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It’s in the Cookie

Patricia George | March 2014

    One of the joys of teaching at a university is the time spent with colleagues talking shop. One year a group of us ate lunch together every Tuesday at a Chinese restaurant. At the end of the meal we were each presented with our bill and a fortune cookie. As we lingered over the final sips of hot tea, we took pleasure in reading our fortunes aloud. A few weeks into this weekly ritual, one of the professors challenged us to work our fortune cookie’s message into the curriculum of our afternoon’s teaching. Then the next week, we would report back on how creatively we had done so. Of course our students knew nothing of this plan until much later. You would not think that this small occurrence would add a new level of excitement to teaching both in the classroom and in the private studio, but it did.  
    For many years I kept my fortune cookie messages in a small box in my desk. When a student came for a lesson and was not prepared to play, I usually practiced with him working on tone, technique, etudes, or a challenging part of his repertoire. One day I decided to deviate from this and got out my fortune cookie message box. I told the student about our Tuesday faculty lunches and our scheme to work a fortune cookie message into the afternoon’s curriculum. Then I suggested that he take a message from my box and tell me how he would work the message into his own teaching. This exercise proved to be an excellent evaluation tool for me to see how well students could manipulate the pedagogical information that they had been collecting since entering college.
    Music educators often ask a student teacher, “Are you going to teach this the way you were taught to teach it, or are you going to teach it the way you were taught?” For a few students teaching the way they were taught is an excellent option; however, for most, it is not. Any time we can help students reteach themselves, the next generation of students will benefit.
    This enjoyable exercise was so successful with my college students that I decided to modify it to use with middle school and high school students. Each lesson is divided into three parts: 1/3 on tone and technique, 1/3 on etudes, and 1/3 on solos and repertoire. At the end of each part, I have students randomly select a fortune cookie message from my box and then apply the message to what they had just played. This simple act produced quite astonishing results as it helped them focus on how to make what they had played better. Part of the success stems from the fact that anytime you can get students to look at the same content from a different direction, you have enriched their understanding of the material. 
    For example one younger student was having difficulty remembering the accidentals in an etude in G# minor.  From the fortune box, she drew Plan your work and work your plan. She looked up at me and said, “If I had practiced the Super Scale Routine for this key, I would be able to play this etude with so many fewer mistakes.” While she had a plan, she had not worked the plan. (The Super Scale Routine is available as a free download at under Patricia George Extras.) The next week, she played the etude accurately and with confidence.
    This exercise also helped students who were preparing for a concert or competition as it gave them suggestions to use when they had performance anxiety. One fortune read: It’s all right to have butterflies in your stomach, just get them to fly in formation. Every great performer will tell you that they are nervous before they play. The secret is they learn to use these butterflies to turn in an even more exciting performance. This fortune has helped many a student who was preparing for a concert.
    One of my favorite messages is Whenever possible, keep it simple. When I was a student I loved playing the Romantic virtuoso repertoire which consists of pieces written by flutist composers based on an operatic theme followed by a set of variations. This music is lightweight in intent and the variations are full of compositional clichés. What was even worse was that I added all these extra over-the-top phrasing gestures. I loved every minute of hamming it up. At one lesson I was subjecting my flute professor, Joseph Mariano, to one of these Romantic outbursts. I recall Mariano was so polite and just said, “Simplicity is truth. Truth is beauty. Now, would you like to begin again?” I began with the operatic theme thinking keep it simple. As I continued to play, I found that by keeping it simple the music was becoming much more beautiful and expressive. I did not need to do so much as it was already in the melody. I just needed to get out of the way. This message has served me well. Whenever I am tempted, I can hear Mariano’s voice in my head suggesting that simple is good.
    Another message that is equally important for us all is You will be rewarded for being a good listener in the next week. The first time I played for Frederick Fennell, creator of the Eastman Wind Ensemble, I was extremely nervous as might be expected. I looked up at him on the podium just in front of me and noticed that on the wall behind him was a sign that said LISTEN. During the rehearsal I turned to my left and my right and noticed there were similar signs on those walls too. At the end of the rehearsal after I had packed up my flute, I turned to look at the back wall of the rehearsal hall, and there was the same sign again. Then I realized that Fennell was the only one in the room during the rehearsal who could see that sign. If he needed to be reminded to listen, then I should really listen too. No musician ever listens enough. Too often we aimlessly practice without our critical listening ears turned on.
    Another fortune advised: You create your own stage…the audience is waiting. Unless novice performers are coached to play big on a stage, more than likely they play small. Playing small is as uncomfortable to the listener as it is to the performer. The words claim your space are equally important to remember in rehearsals and in performance. As a flutist be sure to have an adequate amount of space around your chair in rehearsals and in concerts so that you can have good posture and not feel like the end of your flute is in another’s way.
    Good things take time. This is an especially important message for teachers. Since we want students to succeed and find the love and joy that we do in playing the flute, we sometimes assign music that is too difficult and inappropriate. We see this in judging when it is obvious a teacher has assigned a piece that is too difficult for a student’s level of musical understanding. There is a saying about Mozart’s music, “The music is too easy for students and too difficult for professionals.” Learning to have patience in teaching and knowing when and how to push a young student is a skill to be learned.
    All progress occurs because people dare to be different. I think this is a message for all flutists who are pushing the envelope by programming contemporary music. My advice is to keep doing it. Robert Dick, author of The Other Flute, wrote that he was worried about his first performance at a National Flute Convention as a young man. He wondered if they would like his music or if he would be heckled off the stage. As it turned out, the audience was quite cordial to him, and obviously throughout the following years have championed his ideas and compositions. What if hadn’t dared to be different?
     Finally one of my all-time favorites: make a wise choice every day. Rather than constructing an elaborate, long practice plan, try to practice at least one important thing every day.