by Jennifer Rhyne
Dr. Jennifer Rhyne is the Associate Professor of Flute and Music Theory at the Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington.
Obviously, lots of things are hard about life right now, and that can leave you lacking motivation to do the things you need to do, like practicing. Here are some ideas which may help you tackle this common problem.
I often tell my students that the hardest part of practicing is simply getting the flute out of the case. Once your flute is in your hands and up to your lips, you have already begun. That is a pretty small barrier to getting started in your practice session. If it makes you more likely to practice, consider leaving your flute out of the case more often. Just be sure that it is sitting in a safe spot, and remember that you may have a little more tarnish and dust on your flute in the long term.
But what if you really don’t feel like practicing at all? Then, play instead! Play is defined as “engaging in an activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose”. We are so lucky that we get to “play” the flute. Whether you’re reading through a favorite piece of familiar solo repertoire or doing some sight-reading, you are helping yourself stay in good shape. When you’re really in a rut and lacking inspiration, use a recorder in order to play duets with yourself. Or you might look on IMSLP for flute parts for symphonies by composers such as Beethoven or Brahms, and use those to play along with recordings. You will not only be learning useful repertoire in these cases, but you’ll also have a chance to work on intonation.
These ideas may only be temporary coping strategies to help get you back in the saddle. Hopefully, these tools will serve as a sort of gateway drug, because playing can be addictive in a healthy way. You’ll quickly start to feel better about the situation as you play more. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the amount you need to accomplish, you’ll be amazed by how quickly you’ll start to feel like things are more manageable within just one short practice session.
When your actual practice sessions resume, start with very short periods such as five minutes. Use a timer and set short, specific goals for yourself. You may want to fix a run in a particular passage, work on a specific aspect of your technique, work on one part of your lesson assignment (just the etude, for ex.), or work on long tones. When the five minutes is up, take a short break, then decide if you would like to continue for another five minutes, and set a new goal. Continue this pattern until you no longer feel engaged or inspired or until you start to feel physical fatigue begin. As you practice, focus on getting back to the playful aspect of being a musician- practice the things that are interesting and hold your attention. Problem solving can be captivating and fun. Enjoy the process of making progress without worrying much about the final result.
Figure out your practice priorities. This could mean working on certain pieces or exercises or even particular bars. Set specific objectives for each five-minute block of your session, as well as for your overall practice period. If you practice efficiently in goal-oriented ways, you can minimize the amount of time you need to spend practicing. In this case you’ll be truly “practicing” rather than “playing”. But if you’re completely unmotivated, you may need to spend some time “playing” before you practice. Just be sure you recognize the difference. Accountability can be a helpful strategy in motivating you to practice. You may have a friend who also needs incentive to practice. You can find a practice buddy, and you can hold each other accountable. You can check in with each other to ask about daily practice goals. You might even set up a Zoom session to practice at the same time but with your sound muted so that you can see each other. Your practice buddy could even just be a pet in the room with you. Another way to hold yourself accountable is by creating a practice journal. Write down your daily, weekly, or long-term goals and the progress you make towards those in each practice session. You might also record your sessions to analyze your practice and hold yourself accountable for your work. You can also imagine that some someone you admire is listening and observing your practice sessions. You’ll surely practice in a healthier and more directed way with your imaginary audience in the room.
Create some novelty in your practice routine to eliminate tedium. Mix up the order of the pieces or exercises in your practice sessions for variety. How about a change of scenery? Practice in a different room or even in a different spot or a different angle in the same room. Consider placing electronic devices out of sight or even give them to a friend or family member for safe keeping. Set a practice schedule. Or don’t! Figure out what works best for you. Do you need to practice between certain hours in order to make sure it happens or do you prefer more flexibility?
Recognize that it’s normal and okay to occasionally need a break. That’s why we call it “spring break”! A temporary amount of time off from your typical practice routine can help you feel rejuvenated and more excited to practice. Whether you take a five-minute break during a practice session or an occasional period of one or more days off from playing, you will likely find that you have more energy, inspiration, and better concentration when you return to your flute.
Lastly, what is your “why”? What is your underlying motivation to practice? Is it to get ready for your next lesson, learn a certain piece, or improve a specific aspect of your technique? Or is it something bigger and more philosophical? Maybe your goal is to be a better teacher or to be a better communicator of the emotion of a composition to an audience. Our ability to bring joy to others through music is a unique and special gift. You may be able to rekindle your own joy in “playing” the flute through the exploration of practice and the reasons why you do so.