Stage Fright … Let’s Face It!

Stage fright — is it a malady to be overcome, or can it be turned to advantage as we perform? What is stage fright? The sudden rush of adrenalin, nervousness, clammy hands, breathlessness, and inability to think clearly is very common to performers.

“Let’s face it” … walking onstage a few weeks ago to perform the Saint Saens Tarantella duo for flute and clarinet with Skagit Symphony, my onset of nerves was unexpected, and unwanted! During the orchestra introduction I assessed my nervousness on a scale of 1 to 10, found it to be at least a 7 … well, maybe a 6, even a 5 or 4 … by the time I lifted my flute to play the opening statement with the clarinet, my tension had dissipated and I was fully ‘in the moment’. Stand your ground and face those nerves!

My favorite practical antidote to stage fright is bananas, which have beta-blockers that counteract the peaking adrenalin. The best approach seems to be eating half a banana an hour before soloing, then the other half ten minutes before. (Before a Vivaldi piccolo concerto a while back I ate two bananas, and was so relaxed I nearly walked off the front of the stage into the audience!) At my flute and piano studio quarterly recitals I generally put out a bowl of bananas for performers.

There’s a great suggestion to practice as if you’re performing, and perform as if you’re practicing — with the same sense of comfort and relaxation as in your home. After all, practicing should be fun and free of tension, an attitude we want to carry over to performing. For added performance security, particularly with memorized music, it is helpful to note about five ‘landmarks’ in the piece — for example, modulations or new themes. (I actually draw a little map on a notecard, with abbreviation symbols, dynamics, keys and so forth.) This helps to visualize the piece from start to finish (and even to return to a landmark if memory is elusive).

Releasing stage fright also involves relaxing control. This begins in practice, where exaggerating will expose such areas as shaky rhythms and awkward leaps (Piano leaps really do look closer in outer octaves, and flute leaps reveal if one is indeed blowing through the phrase.). So let the wrong note come out, rather than ignoring mistakes. Performance will only be as accurate as the practice, so prepare well, and confidence will soar accordingly.

When we relax control of a well-prepared piece, we can share it with the audience rather than letting our ego get in the way. This interaction with listeners, sharing from our heart to theirs, is really why we perform — then music has its fullest meaning. We are alone on stage, but we look forward to connecting with the audience, who bounces it back. Let’s re-envision nervousness, then, as anticipation — it’s from the same adrenalin!

The Effect of Music on the Nervous System

How does music affect our nervous system? What if children were involved in music all through their educational years? A lecture by Nina Kraus in 2011 entitled Music for the Development of Auditory Skills synthesizes scientific study in this area of neurology. Here’s the link:

It turns out that music is indeed a powerful vehicle to change neuronal function, and it continues to do so as long as we live. Musical experience not only enhances memory and attention, but it strengthens the brain mechanisms that underlie reading.

Musicians constantly relate sounds to meaning — for instance, harmonic relations such as major and minor chords, dynamics that signal mood, and tonality. To go a step further, music facilitates sound-to-meaning learning for non-musical tasks as well. Kraus gives the example of a father hearing his baby crying, distinguishing the type of cry and responding accordingly. So keep listening to music and playing music, and your non-musical tasks are enhanced as well. The educational implications of music are huge, from childhood through the rest of our lives!

Bach’s Versatility and Genius

This week’s Flute and Piano recitals entitled “Life of Bach” have just begun to scratch the surface of this amazing man’s genius. Consider his Crab Canon when placed on a Mobius strip:

At our recitals students taught each other by saying these cards in their own words before playing:

1. Johann Sebastian back was born in Germany over 300 years ago. Musicians named Bach were known as organists and choir directors all through the area north of Bavaria. But J.S. Bach was the outstanding member of the greatest musical family the world has ever known.

2. When Mozart heard a rehearsal of a Bach piece he said, “Now there is music one could learn from!” Later he said, “Bach is the Father of all music.”

3. When Bach grew up he was known for being an outstanding organist and a composer. He was such a great organist that one day when he was practicing in a village church a passerby said, “Well, that is either J.S. Bach or an angel playing in there!”

