Practice Session, part 5: Improvisation

Improvisation: Beyond the Lesson Materials.

The fifth part of a practice session should include music that you love.

If you’re just starting this blog series, be sure to read the OVERVIEW and posts about the four other sections. The links are below.

  1. Warm up.
  2. Scales & Technique.
  3. Etudes.
  4. Repertoire.
  5. Improvisation and revisiting old material.
  6. Review, warm-down, reflecting on goals and planning for the next practice session.

The fifth part of a well-organized practice time will help you to reconnect to your inner musician and begin to wrap up the practice session. If we are considering a 30 minute practice interval, the fifth part will include minutes 25-28.

If you’re not a jazz musician, you may feel reluctant to add improvisation to your practice, but I assure you that it’s just as important as scales and etudes.

Improvisation here is defined broadly. I’m using the term to mean any music that you play away from the page or which reconnects you to your love of music. You can literally “improvise” what you want to do for these three minutes.

Improvisation in this broad sense may include

  1. made up songs
  2. figuring out songs you know
  3. sight reading
  4. playing “non-classical” music
  5. returning to pieces you have passed but make you happy

One of my favorite made up songs is the “How I Feel Today Song.” For this exercise, simply ask yourself how you feel in this moment. Perhaps you’re tired and annoyed. Or maybe you’re feeling joyful and busy. Direct those feelings into you fingertips. Choose a key (or not) and let your fingers move in any way they wish. You may be surprised by what you hear. I’ll give more ideas about improvising in a future blog post, but here are a few more suggestions:

  • Without using music, figure out a favorite song– this could be a simple folk song like “Twinkle Twinkle” or a song you hear on the radio like “Let It Go.”
  • Begin playing from sheet music but after a couple of measures, continue by making up your own music in the same style and key.
  • Play along with a favorite recording, not necessarily with the melody. Pretend you are a backup singer or someone in the band.

This part of the practice session is also where you will want to include some sight reading. Everyone benefits from sight reading practice, though “practicing sigh reading” sounds like an oxymoron. Adult students seem to get the most benefit out of regular sight reading practice. Here’s some of the music in my husband’s sight reading stack today:


piano books for sight reading


These three minutes of practice, offers the opportunity to play music that you might not work on in a lesson. Many of my flute students enjoy playing pop songs, tunes from musicals, church music, or folk music from all around the world. Many collections of pop music will include a play-along CD and these can be lots of fun. Although this fun music should not compromise the time you spend on repertoire for your lesson, it is important to always play something you enjoy. These are some fun books I have in my collection:

fun music


This fifth “drawer” of the practice cabinet will also include pieces you have played in the past and love. This could be ensemble music that makes you happy or repertoire music that you enjoy. You won’t play these pieces for your weekly lesson because you have moved past this music, but in this section of your practice, it doesn’t matter. It can be gratifying to return to music you played in the past and realize that now you have better mastery of them.

Be sure to reconnect with music that makes you happy every day. Awaken the creative spark inside by getting off the printed sheet music. Remind yourself of the progress that you have made when you are revisiting old pieces. The fifth part of your practice session is the perfect place to improvise with the music you play.

When your time is up, continue to the sixth and final “drawer” REVIEW.

Practice Session, Part 4: Repertoire


The fourth element in a productive practice session.

If you haven’t read the blog posts OVERVIEW, WARM UP, SCALES, and ETUDES, you may want to start with those before reading about part #4.

OK, so there are six parts to every good practice session:

  1. Warm up.
  2. Scales, short technical exercises.
  3. Etudes.
  4. Repertoire.
  5. Improvisation and revisiting old material.
  6. Review, warm-down, reflecting on goals and planning for the next practice session.

The repertoire section begins about halfway through the practice session. We begin with a warm up and short technical exercises before moving to progressively longer pieces. If our practice session is 30 minutes in length, you will want to spend about 12 minutes on repertoire. If you’re watching the clock, the third part will be minutes 13-25. Remember, these are ballpark numbers and you may need to adjust your practice session if you need more work in one area than another. For instance, if a competition is coming up, you may need to spend more time on repertoire. I suggest that you borrow the time from etudes.

