While we may love our instrument, sometimes practicing can feel like a chore with it’s endless repetition. Creative practicing will not only make your flute practice sessions feel more exciting and engaging, but will actually help you improve faster!
What is creative practice?
As the name suggests, creative practice is about thinking outside the box.
We all know what we need to practice, techniques, scales, etudes, pieces etc. But creative practicing allows us to approach these elements in a new way that goes beyond boring repetition. It might mean adding gamification or improvisation to your routine to keep things fresh and engaging. Or maybe you like to add elements from other art forms to open up the way you approach music.
There’s a great lecture by John Cleese in which he talks about creativity as a mode of operation. We have a ‘get it done’ mode (which would include traditional music practice methods of repetition), and our ‘creative’ mode, an ability to play and to explore ideas. He says, the creativity mode “is a relaxed… expansive… less purposeful mode… in which we’re probably more contemplative, more inclined to humour (which always accompanies a wider perspective) and, consequently, more playful. It’s a mood in which curiosity for its own sake can operate because we’re not under pressure to get a specific thing done quickly. We can play, and that is what allows our natural creativity to surface.”
Creative practice encourages us play around and exercise the imagination. By playing around we make bigger connections and experiment with expression. And what is music other than aural expression?
It will not only make your practice sessions more engaging and enjoyable but it will also develop your musical expression, your problem solving skills and encourage quicker development of your technique.
In this blog, I hope to encourage you to think creatively about your practicing and share a handful of ways we can introduce creative practicing to our flute playing. But don’t let yourself be limited by only these ideas (this is about being creative after all). Come up with your own ideas! Have fun and let loose!
The limits of repetition
Practicing involves a lot of repetition: scale patterns, tone exercises, running over and over and over challenging passages in our music… And while repetition is necessary to build muscle memory and technical proficiency, it can easily cause us to lose interest in practicing and either mean we stagnate our development out of boredom or give up practicing all together.
I want to make it super clear that I’m not advocating ditching the repetition all together (sorry if that’s what you were hoping I’d say!). Instead, creative practice adds an element of play and curiosity that allows us to enjoy the repetition.
Innovate your practice sessions!
What creative practicing really advocates is being innovative, thinking outside the box to find new ways of approaching your instrument and music. Often ‘innovative’ refers to technological advances, and certainly introducing technology can be a great way to get more creative (see below). But what I’m talking about here is incorporating new ways of thinking and practicing into your routines.
So here are a few of my favourite ways to get creative in the practice room.
This is perhaps my favourite—as any of my students can confirm. Add some level of gamification to your practice to not only keep it engaging, but to increase your enjoyment.
Gamification means applying elements of game play—like competition, rewards or challenges—to activities or tasks that may not be inherently be fun or engaging. This concept has become big in the business and marketing world, but it can be used on a personal level to help with boring tasks like exercise or chores… or practice! The idea is to create a sense of play that encourages engagement.
You can use cards or dice to add chance to your practice, use points systems or set yourself ridiculous challenges. For example, to help with my scales I have my Scale Twister. I spin to find out which scale I need to revise, and then again to find a silly rule that challenges me. And TwoSetViolin have their Ling Ling workout.
While I’ve talked more about this in the past in regards to scale practice (which is one of the main sources of our boring repetition), these same techniques can be added to just about anything in our practice. And don’t forget to come up with your own games!
This has been one popular way to add some life into music practice—there seem to be new apps everything that can help add an element of fun to your practice.
Here are some of my favourite apps to use in my practice:
TomPlay: This is a sheet music app that provides interactive accompaniments for musicians to play along with. It has a huge library of music from various genres, including a wealth of standard flute repertoire as well as the latest pop songs. It makes learning pieces a lot more fun than just playing on your own.
StaffWars: This is an app for both Android and Apple that offers students the chance to test their note reading skills. Players identify notes on the staff and earn points by shooting down the corresponding spaceships, combining music theory practice with an engaging and interactive gaming experience.
Arcaea: This is a super engaging anime-style game that can help students improve their rhythm.
Solfeg.io: This website offers a self-learning option that can help students with singing their favourite songs. While we don’t often think about it, being able to improve our ear as a flute player is vital, so even while we may not love singing, it’s a good skill to be developing!
YouTube: Why not try to find some drones or beats to play along or improvise with?
And with new apps being created every day, there’s bound to be awesome one out there I haven’t yet discovered (if you know of any please do let me know in the comments!)
