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The Illusion of Perfect Practice

Updated: Oct 27, 2019

How many articles have you read about practicing? I have read countless articles in flute magazines and blogs about the most effective and efficient way to practice. How to prepare an etude, how to prepare for a competition, what a famous flutist’s successful warm-up is. There are so many different ways to learn and go about things, and I think I’ve finally figured out the secret: There is no secret. (surprise)

There is no secret warm-up, technical exercise, or etude routine that will in itself prepare you for what you need to do in any give lesson, audition, or performance. Just think, how differently do you learn from your colleagues? I know if I need to prepare for something it is going to look completely different from what other people do. We all know we learn differently when referring to school and studying, so why isn’t that applied to practicing?

I have been asked before if there was one specific exercise to accomplish in order to become a really solid player. I think about all the detail that goes into the transition between notes, how to manage the air/embouchure/support in order to accomplish a brilliant sound with smooth technique. Merely playing an exercise will absolutely not yield the artistic results we all seek.

Many of us are so hungry for a prescription or step-by-step directions so our perfectionist selves can check a box, cross off a list and wrap our practice in a quantifiable package with a beautiful bow. Real talk: This also means we have an “out” — when we do what we are told and it still doesn’t work, we don’t tend to view this as “our fault.” This is the dangerous slippery slope we sometimes fall down. When we blindly follow directions without reflection upon how concepts feel physically so we can have some instant gratification tally marks, we loose sight of how we will perform because after all: we don’t perform with our head, we perform with our body (but that’s another blog post).

I’m not saying that structure and planning aren’t an essential part of effective practice, they totally are. However, we can get carried away with external validation from our practice journal or the number of hours that have ticked by (also quantifiable). I was preparing for a competition one summer while simultaneously at a festival. I remembered a strategy that seemed to work for me in my master’s which was playing every line ten times perfectly and making tally marks when I accomplished yet another perfect take.

The aforementioned tally marks.... (doesn't it look like I accomplished a lot??)

The exits I completely missed on my highway of preparation:

-Does this passage feel comfortable and replicable in my fingers?

-What is the air in my body doing to accomplish this passage?

-How can I recreate this in context?

-In performance what will be my mental plan?

-Where will I put my focus in the moment before this passage? (or where will my focus be at all??)

-How is practicing this way going to help me achieve what I want to in this performance?

-What is the mood I want to create with this phrase?

-How do I physically produce that mood and create the sound I want?

-What is cool or interesting about this piece?

-Why do I like it?

-How do I make it most compelling?

-How do I want my audience to feel when I play this piece?

I could go on….

I was nailing down notes, and when a note fell apart, I fell apart. You bet this happened in the competition. I wanted something that worked for me two years prior, but didn’t stop to consider that not only was I a different player, but I was a different person two years later. I’ve learned that our practicing evolves as we evolve. We need to check in with ourselves in every micro moment in our practicing so we can be completely present in our practice. This will lead to us being completely comfortably present in our performance (and since our adrenaline will make sure we are present this is a really great tool to use — For more on this, see my post: Autopilot v. Adrenaline).

All that being said, I have found all of the the chunking, playing things backwards, slowing things down then working them up, playing small bits at tempo, recognizing patterns, analysis, and endless others really do serve me, but there is no magic formula that I can rely on and will be the same every time. Each passage feels differently my fingers, and impacts the balance of my flute differently. I won’t physically accomplish two different phrases the same way, ever. No two passages will be the same, so why assume we can just practice them exactly the same way?

Maybe now ask: What does slowing down the tempo allow me to do? Why would I practice it backwards? What does that actually do?

Having a greater understanding of what each technique effects in our playing is extremely useful, then we can gauge which one to use most effectively in a given situation. I now take comfort in reading all of those articles about practicing just like I used to, but now taking a more experimental approach. I enjoy questioning what is working and what isn’t. It gives me freedom from the box of perfection where I once neatly kept my tally marks.


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