If the practice session is like a dresser, the repertoire drawer is the largest. Let’s consider what elements make up this section of practice.

What music is in the repertoire “drawer?”


repertoire in my filing cabinet

  • solos
  • band / orchestra / choir sheet music
  • chamber ensemble music
  • duets
  • orchestral excerpts
  • audition music
  • music for special occasions, such as weddings or funerals

During the repertoire part of your practice, you will be working on mostly long term pieces. Unlike the etudes, the repertoire pieces are ones you will be studying for months or perhaps years. These pieces will likely be performed at a recital, competition, contest, audition, or other event. If you have a music library, repertoire pieces probably take up more room in your cabinet than any other genre. You might notice in the picture of my repertoire drawer that there is a skimpy “warm ups” folder at the front and a folder of “scales” behind it. The rest of the drawer is full of flute solos.

While practicing repertoire pieces, you will likely come to spots that require “woodshedding.” These are places of technical difficulty that need special attention as you work toward mastery. I have written a series of blog posts on different ways to “woodshed.” Below you will see some interesting (for the brain!) ways to work on tricky passages.

Woodshedding Blog Articles, by yours truly:

Neuroscientists are beginning to understand that varying the practice routine leads to better memory storage. Mix and match the woodshedding games to both give your brain the novelty it craves and to strengthen the muscle memory. Neurons work faster when they have more connections. It might seem odd, but practicing the notes differently each time actually improves technique.

Make a mental note of the most difficult sections that you are woodshedding during the repertoire part of your practice. You will have a chance to return to them before the end of the practice session.

Scientists are trying to learn what makes some musicians have more success than others. It seems to come down to differences in the way musicians practice. This series of blog posts about organizing practice is inspired by research on Effective Practice Skills and on new neurological information about How We Learn.

When your repertoire time is up, you will move on to the fifth part: IMPROVISATION.

Practice Session, Part 3: Etudes

Etudes, or study pieces, are the third element of a productive practice session.

If you haven’t read the blog posts OVERVIEW, WARM UP, and SCALES, you may want to start with those before reading about part #3.

OK, so there are six parts to every good practice session:

  1. Warm up.
  2. Scales, short technical exercises.
  3. Etudes.
  4. Repertoire.
  5. Improvisation and revisiting old material.
  6. Review, warm-down, reflecting on goals and planning for the next practice session.

Our bodies and minds are warmed up and our fingers have worked on some fast, but short, technical exercises or scales. If our practice session is 30 minutes in length, you will want to spend about 6 minutes on etudes. If you’re watching the clock, the third part will be minutes 7-13. Remember, these are ballpark numbers and you may need to adjust your practice session if you need more work in one area than another.

By the way, the word etude comes from the French word “to study.” I think it is a lovely, elegant word.

practice "drawers"Continuing the drawer analogy I have used in the other posts, the third drawer (orange in the picture) is slightly larger than the second drawer. In this drawer we find study pieces. These etudes are longer than the two or three line exercises we worked on in the scale section. Depending on your level, the etudes could be anywhere from a half page to four pages in length. Etudes are different from repertoire pieces because they are learned in a shorter time frame, usually 1-4 weeks. These pieces are played at lessons but rarely in a performance. Etudes are often included in volumes with a variety of key signatures. Many etudes are written with a specific technical goal in mind, such as octave practice or double tonguing. Repertoire pieces, on the other hand, are long term projects and are often performed in recitals or contests. We’ll discuss repertoire pieces in the next part of our practice.

Here are some of the books in my etudes “drawer:”

etudes for the third part of a productive practice session

some of my etudes

Etudes bridge the work between scales and repertoire. Can I be honest with you? I hated etudes when I was in college. They felt like drudgery. I wanted to skip to the repertoire pieces that I loved. But old age brings wisdom and I now know that practicing etudes helps with the repertoire work. Etudes can be entertaining too! My younger flute students like using Irish music for their etudes. They are pleasant for everyone to listen to and because Irish music is very tonal, students can immediately know if there is a wrong note. An added bonus is that Irish tunes are a blast at fast speeds, providing motivation for working with the metronome. Every instrument has standard etudes. For flutists, it’s Anderson, Altes, and Berbiguier. Please leave a note in the comment section below with the best-loved (or hated!) etudes for your instrument.

