Many students, who seem to have an abundance of school work these days, often ask me how much time they should spend on practising and what they should practise. There are many different answers to this question of course. Most importantly, practice should be a matter of quality rather than quantity. Mindful, planned and thorough practice should be encouraged over doing many hours a day. In the very first flute class at RAM, we were told “you should be doing at least 4 hours a day”. I don’t think any of us had done so until that point, so we all looked pretty dumbfounded. It was perhaps said with good intentions to make us work hard. However, quite a few people later developed tendonitis and other pains due to over-use or misuse of their bodies during practice. When the esteemed French flautist Maxence Larrieu came to give a class and said he hardly ever does more than 2 hours, we all breathed a sigh of relief! “Well, if he can play like that with just 2 hours practice a day, so can we!”, we thought.
But Larrieu is extremely gifted and probably has a very developed practice regimen. Hard work is also important – as Edison said, “There is no substitute for hard work”. Hard work doesn’t necessarily mean 4 hours a day.
So one needs to find a balance. Technique of the fingers and coordination with the tongue take up a lot of time, but I believe this can be done in half the time if approached intelligently and with a good map of your body. Knowing how the fingers work, where the joints are, how the muscles support movement etc is just as important as playing scales in 6ths for an hour. Sadly, a lot of colleges don’t make Alexander Technique or Body Mapping compulsory. So find a teacher and take a few lessons if you can!
Using one’s ears and constantly training them is essential for progress. If you’ve done 4 hours without a break, it’s probably the case that you have switched off your ears and brain and practise has become robotic. This leads to bad habits and lifeless playing. If I’m practising without knowing why, I always stop and take a break. One should have a clear reason why they are practising in order to get the most out of their time, for example “I want this diminuendo to finish beautifully without going flat”.. Or “I want this 2 octave leap to sound effortless”. It shouldn’t be “I need to do 2 more hours on this excerpt”.
Additionally, practising in front of a mirror, recording oneself and taking regular breaks are definitely things I encourage.
As for a general practice routine, here’s my plan when I have time. To avoid boredom, I try to be creative with warm ups and tone exercises. Check out Paul Edmund Davies’ site www.simplyflute.com for ideas.
1. Warm up
Stretches and a brisk walk or run.
Flute: whistle tones, harmonics, pitch bending, singing & playing
2. Scales- Taffanel & Gaubert (one EJ), Moyse 480 exercises(one line) and daily exercises. Including different articulations and characters.
3. Tone exercises and vocalises I learnt with Wibb and Lorna (using sonority, tone development through interpretation, 24 studies etc)
4. Repertoire (solo and orchestral) and études (Andersen, Boehm, Moyse etc)
5. Cool down exercises. Similar to warm up.
If time is very short, I leave out repertoire and études and just practise bits that I need to after a good warm up and scales.
Student days are the best time to get a lot of work done – enjoy improving and the process of practice rather than simply “achieving goals”. But always do it with care and mindfulness. If you feel pain, put your flute down and do work away from the instrument (see previous blog!)
Thanks for reading and happy fluting!