Terri Sánchez is the Senior Lecturer in Flute at the University of Texas at Arlington and a Miyazawa Performing Artist. Legendary flutist Paula Robison writes, “She has a beautiful presence as a player and her sparkling clear sound spins out and fills the air with poetry.” Sánchez is the top prizewinner in many national flute competitions, author of The Aspiring Flutist's Practice Book Series (published by Carolyn Nussbaum Music Co.) and is a passionate advocate for emotionally intelligent practice. Visit her YouTube Channel for practice tips, interviews and more!
Dear Dr. Terri,
When I first learned to play the flute, I developed some very bad physical habits. What can I do to improve these habits, especially when I am performing and nervous?
Stephanie - Adult Flutist, California
You are not alone! Because no flute student OR flute teacher is perfect, it is understandable that bad habits can get programmed in without us realizing it. First, I recommend not lumping all of your "bad habits" together in one jumbled feeling of not playing the flute the way you are "supposed to." I even suggest not calling them "bad" habits at all! The way you have played the flute up until now has gotten you where you are today and, considering all the beautiful music I'm sure you've gotten to play, this is not a bad thing.
Next, I encourage you to begin indulging in luxurious warm-ups. Spend more time on long tones and any other warm-ups you enjoy. During your warm-up, pay attention to your body. Where would you like more comfort? Are there any places that feel frozen? Could you melt them a little? To begin the path toward creating body-breathing-tone-technique friendly flute playing habits, pick one way you would like to make your flute playing more comfortable and beautiful at the same time.
If you choose something like more relaxed shoulders for example, every day for a week, pay special attention to your shoulders as you warm up. Since tension may be more familiar, take many breaks to shrug your shoulders as high as they can go and then let them drop so you can experience the contrast and heighten your awareness. Often, exploring the opposite of our desired habit can shed light and create more access to the new habit we want to adopt.
In addition to looking at the new habits you want to create, one at a time with care and patience, I suggest you also dig a little deeper and find the root cause of some of the habits you no longer wish to keep. Often, tension-filled flute playing habits stem from a feeling of worry and a compulsion to control. Squeezing the flute too tightly, jutting our heads forward, clenching our jaws ... physical issues like these can come from internal stress first and then, ironically, create more of the stress we were trying to avoid by controlling! By accepting your flute playing as beautiful and "perfectly imperfect" right where it is today, you can begin to breathe more fully, release more tension and flow more easily with the musical line, instead of fighting the natural momentum that makes flute playing so lovely in the first place. Additionally, feeling calm and centered can give you more access to your full body map, allowing you to create positive habits.
The journey toward filling in our body maps, holding the flute more comfortably and breathing life into our music as effectively as possible is a life-long adventure. You will never be done, but you can feel more and more connected to the flutist you want to be every day. When it comes to handling the predictable adrenaline rush that is so much a part of exciting live performance, remember that your mind and body will always reach for the thing that has helped you the most in the past. For better access to good habits in performance, give yourself the time and space to connect a little more with the habits and comfort you want in each daily practice session.
Dear Dr. Terri,
I am a flute teacher with a lot of students. Many of them seem to progress nicely each week, but I have a few students that seem very blocked. What do you do to unblock your students?
Anne - Flute Teacher, Texas
Believe it or not, blocked students are my favorite kind of students! I have a strong belief that our weaknesses are actually our superpowers in disguise. In fact, I've learned that if I have a new student who struggles tremendously with sound, they secretly have a gorgeous tone waiting to be unearthed! Similarly, if a student seems like they can't count at all, they are actually a rhythm rockstar just waiting to be unleashed. The amazing paradox occurs because they are literally blocked by misguided perspectives about the very thing that they can do best.
The tricky thing about teaching a blocked student is that the same advice that usually works with other students may be the exact opposite of what this student needs! More often than not, there are previous misunderstandings, well-intentioned shortcuts, people pleasing, a feeling of overwhelm or disconnect blocking their ability to shine.
For a student with a naturally beautiful tone (due to their mouth and face shape, way of speaking, listening or more), focusing too much on advice about lips, tongue, air, etc. may cause more problems than it solves. Instead, I prompt them to explore their own speaking and singing so that they can make connections with how to produce a sound on the flute. From there, I put the majority of the focus on listening and identifying the beauty in the sound that they want to "feed" and expand. For a student with major counting issues, I become a therapist-kindergarten teacher, simultaneously helping them clear out the complicated busy brain voices in their head and focusing them on the simple, powerful connection to counting, clapping, singing, grooving and feeling the rhythm. Never underestimate the possibility that your student may not completely understand the rhythm. Break it down completely and help them find personal connection with every element.
Just like you want your students to be patient when they practice, it is essential that you are patient when you help them. Even if your words are positive, students are sensitive to the emotions of their teachers. When you are just as excited and optimistic to help them for the hundredth time, never letting go of your belief that they can absolutely arrive at an easier, more meaningful connection to their hidden superpower, they will eventually follow suit. Teaching, just like practicing and performing, is all about trusting the process.
Dear Dr. Terri,
My high notes seem to be constantly sharp and shrill. I've tried practicing with a tuner but I get frustrated when I see how sharp I am. What can I do to make my high notes more in tune?
Vanessa - High School Flutist, Texas
Playing gorgeous, rich, in tune high notes is a goal for most flutists! One of the reasons high notes are often sharp is a misunderstanding about how much air they take. It seems logical to blow a lot of air to play passionate high notes, but when that air is aimed without intention, the sound becomes diffused and it takes even more air to find clarity and core. When you are caught in the vicious cycle of "blasting" air to create high notes through your flute, it is inevitable that you will send your tuner skyrocketing.
Instead of focusing so much on the exhalation, I recommend that the first paradigm shift you make is to switch your focus to your inhalation. When you focus more on your body as the instrument and "breathe in" the gorgeous, singing high note you would like to play, you are already closer to the air angle and pressure it will require to play more in tune. Another thing that helps me and my students every day is a constant obsession with practicing harmonics. When you practice a harmonic fingering for a high note (like a Bb fingering for a high F), the harmonic can teach you the air angle, air pressure, embouchure shape and listening approach that will make the "real" fingering more beautiful and in tune. At first, you may be tempted to play the harmonic in tune but then go back to blasting your high note. Take your time, and truly match your air and listening approach as you alternate between the harmonic and traditional fingerings.
A third approach to refining your tuning in the high register involves practicing with drones instead of just the visual feedback of a tuner. Whether you use sustained tones on your tuner app, cello drones on Spotify or some other type of drone (sitting at the piano and playing octaves with the pedal down as I practice is my favorite), listening to the tonic (first scale degree) of the key in which you are practicing can help you play your high notes in context. It is easier to hear when you are in tune versus out of tune when you have a drone helping you connect to intervals instead of isolated notes.
Though focusing on your inhalation, practicing harmonics and listening to drones are just a few of the many possible ways to practice more elegant intonation in the high register, keep in mind that any practice method you choose should revolve around beauty of sound. Never let fear of being out of tune (at any dynamic) prompt you to sacrifice playing with the loveliest tone you know how to play. I learned from Helen Blackburn many years ago, "when you are in tone, you are in tune."
Do you have a question about flute playing, practicing, teaching or music for Dr. Terri? Send your question to firstname.lastname@example.org and your Q&A may be featured in an upcoming edition of The Flute View online magazine!