Intentional Fluting: To Practice or To Play
by James Brinkmann
James Brinkmann unites his passion for teaching and performing by creating interactive performances to strengthen the audience's connection with music. From playing in concert halls to jamming in the subways, he has performed for and collaborated with communities throughout North America, including the University of Utah, Michigan State University, Broad Museum Art Lab (MI), and Pan Harmonia (NC). He presented at the 2018 and 2019 National Flute Convention, University of Toronto Graduate Music Conference, and gave his TEDx Talk Collaborative Listening at TEDx DePaul University. His spontaneous performances in the Chicago subway stations and ideas about audience engagement were featured in the Chicago Tribune in August 2018.
I was recently asked in an interview, “how often do you practice?” I smiled and thought of the countless times I have been asked in my 18 years of playing, “do you practice every day? How many hours do you practice? What do you mean it is work... isn’t it your passion? You’re so talented, it must be easy and fun all the time, right?”
When I was younger, I occasionally felt annoyed by this constant questioning or worried about being judged by my answers. Over the years, these questions have sparked my curiosity about what practicing really means in my life and in our music world. Is it a job? Am I able to play without critiquing myself? Is it odd to be passionate about practicing? What if I don’t feel passionate about practicing? How much fun do I have with it? When do I have fun and what determines if I am having fun or not? There are so many questions that have led to a few existential flute crises, especially during and after college.
At this point in my life, I appreciate the asker’s curiosity as it invites me to reflect and share what I actually do with the hours I spend with my flute. Currently, as a teacher, performer, researcher, and graduate student, I approach these questions with a variety of experiences and perspectives. I help my students understand these concepts and determine how it relates to their goals while also considering my intentions every time I pick up the flute.
With much self-reflection and observation, I have simplified my understanding of solo flute sessions into two types, practicing and playing.
Practicing. This is focused work intended on developing technical skill sets, analyzing scores, listening to the pieces, and doing any other work toward the goal of improving one’s skills and expression as a musician.
Playing. This intentional time is spent making music for the pure reason to make music. It may include expressing oneself through specific music, playing favorite pieces, or sight-reading music out of curiosity.
These may seem obvious, but how often do we explore them and make our time with the flute intentional? What does practicing and playing mean for each of us? I invite you to take 5 minutes to reflect and write about what practicing and playing mean to you before you read on.
Here are the characteristics that define my ideal practicing and playing sessions.
- Motivation to improve whether internal (needed on some level!) and/or external (upcoming performance, lesson, audition, etc)
- Specific goals on what technical and musical elements to improve on that session
- Exercises and methods to improve on those goals
- Discipline and perseverance
- Critical listening skills
- Compassion for the mistakes that will be made
- Creative problem-solving mindset
- Tools for practicing include a metronome, tuner, pencil, mirror, etc.
- Gratitude for having music in my life to challenge me and help me grow
- I love the flute!! It is such a beautiful instrument!
- Desire to express, create, and/or discover
- Music that I love to play, feels representative of my mood at that moment or intrigues me
- Intention to be free in my playing
- Permission to keep playing and not judge regardless of what mistakes I make
- Permission to stop playing a piece and move on to another whenever I feel like it
- Gratitude for having music in my life as a way to express myself and be creative
How does that compare and contrast to your version? We will probably have some similarities and differences, and that is normal. It is important to understand our mindset around solo flute sessions so we can use our time meaningfully to be our best musical selves.
POTENTIAL BENEFITS AND PITFALLS
Practicing is a crucial part of my job as a performer which can make playing appear so frivolous. With all of the work to get done, who has time to just play!? Honestly, I don’t think we can afford not to have playing sessions. We need to make time for them. I find the problem is many musicians, including myself, float in between practicing and playing unintentionally and finish sessions without feeling fulfilled. I might be “practicing” but actually, I'm just running through sections without working to improve. I might be “playing” but in reality, I’m judging myself for technical mistakes, and this distracts me from enjoying music-making. I’m not advocating for bad habits, but if we can separate practicing and playing, there are potential benefits and pitfalls to both. In understanding what those are, we can bring awareness to our flute sessions and experience more musical fulfillment.
