By this time of the year, it is easy to have gotten in a rut. You may be bored with your playing, bored with your practicing, or bored with your teaching. Changing up just a few things up can provide new inspiration and invigorate you during these last days of winter.
Vary the Location
Do you always teach or practice in the same space? In many music schools, the practice rooms are windowless and quite small. It is easy to stop projecting when practicing in such an environment. Playing in a classroom, recital hall, or large rehearsal space can do wonders in opening your sound. Look around and practice and teach in as many different locations as you can.
When I taught at the university, there was one classroom called the mirror room because there were mirrors covering each of the four walls. Whenever I had the opportunity to teach in this room, I always took it. With the many mirrors both the student and I could view the student’s set up from every angle. Sometimes I taught flute choir in this room. After a session in the mirror room, the ensemble’s playing always improved.
Another favorite place to teach was the recital hall. The acoustics were outstanding so it was often rented out to professional musicians who were recording CDs. The hall had about 500 seats in a stadium arrangement so non-performing students had an unrestricted view of a classmate performing with the piano. There were also several pianos and a harpsichord to choose from to achieve just the right sound. One year I was assigned this hall for my weekly studio class. Since we had such a marvelous performing space for the term, I decided that every week each flutist in the studio would perform in class to learn to work the acoustics of the hall. Several students remarked that what they had learned about playing off the acoustics of the hall had helped them make better musical choices when playing in the larger symphony hall.
I prefer practicing in a dry space because with my limited practice time, I need to fix problem areas quickly. Playing in a dry space tells it like it is. It can be depressing because there is no echo to camouflage the sound. If you are having trouble with flow though, practicing in a vibrant space (a space with hard surfaces and no carpet or curtains) makes you sound better than you really do and will free you so the music flows freely. It is generally helpful to practice in both types of surroundings.
Most teachers set up their studios and leave everything in place year after year. Rearranging the furniture or redecorating a studio can inspire a fresh approach to teaching. Changing the décor also offers the opportunity to declutter your office. For some students, the clutter in an office is distracting and prevents them from doing their best.
Consider the lighting. Many buildings have overhead fluorescent fixtures. Through the years, the bulbs become loose and begin to hum. This humming can be tiring for both teacher and student. Recently I have seen a trend towards indirect lighting. You can accomplish this with lamps (both table and floor) and special lamps for the music stand and piano rack. When I changed the lighting in my studio, every student commented how much more relaxing the atmosphere was. At the end of the day I realized I was not as tired as usual because I had not listened to the humming of the bulbs for eight hours.
I have a colleague who purchased additional music stands for her office. She selected a silver one, a red one, and a purple one in addition to the standard black ones. When a student played the Borne Carmen Fantasy, she switched the student to the red stand The silver stand was used for contemporary music, and the purple stand was for bon bons like the Doppler Hungarian Pastoral Fantasy. The music stands became a visual prompt and set the character of the piece.
Take a fresh look around the room with an eye to what you could change. After a visit to the art department, I noticed that several professors had removed the ceiling tiles from their studios and vastly expanded their cubic space. For a flute studio this could improve the acoustics of the space, but might also affect the sound proofing. If the studio has too much echo, consider fiber wall hangings. I hung one of a flute player that I had been given by a former student from Guatemala. It was not only interesting to look at but absorbed just the right amount of sound. For another studio, I hung an antique quilt.
When I was teaching in Idaho, I lived on the edge of a desert so the air was very dry. At certain times of the year, I kept a humidifier running in my studio. The students always remarked how much easier it was to breathe with more humidity. Plants are an excellent way to improve air quality and add to the overall ambiance of the space. Avoid plants with flowers as many students have allergies.
Consider repainting the walls. Generally, a color that stays out of the way is best. You can bring in personality through art work, diplomas, and concert posters. If the carpet in your studio is aging but cannot be replaced, an inexpensive area rug will freshen the space.
Students frequently wait for lessons outside the door, so place interesting and informative things in this space. At the beginning of one term, I typed up my favorite quotations by Nadia Boulanger. Every Monday morning, I posted a new quotation on the door. My students loved them and colleagues commented that they enoyed them too.
The Flute Bag
Take a good look at your bag. Be honest. How does it look? After carrying it around every day and sitting it on the stage floor for rehearsals, there is a likelihood that it is filthy. If the bag seems worth saving, then throw it in the washing machine on a gentle cycle. I was more than pleased with the results. As you repack the bag, think carefully about what you are putting back in it. We all carry around too much stuff and then wonder at the end of the day why a shoulder or back aches. Determine what are the bare essentials that you absolutely need to carry around.
If your bag is torn, then it is time to replace it. There are some excellent choices on the market today to select from. If you travel a lot, you may want to consider a small bag with wheels. Trevor Wye arrived in Idaho with a roll-about that contained all of the flutes he needed for his Variations show. If you live in a large city, you may want to select a bag that does not scream, “I have a valuable musical instrument in here.”
William Cowper’s poem, “The Task” (1785) says it best, “Variety is the very spice of life, that gives it all its flavor." Whether it is in teaching or practicing, exploring what we do, how we do it, and where we do it can invigorate lessons and practice sessions.
Flute Bag Essentials
2 sharpened pencils
Datebook or lesson schedule
Phone (for contacts, music dictionary, tuner, metronome, recording device, Kindle)
Band-Aids, aspirin etc.
Additional music/exercise books