Creating and Refining Better Habits in Your Practice Room by Rena Urso

After a relaxing break over the holiday season, I’ve returned to my practice room with renewed inspiration, enthusiasm and creativity.  Breaks are great that way.  Although the first few days back might not feel or sound the way it did before the break, it’s essential we give our bodies and our brains a rest.  Actually, for me, the first day back is usually quite good; I tell myself how awesome I sound and that despite the time off, I’ve never felt (sounded) better.  Then, the next day comes and it’s a different story.  Sometimes if we’re not careful, these are the moments when tension can set in; we’re not 100% pleased with what we hear, and we try to muscle our way back into shape.  Here’s the thing; we’re never as out of shape as we think we are.

Like many of you, my go to practice routine includes the usual suspects: long tones, technical studies and lots of études.  Étude of the week?  It’s not uncommon for me to go through a whole opus of Andersen études in one or two days. Creativity is key; sometimes I do every other one on piccolo, find the hidden (or not so hidden) melodies and go overboard bringing them out, or see how many different ways I can play each one.  I’ve been doing this Andersen review for nearly my whole flute playing life.  My high school flute teacher, Robert Patrick, got me in the habit doing that early on.  Of course back then I saw it as some kind of cruel punishment whenever he’d remind me about the importance and value in reviewing past études.  I mean seriously, I didn’t like them the first time through and now I have to do them again!?!  He couldn’t be serious!  Fast forward a few years, my next teacher Clem Barone suggesting the exact same thing.  I finally caved: revisiting Andersen études quickly became a new habit for me.  Both Patrick and Barone regularly stressed the importance of Andersen études; both were Kincaid students and had to play their Andersen from memory, week after week while students at Curtis.  In fact, Patrick would quiz me on them from time to time. With the book closed, he’d ask me to play a bit from this key or that, from this opus or the previous opus.  As a high school student, that was pure torture.  Now, I am grateful to have had that.

So, as you ring in 2019 and get yourself back in tip top shape, here are a handful of helpful thoughts to take along with you into your practice room:

1. Learn to love it. All of it. You might consider revisiting pieces you’ve avoided for whatever reason, and just play, with ease, an open mind, and renewed enthusiasm.  Be creative and try to enjoy this process of rolling up your sleeves and getting back to it.

2. When it comes to études, review them for life.  Not an étude fan?  The new year is a great time to hop on board the Étude of the Week train and become a fan. Again, be creative and challenge yourself to see how many different ways you can play these.  Allow yourself to color outside the lines a little bit.  Odds are you’ve improved significantly since the last time you worked them up and maybe you’ll be able to play them faster or with more fluidity in your technique this time around.  Perhaps you’ll be able to lose a few of those extra breath marks that you no longer need.  Maybe you’ve gained more flexibility and can play those large intervals more seamlessly.  And, always remember to mine for the melodies. They’re in there.  Bring them out.

3.  And for that matter, play your études on piccolo.  The new year is a popular time to set new goals, how about spending more time with your piccolo?  You’ll notice a marked improvement if you add études to your daily piccolo practice regime.

4. Approach your tone and technical studies with the same attention to detail, mature musicality, consistency of tone throughout the range of your instrument, fluidity in technique, and well planned breaths that you would your solo repertoire.  Let each thing take you to the next and connect them all like a string of lights…breathing…tone…technique…études…solo repertoire…orchestral excerpts…

5. Work at becoming more process oriented instead of outcome oriented. Yes, of course you can set goals, but can you focus on the process, the how/when/where/why of your practice?

6. Practice in small increments of time. Your mind and body will thank you for this. We shouldn’t sit down and hammer away at things for hours at a time without breaks. Shorter practice sessions will keep your mind fresh and prevent injury.  Create time your day for 10-20 minutes of Constructive Rest.  It’s so important to give your body a chance to reset, and horizontal, semi-supine floor time is exactly what we all need after all time time we spend upright or sitting in lousy chairs.  CR will help you discover the S curves of your spine and your head/spine relationship.

Notice when you are gripping your flute, holding your air, over using your abdominal muscles, locking your knees, and creating unwanted tension. In those moments, can you set your flute down, take a moment to note what is happening and then hit the reset button and try again? (This would be an excellent time for CR, btw!)

7. Awareness without judgement is key. Always be aware of what you’re doing in your practice, fix what needs fixing, and do your best to avoid the harsh judgement and self talk.

One of my favorite Yogi tea bag pearls of wisdom said it beautifully:

a relaxed mind is a creative mind.

Happy New Year and have fun!


Rena Urso is a member of the faculties at California State University Long Beach and California State University Stanislaus and a Course Coordinator for California State University Summer Arts.  As a licensed Andover Educator, she presents Body Mapping workshops all over the world.  An active California based freelance musician, Rena is also a member of the Oakland Symphony and San Francisco Opera Center Orchestra.  She enjoys balancing her time between her homes in the Chicago area and California’s Central Valley with her fiancé John and their beagle Lillie.  For more information and Body Mapping tips, please visit www.renaurso.com

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