FeaturedIssuesJanuary 2022

Dear Dr. Terri

Terri Sánchez is a Miyazawa Performing Artist and the newly appointed Assistant Professor of Flute at Bowling Green State University. 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! 

This month’s questions come from flutists studying Music Education at the Bowling Green State University College of Musical Arts!

  1. Olivia: I have a hard time covering all my practice assignments when it seems like there’s so many details I still need to improve. How do you move on from practicing a section of music when it’s not perfect yet?

  2. Arianna: I know it’s important to take breaks when I practice, but what do I do when I take a break and still feel stressed out?

  3. Eve: How do you get the most out of your practice when it never feels like you have enough time?

Dear Dr. Terri,
I have a hard time covering all my practice assignments when it seems like there’s so many details I still need to improve. How do you move on from practicing a section of music when it’s not perfect yet?   ~ Olivia

Dear Olivia,

This is a fantastic question! It sounds like you have very high standards for your playing and that is a good thing. You use the word “perfect” in your question and I think I should address this first. What does “perfect” mean when it comes to music? Will you really be able to polish a section of music so well that there could never be any more improvement? If you take a moment to think about it, insisting on actual perfection before moving on to any other practice projects may mean that you are working on the same section of music until the end of time! Since that is not realistic at all, I think it’s fair to say that you will always need to make a personal choice of when to move on to your next practice task and it will 100% of the time be in the midst of imperfection.

The method you use to determine when it’s time to move on to your next practice task can be a combination of time management and personal assessment of progress. If you practice for one to two hours, six days a week, then you have anywhere from six to twelve hours to divide amongst your musical tasks. It’s often helpful to organize your practice sessions based on the least amount of time you know you will devote to practicing that week, so you can have plenty of buffers, extensions, breaks and time for spontaneity.

Imagine that you are preparing for a lesson in which you need to perform one technique exercise, one etude and one movement of a solo flute piece, in addition to daily warm-ups of course! If you give yourself 20 minutes to warm up each day, that means you have four hours to cover your technique, etude and repertoire assignments (remember, we are basing this on the minimum time so you can have lots of cushions). If you do the math, you will see that you have one hour and twenty minutes for each project. Split over six days, that’s a little over 13 minutes per project per day. This is great news! If you tell yourself, “I will spend at least 13 minutes on technique right now and then I can switch to my etude,” you now have a small, manageable task in front of you. Considering your comfort level and the amount of music in your technique assignment, you may decide to target only one or two lines a day. Since you planned on the minimum amount of time, you can allow yourself even more time when you are inspired to do so.

You may have noticed, the description of practice time management in the previous paragraph seems to take place in a perfect world where you have perfect focus and stick to your schedule perfectly. Since we already established that there’s no such thing as perfect, I highly recommend more emphasis on your personal feelings of progress than micromanaging practice minutes. In the past, you may have felt stuck due to your disappointment over never reaching perfection. I hope you can begin to use different, internal measuring sticks to sense when you have crossed those invisible lines into more clarity and comfort with the section of music you are currently practicing. For instance, if you use your 13 minutes to count and clap the tricky rhythms in your etude, keep practicing each rhythm until you can honestly say, “that feels so much better! I know this will be easier when I revisit it tomorrow.” When you let go of needing to be perfect right now, and you are willing to enjoy the process (in the midst of imperfect baby steps), you will be pleasantly surprised at your progress over the course of a week. If you notice that you are making some progress, but want much more, remember that YOU are in charge of your practice schedule! Keep tinkering with it so that each week you feel a little better than the week before.

Dear Dr. Terri,
I know it’s important to take breaks when I practice, but what do I do when I take a break and still feel stressed out?   ~ Arianna

Dear Arianna,

I’m glad you care about practicing in a healthy mental state. You are correct that stressed out practicing will not get you the results you want. In order to answer your question and explain why the breaks you are taking right now may not be alleviating stress, I want to look at the duration, quality and specific kinds of breaks you are taking!

The way you know it’s time to take a practice break is by checking in with how you feel. If you are feeling motivated and productive, keep going of course! If you do a self scan and notice stress, anxiety or tension, determine the duration of the break you will take based on the intensity of your discomfort. If your brain is just a little overloaded, a one-minute break may be all you need. If you are fatigued, you may need five or six minutes to refresh yourself. If you are in distress however, you may need to grant yourself the luxury of twenty minutes or even permission to come back to practicing later.

