Improvisation Inspiration

Improvisation Inspiration

beatboxing improvisation

As part of my “file cabinet” method for organizing practice, I encourage everyone to add improvisation to their daily practice. Remember, improvisation can take lots of different forms from trying to figure out at favorite song by ear to playing a solo with a jazz band.

Flutists can do some really cool things with their instruments, like using the keys to make percussion sounds, singing and playing at the same time, or flutter tonguing. These “extended techniques” give us a big sound palette and modern composers such as Robert Dick are taking full advantage of them.

Greg Pattillo is a flutist who is pushing the boundaries of the sonic capabilities of the flute. He beatboxes while playing to create a totally new and exciting sound. You can find him on many YouTube videos. Here’s a link to some of the videos he has posted on his personal website:

Greg has a video “Beatbox Flute 101” to help get you started:

Want to be the coolest flutist in the band? Try beatboxing and impress all your friends!


Yoga Wisdoms for the Practice Room

I find it fascinating that we use the same word for studying music and spending time on the yoga mat.

I practice music. I practice yoga.

Time spent in the studio playing an instrument isn’t all that different from going to a yoga class.

I have studied yoga off and on for most of my adult life. For the past four years, I have been a familiar face in the yoga class, attending classes at least twice a week. I am stronger, mentally and physically, than I have ever been. And I’ve found that yoga practice is influencing my music practice in perceptible ways. I blogged about this in a post titled “Practice” a few months ago, but I want to move into the subject deeper. I want to stretch it out and find its limits.

These are the yoga wisdoms I carry from the mat into the music practice room:

Show Up. Some days I don’t feel like going to the gym or rolling out the mat. My body is tired. There are too many things to do. I worry there might be a sub instead of my favorite teacher. The list of excuses is long. But I force myself to go to class and afterward I feel better, lots better. I can’t have a healthier body if I don’t exercise, just like I can’t be a better musician if I leave the instrument in its case. Practicing means we have to show up, regularly. Even when we don’t feel like it. Music and yoga have the power to transform mood. At the end of class and the end of a practice session, I feel better because practicing elevates me.

Humility. In yoga, there is always going to be someone stronger/more flexible/more graceful than me. In music, there will always be someone with faster technique/better tone/more sensitivity. Acknowledging that I’m not the best, nor will I ever be, has two benefits: 1. I’m not crushed when the new young person comes along with amazing skills and 2. It gives me a chance to learn with an open heart from the masters. I love going to music concerts and masterclasses because I always learn something new. My musical life is enriched, not diminished, by celebrating the best players.

Every day is different. The things I was able to do yesterday aren’t the same as the things I can do today; tomorrow will present new solutions and new challenges… And that’s OK. If I can’t balance in “Half Moon” or play the “Carnival of Venice” up to speed today, I’ll have another chance to try tomorrow. My yoga teacher encourages us to practice “non-judgment.” Of course that means not judging our abilities against others, but it also means that we don’t judge ourselves. I like to stay curious about how my body is able to move everyday. If I feel a tight muscle, I think “that’s interesting,” not “that’s bad” or “I shouldn’t feel that way.” Curiosity has the added benefit of being playful. So too in my music practice. If I notice that a difficult passage is causing stress and not improving, I’ll put it away until tomorrow.

Humor. At a recent yoga class, we worked on “crow” pose. Here’s a picture of what someone who can actually do it looks like:

crow pose

this is not me.

So basically, you are balancing all your weight on the back of your arms and trying not to fall over. Dutiful yoga student that I am, I worked my way into the pose, carefully following the teacher’s directions. I smashed my knees into the back of my arms, I began to shift the weight forward, I lifted my feet… and fell onto my face. It was an ugly and complete nose-to-the-mat crumple. I had a nice chuckle right there on the floor and then tried it again. I wish I could tell you that the second try was better than the first, but it wasn’t. But I laughed at myself a second time and moved on. I’ve learned that if I take myself too seriously, I don’t have any fun and I don’t learn how to be better. There’s no room for a big ego in yoga or in music.

