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A Teacher or a Coach

Patricia George | February 2014

    A very famous destination flute professor was asked, “How do you teach technique? (or substitute articulation, vibrato, phrasing etc.)” The teacher replied, “I don’t know. I never have students with that kind of problem.” What the questioner did not realize is that there are two types of flute professors. One is primarily a teacher who assesses a flutist’s playing, makes a plan, and helps the student solve the issues. The other type of flute professor is a coach. A coach works with a flutist, who is already strong in the fundamentals of flute playing, music theory and history, on polishing excerpts, sonatas, concerti, and chamber works.
    I think this division between a teacher and a coach is more obvious in the operatic world. During the course of a career, singers will work with two musicians. First will be a teacher who instructs them in vocal technique and basic repertoire. Then if they are fortunate enough to continue on in an operatic career, the primary work will be with vocal coach who will teach the specific part in the opera that they have been hired to perform. This coach drills vocalists on portraying the roles according to the long-standing traditions of the operatic world. The coach works with singers on proper pronunciation, clear diction, rhythmic accuracy, and phrasing suggestions. Most opera singers continue to work with a vocal coach throughout their careers. However, this coach will not teach the basics of vocal technique.
    February and March are the months for undergraduate and graduate school auditions. In most schools auditions take the form of a mini-lesson lasting from 20 to 60 minutes. In this audition/lesson, flutists perform prepared materials and then the professor works with them on areas where there should be improvement. The professor is auditioning the student’s learning and willingness to learn. During this audition students should also be assessing whether this professor’s style is more of a teacher or a coach.
    In April acceptance letters arrive and students have to decide which school and professor is the best fit. The question should be “Which is a better choice for me – a teacher or a coach?” Ideally it is possible that a flute professor will be equally proficient as a teacher and as a coach, but this is rare as most teachers feel more comfortable with one or the other. For example, one well-known coach told a student, “You need help with projection. Go find someone who can do it and get them to show you how.” A teacher would have shown the student how to do it on the spot. So during the audition students should pay particular attention to the style and content of the lesson and discuss it with their current teachers, so at a later date, they can make an informed choice.
    Making an informed choice means that you have evaluated your playing and know the kind of teaching you need. For example, if you are playing the Jolivet Chant de Linos, which is considered a very difficult work, but are playing the rhythms sloppily, not playing close attention to the articulation marks, playing with the same sound with few or no colors, with no control of the vibrato speed, or using incorrect fingerings, then a teacher who has expertise in developing the fundamentals of flute playing and musicianship will be a better choice for you. The old saying, “Your playing is never better than your fundamentals” is a good one to heed. Once you have the fundamentals under control, then graduate school is the time to consider studying with a professor who is primarily a coach.
    As teachers, we aspire to serve students the best way we can which means we should identify our strengths and shore up our weaknesses. We should strive to be a teacher and a coach, but recognize whether your forte is in more in one area than the other.

How to Develop Teaching Skills
    Outstanding teachers will have solidified or catalogued their thoughts on all the basics of flute playing. Michel Debost’s The Simple Flute is an excellent example of the depth of thought an excellent teacher puts into his playing and teaching. Debost delineates these topics from A to Z and shares his ideas and concepts. He often offers practice suggestions to help players realize the goal.

Getting Started
    On your computer, make a file for each of the basic pedagogical topics. These might include: how to start a beginner, breathing, articulation, dynamics, embouchure, repertoire curriculum (etudes, solos, chamber, concertos, and orchestral excerpts), fingerings, style considerations, set-up of body and flute, playing position, musicianship, intonation, memory, practicing, programming, technique, vibrato etc. As you have a moment to spare here and there over the next few months enter your ideas on teaching each of these topics into the proper file. Then as you teach, think about how you present the topic differently from one student to the next. Can you pinpoint why you taught it one way one day and a different way the next? Enter these ideas into your file.
    If during this process, you have one of those fantastic teaching days when you think of the most brilliant analogy to explain a concept, enter that into the file. Information gleaned from other master teachers also will enrich your files.
    Every few months read over each file and rewrite the entry organizing your thoughts. This step should be repeated at least once a year for many years to come. At a certain point this entry will be good enough that you can print and use it as a handout in your studio teaching and masterclass lectures. (Side note: If you receive too many questions from the students, you know that your handout has not been clearly written.)
The Vibrato Checklist (below) is an example of this type of planning and organizing. Will I reorganize this one checklist day? Of course I will as I have learned that curriculum development is always fluid.

