Close this search box.

What I Wished I Had Known Before I Entered the Conservatory

Patricia George | April 2015

Above: Joseph Mariano with his wife Anne on his left. Patricia George is on his right. Town & Country Restaurant, Rochester, December 1963.

    This past October I attended my 50th reunion of graduation from the Eastman School of Music. As I walked through the mezzanine of the main building, viewing portraits of my favorite teachers, I was flooded with memories of my time with them in the classroom and the studio. Later that evening as I sat in the audience listening to the Eastman Philharmonia, I recalled my three years in the orchestra, all of which were under the direction of Howard Hanson, American composer and former director of the Eastman School of Music. Of course as memories are recalled, the next question is, “What would I have done differently if I had the knowledge and experience I now have?”

Conservatory vs. University
    When I was in high school, guidance counselors were saddled with clerical work which left little time for guiding students in making career choices. Both my parents had earned master’s degrees so it was assumed that I would do the same. During the summers I attended the Interlochen Music Camp (as it was called then). Howard Hanson was one of conductors each summer, so I assumed if Interlochen hired him year after year, he must be someone I would want to study with after high school. My own high school flute teacher A. Clyde Roller (an oboist and conductor of the Amarillo Symphony) was also a regular conductor at Interlochen. He encouraged me to apply to Eastman, which was his alma mater. He also thought Joseph Mariano would be the perfect teacher for me.
    As I entered Eastman and registered for classes, I realized how limiting my course of study would be. For performance majors, six hours of credit was assigned to applied lessons. The other ten credits were divided between theory, music history, English Literature, large ensemble, piano lessons and physical education (At that time, the state of New York required two years of physical education.) As I looked over the curriculum, I realized that I would be well into my junior year before I had any choice of enrichment classes. Luckily I was able to overload in my sophomore year and graduated with a large portion of credits in Comparative Literature and Philosophy. However, if I had had guidance in high school about the differences between a conservatory curriculum and a university liberal arts curriculum, I might have made a different choice. 
    Thus said, if I had attended a university, I would not have had the excellent teaching of Mariano or the opportunity to play in the Eastman Philharmonia, Eastman Wind Ensemble and the Rochester Philharmonic. However, I would have had access to a liberal arts curriculum. Today many conservatories are offering expanded options of four- and five-year double degree programs. At Eastman, students may easily take courses at the River Campus (University of Rochester). Other conservatories have similar arrangements. So if I were making a choice today, I would make the same decision today; however, my selection would be an informed one. Be sure you know what you are getting when you sign on the dotted line. 

Theory Studies
    The theory program at Eastman was designed by Allen J. McHose. Even to this day I would still call the curriculum intense. The 150-member freshman class was divided into ten or so smaller theory classes. Each student was assigned to one of the classes based on his aural skills’ abilities. Theory met five days a week with tests occurring every few weeks. Testing included part-writing, sight-singing, and keyboard harmony. I recall one keyboard harmony test in which the examiner said, “Ah, there just aren’t enough keys to modulate to!” Needless to say, I viewed this theory as an hour of torture each day and would have rather been practicing.
    One day, a clarinetist from someplace in the south asked the teacher what learning all of this theory stuff was going to do for his clarinet playing. It was a question I could have asked too. I don’t think the teacher gave a very good reply. If I were answering the question today, I would say, “Under-standing theory will do everything for your playing and musicianship. The more you know, the better your decoding skills will be in learning to play the repertoire both technically and style wise.” So, if you don’t love music theory or studying music history or even practicing, a performance degree may not be your best choice. If you are in school now, do everything in your power to become proficient in the subject. Get a tutor. Practice sight-singing like you practice your flute playing. 

Applied Lessons
    For five years my applied lessons with Joseph Mariano were the best part of each week. He taught each of us in a different way and to his credit encouraged us to be individuals in our playing. No one sounded the same. Flutists from Boston played with a faster, narrow vibrato. A flutist from California, who had studied with Roger Stevens (himself a Mariano student), was much better versed in playing scales and other technical material than the rest of us. Another flutist studied with Marcel Moyse in the summers and shared his insights. We learned from each other, and I value the evenings we spent in the 4th or 5th floor Annex practice rooms playing for one another and offering comments. Sometimes it was an exchange of ignorance, but nonetheless there was a dialogue and questions were asked.
    Generally in all applied study, no matter the studio/conservatory or professor, there were deficiencies in the curriculum especially in teaching the role of the diaphragm in breathing. It would be well into the late 1970s before Arnold Jacobs encouraged wind players to learn some anatomy. (See Flute Talk, The Teacher’s Studio, March 2015.) When I recall the level of understanding of breathing of wind players of the time, I feel fortunate to now live in a time when breathing is well-taught and understood. I would have also liked to have known where the throat actually was. After years of teaching and asking students where the throat is, I never ask someone to open his throat, but instead ask him to separate his vocal folds. 

