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,
It's very hard for me to play fast, technical passages. I try to practice with my metronome, but I get frustrated trying to practice slow and then I play too messy when I skip to the faster tempos. What can I do to have better, faster technique?
Mark - High School Flutist, Kansas
Playing rapid technical passages with clarity, ease and flow is a goal for all flutists! It's very good that you realize slow practice is an essential component of playing fast. In fact, the faster you would like to perform a passage, the slower you should start practicing it. If the idea of slow practice with your metronome is daunting, try redefining patience and focus for yourself.
Sometimes, we can make the mistake of thinking that patience is something brutal, like being stuck in the waiting room of a dentist's office before an appointment to get a root canal. Instead, realize that patience has many different flavors! Patience can feel like relaxing at the beach, snuggling up under the covers to read a good book on a rainy day or watching a great movie. Find that "ahhhh" feeling that happens when you know you're going to do something lovely and you want it to last. Similarly, we can sometimes mistake the concept of focus for hard core concentration during something like a calculus test (unless you love calculus that is, in which case, thinking of focus like this would be a great analogy). Try thinking of focus as getting really "into" something you care about. When you shine the light of attention on one thing at a time (without being in a rush to get to the next thing), you are focusing!
While you are exploring more accessible patience and focus with slow metronome practice, it's important to realize that there is always a way to have more fun when practicing! Marie Forleo, prominent businesswoman and author, coined a term that I love. She says, "everything is figureoutable" and I believe this applies to every musician and every practice challenge. Play metronome games, make tempo charts, get creative practicing different rhythms and articulations, practice along with pop songs at different tempos ... sky is the limit! If you need a kickstart, Chapter 8 of my first book, The Aspiring Flutist's Practice Companion, has 100 practice game ideas that you can mix and match to suit your mood and motivation levels.
Remember that, to play a fast musical passage, you do need familiarity and muscle memory. In order to thicken the myelin sheath around your neural connections, mindful repetition is an absolute must. The more you repeat something, the thicker the myelin. The thicker the myelin, the faster your neural connections (and since muscle memory is actually in your brain and not your muscles, this is a big deal)! The key is to never lose heart and never give up.
A brand-new technical passage is never too hard for you; it just begins as something unfamiliar to you. Practicing slowly the first time through a technical passage will always feel unfamiliar. The second time through, you will already recognize the notes a little faster and be able to play them a little more comfortably. The third time it will be even better and the fifteenth time, it will start to feel like an old friend! There's no knowing how many times it will take for you to find the comfort you need to go to the next tempo (and the next and the next), but if you enjoy the process along the way, you will be developing who you are as a flutist, a musician and a person at the same time that you are making your way toward your fast tempo goal!
Dear Dr. Terri,
I have had three different flute teachers and all three of them taught vibrato differently. I've tried some exercises, but I still feel confused about how to improve my vibrato. What do you recommend?
Liz - Undergraduate Music Major, Washington
I am not surprised that your three flute teachers taught you vibrato in three unique ways! Though there are definitely physical concepts, musical traditions and stylistic considerations to keep in mind when practicing vibrato, there is also a kind of magic and mystery that makes vibrato a lifelong project for all flutists. In fact, I have such a deep respect for the ongoing practice project that is flute vibrato, that I think of all the vibrato advice I've ever received from performers and teachers in lessons, masterclasses, articles, etc. as a "blind men and the elephant" situation.
In the parable of the blind men and the elephant, the men who cannot see the animal are all trying to understand it by touching different parts. Because the tail, the tusk, the side, etc. all feel different, each man is having a completely different experience. None of them are wrong, but they are not necessarily describing the complete picture (or how the elephant feels to another). I've heard fascinating and helpful discussions about vibrato that involve core muscles, throat undulations, air column vibrations, soft palate awareness, directed air toward the sinus cavity, the A-O joint and more! When I practice and teach vibrato myself, I stay as open as possible, realizing that no one method or description is right or wrong, just a clue to the magical, mysterious vibrato puzzle.
No matter what vibrato exercises you use (I like Gut Puffs in Helen Blackburn's Warm-up Packet and the Exaggerated Vibrato Pulses in my Epic Warm-up), the key is to pay attention to your body, heighten your listening and replace any judgement with curiosity. Learn about different speeds and depths and bring what you learn to each piece of music you play. One of my favorite resources is John Wion's Vibrato page at https://www.johnwion.com/vibrato.html. I never tire of listening to the famous flute player vibrato samples and I'm like a kid in a candy store when I listen to those same samples 300% slower. I am in awe of how different the shapes of the waves are for each performer. Two of my favorites are James Galway and Alexa Still (my undergraduate flute professor). I highly recommend spending quality time studying these vibrato samples so that you can have an auditory reference for your own vibrato exercises.
Rather than getting overwhelmed by the plethora of advice available on the subject, I would enjoy the never-ending exploration of this beautiful, atmospheric flute playing element that helps us sound like singers. Perhaps the best way to improve your vibrato is take a deep listening dive into great performances of your flute, string player and singer heroes. Develop a sound library of vibrato in your imagination. Get excited when you hear a new perspective on vibrato and give any advice you receive a wholehearted try in your practice sessions, but remember that ultimately, vibrato is something as unique to every flutist as their own voice.
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!