Flute Pedagogy 101

I have been thinking for a while about how we learn the flute and how we teach it nowadays. 

It seems to me that when I was taught I was pretty much never told “how to do anything”  but rather what the result should be. Yet, nowadays it seems to me that “Flute Pedagogy” is very different. It seems to be all about the “how todo  it”…..  and sometimes I really wonder because of that,  if the desired result…i.e the music  has been lost….. or at least diluted.

This also relates to my previous post and the discussion which followed about individual differences in anatomy affecting the results of how we hold and line up our instruments.

Specifically …..as a kid  I was pretty much handed a flute headjoint and told to get a sound. No one really told me how nor did they show me how. I remember spending several weeks before I managed to figure it out….Nowadays.. I prepare all my students for weeks  with spitting rice, practicing our horsey faces, and lip “trills” etc many times before I then show them how to get a sound. (It is much more efficient and also much more effective for sure… BUT and there is a big BUT here…… read on…..)

Added to this…..When I got to College my teachers never told me how to tongue or  what articulation syllables to use…. it was instead all about the desired result…. i.e. the music. In fact, I was encouraged to be a musician first and a flutist second… When I was finished with my Masters Degree in flute I studied for many years with Julius Baker…. and he never once told me how to do anything on the flute. I used to quipe that I learned from him by “osmosis”…… as I think all of his students did. With “Julie” as with all of  my other teachers…..it was all about the music…i.e the desired  result …. and not about the mechanics of how to play the flute.They simply expected that I was talented and musical and that playing the flute was secondary to making music….. and more to the point , that  I should be able to figure out the mechanics on my own.

Next point…..My first professional job was a union gig that I held for  years  as the second flute and piccolo player in the New Jersey State Opera Company Orchestra. We played all over the state of NJ… in the Graden State Arts Center, at the Trenton War Memorial, and at Symphony Hall in Newark. I even performed on national TV ( NBC) with them. Yet I never had had a piccolo lesson before I got that gig at all. I was simply handed a piccolo in eighth grade and told to learn how to play it.In fact, the first formal piccolo lesson I ever had was two summers ago at the Wildacres Flute Retreat when I scheduled a piccolo lesson with Brad Garner! Yet I have been a professional piccolo player for decades!

Moreover, I took piano lessons as a  child but only had a few months of formal flute lessons from a flute teacher until I was accepted at the Ithaca College School of Music as  flute major ( I was instead taught by my Middle School Band teacher … who happened to be a sax player.)….. and only took flute lessons form a real flutist as a Senior in High School   to prepare for my college auditions! If you think this was unheard of 50 years agao… think again.. None other than Wally Kujala was in the same boat. We simply taught ourselves!

But .. and it is a BIG but…. I did study MUSIC as a piano major all those years before College  and Wally Kujala had his father who was a professional musician to teach him music … even if it was  not to teach him specifially to  play  the flute.I think there is some merit in considering this for a moment. Especially if…. as it seems to me ….. that there are so many flute pedagogy”truths”  which are so different … and  they    seem to depend so much upon the particular teacher with whom you study ….for example ….as to whether you  forward tongue or not etc. ( BTW…..Julius Baker NEVER forward tongued… at least as far as I could tell he didn’t… and yet his articulation was simply amazing) or whether you hold your left hand in a “cocked” position or not etc. etc.

Yet nowadays we spend endless amounts of time on how to not just hold our flutes ….but even how to hold our bodies!

Don’t get me wrong here. I do believe that flute playing and teaching has made huge strides for the better…. and that so called “body mapping” etc and specific pedagogical techniques such as I learned in my Suzuki flute training  have not only made me (and many of my other contemporary flute teachers )  better flute teachers than many of my/our own teachers were…. but has it  made  todays’  students more musical? And isn’t THAT the point?So—here is where I begin to really wonder and really question what it is that we are trying to do.

In the  final analysis for sure… our instrument is only a means to an end which surely is the prduction of music… and more to the point… the expression of the wordless emotion which is in the sound. It really is NOT about how we hold it nor how we blow it etc etc…. but it really is about the desired result….i.e.  the music.

I don’t for a moment believe that  teaching what we think is the best way to hold our flutes or teaching  how  what we believe  is the best way  to  articulate  is not important to that end result at all… and I am not suggesting here that we should go back to the way I and perhaps many of my generation were taught….. BUT I do think that something valuable   may have been  been lost along the way and that perhaps  a re-ordering of our pirorities may be in order.

