Four respected flute teachers join this roundtable discussion to share advice for students and teachers.
Students who plan on a career in music should begin their preparation for a successful college experience long before they audition. Our panel includes Leone Buyse, Patricia George, Adrianne Greenbaum, and George Pope. They offer practical suggestions for high school and college flute students and their teachers.
What are the most common problems you notice in incoming freshmen?
Balance and alignment are the first big problem. Too many students arrive at college with a limited awareness of how to hold the flute properly to avoid tension in their hands, arms, shoulders, and neck, causing carpal tunnel, tendonitis, pain, etc. They also have incomplete ideas about how to stand or sit properly to maximize breathing and relaxation. I spend a lot of time in early lessons and studio/master classes discussing the subject and presenting exercises, stretches, and elements of balance for each student to improve their abilities.
Practice habits are also often poor. Although the top 5-10% of auditioning students have good skills, the majority do not have a good understanding about how to practice, processes for organizing the amount of time they practice, the materials, and the way to invest their time. I assign exercises in goal setting and require students to record their lessons and transcribe the tape, in order to synthesize the information we discuss.
I find that students lack an understanding of how the headjoint works. The more you know about your headjoint, the better you will play the flute. After all, we really play the headjoint, not the keys; the keys only change the pitch. Because of this I devote the first masterclass of the year to the headjoint. We take the headjoint apart, examine the crown assembly, and analyze the taper of a well-fitted cork. Students learn how to wash the headjoint inside and out, as well as how to clean the embouchure hole. We learn why you re-assemble the headjoint by inserting the cork assembly from the tenon end of the headjoint. Learning to adjust the cork is the first step toward good intonation.
I teach them how to hold the headjoint (thumb and index fingers on each end) to keep our fingers out of the way of the air stream and while playing, learn to search and hopefully find the sweet spot in the tone. Sometimes we use a straw on the back side of the embouchure hole to check the angle of the air for the best sound and also to check where the angle of the air needs to be to overblow the headjoint. During this lesson I also teach some basic anatomy, embouchure flexibility, articulation and how to vibrate.
Another problem results from poor balance of the flute in the flutist’s hands and a lack of understanding of anatomy and how that relates to injury-free flute performance. Over the years I have tried to change my teaching habit of saying “hold the flute” to “balance the flute.” This one statement keeps students from clutching the instrument. With the flute traditionally aligned (the center of the embouchure hole aligned with the D, E, & F keys of the right hand) students should play handedly, not right-handed or left-handed. Practicing alter-nating trills (F-G followed by G-A) helps students find this balance. Learning to balance the flute is the object of Daily Exercises #1 and 2 in Taffanel & Gaubert’s 17 Big Daily Exercises.
Many students studied anatomy in high school, but most never thought to apply what they learned to the flute. I have a skeleton on a stand in the corner of my studio, as well as anatomy drawings. When a flutist actually knows where his lungs are, he breathes with knowledge. Understanding how the head balances on the spine is something that improves every flutists’ injury-free performance. Did you know that when the head is balanced on the spine, the vocal folds also separate? What a winning way to “open your throat!”
I also see a lack of fundamentals. While many flutists play quite well, they have a weak understanding of music theory fundamentals. I love etudes and hope to impart in my students the idea that etudes will help improve both technically and musically.
The enthusiasm and determination of young players often translates into negative physical habits – hitting the keys too hard, allowing the fingers to rise too high above the keys, hunching intensely toward the music stand, or moving excessively in an attempt to be expressive. None of those habits is helpful, and all waste energy and can affect sound production and technique. Videotaping a student while they play is a very effective way to notice bad habits. The sooner those habits are identified, the sooner they will disappear. Both student and teacher must be patient and persistent; the benefits gained from improved physical use are huge, and well worth the moments of frustration during the retraining process.
Intonation is another concern. So often I hear freshmen play a problematic note, such as C# in the middle octave, out of tune (i.e. sharp) again and again. Other particularly annoying notes include Bb just above the staff and C# and D in the third octave (both flat, especially in soft dynamics). The remedy for any poor intonation habit is to practice the offending note with a tuner or teacher, remembering that practice doesn’t necessarily make perfect – it simply makes permanent whatever we repeat.
Students should play unisons, fifths, and octaves while the tuner (or a teacher) plays the pitch in question. We tend to accept whatever pitch we hear repeatedly as being correct, so ask students to document the intonational tendencies of their instruments, playing a chromatic scale through all three octaves in three different dynamic levels: soft, medium, and loud. A friend should watch the dial of the tuner and make notations on the chart so that the student isn’t tempted to adjust while watching the tuner. Recording a student’s performance with piano is also an effective aide.