And now, you’re ready for the largest chunk of time: REPERTOIRE.

Practice Session, part 2: Scales & Technique

Scales and Technique

The second of the six parts of a practice session.

In the first blog post of this seven part series, I gave a general overview the elements of typical practice session:practice "drawers"

  1. Warm up.
  2. Scales, short technical exercises.
  3. Etudes.
  4. Repertoire.
  5. Improvisation and revisiting old material.
  6. Review, warm-down, reflecting on goals and planning for the next practice session.

If we think of the practice session as a set of drawers, we start at the top and work our way down. Today, we will look in the second drawer: scales and technique exercises.

Opening the second drawer, we find lots of scale books, technique exercises, and things of that nature. This is minute 3-8 of our thirty minute practice session. In this part of the practice session, you will want to focus on short technical exercises. Ideally, you will choose exercises that strengthen your weaknesses and solve problems you are having in repertoire (element #4). When creating your plan for the practice session (element #1), try to pick exercises that will help you achieve your goals. These are a few of the books–and the scale cards–that I use during this portion of my practice:

scales and technique books for flute

scales and technique books for flute

Scales. There are many different kinds of scales– major, minor, chromatic, modes, whole tone, jazz, pentatonic, and so forth. Work on memorizing the scales. Check out the Scale Game I use with my students. Advanced players will also want to practice scales in thirds, octaves, full range, descending first (then ascending), and any other combination you can think of.

Intervals. Each instrument will have unique needs for interval practice, but we all benefit from working on difficult combinations of notes. I like to use an exercise of expanding intervals to increase flexibility. Lip slurs are great for brass players. All wind players can work on the harmonic/overtone series.

Articulations. Practice different kinds of accents, like marcato, staccato, legato. Work on the beginnings of notes. Don’t forget about articulations: single, double, and triple tonguing. Pianists  may use exercises to improve their repetition speed and pedaling. 

In a 30 minute practice session, you may want to spend about 5 minutes on scales and technical exercises. The technical exercises should be short. This will keep the brain entertained. Keep in mind the technical problems you have in your repertoire and pick scales and technical exercises that compliment that work. This is called “interleaving.”

Interleaving: That’s a cognitive science word, and it simply means mixing related but distinct material during study. –From How We Learn by Benedict Carey.

Choosing scales and technique exercises that are related to the repertoire you’re studying actually makes it easier. That’s really the whole point of scales and technical exercises anyway.

Longer exercises, or etudes, will be included in the next phase of practice. The two purposes of this phase of practice are

  1. strengthen skills needed in the solo repertoire
  2. prepare the body and mind for the longer, intense concentration needed for the longer pieces

Fingers flying, mind roaring, let’s move on to ETUDES.

Practice Session, Part 1: Warm Up

warm upWarm Up

This blog post is the second in a seven part series about the structure of a typical practice session.

In the blog post “Overview,” I outlined the six elements that should be a part of every practice session. You can think of these parts like a chest of drawers. Each drawer is a different size. Working from the top down, the drawers are

  1. Warm up.
  2. Scales, short technical exercises.
  3. Etudes.
  4. Repertoire.
  5. Improvisation and revisiting old material.
  6. Review, warm-down, reflecting on goals and planning for the next practice session.

In every 30 minute practice session, you will want to spend about 2 minutes on #1: “Goal setting and warm up.” This part of the practice is important because it wakes up the mind, body and ear.

First, we warm up the brain.

I am in the habit of thinking about what I need to accomplish in the practice room before I arrive. Ideally, I have created new goals at the end of my previous practice session (practice item #6), but if not, the beginning of a new practice session is a good time to think about my goals. Many students find that a notebook can be very helpful for writing down this kind of stuff. (Unfortunately, I seem to lose notebooks faster than I can write in them….) The short term goals you set at the beginning of practice should be attainable in the amount of time set aside. For instance, you may want to work out tricky passages in your new solo and increase the tempo of the minor scales. Your goals will be different every day. Try to keep them realistic so that when your practice is finished, you feel like you have attained at least some of your goals.

