ArticlesEducationFeaturedMarch 2021

Practice Tips

by Townes Osborn Miller

Townes Osborn Miller lives in Michigan and is the Coordinator and Professor of Music at Mott Community College and is the Instructor of Flute at Saginaw Valley State University. She is proud to be a Gemeinhardt Teaching Artists. In addition, she works with the Saginaw Bay Youth Symphony Orchestra and serves as the Volunteer Coordinator for the National Flute Association Convention. Pre-pandemic, she premiered Bill Withem’s composition for Flute, Percussion and Piano, “Dragonfly” (2020) and also premiered Mooyneen Albrecht’s composition for Flute and Organ, “Psalms (set 2)” (2018). Townes also travels and performs with the International Flute Orchestra and the Metropolitan Flute Orchestra.

I’m stressed. How about you? This year has been anything but normal. From quarantine to mask wearing, to all rehearsals and concerts being canceled, sometimes more than once, it’s been stressful. 

Some musicians have flourished during this pandemic, most have not. In recent conversations, many of my students (ranging from junior high/high school to college to adult amateur) have struggled with lack of focus and direction. Instead of using this time to get ahead, many have just stopped or have barely touched their instruments. 

That’s okay. Don’t spend or waste time by beating yourself up. But do recognize that getting back into a practice routine is akin to working out. The biggest mistake we make as musicians is thinking we can just pick up where we left off. Not so much. Here is an analogy I like to use with my students. 

“Imagine you had been a distance runner and training for a marathon when the pandemic hit and you just stopped running. You are not going to be able to just pick up where you left off a few months to a year later. Your muscles forget, your body forgets, your lungs forget; basically, you are going to have to retrain your body to move for four hours. And should you go out and dive back in by running 10 miles, you will probably end up injured.”

So how do we get back and not get totally frustrated? Well, the very wise flutist and teacher Marcel Moyse said that improvement is a matter of “time, patience and intelligent work.”

Makes sense, doesn’t it? We need to create that precious space in our day to refocus and create the time. We must be patient with ourselves: running a marathon doesn’t happen overnight. And we must be intelligent about how we go about practicing: be intentional. Write down your goals. 

Now the hard part, treat your body with respect. Usually, when we’ve taken time off, we come back to our instrument tense. We want success NOW, and we think that being tense will make it happen sooner. NO. Try this warm-up routine instead.

5 min – Breathing Exercises. Set your metronome to quarter=60. Either standing or laying down on the floor with your knees bent, inhale for 4 counts, hold for 4 counts, exhale for 4 counts. Then inhale for 5, hold for 5, exhale for 5, then 6, then 7. You get the picture. Do this every day before you pick up your flute. It will help bring awareness to your lungs and also help to relax your body.

5 min – Stretching. As you inhale, lift your arms over your head and stretch, exhale and lower your arms back down. Now slowly roll your shoulders forward then back and don’t forget to breathe while you do this. Then inhale and, as you fold over towards the floor, exhale. Inhale on the way back up.

15 min – Long tones are a wonderful way to listen to your tone and to make observations about your posture, open throat, etc. If you have a strobe tuner now is the time to listen and watch for your harmonics. If you don’t have a strobe tuner, there are some apps you can use. Search in the app store for “strobe” and “tuner”.

20 min mark – Now you have warmed up, and you are only 20 minutes into your practice. Every 20 min, you should take a 5-minute break. Drink some water and walk. Set a timer so you don’t overshoot.

Happy practicing! Be sure to not go too fast too soon. Use a metronome and take it slow--like running--you are in it for the long haul. I’ll catch you next time for some more tips and tricks. 

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