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The Best Lesson Ever: A Vote of Confidence

Conor Nelson | January 2013

    Béla Bartók once said, “Competitions are for horses, not artists.” Flutists are often called upon to compete like horses, and it is important to remember that the constant evaluation and pressure of competitions, juries, auditions, masterclasses, and weekly lessons can build up and eventually quash the artistic spirit. There is also concern about the viability of a professional career in music. These pressures can cause immense stress for young musicians, sometimes to the detriment of their artistic efforts. My most memorable lesson with Carol Wincenc at Stony Brook taught me the power of well-placed encouragement. A teacher’s insight and advice can help students put aside these worries and truly concentrate on music study.
    I knew that I wanted to pursue music as a career from the tenth grade, but my ideas of just exactly what I wanted to do within the profession vacillated considerably throughout my time in school. Upon graduating with a master’s degree from the Yale School of Music, the stark realities of the profession were staring me in the face and huge pressures began to build. I knew that parental support would not be available after graduation; those student loans would no longer be a cushion to live on but would soon become bills. Being from Canada, I knew that I would also need some kind of visa or green card to stay in the United States. With a lack of work for flutists, the odds seemed impossible. It became more and more difficult to simply play music when the pressure to succeed built exponentially.
    These stresses in combination with hearing horror stories about orchestras folding and downsizing and grave notes from teachers and professional musicians about the implausibility of a career in music took its toll on my playing. Every time I played, I heard a doubtful voice in my head constantly saying, “Am I good enough?” “Is this all a waste of time?” “Will so and so recommend me for work if I play well?” “I won’t amount to anything unless I win this competition!” “If I play that way, no one with hire me.” Needless to say my energies became focused on practicalities versus artistic energy, and I lost focus.
    I made yet another leap of faith to continue my studies and enrolled in the DMA program at Stony Brook University to study with Carol Wincenc. My first lesson with her is one that I will never forget. I played the first movement of the J.S. Bach Partita in A minor. Knowing that this degree was the last stop of my formal education, my worries were at their peak. I was determined to prove myself, to show her that I could be someone that she could recommend for work, to show that I was worthy of her time – all while being terrified that she would think that I wasn’t good enough. My thoughts were entirely devoted to what her evaluation of my abilities might be. This imbalance showed clearly in my playing.
    Following my performance in the lesson, which was hindered by shaky breathing, an inconsistent sound, and some awkward phrasing, Wincenc sat in silence for a moment to think, looking out the big windows of the flute studio onto a green courtyard and a sea of 1960s academic architecture. Then she said one very powerful thing, “Don’t worry, hon, there’s room for you.”
    Those were the exact seven words I needed to hear. She had intuited my inner turmoil and anxious need to prove myself. Performing with such doubts and insecurities was all I knew up to that point. She figured out exactly what was going on in my head and exactly what wasn’t – the music. She reached out to teach the whole student and that made music possible.
    A vote of confidence, confirming that somewhere, somehow, there could be room for me in the profession, reenergized me and allowed me a tremendous focus on the music. In one sentence she disarmed some of my greatest fears and showed her approval. Instead of instructing me about how to quell nerves in a stressful situation, (which can be helpful for a younger student), she turned my focus entirely to the musical score.
    Then she began to demonstrate, and that is truly worth a thousand words. After a brief talk about the sincerity of the piece, she had me play the Allemande again, this time improvising a bass line with her voice and gesticulating accordingly, attempting to keep me focused at every turn. Her ability to sing a bass line along with me was so inspiring. An ultimate chamber musician, she alternated leading and following, teaching via powerful example the subtleties of phrasing, rubato, and dynamic intent. It would have taken hours to describe all of these nuances verbally. She tied everything together by demonstrating certain sections, and all of a sudden it made sense where to breathe, where to build climactic intent, all while providing endless possibilities for character and shape.
    Wincenc provided example and demonstration at every turn and her positive attitude and dedication to the music was contagious. This love of the flute and music was constantly radiant and continued throughout every lesson that followed.
    When I demonstrate, I have often found that sometimes student’s faces reflect an “I will never be able to sound like that” defeatist attitude, or they may want to rush in and try the idea themselves without listening and processing the example. I have even had students fail to see the point of demonstration and simply think that I was a showing off. I firmly believe, however, that modeling music through demonstration is both setting the bar and providing a reachable example. One of my high school teachers, Susan Hoeppner would play portions of every piece for me, and every week I would say to myself, “How on earth is she doing that? I have to figure that out.”
    Music is an aural tradition and very little can be produced that does not exist inside the ear and heart. I also often recommend excellent recordings for my students.
    Later in that year of study at Stony Brook, I was selected along with four other flutists for the live round of the Haynes International Flute Competition based on my recording of the Partita. Without confidence, love, support, and solid example, I highly doubt this would have happened. After hearing my Nielsen Concerto at one lesson Wincenc gave me a couple of suggestions and then simply inquired, “Have you played it with orchestra yet?” After sheepishly replying that I hadn’t, she said, “Don’t worry, you will – I know it.” It was the exact boost of confidence I needed and I won the Stony Brook’s concerto competition a few months later.
    Sometimes the job of a teacher reaches beyond music, beyond the scales, arpeggios, long tones and etudes that are assigned by a great pedagogue. Great music making comes from balanced lives and focused minds, and is best shared through encouragement and terrific example.