Whenever a new student starts with me, I like to sit down and have a chat with them about what brings them to my studio and why they want to take private lessons. The overwhelmingly popular response that I get is that they are dissatisfied with their experience with group lessons in the school band setting, whether it be because their peers aren't as motivated as they could be or because the teacher doesn't specialize in the instrument that the student is learning. Either way, the student feels held back.
As a private teacher, I strongly encourage all my students to take part in their school band programs. The skills necessary to be a great ensemble member are different from those needed to be an engaging solo artist, and school band is a great venue to learn those skills.
However, instrumental lessons are most productive in a one-on-one setting, rather than as a group, since each student will have different needs. Every body is shaped a little differently, so figuring out a healthy flute playing position presents a unique challenge to each person who learns the instrument. Developing a mature sound (or any sound at all, for that matter) also requires a good amount of individual attention from a qualified teacher, since the way the flute produces sound is hard to visualize.
So it's important to strike a balance; I want my students to get the personalized, detailed feedback they need from me to improve as musicians, but I also like them to participate in band since it encourages them to think beyond themselves. Group lessons in band should function as a way for students to figure out if they like the instrument enough to pursue it, not as the sole means of education for a beginning flutist.
Today, I'd like to share an old post I wrote about how to handle being at a different ability level than the people around you, whether that means you're more or less skilled than your peers. Please enjoy this classic post, titled When You're Better or Worse.
I encourage all my students to treat their musical equipment--instruments, stands, sheet music, and accessories--as tools, rather than as objects to be tiptoed around. I say make the tools work for you!
Recently I brought in my well-loved copy of Enesco's Cantabile et Presto to show a student of mine who's currently working on the piece. I wanted to her to see how marking up the music can make it more accessible and make it feel more like your own. This is what I showed her:
These markings are from my sophomore or junior year in undergrad, a time in my life when I really went nuts with the markings in my music. I have since scaled back, but at the time it was good for me to get in there and make the music feel more like home. The French conservatory pieces are intimidating enough as it is; beating up my sheet music a little made them less so for me.
So don't be afraid to make the music work for you. If you're really not into the idea of writing all over your original, make a photocopy and just go nuts with it. You'd be surprised how much friendlier the hard pieces will become.
A year ago, I wrote this post about what I learned in my time in music school. Enjoy this classic post, titled Six Years, Ten Truths. Let me know what you think in the comments!
As classical musicians, we are trained to execute what's written in the music faithfully and stylistically. Going rogue is usually discouraged, which can make improvisation feel wrong, foreign, or like something exclusively belonging to the jazz cats.
But this couldn't be more wrong! All the ornamentation you hear in Baroque pieces started out as off-the-cuff additions to the melody, and the gorgeous, bombastic cadenzas found in concertos were originally a time when the soloist could show off their improvisation skills.
At the end of the day, improv is just you moving around in a key signature. That's it.
So how do you start? I like to take a simple scale, like C major, and put each note of the scale on an index card. Mix up the cards and lay them out on your music stand in whatever order they come out of your hands. Play through those notes, first evenly, then adding different rhythms as you get comfortable. Keep mixing up the cards and the rhythms you use, and voila! You're improvising.
As you get more familiar with this, choose one note that doesn't belong in the key signature (for example, B-flat when you're playing in C major) and add that note into the group of notes you're using. Keep adding "wrong" notes as you get comfortable.
I like to play a simple bass note on my flute for my students as they do this (for example, a low C if they're playing around with a C major scale) so that they can hear how each note they play relates to the key they're in.
So let's reclaim improv, classical musicians. It's just as much ours as it is anyone else's, and it's an incredibly liberating practice. Go forth and make things up!
...you spend a lot of time reflecting on your own learning style.
...you take pride in being able to explain something in several different ways.
...you can empathize with someone trying to understand a concept they've never encountered before and you respect their struggle. You remember what it was like when you were in their shoes.
...you don't just talk to your students. You listen to them too.
...you're humble enough to admit when you don't actually know something. You refuse to give wrong or made-up information for the sake of your pride.
...you're wise enough to know the difference between when your student needs to be gently pushed into working on a difficult concept and when that concept needs to be placed on the back burner for a while.
...you understand that "those who can't do, teach" is a total myth, but instead of getting angry at people who claim that to be true, you work to demonstrate that teaching is a calling, and an honorable one at that.
To my flute teachers,
Thank you for having the insight to see what I needed, even when I couldn't see it for myself. Only years down the road did I understand the value of all those Taffanel and Gaubert exercises.
Thank you for supporting me through all the auditions over the years, from 7th grade districts all the way up to the Coast Guard Band. I could have done it alone, but I did it better with your help.
Thank you for making me study all the standard repertoire: Bach, Handel, Telemann, the French conservatory pieces, the devilishly difficult Romantic composers, and all the wonderful solo flute pieces we have to choose from. You were right; they do come back into my life over and over.
Thank you for letting me find my style. Thank you for letting me love Genzmer even when no one else has ever heard of him.
My life would be different, and probably much worse, if not for you all.
Thank you to Cynthia Livingston, Berta Frank, Ken Andrews, Vanessa Mulvey, and all the coaches I encountered in chamber music, orchestra, and masterclasses. It's a large and complex web of influences that leads to me, and I'm grateful to every one of them.
If you're lucky, most of your students will be motivated, focused, and excited to come to lessons. Even the most engaged students, though, will inevitably run up against something that they just don't want to work on. This usually rears its head during etude work; it's just not as much fun to grind away at technical studies.
When your student tells you they don't want to work on something, don't just leave it at that. Ask some questions. See if you can determine where the resistance is coming from.
I remember back in high school, my flute teacher had me work on a book of Andersen etudes that I just hated. I found them frustrating because I was used to things coming easily to me, and these etudes were a challenge. I finally threw my hands up in the air during one of my lessons and told my teacher, "I just don't see what I'm supposed to be getting out of this."
That statement was totally true and totally valid. But that sentiment in no way meant that I shouldn't have been working on those etudes. Part of taking lessons is finding out what you didn't know you needed to be doing. And while I needed those etudes to take me to the next level, I wasn't a developed enough musician yet to see that.
Now, when I teach my own students, I make sure that they know what they'll be gaining from what we work on together, especially if it's something that might make them feel stupid or unskilled for not being able to master right away.
So if you experience pushback from a student over something that you know will be good for them, sit and have a chat with them. Listen to what they say and help them understand. And at the end of the day, some things just need to be put on the shelf for another year.
Please enjoy this classic post, titled Six Reasons You Should Audition For Districts This Year. If you're not sure what the big deal about districts is or you don't feel very confident about going into an audition situation, this article is for you!