Gigs: The Fun and the Funny.

Freelance musicians are dependent on gigs for their livelihood. Though it may seem like an easy way to make money, the truth is a bit more complicated. The lovely music you hear at a wedding may be lovely, but it is a tiny part of what goes into performing gigs.


toddler theater with Rotten Ralph, Sept. 2015

I consider myself very lucky to be a freelance musician. I love my career. It’s exciting to be working for myself and adapting to the wide variety of occasions my services are needed. This week, I played an outdoor wedding, headlined a concert for 250 toddlers, taught music classes, rehearsed and conducted an adult choir, team-taught an arts program with the theme “autumn leaves,” met individually with flute and recorder students, and performed at a birthday party for a dozen two-year-olds. But those are just the performing moments, the ones that everyone knows about and which seem glamorous. There were also hundreds of miles of driving, instrument schlepping (my arms are sore today!), practicing, emails and phone calls, QuickBooks data entry, standing in line at the bank, and paying a big health insurance premium bill. Those things are not so fun.

My friend Emily Packard has a wonderful blog article about her adventures as a gig musician Take a moment to read it. Her writing is terrific and the story is a good one, though I feel very sorry for her poor violin.

Emily Packard’s blog


this is the performance where I almost fainted. the sun was scorching!

Another blog popped into my Facebook feed as I sit here writing this. The Self-Inspired Flutist is another article about the perils of being a performing musician. I laughed out loud when reading about the author’s horrible experience of having her skirt fall off during a recital. Performing without clothes on is every musician’s recurring nightmare and it really happened to Terri Sanchez.

Have you read the book Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly? Anthony Boudain’s confessional is filled with hilarious, disgusting, unbelievable moments from his career as a chef.

I’ve often thought that we musicians should write something like that too. My husband is a piano technician and he loves to share war stories with fellow technicians about mice nests in pianos and colorful clients. A piano technician friend works for the Pentagon and tells entertaining stories about working in the D.C. area.

I have my share of war stories too. There was the time I nearly fainted while playing in the hot summer sun on stage with a furry shark. Or maybe you would like to hear about the funeral gig that included discreetly eating my own snot while playing the flute. But I think I’ll save those stories for my book Musician Confidential.



What do marching bands, music competitions, and playing classical music in the dark have in common? Memorization.

Performing musicians are asked to memorize music from time to time. Memorization is often required for competitions and is useful for making a piece more musical. While memorization may seem difficult at first, with practice it becomes easier. And there are some advantages to memorization: when we are free of the dots on the page, we can listen more carefully and respond more musically.

Cognitive scientists have long understood the necessity of memorization in the learning process. In 1917, Arthur I. Gates embarked on a project to find out the right ratio between study (reading from a book) and memorization. [“Recitation As a Factor In Memorizing”] Gates found that 1/3 study and 2/3 recitation from memory is optimal. What does this mean for musicians? If you’re trying to memorize something, play it while looking at the page once and try it from memory twice.

My students, especially the ones in marching band, ask for help memorizing music. Different skills are useful in different contexts. Because marching band is the most common need for memory with my flute students, we will consider how different memory skills are best suited to the music in the pregame show (“Star Spangled Banner,” the fight song, and the alma mater.)

There are THREE types of musical memory:

  1. finger memory
  2. aural memory
  3. visual memory

looking through the lyre

Let’s consider each one in greater detail.


I am able to play my high school fight song, even though I graduated 20 years ago. I can pick up my flute and without even thinking about it, my fingers will begin going through the motions. I’ve probably played the fight song thousands of times during football games, basketball games, and band practice. The patterns are drilled into my fingers forever. Finger memory is a physical memory and it requires little conscious effort. This kind of memory is embedded in the mind through many repetitions. If properly strengthened, finger memory can be very reliable, especially in stressful situations. Finger memory is learned through playing the piece many, many times.


