The Bell Curve of Effort

I am a big proponent of hard work.  As a self-proclaimed “super-type-A” person, when I set a goal for myself, I tend to do everything in my power (and sometimes too much) to achieve it.

But there comes a point when effort actually hinders productivity.  Trying too hard to get something can sometimes hurt more than it can help.

I think this is especially true of flute playing.  Trying too hard to make a sound creates tension and ultimately limits the ability to create a great sound.  Trying too hard to play technical passages causes carpel-tunnel-inducing habits and a high probability of anxiety during performance.

Effective practice, for me, means finding the magical middle point where I am exerting just enough effort to create good playing but not so much that I am hindering my own progress.

It looks a little like this:
Bell Curve of Effort

I aim to approach that dotted line.  Usually that means practicing just this side of the “edge” which is the point where things start to feel difficult.  It means paying close attention to my body and knowing that if I am struggling in rehearsal, I will be in full-blown panic mode in performance.  It means finding a relaxed, easy mode in which I can execute everything I need to.

This doesn’t mean I spend less time practicing or working on things.  In fact, I might actually spend more time preparing a piece because I am aiming for this sense of ease. It takes time to settle into that relaxed mode of playing a piece.

It also means finding where to exert effort in the body for maximum efficiency.  On a specific note, if my throat and neck start to work overtime, I will know I am headed in a bad direction. The only real effort in the body should be in the “breathing muscles”, the ones in charge of moving air out of the lungs. The muscles controlling the lips (not the cheeks) should also be active in order to form the embouchure but if they get overactive (as is common in the upper octave), it will hinder the sound.

Practicing, for me, is just searching for that dotted line: the sweet spot of maximal effort without exerting so much it makes me sound worse.


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