Let’s shift your focus from worrying about how fast you can play the flute to building solid technique that will naturally pave the way for effortless speed and virtuosity
We are so lucky to play such a fun instrument—the flute is built for speed and so much of our repertoire is full of exciting, flashy pieces that show off our fleet fingers. However, for intermediate players there is such a pressure to play fast that I often see students struggle with the pieces. They push themselves harder and harder to reach those dizzying speeds without ever reaching that virtuosity that we all crave.
The root of this struggle lies in the misplaced priorities in our practice routines. Rather than focusing on building solid technique for smooth, clean passages, we obsess over how fast we can play.
But a simple change of mindset can help unlock those fast fingers. By emphasising ease rather than quickness you’ll find that you are able to not only play faster, but with much more virtuosity.
Isn’t virtuosity all about velocity?
This is a good question because often we equate virtuosic playing with speed. Of course, finger technique plays a huge role. The faster a player’s fingers can the fly, the more impressive the playing. But virtuosity is about so much more than that.
It’s about mastery: how well a player understands all the workings of the instrument. A flute player might have the fastest fingers in the land, but if their tone or articulation is inconsistent, the performance will sound less virtuosic than someone who has mastery over her tone and articulation as well as her fingers.
It’s about musicality: how well is a player able to convey engaging musical ideas. Fast fingers don’t make for engaging playing by default. Without a good sense of musicality, the playing will feel soulless, robotic and frankly boring and uninspiring.
And, important for today’s discussion, it’s about ease. The most impressive players are those, like Sir James Galway or Jasmine Choi, who are not only able to play at breakneck speeds, but make it all sound so damn easy.
So even if our fingers aren’t ever as fast as we’d like, if our playing demonstrates that we have control over the instrument, are able to play with our heart and soul, and make it all look easy, then our performance will always come across as more impressive than if we sacrifice all that for faster fingers.
The problem with our need for speed
It’s easy to fall into the trap of prioritising speed in our playing. After all, when so much of our repertoire features fast passages and the calibre of players we have access to listen to these day is stratospheric, we begin to equate “good” with “insanely fast.”
But don’t forget that when we’re listening to players like Galway and Choi, we’re not listening to “good” players. They are “exceptional.” And when we redefined this, yeah sure, “exceptional” does mean “insanely fast.” But we can still be “good” flute players with fingers that clock in below “insane” on the speedometer.
The main problem with making speed the sole focus is that it often means neglecting the mechanics of technique. Instead of understanding exactly what it is that a player is asking their fingers to do, they let the fingers rip and hope for the best. This sacrifices precision and leaves them with sloppy, approximated playing. Not only does this hamper the performance, but it also reinforces poor habits that can be extremely difficult to fix later on.
Perhaps even more importantly, focusing on speed before ease has the potential to cause tension, strain and even injury. When we push ourselves beyond our technical limits in pursuit of speed, we often find ourselves gripping the flute tightly and tensing our muscles, from our fingers and wrists to our shoulders, neck and back. This tension not only restricts our ability to produce a beautiful tone but also increases the risk of injury and fatigue.
And as mentioned above, speed alone does not guarantee musical expression. While playing fast can be impressive, true artistry lies in the ability to play with our heart and souls, painting engaging musical pictures for our audiences. By making speed the primary goal, it is easy to overlook the subtleties of musical interpretation, and without musicality, performances will feel robotic. We miss the chance to explore the depth and richness of the music we play, focusing instead on racing from note to note.
If you embrace ease, speed will follow
The slightly unintuitive part of this whole thing is that when we’re able to unlock a sense of ease in our movements, speed will follow, and much quicker than if we aimed for speed from the beginning.
So, what’s happening here?
There are actually a couple of layers to this. By playing slowly, we’ve built a solid foundation of muscle memory for that passage, and focusing on that sense of ease and fluidity means we’ve not only trained our fingers to follow a particular pattern, but we’ve also trained our muscles to do so without unnecessary tension.
There’s also a psychological advantage. When we practice a passage until it feels ridiculously easy, we can remove the anxiety that often accompanies challenging sections. It breaks the cycle of labelling certain passages as “terrifying” or “difficult.” Music is as much a mental game as it is a physical one. As soon as we tell ourselves that a section is hard, it becomes hard. By practicing for ease, we’re essentially tricking our brain out of that anxious response.
Great! But, how do we practice for ease?
Now that we know the benefits of aiming for ease rather than speed, here are a few tips that can help you incorporate this idea in your own practice.
1. Practice slowly. While this feels the most obvious answer, it can also be the hardest one to follow. Everyone—myself included—wants to go fast… it’s fun to fly! But if we push ourselves too fast before the technique is there, we’re just going to practice in tension at best, or solidify mistakes at worst.
2. Be consistent in your technique practice. If you’ve read some of my other blogs, you know I like to bang on about scales… but this is a perfect example why scales are so good! Think about a passage that has caused you trouble in the past—is it a scale or scale pattern? Most likely the answer to that question is yes, or as least “it’s a combination of a few scale patterns.” So the more you practice your scales, the more your fingers will be primed for that movement. And just like you shouldn’t rush difficult passages in the pieces, your technique practice should be mindful, aiming for ease and fluidity in the movements.
3. Practice mindfully, focusing on efficiency of movement. Ideally, we want to be doing as little movement as possible. The higher your fingers are from the keys, the harder they have to work to move faster. When practicing your technique, really tune into your body. Are there muscles that are moving or engaged that don’t need to be? I always like to imagine I’m channelling my inner surferdude, aiming to be super chilled and relaxed, man. I experiment with how little effort can I get away with while still making clean movements between notes.
4. Be conscious of your posture. Our posture plays a huge role in our playing. You not only want your fingers as free as possible to fly, your wrists, arms, elbows, neck, shoulders, back and legs need to avoid holding any unnecessary tension. To feel what a difference this can make, try tensing your fingers into a bear claw and trying to move them fast. Now, completely relax them, allowing them to lightly curve, and then try the same movement. It’s so much easier, right?
5. Find the musical phrasing in long technical passages. Read between the notes and try to find the skeleton of the phrase. Play just those notes, phrasing it musically. Where does the phrase move to? Try to keep that same phrasing in mind as you add in all the notes. It is easy to forget the longer lines of phrasing within a technical passage, and this can cause the playing to feel heavy and clunky. Feeling the phrasing across a technical passage can help open an extra level of ease.
Be patient with yourself
Ease doesn’t happen over night. This is a slow process and means lots of slow, mindful practice that can’t be rushed. But if you are patient with yourself, you’ll be able to unlock effortless speed and that will be worth it!