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Questions and Answers

Patricia George | January 2010

    The questions that students ask range the gamut of inspired to ridiculous. Even though I may be shocked at the content, I keep a straight face and answer the questions. Often they preface their questions with, “I know this is a stupid question, but….” to which I reply: There are no stupid questions. Sometimes students don’t even know what the question is, and you have to figure it out from the bits and pieces they offer.
     The Greek philosopher Socrates based his whole teaching method on asking students questions. From their answers, he formulated further questions that helped his students organize their thinking. For example:

Student: Why can’t I fiddle with the crown on my headjoint?
   Socrates: What happens to the flute when you move the crown?
Student: I dunno.
   Socrates: Take your cleaning rod and insert it into the headjoint. Is the adjustment line on your cleaning rod in the center of the embouchure hole?
Student: No
   Socrates: What happens to the adjustment line when you screw the crown to the right? Or, to the left and push?
Student: Hmmm
   Socrates: How would this adjustment affect the tuning of your instrument?
Student: It would make the tuning change.
   Socrates: So, if you want your flute to be in tune, once the crown is adjusted, don’t move the crown.

    Socrates had several things going in his favor. First, his method worked. He questioned; the students learned. Secondly, his classes were small and he had an abundance of time. What a luxury!
    In today’s overly scheduled world, music teachers achieve the impossible. Beginning classes are comprised of a mixed consort of instruments: flutes, clarinets, saxophones, trumpets, trombones, and percussion. During the 30 minute, twice-a-week class, the teacher performs magician-like tricks in teaching each instrumental group and providing one-on-one attention to each child. There is little time for the Socratic philosophical approach. Given these circumstances, the teacher follows his lesson plan, dishing out information in small chunks and hopes for the best. The miracle in contemporary music education is how well students learn and advance.
    So, what is the answer? Some questions are best served with an immediate concise answer; while others need the Socratic approach. These questions may be categorized by the age of the questioning student.
     Middle and high school students want information. Information is best conveyed in simple answers. However, the Socratic Method works well when used on occasion. Just be careful that your questions and answers do not supply more information than the student wants to know. College students are dealing with career issues and deserve all that you can give them. You never know when one little remark that you make might change their lives forever.

    Here are some frequently asked questions by school-aged students followed by a concise answer (supplied with a smile).

Can I adjust the screws in my flute? No
Do I really need to swab the flute out every time I finish playing? Yes
Why can’t I keep the cleaning rag in my case? It will mildew. It is better to tie the cloth on the handle of the case, so it can dry.
Why can’t I swing my flute around like a baton? Because there is a good chance the headjoint will go flying across the room and hit someone.
Do I really need to brush my teeth and wash my hands before playing? Yes
Are you sure that I should pull out the headjoint? I like it pushed all the way in so I don’t see the dull part. Pull it out.
Why shouldn’t I let my friend play my flute? Hygiene
I left my flute in the trunk when I went into the mall. Why did some of the pads fall out? Heat
Do I really need to use a music stand? I like to prop my music up on the pillow on my bed. Yes, buy a stand and use it. Good alignment will improve your sound.
I lost my music. Do you have any more? Maybe
You mean you have to practice to get good? Yes
On-time means to be early? Yes
Why do I have to learn the third octave fingers when I can overblow the second octave ones? Tone quality and intonation
What do you mean I can’t go on the drama trip this weekend and miss the marching band contest? I did marching band last week! Commitment
I have been playing for seven years. You can’t teach me anything. Never mind that I can’t count, read all the notes, finger notes correctly, play with a nice sound and phrases…. I am a SENIOR and I am good. No comment.

    College students offer a different set of questions and answers. Here is one scenario that every professor dreads.

Professor: Why have you chosen music as a career?
    Student: I loved being in band, especially in high school. We went to Disneyland on a trip once.
Professor: What solos have you studied?
    Student: I learned the Chaminade, the Faure, and the first movement of the Hindemith for solo festival. But, I like marching band better than the solo festivals.
Professor: Do you own any other music?
    Student: No
Professor: Which etudes have you studied?
    Student: None
Professor: Have you done any scale study?
    Student: Oh, yes. In band we played the Bb, Eb, and Ab scales everyday, one octave.
Professor: Here is a list of materials you will need for this class. Have these materials by next week.
    Student: Next week? I really just want to play my band music.
Professor: Do you own a metronome and a tuner?
    Student: A what?
Professor: What brand of flute are you playing?
    Student: This is a ******. It was my mother’s and before that her mother’s. It has never been in the shop for repairs. Good flute.
Student: Are you sure that I really need to take the Music Theory and Music History courses? And, piano class too? I went to the first classes this week and I can’t see what these classes are going to do for me. I just want to be in the band.

