There's a story I like to tell my students:
When I was getting my Bachelor's degree at Crane, I studied with Ken Andrews. He is a kind, unfailingly generous teacher and person, but his strong personality was intimidating to me when I was 18 years old and just starting college.
Mr. Andrews used to encourage my studio-mates and me to "place it" while we were playing in our lessons. I had no clue what he actually meant by that beyond a vague impression that it had to do with clarity of sound, since he would only say it when my sound was fuzzy or unfocused. I should have asked him to clarify, but I didn't want to sound stupid.
It wasn't until the second semester of my sophomore year that I realized what he meant. I remember working away in one of the tiny, red-doored basement practice rooms in Crane when it came crashing into my brain what exactly he had been asking me to do: use a more focused air stream and imagine that you're aiming that air stream at one single point in front of you. In simpler terms, "place" the air rather than just blowing it out and hoping for the best.
This was a huge realization for me, and it gave me immediate results. I couldn't believe how simple it was, or how long it had taken me to understand. I asked some of my fellow studio members years later if they had had the same experience, and enough of them voiced a similar realization that I didn't feel stupid about not getting it right away.
This experience taught me something important about being a student as well as about being a teacher: clarity is key.
As a student, you should feel comfortable asking your teacher to explain something further if you aren't sure what they're talking about. You're there to gain knowledge, and it's up to you to take equal responsibility for your learning process.
As a teacher, you should check in periodically to ensure that your students understand you and aren't just nodding along to make you happy. Some students are so shy, eager to please, or lacking in confidence that admitting confusion is difficult for them. You can check for comprehension by asking open-ended follow-up questions that can't be answered with a simple "yes" or "no."
Regardless of which side of the music stand you spend your time, an open line of communication will let everyone get more out of the experience.
I'm feeling reflective today! Here are a few things I've discovered in the last year or so of teaching.
You can find the original "5 Things My Students Taught Me" post here.
1.) Your long-term student will always be the same person at their core...
Whether your student is quiet, loud, easily bored, super intense, or anything else, the personality traits they display as a child will most likely be present for the entire time the two of you work together. Some qualities grow in prominence with age while others fade to the background, but your student's unique personality and temperament will remain the same at their core, so figure out what makes them tick and what their learning style is so you can communicate effectively with them.
2. ...but the way you relate to your long-term student will change over time.
When a young child joins your studio, the topics you discuss will be concrete: here's how to play low C, this is the headjoint, this is called a flat sign. They're tangible, easily explained concepts. As your student gets older, however, you will be able to talk about ideas that are more abstract and less easily defined; you'll find yourself discussing performance anxiety, timbre, and style. The older your student gets, the more in-depth your conversations can become, and older students will benefit from hearing (age-appropriate) stories from your life as they relate to what you're studying together.
3.) Let your students pick their music.
Remember the last time someone made you do something you didn't feel like doing? Remember the glorious sense of purpose and fulfillment that flooded your heart and mind? Didn't think so.
4.) Letting parents sit in on lessons is a double-edged sword.
It's good to have parents who are supportive and engaged, and if they have at least a passing familiarity with what's covered in lessons, they can help your student practice during the week between lessons. However, some students feel uncomfortable trying and failing in front of their parents and as a result won't push themselves during lessons. Feeling like there's no audience to see it if they try and fail can help shy students feel more at ease with experimenting during lessons. Another downside to parents in the studio is that a parent who interrupts you while you're teaching undermines your authority, which makes it harder to keep your more easily distracted or less willing students engaged in what's going on.
5.) Self-care is part of being a good role model.
It's up to you to determine the type of energy in your studio. If you bring in an attitude of positivity, enthusiasm, and joy, your students will pick up on that. But if you bring in an attitude of exhaustion or disengagement, they'll pick up on that too. You need to be a model for the type of behavior you want from your students, so it's essential that you get whatever kind of care you need in order to be the most nurturing version of yourself that you can be. This might come in the form of physical therapy, mental health counseling, or simply a relaxing spa day, but some form of stress release is key. In order to have a generous spirit as a teacher, you must have something to give.
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When a student is just starting out on the flute, they won't know enough about the repertoire to choose what pieces or exercises to work on. It's up to you to expose them to a representative cross-section of what's out there, but once your students get to an intermediate level, they are perfectly capable of having a role in choosing their music. Developing a sense of ownership in your students is key to their success. Students who feel excited about the music they play will practice more and will be more engaged during lessons.
