Reading a New Piece

Where to start when taking a look at a piece for the first time? Obviously there are as many approaches as there are musicians, and different pieces call for different attention. For an example, let’s take a look at the Duos for Flute and Clarinet by Robert Muczynski. (I’ll be performing this with my clarinetist colleague in October.)

First, I do a quick flip through the score. I look for really big picture things like how many movements it has, the general tempo markings, whether each movement tends to look more lyrical or more technical, and so forth. This gives me an idea of the overall road map and usually alerts me to sections that will require more work than others. (Sometimes I’m wrong but I have to start somewhere.)

I focus on rhythm first. In my mind, I have a much stronger grasp on the piece if I have the rhythm scaffolding established, and then I can go back and fill in pitches. If I focus on pitches instead, it takes me much longer to get a piece worked up. It is true that I can’t always separate the pitches out but my main focus is the rhythm. To learn the rhythm, I count, tap it out, sing a syllable, conduct while counting or singing, or a combination of these. I usually am not playing my flute at this point. I go ahead and mark the spots where I am not able to immediately count it accurately. (If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s to avoid practicing mistakes.) I’ll focus in on those spots, incorporate them back into the larger context, and continue my rhythm work. I look for the patterns, which saves a lot of mental energy; I can just apply those already-learned rhythms when they reappear. I continue this analysis until I feel like the scaffolding of the piece is there.

Then, while still not playing flute, I take a look at the dynamic shaping, the phrases, the range, and whether those things coordinate or work against each other in some way. Often, when I’m a little further in the learning process, I will create a dynamic chart, where I map out the dynamics alone to see the big picture. This is especially helpful when working on the pacing of a piece.

After all of that is done, I pick up a flute and start playing pitches. I was never strong in ear training class, so I can’t always hear pitches in my head with complete accuracy; doing so isn’t efficient for me, so I use the flute to create those pitches. If I’ve gotten the rhythm relatively stable, the only things that might trip me up as I play through are awkward fingerings. If that’s the case, I work on those in tiny groupings until the unevenness is worked out. (I’m sure I have a blog post about that somewhere...) However, I am generally free to work on just pitches because I’ve established the rhythm already.

If I tried to work on everything all at once and move measure by measure, I would make very little progress. For me, dividing out the musical elements allows me to work efficiently and learn more music in less time.


Practice Tips

The following was a result of a handout I put together for a workshop. More detailed information can be found about these topics in separate blog posts on this site.


Establish a solid practice schedule: 

  • Actually block off time in your schedule designated specifically for practicing. Avoid using it for lunch, socializing, homework, errands, sleeping, and so forth. As a musician, practicing is part of your job, so treat it with professionalism. 
  • Write your designated practice time in your schedule. Enter it into your online planner. Make sure it ends up wherever you will see it until it becomes habit. 
  • Arrange your practice time for when you practice best. Some people love getting work done first thing in the morning before anyone else is around to be a distraction. Others work best late at night. Maybe right before or after lunch is when you’re most alert. Figure out when your most effective practice time is and make sure you schedule around that. A reasonable amount of focused practice is better than lots of unfocused practice. 
  • Your practice time doesn’t have to be one large block. Maybe you have 30 free minutes between classes early in the morning. That’s perfect for your warm-up! You can then schedule another practice session for technical work and repertoire, or you can split that work into two sessions. 

When approaching a new piece: 

  • Listen to a quality recording of the piece. Yes, this counts as practicing!
  • Do a quick run-through of the piece to get a feel for it and where the difficult parts are.
  • Actually write the tempos of each problem area in your music (in pencil) so you remember where you are the next time you practice. You will probably have different tempos for each difficult section of the work, but that’s ok. You’ll eventually work them all up to the same tempo. Don’t forget to update the tempo in your music after you’ve made progress.
  • In particularly difficult sections, it may be necessary to break your practice down into just 2 or 3 notes. This may seem too simple, but it’s a much more effective use of your practice time than simply running through the music and making little, if any, progress.
  • Save run-throughs. Start doing more of these as you approach a performance to get a feel for the work in its entirety and to start building endurance. It’s also helpful to do occasionally to assess how well your practice is going, but it’s simply not enough to be your sole practice strategy.

