Practicing: measuring progress

After reading Dr. Noa Kageyama’s excellent article on how much musicians should practice (“How Many Hours a Day Should You Practice?,, the question occurred to me: besides measuring quantity when it comes to practicing, how do we measure the quality of our practice? Dr. Kageyama begins to address this in his article. He makes the distinction between mindless and deliberate practicing. Obviously, we want to aim for deliberate practicing.

But, practically speaking, what does that mean?

I don’t claim to have a perfect system at this point, but here are some initial thoughts:

– Breakthrough days: These are perfect practice days. You discover that you’ve nailed that really technically difficult passage. Your etudes are flawless. Your technical warm-up is a breeze. Your tone is beautiful. Sadly, these days are few and far between. It’s easy to measure your progress on these days because you’ve mastered music that previously was a challenge.

Otherwise, if the stars and planets haven’t aligned to create the conditions for a breakthrough day:

– Metronome markings: This is a pretty simple way to measure progress, especially in technical repertoire passages, etudes, or technical studies. Being able to play something a few clicks faster than you could at the beginning of your practice session is a pretty good indication of progress.

– Being able to play longer passages in a work: Maybe you could play only small portions of a work previously. Maybe you could only make it through one movement before you felt fatigued or lost focus. Suddenly, you can make it through the entire piece successfully. This is a positive sign, especially if you are getting close to a recital date.

– Improvement in tone quality: This issue becomes more subjective. Recording yourself, an eye-opening experience, is a great way to hear what your audience is hearing. The sound from the performer’s side of the instrument can be vastly different from what the sound is by the time it reaches the audience. Maybe you’ve been working on tone and you *think* it’s clearer, more resonant, more focused, and so on. Check it with your recording device.

There are so many other aspects of our playing that are difficult, if not impossible, to measure. Tone color, phrasing, and rubato come to mind. How do we measure progress here? Is it simply enough to put in the practice time and wait for the next breakthrough day?

Comments welcome!

Basic flute maintenance

Basic flute maintenance
(from the flutist’s perspective)

Having taught flute for fourteen years now, I’ve taught a lot of folks. I’ve decided to compile a basic maintenance checklist for flute students. I’ve found that, usually, each student has a few habits that could cause damage to their instrument. Any damage is going to adversely affect your ability to play the flute and could potentially be costly to repair.

Now let me clearly define some limits to this advice: I am not a flute technician. I do not adjust screws, switch out pads, fix leaks, or replace cork. I don’t even adjust the cork in the crown of my own flute. The flute is a complex instrument, and I’m just not comfortable (or qualified!) enough to make any kind of adjustment. I’ll pop a spring back into place but that’s the extent of it. So the following advice is for normal, every day maintenance. Have a question about something that isn’t listed below? Feel free to ask!

– When you put the flute together, make sure that you’re assembling it so that the pieces are parallel. If you try to slide the pieces together at an angle, it can bend the metal of either part. Ever seen a foot joint fall off a flute during a concert? This could be the reason why.

– Cork grease has no place in your life. Ever.

– Make sure you clean your flute out after every practice session. Moisture is bad for the instrument. If you have a metal cleaning rod, make sure it doesn’t scrape against the inside of the instrument by wrapping the entire length of the cleaning rod with a soft cloth.

– When you clean the outside of your flute, I prefer for students to use a clean cloth with no polish. Specially-treated cloths that contain a polish are available, but I find that the polish usually ends up getting all over the pads. You should be careful that you don’t rub the pads when you’re cleaning the outside of your flute because it will eventually fray or tear them.

– Concerning the cork in the crown of your flute: you might have to adjust this once or twice in your middle and high school career. This is not a normal part of your tuning process. If you find that the crown of your flute spins freely, this means that the cork has dried out and needs to be replaced.

– If you have sticky pads, it usually means that they’re dirty. To prevent this in the future, make sure you rinse your mouth before playing, and never play with gum or candy in your mouth. Some people like to take a dollar bill, slide it under the offending sticky pad, press the key down, and yank the dollar bill out. Please don’t do this for a couple of reasons. First, the dollar bill is filthy. Secondly, if you pull the dollar while the key is pressed, you run the risk of dislodging the pad. Instead, use an absorbent paper to clean the pad. Some music shops sell specially-made papers, or you can use cigarette-rolling papers. Gently (!) press the key down with the paper under the key, and then release the key and take the paper out. Avoid yanking it out while the key is pressed.

– If a key (not a pad) is sticking, or slow to return to its usual position after you’ve pressed it down, it might be that your mechanism is gunky. This doesn’t mean you’re a bad person; it just means that you probably should have the instrument cleaned. This isn’t something you can do yourself but it needs to be done every once in a while.

