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Beginning to Teach

Adah Toland Jones | September 2018

Question: I would like to teach private lessons. What are some pointers for starting out with new students? 

Answer: High school students are often asked to help out and teach the younger players at their school. I also encourage my college students to start teaching privately as soon as they feel that their fundamentals are in place and when they show an eagerness to get started on their teaching skills. Working with other flute players is valuable because it will help you notice and analyze problems in your own playing and learn how to come up with creative solutions. 
    The following are some general areas to focus on when first starting out with new students. For more specifics, consult your own teacher or a reliable resource such as beginner method books or online videos. Make sure you select good resources with accurate information. 
    In the first couple of lessons, assess the student’s abilities. Like the first visit with a medical doctor, give the student a flute physical that includes the following:

Proper Breathing Technique 
    Observe students as they begin to play and watch for lifting of the shoulders, sucking in of the abdominal muscles or other physical motions that are unnatural.

Good Use of Air 
    Listen for the constant airstream with a lack of tension that might restrict the flow.

Proper Embouchure

    Be sure to check the size and shape of the aperture (opening in the lips), the centering of the vapor stream on the embouchure hole, the firmness of the corners without smiling, the placement of the embouchure plate on the lower lip, and the amount of tension in the lips. 

Flute Alignment and Balance
    Check that the headjoint and the rod on the footjoint are lined up with the middle of the keys on the body. Are the keys of the flute level to the floor without rolling in or out too far? Are the three main balance points in place? Make sure that the left-hand index finger rests on the flute just above the base knuckle; the right-hand thumb should be placed approximately under the first trill key just below the F key, and the embouchure plate rests on the chin. These are the three places that balance and support the weight of the flute. 

Hand Position
    Assess each student’s hand position, making sure to check the right hand thumb position which should be under the flute and not too far forward. The right hand pinky should not be too tense or collapsed, and the left hand pinky and ring finger are curved and not flat and tense. The left wrist should be bent in to give support to the flute and to assist in keeping the fingers curved. The left thumb should not collapse in toward the flute, and there should be a space between the thumb and base of the index finger. If necessary refer to some accurate photos and also demonstrate good hand position for students.

    Check both seated and standing playing positions and watch for any areas of tension, slouching, and awkward elbow positions (raised too high or too close to the body). Look for cocking back of the right arm and the position of the head which should not look down too much or be raised by stretching the neck.

    Check for proper tongue placement for simple single tonguing and notice in particular that students are using the tongue to articulate and that they are not ending notes with the tongue. 

    Be sure to watch for accurate fingerings throughout the range of the flute. Invest in good fingering and trill charts for reference. 

    Assess students knowledge of the basic rhythm tree and be vigilant in listening for any inaccuracies. 

Written Music
    It is important to assess whether students can truly read music and understand the staff, accidentals, key signatures, rhythmic values, etc. Some students can get by at lower levels by learning by ear and memorizing it without really learning to read music. 

Other Elements
    Through observation and verbal communication, check range, flexibility between registers, and, for slightly more advanced students, knowledge of vibrato production and ability to double tongue. 
    After your initial observations, you should have a good understanding of where each student is in their flute studies. The first step is set realistic goals and make plans for how to accomplish them. Ask students to share their goals with you, and then express your own and see if there is common ground. However, you are the experienced player and should keep in mind general levels of achievement in the areas of scales, technique, tone production, etudes and solo material that you want to achieve. This sometimes can be difficult for younger teachers, especially when the student is close in age to them. Having a clear plan with goals will help both you and your students understand what they are working on and why.
    Repertoire choices can be a challenge for beginning teachers. Learn about the sequential order of standard exercises, etudes and solos, and when choosing repertoire, find material that fits a student’s ability level and command of fundamentals. Your own teacher is a good resource in this area.
    As you teach students, keep in mind the following concepts as they will lead to better success and overall enjoyment of teaching. 
    Show true interest in students. Meet them where they are and gently take them to the next step. Good teachers sometimes give students extra time and attention when it is needed or desired, and this can really pay off. 
    Respect is also crucial in building trust, and you should try to motivate students with a positive attitude. Enthusiasm is usually contagious. At the same time, while you want to be involved with your students, you have to be detached enough to remain objective. This can be a tricky balance.
    Play for students to set an example of good sound, hand position, posture. Be a strong role model of good playing. 
    Be organized and methodical in your approach. Give clear instructions, follow through with any rules that you may have outlined and show consistency in lessons and expectations. 
    In addition to these pointers, it is important to develop materials to use with your students. This is where you can get really creative. Make up a lesson assignment sheet to keep track of your weekly expectations for your students. Another possible solution is to write assignments in a notebook that each student brings to lessons. Be sure to write down the information for yourself as well.
    There are hundreds of books with wonderful exercises that you can use with students. You also can adapt them (using manuscript paper or a music writing program) or write your own exercises to personalize them for a particular student. 
    If you are planning on teaching numerous students for any length of time, you might consider developing a contract outlining your expectations for payment, attendance, policies for makeup lessons, and other logistics. It might be wise to get the signature of a parent or guardian as well as from the student. There are numerous samples available online that you can adapt to fit your situation.
    Teaching others can be a wonderful learning experience for the teacher as well as the student. Observing your students will lead to greater self-awareness and allow you to be more analytical about your own playing. It is also enormously rewarding to watch your students improve and grow.      

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