By Dr. Terri Sanchez
It’s normal to feel stuck. Frustrated. Confused about why you’re not at the level you’ve wanted to reach so badly. Thankfully, after 20+ years of teaching flutists of all different ages, personality types and musicianship levels, I’ve learned a few things about what it takes to finally break through that invisible wall that seems to be blocking you from the level you seek. I share my reflections with you here so that you might be inspired to break through that wall yourself. Maybe sooner than later.
First and foremost, it’s essential to have a clear, yet radically flexible, vision of what your next level looks like. Your visualization might include you playing with singing vibrato and confidence, with faster fingers, with a bigger sound or any number of flute playing characteristics you find desirable. Find clarity by studying those great flutists and musicians that already have what you want. Watch their YouTube videos, listen to their recordings, learn their stories. Soak in their energy and attitude. Be willing to immerse yourself in the world of the sounds they make. In the meantime, stay radically flexible! Since you have never been to the next level, you can’t know what it looks like for you specifically … yet.
If your concept of the next level is too rigid, binary or based on things you cannot control, you are fortifying the wall that blocks you. If you are obsessed with shoulds, shouldn’ts, “supposed to”s and “what do they think of me”s, you are simply cementing your current level. Your version of what you think gorgeous, spinning, free vibrato feels like would already be working if you were on the right track. If your vibrato still feels awkward and sounds forced, it’s essential to open your mind and realize there is a different approach than you’ve been trying.
So many aspiring flutists try to hammer their new goals into place. They practice faster and faster, work harder and harder, not understanding that if their approach was working, they would already be noticing the ease and flow of their lightning fast technique and ever-increasing power. Instead, I encourage you to take a step back and consider that a dramatically different approach may be the answer. What if practicing slower than you ever have before is the key to playing faster than you ever have before? What if less work and effortless airstreams are the key to resonance? What if letting go of deadlines and pressures is a surprising path to reaching new heights?
My formula for breaking through, melting down, finding your way around or even leaping over the walls that currently contain you is found in the acronym below. These steps are infinitely repeatable and reliably consistent in their effectiveness. Come back to them again and again with the kind of transcendent patience that only someone who believes in their dreams can demonstrate.
L - Let Go
Let go of regret, guilt and insecurity. You are where you are. You cannot be anywhere but there. Your current level of flute playing is a direct result of your practice up until now. Starting right this moment, you get to choose if you would like to achieve a higher level by practicing in new ways.
O - Open Your Mind
So often, the secret to discovering new flute playing levels is a willingness to try the opposite of what you have tried before. You might be holding on to out of date, no longer applicable (or doesn’t really work for you) ideas that keep you from epiphanies that would otherwise arrive if the sky was the limit on what you were willing to try in your practice.
V - Verify Your Process
During the course of any given practice session, reflect often on whether or not what you are doing is really working. If your current approach to learning music, achieving fast tempos, finding beautiful colors, playing elegant phrases or breathing with ease is not feeling better and better with each passing practice moment, you are absolutely missing something. Even with practice projects that take countless repetitions or experiments to accomplish, there can still be a very clear sense that you are either getting closer to or further from your goals. Be willing to change the plan until you know you are headed toward results.
E - Expect Great Things
Each and every time you get your flute out of its case, expect that you will learn something new and amazing about sound, vibration, flow and your connection to music. Get excited about stumbling upon beauty you didn’t even know you wanted to find. Rest assured, if you stay present and never commit the musician's crime of giving up on yourself, you will emerge from this practice session a brand new you. When your practice sessions start becoming practice portals, you know you are on your way.
Rinse and repeat these steps with the understanding that, by its very definition, uncharted territory is unfamiliar until it’s not. Recognize that even as you are ascending to new levels of flute playing and musicianship, you will need to continuously shed old habits of thought that were helpful once upon a time, but no longer needed by the musician you are becoming. Most of all, keep in mind, even if you don’t fully understand it yet, the biggest secret to arriving at the next level of your flute playing journey is to realize that you are already there.
Dr. Terri Sánchez is the Assistant Professor of Flute at Bowling Green State University and a Miyazawa Performing Artist. She is the author The Aspiring Flutist’s Practice Companion and The Aspiring Flutist’s Sound & Scale Book, both published by Carolyn Nussbaum Music Co. To see her YouTube videos and other helpful resources, visit www.practicejunkie.com.