Many freshmen enter without a vertical awareness of the music they play. The flute is generally used as a melodic instrument, and this translates into tunnel vision when it comes to learning repertoire. They have an absence of appropriate tone coloration when a change in harmony occurs. Knowledge of the harmonic structure underlying a work is essential for true understanding of the music – whether a Baroque slow movement needing some harmonically appropriate ornamentation, or a Romantic or Contemporary sonata with an equally important piano part.
Incoming freshmen often have a poor work ethic and lack the ability to solve problems, or frankly, don’t have the patience and desire to solve them. They are too used to school work being a fast-paced process that forces them to learn over night, get it in the brain, if only momentarily for the exam, and then move on. In their first flute lessons, they are quite surprised by their own insufficiency of studying music with more permanency, which involves methods of retaining practiced technical passages, the study of phrasing, and making meaningful musical choices.
Because our current world sees progress as winning competitions, the learning process is quite ignored. Students are often unable to play technical passages correctly in lessons. They have not taken the time to absorb the music, what a passage includes, what it spells out, whether it’s a sequence, what harmonies it creates, what patterns exist. Basically, they are not used to learning in depth and retaining what they learn; surface learning has taken up too much of their time. Breathe here, not there, make a crescendo here, diminuendo there. It is more just-tell-me-and-let’s-move-on kind of learning.
First-year students are also often unprepared to work independently on tone because they have rarely been given enough tools to work with. They wait for the teacher to present the magic pill. I ask them, “How does it sound to you? Sharp and unfocused? What does that mean you need to do with your embouchure? What muscles can you engage to work into the tone to get it to have more depth? Now, how do you change pitch? (I would say that 100% of all first year students instantly pull out their head joint when told they are sharp on a certain note.) I counter with “Hold on! I indicated one note, not the entire piece!”
Tone is the key to success for any flutist. Without a good tone you will not be heard. By the time students reach college, they should have a good handle on problem solving when they want a better or different tone.
In high school I was told that it was my responsibility to do the discovery work and experimentation necessary to shape and produce a better tone or different color. Later at Oberlin, Robert Willoughby had us all practice drastically changing pitch on many notes to gain more control. It was the same with color; we learned to go as edgy as we could, round as we could, and so on.
I wish there were more teachers at the high school level thinking in terms of the long haul, independent, and in-depth learning that students need in order to have control of their tone, phrasing, and overall performance. Students also should gain experience in patience – taking the time to learn properly without wasting time by using only the repetition method of learning.
Teachers’ expectations differ between high school and college. Students are embarking on a journey that requires more self-direction and purpose. Be inspired to be ready, and be ready to be inspired by this new studio environment.
What are the most common gaps in students’ training?
Piano skills make a great difference for entering freshmen. Those who have had some kind of piano training encounter fewer difficulties when preparing theory assignments such as chorale harmonizations. Having taken piano lessons seriously throughout my first decade of flute playing, I automatically gravitated toward studying (and often learning) the piano parts to repertoire I was preparing. I’m certain that this made a real difference in my ability to interpret a work with stylistic understanding. Also, weekly flute lessons should ideally include some music theory, so that students learn to think of theory as a useful tool for hearing harmony and phrase direction – in other words, in hearing the music.
The most common gaps are a lack of broad repertoire and little sense of the four musical style periods – Baroque, Classic, Romantic, and Contemporary. To remedy this I assign: a Bach Sonata each semester, a Mozart Concerto each year, and as many French pieces as they can learn over a two-year period. This is their core literature and the basis of what everything else is built upon. Great musicians know how to switch from one style to another.
Musically they have no control over the shape of a note. They don’t understand the strength of the beat concept or the issues of strong/weak in music. Neither do they sense what the harmony is underneath the one line that they are playing. Most learn about the strength of the beat concept in music theory but never think to apply it to flute performance.
The most common gaps include piano skills, playing correct style for a type of music, music theory, practice habits, phrasing concepts and structure, tone colors, and intonation. Of course, all of these are elements that we all work on all our lives.
I would love all of my students to have more than a basic knowledge of piano. They can learn more of their theory, understand it better, and look at their piano parts for their pieces. If a teacher takes the time to indicate the theory in pieces, it makes so much more musical sense. High school lessons should leave time for that, so college students aren’t so surprised by this new approach. Most of my students include some piano study during our flute lessons, but I’m afraid I also let it slip by after awhile. Piano training leads to far better theoretical thought and ultimately a better, quicker understanding of the music.
