Mental Practice is Important!

In 2010, Mercedes Smith won the prestigious National Flute Association Young Artist Competition. One week later, she won the audition to become principal flute of the Pacific Symphony. I love her approach to practicing - don't play too much, but spend time reflecting on her last practice session, listening to recordings, and planning her next session. 25% of her practicing happens without playing flute, and she rarely practices more than 3 hours per day. Mercedes is a great example of effective deliberate practicing.

A word about practicing and how much to practice: About two years ago I was preparing for a major orchestra audition. There was a huge amount of repertoire to learn and I didn't have a realistic plan for how I was going to succeed. My only thought was, "spend as much time as possible practicing." I gave up my social life and was probably practicing 4-5 hours a day and I was playing my job at the time too. I was exhausted and the audition ended up being a disaster. After that I decided that I needed to change what I was doing because I was working too hard and not seeing the results I wanted. It was at this point that I made a very important decision: I resolved to not practice more than 3 hours day. I usually practice 90 minutes in the morning, and 90 minutes in the afternoon, and usually I play a show at night. I'll often spend a fourth hour each day either listening to recordings of myself and taking notes to come up with a plan for the next day's practice or listening to professional recordings of the music I am working on. I find that having a 3 hour time limit on my daily practice has greatly improved my efficiency. If something isn't going well, I don't get bogged down, I have to move on to the next thing. If I am truly off work (for example the week between NFA and the Pacific audition) I might go as far as 3.5 hours practice in a day, but it is extremely rare that I will break my rule.

Note how she warms up before competitions and auditions, never playing excerpts up to tempo until she actually performs them. Instead of playing at performance tempo, she thinks through the excerpts at performance tempo:

The most crucial thing is how I actually warm up the day of the event. I will not play ANY fast passages up to tempo and I will almost always play with a metronome. Especially at orchestra auditions, you will hear the person in the room next to you frantically running thru Firebird or Peter and the Wolf at an insanely fast tempo. Do not be tempted to do this! For example with Peter and the Wolf I will practice it with my metronome slowly (maybe around 70) then I might take it up to a more moderate tempo (around 100) but I won't practice it faster than that. If I'm worried that I might not be able to hit the right tempo during the audition I'll put my metronome on the performance tempo and THINK through the excerpt without my flute. This goes for any technical passage, whether it be Carnival of the Animals or parts of Dutilleux Sonatine. As far as sound and tone I try to stay extra relaxed in my body. The key the day of an event is to practice calmly and methodically and to not overdo anything; when in doubt put your flute down and think through it. Again, you can be stuck in the warm-up room for hours and it is not worth exhausting yourself before your audition. If you have prepared properly you will be fine.

And some final words about the importance of practicing in high school and college:

For any students out there I would say that the most important time to do your serious practice is during your high school and early college years. If you slack off then, it will be really hard to succeed later. I credit all my good finger technique to long hours of scale practice when I was a teenager. I also think being open to change is crucial -even radical change. Sometimes you realize that you cannot improve an aspect of your playing unless you take a huge step back and start again from square one. I think this happened to me several times -once with articulation and again with tone. I feel like I make sound in a very different way than I did even two years ago and certainly much different than when I was in college. I wouldn't be surprised if I continue to make changes in the future as well. To any student out there: if there is any question in your mind about whether you want to be a professional flutist then you probably shouldn't be one. If you truly love music and cannot imagine yourself doing anything else then go for your dreams -- you won't regret it!