The first thing I do when entering the practice room is silence my cell phone. I know from experience that a beep or buzz on my phone easily devolves into checking my email, then a quick glance at the weather, a reply to a text.., and then my practice time is over before I’ve played a note.

I consider how much uninterrupted time I have. Sometimes, I even put practice time in my online calendar to truly set it aside. When I begin, I tell myself that everything outside of the practice room will still be there for me when I’m finished. I try to quiet my mind and tell myself that this is the highest and best use of my time. If I’m feeling really distracted, I will take a moment to jot down a quick to-do list. Writing things down unburdens my mind because I don’t have to worry about forgetting.

As I put my flute together, I put the pieces together mindfully, grateful for the beautiful instrument and my ability to play it. I like to approach each practice session with a “beginner’s mind” because it allows me to stay open and curious. Judgement and negativity are not helpful.

This is a good place in your practice session to try out some of the concentration exercises I explained in a previous post.

Next, we bring attention to the body.

When I was younger, I didn’t need to do much to warm up my body. Now that I’m older, I find physical warm ups to be very helpful. If I’m feeling tight in my neck, I will make gentle circles with my head. Sometimes it’s my shoulders or hands that need to be stretched. Wherever there is pain or tightness, I’ll take a moment to move in mays that release the tension. While stretching, I also bring attention to my breath and begin to deepen the inhale and exhale.

This is a good place in the practice session to check your posture. Our goal is to always move freely without pain. The Alexander Technique has been very helpful to me in understanding how to use my body efficiently. My friend Lea Pearson has studied the Alexander Technique and wrote Body Mapping for Flutists: What Every Flutist Needs to Know About the Body. I highly recommend this book.

Finally, we wake up the ear.

Because I play a wind instrument, the first sounds I make on the instrument are long tones. It’s important for wind players to pay attention to embouchure, breath, and resonance from the very beginning. (If you are a string player, pianist, or vocalist, leave a comment below telling me what your first sounds are when you start practicing.) While playing long tones, I think about my posture, vibrato, intonation, beginnings of notes, releases, dynamics, and tone color. This begins to awaken my ear. Throughout, I ask myself “Is this the best sound I can make today?” I use a variety of tone exercises– the brain needs novelty to stay engaged– but I have my favorites too. I enjoy listening to my tone warm ups with my eyes closed. This helps me to really open the ear without any visual distractions. (I write about the difference between hearing and listening in this blog post.)

All these warm up activities happen in the first two minutes of practice! (Actually, some of the planning and goal setting can be done on your way to the practice room.)

Once the mind is focused, the body is moving well, and the ears are open, it’s time to get the fingers flying! Continue reading part 2 “Scales & Technique.”


Practice Session: Overview

Practice Session Structure


In this seven part series, I will discuss how to structure a typical practice session. This will offer a solid guideline for what things should be a part of every practice session and how much time to spend on each element. In future blog posts, I will explain each item in detail. Before we get into the details, let’s take a look at the basic structure and parts of a productive practice session.

practice "drawers"Let’s think of a practice session like a chest of drawers. Each drawer is a different size, relative to the time you will spend on that element. We begin at the top and work our way down. As we open each drawer, we find sheet music inside. The first drawer is thin and contains a notebook and ideas for tone exercises. Drawer #2 is a little bit larger and is full of little technical exercises and note cards with scales on them. Drawer #3 is just a little bit bigger still and when you open it, you see books of etudes. We’ll open up the drawers and examine each of their contents in future blog posts, but for now let’s consider what the dresser looks like from the outside. The dresser has six drawers of various sizes. The size of the drawer represents the approximate time for the material in it.