The quality of the practice breaks you take has a lot to do with the amount of “busy brain” you do or do not include. If you decide on a five-minute break and walk down the hallway to get a drink of water, but the entire time you are thinking about everything that is “going wrong” with your practice, you have actually added stress instead of releasing it. A much better idea is to tell yourself, “I am going to take five minutes to walk, get a drink of water and clear my mind. I will focus on my breath as I walk.” This one simple switch in perspective will dramatically improve the quality and effectiveness of your breaks!

Finally, it is a great idea to have specific types of breaks to choose from. My favorite is a breathing exercise I call “2, 4, 7.” I sit in a comfortable position, close my eyes, and breathe in through my nose for a slow count of two, hold my breath for a count of four and slowly release air through my mouth for a count of seven. I do this anywhere from three to ten or more times until I feel a tangible shift inside and know that I have a different energy available than when I started. Other wonderful practice break activities include body scans, meditations, guided visualizations and stretches. YouTube is a phenomenal resource for all of these things. The best practice break activities are the ones that consistently make you feel good. This could even include coloring, drawing, knitting, listening to music (your current flute repertoire assignments or even just other music you like), crossword puzzles, relaxing games on your phone … the possibilities are endless! Don’t give up on the power of practice breaks. Keep exploring the best duration, quality and type of break that works for you!

Dear Dr. Terri,
How do you get the most out of your practice when it never feels like you have enough time?   ~ Eve

Dear Eve,

Your question goes straight to the heart of one of the most common issues we all have. We all wish we had “more time!” I often think of a television show I watched as a kid called Out of This World. The main character, a teenager named Evie (Haha! That’s a lot like your name!), had the ability to freeze time on Earth by touching her index fingers together. She could do what she wanted to do while everyone else was frozen, then unfreeze time when she was ready. If I could have any superpower I desired, it would be this one!

Since I don’t think any of us is going to acquire this power any time soon, we are all left wondering how to make the most of the time we have. Musicians, especially college students, are faced with this challenge perhaps more than most. If you read my answer to Olivia’s question above, you may notice that letting go of the flawed premise of perfection is an important first step. Once you have embraced the idea of imperfect baby steps, you can start to make progress with your personal approach to practice time.

You can only work with the time you have, so it’s important to take a look at how much time that actually is. Keeping a personal calendar with as much detail as you need to have a clear picture of your daily, weekly and monthly schedules is essential. It may take a few semesters for you to get the hang of not overscheduling yourself. In the meantime, you can face the available time you do have and start improving your relationship with it. Just the same way that you could play a passage of music at the exact tempo but with completely different comfort levels, you could work with the exact same amount of time in your schedule with completely different attitudes. Even if you realize you only have two free hours a day, you could either stress about how much you have to get done in how little time, or you could ask yourself, “What is the best way for me to use these two hours? How can I make a plan for next week that will help me feel a little better than this past week?”

I am always thinking of new ways to make the most of my time. When it comes to practicing, I have found that micromanaging my minutes doesn’t work for me. Instead, I set an alarm on my phone (since I absolutely plan to lose track of time), turn on my metronome and begin warming up. As I warm up, I let go of to-do lists, busy brain and time scarcity. I allow myself to appreciate the flow of breath in and out of my body. As I navigate my practice session from sweet spot to sweet spot (tone, rhythm, tempo, when to repeat, when to move on), I am continuously amazed at the amount of mental and emotional clarity that sweeps through me. I keep post-it notes and Sharpies nearby for all the satisfying ideas that flow in, including ideas for how I can save time. I am busier than I have ever been in my entire life and am willing to be as creative as possible to make my busy professional life work. I voice note emails, voice note ideas while I’m driving, listen to audiobooks while I’m cleaning, let go of projects that no longer serve me, take easier, simpler approaches to projects that have impending deadlines, and explore my calendar often to see where I can polish my approach to the time I have each day.

Part of being a college music student is learning how to incorporate the passion and discipline of musical study into a life filled with to-do lists. Finding a way to dive deep into your music on a regular basis is not a burden; it’s an honor and a privilege. You cannot practice everything every day. You cannot practice with minutes and hours you do not have. What you can do is wake up each new day grateful for the gift of music, willing to use your intelligence, creativity and resourcefulness to improve. When I remember that life happens before, during and in between to-do lists, the quality of my life is dramatically better. If you remember that your life is happening before, after, in between and especially during your practice sessions, issues like time management will take a back seat to the present moment in which you are holding your flute in your hands and filling the time and space around you with beautiful sounds.

Do you have a question about flute playing, practicing, teaching or music for Dr. Terri? Send your question to tersanc@bgsu.edu and your Q&A may be featured in an upcoming edition of The Flute View online magazine!

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