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Learning From Michel Debost

Amy Sue Dombach | October 2017

     Michel Debost’s teaching offers many pedagogical insights for flutists. I chose Oberlin Conservatory because that was where Debost was teaching. I liked his sound and the ease of his playing and wanted to play like that. Debost insisted on a live audition. He said “You don’t enter the Australian or U.S. Open with a videotape.”1 I was unable to attend any of the scheduled audition dates at the school so we arranged to meet in North Carolina where our travels overlapped. I checked into the hotel and began practicing in my room. A late-night rap on my hotel room door revealed that his room was just a few doors down. He had heard some flute playing and was curious. The next day, he heard my formal audition, during which he played quite a bit – prodding and challenging me. He quickly identified and adapted to my style of learning. The interview continued with a trip to a local flute maker and the evening’s concert. All the while, he tested my curiosity, intellect, and willingness to learn and try new things. To this day, however, I still believe that my audition was what he heard through the door of that hotel room.
     There were, of course, other influences in selecting Oberlin. The college and the conservatory were renowned. Since there were no graduate students in the conservatory, this meant that undergraduates performed in the orchestras, and students were not sidelined as at other schools. I would  work with big name conductors, and if the flute did not quite work out, an outstanding academic college was just across the street.

Debost’s Background
     Debost is a graduate of the Conservatoire National Supérior de Musique de Paris and has had a successful career in nearly all avenues of playing. He was the principal flutist of the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire and the Orchestre de Paris. Debost was professor of flute at the Oberlin and Paris conservatories, in addition to holding other residencies and appointments in Banff, Madrid, Perth, Auckland, Montreal, Japan, Italy, and France. As a soloist, he has not only won prizes at the Geneva, Moscow, and Munich competitions but also has performed as a soloist with nearly every major orchestra in Europe. Debost is an intellect, writing a comprehensive book encompassing every aspect of flute playing (The Simple Flute), as well as countless articles for Flute Talk. His discography includes some sixty recordings of orchestral, chamber, and traditional flute repertoire, several of which have been awarded prizes and distinctions. For me, this breadth of well-rounded experience gave me the assurance and trust that no matter what music I would encounter, he had the expertise to help me learn it.
     In selecting a teacher, consideration of the professor’s pedagogical lineage is important to consider. Demetra Fair’s DMA dissertation, Flutists’ Family Tree: In Search Of The American Flute School, focuses on this issue. It reads like the biblical begets of flutists in the United States. “Barrère and his students – and his students’ students – have taught approximately 91% of all living flutists in the United States…87% of those can trace their heritage through Kincaid.” For example, I am a third-generation student of Gaubert and Taffanel, a second-generation student of Crunelle, Moyse, Barrère, and Kincaid, a first-generation student of Debost, Rampal, and Marion. This information provides insight into how a teacher will teach you, and what traditions he or she may retain or reject. The American Flute School mostly holds its roots in the French conservatoire model although it is fair to say that the American School has developed its own traditions.