Grab your instrument and play “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” starting on the note F. After a couple of tries, you were probably able to play it pretty well. “Twinkle” is a tune that most people know how to sing. When you worked out the song by ear on your instrument, you heard it in your head then matched the pitches to the sound coming out of your instrument. You may have had to move up or down pitches until you found the right one, but it was easier on the second try. Aural memory is useful when finger memory fails and we need to get back on track. This type of memory is especially useful when playing “The Star Spangled Banner,” which has a lot of tricky intervals. If your finger memory fails, you can use your ear to guide you to the right note and you’ll be back on track quickly.


You don’t need to have a photographic memory to use the skill of visual memory to aid in learning a piece of music. The tune for my high school’s Alma Mater was a bit unusual. I never learned the words. But it was mercifully short. If I close my eyes, I can still imagine what the printed sheet music looked like: the typeface of the title, the layout of the staves, and the starting notes. The visual memory is so strong that even now, I can still read parts of the music by bringing up the image. Visual memory is critical for memorizing difficult transitions, changes, or anything that is unusual. Take a mental picture of the music and read the notes from the inside of your eyelids! This type of memory can be very strong, but it can’t be used for long pieces of music. It’s most helpful for small sections.


By understanding and carefully using all three types of memory, you are less likely to forget. It’s not wise to rely on one type of memory. Rather, it’s best to have “memory redundancies” by using two or three strategies at all times.  Pay special attention to the form of the music. Repeats are like freebies because once the memory is stored, it can be recalled easily a second or third time. Add an additional memory strategy in places where the music changes or becomes difficult.

Memories get stronger with use so keep testing your memory in regular intervals. You will find that the more you play from memory, the easier it will become. The neurons need time to both encode the memories and retrieve them so don’t hurry the process. When music needs to be memorized, start early and test your memory often.

But here’s the good news: your brain has an incredible amount of memory available. In the book How We Learn, Benedict Carey offers some encouragement.

“Everything we have deliberately committed to memory–the multiplication table, a childhood phone number, the combination to our first locker–is all there are for good. …(There) is more than enough (memory capacity in our brains) to record every second of a long life, cradle to grave. Volume is not an issue.” (pp. 36-37)

To learn more about the science of the brain and music, please check out my other blog posts: Brain Imaging On MusiciansHow We Learn book reviewThe Musician’s Brain.

The physics of tuning

Tuning: A Physics Lesson

It’s fascinating to study the mathematics of intonation. All musicians will benefit from a basic knowledge of how the musical scale is created. As a flute teacher, I think my students should have a working understanding of the harmonic series.tuning the piano

When playing with other instruments, flutists will strive to create perfect intervals without “beats.” But when playing with the piano, the flutist must match the imperfect tuning of equal temperment.

I love this video titled “Why It’s Impossible To Tune a Piano.” Watch it a couple of times — the delivery is fast but there’s a lot of good information:

My dear husband is a piano technician. He studied at the North Bennett Street School in Boston for a year before taking the test to become a Registered Piano Technician. Yes, it is possible to tune a piano with an electric device. But there’s a difference in a piano that has been tuned by ear. Only human beings can make subtle changes to the intervals to make them sound just right. In fact, I can always tell when Bryan Hartzler has tuned a piano. It sounds different than a piano serviced by another tuner. There’s something special about the human ear that can’t be duplicated by a computer.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy watching the video. Music and mathematics. Beauty and physics. And even though the scientists can calculate precisely, music will always require the human touch.



Karate Chops for Woodshedding

Use Karate Chops to break up the notes and make woodshedding fun!

woodsheddingKarate masters break boards and bricks to show their mastery of a skill. Musicians can use music “karate chops” to break tricky passages into smaller pieces. This blog post will give some ideas for how to break music into smaller pieces and use moments of silence to optimize learning.

We will use this passage as an example:



These two measures of music are in a difficult key (four flats=A-flat Major) and have some tricky skips. We are going to break the running notes into smaller pieces. In the first example, we will try two notes at a time, followed by a rest. The rest can be any length. You will find that as your skill improves, the rests will be shorter in length. Play at a tempo that feels just at the edge of control but no faster than you can achieve 95% accuracy.