You should provide guidance and introduce this element of choice in an age-appropriate manner; for less experienced students, being allowed to pick from a list of pieces rather than being assigned a piece to learn is empowering without being overwhelming. For advanced students who know more about the flute repertoire, a simple list of guidelines is fine. Examples of less-specific guidelines are:
The ultimate goal of teaching is to make your students self-sufficient, so encourage your students to make their own decisions whenever it's appropriate. They'll be better musicians for it.
I've always been a firm believer that summer lessons are the time when you make the most improvement; you aren't tired from being at school all week, and you have more space available in your schedule to practice and perhaps to have a longer lesson time.
I always took lessons during the summer when I was in school, and once I became a teacher, I always taught straight through the hot, muggy months. But after six years of teaching flute lessons, I'm starting to reconsider.
More than anything, students deserve a well-rested, fully engaged, prepared teacher who's excited about the subject at hand. I've been extremely busy as of late, and I don't want that to dilute the quality of my students' lessons. It would be unfair to them and a waste of their time.
So I've decided to take August off; most of my students will be away for most or all of the month anyway, and it will be a good opportunity for both them and me to get in some rest and relaxation before the start of the school year. Taking a month off will also give me extra time to come up with awesome new projects and ideas for my students to tackle when September rolls around!
As any private music teacher will tell you, summer lessons are an interesting maze to navigate. On one hand, your students don't have school or homework to compete with their practice time, but they also have other activities that fill their days and might get in the way of working with their instrument. And this is how it should be! During the summer, kids should have a chance to do the things they like to do but don't have time for during the school year.
So how do you keep your students coming back to the music stand without making them feel guilty for enjoying summer activities?
I've found the best approach is to embark on a longer-term summer project with several different aspects that we can explore deeply together. This can come in the form of a sonata, concerto, or etude book; all that matters is that it contains slow and fast movements. This gives your students lots of options for what they want to focus on during their practice time, and also gives them lots of material to work on should you go a few weeks in between meetings. It's easier to plan out a few weeks' worth of assignments if you have more music to draw from.
When the school year starts drawing to a close, I like to sit down and draw up a plan for what I want my students to work on during the summer months. This year, since everyone is in 8th and 9th grade, we're using Andersen Op. 41, a collection of medium-difficulty etudes that features many different key signatures, tempos, and styles. Here's the activity sheet I created for my students:
These activities aren't exclusive to Andersen etudes; rather, they're things I want to teach my students to do with every piece of music they learn. The etudes are just a convenient way to get my students into these habits.
It's really important to give some sort of long-term instructions, like those above, to students working through a longer piece or an etude book, especially if they're new to this type of study. It can be overwhelming to try to approach a larger work if you don't know where to start, and the value of etudes in particular is in discerning what they're intended to help you improve about your musicianship.
So don't sweat it (pun intended and enjoyed) if you don't see your students every week during the summer. Enjoy this chance to work through a bigger project at a slower pace with them, and don't forget to take some time for yourself, too.
For most musicians, the craft of performing music is a really personal thing. It's a part of who we are. It can be hard, then, when you meet someone who's a lot better than you at your instrument. It's tempting to think that having lesser ability makes you a less worthy person.
When you find yourself around someone who's more talented than you, you can react one of two ways: jealousy or inquiry.
It's not helpful to you in any way to act negatively toward this person just because they're more skilled than you at this point. Nor does it take away any of their skill. Even if this person isn't pleasant to deal with, it still won't help you to be unpleasant back at them. Granted, this is easier said than done, especially in a tense audition situation or when you're stuck sitting next to this person every day in ensemble rehearsal.
But you can be better than that. Instead, open your mind to the idea that you could learn something from this person. Ask them who they study with, what etude books they use when they practice, and what kind of warmups they use. They might share with you, or they might not, but it never hurts to ask.
Try kindness and openmindedness the next time you feel jealous of your peers. A little humility goes a long way.
As you go higher in the range of notes the flute can play, the fingerings become more complicated and less intuitive, but gaining confidence and comfort with the extreme high register is easy to do if you take the right approach.
When you're trying to learn a new note, try moving back and forth between the new note and a note you already know and are comfortable with. Start slowly, and only increase your speed when you can move smoothly from note to note without any hesitation. Ingrain a feeling of ease, rather than trying to push for speed.
Below is a basic template that you can use for practicing high notes. (Click the image to download a printable PDF version.) Use any two notes you like, and remember that a few minutes each day of focused, purposeful practice are more useful than a longer period of halfhearted effort.
Now that my students are getting a little older, I often find myself discussing with them what it means to be a responsible, mature flutist. I want them to have good values when it comes to being a musician, and with that in mind, I share with you a classic post from October that includes the most important things I discovered in my six years studying music at the conservatory level.
Check out Six Years, Ten Truths and let me know what you think!