Learning how to practice is so tricky, so very difficult. Most students need solid guidance as to how to learn and how to best use their time. It must be well beyond the drilling that many students rely on.
What audition advice could you offer for college-bound flutists?
Plan your repertoire early so that you can be completely prepared, and schedule performances of your pieces prior to the audition. These mini recitals will give you real information about how well prepared you are and enhance your confidence. Exaggerate all of the musical ideas.
Discuss your future with all the professionals you know. Develop clear goals, both short and long term. Where do you want to be as a flutist in one year, when you graduate, in 10 years? How many career options do you have?
Prepare the audition repertoire well in advance, and if possible, perform it in a recital before taking it on the audition circuit. With your teacher, choose works that you really love and will be happy living with for quite awhile. Also, make sure that the pieces you select demonstrate your strengths and your ability to interpret several different styles.
To be in great playing shape before auditions, spend adequate time working on tone studies, such as Moyse’s Tone Development Through Interpretation, scales, arpeggios, thirds, and other intervals. Invest your practice time wisely in the weeks leading up to the auditions, and treat yourself as an athlete: get adequate rest and nutrition in order to function optimally on physical, mental, and artistic levels.
Start preparing early. Find the best teacher that you can in your area. It may even be an oboist or violinist. What you need is a musician to help you. Record or video yourself often. You eventually will be your own best teacher. Seeing and hearing yourself play often provides the clues you need to improve.
Take a private lesson with the flute professor before you audition for them. You want to be sure that you can have a good relationship with the person and feel like that teacher can help you grow as a flutist and musician before you sign on for four years. Attend summer music festivals to gain repertoire and chamber music experiences.
Practice. Thirty minutes a day won’t get you where you want to be. Many serious flutists start putting in three hours a day during their freshmen years of high school and continue on. Listen to and study music. Learn all the Beethoven symphonies and string quartets with the full scores. This music is the meat and potatoes of our world. Talk to students who have matriculated in the program to which you are applying to see if the program sounds like a good fit for you.
Try to plan your repertoire about nine months in advance, or roughly by the summer before the winter auditions. Try not to choose all new pieces; at least one major work worked on before might be useful because you will know it better. This will build your confidence and help you reach a higher level of musicianship because you already know the piece.
Try to memorize the concerto or the solo work. You will present it better. If the college doesn’t have a set audition list, choose works that are varied – a standard concerto, a sonata, a solo piece. Liberal arts colleges usually ask for orchestral excerpts by selecting from the first semester’s repertoire, so you can write to ask what the orchestra will play. Otherwise, I feel that learning excerpts out of context is of little use at this level.
Look for the kind of teacher that you need. Reputations are widely known about which teachers focus on technique, competitions, tone, etc. You really want a good pedagogue at this level. After studying with Willoughby for four years, I truly felt that I had the most solid foundation anyone could have. At the undergraduate level you want to learn how to learn.
Try to go to the audition itself with the idea that these 10 minutes are for you. If it’s a good match, the process will work itself out. If you really want that particular teacher, college, or conservatory, say so! Teachers want to know where they fit into your overall plan. Speak up; an audition is a great opportunity to open up and you might as well live the experience to its fullest.
What advice would you stress to flute teachers?
Each one of us has a huge responsibility toward every student who walks through the studio door. Stressing the joy of music-making during each lesson can go a long way toward motivating students to improve the technical issues that might prevent them from realizing their potential. My advice would be to share your passion for music by encouraging students to listen to as many fine recordings and live performances as possible. Hearing great singers and string players in addition to excellent flutists should reaffirm why your students have felt drawn to music, and to the flute. Give them the invaluable gift of your enthusiasm and they will strive to be the best they can be.
Continue to question, study, and learn. Continue to practice and perform. Attend masterclasses, and if the opportunity arises, study with one of the great pedagogues. Share freely what you know. Have good manners.
Stay focused on the basics. Choose repertoire carefully. Teach your students to structure their practice time.
Teach the whole musician. Avoid the trap of mostly preparing works for auditions, looking only for the perfection of each note, while ignoring the musical and personal goals of the developing young student. There are way too many uninteresting, bland, uninformed performances at the competition level. It is evident that we need to take the time to develop the whole person, the whole musician, rather than The Flutist.