Debost’s Teaching Philosophy
     Debost’s general philosophy of teaching was to provide students with the basic fundamentals for playing, both technical and stylistic, from which students could then express their own creativity. He wrote, “Musical playing is possible only after developing the basic tools to perform with thoughtful expression and beauty.”2 “What I am trying to teach is how to learn. I want to see my students succeed, but they will not be able to get a job by learning only orchestral excerpts and a few pieces.”3 His goals for students were to have a “professional attitude and proficiency and the tools to improve and assimilate criticism from colleagues, teachers, conductors, and oneself.”4 He remarked, “Gaston Crunelle gave his students a methodology for approaching and solving problems; this enabled students to become more secure in their playing and confident in their abilities. Crunelle’s goals for his students were to become good pros, put together decent playing, and get a job.”5 (Crunelle was Debost’s professor at the Conservatoire.)
     Debost believes that a teacher needs “the patience to change what does not work for the student; the modesty to accept what does work, especially if it does not conform to the teacher’s ideas, and the intelligence to perceive the difference.” In the tradition of the French school, “a good solution is simply what works at all times, stress included. Second, a good school is the one where even ungifted students play well.”6
     As Albert Einstein said, “I must be willing to give up what I am in order to become what I will be.” In nearly every masterclass, Debost would state, “If it works, do it,” whether it was an alternate fingering, method of playing, or interpretation. He was cautious not to be pedantic about prescribing his musical ideas. Merely, he wanted students to have the tools to allow them the freedom of self-expression. He encouraged studying other teaching methodologies. He taught in the tradition of the French Flute School, and part of that tradition is breaking with it. He encouraged students to grow musically by questioning and challenging. “Living in our time, we learn as much from tradition as from innovation, which will start the next tradition. A school of playing is a certain expression of imagination and novelty  passed from player to player, not some kind of scripture set in stone.”7 Debost taught the pupil in front of him, leading and pushing that student to find his or her greatest success.
Debost’s Curriculum
     At the beginning of each year, Debost distributed a detailed roster of weekly technical studies, a repertoire list, and a rubric for studio class performance. No matter whether you were a freshman or senior, everyone studied the same curriculum. On seeing this roster for the first time, I took a big gulp and thought, “Let’s start at the beginning.”
     The curriculum followed the tradition of Crunelle’s teachings: scales, daily exercises, sonority (tone), etudes, and pieces. Each year, the studio focused on one etude book, a set series of orchestral excerpts, daily exercises, and 25-30 pieces from the standard solo and chamber music repertoire, spanning all musical eras. Debost assigned etudes in a specific order, not in the order of publication, pairing them with an orchestral excerpt, and a particular daily exercise of concentration for the week. Selecting a work from outside the assigned list was welcomed, but this was the general course of study for a given year.
     The course was team taught with Kathy Chastain in the style of the Paris Conservatory where an assistant teacher provides additional individual instruction. At Oberlin, however, Debost taught the individual lessons and masterclasses, and we had a lesson with Kathy Chastain once a month. While they worked to the same goal and in the same style, having two interpretations of study was invaluable.
     This curriculum reflected the methodology of the French School. “More care, in the French School, is given to instrumental playing than repertoire.” Articulation – clarity, variety, speed – is the key to practicing scales. Melodic intonation and understanding the scale outweighs stringent use of tuner. Vibrato comes from the core of the sound, rather than measured and formulated with a tuner. There are clean simple lines of phrasing of homogeneous sound provided by a stable embouchure.8
Scale Study
     Students memorized the Debost Scale Game, a series of sixty articulation, phrasing, and tempo variations for Taffanel et Gaubert Exercise Journalier, No. 4. The game is designed to improve tone, technique, intonation, articulation, and breath control. Above all evenness, homogeneity of sound, and control in all registers and dynamic levels was stressed over speed of execution. Debost often commented, “Scales last about 15 seconds each [sic up to 60 seconds]. During that time, you concentrate on doing something perfect musically. Too often flutists think that scales are technical, but they are not. A scale with modulation to the nearest neighboring tone is music. Thoroughly studying scales and articulation is the most valuable activity in practicing.”9
Daily Exercises
     The overreaching goal of daily exercises was much akin to those of scale study. Orchestral excerpts were paired with specific exercises that required focus on a particular trial of playing the flute. Exercises from the Taffanel et Gaubert (Exercise Journalier) included numbers 17, 15, 10, 6, 5, and the Reichert 7 Exercices Journaliers numbers 4 and 2. Debost’s philosophy was “The practice of daily exercises is where flutists can cover basic difficulties without haste or excessive tension. The objective is smoothness, not speed.”10
Tone Development
     Noticeably absent from this regime was dedicated tone or long tone study. Instead, intervallic exercises were used along with Moyse’s Petites Etudes Melodiques and targeted orchestral excerpts to improve a sense of the harmonic understanding of scales, intonation, and interpretive phrasing. Debost felt that students too often lost focus when playing singular notes, and that a beautiful tone on a single note was not always transferred to longer phrases. Tone must be studied in context.
Etude Study
     Debost instructed, “Etudes are designed to hone our playing skills. [They] are supposed to facilitate our playing and are not designed to be performed in public.”11 Attack them first with a pencil, study it with the eyes – analyzing, identifying the melody, special fingerings, breathing, etc. Etudes are a great sightreading project. They are exercises in “concentration, will power, and the art of approximation.”12 They are meant to rotate in your practice folder weekly. When you do work on them, “start the practice from the end, line by line. It is common to…run out of concentration… as you approach the recapitulation…. Concentration is the most difficult thing to acquire and teach. Three to four minutes of intense mental focus are more important than the repetition of bringing an etude to perfection. Developing concentration is one of the rewards of sightreading. The purpose of the etude is improvement of the brain, not necessarily technique or absolute perfection,” and for a player to require a briefer period of time to prepare new repertoire.13 

Orchestral Excerpts
     “There were few orchestral excerpts  [performed in masterclasses in Paris.] The idea is that if you know how to play the flute, excerpts were not so important.”14 Of course, they are the crux of all performing auditions and do hold importance. But they must be understood in the larger context of the score. It is important to remember that, “any technical problem has a tone solution, and any phrasing endeavor, however slow, has a technical dimension.”15 For this reason, orchestral excerpts either fall in the category of technical (daily) study or in sonority (tone) study.16 They are targeted little gems that provide compact, concentrated issues. 

