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Thoughts on Playing and Teaching the Flute

Michel Debost | February 2013

    While I am retired from flute playing and teaching, these are the ideas that I found relevant in my career.

What aspect of flute playing did you focus on most when teaching?
    For developing students I worked on the basics of flute fundamentals to fix any gaps in their instrumental playing. I prescribed scales (Taffanel & Gaubert No. 4 Scale Game) with all kinds of articulations. In this exercise the eighth bar or modulation bar between keys was played slowly and slurred with great attention to musical phrasing. If I taught anything specifically (vibrato, tone, hand positions, staccato, rhythm, posture etc.), I demonstrated it myself. I found that students who have sightreading problems make most mistakes from careless reading. For more mature students, I worked on poetic content, images, style, dynamics, control, endurance, and of course, more flute fundamentals.

Is there an aspect of flute playing that you find incoming students consistently need to improve?
    Students often lack a succinct knowledge of the historic and stylistic circumstances of a piece, a varied approach to dynamics and interpretation, and a thorough acquaintance with the total score in flute repertoire, orchestral excerpts, chamber music and operas.

What are the strengths of a student who has been with you a few years?
    I would hope a professional attitude and proficiency and the tools to improve and assimilate criticism from colleagues, teachers, conductors, and oneself.

How much do you demonstrate versus use descriptive language?
    I played as much as I could, but maybe not enough, based on whatever my instincts and imagination commanded.

How many hours per week did you expect your students to practice?
    Some people are fast learners, some not so much. On average, 20 hours per week should cut it. Some days will be long flute days while others will be shorter. More than 4 hours on any one day is not optimal, unless pleasure and love of the flute request it.
Cramming for lost hours is only a way of dealing with guilt, but laziness, love affairs, socializing in general, and the occasional missed day without any excuse at all, are vital parts of life. So an (honest) weekly average of twenty hours spread over five or six days, should be fine for performance majors at the university level.

What are your criteria for measuring progress?
    A good sign is the ability to put together a piece for a performance or gig in a few hours or days. A bad sign is a student who consistently wants to move his lesson time in order to be prepared. Frankly, a couple of extra days won’t help much. 

Did you allow time in lessons for conversation about topics unrelated to flute playing?
    Definitely. Art appreciation (painting, sculpture, architecture, literature, history of art) and general culture, even scientific topics, are not sidekicks to performing. As Malcolm Forbes said, “Minds are like parachutes. They only work when they are open.”

How did you use praise and encouragement in your teaching?
    I used to be a reluctant task master. If someone deserved praise for work well done and for honest work on my assignments, I would certainly show my appreciation.

How did you use criticism?
    I tried to help students find and verbalize their own self-criticism. I wanted them to fix their own assessment; and learn to hear themselves as if they were a listener.

Should lessons be structured so that each student completes the same material or did you allow students to pursue their own curriculum?
    Before the end of the school year, I gave every student of my studio and the new admits the same list of repertoire. After consulting with me, each flutist chose his repertoire. Aside from the biggies (Mozart Concertos, Prokofiev Sonata, Bach Partita, Schubert Variations, Widor Suite, Boulez Sonatine, César Frank Sonata, etc.), which require the maturity of upper classmen, I believed that most pieces have something for everyone, especially the new students. These elements include reading and playing the proper notes; tempo and rhythm; dynamics and phrasing; and concentration and endurance.
    The list changed every year except for Bach and Mozart, so after four years, about 100 pieces would have been played or at least heard.
    I assigned the usual 20 orchestral excerpts (rotated by ten’s every other year for specific issues. For example: “Eroica” for rhythm, “Faune” for breath management, “Daphnis” for colors, “Midsummer” for low staccato, “Classical Symphony” for fake fingerings, “Leonore III” for articulation, “Bolero” for pp, “Stravinsky’s “Petrushka, Nightingale” or Bartók “Concerto for Orchestra” for cadenzas, etc. I used to think, actually still do, that there was neither a valid interpretation without a reliable understanding and control of flute fundamentals, nor a proficient and convincing instrumental playing without a musical project.