What about practicing?

Many people ask me about how to practice.

Here are some ideas about how to think about your time “practicing” music, as well as some specific guidance on structuring your time.

First, take some time to think about your goals. What is it you want to do with your musical instrument — today, this week, 5 years from now.

Do you want to play for yourself.

Do you want to play for others? Many of my students play in yoga classes, hospice, hospitals, massage sessions, theater productions, classrooms and other educational settings.

Do you want to learn specific songs.

Do you want to improvise.

Do you want to learn about the history and heritage of NA flute.

Do you want to deepen your understanding of the materials that make up music (harmony, melody, rhythm)

I play my flute for my own pleasure and for my spiritual practice, as a performer, and to set a meditative tone for ritual events.

Each day:

Take some time to connect to the reason you play, your inspiration.

Take some time to be with the physical sensation of your breath for at least a minute or two, or more.

The breath is the life of our sound. Our sound is a representative of our soul, our spirit. When we are in touch with the quality and feel of our breath, we are connected in an important way. The air column acts much like the bow does for a violinist. It is important for a violinist to be exquisitely aware of the bow hold and the movement of the bow. For wind musicians and singers, it is helpful to be aware of the air flow and to learn to allow it to move in a way that is one with you and the music.

Then spend time doing physical and vocal exercises. Take care of your body with some yoga or other stretches that open the shoulders and the heart. It is amazing how vocal exercises affect my tone. I refer you to Eric Arceneaux, vocal preparation exercises. on youtube. Be prepared to do some vocalizing using lip rolls!

I start my practice with listening and vocalizing. I play a recording of a simple, beautiful melody, one that inspires me and is meditative or prayerful. I audiate a part of the melody (hear it in my mind). When I am confident I can hear it in my mind’s ear, I then sing it. Then I play that portion of the melody. I work my way through the melody as a way to warm up. It always amazes me how I hear new subtleties in the recorded musician’s expressive tone.

When I begin with these steps, my practice time is deeper and my tone is connected to my heart and belly in a beautiful, nourishing way.

What is next? That really depends.

I think of 2 important streams of practice:

  1. Practical, methodical skills development

2. Listening to your inner guidance to allow you to follow curiosity of the moment, in a way  that a child might, who is unaware of the passage of time.


I generally put great weight in the latter stream because it is my experience that music in Western culture is often taught heavily in the former and we need to be in touch with our creative selves (maybe we could refer to this as right brain/integrated brain, Presence or the Divine) because this is the realm of music. Create a container of time where you know you can do whatever you are drawn to. This can nourish the growth of your musical instincts and your deep understanding, your somatic experience, of musical concepts.

1. Find a song you like. Listen to it in the background in your “non-practice” time. Once you notice that you begin to hear it in your mind even when it is not playing, you are ready to begin to transcribe.

Slow it down using apps like Anytune or the Amazing Slowdowner. Learn small chunks. Perhaps work your way from the end to the beginning.

Transcribing songs helps to develop your ear. It is very much like the way painters learn to paint “the masters” to develop their own skills and technique.

2. Improvise during your practice time, and whenever you feel the pull to play your flute.

FORMAL PRACTICE TIME – a good starting point is to divide the time equally between each of the five topics.

1. Tone and breath development

Using a particular scale (for beginners, the pentatonic scale based on the key of your flute), play the bottom note for about 10 beats or 10 seconds. Move up the scale. Your ears are always alert. What am I hearing? How does it sound? You are experiencing your sound without judgment, with clear, open attention.

When you get to the top, come back down in the same way.

After you have done that for a few days, you can add variety by playing 2 notes in sequence, slurring them. For example, on an A minor flute, using the pentatonic scale: play low A for about 5 seconds and slur to the next note, which is a C, holding it for 5 counts. Next, begin on the C (tonguing it), and slur to the next note up (D).

2. Technique development

After working on tone and breathing, you might try focusing on technique. This includes playing scales, patterns, and embellishments. On a pentatonic, 5-hole A minor flute (or 6-hole, leaving the third hole from the top covered), you can keep a steady beat and go up and down a scale starting on A, starting on C, and even starting on D. Each scale will have a different feel to it. Each one can be used as a basis for a song.

Find other patterns that you like and use them as practice chunks. One possibility is to go up a scale, playing the first note, skipping the next note, playing the following note, etc.

Other helpful patterns, on an A minor flute. Go up and down the pattern:


A,C,E,high A

C, E, G

Next, practice embellishments – bark, bending notes, trills, warbles  — whatever you like, or what is in a song you are working on.

3. Learning to play/improvise

Take some time to improvise.

Start with a small musical pattern and develop it.

And/or use a structure, such as A B A form. A is your first and third section, B is a section that contrasts in some way (tempo, home note or key, texture)

Use backup tracks for inspiration and accompaniment.

4. Work with whatever else you are working on –

A song you are learning

Reading music

5. Revisiting why you play, how good it feels to be in the music.

End with improvising with backup tracks or drumming, or just on your own. Or if you like playing songs, with a couple of songs you have already mastered.

Always leave time for light, joyful playing at the end.