Once you feel confident playing the exercise in groups of two, try grouping the notes by three. Again, leave as much space between the notes as you need to regroup your fingers and eyes. You are working for accuracy and evenness of notes but don’t worry about playing the rhythm exactly as written. Try for zero mistakes.


Now groups of four:




In the above exercises, you are giving the brain a chance to process and plan ahead during the rests. There’s something magical about that moment of silence.

One variation of this exercise is to try starting a group on the second note or the third one. It also changes the brain’s perception of how the notes are ordered. You are still practicing the same fingering combinations but again the accents are changed.

Here’s the same example as above but grouping by 2s and starting on the second note of the sequence:


You can get creative with “karate chops.” What would it sound like in groups of 5? Or perhaps start the sequence on the third or fourth note. You should try each version of the karate chops two or three times and then move on to another permutation. Keep your brain entertained and keep mixing it up!


The brain encodes information redundantly. In other words, memories are stored all across the brain. We know that musicians use the entire brain because music involves physical movement, visual cues, auditory input, emotional connection, and more. My blog post Brain Imaging on Musicians references one recent study that shows how the brains of musicians “light up” in a MRI.

When a memory is stored in many places and is used frequently, it will stay in the memory longer and will have faster retrieval. (Research note: The Human Memory article online.)

When we change the groupings of notes or their order, we are strengthening the memory. Even though it seems like changing the music would be harmful to mastery, a study on athletic training found that “a varied practice schedule may facilitate the initial formation of motor schema.” (from a research project by Kerr and Booth, University of Ottawa. ”Specific and Varied Practice of Motor Skill,” Perceptual and Motor Skills, Vol. 46, No. 2, April 1978, 395-401.)

In the book How We Learn, Benedict Carey writes

“The mixing of items, skills, or concepts during practice, over the longer term, seems to help us not only see the distinctions between them but also to achieve a clearer grasp of each one individually. The hardest part is abandoning our primal faith in repetition.” (p. 164)

The silence between groups is unique to this woodshedding exercise, and it is of special importance. Adding rests gives the fingers a chance to pause and achieve greater accuracy. We know that practicing right notes (and not wrong ones) is a path to success. (Blog article Research on Effective Practice Skills.)

For more ideas on woodshedding for musicians, please check out

Woodshedding: The Articulation Game

Rhythm Spinner Game

Grouping Game

Bite Sized Pieces

Flute Resources Online

Flute Resources Online

There are many places on the internet offering materials related to the flute. Here are a few of my favorites.

  • This private flute teacher’s website has links to many other flute players and teachers, book recommendations, and more. It’s a good place to start browsing.
  • Long List of Graded Repertoire with Extended Techniques for unaccompanied Flute, Piccolo, Alto and Bass Flute by Helen Bledsoe provides a good list of unaccompanied solos by difficulty level. Many of my students enjoy choosing unaccompanied pieces for recitals, competitions, and other performances because it eliminates the need for a pianist, thus saving the student time and money.
  • You could spend days on the IMSLP website. It contains thousands of public domain sheet music for all instruments and ensemble combinations. I’ve used it to find music for my recorder ensemble, solos for flute and piano, flute and string quartet, and much more. Because these pieces are all out of copyright you don’t have to worry about paying royalties if you record this music or perform for profit. Not all the music is amazing– there’s a reason some of it has gone out of copyright! However, one of my adult students found a flute piece on here that I LOVE and I can’t believe it has been overlooked by flutists.

    flute resources online

    free duet from

  • I’ve saved the best for last. The Flute Tunes website is my favorite website for free sheet music. It’s great for sight reading because the website offers a new tune every day. I used this website earlier today to find a fun but challenging duet for a student to play at our next studio recital. In addition to a large library of music, the FluteTunes website also offers a metronome, tuner, music glossary, and links to articles about the flute. There are small ads on the left side of the page, but that seems fair given that everything on this site is free!

What are your favorite flute resources online?