I remember the anticipation of a new school year. My parents were both teachers so the entire family prepared for the September start. When I was a child, it meant new school clothes and shoes, purchasing school supplies, and the excitement of stacks of clean notebook paper. Something about that paper made me want to fill it up; perhaps, even then, there was a glimmer of a writer in me. I remember how the school smelled on that first day – all clean with a hint of sweeping compound. My father was a high school biology teacher, and I will never forget his harrumph at my excitement over my first day in high school: he said, “You can always tell a Freshman, but you can’t tell ‘em much!” That was my Dad – always the realist!
Later, when I was teaching at DePaul University, I would end the school year in May, completely drained. Teaching is a giving profession, after all; the knowledge is always going out to students and sometimes very little comes back. By August, however, the creative juices began to flow again, and I was ready to start the cycle again, eager to help young flutists along their paths toward excellence.
Some Words of Advice
Those of you starting your college careers – or seniors looking ahead to next year – must not waste a precious moment. Go prepared. Yes, I know, you don’t have an assignment yet from your private teacher, but you can arrive at that first lesson with your scales prepared, an etude, solo piece, and an orchestral excerpt ready to play. If the teacher has other ideas, you have not wasted your time. If they say, “What did you bring to your lesson today?” you will have an answer.
Please arrive on time; in fact, arrive early, and find something other than threadbare jeans to wear. Show this teacher that you are serious about your craft. Whoever said “First impressions are the most lasting” hit the nail on the head. How you present yourself will speak volumes about you in the first five minutes. Because this is in many cases a four-year relationship, it would benefit you to make a good impression.
Designate a separate notebook for your lessons – a music journal of sorts. Take notes during lessons, write down assignments, and then make observations in it during practice sessions. After each lesson take a few moments to set some goals for the following week. Then address those goals in your practicing throughout the week. If questions arise, write them down. If you have an a-ha moment, write it down. This journal can become an organizational tool and a history of your progress all at the same time.
Some students going to college are leaving home for the first time; it can be a serious, although exciting transition. Embrace it, make new friends, dive in to the academic environment, and check in with home via Skype, phone, or email once a week. Your parents will appreciate knowing that you are thriving.
Don’t look for teachers to become surrogate parents, however; that is not their job. They are neither your friend nor your counselor. Their purpose is to motivate and instruct so that you can become the best instrumentalist possible. That may mean that they have to come down hard on you from time to time. After all, if all they said was how wonderful you are, you wouldn’t be learning anything. Right? So accept criticism graciously, and try to make the changes they suggest. I went from being a big fish in a small pond in high school to a college where I was a small fish in a big pond. It was a huge transition for me, but it made me a better musician. You can do it too.
After I graduated from college, I moved to Chicago and took some lessons from the legendary Arnold Jacobs. I remember vividly walking under the L-tracks on Wabash after the first lesson and thinking what I had just heard was pretty heretical. (I was an Indiana University graduate and thought I had arrived.) What Jacobs told me went against much of what I had learned in school, so I had this little conversation with myself. I basically said, “You have just spent a ton of money for advice from this man, so you better give it an honest try. Give it a week or two, and then decide whether to make these changes.” Thank God I followed my own advice; his suggestions made all the difference in my lung capacity and ability to play long solos, such as Debussy’s Faun in one breath.
So off you go; make the break and embrace the new. You will never have this kind of freedom again to explore new avenues, learn new concepts, practice for hours on end, and grow into the mature musician you want to be. Have fun and work hard. Remember, those two things are not mutually exclusive.