– Please don’t leave your flute on the music stand or in a chair. Invariably, someone will knock it over or sit on it. Every little dent can cause a difference in your sound.

– Avoid storing your cleaning cloth and other materials (like pencils) in your flute case. Your case is designed to only hold your flute. If you try to fit other things in there, they can end up damaging your flute.

Summer Practice

For me, the summer means working on flute technique. With a substantially pared-down teaching schedule, I transfer the time I would normally spend driving, preparing lectures, and grading exams into practice time. And while I do explore repertoire during this time, I primarily focus on technique. I normally don’t have recitals scheduled until the middle of fall semester or later, so my repertoire practice is limited so I don’t wear those pieces out.

So what do I practice? I keep a lot the same from summer to summer while adding in some new. Lots of Taffanel and Gaubert. I try to play through T&G once a day. Ok, maybe five days a week. It’s a lot of work, and it’s intense. No – I don’t play every single articulation pattern every day. Those are alternated throughout the week. It’s still a good technical kick in the pants.

I’ve also started playing Moyse’s Daily Exercises for the Flute. I try to stay a little more reasonable with this one; I follow the prescribed practice schedule outlined in the front of the book. It’s still a good workout.

This summer, I’m looking at the Jean-Michel Damase 24 Etudes book. I’ve played through a few of these before, but never the entire book. I’m not exactly going in order; yesterday I looked at number 20 and finished it up this morning. This afternoon, I’m looking at number 19. So far, the two are fairly similar. There’s a lot of double-tonguing and patterns that don’t quite match up with nice, clean double-tonguing patterns. There are also the occasional chromatic run and runs that are mostly chromatic but include just enough non-chromatic pitches to cause trouble. It isn’t a huge challenge, but I’m not sight-reading them perfectly, either. If these etudes prove to be very similar to each other, I might throw in the Piazzolla tango etudes for variety.

Flute ensemble thoughts

I recently had the opportunity to be on the committee that judged the flute choir portion of the National Flute Association’s Newly Published Music Competition. This competition includes several categories: solo flute, flute and keyboard, flute and guitar, flute and tape, flute choir, and flute plus one to three non-keyboard instruments. It also includes pedagogical works. The only requirements are that the works are published in the past year. It is primarily a competition for the actual publisher (not the composer); to that end, we consider things such as the overall layout of the score, whether page turns are placed reasonably, and the legibility of the score, as well as “music stuff,” such as the way parts are divided and balanced.

It was an interesting experience, and I’m glad I got to take part in it. It’s not every day that you see a score calling for sub-contrabass flute! It also helped me get into the flute choir frame of mind. I will be starting a flute ensemble in the fall, and I’m already searching for music that will work. (Kuhlau, anyone?) I plan to include a lot of traditional, standard ensemble literature but will supplement liberally with new sounds. It will also be a great opportunity for the students to get in some more performance practice!


Beryl Rubinstein Sonata for Flute and Piano

My latest music acquisition is the Sonata for Flute and Piano by Beryl Rubinstein (1898 – 1952).  I have only a passing knowledge of this work.  I have never heard it performed live and have heard it only on Jeffery Khaner’s American music recoring.  I became interested in the work after learning that Rubinstein can be considered a composer from the American south, which is one of my research interests.  He was born in Athens, Georgia, but ended up travelling quite extensively due to opportunities afforded him by his talent as a pianist. He performed in New York City as a teenager and then studied in Germany.

His biggest legacy may be his connection to the Cleveland Institute of Music, where he taught beginning in 1921.  He became director of the school in 1932.  After a short stint with the U.S. Army during World War II, he returned to Cleveland and expanded the Institute considerably.

While his connection to Athens may seem tangential at best, he did travel back to his hometown shortly before his death in 1952.  He was a contemporary of Hugh Hodgson (who was involved with establishing the music department at the University of Georgia in 1928) and gave a recital during his return visit to Athens, which included his own works for piano.  (His piano works are perhaps the most commonly-known portion of his oeuvre.)

Another Georgia connection is between Rubinstein and the famed conductor Robert Shaw.  After Rubinstein’s death, Cleveland Institute alum Hale Smith composed a work in his memory.  It was recorded by the Kulas Choir and Chamber Orchestra in 1964, under the direction of Robert Shaw.  At that time Shaw was associate conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, but a few short years later he would would take over as music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra; he held this position until 1988.

Rubinstein’s sonata is currently out of print.  The nice folks at the music library of the Cleveland Institute of Music are happy to make you a copy for a small fee.