Focus. When I am in the practice room or on the yoga mat, everything else can wait. This is the time to devote my whole attention to my intention. Whatever is on my mind, it can wait until I am done with my practice. I turn off my cell phone, try to quiet the monkey-brain. Everything will still be there in an hour. Multi-tasking is not helpful when doing yoga or studying music. It’s too easy to get distracted. When planning my day, I block out the time for music practice and yoga practice on my calendar. It’s a cyber reminder that these blocks of time are for practicing. I have plenty of time afterward to make a grocery list, worry about a family member, or think about events later in the day.

Push the Boundaries. At least once in every single yoga class, I want to give up. My body screams “Get me out of here! I’m done!” It might be a painful pose that sets me off or just a series that makes me sweaty. And every time I have to dig deep and tell my body to keep going. I’ve had this experience many times in the music practice room also. There have been times that I’ve wanted to give up because something seemed too difficult, but I kept trying and eventually it all worked out. But I also know the difference between pushing the boundaries and hurting myself. In yoga, it’s fine to feel some muscle burning, but sharp pain is not OK. So too in music, we have to be careful not to be extreme in our practice and hurt ourselves mentally or physically. Cultivate perseverance, but know when to back off.

It’s hard to keep our aspirations in balance. But balance is the gift yoga can add to our mental, physical, spiritual… and musical lives.


Music Humor: A Venn Diagram

Something Silly To Make You Smile

“Humor relies on the unexpected” and it “tickles the brain.” But I think good jokes have at their center a core of truth.

(Joe Moran as quoted in the NPR story “What Makes Something Funny?“)

I love music humor.

Perhaps playing the piccolo scrambled my brain enough to make jokes about musicians irresistibly funny to me. If you played in a marching band, this one will tickle your funny bone:

How many trumpet players does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

Six. One to actually do the work and five to say how much better he could have done it.

I’m working on a long post to share with you in the near future, but in the meantime, here’s something silly that a Facebook friend shared:

music humor

so true

I’d like to add some adjectives of my own to the purple part of this Venn Diagram:

  • collaboration
  • accepting failure (and success) gracefully
  • flexibility
  • persistence
  • being comfortable when alone with yourself
  • knowing how to get two piccolo players to play in tune (you have to shoot one…)

What would you add?

Practice Session, part 6: Review

Review: Time to Revisit, Reflect, and Plan.

The sixth and final part of a productive practice session wraps everything up and puts a bow on it.

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

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

If we are thinking about a 30 minute practice session, the sixth part is minutes 28-30. At this point in your practicing, you are starting to get tired and your mind is ready for a break. Hold on for two more minutes… you still have some important work to do.

If we continue the analogy of the six-drawer cabinet, there are three items in this thin drawer at the bottom of the practice cabinet.

  1. review tricky “woodshedding” spots from repertoire or etudes
  2. warm down
  3. make a mental note of accomplishments and what needs attention next time

Now is the time to review any tricky spots that you were woodshedding in Part 4: Repertoire. If you are working to memorize your music, now is the time to test your memory. New advances in neuroscience are showing that interval training is critical to long term memory. Spacing out the learning in longer intervals leads to better memory storage, according to the theory of “Spaced Repetition.” Because you worked on repertoire pieces in the middle of your practice, you have had a little time in between. This is a good first interval. Simply go back to the hardest sections of your lesson materials and try them one or two more times. You’ll hit these places again in your next practice session to continue the spaced repetition.

Depending on how you are feeling, you may want to do a gentle warm-down. I feel the need to play low notes and slurs when my embouchure is tight from playing piccolo. Brass players usually need a warm-down time.

Before you end this practice session, think about what you were able to accomplish. Thank yourself for taking the time to practice. Acknowledge the good work and the progress. If you tackled something particularly hard, give yourself a mental pat on the back. Think about what you need to focus on for the next practice session. Planning for the next practice session will give you a head start on item #1 (Warm up, including goal setting).

Finally, allow for some incubation time. Several studies have shown that creative insights and new skills favor a “prepared mind.” (Link here to Seifert, Meyer, Davidson study.) Make sure you take a break every 30 minutes. That means you need to leave the practice room. Get a drink of water, take a walk, play a game. Perhaps the best thing you can do for your long term memory is get plenty of sleep. It seems that the brain is working on the music even when you are asleep. Have you ever heard the music you’ve been practicing in your dreams? I know I’m ready for a recital when my piece is playing as the background music in my dreams.

I hope this seven part series on the structure of a 30 minute practice session was helpful for you. Now, go practice!