Practicing During a Pandemic

by Dennis Rendleman

This year has certainly been filled to the brim with challenges and hardships. While in the midst of such a major pandemic, the negatives have developed into the norm. With each day running to the next, it is often difficult to find the motivation to be productive. As musicians, we all love to think that music should naturally be a part of our daily lives. However, the last few months have been very revealing into the underlying forces that constitute a productive musician. The purpose of this article is not to belittle the pandemic or slight those we have lost to COVID-19, but rather to highlight the positive as a means of self-exploration, self-growth, and self-care. 

1 Positive Thing a Day

In a time where every new day brings a new set of challenges, it is paramount that we make time for self-care. Once seen as unusual, it is no longer uncommon to found ourselves spending multiple days inside the house. While the initial quarantine yielded some much-needed rest and relaxation, these feelings eventually evolved into a palpable craving for interpersonal interaction. The basic interactions we have others often provide us with sparks of internal motivation throughout each day. 

Self-Care

I have found that reflecting on one positive thing at the end of each day can be really healing. This could be anything that brought joy throughout the day. For example, it could be that you went on a walk and it was beautiful outside, or maybe you had your favorite cereal for breakfast, it could even be that you heard one of your favorite songs on the radio. The criteria are quite broad because the overall purpose of this habit is to build a more positive outlook on life. Optimism is an extremely powerful tool during times of hardship. 

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There is one specific analogy that exemplifies why it is so important that we reserve time for self-care. Many of us have been on an airplane at some point in our lives. After everyone has boarded, stowed their bags away in the overhead storage units, and taken their seat, the flight attendants take the stage with an important PSA. The safety speech and demonstration contains a very important line that people often pay little attention to: “Should the cabin lose pressure, oxygen masks will drop from the overhead area. Please place the mask over your own mouth and nose before assisting others.” This ideology is the basic foundation behind self-care. Only when we find joy in ourselves are we able to bring out the joy in others.

Self-Exploration

As musicians, our community thrives upon communication and collaboration. Being in isolation has been very challenging, as it is the exact opposite of our typical daily lives. When it comes to productivity, we all have a unique balance of intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. Intrinsic motivation refers to the act of completing a task without any outside motivators (rewards, due dates, etc.). Whereas, extrinsic motivation is the process of utilizing rewards or punishment to catalyze productivity. We all love to think that we practice music because we love it and while this is accurate, it is only partially true. Each of us contains a unique balance of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation that is constantly fluctuating depending on the situation. For example, we often tend to be much more motivated when there is an audition, recital, or concert approaches. 

If you have been able to sustain the same vigor of practice during this pandemic, please tell us your secret. Most of us have experienced spans of time where we simply do not feel motivated enough to practice. This is not because we don’t love music, but rather because the ‘why’ has changed its meaning. Musicians are just like Olympic athletes. Not only can we be extremely competitive and driven but we tend to flourish in settings of high musicianship. Olympians train and compete with other Olympians for a reason. If you placed an Olympian in an isolated center until the next Olympics, there is a high chance that they wouldn’t meet the performance standard. This has nothing do with whether they are a good athlete and all to do with the environmental stimulus they were given. Below are a few methods that I have used to improve my own intrinsic values during this period of low extrinsic motivation.

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1.Me Time

With all the major advancements made in technology, we now have the ability to record our own playing whenever we feel like it. Not only can we record ourselves, but we can play it back instantly. I believe that recording oneself is an integral part of developing how we sound as artists. No matter how much we train our ears, the external perception of how we sound will always differ slightly from our own personal perspective. This is why recording is so important, it allows us to experience our sound from a more removed, perspective. In a sense, we can be our own audience. Additionally, I have noticed that our judgment can sometimes be clouded by the personal experience of playing music. For example, listening to a recording immediately after making it tends to sound much better than listening to that same recording a week later.