How to Develop Coaching Skills
   Learning to coach is a life-long process that begins the very first time a musician plays with another. If the outcome is good, then either the musician has listened to a lot of music, has had an excellent teacher, or more than likely, just has a strong amount of natural talent. From that initial experience, the best coaches draw upon an outstanding education, a wealth of personal experiences, and innate talent.
    The first step in learning to coach is understanding how to listen. There are two types of listening: active and passive. Passive listening is employed when you hear background music in a restaurant, elevator, or perhaps even in the car. You are aware that it is playing, but are not thinking about the notes or how the composer has manipulated them in composing the piece. Active listening is when you tune in to the music and are aware of the performance and how the composer has organized the notes to create his composition. An active listener is aware of style, form, harmony, orchestration, use of time (tempo, meter, rhythm), as well as how the performer shapes a phrase, makes color choices etc.
    Aaron Copland, American composer, performer, and teacher, gave a series of lectures at the New School in New York City on “What to Listen for in Music” starting in 1937. In 1939 these essays were published, and this small book became popular among non-musicians as well as professional musicians. Copland addressed the idea of active and passive listening and expanded it into three distinct levels. He thought an astute listener would move back and forth between these three levels. The first level is the sensuous or passive listening that is used when listening to background music. This type takes the least amount of concentration. The next level is the expressive and requires some concentration so that a listener can feel the emotion in the music. The last level is the musical level and is what a good coach will do when listening to you play. In the musical level, the listener is aware of the notes themselves and how the composer manipulates them in the composition. While Copland’s book was published 75 years ago, it is still an excellent resource.
    Improving listening skills is a life-long process that develops with performance experiences. Great coaches are almost always experienced performers. They have played the same composition or program over and over many times. When Yo-Yo Ma was asked a decade ago how many times he had played the Dvo˘rák Cello concerto in concert, he replied, “Something over 700 times.” John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune music critic wrote, “Yo-Yo Ma has, of course, played this most popular concerto in the cello repertory countless times, including several Chicago performances. The wonder is that the music never feels stale under his fingers, because he is always finding fresh ways to make it speak to his listeners, as much through his sovereign instrumental command and searching insights as through the sparks he strikes off his orchestral colleagues.” So the bottom line for teachers is to keep performing whether it is in the solo, chamber, or orchestral realm because what you learn from these experiences will make your coaching skills stronger.
    The next step in becoming a coach is to become an educated musician. An educated musician has excellent music theory and music history skills. Theory skills include not only knowing and understanding the subject, but also having exceptional aural abilities. While aural abilities may be practiced and improved upon, the musicians with the strongest set were probably born with them.
    A strong history background means that you know who the composer was, the style period, what the compositional influences were, and are familiar with the composer’s other works. For example, a coach for a woodwind quintet should have listened to and analyzed the compositions and performances of the 17 Beethoven String Quartets. These works along with the Mozart and Haydn String Quartets are the backbone of modern chamber music performance. Bernard Rogers, American composer and teacher of several Pulitzer prize-winning composers, said, “We all eat at the same table, only Beethoven got the first serving.” What he was saying is that Beethoven figured almost everything out and we are simply creating variations on his ideas. His pieces require most of the basic chamber music playing techniques. Once these are understood and explored, then chamber music performances will be more successful.
    While consummate flute professors have achieved a balance in teaching and coaching, it may be your choice to specialize in one or the other. My suggestion though is to talk with students when they are making the important decision of whom to study with next so that they are aware of the distinction between a flute professor who specializes in teaching and one who specializes in coaching. If you discover that you are more comfortable as a teacher, then work on your coaching skills or vice versa in coming months.    

Vibrato Checklist

By Patricia George

Vocal folds – where you swallow (Air, food, spine core, spine nerves)
Hand on neck: recite the alphabet, feel the vibration

Whistle silent staccato notes
Hah, hah, hah, rest – throat staccato, then slurred
Sh, sh, sh, rest – blow on hand. Move the air not the abdomen

Headjoint Exercises
Use headjoint only (remember muscles learn in chunks)
Plastic bag on headjoint
Post-it strip on vapor trail
Right hand in front of embouchure moving down/up or forward/back

High range – faster
Low range – slower
Solo or tutti playing
Too fast on stage sounds like a straight line in audience (PhD dissertation – Moscow)
Artistic musicians match other’s vibrato speed
Tape yourself to evaluate speed
When you start, imagine the vibrato already in motion much like stepping on to a moving train

Spasms: 2:1, 3:1, 4:1 – MM=60 to 80 (Moyse: Vibrating pizzicato)
Patterns: 02320, 0234320, 023454320

Scale Practice with Vibrato
Forward Flow. Kincaid 2341 with 5 vibrato on all the 1s
Practice 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 vibrato per note on scales

Other Suggestions
Practice counted vibrato using hymnals and beginning books
Practice vibrato on harmonics. A harmonic note has some built in resistance so once the resistance is removed, the vibrato will flow more freely.

Color Vibrato
Generally a bit faster. 
Light in the tunnel exercise

Where to Vibrate
1st note of a slur
On any note with an accidental
Note before a skip of a fourth or more
Highest/lowest note of a phrase
All the time

Copyright 2008 by Patricia George