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Teaching Middle School Flutists

Julianne Ensley | February 2015

    Teachers hope to prepare the next generation to carry the baton of art and creativity.  However, many students “hit the wall” during the middle school years and quit. Strong students often are the children who excel in many areas of life and face many pressures and choices, but they likely will regret quitting music later. By understanding the challenges middle school flutists face and developing a plan to keep their interest high, teachers can increase their student retention rate and help students develop a lifelong love of music and playing the flute.

Get the Parents Involved
    Students with strong parental support have the best chance for success. Take active steps to involve parents. After a student’s lesson, mention a concept such as a practice strategy that was covered in the lesson and explain how the student has used this information to improve a specific technique. Share with parents when a student has prepared and played something well at a lesson. Occasionally send an email to praise a positive character trait such as  preparedness, curiosity, respectfulness, or concentration. Whenever possible, attend students’ concerts and musical events. Observe what is important in their lives besides music lessons and show interest in their other pursuits.

Learning Styles
    Each student learns differently. Whether students are visual, aural or tactile learners, how local schools teach may affect their expectations for private music lessons. In some school systems, students are encouraged to interact in class, so they become eager, engaged learners in the music studio. Other classrooms may not allow for much student discussion, resulting in students who are unsure how much freedom they have to interact with a music instructor.
    Recently, two of my students were in this second category of learners. I contacted the parents of each, and we came up with several solutions. With one student, I explained that music, because of its creative nature, was something that allowed a wide range of ideas for expression and that the music studio did not share the same rules as her school classroom. Since then she has blossomed into a perceptive person who is not afraid to share ideas.
    The other student is naturally shy but responds well to open-ended questions. Asking questions is a great way to find out what students know and what their perspectives are. After students play an exercise or piece, instead of telling them what is wrong or needs improvement, ask, “What do you think would make this sound even better?” or “What do you think it would sound like if you played it faster, slower, louder, softer?” If I get a blank look, I say, “Let’s find out.”

Develop a Curriculum
    Keep the lesson material fresh and engaging. Observe what a student likes and find ways to include it in lessons, such as studying video game music or watching YouTube videos of professional flutists playing the student’s repertoire. Acquire a collection of world flutes and use them to demonstrate various areas of the curriculum. For example, when a student plays the panpipes or Syrinx flute, he quickly learns that the longer pipes are lower pitched in sound than the shorter pipes. After he plays quickly from one end of the panpipes to the other, explain that this run of notes is frequently used in flute music when the composer is writing symbolically about Pan. Having students play a passage on a fife, crystal flute, penny whistle, traverso, piccolo, alto or bass flute, will open their ears to new coloring possibilities.
    Listening projects not only teach them how to follow a full score, but can instill a desire to learn new, more advanced repertoire. Listening to Jean-Pierre Rampal playing the Bach Partita in A Minor opens many discussion topics such as what Bach’s life was like, stylistic concerns of the Baroque era, who Rampal was, what a recording session is like, or why Rampal played a C foot and a gold flute?
    Using books and flute magazines in lessons creates other topics for discussion such as practice strategies, what the bass and contrabass flutes look like, who the current high-profile flutists are, good CDs to study, and new music to perform, besides offering listings of competitions and summer masterclass programs.  

Teaching Themselves
    Teach students a process for learning and practicing. For example, one of the early steps in learning the rhythm in a piece is to write in the counts, clap the rhythm, play the rhythm on one note, and then play the passage. Make sure students thoroughly understand the process before leaving the lesson. If students can learn to solve musical difficulties by applying proper practice techniques, they can teach themselves between lessons.

Performance Anxiety
    Even after practicing well, some students have difficulties when auditioning. Anxiety may be so severe that students wish to quit band and music lessons rather than confront playing alone in a stressful situation. In such cases teachers should help students practice auditioning and demonstrate relaxation habits to use when playing alone. Students learn in three ways: exposure and instruction to the subject, repetition (practice drills), and performance. Playing by oneself is part of learning to do something well.

Praise Accomplishment
    In each lesson, look for things the student genuinely does well. It could be playing a correct rhythm or counting, attention to detail such as dynamics or finger synchronization, or something that you know the student accomplished on purpose. Especially praise diligence and the focus it took to meet practice goals. When a teacher praises a student in this way, it reinforces the priorities the teacher has set, and the verbal reward provides knowledge of exactly what is expected and a marker of when a goal has been reached.
    Be careful when congratulating a student who has achieved a status of a chair ranking or placement in a prestigious band group as it could be counterproductive. It may cause students to think that the result of a particular judged event is a reflection of their overall abilities.
    Sometimes worthy students are not chosen for promotion, and sometimes unworthy students are. Focus on praising students for following instructions and meeting goals because personal preparation is the real reward, and eventually the cream will rise to the top. Students should understand that certain achievements or the loss of a ranking will not permanently categorize them; they can expect their hard work to eventually pay off.

Provide Opportunities
    If your private flute studio is too small to host its own recital, ask another teacher to share an event. Join a music teachers’ association to provide opportunities for your students to participate in festivals, competitions, recitals, and scholarship auditions. Send students links to articles or music videos that illustrate concepts you are currently teaching. When possible, take students to concerts, flute fairs, or even non-flute performance events. All of these experiences build a foundation for arts appreciation. Guiding middle school students through this time of development is a worthwhile investment.