Improvisation not only lets you break out of the routine—its very definition is anti-routine—but it can also help you develop your musical creativity and intuition.
But it’s easier said than done. The word ‘improvisation’ can be terrifying for many classical players out there. Where do you even begin?!
If this makes you freeze up just thinking about it, start with one note. That’s it. How many interesting ways can you play that one note? Have fun! Or try sticking to a single scale. Add a tonic drone (single note or chord) and play around with all the interesting sounds you can make against that drone but only using notes from the scale. Or just noodle. I love a good noodle on the flute. Play around with random notes, finding what sounds good today and what doesn’t. What intervals do you find pleasing?
Whatever your comfort level, there are ways to introduce elements of improvisation that can help your creativity, ear and understanding of how sounds work.
Visualisation techniques have long been used by athletes to enhance their performance, and the same principles can be applied to music practice.
Try to find an aspect of your playing you’d like to improve, say tone or technique. Then imagine yourself playing that way, but really imagine it.
For example, try closing your eyes and imagining your sound filling every corner of the room. The perfect sound that just seems to ring. Now try playing, imagining that you’re merging that fantasy with reality. Does your sound change?
Remember the point is to get curious, experiment. If it does change, how so? Can you make it change in another way? You’ll be surprised what this can do to help you understand how in this case sound works. You might unlock something you may never have noticed otherwise.
Creative variations on repetition
Instead of mindlessly playing the same exercises over and over, why not try incorporating variations into your daily practice routines? By adding creative elements like improvisation, experimenting with different tempos, or playing with different dynamics, you can bring new life and excitement to your practice sessions. For example, instead of playing a scale in the same order every day, try playing it in reverse or with added ornaments. You could also try practicing your pieces with a metronome at different speeds, or even try looping a difficult passage over a fun beat on YouTube.
The idea here is to still be practicing the repetition, but in ways that don’t quite feel so monotonous.
Why not try introducing elements from other disciplines into your practice? This could mean other art forms like writing, visual arts or dance, or even other industries. Is there anything from your skill set at work that might be a fun way to introduce a new element to your practicing? (I love spreadsheet, so my practicing is fullll of them, ha.)
For example, try interpreting a painting through your flute playing, using the colours, shapes, and emotions evoked by the artwork to guide your musical expression. Or maybe try the reverse – listen to a recording of the piece you’re working on a try to create a visual representation of it in your chosen medium. This can help you explore the emotion and expression of the piece in a new way! Or consider taking a dance class to connect your physical movements to your playing, enhancing your sense of rhythm and phrasing.
Location, location, location
Finally, don’t be afraid to think outside the box when it comes to practice locations. Taking your flute outside to a park or a beach can provide a fresh and inspiring environment for you to practice in. Or, try practicing in different rooms of your house to change up the acoustics and keep things interesting.
Embracing challenges as problem-solving exercises
Another aspect of creative practicing is about finding original ways to problem solve in your practice. Instead of viewing challenging passages or techniques as obstacles, consider them puzzles waiting to be solved.
Don’t be afraid to experiment. Try playing the passage in different rhythms, articulations, and dynamics. Or maybe one of the above suggestions like improvisation or gamification might help you work through a difficult passage. The idea, perhaps unsurprisingly, is to get creative and learn to enjoy a challenge, rather than dread it.
Balancing structure and creativity
It had been hugely helpful to my own practice—and consequently life in general—to recognise that we have two modes of operation: a creative, open, playful, curious mode, and an executive, focused, ‘get it done’ mode.
What I’m hoping you’ll have picked up by now is that approaching our flute practice solely in the focused ‘get it done’ mode is going to limit your enjoyment and progress. I’m not saying that we don’t need to this mode. We absolutely do, but we should strive to balance it with that creative, playful mode.
By adding this creative approach to our practice you can absolutely accelerate your progress by helping you connect wider concepts, enjoy your playing, and explore your curiosity.
Make sure you schedule time in your practice plan to allow room for this creative exploration. We need to make time for it. Setting out specific practice plans might be helpful to strike that balance.
But note that the goal is not to rigidly adhere to a pre-set routine but to strike a dynamic balance that propels both structured learning and creative exploration.
Now that I’ve covered creative practicing and offered various ways to incorporate it into your own flute practice, now it’s your turn to get creative!
Experiment with some of these suggested techniques, or, better yet, make up your own! The idea is to transform your practice from a slog and into a springboard for creativity.
I’d love to hear more about how you cultivate your curiosity and add some playfulness to your practice. Let me know in the comments!