Becoming a Better Student

Patricia George | January 2015

    Flute teachers world-wide have similar expectations for their students, but at the top of the list is good manners. They will take you a long way in life and in situations well beyond the flute studio. For advanced high school and college students, especially those hoping to make a career in music, these basic protocols become even more important, and teachers’ expectations become ever greater.

Be Respectful
    Address your teacher formally (Dr., Mr., Ms., or Professor) until he or she  says otherwise. Check the spelling of the teacher’s name. Is it Khaner or Kahner? (It’s Jeffrey Khaner.) Practice saying the teacher’s name until you can pronounce it properly.

Scheduling a Lesson
    Schedule a one-time-only lesson or coaching session well in advance. When calling or emailing, be sure you have current contact information for the teacher and that you convey a clear, coherent message with information on how you can be reached. Answer your phone and email messages in a timely fashion. Make it easy for the teacher to contact you. 
    When calling or emailing a teacher, have your weekly schedule in hand. Know when you are available so it is easy to determine a lesson time. Once a lesson has been scheduled, show up. Arriving early is considered being on time. If you must cancel a lesson, do so at least 24 hours in advance.
    For students in a college flute studio, it may be possible to trade lesson times with another flutist in the event of a problem. Be sure to send an email to the professor telling of the exchange of lesson times. Poor planning on your part should not affect your teacher’s schedule. 
    Never cancel a lesson unless you are contagious. Insufficient practice is not a good reason. Even if you have not practiced, there is always something a teacher can work on with you. It is better, however, to be candid with your teacher if this occurs. Teachers can almost always tell if you have not practiced enough.

    When scheduling private lessons, ask the fee for the lesson and how the teacher would like to be paid. If you are paying by check, have the check made out before the lesson and present it to the teacher at the beginning of the lesson. If the lesson goes substantially longer than the allotted time, ask if you owe an additional fee. If a student has scheduled a 60-minute lesson and I go over the time by my choice, I do not charge for the extra time. However, other teachers may expect additional payment. Be prepared for this. If the teacher continually goes over the 60-minute lesson, ask if you can schedule a 90- or 120-minute lesson. Or, say you can only afford a 60-minute lesson.
    Expect to pay more for a one time lesson than for regular lessons. A well-known teacher said he often charges double at the beginning of a series of lessons as one fee is to get rid of bad habits and the other is to teach new habits. If the fee is more than you or your family can afford, talk with the teacher. I have bartered lessons for babysitting, house work, gardening, secretarial duties, and tutoring younger flutists.
    When scheduling a preview lesson at a college, ask what the charge will be for the lesson. Colleges, universities, and conservatories have conflicting guidelines regarding preview lessons. Some allow the professor to charge, and others do not. If a teacher charges for the preview lesson, put the fee in an envelope with a thank you card. Sometime during the next week, send another short note offering your thanks. In the note mention something the teacher said that you found helpful. Remember good manners will take you a long way, and the music field is a small community.

Getting Ready for a First Lesson
    Make a repertoire sheet with the following headings:
• Etudes Studied
• Unaccompanied Repertoire
• Flute and Piano Repertoire
• Concertos (place an asterisk before the ones you have performed with orchestra)
• Chamber Music
• Excerpts (place an asterisk before the ones you have performed with orchestra)
    Send this repertoire sheet to the teacher before the first lesson with a note asking what you should prepare for the first lesson. If the teacher suggests a certain book or edition, order the music immediately. If the music does not arrive in time, borrow one from the library or from a colleague. Out of respect for copyright laws, many teachers will not teach from copies. As the wife of a composer, I applaud these teachers.

Prepare well for the first lesson. You can only make a first impression once.
    Be sure your flute is in good repair and you have a metronome, tuner, and recording device. Many of the cell phones and laptops have excellent recording features.
    Warm up carefully before the lesson. Enter the lesson prepared as if you were going to play a concert. If one day in the future, you find you cannot do a proper warmup, explain the situation to the teacher and ask if he could listen to your warmup and give ideas about how you could improve what you are doing. Many fine players have said their first lesson with Marcel Moyse was on how to play a scale. This kind of lesson is pure gold. However, coming to a lesson unprepared means you expect the teacher to entertain you for an hour. This is not their job. Studying with a teacher is a collaborative effort.
    Plan what you are going to wear for the lesson. Wear supportive footwear so you have good body alignment. Female singers at the Metropolitan Opera wear athletic footwear under their hooped gowns. Intelligent footwear helps alignment for good vocal usage and helps the singer maintain stamina for several hours of singing. This is true for flutists also.
    Dressing up shows respect to your professor, your art and yourself. One night after a long teaching day, Michel Debost had dinner at my home. My daughter, an oboist who was studying at Oberlin with Debost in his Prima Vista class for woodwind quintets, came down for dinner dressed up for an evening out. Debost said, “Clara, is that you?” Then he asked if I thought his students at Oberlin came from nice homes because he had thought his students were poor because they wore holey clothing (my daughter included). I explained that clothing with holes was part of the current grunge fad of dressing. At this time he had been teaching at Oberlin for six or seven years, and this was the impression he had of his students.
    Buy a new journal. Even if the teacher doesn’t require or grade a journal, keep one on your own. Rereading a journal in the future will help you relive each and every lesson. Every flutist I have known has reflected that at one time or another, teachers have explained concepts the student did not fully understand, but wrote down anyway. Sometimes it was years before they understood what the concept meant. You will be exposed to ideas and concepts before you are ready to assimilate the information. Having these comments written in a journal will mean the teacher is still mentoring you in years to come.
    If this is a preview lesson, where you are checking out a teacher or school, read the university bulletin carefully. Examine the curriculum for each major so you can ask intelligent questions. Both the bulletin and degree curriculum may be found on the school’s webpage. Because of the high cost of secondary education, inquire about the possibility of a double degree program. Most teachers support double degree programs because of the current poor job market. But if they don’t, it is better to know before you enroll in the school.