The benefits of practicing are pretty clear; the more you practice well, the more advanced your skills become. There is the saying, “there can be too much of a good thing.” If we only practice, we can lose sight of the bigger picture and our motivations for playing music can become solely achievement-based. In addition, our mental state can become highly affected by any mistakes that we make. Some frustration is a normal byproduct of the desire to create meaningful music; but if practice sessions become regularly unbearable and frustrating, this is a warning. Only having practice sessions can lead to mental breakdowns if we miss notes or didn’t have quite the “right” tone color because we practiced to be “perfect.” It can lead to perfectionism and burnout. However, if managed well, thoughtful practicing can improve your technical and analytical skill levels while also giving you confidence in your abilities. You will be able to explore so much music that the world has to offer, especially when in playing sessions or performance. While the work is challenging, there is so much joy and motivation to be experienced in thoughtful practice.
Playing benefits us by keeping our relationship with music and the flute healthy. It eases the pressure and seriousness of what we do, which can make our time creating music more enjoyable. However, only playing with no improvement has its own set of issues. Being free to play all the time may seem like a utopia, but we need to challenge ourselves; otherwise, our playing starts to sound bland because we sound the same every day. We can actually start to lose joy when we only play but don’t grow. Part of being human is an innate curiosity and desire to improve. Without time to focus on improving skills through practice, frustration can arise when wanting to play harder music. Yet, when balanced with practicing, our playing sessions can use our advancing skills to explore our creativity and how we, as individuals, express musical ideas. Playing can bring us joy and deepen our connection to the flute and music.
Finding a balance between the two is like climbing a mountain, which can feel daunting - but don’t let the struggle discourage you. Practice is climbing the mountain and playing is stopping to enjoy the view. Both are necessary for a well-rounded, fulfilling journey. Practicing will help you express more in your playing, and playing will help inspire you to keep practicing. Music will never get old if we are curious about our potential, aware of our musical needs, and intentional with our flute sessions.
No one will have the exact same balance, and our personal balances will shift as our goals change over time. Here are some steps I have found that bring awareness to how my flute sessions are helping me toward my goals.
Step 1: Understand your current balance. Log the amount of practicing versus playing in your individual flute sessions over 7 days. Ask yourself, “what is my current relationship with the flute and music? Am I feeling creative and expressive? Am I challenging myself?”
Step 2: Reflect and Define your goals and how you want to relate to your flute.
Step 3: Compare your balance of practicing and playing (Step 1) with your goals (Step 2).
Step 4: Develop a habit of entering your flute sessions with an intention. If you discover your balance and goals don’t line up, be kind to yourself. It’s great that you have gained that awareness! Take one week and for each session or portion of a session, decide whether or not you want it to be a practice session or a playing session. After, reflect on if those intentional sessions helped you toward your goals. Continue to make changes.
Through teaching a wide range of students, I have found a conversation of these ideas to be extremely beneficial to have with students of all ages, skill levels, and goals. I recommend the conversation start out of curiosity, not judgment, with the difference between the two types of sessions and how much practicing and playing the student did that week. This can be eye-opening by informing the teacher what the long term goals are of the student and how to be most helpful to them.
HOW OFTEN DO I PRACTICE?
So, back to the original question… I spend time with my flute practically every day. Each day, my sessions vary in how much is playing versus practicing. Some days are just playing and some are just practicing, but most days have both. It depends on my current goals, performances, and personal needs. I practice 5-7 days a week, and I play 4-7 days a week. On average, about 70% of my time is practicing and 30% is playing. More importantly, the common element is that I try to have strong intentions whenever I do play the flute. In the end, I find joy and fulfillment in both practicing AND playing, and I hope you do too.