Flute progress report: day of reckoning approaches

Two weeks ago, I wrote about joining the Carnegie Mellon All-University Orchestra, the first orchestra I have ever been in. I wrote of my terror as I realized that as a total beginner at flute, I was basically unable to play any of the music handed out.

I decided to work very hard at improving my flute skills to see whether I could get good enough in time to make it to the April 15 concert in respectable shape. I believe this is the most ambitious goal I have ever set for myself in my entire life. Not because it is the hardest goal to achieve, but because of the time pressure involved. If I were given eight months, I would say, yes, I can do it; it took me eight months to start playing the recorder and then be sufficiently skilled (at merely an intermediate level) to play easy music in a concert. But two months is another story.

Furthermore, the day of reckoning is not April 15. I feel it is next Sunday.

A day of reckoning

More precisely, next Sunday is the first day on which I might be in a lot of trouble if I can’t reach a certain level. The woodwind section will have a sectional before the main rehearsal to iron out our special problems. All of us flutes will be pretty naked at the sectional. I know where I’m still falling short.

Good news

The good news is that I have made huge progress in the past two weeks. Whereas two weeks ago I classified myself as a “beginner”, now I would classify myself as an “advanced beginner”.

There have been exciting days during which I made a lot of progress and bad days during which I felt that I made little progress or backslid, but I kept the faith and kept going. I’ve put aside various other personal projects in order to work as much on flute as possible: some days I have practiced two hours instead of one, and sometimes even three or four hours (on weekends). My left forefinger is permanently sore!

Also good news is that we were down to four flutes and one piccolo as of two weeks ago, but this week were have not lost more flutes! I expect the rest of us are in it for the long haul: two of us on first flute, two of us on second flute, and one of us on piccolo. I’m not sure if I should, but I would feel very uncertain if I were the only second flute remaining now. It’s nice to know someone else may be sharing my pain, and maybe we can help each other in the sectionals.

Practice details

The bulk of my practice has been continuing to get down basic technique by working through the Rubank intermediate method. I keep on filling in gaps, adding new exercises while continuing to improve on exercises I have begun.

High notes

Given the music that we are playing for the concert, it has been of very high priority that I manage to play the very high notes (of the third register) effectively. This has been quite, quite difficult. It takes time to learn to form the embouchure and use it; what has been helpful has been looking at Web resources and reminding myself to relax. Undirected powering through, like powering through in any other activity, from running to rowing to programming, doesn’t work. I still have difficulty producing the kinds of notes in the third register I would like (our director Maria has repeatedly told us flutes collectively to work on our intonation, and you bet that in Sunday’s sectional I will be doing what I can to get it where it needs to be), but at least I now know the fingerings for A-flat, A, B-flat, and B, and am still hard at work practicing scales and arpeggios way up there. It is only this week, actually, that I managed to be able to get B-flat and B out of my instrument at all. A-flat remains weird, but A is clean. Also, F, F-sharp, and G were shaky for me at last report, but I’m more or less getting them now. E does not speak so well, unfortunately; I think this is partially an inherent flute matter.


Maria also repeatedly reminded the whole orchestra that we were not very good with dynamics, and generally played at some kind of nondescript mezzo-forte. We need to be able to play pianissimo and crescendo to fortissimo, etc., for expression and effect as indicated in the score.

I’ve improved on dynamics, but it is still very hard for me to play high notes softly, for example. I know the theory, but making my mouth and breath do this is taking time.


Maria works with the entire group large on rhythm. The music we have to play is jazzy and swings and has all kinds of syncopations, accents that have to be felt and interpreted. It is indeed more effective to listen and copy these rhythms rather than try to play the notations in the score. She tells us not to play so square, ha!

Needless to say, I still have anxiety about coming in at the wrong times, and blasting a note where there is supposed to be a rest. So you bet I am working on getting the tricky rhythms down.


Maria has been ramping up the speeds in the rehearsals. Unfortunately, last Sunday an important section of the Bernstein was run through at a speed exceeding what I could handle at the time. So I have been working on that. I feel I am always playing catch-up.

For development of speed, there is no substitute for just plain foundational technique work with the metronome. The metronome does not lie.

Progress on old exercises

Some examples of progress:

Last week I gave a record of speed progress on an exercise:

Add to that the following improvements, which get me to roughly where I feel I need to be:

By the Pareto rule, I will not seek further improvement on this exercise.


I’ve improved on this one to:

I’ve topped out there too for now.

Here’s an interesting exercise from last time that I had found rather difficult:

I have made radical improvements as a result of noticing the need for relaxation and for adjusting my holding of the instrument and the alignment of my right wrist (and many other things I still keep on refining):

I will stop trying to improve on this also.

Here’s a difficult arpeggio study at which I have made a big leap:

Note that in a single day, something clicked and I was able to go much faster.

Here’s an exercise that is wicked and works the right ring finger and other stuff:

New exercises

Obviously, I have also attacked brand new exercises since my last post.

Here’s one on thirds:

Another on thirds:

The rapid improvement on these new exercises comes because, as I have admitted, I have been a total beginner with almost no technique at all, never having practiced scales or arpeggios in any key, so when I’m learning a new key, I start off all confused but then make progress quickly.

Unfortunately, the Bernstein and Gershwin music have all kinds of keys, changes of key, accidentals, the works, so there is no escaping mastering everything. I’m working particularly on A major and A-flat major now, with their four sharps and four flats, respectively. The scariest, fastest section of the Bernstein actually has a key signature with six sharps (although I have to wonder why, because the music is full of accidentals and almost atonal).


There are times when I do not feel motivated to practice the concert music at all. I have a confession to make: playing flute in an orchestra is not my favorite musical activity by a long shot. It’s something I’m doing because it is novel to me and because I hope to enjoy being a part of a group effort in which we somehow manage to sound on April 15 a lot better than we sound now. Also, having a goal, and having the threat of social shame, has proved sometimes to be an effective motivator for me to achieve my “real” goals as a side effect.

What I really like doing, and aim to do more of, is playing music in very small groups. I like playing recorder with one or two or three or four others. So sometimes when I’m practicing I feel frustrated that I’m working on a second flute part of a large orchestral piece, rather than on a duet or something like that. Amusingly, the fact that there are only two of us second flutes left helps me feel like I am “making a difference”, however.


I’m still hanging in there with my crazy attempt to just jump into a new level of flute playing, with a hard deadline. It would be less stressful if I were just trying to improve at my own pace, but I have to admit that from November through December, when I was working on the flute, the fact that I did not have a concrete level of mastery as a goal definitely made my practice less effective.

(Update of 2012-03-12)

I ended up quitting the CMU AUO.

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