Bite Sized Pieces (Woodshedding technique)

BITE SIZE PIECES – technique exercise

This blog post is part of a series on woodshedding. For more ideas on how to invigorate your practicing with new and creative ideas, check out the bog posts on the Articulation Game, Rhythm Spinner Game, Scale Card Game, and Karate Chops. Today’s blog post will offer some ideas for how to turn a long run of music notes into a smooth, effortless thing of beauty.

Long, fast runs can turn into a sloppy mess if we let the fingers run freely. Easy fingering combinations move more quickly than difficult ones, giving the passage an uneven texture. We must even out the technique to make the run sound good. Clean runs sound much faster than sloppy ones at the same tempo. Consider this example:


long muddy run


Let’s group the notes like this:

bite sized pieces

marked groups


You can pause after each group. Alternatively, you can articulate the first note of each group or pulse with the breath. Choose groups that make the most sense, ie. chromatic movement, scales. Try to break the groups when there is an unusual skip. In the example above, the notes are grouped together because they are chromatic. The notes that start groups are exceptions to the rule; in this case, the minor thirds are different than the half steps. We bring attention to these exceptions by making them the start of a new group.

When performing, we want to think of the groups but keep the original articulation. In practice and in the finished performance it’s simply too difficult for the brain to control all 22 notes. But small groups are manageable.
Creating groups will help the technique be cleaner and the run will sound faster. When playing fast runs, you must listen very carefully to hear every note. If you can’t hear each individual note, neither can your audience.

Woodshedding: Grouping Game

GROUPING GAME for your Woodshedding arsenal.

Woodshedding is the process of isolating a difficult section of music and practicing it until the technical issues are resolved. In other blog posts, I have offered games for changing articulations and rhythms. (See posts Rhythm Spinner Game, Articulation Game.) Today’s blog post will feature another strategy: changing how the notes are grouped. This changes where the accents are placed.

Think about your phone number for a moment. If you live in the US, your number is in the form 614-555-1212. We chunk the number into two sets of three digits and a final set of four numbers. Now, group your number differently. Let’s say 61-455-512-12. Or 6145-551-212. The order of the numbers did not change but our perception (and perhaps how easily they can be remembered) did change significantly.


Music is often grouped also. Here’s an example of four groups of three notes from a Handel Sonata:

woodshedding example

Giga from Handel Sonata

In this example, there are 12 notes split by slurs into four groups of threes. By changing the groupings, we alter how the brain perceives the notes. The order and rhythm remain the same, but the accents are different. Try playing the same passage in groups of two, four, or six as shown below.


Groups of two:

woodshedding example by 2

same notes, now in groups of two

Groups of four:


groups of 4


Groups of six:


groups of 6

In this exercise, we are playing the notes in the same order with the same rhythms. Two elements are changing:

  1. Different notes receive a small accent because they are the first of each grouping.
  2. The brain chunks them together in a new way.

Just as phone numbers are perceived differently when we changed the groupings of numbers, so too your brain is challenged when we change the groups of notes.

Rhythm Spinner Game

The Rhythm Spinner Game is an excellent tool for woodshedding difficult passages.

Like the Articulation Game, the Rhythm Spinner adds an element of chance to spice up your practicing.

For this game, you will need a hole punch, metal brad, and the chart below with arrow.

rhythm spinner game

rhythm spinner game

arrow for spinner game

arrow for rhythm spinner game

Punch a hole near the end of the arrow. Use a metal brad to connect the arrow to the center of the spinner.

Flick the arrow and play the difficult passage with the rhythm indicated. For instance, if the arrow lands on “Jazzy,” play the passage in a loose, uneven rhythm. (The opposite rhythm is on the other side of the circle.)

Whichever rhythm pattern is selected, play the music at a tempo fast enough to give you a challenge but slow enough that you can play all the notes correctly. When you have tried the first rhythm, spin again.

When the arrow lands on “as fast as possible” play the passage as quickly as possible, letting the fingers run without trying to control them. It may be sloppy or it may be miraculously clean. Simply notice if your finger memory is taking over or if you fingers seem to get “stuck” in one place. Don’t judge yourself and don’t try to make your fingers perfectly fast. Play the passage once or twice this way and then spin again.

When the arrow lands on the opposite side of the spinner – “robot fingers, slow and controlled” – be very deliberate about playing in a relatively slow tempo. You will want to feel each finger going up and down, like typing or hammering.