New Joan Tower music!

I was interested to read that Joan Tower has written a brand new flute piece.  According to an email I received from her a couple of weeks ago, the work For Marianne was written for the retiring Executive Director of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, Marianne Lockwood.  It’s a five minute work, and Tower is currently in the process of editing it.  It’s written for solo flute and was premiered in Spring 2010.  The New York Times review is favorable, saying that Tower “avoids the unprepared leaps, extreme angularity, multiphonics and other Modernist touches that can make contemporary flute works sound strident.  Instead she draws on traditional techniques to fill out the texture.  Swirling figures and trilled melodies, for example, give parts of the score the illusion of an almost chordal sound.”  My attention is drawn to the phrases “swirling figures” and “trilled melodies,” which sound characteristically Tower-esque.  The piece should be available through Schirmer after February, and I’m looking forward to taking a look at it (even if it does render the Appendix of my relatively-new dissertation out-of-date!).


Concert Dress (for the Audience!)

So many students ask me about proper concert etiquette.  If you’ve never been to a classical concert before, I can understand your anxiety.  Probably you’ve been to a popular music concert, so let’s start there.  What’s the appropriate dress for a popular music concert?  It depends.  You probably wouldn’t wear cowboy boots to a Green Day concert.  On the other hand, guys probably won’t wear eyeliner and a Marilyn Manson t-shirt to a George Strait concert.  These are typical concert conventions, and I think we can all accept them as generally true.  Let’s apply these same ideas to a classical music concert.

Say your professor has given you an assignment to write a paper about a classical concert, and you’ve never been to this type of concert before.  Or maybe you have, but it’s been a while.  Before you open your closet, consider a few things.  If you’re attending a concert sponsored by your college, you’re probabaly appropriately dressed right now.  Since these concerts are held on campus, they tend to be somewhat more relaxed than you might imagine.  I wouldn’t recommend wearing sweat pants, but if you’re wearing jeans, you’ll be in good company.

For a more formal concert, which might include an orchestra concert, you’ll probably need to pay a little more attention to your attire.  Even here, you’ll witness a fairly wide variety of dress.  A Sunday afternoon orchestra concert will most likely be full of people in business casual.  A few might wear jeans, but they will be in the minority.  The opening night concert of the season is the most formal night of the year; on this occasion, there will be people dressed formally, but it isn’t required.

If you decide to attend an opera production, the attire is much like that for an orchestra concert.  The opening night is the most formal in terms of dress, and there will be people in tuxedos and cocktail dresses.  However, you’re free to wear whatever you’re most comfortable in.

One more point to consider — most likely, the performers will be dressed more formally than you will be.  Even if you attend an informal concert on campus, the musicians will be wearing tuxedos, black dresses, or formal gowns.  Please don’t assume that, because they’re dressed formally, you should be too.


An Introduction to Music Appreciation

If you’re reading this particular post, you’re most likely a student of mine, in some capacity.  This blog is for you.  The purpose of it is to add an additional perspective to the material we cover in class.  Some of it is to help clarify lecture topics, and some of it is to give you ideas — about classical music, popular music, the fusion of the two, composers, trends, instruments, technology, and so forth.  Enjoy!

So where do you fit into class?  As is the case in most classes, I’d wager, my students fall into three categories: those for whom the class is moving at the right pace, those who are more advanced, and those who are struggling with some aspect of the class.  These differences can be intimidating in a music class because, hey — it’s music!  The vast majority of us listen to music every day.  How hard can it be, right?  Those with no prior musical experience approach all the new vocabulary with trepidation.  Polyphony?  Counterpoint?  Dissonance?  What?!  These words are part of a new layer of musical knowledge that can provide a deeper level of appreciation and enjoyment of the music that you listen to every day.  Students who are inexperienced with this vocabulary can also be really intimidating by those students who have been playing an instrument for a while.

Those of you who have musical experience — great!  You have a great background from which to work.  However, let me offer a word of caution.  In my experience, most of you with prior knowledge of music have been either in band or orchestra in school.  A smaller percentage of you have your own bands and play something like guitar or drums.  Either way, I’ll bet you that your middle school band director never used the term “tintinnabulation” in class.  Not his fault — these advanced terms just aren’t generally necessary in middle and high school.  There’s a lot more information that we’re going to cover in class, so please keep an open mind, apply your prior knowledge to the new information, and never assume that there’s nothing more to learn.

If you’re cruising right along and feel like class is moving at the right pace, you’re most likely in the majority.  You can still profit from this blog, though.  If you’re enjoying the class and want to learn more about music, this is a great place to come for some new ideas.