For in the end… if there is no consensus on how to do all these flute things (and there really isn’t as far as I can tell!) …  and  if that is at least partially  true because  of individual differences etc , then  why is the emphasis in flute teaching  today so focused on  the “how”  instead of the end result…  which is the music and how to play it? 

Well…. this is probably more controversial than it should be for a public Blog Post …. but honestly  it does trouble me allot.And I have been thinking about posting a Blog Entry on this subject for quite a while… so here it is.

Any thoughts/comments  out there?






Posted on May 18, 2012, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I really appreciated this blog post. I am not a professional by any means, but I have had a few flute students over the years and had the opportunity to teach a flute workshop for a camp.

    I have never taken any pedagogy classes, but in my quest to learn how to properly teach young students I have had many of these same questions!

  2. If we only teach proper mechanics and don’t get into the love of the music, our students will fall out of love with the flute. I quit for a few years after high school for that reason. It became more about playing ‘the right way’ than about making music.
    I am still learning how to find that balance with my students. If anyone has suggestions, I would love to hear it.

    • Hello Kira!
      I can’t agree with you more!

      As far as I am concerned the right mechanics are only a means to an end …. which is to make music and express ourselves to our listeners and ourselves.

      It IS however, a difficult balancing job to teach our students to play”properly” and also to make music expressively.

      I believe that even very young students can play in an expressive manner right from the beginning. I also agree with you that sometimes an unbalanced approach to teaching which overemphasizes mechanics at the expense of asking our students to play expressively can “turn” people away from playing the flute.

      A wise teacher can sense how much a student can take of the need to correct mechanics that the teacher sees are perhaps actually making the student have more difficulty in playing expressively than he or she may actually realize. Good teaching of course does both: it teaches the so-called “right way and ALSO allows….. and encourages the student to play expressively.

      My advise to you is to give your students the corrections they need that you as an adult player can see are issues they should correct in their playing but at the same time you as as a teacher must also emphasize with their need to play musically and expressively in perhaps other areas of their studies.

      For example— if a student has issues with tonguing— perhaps a small exercise in tonguing can be assigned but at the same time the student can be given the freedom to “forget” about that issue completely when practicing another part of their week’s lesson assignment….. I often do this approach with many students…. eventually if they do that exercise regularly …. they will be able to start correcting the problem in their pieces and etudes too.

      I sometimes tell students for example if they are fingering their middle D’s with the first finger down instead of up to play only the first few lines of their etude correctly ( but that amount has to be right) and to forget about that problem in the rest of the study. Then perhaps the next week they can increase their concentration to more of the study until they can play the study absolutely correctly with no fingering mistakes.

      If you are splitting up their studies into tone warm-ups. scales, etudes and pieces… then perhaps correcting a problem in only their tone exercises (warm-ups )initially could be assigned.

      It is as we both agree… a question of balance.This one reason why I don’t use pieces as a means of learning to play correctly! I believe that if you concentrate on correct flute playing in your warm-ups, and scales and etudes…. then your piece can and SHOULD be only about expressiveness!!!! I can’t emphasize this more strongly!!! I firmly believe that a student’s piece should NOT be the only thing they are working on and should NOT be the medium for correcting bad flute playing. That job should take place in tone exercises, scales and etudes ONLY. Then play your heart out on your piece!!! That is why we play the FLUTE!!!!

      If you try this approach most students will not be turned off because the level of frustration involved in correcting the problem will only have to be focused on in their practice for a short period of time every day. It is amazing to see how quickly such small amounts of practice can actually work in correcting an issue! I can attest to this myself actually having has over the course of many tears needing to correct things in my own playing. Taking this approach has worked for me and for many of my own students.

      I am sorry that somehow you seem to have gotten lost in this issue of balance in your younger years of flute playing….. but if you are still playing now and also teaching then hopefully you may be more aware of keeping the balance in your students studies between these two sometimes opposing and competing goals.Practicing in small amounts can really do wonders! And if you stay aware of your students and how much “small” amounts of time they can handle with a frustrating need to correct something …. I think they should not be turned off.

      Do let me know if this helps!Thanks so much for your comment!!! Please do let me know how you and your students are doing!!!


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