In addition to recording ourselves as a method of self-evaluation, recordings allow us to track our growth over time. It can be very uplifting and motivational to compare our current playing to past recordings. However, technology is a double-edged sword, with positive comparison comes negative comparison. The internet provides us with endless great recordings of other flutists both past and present. Naturally, that competitive nature that we discussed earlier begins to kick in as we begin comparing ourselves directly to the sounds we are hearing. The addition of video footage (i.e. YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, etc.) can lead us to question our own musicianship, especially when someone of the same age or younger appears to be more advanced. However, it is important to remember that everyone is at a different place in their musical journey. Where we sit on this continuum may differ from someone else and that is OK.

Recording yourself can be healthy in the long run because it allows you to truly focus only on oneself without any negative external influences. Yes, it is important to be aware of other musicians so that we can start abreast of the standards in our field, but it is just as important to transform that competitive atmosphere into a positive form of intrinsic motivation. Don’t allow negative comparisons to limit what you are capable of. Challenge yourself to be your own best version each and every time that you practice. 

2.Recorded Collaboration

In addition to recording ourselves, we also have the tools to produce full musical collaborations without leaving the house. I tend to use my phone for collaborative projects. When making a collaborative recording, you have 2 main options. You can either create a project with other musicians as a sort of makeshift ensemble or you can test your cleverness and play all the parts yourself. The majority of what I do uses the latter option, which I find to be a little less complicated. (Recording remotely with other musicians can sometimes be challenging to sync up and tune effectively.) 

Step 1: Pick a Piece

Perhaps the easiest way to begin your first self-collaborative project is by picking a simple flute chamber piece that includes multiple parts (duets, trios, quartets, etc.). 

Step 2: Download an App 

Next, you will want to download a sound layering app. I prefer the Acapella app which is free, easy to use, and includes video recording. The addition of video adds a nice performative quality to these projects. (This app is free for all creations at or under 1 minute in length; you can pay the subscription for longer more intricate projects.)

Step 3: Select a Template 

In the app there a various templates and designs based on how many parts you plan to record. (Tip: Sometime I will record duplicates of a part (usually the bass part) in different octave to produce a fuller texture.) 

Step 4: Grab Some Headphones 

This app works best with headphones that include a microphone feature. This allows you to record your sound while ensuring the metronome is not audible in the recordings. (Tips: Sometimes loud dynamics can lead to distortion when layered together. Be cautious of how close you are to the microphone. In some cases, I will stand farther away and record without headphones. The screen will flash instead to signify tempo.)

Step 5: Tuning

Tune before recording for better intonation between parts. (Tip: Try to record all parts in one sitting to ensure consistent intonation. Adjust any minor pitch issue using your embouchure.) DO NOT ADJUST HEADJOINT PLACEMENT BETWEEN TAKES

Step 6: Recording Sequence

Decide on an order in which to record the parts. I typically start with the bass voice to help build a strong tonal foundation. Next, I will add the harmonies and finish with the melody. This allows the accompaniment to solidify and leaves room for flexibility and expression in the melody. (The app will give you a countdown from 4 each time before actively recording.) Click on the box you wish to record in and remember that most people tend to place the melody in the largest box.

Step 7: Balance Correction and Additional Effects

With each new take will be given a chance to hear how the parts sound together before saving it as a track After all tracks have been recorded you can go in and make volume adjustment to each individual track. I start by muting all tracks to all for clear sound layering. Starting with the bass part, bring the volume up to about halfway - you will want the melody to be the most prominent. Harmonies are added next at a volume between the bass and melody volumes. Lastly, add a bit of reverb and echo to each part to fill in the overall texture. (Tips: I do not utilize the panning or pitch adjustment features. Pitch adjusting raises the pitch of the entire track which is extremely difficult to integrate intonationally.)

Step 8: Decorate, Share and Enjoy

The final step is to choose a decorative lining background and to save it to your camera roll. Once downloaded, you will have a complete musical work that was both performed and mixed by yourself. On a basic level, you will have acted as your own audio engineer. Pretty Cool! Feel free to send this fun musical creation to your friends or even post it on social media. You will be surprised how fun it id to build these miniature performances.