 4. Before Bach’s time all keyboard playing only used 8 fingers. Bach introduced using the thumb by curving the hand.

5. He used counterpoint, independent melodies played all at once and sounding great together.

6. Bach’s motor rhythms give energy and life to his music.

7. Both his parents died when he was 10, leaving Bach to live with his elder brother Christoph. He taught Bach violin and harpsichord, but he became jealous when Bach copied his book of pieces from the composers of the day. He hurled the book into the fire, and Bach was devastated…until he went to the keyboard and realized he could play all the pieces by heart!

8. Years later Bach had a musical duel with a Frenchman, held in the King’s court. At the tea the day before, both players were urged to improvise. Bach did so beautifully, but the Frenchman Marchand said it wasn’t really his custom to play before the scheduled time. So, they all waited for the next day…when Marchand was nowhere to be found. He had left town.

9. After boarding school in Luneburg, Bach was employed by Duke Wilhelm, who told him he could only write Scripture music, nothing instrumental. But Bach broke the 8:30 curfew every night to practice with his instrumentalists, and every morning he would pay the fines for doing so. Finally, he landed in debtor’s prison.

10. Prince Leopold rescued Bach from prison and the old Duke. He asked him to write instrumental music, the type of music needed at court.

11. But Leopold’s new wife Henrietta told Bach his music was morose, and wanted him to play Italian jigs. So, Leopold helped him get a job at the Thomas Schule. There he could write both instrumental and sacred music.

 12. At the Thomas Schule Bach’s goal was to write liturgical music to follow the church year, for a five-year cycle. So, a young church member could enter the church at age 13 and not hear the same piece of music twice until he was 18!

13. In Bach’s final years he reworked and refined his earlier music. Copying so much music, he at last went blind. At the top left of each composition he wrote’ “Jesus help me.” And upon completion he wrote “Soli Deo Gloria,” “to God be the glory.

14. Bach died without becoming famous as a composer, because Italian rococo music had taken over. His music lay forgotten, even a stray piece used as butcher paper to wrap meat. But 75 years later Mendelssohn found his music on shelves in the Thomas Schule and resurrected it. Since then his music has been beloved by musicians everywhere.


Why Practice Music?

Why should we practice? Does it really make any difference? Is it important to carve out time for daily music ‘workouts’? How should we practice?

The brain is comparable to a muscle, which develops and strengthens with workout. As we practice — review and seek to improve our mastery of specific music — neurons (brain cells) become more efficient, fire more quickly, and have stronger connections. 

Because our neural pathways can be strengthened, we can have a ‘growth-mindset’ (a new term by educator Carol Dweck). So rather than thinking with a fixed mindset: we can’t play that piece of music any better, it’s as good as it’s going to get, so there’s not much point in practicing … instead realize that we actually can increase our musical capabilities, even our very intelligence. We can approach the piece with various creative strategies to conquer its challenges. Then daily music workouts will show measurable improvement and success.

This kind of practicing is mindful and purposeful. In fact, when we find ourselves daydreaming, playing carelessly without focusing, it’s time for a break. After all, it’s not that practice makes perfect, but…perfect practice makes perfect.

Flute Projection versus Volume

What is the difference between playing the flute loudly and projecting? This came up in discussion with a flute student today. We should be able to project our flute sound at any dynamic. The key is to maintain a steady air speed, spinning the air and focusing the tone without tightening up.

Cleveland principal Joshua Smith notes that “sound goes the wrong direction if it has an edge or is forced, because when you start forcing air, you’re not actually supporting it; rather than channeling the air column so that it’s coming out of you quickly and steadily, you’re anchoring something in your body so that the column tightens. Yelling might sound loud, but it doesn’t necessarily carry the same weight underneath it that speaking resonantly can….I know that a sound that is focused and round is what carries.”

So play to the back of the hall, the practice room or wherever you’re sharing music, and listen for beautiful round tone. Tabuteau, the French father of oboe-playing in the United States, put it best: “The sound that carries is the amplification of a dolce tone.”

