Feel like you’re stuck in a rut? Here are five tips to help you figure out your musical goals and put together a practice plan that will help you reach them faster!
When it comes the question of how to practice, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. The best way to structure your practice depends on what your goals are and how much time you have to practice, so I’ve put together this handy guide to help you answer those questions and figure out your own, specific, perfect practice plan!
1. Set goals
The first step in creating a successful practice plan is decide on what goals are important for you. These will be super important to your practice – they will be the scaffolding on which you can build your perfect practice plan. Goals are highly individual, what you want out of your flute playing may be very different than someone else, and that’s OK! They should also be flexible; as you grow and change, so should your goals.
While it’s great to set specific goals for each practice session (short-term goals), deciding on what you’d like to achieve in the longterm can help you better focus your time and energy.
Longterm goals are about what you want your overall music journey to look like. Do you want to be a professional musician or do you want to play for your own enjoyment? Do you want to play in an orchestra, or mainly work on solo repertoire?
Take your time in deciding on these goals, it’s important you find what excites you most about music and flute. But it’s also important to remember that these goals can always change – they’re not set in stone!
Once you have an idea of what you’re working toward, you can tailor your mid-term and short-term goals to get you there faster.
Mid-term goals are ones that can be completed within a year or so. These might include: Prepare for an upcoming recital. Compete in a local music festival. Earn a spot in the school symphony orchestra.
These should link to your longterm goals. For example:
- If your longterm goal is Get accepted to a university to study music your mid-term goals might include: Secure a spot in the school orchestra; Play all major and minor scales up to three octaves; Perform a recital.
- If your longterm goal is To play flute for own personal enjoyment, your mid-term goals will be different. Perhaps something like: Learn new repertoire that I love playing; Experiment with different genres of music; Join a community band or orchestra.
Short-term goals are those that can be completed in a single practice session or over the course of the week. They might look something like: Be able to play this two-measure run; Learn E minor scales; Play an etude or scale at a slightly faster tempo.
In the same way that mid-term goals are a stepping stone to our longterm ones, short-term goals help us reach mid-term targets. For example:
- If one of your mid-term goals is to Play all major and minor scales up to three octaves, your short-term goals might include: Learn E Major scale up into the third register; Practice E Major in thirds or fourths; Be more comfortable with E Major arpeggio.
- If one of your mid-term goals is to Join a community band or orchestra, your short-term goals might include: Learn a band audition piece; Play an ensemble piece to a recording; Research local ensembles.
Remember that everyone is different and each and every one of us wants to play the flute for different reasons; our goals should reflect that uniqueness!
But whatever your goals may be, make sure they are SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound. For example, a goal like I want to get better at the flute is an admirable one – of course we always want to be getting better – but it’s very hard to measure (we get better every day!) and isn’t achievable because we’ll never stop getting better. Instead, a goal like I want to be able to play Faure’s ‘Sicilienne’ by the end of the year, is very measurable, specific and achievable.
We want things we can cross off as accomplished – it’s satisfying and motivating!
It goes without saying that sometimes there might be roadblocks or bumps along the way, but there’s nothing to say that we can’t readjust our targets – in fact it’s imperative that we do! But if you keep these goals at the forefront of your mind, they’ll help you stay on track and motivated in your practice.
2. Determine how much time you regularly have to practice the flute
With your goals now firmly in mind, you need to figure out how much time you have to practice. Just like everyone’s goals are different, everyone has different amounts of time to devote to playing. If you’re trying to learn how to play the flute while working a full-time job and raising children, you will likely find only a few precious moments of free time for practicing. On the other hand, if you are a music student, your schedule might allow for hours of practice each day.
A good rule of thumb is practice as often as possible, for whatever time you can afford. It is soooo much better to practice 10 minutes everyday than 1 hour once a week. I like to tell my students that three days a week is the minimum we need to really feel an improvement in our playing, but five (or more) is ideal!
(Bonus tip for those who live in cities or residential areas: sometimes we need to take our neighbours into consideration and work around their schedules too. Read a bit more about how to keep your neighbours happy while still practicing here.)