The Instruments 
    All flutes are not created equally – even ones from the same maker. In the five years I was at the conservatory, I bought and sold three flutes. None were a good match for me. What I did learn was how to play well on a flute that did not match my physical setup. While that may be valuable in itself, modern flute makers certainly make one’s playing life so much easier today.
Pads were a continual problem. There was a saying at the time among repair craftsmen that the only time a flute was truly sealed was for a couple of hours after the overhaul had been completed. I wish I had known to respect my pads and never to grab the flute with my hands but instead to always hold it by the barrel and only put my finger tips on the keys. 

Ensemble Playing
    I wish I had been more of a team player. I loved the moments when I could soar above the orchestra in Leonore, play the cadenza in Petrushka, or the solo in Piston’s The Incredible Flutist; however, I was rude to my fellow woodwind colleagues in playing the tutti sections. I played too loud and chose the style when playing articulation marks. There was little give and take on my part. However, from my excellent high school band training, I understood playing in a spaced style and what an articulatory silence could do for inflection and expression. I did practice with the metronome regularly even though it was one of the windup ones that needed to be propped up by a stack of music to tick evenly. I did play on the beat and not before, so maybe my colleagues tolerated my good points rather than dwelling on my bad ones.
    Students today are fortunate to have woodwind coaches that teach ensemble playing practices including how to tune and balance chords. Luckily my colleagues in the Philharmonia had excellent ears and could easily adjust the pitch, so tuning was not the issue it could have been in other programs.

Specifics of Flute Playing
    Contrary to what many students think, etudes are not assigned as a weekly torture. Mariano assigned me at least 18 etudes per week. Some of my other colleagues were assigned only a few, but were assigned to play Syrinx up a half-step one week and then up a whole-step the next. Learning so many etudes was a lot of work, but I am thankful that he helped me build a technique while I was still young. I quickly learned that each etude offered the opportunity to practice a different learning strategy and worked on a specific problem. To this day I love playing a book of etudes. 
    I entered Eastman being able to single tongue four sixteenths at MM=152-160. It took me a while to concede that I could tongue faster when double tonguing. I don’t know why it took me so long to become a believer. The double tongue syllables DaGa were taught then and through the years I have learned to do the forward tonguing (thi-key). For sure my tonguing sounds better now. I never get tired or worry that a conductor is going to conduct faster than I can tongue. 
    While I had solved the vibrato issue with my studies at Interlochen with Frances Blaisdell, many of my colleagues let their vibratos control them. Vibrato is part of playing the flute, and it must be controlled. Learn to control it now rather than waiting for later.
    It seems like every flute jury began with the committee asking for a slurred three-octave chromatic scale. I wish that I had figured out to move backwards for the low C and C#, and then move forward starting on the D for the rest of the scale. There is no way that you will get a smooth connection when moving the right pinkie back as your flute is moving forward.
    Recording oneself was difficult when I was in conservatory. Today excellent study recordings can be made on a cell phone. There is no excuse to not record yourself several times a day. I am sure my progress would have been better if I could have heard myself more frequently.

Back to Theory
    Perhaps it was obvious to my fellow students, but I wish I had taken what I learned in theory and applied it directly to my practice. I knew my scales and chords, but it was a while before I began to play and read by chords and familiar patterns. I could circle, label and define non-chord tones, but had not made the connection that non-chord tones are the notes you will color or give special attention to when playing melodies. My advice is to analyze everything, and if you don’t understand something, find someone to help you.
Ask Questions
    At times everyone feels intimated at school and is afraid to ask questions. Students may feel embarrassed to tell someone in authority that they do not understand something about playing the flute or about music. Students may be afraid to ask a conductor a question and seem as though they are not ready to play in the group. Take chances, ask questions, but before you do see if you can to find the answer on your own though the internet or a friend. However, as a teacher I think there are no wrong or stupid questions. That is what I am here for – to answer your questions.