The Lesson
    Have your flute assembled and tuned before you walk into the studio. Place your repertoire for the lesson on the music stand. When the teacher asks what you have prepared for today, have a list of repertoire and questions that you have had during the week. You can have this written in your journal. Remember to update your repertoire list from time to time. Often seeing the music on the stand is enough to help the teacher decide how to organize the time with you. Have piano scores readily available in your music bag so you can present them at the teacher’s request. Most teachers arrange lessons in three sections: warmup and theoretical work, etudes, and solos/excerpts.
    Be mentally prepared to learn and open to new ideas. Teachers like students who display intellectual curiosity and are open to new ideas.
    Listen when the teacher speaks or plays. Be still too. Don’t fidget by fingering along or clicking the keys. Usually it is best to write in the journal after the lesson rather than taking valuable lesson time to make an entry.
    If a teacher mentions a book, an artwork, a musical composition, a composer, a term, or a recording/video that you are unfamiliar with, look it up before the next lesson. I mentioned Impressionism in a lesson with a flutist, and the next week she brought in several art books on Impressionism. She showed me plates of paintings she thought were relevant to the piece she was studying. She had found a new love in art and eventually added an art history minor to her music education degree.
    If your journal has the same type of comments week after week, this indicates there is a problem, and you should fix it now. Music is an art that is built upon a strong foundation. Until the foundation is there, it is reckless to move into more difficult etudes, solos, or excerpts.
    Try to play perfectly. Yes, we are human and make errors, but do not learn something wrong. If you miss a note, go back and figure out what made you miss it. If you miscounted something, go back and write in the counting. Practice with the metronome. Do homework well in advance of the lesson.

Be a Responsible Studio Member
    Follow the teacher’s syllabus. There is a reason why the university mandates each course has a syllabus. Help develop studio camaraderie. My goal for a studio dynamic is, “If someone asked, who is the best flutist? Each member of the studio would answer, “It depends what we are doing.” In studio class when giving comments, say something nice first, before making a critical comment. If you have a criticism, offer a suggestion of what to do to fix the issue. Mentor younger students. When I was a freshman at Eastman, graduate students invited me to play trios and quartets on several occasions. Not only was it obvious what I needed to work on in my playing, but they were cordial about answering questions I had about some of the mechanics of flute-playing. 
    Not only should you attend your professor’s lectures, masterclasses, and concert performances, but you should do the same for other students. (Victoria Jicha’s column on listening, page 2, offers some valuable tips on getting the most out of concert attendance.)
    When soliciting letters of recommendation for college, summer programs, and graduate school, ask the professor well in advance of the due date for the letters. Most letters of recommendation are done online; however, if the professor needs to send the recommendation in hard copy, provide a stamped, addressed envelope. If you require letters of recommendation for several programs, give the professor the list for all the programs at one time. It is helpful to the professor if you include your resume. Having a current resume of a student means the professor will be able to write an informative letter of recommendation. 
    When a teacher assigns ensemble placement and parts, do not question the choices. Teachers have a plan to give each and every studio member the best ensemble experience possible. I heard one horn student complain that he had been assigned the 4th horn part for a well-known symphony. He said, “I am the best player. I should be playing first.” If he had bothered to check the score, he would have seen that the big solo for the symphony was in the 4th horn part, so he had been assigned the best part. Playing in an ensemble is a team effort. Every part is equally important. Think how the Minuet from L’Arlesienne Suite by Bizet would sound without the harp. Yet from the harpist’s point of view, his part is quite repetitive and maybe even bordering on boring. 
    Make a New Year’s resolution to put your best foot forward to become the perfect student.