The other sections of the rhythm wheel show combinations of slow (S) and fast (F) rhythms. It will be naturally easier to begin the pattern with a slow note, but make sure you also practice with the longest note at the end of the four.

When you have tried all the rhythm patterns, go back and play the passage as written. Did it feel easier? Did you make fewer mistakes? Maybe you were able to go a bit faster this time.

Playing the Rhythm Spinner Game takes only a few minutes but it can save hours of time wasted in unproductive practicing.

Teachers, like the Articulation Game, the Rhythm Spinner Game helps randomize practice patterns. You will probably want to introduce the rhythms and model them in a lesson. This game can be modified for other time signatures and rhythms. In addition to helping woodshed a difficult passage, this game is useful in cementing common rhythm patterns. You can also make up your own rhythm patterns.

Game for scales- major, minor, and chromatic

Scales can be mindlessly boring… or scales can be tolerable.

(If I said playing scales was the most exciting thing in the world, you would know I was lying and you wouldn’t read another word.)

Practicing scales is a bit like taking medicine- it doesn’t taste good, but the results are worth it.

In this blog post, I’m going to give you a game that you can play with scales. In no time you will have mastered all your major and minor scales plus the chromatic scale. Maybe you will find that playing scales this way is more pleasant than drinking cherry cough syrup.

We’re going to trick your brain into thinking that scales are fun. There’s a random element in the game that takes the pressure off of you to make decisions.

What you will need: 50 blank note cards, a marker, a large rubber band or binder clip.

Step 1: Make 12 cards, one for each of the major scales. Write in bold letters in the center of a note card C Major. Repeat with the other 11 major scales, the names of which you will find on the outside (red letters) of the Circle of Fifths wheel below. Make sure you write the name of the scale and word “Major” with a capital letter at the beginning. It’s a music theory thing.

Step 2: Make the minor scale cards. This is the tricky part because each minor scale has three versions: natural, harmonic, and melodic. Your first three cards will be “a minor, natural,” “a minor, harmonic,” and “a minor, melodic.” Refer to the inside (green letters) of the Circle of Fifths wheel below for the other 11 names of the minor scales. Make sure you have three for each letter. Writing minor scales in all lowercase letters is also a music theory thing. When you are finished, you should have a total of 36 minor cards.

circle of fifths

Scales on the circle of fifths

Step 3: Take the remaining 2 scale cards and write CHROMATIC on them. You don’t have to write it in all caps. Be crazy and write it in all lowercase if it suits you. It’s not a music theory thing.

Now you have a stack of 50 note cards with the name of scales written on one side. You’ll want to keep them together using a large rubber band or binder clip. These pictures show the scale cards I made in 1993 with my teacher Tom Kennedy. I used these cards to learn scales for my college auditions, and I still use them today!

scales cards

50 scale cards

scale cards

scales on cards

Now that you have made your scale cards, you are ready to play the game!

You are going to create two piles of cards. One will be the “BRAVO” pile for all the scales you can play correctly the first time and the other pile will be the “deck.” Shuffle the cards and close your eyes while you pick three cards from the deck. Play the first scale. Did you play all the notes correctly with a beautiful tone and the correct fingering? If yes, place that scale card in the “BRAVO” pile. If it wasn’t perfect, place the scale card back in the deck with the others. Do the same thing with the two other scales. Your goal is to get all the cards into the “BRAVO” pile.

Tomorrow, pick three more cards from the deck, remembering that you might draw the ones you missed today. When all of the cards are in the “BRAVO” pile, re-shuffle the whole deck and work through them again. Perhaps this time you can get through the entire deck faster.

If you haven’t learned all of your major and minor scales yet, you can play this game with the ones you know. Totally confused about how to play scales? There are many good books to use for a reference. For flute, I recommend The Flute Scale Book and The Flutist’s Vade Mecum. Find a book for your instrument, or search online.

It’s best if you can play the scales from memory, but if you need to use the music for awhile, that’s OK. As you learn more scales, add them to the pile until you are using all 50.

When you’re ready for the next level of difficulty, try playing the scales with different articulation patterns (Articulation Game) and rhythms.

Scales are an important part of every musician’s technique. They are required in competitions and auditions. Learn them now; use them forever!

Happy practicing!