Hints for Effective Practice
Saturday, February 15, 2020 by Marcie Monaco | Practice Tips
Many students genuinely want to know how to play an instrument, but they struggle with the discipline that comes with daily practicing. Learning how to practice is a skill in itself, so I’d like to share some ideas with you for efficient and effective practice.
I am frequently asked, “How long should I practice?” and the answer to that is, “How good to you want to be?” For the average beginning flute student, 30 minutes a day is a good number to really become comfortable reading and playing all the new notes on the instrument and keeping up with your musical peers. I recommend *upgrading* your lessons and practice sessions to an hour as soon as you are comfortable doing so, usually after the first year of lessons. Also, 6 solid days of practice a week is a good goal.
First, try to enter your practice session with the right frame of mind. Remember that EVERY SINGLE TIME YOU PRACTICE, YOU ARE IMPROVING AS A MUSICIAN, and those daily sessions add up week-by-week, and month-by-month. It’s essential to remain focused by keeping away from potential distractions (e.g., TV or computer).
It’s a good idea to begin each session by reading through the notes in your flute notebook, so you know which concepts you should be focusing on while you practice, not just which pieces and scales, but which problem areas need polishing. You may have noticed that there are several sections in your notebook related to musicianship or posture, for example. Take a few minutes and re-write the notes from the assignment section into the relevant notebook section. Re-writing will help you solidify the concepts, and by organizing everything, it will be easy to refer back if you ever have a question later (“What’s the difference between a trill and a tremolo?” “How can I slur up an octave?”)
Beginners (First 6 months-1 year): Usually, beginner practice consists of long tones and short pieces from method books. For beginning students, it’s important to play long tones for as long as they can be held to develop embouchure strength and breath support. I have beginning students practice their pieces 3 times a day. Play them as slow as you need to without making mistakes. If you have to play them ridiculously slow, that’s ok!!! That might mean that you play them 2 times a day the first few days of practice and 4 times a day the last couple of days of the week. You should be playing through them fluently in a week.
Beginner Practice Breakdown
Long Tones: 5 minutes, Band music: 10-15 minutes, Flute music: 15-20 minutes
(Then 10 minutes of scales once we start adding that in.)
Warmup-play a short, simple, pretty song (of the student’s choice) to wake up the lips, lungs, and fingers.
Long Tones-It’s crucial to keep practicing long tones even as your tone develops. It will help foster breath support and even out your tone because you want your C# to sound the same as your D and your high notes to have the same tone quality as your low notes.
Scales-The difference between the strong musicians and the mediocre musicians is that the strong musicians know their scales. Western music is based largely on scale and arpeggio patterns, so if you learn those solidly, you’ll be able to play anything.
Etudes-It becomes important to incorporate etudes into practice sessions once a student has reached a certain level of proficiency. Each etude is written with a problem specific to the flute in mind, and in learning to overcome those problems, you become a stronger player.
Technique and other studies- Technical studies are often (though not always) built upon scale and arpeggio combinations. They are designed to increase your finger speed. There are also very specific studies written JUST for articulation, dynamic control, trills, vibrato, etc., that it's important to spend time cultivating.
Repertoire- I typically assign one challenging piece and one (or more) easy pieces throughout the course of a week. This way, we have something simple to keep the interest going and work on basic concepts, and we have a big goal to stretch and strive towards as well. I usually assign repertoire from contrasting musical periods, so we get a chance to explore performance practices and stylistic differences from different eras.
Additional skills- More advanced flutists will need to set aside time to practice contemporary techniques (flutter tonguing, whisper tones, etc.), piccolo, improvisation, and orchestral excerpts.
Intermediate/Advanced Practice Breakdown(assuming 1-hour practice):
Warm-up: 3 minutes, Long Tones: 5-10 minutes, Scales, Etudes and/or Technique: 20 minutes*, Band music: 10 minutes, Flute repertoire: 20 minutes
*(I usually assign only 2 out of 3 in a week: scales, technique, and/or and etude for intermediate students),
-Of course, the practice schedule makes a lot of assumptions, and will often need to be adjusted depending on circumstances.
1. Practicing 5-7 days for a shorter amount of time is much more effective than practicing only 2-3 days for a longer period.
2. Mix it up. Sit down. Stand up. Walk around the room to avoid tension. Just don’t trip over anything or run into the wall!
3. I have entire books on practicing in my music library at home. You are all more than welcome to borrow any of them (or any title in my library) if you would like more in-depth information.
Note to parents: As a parent of children who take music lessons, I’m not above bribing my children. For every 30 minutes they practice their instrument, read a book (also 30 minutes), and do some sort of physical activity for 30 minutes (e.g. playing outside, riding a bike, Cosmic kids yoga video on YouTube), they earn 1 hour of computer time. If they want to earn more computer time, they have to practice, read, and move yet again. And it goes without saying that homework and chores are required as well. We also have other incentives at home, like the “100 Day Practice Challenge,” where everyone *gets* to practice 100 days in a row, the “Major Scales Challenge” where all the kids learn their major scales together, and the “One-Thousand Minute Practice Challenge” where everyone practices 1000 minutes in one month (or two weeks, even). Everyone in the house who completes these challenges gets a trip to the local toy store for a reward. We use printables like this
to keep track.