Practice anxiety: tool #9

Interstellar improv! STS-56 Mission Specialist Ellen Ochoa plays the flute in space shuttle Discovery's aft flight deck in April 1993.  Image: NASA.

Interstellar improv! STS-56 Mission Specialist Ellen Ochoa plays the flute in space shuttle Discovery’s aft flight deck in April 1993. Image: NASA.


Why? Practicing notes on a page can be anxiety provoking – you are constantly measuring yourself up against technical and interpretive ideals. This is even the case with simple scale or tone exercises, but is especially intense when you have difficult repertoire to master. It can often be enough to lead to avoiding picking up your instrument altogether.

When talking to others about my practice avoidance, I’ve often been told that “starting is the hardest part”. This is very true, although not the full picture (what about re-starting, again and again, as is necessary? what about tension and strong feelings during practice?). Some days when I’m really struggling to start, removing the stress of notated music can help me not only to make this all important start, it can also greatly improve my connection with my instrument and lead to new sound discoveries.

Try improvising for five minutes and then, if you feel like moving on to ‘actual’ practice, set a timer and start your warm-up routine or repertoire work.

What? Improvising is a very personal thing. Just take your instrument and start to make some sounds. It honestly does not need to lead anywhere, which is what makes it so freeing. On the other hand, too much freedom can itself be limiting – where do you start?? Here are a few ideas to kick things off:

– Choose a note that generally feels good for you and just start playing long tones or repeated soundings. Play with colour and quality of attack. You’re not aiming so much to ‘improve’ your tone, but to explore the possibilities. Don’t be disturbed if it doesn’t sound the way it ‘should’. Move on to notes around it and make slow moving melodies. Experiment with intervals.

– Search for strange sounds like multiphonics, colour trills (bisbigliando), ultra soft sounds, buzzing or bamboo tones. Use whatever fingering comes to mind and see what comes out. Use normal note fingerings and see if you can find strange sounds by over- or under-blowing. I like to find two similar sounds and then move back and forward between them.

– Play or hold your instrument differently, i.e. ‘incorrectly’, and then make gentle sounds, keeping your body as relaxed and comfortable as possible. Move between this and your normal playing posture. Stand, sit, walk around. Focus on the feeling of contact between you and your instrument.

– Meditate on an idea and play some music to match it. Find some text scores as starting points. Pauline Oliveros (American avant-garde composer and improvisor) has some available for free download. Look at a picture and try to play the scene. Be patient with yourself – play for a while before settling on your materials.

– When you find a nice sound or idea, write it down however it makes sense to you. This can serve as a really nice starting point for future improvisations, and can be useful material to draw upon if you’re ever asked to improvise in a class or other public situation.

Play scale or harmonic patterns you’re familiar with if you want, but I would encourage you to go further into the sound possibilities of your instrument more as well. Pentatonic scales are always really nice to play around with, because you basically can’t go wrong!

Always try to be light with your self-judgement. This doesn’t need to sound ‘good’, you don’t need to meet any expectations. Just let yourself actually play.

Writing music: a preliminary step

This is a piece that I'm working on, a kind of guided improvisation.

This is a piece that I’m working on, a kind of guided improvisation.

I’ve wanted to try my hands at a spot of composing for a while now. It’s hard, because as a committed flute player I can’t dedicate an awful lot of my time to thinking about writing music, and on top of that I happen to have a particularly thoughtful composer around me nearly always – I don’t want to do a half-assed job, it just wouldn’t stand up to my own ideals or to the work I see Liam putting into his music. But at the same time, just about every time I hear the work of a performer composer – especially wind players – I think to myself, “I could do that. And I’d probably do a better job too…”

When the opportunity came up to do a short solo recital as part of the East Brisbane Community Centre music arts festival (this coming Saturday, 4-10pm at JWC) I thought a lot about the program I would present. My general criteria for Kupka concerts seemed relevant here too, that is: the inclusion of at least one work by a female composer, and at least one Australian work. I also really wanted to play Carter’s Scrivo in vento again, and given the space (the shopfront) I think Takemitsu’s gritty, violent Voice would be quite striking. Australian composer Andrew Ford won that spot with his Female Nude for alto flute (to be performed with clothes on, the title is in reference to a Mondrian painting). And for the female composer, vocalist Luara and I are going to perform the first movement of Kate Soper’s Only the words themselves mean what they say – the whole of which we’ll be playing in the Kupka’s Piano concert on November 29.

Which leaves a 10 minute slot to be filled. There were other works I could have played, but given that the festival is a mix of experimental jazz and contemporary classical streams I wanted to be a bit creative – it’s a good environment to try something new! And so the idea came to me for a kind of guided improvisation, something that I worked on with Liam as an initial step into composition.

The process itself just kind of happened, but it worked very well. I have been scheduling my practice into 10 minute blocks, setting an alarm and just working on one thing at a time. I set aside one of these blocks in a practice session for improvisation, with only the scantest idea of what exactly I wanted to play with. Each new sound I came up with that I liked I noted down (see the notebook page above). After one successful session I tried two more, and then just elaborated on the material I found only slightly. Liam and I then spent about an hour going through this raw material and talking about how one set could develop and flow into the next.

Now with this blueprint in place I’ve just been working on two sections at a time, securing my ideas and the tissue between segments. I’m planning on performing the work with a stopwatch running to bolster the strength of the structure. Each section is very much sound-based, with less focus on pitch/harmonic development, although I think a bit of a rough, intuitive theme still runs through.

This has been a (pleasantly) surprisingly useful process, and in fact Liam and I are thinking we might propose to the whole KP gang that everyone gives this kind of thing a go. It’s extremely good I think for the performer of modernist art music, as we are often so consumed by learning other’s notes we lose touch a little with the sounds and effects we most enjoy playing. In addition, it’s great for Liam, as he gets to hear sounds that he might not otherwise have been able to conceive in his own ear, and the extension of the possibilities and limitations of the instrument.

Oh yeah, and new look blog! Maybe this signals a new direction, but I’m not entirely sure what that might be at this stage.