How breaking your practice into small, digestible chunks can help you progress faster on the flute
This analogy is my favourite to use in my flute lessons because it really captures the essence of effective practice. Picture being served a giant mouth-watering steak (I’m still looking for a vegetarian version for this analogy, so suggestions are welcome!). The steak is incredibly tempting, it smells so good and looks so tasty. But, no matter how irresistible it looks, you would never dare to shove the entire steak into your face all at once. You’d choke and die!
Instead, you cut it up into manageable little pieces and chew them. And chew them. Steak can be a bit chewy. But you get to savour every single bite, and before you know it, you’ve finished the steak without choking on it!
We should approach our flute practice in the same way. If you’re learning a new piece, scale, pattern or technique, and you try practicing the whole thing in one go (like shoving a whole steak in your mouth), you’ll crash and burn! But if you break up the music into small, manageable chunks, chew them over and over (and over and over and over…), you’ll discover you’ve finished the whole thing before you know it… and with ease!
This doesn’t just apply for pieces, but it works for any aspect of our playing. If you’re working on learning a new technique – say circular breathing – just focus on one-step at a time. Spend time ‘chewing’ it over before learning the next step, and you’ll pick up the full technique before you know it!
Break passages up into phrases or smaller
Ideally the largest chunk you will want to tackle in one go is a phrase. But sometimes even a full phrase can be too much to tackle, especially when it contains complex rhythms or intricate patterns, so don’t hesitate to break it into even smaller bits: measures, short patterns or beats.
By deconstructing the music into these bite-sized components, you give yourself the opportunity to focus intently on the specific challenges. This incremental approach helps you build confidence and fluency gradually, setting yourself up for success.
‘Chew’ different aspects until you master them
The chunks can be made up of various elements as well—it’s not only our fingers that need focused work. On a passage that is not difficult fingering-wise (or one that you’ve already tackled the finger work), you can still chunk up other aspects of the passage.
It’s sort of like how you might move the steak around to different parts to make use of different teeth to help with chewing, allow yourself to keep ‘chewing’ the passage for different elements (tone colour, tuning, phrasing, dynamics, articulation, etc). (And yeah, I know, my analogy is running a bit thin by this point, but it sort of works??)
You’re not done once the fingerings are learned! Keep on chewing!
Repeat the passage for phrasing, allowing yourself to focus on the musical direction and harmonic skeleton of the passage. Repeat to check tuning. Repeat to focus on evenness of tone colour across the pattern. Repeat while focusing on precise articulation…. You get the idea.
‘Savour’ each bite
Because I apparently love to beat a dead analogy, think about how you might savour every single bite of a perfectly-cooked steak. As you eat, you might wish to let it linger, enjoying the taste for as long as possible.
We do not ever want to be in a rush to finish a chunk of our practice. Instead see if you can learn to enjoy the repetition and the progression you’ll start noticing. Linger with each chunk and be proud of what you’ve accomplished rather than rushing to get to the next chunk. Let that gorgeous sound you’ve been working on thrill you. Be proud of getting your fingers under a technical passage.
Remember, it’s not about how much time you spend practicing; it’s about the quality of your practice sessions (if you haven’t already read my post about ‘smart practicing’, check it out here). ‘Chewing the steak’ helps us focus that intent and give our full attention to a passage. I promise you’ll notice faster improvements in your tone, technique and overall musicality than if you try to practice the piece, technique or pattern all in one go.
So, go grab your flute, mark up your music into bite-sized chunks and savour the sweet taste of progress (OK, OK! Even I admit that was corny).
Happy practicing friends!