3. Arranging Songs/Tunes You Enjoy

Here are a couple of ways to spice up the process outlined above if you have a bit of extra time on your hands or simply want to test your creativity. Sometimes I will arrange a project that isn’t initially written for a flute ensemble. With classical works and most pop songs, you can find ways of dividing the piano reduction into various solo lines. At the most basic level try to separate it out into melody, bassline, and chords for harmony. Next, you can get creative and find percussive objects to provide additional accompaniment. This is what I did in my attached cover “Happy Together” by The Turtles. (Notice that I used a door handle to build the drumbeat.)

As a current student of Ms. Judith Mendenhall (Principal Flute of the American Ballet Theatre and Professor of Flute at the Mannes School of Music), our class was tasked with recording the famous flute solo from Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe along with the orchestral accompaniment transcribed out for flute. Upon completion, I posted it on Instagram account (@dtrain_exclusive) and even attracted the attention of the New York Philharmonic. Below is a scan of the reduced score that I used to produce this recording. Try it out sometime!

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Self-Growth 

The Daphnis et Chloé project required me to self-collaborate and familiarize myself with the orchestral score. These projects turn score study into a fun exploratory activity that allows you to learn a score inside and out. Some of my recordings take around 15 minutes to complete while others, such as my cover of the Incredibles Theme, may take 5 hours before I had a version I feel proud of. As you record, you will notice how hyperaware your senses become. Suddenly, you beginning to hear minute details in your own playing such as tuning tendencies, articulation habits, unclean note transitions, vibrato usage, etc. (Tip: Don’t fall down the critique rabbit hole – there have been times where I may take 40+ takes of a single part before moving on. Be kind to yourself.) 

You might wonder how this activity benefits formal flute training. On the days when I truly don’t feel like practicing, these projects serve as a form of extrinsic motivation and help to kickstart our intrinsic motivators. I find that the biggest challenge is  simply getting the instrument of its case. Because the hardest part is often getting started, beginning with a fun activity can trick you into productivity. Sometimes, I will qualify a very complex self-collaboration project as my practice for the day. Being in charge of your own creations yield self-growth while providing much-needed self-care.

Recap Checklist 

    • Build a new habit of finding 1 positive thing each day.
    • Remember to “place the mask over your own mouth and nose before assisting others.” Only when we find joy in ourselves are we able to bring out the joy in others.
    • Record and evaluate your playing often.
    • Challenge yourself to be your own best version each and every time that you practice. 
    • Try creating a self-collaboration music project. Be Creative!
    • Be kind to yourself. Even with everyone at different places in their musical journey, we have all headed the same direction.

Daphnis and Chloé – Maurice Ravel

https://www.instagram.com/p/CFINudph5Id/ 

“Happy Together” – The Turtles

https://www.instagram.com/p/BjqOMJulLA7/ 

The Incredibles Theme – Disney’s The Incredibles

https://www.instagram.com/p/ByLcexqBnr8/ 

“Rockin’ Robin” – Bobby Day

https://www.instagram.com/p/B1Rbw0dhliL/ 

Dance of the Little Swans – Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake

https://www.instagram.com/p/Bja88FqFStg/ 


Dennis Rendleman is a recent graduate of the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music and is currently working towards his Masters in Flute Performance at the Mannes School of Music. While at IU, he completed Bachelor's degrees in Flute Performance, Musical Theatre, and Music Education with a minor in Conducting. His major teachers include Judith Mendenhall (American Ballet Theatre), Thomas Robertello (IU Jacobs School of Music), Don Gottlieb (Louisville Orchestra), and Joy Zalkind (Las Cruces, Juarez, and El Paso Symphony Orchestras). He has performed at the Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic, on NPR’s From the Top, and with various orchestras and wind ensembles (Louisville Orchestra, IU Wind Ensemble, Bloomington Orchestra, Hoosier Pops Orchestra, IU Jacobs Philharmonic Orchestra, etc.) 

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