is actually making you a better player.
What should I include in my flute practise session?
The question of 'What should I practise' comes up often enough in flute forums and Facebook groups.
Take a look...
But... do you also find yourself at a total loss at how to actually practise??
- How do you measure your progress?
- How do you use the time most productively?
- What strategies should you use to make logical, strategic progress towards a goal?
If you want to get better at getting better, then I’ve got the blueprint you need for deliberate, intelligent flute practise.
8 Proven Ways to Get Better at Getting Better
(Adapted from "Practice Perfect" by Doug Lemov)
We’ve all heard the saying ‘practise makes perfect.’ Meaning if you work hard, and do something enough times then you’ll inevitably improve.
Actually, practice makes PERMANENT is more accurate.
It’s how you practise rather than how much flute practise, that’s the real key here.
“Never mistake activity for achievement”
In other words, you can work very hard, but not make much progress.
For example, if you practise diligently for an hour a day but continually use the wrong flute fingerings, you’ll encode this into your muscle memory. You'll get more and more familiar with the incorrect action, as well as how it sounds.
An encoded practise mistake like this can cause future playing problems that are really hard to correct. It's every flute teacher's nightmare!
(Do a quick self-assessment right now.
Do you recognise any of these 13 common beginner mistakes?)
So how can you avoid encoding failures or bad habits?
Start by reducing the complexity of exercises and intentionally practice ‘bit by bit’.
Cognitive science has found that people actually learn the fastest by making small, steady leaps. Tackling a piece too difficult all in one go, means the rate of failure shoots up, and motivation and enjoyment plummet.
Use this as a guide… if you start a piece and encounter significant and frequent errors, redesign what you’re doing and temporarily simplify it.
Work on just one aspect intentionally at a time before recombining...
- Slow it down
- Play only a few bars at a time
- Clap out the rhythm
- Remove articulation or dynamics temporarily
Practice the "20"
The 80/20 rule is a common law in economics that can also be applied to practice.
The idea is that you should become absolutely dedicated to practising 20 percent of "things" (instead of "everything") because these actually produce 80 percent of your desired results.
Apparently less is more.
So what are the "20 percent of things" that are most important for a beginner player to include in flute practise?
I asked a group of experienced flute players that question, and got resounding agreement with these core skills
- breathing and breath support
- long tones
The idea is that you continue to practise these things until they are automatic.
They don’t become less important to practise or less valuable as you come to master them. They actually remain the most important as they allow you to play with consistent excellence.
Keep the practise of these core skills engaging by making small variations to exercises. (Here's some ways I change up practising my scales....)
And this mastery of these core skills leads to the next point…
Let the mind follow the body
Once you’ve learned a skill, it means your body is performing the task with very little conscious effort.
If you practise building mastery with the 20 percent of skills you've identified in the previous point, it can ‘free your mind’ to process additional and new information that comes at it.
A great example is sight reading music.
When your teacher plonks a sheet of unseen music on your stand and says ‘play it’ your initial reaction could be to ‘freak out.’
There's so much to process at once - several key changes, new rhythms, tempo dynamics and articulation markings.
But… if you’ve been practising your scales as one of your core skills, you'll already have encoded the muscle memory and ear training needed for that key signature.
Your active cognition is then free to engage in something ‘extra’, like exploring the more creative and emotive aspects of your playing such as adding vibrato and tonal colours.
Unlock creativity... with repetition
It might seem counter-intuitive but you can unlock creativity with this repetition.
While you’re executing your core skills unconsciously, your conscious mind is freed up to become more creative.
Creativity is actually practise in disguise. To realise its full potential you need to automate other ‘lower level’ skills.
"Creativity is actually practise in disguise"
So if you want to work at your most creative at certain moments, identify what playing skills you need to use. Then practise automating them to free up more processing capacity for creative play.
An example might be a beautiful cadenza where there's a short run of the chromatic scale. You can automate learning the fingerings which then allows you to focus on building the atmosphere with a grand crescendo and luscious tone.
Cognitive science has shown that leaps of understanding and inspiration are helped along by expending as little capacity as possible on the ‘little things’.