Handling especially difficult sections:

  • First, make sure you’re practicing slowly and with a metronome. Play it as slowly as needed so that you’re able to play the entire passage correctly. This may be half-speed or even slower. That’s ok; you’ll speed it up later.
  • Second, try playing the passage with different articulations. Try slurring the difficult passage, articulating it, slurring small and large groupings, and combining articulations and slurs.
  • Third, alter the rhythm of the passage. If the passage is made up of eighth notes, play a dotted eighth/sixteenth note pattern. Then reverse it and play a sixteenth note/dotted eighth note pattern.
  • Finally, try playing the passage backwards. This gives your brain and fingers a serious workout. Practice this section backwards until you can play it smoothly and comfortably.
  • Once you’ve practiced this difficult section with all of these changes, play it as written. Even after a short amount of practice, you should see considerable improvement.

How do you know when you’re improving?

  • Checking metronome markings. This is a pretty simple way to measure progress, especially in technical passages. 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.
  • Noticing an 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. Double-check it with your recording device.

Practicing Difficult Sections

What do you do when you’ve practiced that one difficult section over and over and over again, and it still isn’t right? It’s not fast enough, or smooth enough, or loud enough, or …

It can be really frustrating when you’re making an honest effort to improve but you aren’t seeing results.

Next time you find yourself stuck in this situation, try the following tips. You’re still practicing the same musical material, but you’re making your brain (and fingers) think about it in a different way.

First – make sure you’re practicing slowly with a metronome. Play it as slowly as needed so that you’re able to play the entire passage correctly. This may be half-speed or even slower. That’s ok; you’ll speed it up later.

Second – Try playing the passage with different articulations. Take a look at this measure taken from Robert Muczynski’s Sonata for Flute and Piano:

Instead of playing it as written, try articulating each note:

Then try slurring pairs of notes:

Then try slurring larger groups:

Finally, play it again as written.
Third – Alter the rhythm of the passage. Instead of straight eighth notes, play a dotted eighth-sixteenth note pattern:

Then try a sixteenth note-dotted eighth note pattern:

Finally – Try playing the passage backwards. This gives your brain and fingers a serious workout. Work on this section backwards until you can play it smoothly and comfortably.

Once you’ve practiced this section with all of these changes, play it as written. Even after a short amount of practice, you should see a considerable improvement.

Have you tried any of these tips? Let me know how they work!

B-flat options

I will readily admit that I’m a bit of a nut when it comes to playing B-flat on the flute. I’m always very deliberate when it comes to which fingering I choose for this note. It’s really important to make sure that you’re using the most advantageous fingering for the passage you’re playing to make sure your transitions between notes are smooth.

How many ways do we have to play B-flat, you ask? Excellent question!

There are three unique fingerings for B-flat:

1. Most beginning band books introduce this one:

Obviously, this works. However, I find myself using it only very rarely because it can be very awkward. Try playing from B-flat to G. Notice that you have to press down two keys with your left hand while simultaneously lifting the pointer finger of your right hand. Any time we have to lift fingers while pressing down other fingers, there is the very real possibility of not exactly coordinating them perfectly. This can result in a clunky transition, or even an unintentional wrong note between the two notes you intended to play. This might not be an issue when you’re playing slow music, but when you find yourself facing a fast passage, efficiency is everything.

2. The B-flat thumb option:

If you weren’t sure about that key to the left side of the thumb key, you’ve been missing out! Try playing B-flat, switching between the Band Book B-flat and the one using the B-flat thumb key. You shouldn’t notice any difference in pitch at all. (If you do, you might have a leak somewhere!) This is a legitimate fingering for B-flat, and it isn’t “cheating” at all. In fact, you can use this key for ANY note requiring the thumb key to be pressed, except for high F-sharp and B-naturals. This means that the B-flat thumb key is really handy to use in any piece that features a flat key signature. Try the same exercise as above, playing from B-flat to G. This time, use the B-flat thumb key. See how much easier that is?

