Imagine committing to a marathon or even a half marathon without ever having gone running in your life. Our logical brain would tell us that that is a very bad idea. We might also intuitively know that we are just not fit enough for that. However, you only fully understand what that means if you have ever attempted to go for a run. Try to go for a 1-mile run first and then you will discover just how insane running a marathon without any training would be. Heck, even half a mile would be a step too far for me already, but that’s another story!
Yet, as flutists, we so often dive straight into the marathon of flute playing. We pick up those Taffanel and Gaubert exercises or Trevor Wye books and are disillusioned when we just cannot seem to manage them. I am not surprised.
You need to figure out your 1-mile run first!
I have said it a thousand times and will say it again. One of the BIGGEST reasons students don’t make as much progress as they would like is that they try to move too quickly. They take on material that is too difficult or just try to do too much too soon.
Students really don’t like to hear this, but here goes: If you are getting stuck at a point, the answer is not to work harder, it’s to take a step back.
You need to know your level, and where you are at right now so that you can start your training from that point. The next job will be finding the right resources for your level, but we will get to that in a moment.
How do you find your playing level?
The first step is finding your 1-mile run – or in terms of flute playing, finding your current playing level.
Traditionally, there are three levels used to define the different stages of flute playing, namely beginner, intermediate, and advanced. However, I think this needs to be more nuanced to be useful. Playing Mary Had a Little Lamb is considered a beginner-level piece. But the famous Bach Minuet in G major could hardly be called an intermediate piece. It is also certainly not a beginner piece. So how would a beginner player know when they are ready to step up from Mary Had a Little Lamb to the Bach minuet without some sort of classification between beginner and intermediate? That’s a valid question!
Because of this perceived shortfall in the traditional levels, I have spent years coming up with my own rubric for students. Through a process of refining and refining again, I finally came up with a system that I think is a lot more functional than just the three basic levels. I landed with eight different levels: beginner, novice, developing, early-intermediate, intermediate, advanced, very advanced, and virtuoso. It wasn’t entirely planned, but I ended up at the place where most exam syllabi in the world land! We will get to this in a moment.
First, here is the rubric that I created for our community:
Beginner to intermediate
Advanced to virtuoso
I have SO often come back to this rubric with students who are worried about their progress.
Why does it work? Well, having access to a detailed and comprehensive levels rubric such as this one will help you know what to work on and which milestones you should be reaching at specific points.
One of the easiest ways to identify what level you are at is to look at the scales you are working on and the range of notes you can play, particularly how high you can play.
The descriptions for each level outline what you should be working on or what you will be working on at that level. They indicate what you should be able to do when you have mastered that level. In other words, if you are not yet able to do everything on the novice level but have mastered most things from the beginner level, then your playing level is probably novice.
Remember these are not fixed classifications. Your progress exists on a continuum. So you may be able to do some things on one particular level already and be behind in other areas. For example, you may be able to play all the scales on the beginner level and are on track with all the other parameters, but you’re behind with your breathing. You would still classify yourself as a novice player and now you have also identified an area that needs improvement. Yippee!
The important thing to remember is that this is a guide designed to help you, not put you in a box. Choose the level that fits you in the most number of areas and start there.
Ok, do you know what playing level you are at? Well, let us know too. This really helps us to serve you better and connect you with the best resources for your level!
Once you know your playing level, your next step will be to find the right practice materials for your level. Those resources should have a bit of a challenge in them for you, but not so much that you feel completely discouraged. This means, while you are figuring out your starting point you may need to be a bit flexible. If you choose a level and the material is too challenging, go back a step. If it is too easy, level up and take on more challenging content.
How do you find the right resources?
Let’s get to work. It’s time to find the right resource for your level. For this, the exam syllabi of various examination boards are SO useful. There are a few options and I will post links to some of them down below. These are graded exam systems that level up to eight basic levels and have a few additional levels as well. I have put these levels into the rubric. I always recommend starting with easier material. It is so much easier to level up than to scramble back down.
So, for example, if you are a novice player, you will want to start by looking at Grade 1 level material in the exam syllabi. It’s wonderful! It gives you a list of scales and arpeggios to work on and a comprehensive list of pieces to play. I particularly love the Music Teachers Board lists that also have links to pieces on Tomplay. Trinity and Royal Schools of Music also have books you can buy with collections of pieces and accompanying tracks. Many of these syllabi even have some suggested technical exercises. What a bonus!
These resources are of course a bit limited and sometimes they have repertoire on the lists that are difficult to get hold of as they are found in specific books that you may not want to go out and purchase. You may find the same piece on a different site such as Flutetunes.com, but it is a more advanced version and no longer suitable for your level.
So finding the right resources is a challenge. That’s why I have dedicated (and I am not joking!), hours and weeks of my time to creating resources for the different levels. These resources are available to all our premium members and are for sale in our shop. For beginner to early-intermediate players these are our Let’s Practice resources which have scales, technical exercises, studies, and pieces for each level that give you enough content to practice for a full month! For our more advanced players, we have put together a monthly practice guide with scales, technical exercises, study, and repertoire suggestions to help you find the right pieces for your level.
If you have identified an area of your playing that you are behind on, such as our breathing example earlier, you will also be on the lookout for resources that can help you with that area of your playing specifically. Luckily, there is SO much available online to help you get some help with almost any problem you are having on the flute. Of course, vet every opinion carefully and don’t take it all as the gospel truth, but approach it with curiosity and an open mind willing to learn!
Ready? Let’s go!
So, hopefully by now, you have found the right practice resources for your level. Now the fun begins!
You start practicing and a 1-mile run turns into a 2-mile, then 5-mile, then 10-mile run. Slowly, you start working towards that marathon. And, as you go, you will start to level up and see your progress.
Spend time building strong foundations. Make sure you are developing good technique as you go. Do not try to go through the material too fast. You will benefit from making sure you have no gaps in your training. And come back to this levels rubric every 6 -12 months to evaluate your progress.
Hopefully, you’re starting to see that knowing your level is essential knowledge if you’re trying to make meaningful progress on the flute. It’s all about finding that sweet spot between being challenged enough but also not being overwhelmed. Knowing your level will also ensure that you are taking solid steps of progress toward your goals.
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