Here are the six elements you will probably want to include in every practice session with suggested time for each item. During every practice, you will want to open each drawer and  choose something to play. Let’s consider a practice session of 30 minutes in length:

  1. Goal setting and warm-up. (2 minutes)
  2. Scales, short technical exercises. (5 minutes)
  3. Etudes. (6 minutes)
  4. Repertoire. (12 minutes)
  5. Improvisation and revisiting old material. (3 minutes)
  6. Review, warm-down, reflecting on goals and planning for the next practice session. (2 minutes)

Here’s a pie chart showing the time ratios (notice the colors are different from the drawers above. I can’t figure out how to fix that…):

pie chart of practice elements

pie chart


And a bar chart that indicates the structure:

practice session structure

bar chart


The bar chart makes it easy to see that the repertoire work comes in the middle of the practice session, after the brain and body are warmed up but before fatigue sets in. This is the optimal place for hard work. By the way, this bar chart looks like the workout program on a treadmill. Practicing isn’t much different than athletic training!

If you have other items to practice (orchestral excerpts, extended techniques, etc.), find the closest category and include them. I’ll give more ideas for things to include in the six basic categories in future blog posts.

As you move closer to a performance or competition, you may need to devote more time to the repertoire and less time to repertoire. These guidelines are intended to be flexible suggestions. However, they offer a way to structure the practice session in a careful way so that nothing gets overlooked.

If you practice for longer than 30 minutes, you may want to consider breaking your practice into several shorter sessions. After every 30 minutes of playing, you will want to take a short break. Stand up and walk around the room, get a drink of water, stretch. The brain can only handle short bouts of concentrated activity before becoming worn out. Additionally, spacing out your practice helps long term memory. The blog post How We Learn talks more about this phenomenon. Two thirty minute practice sessions with a break in between is better for learning than one un-interrupted hour.

Links are here for more explanation about the six elements of practice:

Part #1 WARM UP


Part #3 ETUDES



Part #6 REVIEW

Musical Family: Ideas for Simple, Fun Ways to Enjoy Music Together

The Musical Family

I want my kids to always love music. At nine and ten years old, they aren’t interested in sitting through an opera at the Met. It’s probably out of our budget anyway. But there are many ways that we enjoy music together as a family, inexpensively and with maximum joy for everyone. Quality family time and invaluable musical exposure is a win-win!

Five ideas for simple, fun ways to enjoy music with young kids.

  1. Attend an orchestra concert designed for kids. Most orchestras have family-friendly programs so finding one in your area won’t be difficult. For instance, the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops has a series called Lollipops for kids age 2-10. These concerts are held several times through the year at kid-friendly times and prices. You don’t have to worry about your child squirming in her seat because the audience will be full of wiggling bodies. These programs are usually sensitive to your child’s attention span and are very entertaining.
  2. Outdoor concerts are perfect for families. The Columbus Symphony Orchestra offers Picnic with the Pops and Popcorn with the Pops concerts during the summer at the Columbus Commons. We like to bring a basket full of tasty food and a blanket for the lawn. The kids always find friends to play with on the lawn before the concert starts. During the show, they can move around, eat snacks, and (best of all) fall asleep in my lap.
  3. Tune the radio to the classical station. We keep our kitchen radio tuned to the classical station because the kitchen is the center of our family life. Sometimes I listen to the local classical station, though I really like my Sirius radio classical stations because the title information scrolls across the bottom of the radio. When something catches my ear, I often ask the kids to tell me what is playing. This helps them learn the composers and pieces. In a quiet moment, I might ask the kids, “Do you like the piece that is playing on the radio? Why?”
  4. Keep a collection of musical instruments that your kids can “play.” We have a basket full of percussion instruments, recorders, harmonicas, etc. for the children to enjoy. I love seeing how they interact with them because the possibilities are endless. One day they might pretend to be a marching band and walk through the house playing loudly; another day Daughter will sort them into piles of similar color and play them one at a time. When friends come over, it’s usually the first thing they ask to do. (I have a bottle of mouthpiece sanitizer available to use on the wind instruments.)
  5. Music classes are fun! Many recreation, arts, and community centers offer group music classes. There are many different kinds (Music Together, Kindermusik, Dalcroze, Orff, Kodaly, and others) for babies through adolescents. I have studied all of these methods and teach my own style of music classes that blend ideas from the different traditions. Music classes for families use simple songs and instruments, along with body movement to facilitate social and motor development. That’s a fancy way of saying you and your child will love making music with you.

Plant the musical seed early and see how it grows.