3. The B-flat lever:

Ever wonder what that strange-looking key was to the left of your right index finger? That’s the B-flat lever, and it is incredibly handy in certain situations. You can use this in what are called prepared fingerings. It works well in chromatic scales and in the G-flat major scale and helps us avoid that unfortunate predicament of having to pick up fingers while simultaneously pressing others down.  Here’s how to use it in the G-flat scale: Play G-flat as usual. When playing the A-flat, use the standard A-flat fingering. However, go ahead and press down the B-flat lever at this time. It doesn’t affect the pitch at all. Then, when you lift the appropriate fingers to play B-flat, you only have to lift instead of having to also press down a key to play B-flat. Pressing down keys in anticipation of a note is what is called a prepared fingering. This might seem overly-complicated at first but once you work it into your technique, it does make things smoother.

Make sure you choose the correct B-flat fingering for the music! Playing more efficiently is always a laudable goal, so streamline your practicing by familiarizing yourself with all of your options.

* Fingering charts courtesy of the Fingering Diagram Builder by Dr. Bret Pimentel, Assistant Professor of Woodwinds at Delta State University and all-around nice guy. Check out his work (including fingering chart builders for the other woodwinds) at

Breaking down practice

To follow up on my last blog post, Practicing: run-throughs vs. small chunks, here are some ways to break down your practice to get more work done in less time. I’ve chosen an example from the Rubank Elementary Method for Flute, but these ideas apply to all music at all levels of difficulty.

Copyright by Rubank, Inc.

First things first: Check out the key signature and time signature. In this case, we’re in the key of G Major, so we have an F-sharp. (No B-flats here!) We’re in common time. These seem easy, right? It’s still important to take a look at these before starting, so you don’t play a B-flat in the first measure.

Next: Just scan the piece. What do you notice? I see three sections, which are offset by double bar lines. The first line of the piece is the first section. The second section includes the second line and one measure of the third line. The third section picks in the second measure of the third line and continues to the end of this example. It looks like the first section and the third section are quite similar. Why does that matter? Well, if you learn the first line, this means that you’ve also learned the majority of the last line. Now that’s pretty efficient!
Take special notice of how the two lines differ; there are only two notes that aren’t the same between those two lines.

What about the second section? How is this one different from the others? Well, the notes are faster. Instead of half notes and quarter notes, we primarily see quarter notes and eighth notes. Make sure you choose a tempo at the beginning that will allow you to play both the half notes as well as these later eighth notes comfortably. It’s no fun to pick a tempo that works well for the begining and then causes you to stumble when you later reach faster notes.

Other things to notice: What are the first three notes of this example? Right – it’s a G Major arpeggio. (Yes, this is why we have to learn scales and arpeggios!) If you’ve been practicing scales and arpeggios, your fingers will already know what to do at the beginning of this example. What happens after the arpeggio? We basically have notes taken from the G Major scale. We ascend to an E, and then descend stepwise to G and then go up a few notes to end on B. If you know your G Major scale, this is very easy. Look at the rest of the example to find areas that move stepwise and places where the line might be arpeggiated. If you have trouble with those jumps, mark them with a bracket to help you anticipate them.

Some final thoughts:

– There are no dynamics notated in this example. Otherwise, you would want to do a quick scan of the music to help you plan its dynamic shape.
– The form of music is made through repetition and contrast. Our ears crave both of these things. We like familiarity (the repetition), but we also get bored and require new sounds (the contrast). Realizing this concept will help you in your practice because you will find that lots of musical ideas are repeated throughout a piece, whether it’s from Rubank or a complex sonata. Instead of having to approach the entire piece like it is made up of new and completely different sections of music, you only have to learn it once and then apply those ideas the next time that section is encountered.
– After you’ve become acquainted with the example, you will want to introduce the metronome to your practice. This is just a quick look at how to start approaching a piece, so I haven’t included any metronome tips here.

What else do you notice about this example?