Sunday, February 15, 2009

Are we confused now?

Here is a long, rambling flute entry based on last week's teaching: helping "older" students who still have basic problems. Because we're talking about professional training, "older" means mid-twenties - usually - but there are notable exceptions. However, by age 21-22, most young flutists have done their 4-year degree and are looking for a Masters or Artist Diploma program.

I remember reading Trevor Wye's take on entrance auditions. Many aspirants are weeded out: "too many problems". I can understand that totally. Not that teachers are lazy, exactly.... It's just that time (and a short time - graduate programs are normally 2 years only) will be spent fixing (rather than developing, which is what teachers love to do) stuff before the music can be addressed. Sure, you can nurture the musician in parallel, all technical problems can be musically addressed, but, ...but..., still, it's just easier, and a hell of a lot more fun, to take someone who has already got the "flute"stuff (embouchure, fingers, articulation, breathing) figured out.

So how many times have I had a student in front of me, coming to me at the last minute for tomorrow's audition/competition, but with a lifetime of either bad habits, or a baggage of confusion? Mostly it's the latter. I am usually blessed with intelligent and diligent students. But whether their intelligence is a blessing, well, it's a two-sided coin. They've taken lots of lessons, looked for answers from many teachers, read a lot, looked in front of a mirror a lot, listened to many recordings and youtube vids. Hence the confusion.

Here are some examples: I'll focus on the basic problem of embouchure/sound production
"I was practicing fine, but then I looked in the mirror and noticed my embouchure was crooked"
"People tell me I'm not flexible enough - I have to do (fill in the blank) with the corners of my mouth, or (fill in the blank) with my jaw"
And the list goes on . "People have told" the poor student so many things, what can come out of it?
Well for students of the age group I'm talking about, who have played for 10-15 years already - I've devised some guidelines for embouchure/sound production:
  • Your ears are more intelligent than your eyes. Use the mirror only to make sure the hole in your lips is lined up with the hole of the flute. All else is vanity.
  • Barring a serious medical problem, there is no such thing as an inflexible lip. If your lips were inflexible, you couldn't talk! Again, your ears are more intelligent than your eyes. Give the center of the lips room to manoeuvre (Spielraum - great, succinct word in German!).
  • What you do with the corners of your lips is sausage (another great saying in German - meaning: it just doesn't matter). I asked William Bennett about this when I was about 15 years old and obsessed with the corner question. He put it in plain English: it doesn't matter a damn what the corners do as long as the center can do its job!
You may have guessed by now that I know from where I speak, first hand. Yes, I have been down this path. I had the advantage though of graduating university early, at age 20. I had serious playing problems. It took 2 years to get shaped up, and then I was able to start a Masters program at the "normal" age of 22.

Why was I such a mess at age 20? Well, with all due respect for my then teacher in Pittsburgh, Mr. Goldberg, the one thing I never developed was the trust of, or reliance on, my own ears. We always started with long tones. I tried to produce my sound according to what he said and what I heard him do. Since what I did was always wrong, I developed a mistrust of my ears and relied only on what he told me, which was usually that it sounded bad. By the time I finished my 3 years with him, I couldn't produce a reliable sound below low G.

I can't put all the blame on him, though. What 19-20 year-old girl has the presence of mind to question someone whom the local newspaper critics say "plays like a God"? And someone who was "sans doubt" Moyse's successor? This is why I encourage my students to give feedback. And you as a teacher have to ask hard questions like, did this exercise not work because you didn't practice it, didn't understand it, or because it just didn't help you? Otherwise, everything is a waste of time.

I want to end on a positive note about Mr. Goldberg though, since I don't consider my time with him wasted. He did his duty, I came out with a technical solidity and knowledge of the French repertoire and style.


  1. Great post! I've encountered a lot of the same feelings during my time as an undergraduate flute performance major. I think that the bulk of my talent really began to show through when I finally found a teacher who encouraged my independence and convinced me to trust my own ability and taste. The tendency of many young musicians is to rely solely on their teachers' opinions and to never develop themselves as independent artists with credible ideas to offer. Very thought-provoking post.

  2. I completely understand what you mean by needing to trust your own ears. As an avid flute blog,utube, and masterclass attendee, I tend to try to incorporate everything that I have either read about, watched, or seen; and most often I wind up getting like you said confused or even bogged down.... and what usually happens is my teacher telling me that I need to just listen and trust myself.