The Caffeinated Flutist, Vol. 14: How to Practice Orchestral Excerpts

By Mary Hales

Hey there, flute-trepreneurs!

If you read my blog, you’ll know I’ve talked a lot about different excerpts on there, and I’ve passed along some of my tips for practicing specific ones. But there’s one particular aspect of really practicing excerpts I’ve only discussed briefly, and that I think we should think more about in our practicing.

I had a conversation with a non-flutist colleague a while back about this topic that gave me the idea to write about it; I’ve been thinking about his words since we had the discussion back in early February. This is what he said:

“So many people strive to be perfect performers. That doesn’t make you a good musician. It makes you a proficient technician. Good musicians possess multiple skills, know rep that’s beyond the standard, have an interpretive position for all the music they perform. And you can be a great musician and a bad performer. Being a good performer goes beyond being a good musician - it means knowing how to communicate with an audience, how to connect your art with a listener.”

I think he makes a really good and relevant point - there’s a difference between refining your technique to the point of being a robotic player and having a technique that meets the professional mark while still infusing your work with artistry. I think we see this the most with orchestral excerpts, simply because they’re some of the most universally practiced pieces in our repertoire - and because, in an audition, you only have one shot to play everything perfectly. As a result, we get so hyper-focused on our technique that we can sometimes forget about the interpretive and performance aspect of excerpts.

So let’s talk about how to practice excerpts in a way that maintains our artistic integrity while also achieving the high technical standard required of professional flutists today. Some of these are things Prof. Dade and I have been working on in my playing since day one, others are things I've thought about only recently, but I want to discuss them all.

1. Think about phrasing at every step of your process. When I got to graduate school, I was a good technician, but not necessarily the performer I wanted to be. One of my problems was that I would start practicing slowly and have such a single-minded focus on getting the technique right that I wouldn’t think at all about musicality, phrasing, or character. This is something that's definitely easier said than done, especially with excerpts like Firebird or Volière that are such technical monsters, but it’s always important to remember to find the line in any excerpt or piece.


2. Don’t play something faster than you can play it perfectly. This is an old adage, but it’s an old adage for a reason - because it’s true, as I’m sure we all know! It usually gets applied to technical practice, but it can apply to the practice of artistry as well. Don’t play something faster than you can play the technique perfectly, OR faster than you can phrase beautifully and with intention.


3. Listen to professional recordings. Living in the digital age is really a wonderful thing for us as musicians - we have a host of professional recordings and online masterclasses by the world’s best artists at our fingertips. When I first started working on the Liebermann Sonata for my recital, I found a video of a masterclass taught by Emmanuel Pahud, and I watched the whole thing multiple times for his insight into the piece. Professional performance recordings are also a great tool; you can hear how the professionals make difficult technique sound like art in a matter of a few clicks. Why wouldn’t we take advantage of such a resource?


4. Don’t be afraid to ask for help or coaching. This point sort of goes back to my philosophy that as colleagues, we need to look out for and help one another in the professional world, not withhold our knowledge and tear each other down in order to be successful. Lots of folks around in our world are private teachers, and probably a majority of them will have some orchestral or auditioning experience. Ask around on the Internet or around your flutist friends about how you might be able to find a teacher or coach within your budget. I think that every day when we have the choice to present what we have for the benefit of our colleagues, we should always choose the route that involves helping each other and aiding each other to succeed.


5. Don’t forget to bring your own interpretation to the table. One of the most important things you can do as a musician is developing your own artistic interpretation of the music to bring to the table - it’s part of what makes you unique in the sea of flutists out there. It can be similar to someone else’s - after all, we all take influence from some number of flutists or another - but be sure to really make it your own. Don’t be ashamed to own your playing and your belief in your artistry. Play with the technique you’ve grown, and you will absolutely have a spectacular performance!

That's all for now, folks! Until next time!


Flutist Mary Hales is a native of Conway, Arkansas, currently studying under Alice K. Dade at the University of Missouri School of Music for her Masters in Flute Performance. Follow more of her writing at; find her on social media with the handle @maryhalesflute.

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