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: The journey is the destination.

Practice leads to harmony.

picture in music studio

“Never forget the pleasure of the journey.”

This picture hangs beside the door to my music studio. No one can leave without seeing it, including me. The text reads

“Never Forget the Pleasure of the Journey. This Chinese word means Traveling and Playing, whether it refers to studying a discipline, climbing a mountain, going through life…”

A friend recently posted on Facebook an article titled “We are graduating too many, too narrowly trained musicians.” The author, and the book he reviews, are concerned that there are more musicians than there are jobs. Music schools are graduating a record number of highly-skilled musicians, yet there are fewer and fewer jobs available in orchestras. While this is true, I don’t see it as a crisis. Anyone who makes it through music school will possess abilities that are highly in demand in the workforce: the ability to collaborate with others, the ability to set goals and complete them, the understanding that criticism can lead to transformation, persistence and patience, among others. The resourceful music graduate will either create a job in music (perhaps where none has existed before as an entrepreneur) or will market their unique skill set to their advantage. These are not people who give up easily. They know how to spend hours alone doing hard work. Musicians know how to practice.

After completing my bachelor’s degree in flute performance at The Ohio State University, I continued my studies at the University of Colorado and completed a Master of Music degree in Flute Performance. Throughout my college years, I was aware that I didn’t want to be in the flute section of a major symphony orchestra. So why on earth would I spend thousands of dollars to get a degree that I would not use to the letter? Because I wanted to be the best I could be. I knew that if I wanted to teach, I had to immerse myself in the material. I had to learn everything I could before passing that knowledge on to others. Learning how to practice, studying, seeking out teachers, facing my performance anxiety… these were the goals.

Giving a child music lessons does not mean that the child will grow up to be a classical solo artist. Speaking as a parent, my children take lessons and practice everyday because the skills they learn will help them for the rest of their lives. I’ve been collecting articles about research on the brains of musicians. You can read about some of these studies elsewhere on the blog (Brain ImagingBetter Brains) so it seems there is compelling evidence from science that musicians have different skills than non-musicians.

I teach many adult students in my music studio. Most of them will never play professionally. They play because they love music, they love learning.

Musician's Yoga book


Recently, I read the book Musician’s Yoga: A Guide To Practice, Performance, and Inspiration by Mia Olson. This excellent book draws beautiful connections between the breath and body work of yoga and music practice. Even in yoga, the word practice is used to describe the time we spend on the mat. When I first started going to yoga classes, I was goal focused. I had the idea that I was going to be able to touch my toes within a month. I’ve never, ever been able to touch my toes and after four years of regular practice, I still can’t. I know that I won’t ever become a yoga teacher or a master yogi, and I’m OK with that. Some poses are easier for me than others. I show up for class with my mat and I breathe. Most days I flow with the instructor and I leave the gym feeling refreshed. Other days, I struggle against my body and I want to give up halfway through class. But I’m learning to turn off the judgement and just be glad that I showed up, that I practiced. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to touch my toes, but I can now reach my shins– progress!

Six wisdoms from practicing yoga:

  1. Humility- there is always going to be someone better/more flexible/stronger than me.
  2. 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.
  3. Breathe deeply and consciously.
  4. Be playful and have a sense of humor. It’s not unusual for me to fall over during balance poses. A little laughter goes a long way toward healing a bruised ego.
  5. Today my practice will be different than yesterday; tomorrow will be different from today.
  6. Pay attention to my body. It’s good to find the edges of my ability but I always have to be careful not to injure myself.

I wonder what would happen if we re-framed music practice in a similar way. How would we feel if the goal was the practice and not the performance? What if the action of showing up in front of the music stand every day is the highest achievement? Don’t forget to breathe. Namaste.

drawing by MMH