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The Complete Flute Lesson

Tammy Evans Yonce | December 2009


Private flute study often just includes instruction in flute technique, literature, and general musicianship. To train well-rounded musicians, we should also teach music theory, music history, and performance practice. Incorporating these additional music disciplines prepares students more completely for a life in music – whether they become professionals, semi-professionals, or amateurs. A comprehensive flute curriculum creates a foundation for an appreciation of music that will last a lifetime.
    It is difficult to incorporate these topics into an already too-short lesson. However, when students learn a piece with an understanding of its basic theoretical and historical aspects, their resulting performance is better informed and more easily understood by an audience. Students also gain a broader understanding of what they are doing. Here are several ways to add to your curriculum.

    Select and analyze several chords from each new work a student is learning. Play them on the piano so students can hear the quality of the chords. Instead of introducing music theory as an isolated, detached subject, teach it by discussing chords for the piece they are learning. 

    Study the composers. You can feature a different composer each month or introduce a new composer when he is encountered in the flute repertoire. I create composer worksheets that become a starting point for discussions; about the composer’s life, works, and compositional style. You can even include a broad overview of what went on in the world during that composer’s lifetime.
     My composer worksheets are similar to the example that follows. They encourage students to do the necessary research to answer the questions. While this is a worksheet for J.S. Bach, it can be adapted for any composer.

Sample Composer Worksheet

Johann Sebastian Bach

1. Birth and death dates
2. Musical era
3. Country
4. Instrument(s) played
5. Bach learned to repair a certain instrument. What was it?
6. Bach’s famous collection, The Well-Tempered Clavier, included examples of what style of composition? Describe this style.
7. True or False: Bach’s career included many compositions for two distinct purposes – religious and educational.
8. Bach’s entire family was very musical. Name two of his children who became notable musicians.
9. True or False: Bach’s music has always been popular, even immediately after his death.
10. Bach’s works are catalogued using a certain lettering system. What three letters are used to label his works?
11. List anything else you found interesting in your research.

    Listen to music during lessons. Have music playing as students arrive and while they are putting their flute together, as well as when they are packing up to leave. Encourage active listening by asking students to describe the music. This helps them learn to distinguish between styles and exposes them to examples of a good flute tone. They will also learn the difference between hearing, as in background music at the grocery store, and listening, which is active and focused.
    Listening to examples of a composer’s work helps students build a timeline in which to place the works they are learning, as well as becoming more educated about stylistic approaches in various time periods.
    With older, more experienced students you can try a drop the needle game by playing a short section of a composition. Then ask them to name the musical era, composer, composition, etc. It’s an exercise we all had in college theory classes, but you might be surprised at how good students will get at it.

    Encourage curiosity. Ask students about their favorite music groups and find a way to apply that information to the music they are playing in their lessons. This makes classical music more relevant for them and shows them that all music is connected.
    Invite students to bring a C.D. of their favorite band to lessons. While listening to a track you can talk about the rhythm, basic harmony, tempo, and melody, and compare these elements to works they are studying.

    Arrange field trips to the symphony, opera, community band concerts, and other musical performances. Explain beforehand what will occur, when it is appropriate to clap, the plot of the opera, etc. Demystifying the experience will make them more likely to visit in the future.

    Teach performance practice in a broad, genre-by-genre fashion. When teaching how to approach a Bach sonata correctly, stress that this is a concept that applies to all Baroque music, not just works by Bach. When students tackle the next Baroque piece, they will know how to approach it.

    All genres of music and music disciplines are connected – a fact that is important for students to understand. Whether they go on to perform with the New York Philharmonic or just come to enjoy local opera productions, a broader approach to flute study will help prepare them for the future.

A Sample Lesson Plan
for J.S. Bach’s Partita in A Minor

Materials: recording of J.S. Bach’s Partita in A Minor for Solo Flute, BWV 1013, sheet music for the Partita, major/minor scales, Taffanel and Gaubert’s Seventeen Daily Exercises.

1. Listening: Play a recording of a J.S. Bach flute work as the student enters the studio and assembles her flute. Point out specific elements of the interpretation while looking at the score. Show those spots where the performer used embellishments.
    Discussion: Tone color on recording.
    Questions: Was it bright, thin, or somewhere in between? Did the flutist play on a metal flute or a wooden one? How did flutes vary in the Baroque from flutes we play today? Did those differences affect the way composers wrote? Did the performer use just a few embellishments, or did they use many? How did those embellisments change the overall effect of the piece?

2. Scales and technical exercises. As students play their scales, point out those keys that are in the Partita, such as the A-minor melodic scale that opens the Corrente movement or the C-Major scale the closes the first half of the Sarabande. Identifying the applicability of scales to the music students are working on should make practicing scales seem more useful.
    Discussion: Explain why the Taffanel & Gaubert scales don’t go down to low B or beyond high C. Introducing a bit about flute history teaches students the relationship between music of a particular period and the instrument upon which it was originally performed.
    Questions: Can you identify and write the names of the scales in your piece? Why is the key signature different from that of the scale?

3. Bach Partita in A Minor. While a complete harmonic analysis might not be useful for most students, it might be illuminating to take a brief look at the harmonic foundation of the piece.
    Discussion: Use of various dance forms by Baroque composers. Dance implies shifting of the body’s weight from foot to foot. How does this affect the music?
    Questions: Where does the Allemand change from A minor to C Major? What version of the A-Minor scale is used? Where is the return to A minor? Is there a Coda or concluding passage? What is the form of the Allemand?

4. Music History. Point to the absence of any dynamic and articulation markings in the work (in the Urtext edition) to begin a discussion of performance practice.
    Discussion: Articulation and dynamics in the Baroque largely left to the performer.
    Questions: Where could specific dynamics be used? What about articulations? There aren’t any of those either. Should the Allemand be entirely tongued? Were you to add slurs, where would you add them.