Flute progress after one month in orchestra: still hanging in there

It was exactly one month ago, January 22, when I joined the Carnegie Mellon All-University Orchestra.

Another week has gone by, and what I thought might be a day of reckoning has come and gone, and I am still playing the flute in the CMU AUO and have not dropped out!

Here is a sample of the hardest music from Bernstein’s “Symphonic Dances from West Side Story” that I’m still struggling to play correctly, cleanly, and in tempo:

West Side Story: Fugue

West Side Story: Rumble

It is not very visible from my photos, but I have a huge number of pencil markings on my copy of the score.

The story as of now:

Practice in the past week

Getting down the basics

Last Wednesday, I continued with focusing purely on improving technique with the Rubank method book. I did not even look at the Gershwin or Bernstein music for orchestra. I simply recognize that I have to focus on making fundamental progress in technique and trust that this will enable me to actually play the hard music at hand.

I have not written much about this strategy, but I feel that it is effective and that many amateurs do not practice or pursue their various life activities with this discipline, and therefore fall short of reaching their potential. And then typically, we amateurs make excuses, blaming lack of talent or lack of time for our slow progress or quick plateau at a mediocre level.

There is something in the general culture that encourages immediate gratification at the expense of true craft. Yes, it is true that we cannot give our all toward our hobbies, the way we might for what we consider our jobs, but at the same time, if you add up the number of hours we spend at our hobbies, they actually do add up, and we might as well have made them count efficiently.

For me to attack the hard passages of music prematurely without building up technique would be analogous to the following:

People like shortcuts. But they usually do not succeed, and even if they do, don’t provide a sustainable path of growth.

My real goal isn’t just to survive playing in an orchestra concert. That’s actually just an incentive for my real goal, which is to improve my overall technique, so that I can continue to play music in any genre, any ensemble, as I wish.

An off day

That said, the next day, Thursday, I was feeling tired and unmotivated for practice. This happens sometimes. In fact, typically it happens once a week. I’m human. I can’t magically improve a huge amount every single day. Sometimes I’m tired. Sometimes I backslide, and notes come out jumbled, slow, etc.

This, too, is a part of life. I’ve found the hard way that it’s never best to just push through and waste time and emotional energy. Overtraining doesn’t help. Sometimes it is best to just take a break. I generally prefer to take an active break.

For example, on Thursday I decided to put away the technique practice, which was not going well, and instead have fun sight-reading a bunch of music I had gotten out of the library earlier. I played around sight-reading transcribed opera arias from Puccini (I secretly love singing them in Italian even though I’m not a soprano or female!), transcriptions from Debussy’s piano music (I want to play the original piano pieces some day), and a World Music Cuba album. It was a lot of fun playing real, lyrical music. I especially liked playing the Cuban music, since I always dreamed about doing that back when I was dancing salsa, rumba, cha cha, and bolero (I also have a goal of seriously singing this genre of music).

Note: eventually I would like to actually practice some of these music arrangements seriously.

(Update of 2012-11-17)

Nine months after this blog post, I sang bolero for the first time in my life, to Abby.

(Update of 2013-03-17)

Over a year later, I ended up playing selections from the World Music Cuba book at a party.

Continued practice

Friday and Saturday I was back doing technique, and Saturday I finally hit the CMU AUO music again. I noticed that I was playing the high notes on the flute better. Also, of course, I improved my speed and facility at many scales, but I won’t bore with listing metronome numbers to indicate my progress.

Sunday’s orchestra rehearsal

Sectional for woodwinds

I arrived at 6:30 PM on Sunday for the woodwind sectional, but only one other person was there! People were running late, apparently. I was concerned when only three flutes (plus piccolo) showed up: did we lose another flute? (Later in the full rehearsal, two others joined us.)

It turned out that in the woodwind sectional, collectively we were still struggling, and therefore I was not as out of place as I had feared I might be. It was a very useful rehearsal, in which many different instruments’ parts started falling in place. It was at this point that I realized that I was having trouble not only because of my own problems but also because other peoples’ problems were affecting me. I was having trouble coming in at the right time in many places not only because I was counting badly (although I’ve been working steadily at improving my counting) but also because so many other lines were not coming in at the right place either, so I could not rely on listening to others as a way of finding my place. Anyway, we made huge progress in some very difficult music. I actually believe, for the first time, that we might be able to get this stuff working for the concert.

Full rehearsal

Maria kept on being disappointed in the full rehearsal, asking if we had actually listened to the music, because we were still having so much trouble. (Actually, I have the music and listen to the whole thing at least once every other day.) Perhaps it was a blessing in disguise that so many of us were still unprepared, because it enabled me to not be completely left behind, as we kept the tempos still on the slow side.

Even so, there were sections in which I simply was unable to keep up. I feel that I really need to master most of them by next rehearsal.

This week’s practice

My practice this week so far since the rehearsal has been good. I’m still focusing on building technique.

On Monday, I made significant improvements in my high notes with scales. I worked some with the Bernstein.

On Tuesday, I continued Rubank, and went back to some real basics, playing long tones, working on control of dynamics, and relaxation. I did not touch orchestra music at all.

Today, I did an abbreviated Rubank practice, then launched into much work on the Bernstein, to make things faster. As I do once or twice a week, I included a “test” for myself in which I played through all the problematic sections of the piece along with an actual recording. I’m doing much, much better now. There is still hope that I might be able to play most of the piece at full speed by Sunday.

A look back to three months ago

It is amusing to look back to what I was still having trouble playing, as a flute beginner, three months ago. I was just starting to work through a collection of “easy flute classics”:

Moyse Collection of Easy Flute Classics

Compare these simple, slow scores with the Bernstein excerpts in the photos at the beginning of this blog post!


Needless to say, I’ve completely put away my recorders. I did go to the monthly meeting of the Pittsburgh chapter of the American Recorder Society on Sunday to play, but that is all I will do with recorder until after the April orchestra concert. I would like to get serious about recorder again for late spring and summer.

Interestingly, I felt I was automatically slightly better at playing recorder even without touching it for a month. It’s the cross-training effect. Music is music, whichever instrument you’re playing: breath control, tone awareness, flexibility of fingers, etc. Even if I did sometimes forget my fingerings.


I’m still enjoying improving at flute and slowly getting closer to being able to play the second flute part of the Bernstein in its entirety. I get less and less panicky about being in the orchestra as I “catch up” according to plan.

(Update of 2012-03-12)

I ended up quitting the CMU AUO.

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