I read a lot of books about self-development. And one thing that I see over and over again is they tell you to ask yourself good questions. I think this something we take for granted and don’t access most of the time: our inner wisdom. Okay, but seriously if you’re a music major and are planning a career in music, you already have a huge amount of knowledge. Think about how much time you’ve spent practicing, rehearsing, in lessons, in masterclasses, studio classes, music classes, the list goes on… It is so much! You have some major inner wisdom at this point. I’m just here to offer some questions to help unlock it.
Why should we ask ourselves questions? Great question! When we outsource the answers to our questions because we don’t believe that we are capable of answering them, we miss an opportunity to empower ourselves, to give ourselves the authority to make decisions. This is a crucial step and one to be taken seriously. Because, what happens when we get conflicting information from our teacher and another teacher? And then say you watch a video about the same thing you’re working on and get more information that doesn’t seem to match up… How do you manage all of those things?
Usually? We avoid it. We get some classic “analysis paralysis.” When we don’t know exactly what to do and we want to make all of those teachers and mentors happy, we avoid that passage or piece at all costs. We just don’t want to deal with it. This leads to less familiarity with the passage/piece, and you maybe do a hodgepodge of those things but it sounds pretty ambiguous. This can lead to feedback like: “it sounds timid” or “it just isn’t soloistic.” (speaking from experience here…).
So how do we avoid sounding ambiguous, vague, and timid? Answer the questions we have ourselves. The more clarity we have in our decisions, the more convincing we are in performance. You will feel more confident in the way you’re playing the passage as well. So here they are, 5 really good (if I do say so myself) questions to ask yourself in the practice room:
1: Do I love the way I play this?
This is number one for a reason. This is the big one. I’m not saving the best for last here (but I'd also check out the other ones). This is such an important question. Usually, we get stuck in the classic “was this right or wrong?” spiral. This is such black and white thinking which will ultimately lead you to tell yourself that you’re wrong without curious follow up for hours a day (and then wonder why you don't like practicing…).
Curiosity is the key to a productive practice session, perfectionist thinking is the opposite. If you say things like, that was “bad/good” or “perfect/imperfect” to yourself in the practice room, that is putting conditions on what you’re doing. You don’t get curious when you tell yourself you sound bad. Now, let’s say you crack a note and it is neither good nor bad, it just didn’t match what was written on the page. Why did you crack that note? Did it crack up or down? Was the air moving too fast or slow? This is where learning happens! Use the knowledge you have and you will be surprised at how much you can teach yourself!
2: How do I want to make my audience feel at this moment?
This is one you want to ask yourself before crafting your phrase. What tone color does this emotion require? How do I produce that tone color? Then experiment! This does involve recording yourself and listening back, but this is way more fun than giving up, not thinking about it at all, and then just seeing what your teacher says. Also if you do that you learn way less than you potentially could. You then develop an awareness of what effect different tone colors have on emotion.
What is your body movement doing to create this experience for your audience? Are you moving for you or for them? Where is the audience in their journey of this movement? in this piece? or in the entire recital? Zooming out to look at what this moment could mean in the big picture makes things exciting.
3: What is the mood of this piece/passage/phrase?
We ask this question as teachers, but why is it important? Because it influences every decision we make. If we practice a technical passage without thinking about tone or dynamics, it doesn’t have practical application in context. Why? Do you ask? It will not be the same physical experience. Our body plays our instrument, and if we want to make a dynamic change, a sound change, or phrasing change, we have to make a physical change, there is no exception to this.
Establishing exactly what you want the mood of the piece to be is extremely important to the energy of the piece, and when push comes to shove (say in a performance) our body is going to default to what it is used to doing. For example, if you have a very fast technical passage but it is written at pianissimo, but you don’t think you can play it that dynamic yet so you’ll “just learn the notes,” you’ll likely end up playing the passage louder than you ultimately want to in performance. Why? Because your goal was to get the notes right, not to convey a mood or build a skill from the very beginning.
But sometimes we don’t know how else to go about it, because it sounds like a dumpster fire when we try to play the passage at pianissimo. The answer is: maybe it will sound like a dumpster fire for a little while. This is hard for our perfectionist brains to wrap our head around because shouldn’t it sound better and better? Nope! You know you’re doing real work you’re probably going to have to sound much worse before sounding better. Introduce what I call ugly practice into your life, see what happens!
4: What is my role?
This is not a frequently asked question, but it can be applied to pieces with other parts, ensemble, chamber, or even solo playing. When I’m playing a piece for flute alone, what is my role? What is my role when I’m playing with the piano? Rhythmic? Accompaniment? Melody? Are we equally important? Where does your role shift? And especially do this for excerpts. Trying to play an excerpt convincingly without listening and learning the whole piece is like acting in a scene when you haven't read the whole script.
When we play pieces that don’t sound conventionally “pretty” or tonal, what is your role then? Is it to play with the most beautiful sound? For many newer works for flute alone, we need to portray angularity and aggression. This is our role. We can convince the audience in a different way, not just where the phrase is going, but sometimes we are called upon as musicians to make the audience feel uncomfortable or uncertain. As flutists, we fall in love with the beautiful warm flute tone, but I think it is important to question that when examining what your role is.
In an ensemble knowing your role and how you fit in is essential, same with chamber music. How do you know what your role is? Study the score! Where are you playing a duet with someone? Where are you playing as a section in unison? If you’re playing a second part, how are you going to most effectively play your role?
5: Does this passage feel comfortable to play? Can I reproduce it with ease?
I missed this mark for many years. I literally used to use tally marks to prove to myself that I knew the passage instead of you know, just ASKING MYSELF. If you’re not comfortable with a passage, you know all the different ways to practice things right? (remember all the masterclasses, lessons, rehearsals, etc.). Try ALL of the different ways until it clicks. It doesn’t matter how long it takes, it matters that when the time comes you can play the passage with ease.
So much of the time we are focused on which exercises to practice, or which piece to play. Instead, I think it is important to think about what skills you want to build, then use said exercises and pieces to work on building that skill. Do you know exactly how you are making that octave interval so smooth? Could you reproduce it at any moment? If we don’t experiment and reflect, we don’t gain the knowledge of “how” as quickly. This is important as teachers as well. If you’re unsure of how you yourself do something, it is extremely hard to teach.
I hope this inspires you to ask yourself more questions in the practice room. If you want to talk further about this I’d love to hear from you! You can DM me @chelseatannerflute on Instagram!