     With more compositions than weeks in the academic year on the repertoire sheet, one had to become proficient at learning a work quickly. The importance and value of the French School masterclass style of teaching became crucial to covering the list. Debost often said there were about ten compositions that were inevitably played by flutist. He stressed the importance of exploring beyond the Mozart concertos, Bach sonatas, Prokofiev sonata, Schubert Theme and Variations, and Syrinx. “Other works help students learn how to play the flute or how to play stylistically. They are good vehicles for interpretation.”17 One goal of such an extensive repertoire list was exposure to some 100 pieces by the time you graduated, but more importantly was the understanding of how to play stylistically. Stemming from the Paris conservatory tradition was the group masterclass. At Oberlin these were held weekly for three hours. At the Paris conservatory, masterclasses were held three times per week for four hours. They were formal as were lessons and studio classes at Oberlin. Students performed at the behest of the professor, “whatever was assigned, études, scales, sound exercises, or repertoire.”18
     Debost believed that “with adequate preparation, they play better in front of each other.”19 Even more important was the chance to study a work that you might not otherwise take to a lesson. You studied by listening: listening to the performance, listening to the pianist, and listening to Debost teach the work. You came to understand the pitfalls of a work, where collaboration could be difficult, and how the solo part fit with the accompaniment. You came away with a solo part and score marked as though you had been studying it for weeks. 

Time Management
     One crucial element often overlooked is managing practice time. Debost more or less prescribed Crunelle’s regime from the conservatory: sonority 30 minutes, scales 30 minutes, daily exercises 1 hour, etude and piece 1 hour. The total practice time was three hours.20 Though, he reduced the regime for scales, daily exercises, etc. to take 90 minutes, allowing the same for etudes and repertoire. He felt that three hours (though most of us did far more) was sufficient. To further assist in the breakdown of time, he provides a schedule in percent of time in The Simple Flute: Inventory 5-10%, Review 5%, Basics, Scales, Arpeggios 10-20%, Tone Exercises and Intervals 5-10%, Mending Disasters from the Inventory 20-30%, Repertoire including excerpts and etudes 20-30%, and sightreading as much as possible.21 Whatever method we used, we were encouraged to be thoughtful about practice – to practice that which we did not know, rewarding ourselves at the end with that which is easy. He also advised us to be unforgiving with mistakes in the practice room. When we are at our most relaxed, that is the time to demand perfection. When we are on stage, we must forgive ourselves.
In Conclusion 
     Understanding the why, how, and to what purpose the curriculum was designed allowed me to set goals for my own improvement over the course of the year, the term, each week, and daily. It made a hefty syllabus manageable. It is important to remember that “the purpose of daily practice is to improve you for the long term. Choose easy basics, but play them perfectly. Put aside finger twisters and huge intervals. There is no stress, so there is no excuse for poor practice. Daily practice is for working on yourself as much as on repertoire. Today’s practice is next year’s warm-ups.”22     

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Considerations When Selecting a New Teacher
    When looking for a new teacher, whether for college or any time, be sure to look at a teacher’s philosophical approach to teaching. This provides you with a map as to why, what, and how they teach, and how they measure learning. Most teachers have a statement of philosophy on their website. Read it, and ask the teacher to elaborate about how the curriculum fits with that philosophy and how it would apply to your study. Be inquisitive about about specific parts of the syllabus. For college or graduate students there may also be external influences, such as department or conservatory requirements.

Pdfs of handouts from Debost’s teaching at Oberlin.
Debost’s 1994-1995 Instrumental Playing Program
Debost’s Repertoire, Oberlin 1991-1992 (5 pages)
Debost Masterclass Fall 1993

1Debost, M. “The French Flute School,” Flute Talk, March 2006, pp 2-5, 19-20.
2Debost, M. “Repertoire as Practice,” Flute Talk, February 1994: 2-3.
3Andrews, C. “Michel Debost Teaches How to Learn,” Flute Talk, January 1990, pp. 8-12.
4Debost, M. “Thoughts on Playing and Teaching the Flute,” Flute Talk, February 2013, pp. 2-4.
5Pinter, H. “The Life and Teachings of Flutist Michel Debost.” DMA diss., Florida State University School of Music, 1998.
6Debost, M. “The French Flute School,” 2006.
7Debost, M. “The French School: Miracle or Method,” Flute Talk, December 1993, p. 2.
8Debost, M. “The French Flute School,” 2006.
9Andrews, C. “Michel Debost Teaches,” 1990.
10Debost, M. “Repertoire as Practice,” Flute Talk, February 1994, pp. 2-3.
11Debost, M. “Studying the Etude” Flute Talk, September 2012, pp. 2-4.
12Debost, M. “Studying the Etude,” 2012.
13Debost, M. “Studying the Etude,” 2012.
14Debost, M. “The French Flute School,” 2006.
15Debost, M. “The French Flute School,” 2006.
16Debost, M. “Jeanne Baxtresser’s Ten Commandments,” Flute Talk (March 1996), p. 4. Includes a targeted list of challenges for particular orchestral excerpts.
17Andrews, C. “Michel Debost Teaches,” 1990.
18Debost, M. “The French Flute School,” 2006.
19Andrews, C. “Michel Debost Teaches,” 1990.
20Debost, M. “Crunelle’s Practice Philosophy” Flute Talk, January 1994, pp. 2-3.
21Debost, M. 2002. The Simple Flute. New York: Oxford U Press, 190.
22Debost, M. The Simple Flute. 2002, “In a nutshell.”