The goal of practicing is to learn by repetition. So why do so many flute students forget to check that they’re drilling the right notes?? Let’s dive into some tips to make sure you get it right from the beginning and why a flute fingering chart is your best friend
Has this ever happened to you?: You’ve been excited to learn a new piece of music and spent all week, diligently practicing your music, drilling passages only to play it for your teacher and find out you’ve been practicing the wrong notes! You might be surprised how many times I see this in my lessons!
While I feel like it’s a fairly obvious statement, whenever you start learning a new you piece, you MUST make sure you’re playing the right notes and fingerings before you start practicing it over and over! Without paying close attention, it’s super easy for wrong notes to sneak in (perhaps a missed accidental or key signature). And if we practice those wrong notes you’ll just be ingraining that incorrect muscle memory and trust me, that can be a headache to fix those mistakes later!
Practice won’t help if you’re playing the wrong notes
First, let’s dissect exactly what we’re doing when we practice. Essentially, practicing is the art of ingraining skills through repetition. While I’ve talked about the difference between mindless repetition and quality practicing before, repetition is still a large part of what we do when we practice the flute.
The repetition helps us build muscle memory and reinforce habits and fingerings. If you’re not careful to ensure that you’re practicing the right notes from the beginning, you run the risk of ingraining those mistakes into your muscle memory. This can make it incredibly difficult to unlearn those errors and retrain your fingers to play the correct notes. Not only does this waste time and effort, but it can also hinder your overall progress and development as a flute player.
Which means that practicing wrong notes is actually even worse than not practicing! *Gasp!*
So, before you start drilling passages and spending all that time practicing take the time to ensure that all your notes and fingerings are correct. Remember, practice won’t help if you’re playing the wrong notes.
How to practice to make sure you get it right
I know this may seem like such a silly thing to say. Of course we always mean to practice the right notes. It would be ridiculous to assume otherwise. The main issues I see with my students begin when they trust their muscle memory too soon. They might have played some notes carefully a few times, but then rushed the tempo too quickly, hoping the muscle memory was already there. Mistakes creep in and because they’re trusting that their muscle memory is working and have turned their attention elsewhere, they don’t get caught until it’s too late.
So here are a few great ways to make sure that you’ve got all the right notes, from the very beginning.
Break down each phrase
Before you start practicing a new piece or passage, take the time to sit down and analyse each phrase. Make sure you know each note, paying very close attention to key signatures and accidentals. Try to recognise patterns: Is there a scale within the passage? An arpeggio? A scale in thirds? Knowing this will help you.
Then try playing the piece one phrase at a time. Slowly. Give yourself permission to ignore the tempo and just play through each note, making sure your fingers are going to the right place. Try to avoid letting your fingers ‘find’ the keys (allowing them to move between notes, feeling for the right fingering).
Check notes with a fingering chart
Flute fingering charts are invaluable tools for both beginners and seasoned players. They serve as visual guides, clearly showing which keys should be pressed for each note. They’re a great way to learn new notes and expand your range, but even if you think you know all your flute fingerings, make sure you always have a fingering and trill chart for flute nearby so you can easily reference it anytime you’re not 100% sure.
If there are enharmonic notes that you’re less familiar with (B#, Fx or Abb), don’t just guess, make sure you work out the correct fingering.
Fingering charts can also be a great way to check for alternative fingerings – sometimes there are different fingerings for notes that will allow for better ease of playing. A good flute fingering chart will include these.
And don’t forget to ALWAYS check trill fingerings. Hands up… I’m guilty of just guessing trills sometimes. And I’ll admit if I’m guessing, I’m usually going to guess wrong. Trill fingerings don’t always make intuitive sense—there are even keys invented for the sole purpose of trilling. And make sure you double check which notes you’re trilling between: don’t trill a half step when you should be trilling a whole step and vice versa.
If you don’t have a quality flute fingering chart yet, check out this comprehensive one I’ve put together. It’s a FREE 17-page resource that includes fingerings for the flute’s full range, fourth octave notes, alternative fingerings, and trill fingerings!
I know I harp on about slow practice but it bears repeating. It’s so tempting to play fast—especially when we play an instrument built for speed!—but playing too fast too soon spells danger. At best it leaves us with sloppy playing, at worst, with the completely wrong muscle memory that can be nigh on impossible to fix.
Always start a passage or phrase so painfully slow that you know there is no way you could possibly play it wrong. Give your brain enough time to sit and think of each next note before you get to it.
Common fingering challenges
While slow practice will likely highlight any trouble areas technique or fingering wise, here are a few tricky fingering issues worth keeping your eyes peeled for. I generally find these to be the main issue when a student comes to their lesson having practiced in wrong notes.
Rogue fingers: You’d be hard pressed to find a flute teacher who does find themselves constantly saying “LIFT YOUR FIRST FINGER ON Eb!!!” For some reason, that rogue first finger just wants to do whatever it wants to do. And while the second octave Eb is the most common culprit there are a few other fingerings that I find students don’t double check before practicing including F# (those who play saxophone too are always tempted to use the right hand middle finger instead of the ring finger) and the third octave D (it’s quite different from our lower octaves and often students just try getting away with harmonic fingerings instead).
Key signatures: Always always always—and I mean always—check and double check the key signature. Nine times out of 10, if a student has practiced in wrong notes, it’s because they forgot to look at the key signature.
Accidentals that carry through the bar: Remember that accidentals carry through the bar so there may only be one sharp or flat sign that applies to many notes. For example in the passage below there are four C#s, but only the first is marked as such.
Translating enharmonic notes: When students try to translate various sharps or flats in their head to an enharmonic note that feels more comfortable, it almost always causes fingering issues. For example many students struggle to remember the fingering for Gb and will translate it to F# in their head instead. Gb & F# share the same fingering, but are different: I like to think about it like saying Hello or Bonjour. They are two different words for different contexts that just happen to mean the same thing. Perhaps there was a time you needed to translate Bonjour in your head, but I imagine you simply know the meaning of it now. It’s the same for enharmonic notes. If you translate them in your head, you’re likely to confuse yourself. For example if you translate a Gb to F#, then you might be tempted to play an F# when you come across an actual F in the passage because your brain knows accidentals should carry through the bar.
Trill fingerings: Students will often just pick the easiest trill when they see a trill marking, rather than double checking that they’re trilling to the right note. For example, in the passage below, you should trill from G to Ab, not A natural because there is an Ab in the key signature.
FREE fingering chart
Why not download my FREE comprehensive flute fingering chart to help make sure you get the notes right from the beginning? It has everything you need in one place: basic fingerings, alternate fingerings, fourth octave fingerings and trills. It’s a great resource for everyone from beginner flute players to more advanced students. Get your copy here.