3. Divide your flute practice session into key sections
Now that we know how much time we have to practice, we can structure our individual practice sessions accordingly.
It’s always a good idea to start with some kind of warm up – you need to wake up the muscles and embouchure, let them know it’s time for business! – and you should always practice some sort of scale or technique (trust me it’s worth the pain!). Then – depending on what your short-term goals are – you can divide the rest of your time up in a manner that feels right.
For example, if you find you regularly have time for 20 minute-sessions, you might like to divide it up like this:
- Warm ups (2 mins)
- Tone exercises (2 mins)
- Scales (3 mins)
- Etude (5 mins)
- Piece(s) (5 mins)
- Creative play (3 mins) – more on this below!
Or maybe you can fit 45 minutes in regularly. You might choose to focus a bit more on some bits:
- Warm ups (5 mins)
- Tone exercises (10 mins)
- Scales (5 mins)
- Etude (10 mins)
- Piece(s) (10 mins)
- Creative play (5 mins)
Or, perhaps orchestral playing is one of your important goals:
- Warm ups (5 mins)
- Tone exercises (10 mins – including playing around with tone colours)
- Scales (5 mins)
- Etudes (5 mins)
- Orchestral excerpt (10 mins)
- Piece(s) (10 mins)
Or, maybe one of your goals is to get better at improvising (scales and scale patterns are crucial for improvising!):
- Warm ups (5 mins)
- Tone exercises (5 mins)
- Scales and scale patterns (20 mins)
- Improvise in a scale over a drone note (5 mins)
- Jam along to a favourite recording (10 mins)
These are only a few of the many, many ways you can divide your practice times based on your goals. Don’t be afraid to get creative!
4. Factor in creative ‘play’ time
This is a very easy thing to forget. There are so many amazing studies that prove that creative play not only unlocks our artistic side, but helps us learn faster. So we need to remember to factor in even just a few minutes of creative play.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I love a plan more than most – don’t get me started on how much I love a spreadsheet – but music is creative and creativity is a muscle we need to stretch just as much as our finger muscles. As the famous comedian John Cleese states beautifully in this fascinating video on creativity, “Creativity is not a talent. It is a mode of operation.” And that is a mode of operation that we need to practice as much as we practice our scales.
This means your practice plans should allow for some fun, creative play to balance out the necessary disciplined work (like scales, or methodically working through passages of a technical piece). Creative play can be anything that stretches your creative muscles – from improvising and noodling around in a scale to experimenting with tone colours or playing your favourite pieces with as much emotion as possible.
There are some things you’ll only discover, figure out and discover by playing creatively – each of our brains are unique and we all unlock knowledge in different ways. We both might read the same advice, but think about it in different ways, and that’s why giving yourself freedom in creativity is so extremely important. It is not only what make playing music so much fun and full of joy, but it is also what makes us better musicians!
Check out my other blog on gamification for some ideas on how to inject your practice sessions with more fun!
5. Don’t forget to take breaks
Our brains and bodies can only handle so much focus at one time, so it’s crucial to make sure to give yourself a break every now and then.
Set a timer to go off periodically during your practice if you need a reminder, but try to make a habit of setting your flute down to walk around, drink some water, pet your cat, or just close your eyes and breathe deep. You’ll be surprised how refreshed you feel and how much longer you can practice when you give yourself regular breaks.
This also helps us avoid the muscle fatigue or strain that can come from accidentally over practicing.
Make your own flute practice plan
Here’s a helpful summary of the steps you’ll need to create your perfect practice plan:
- Set your goals (long-term, mid-term and short-term)
- Determine how much time you’ll have to practice (how many days a week and for how long per practice session. (And take your neighbours into consideration if needed.)
- Structure each practice session to hit the key elements that will serve your goals
- Factor in creative play time in each practice session
- Don’t forget to take breaks!
Hopefully these tips help you put together a plan that not only helps you progress at your flute practice, but keeps it alive with the joy that brought you to the instrument in the first place!
Now… go practice! 😉