Flute Etudes in Progressive Order

So many Etudes, so little time! Here’s some help choosing the best for each level. The word ‘etude’, meaning ‘exercise’ or ‘study ‘, is from the French verb ‘etudier’, meaning ‘to study’. It is this concentrated daily study that hones technique, tone and rhythm. Play with a metronome until the beat is unchanging, and begin under tempo, even half speed.

Even beginners can master short etudes in easy keys, found in the Rubank Elementary or the larger Wagner method books. This segues well into the Rubank Intermediate level book, at which point players can begin practice sessions with chromatic long tones and one octave major scales. By the time they master scales in all keys they are ready for etudes of the level found in the subsequent Rubank Advanced book, that will include double tonguing.

At this point the late intermediate flutist can move to a book specifically devoted to etudes, such as Melodious Studies by Cavally, or the etudes by Altes, a bit longer and more challenging. The early advanced student should learn the 18 Studies by Berbiguier, lovely etudes that lie well, introduced to me at a music camp in the Poconos by first editor John Wummer, principal of the New York Philharmonic. Orchestral excerpts mesh well here.

The advanced flutist enters the rarified realm of Taffanel and Gaubert, particularly 17 Grands Exercises, of which 1, 4-6, and 12 should be memorized. Karg-Elert’s 30 Caprices and Anderson opus 63 etudes should be learned as well. The artist level player will benefit from the Paganini Caprices and further Marcel Moyse studes, especially 20 Exercises and ‘de la Sonorite’. Etudier!

Flute Belts!

Incentive Program for Flute Students

Deerland Studio has developed an enjoyable belt system similar to Taekwondo and Karate, in which students progress at their own levels and attain mastery as total musicians. 6 areas are stressed: Tone, Scales, Playing by Ear, Etudes, Musicianship, and Repertoire. Students love the belts because they know where they are and what will be mastered next. For instance, when they earn their orange belt (after white and then yellow), their capabilities will include: slurred harmonics, 1 octave scales to 3 b/#, 3 folksongs by ear in several keys, as well as intermediate etudes, sightreading, memory pieces, and duets. Prized paracord survival bracelets are created for the belts.

How to Care for Your Flute

Here are some tips to maintain your lovely flute:

PUT IT TOGETHER without touching the keys. Gently ease the pieces together, and keep the joints wiped clean.

HOLD IT in your lap or in playing position, or set it on a table (never a chair — someone might sit on it!), otherwise put it in its case. Keys should be facing up so the pads stay dry.

CLEAN YOUR MOUTH before playing by rinsing with water or brushing your teeth, so nothing sticky gets on the pads.

CLEAN THE INSIDE of your flute immediately after playing, so moisture doesn’t make the pads swell. Many cleaning cloths are available; my preference is to buy a yard of white flannel at the fabric store, cut it into 12″ by 8″ sections, use fray-guard on the edges, then wash before using. Cover the cleaning rod with the cloth to avoid scratching the flute.

CLEAN THE OUTSIDE only with rubbing alcohol, never silver polish, which can damage the pads and clog the rods.

Enjoy your flute!

Ten Benefits of Playing Piano and Flute

This super information (for super people!) is adapted from

  1. SHARPENS THE INTELLECT – activates similar parts of the brain used for math and science: watch those SAT scores go up!
  2. DEVELOPS PASSION AND DILIGENCE – through dedication and goal-setting processes: our new piano belts and flute belts set reachable goals.
  3. MAINTAINS AN AGING BRAIN’S HEALTH – gives us increased levels of Human Growth Hormone 🙂
  4. EXERCISES THE BODY – improves fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination.
  5. ENCOURAGES CREATIVITY – enhanced brain activity inspires new solutions.
  6. STRENGTHENS MEMORY – particularly proven with language.
  7. ELEVATES MOODS – the release of serotonin and dopamine promote positive emotions.
  8. CALMS THE MIND – less anxiety, loneliness, depression, and ADD.
  9. FOSTERS COMMUNITY – brings together families, friends, and communities.
  10. BOOSTS CONFIDENCE – opportunities to boost our self-esteem.

And special additional bonuses for FLUTISTS: Singing daily (reread as ‘fluting daily’) for at least ten minutes reduces stress, clears sinuses, improves posture and can even help you live longer! (from Organic Health Universe)