Drilling (practicing a skill in isolation repetitively) doesn't actually diminish creative thought. It actually helps players to be more creative player when under performance pressure.
But isn’t too much repetition boring? Not if you understand why you're doing it.
Replace your purpose
(with an objective)
I think we all understand the greater purpose of your practise (like “I need to practise to pass my 5th grade exam).
But setting specific objectives for your flute practise can help build sustained learning momentum.
Objectives differ from purpose in four ways
1. They're quick and easily measurable
Define what you want to be able to do by the end of your session. It makes reflecting over whether your practise was successful much easier.
2. They're manageable
Break a skill down to be achievable in your practise session.
(Even if its only a small part of a larger skill).
3. They come with mastery guidance
Have specific instructions on how to execute the skill.
(Regular lessons with a flute tutor can be a game changer)
4. They require planning ahead
When an objective is made before an activity, it guides you in deciding what is the best route to that goal.
Practise ‘bright spots
An obvious reason for practise is to become better at things we can’t do yet.
But it’s easy to get stuck into a negative ‘deficit mindset’, always focused on what you can’t do (yet).
One powerful and under-leveraged practise tool is to maximise your strengths, so that they overshadow some of your weaknesses.
Start to recognise the aspects of flute playing you are good at!
Practising bright spots in a group setting can also be particularly valuable as not every player shares the same strengths.
Having playing peers that can each demonstrate their own bright spots to other players is a great way to help everyone continue to strive for excellence, and learn too.
Differentiate ‘drill from scrimmage’
What’s the difference?
A drill deliberately distorts the setting in which a player will perform to isolate practising a skill intentionally and with maximum concentration.
Drills are a ‘dense’ technique for completing the most number of productive iterations per session. Its by this ‘rote’ repetitive learning we’ve discussed in the previous points, that we can encode success to become automatic in the fastest method possible.
A scrimmage is designed to replicate the complexity of the performance situation.
A scrimmage usually doesn’t allow you to go back and fix mistakes, but rather replicates key aspects of a performance’s flow, such as the sequence of events, the time frame allowed, the location you’ll play in, or the distractions you might face.
Their purposes differ as well - a drill focuses on skill development and a scrimmage on evaluation and final preparation.
A scrimmage is like a full dress rehearsal that answers the larger questions of “Am I performance ready?”
“Performing your skill when there's some unpredictability or pressure is the best indicator you've reached mastery"
Correct instead of critique
"You're doing it wrong"
Critique isn’t very helpful. Correction is.
Correction also means recognising the mistake. But the difference is going back and doing it again, doing it better, and doing it as soon as possible.
The body’s neural circuits can be reprogrammed quickly. Shortening the time between the wrong action, and then correcting to the right one will help to erase the error. Repeating that correct action several times will help to overwhelm the wrong memory with the right one.
Implementing feedback (whether its your own self-correction or that of a teacher or peer) and not just receiving feedback, helps the encoding process.
Old-fashioned practise - efficiently run, planned out and intentionally executed has the power to achieve great things in your flute playing.
There’s a common misconception that at some point we shouldn’t need to practice. That we eventually achieve a point of mastery that can’t be added to.
But the very best flute players recognise that habitual practise, approaching playing as a humble 'expert beginner' and being a dedicated life long learner are the keys to becoming not just good, but great.
Brilliant post Christie, and as always for me, your execution was perfect timing, as I just finished the Christmas concert, working on unlocking the mysteries of the new Spring Concert scores, and need to be sure I have a strong practice techniques working on the latest music as well as the ones I have been working on daily. Looking forward to a new year of encouragement and lessons from my favorite flute coach in 2020.
Loved this piece. Can’t wait to read your next blog 🙂
Alan, you’ve made my day 🙂 thank you for reading
Love this, please write more like this again in the future!
Candace E Behuniak
Your blog was brilliant! Your timing could not be more perfect! I am aware of the power of “muscle memory” and can’t learn enough to Practice daily. I agree, “It’s not Practice makes Perfect, It’s Practice Makes Permanent. I wish the best for you and your family. Your blog is brilliant! Looking forward to more in this new year, 2022, full of promise and endless possibilities.
Happy New Year,
Love to you Candace!!! xxx