    This student needs the Socratic method of teaching; however, due to the lack of background and advancement level, for the near future, concise answers are the best choice. If the student shows little improvement in the first weeks of school, he should be encouraged to set up an appointment at the university career counseling center. Career counseling centers not only offer online career assessments but also provide one-on-one counseling services to review the test results. The counselor will also point out that the student can major in any subject and still play in the band. 

    Here is a scenario that every professor wishes for and seldom gets.

Professor: Why have you chosen music as a career?
    Student: I have given a lot of thought to this subject. I have always enjoyed studying and playing the flute. I think the perfect career would be performing and teaching. To prepare myself for this choice, I have studied flute, piano and music theory from the time I was a young child. For the past five years I have attended a summer orchestral program and throughout the school year, several flute masterclasses. In the 9th grade, I was accepted into the Metropolitan Youth Symphony. On the last concert I played the alto flute on Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

Professor: What solos have you studied?
    Student: Here is my repertoire sheet. I have listed etudes on this page and solos on the next sheet. The solos with asterisks indicate that I have performed the composition in public. The ones with double asterisks indicate a performance with orchestra.

Professor: Which etudes have you studied?
    Student: I completed the Andersen Op. 33, 30, 63 and 15 in high school, but I would like to revisit them again. However, I am happy to learn whatever you think will help me the most. I need to work on playing exercises expressively and not so technically.

    This student is certainly ready for the Socratic method of teaching. No doubt the parents and high school teachers have laid the groundwork for this student to be successful in university studies and in life. More than likely, the major teachers in his life have already employed the Socratic method as evidenced in the well-thought out answers above.
    Through the years I have had several students who exhibited these outstanding characteristics. One of the first traits that I noticed in one such student was his maturity level. He had been given responsibility at an early age and knew what this responsibility meant. He was intelligent and talented. He possessed a passion for his flute studies. The parents were involved with his education in a healthy, non-hovering way. The student was fortunate to study with a private teacher who had the educational background to enrich the curriculum and was willing to share his time with the student. The student took his studies seriously and exhibited an excellent work ethic in every aspect of his life.
    Now comes the bigger question. Many middle and high schools are filled with students who have the potential of becoming students like the example above. What can we do to make this a common occurrence rather than a rarity?
    Generally bright, talented students are products of strong music education programs. Developing a high quality program starts with the classroom teachers. Non-functional programs develop from the poor choices that teachers make. In an effort to attract students and make band fun, they often water down the curriculum. Fundamentals are not taught and discipline is rarely enforced. The better students look at this class as a waste of time and register for other subjects. Students who do enroll in the class are not those with whom a successful program can be built. The class becomes a dumping ground for students who can do little.  Disaster looms.
    For those of you who are also band directors, here are some remedies to that situation. Those who do not work with bands but teach privately can apply much of this information to the private studio.
    Develop a high quality program. This generally means that you must teach. Develop a plan.  Love your subject. Educate yourself. Teach your heart out. Fill each class period with a curriculum that includes a good warm-up and theoretical instruction. Require that students learn standard musical terms and something about music history. Each day drill students on rhythmic and technical exercises. Be sure they learn all the fingerings for their instruments and know how to produce a beautiful tone. Regularly test students on these curriculum materials and encourage private study and listening assignments. Lastly, never be embarrassed about teaching fundamentals. Reward excellence. 
    Recently one of my students brought her band music to her lesson. She remarked, “all you need to know to play this piece is this one syncopated rhythm and five notes.” She continued, “at the beginning and at the end we play the five notes fast and in the middle of the piece, we play them slowly.” She was correct; this composition was a poor choice.
    Students know when you have low expectations, so have the highest expectations. Choose literature that requires you to teach. Include compositions from several grade levels in your folders. Grade levels 1 and 2 may look easy to play on the page, but because these pieces are simple, all your ensemble and intonation flaws are out in the open.  
    Enforce discipline. Bright kids do not want to sit in a class of chaos.  They respect organization. Keep your class moving at a fast pace. This will require that you are prepared. Do not learn music on your band’s time; learn it at home. Repetition is practicing.  Review concepts and technical passages at least eight times if you expect the material to be learned.
    Developing a program like this requires excellent teaching. It is hard work. However, the benefits outweigh the effort involved. If you produce only a handful of “super stars” in your teaching career, then you have done well. I suspect what led many of you into this field of teaching was an educated, informed, enthusiastic, musical, and well-balanced band director in your life.