Short Version: To provide beginning and intermediate students an impediment-free foundation. To provide advanced students the tools needed in order to interpret music intelligently, in their quest to becoming expert players and musicians.
Long Version: My approach to teaching is to provide students a solid foundation with no impediments. This will give them a large vocabulary with which to successfully interpret and perform music, as well as provide a broad knowledge base which can facilitate problem solving throughout many aspects of their lives. This foundation can be expanded in any direction that a student chooses to go and can be applied to any musical genre. With beginners, this means starting properly: before bad habits can be formed. With students who are already playing, it means building on skills they have already acquired and/or remedial work to replace bad habits with good ones before moving forward. I like to sum up the study of music as follows:
1: Learning how to play an instrument (that includes voice)
2: Learning how to play MUSIC on that instrument (that includes learning how to play in an ensemble)
3: Learning how to play music on that instrument in front of people: performance.
Two of the teachers who had a profound influence on me studied with the great French flutist, Marcel Moyse. His description of the French School, which is paraphrased here by Trevor Wye, resonates with me and is reflected in my approach to the flute.
On the French School, Moyse said: ' it is an intelligent method of study that results in a completely satisfying musical performance and always respects the composer’s wishes which he has taken great pains to establish.'
Trevor Wye: "Marcel Moyse an Extraordinary Man" p. 107
I often hear this question from students and parents alike:
Q. Why do I need lessons, I already play in band? Why does my child need private lessons if they learn in their band?
A. (Short Answer) Students need lessons because THEY DON’T LEARN to play their instruments in their band. And they often develop bad habits without proper lessons. It's as simple as that.
Asking a student to play in an ensemble without proper individual instruction is like giving a student a dictionary in a language they have not studied, do not speak, and then, asking them to write a book in that language.
School music programs have changed, but the proper study of Music has NOT changed. Playing in ensembles is something that is supposed to be done AFTER a player acquires a certain level of proficiency, so that they can actually PLAY the music in those ensembles.
This is NOT an attack on school band programs or directors. I loved my school band program and I remain a strong advocate of school band programs. But what we have right now in a lot of school music programs, is a bunch of kids with no fundamentals trying to play music by rote: music that is usually too complicated for the extremely limited skills that beginners possess. Not only is this frustrating for students, but it also DOESN’T help develop the many good things that music can do for us: improve time management, develop problem solving, critical thinking, and lateral thinking skills, improve executive function and self-esteem, and provide an outlet for expression. Those things don’t happen to any measurable degree when playing music by rote. The programs we have now are merely a function of funding cuts to school arts programs. The choice became, do this, or have no program at all. Many dedicated professionals have been trying to make it work ever since. Some schools bring in specialists on each instrument to work with the students a few times, or several times a year. This is helpful, but is still not a substitute for private lessons, since the goal is usually to patch up the ensemble repertoire as best as possible instead of focusing on the regular practice of acquiring solid fundamentals, which can be more time consuming at first, but leads to broad, long term success. Sectional rehearsals like this DO usually contain SOME focus on fundamentals, but on average, I would say it's less than 25% of the allotted time. The best practice plans for developing students consist of spending the majority of practice time on fundamentals: up to 80%. There are situations, like when preparing for auditions or competitions, where it is appropriate to adjust the percentages in order to spend more time on repertoire, but as a general rule, the best practice routines place an emphasis on fundamentals. This is the most efficient course of study because it increases overall skills in the least amount of time: skills that can be applied to anything a student will ever play. A proper practice plan can enable a student to accomplish MORE in LESS practice time. I have not found this to be the case with practice plans that are repertoire-centric.
How things used to be:
A long time ago, in the State of California, before Prop 13, public school music programs were funded MUCH better. My public school offered music classes beginning in the 4th grade. There were group lessons for each instrument twice a week, we were also encouraged to seek private instruction outside of school, AND we didn’t play in the orchestra or band until we acquired the skills needed in order to be able to master the music we practiced and performed in our ensembles. This was the correct approach. The group lessons were very helpful in teaching us basics like note reading, correct fingerings and hand position, rhythmic fundamentals, articulation, and embouchure basics. My excellent elementary school music teacher was not a flutist, and he encouraged us to seek private lessons from a flutist because it is very easy to develop poor habits on the flute and it is very DIFFICULT to correct them once they are in place: this is very important.
Back to my 4th grade class. By the time we got into the orchestra and band, which was before the end of the first year for some of us, we could already:
Make a proper sound.
Play high notes without compromising tone or intonation.
Play the correct notes with the correct fingerings.
Play the correct rhythms.
Play the correct articulation.
These skills are imperative for playing ensemble music. We had also already acquired the basic skills needed to be able to successfully sight read new pieces: playing pieces accurately without having practiced them before.
Each individual being able to play the notes, rhythms, dynamics, and articulation is just the BEGINNING of what is done in a good ensemble. After that, the focus is on coordinating all of the different parts among the instruments, and on the interpretation of the piece of music as a whole.
Sometimes school music directors strongly suggest students take private lessons and that advice is IGNORED! The justification for this is often:
If my child does WELL, I will sign them up for some lessons.
Here’s the thing: 99.9% of students will not do well UNLESS they have lessons. The flute is not an intuitive instrument for MOST students. Without proper instruction, bad habits are developed and they are extremely difficult, and sometimes IMPOSSIBLE to correct. This limits a student's potential, which can have a PROFOUND effect on a lot more than music.
What happens to MOST students who start WITHOUT proper lessons:
They don’t learn how to make a proper sound. Even though their directors may be giving them the correct information, there is not enough time or resources to make sure that students are getting it right. Tone production comes easier to some than others, and once the whole band is blasting away, you often can’t hear the flutes at all, so anything can go unnoticed. In addition, Band Method books are not FLUTE method books. They do not follow a logical progression of notes for flutists, and they don’t cover enough material. Almost ALL of the students I see from this situation, ones who have had no instruction outside of band (and I’m talking about HUNDREDS of students over DECADES) suffer from the following:
1: They have poor control of tone and intonation and can’t play the high notes because:
A: They have the flute placed incorrectly on their chin.
B: They cover or uncover too much of the blow hole.
C: They don’t have a correct embouchure:
( mouth too open, corners pulled back, mouth too tight, mouth too loose, etc...).
D: They’ve developed NO breath control.
E: They overblow or underblow the flute.
F: They don’t employ correct posture/form.
2: They don’t have the flute properly assembled.
3: They don’t know the correct fingerings.
4: They don’t know the correct note names.
5: They can’t count simple rhythms.
6: They don’t know how to use their tongues to articulate.
7: They can only play in 3-4 of the 12 major keys, and none of the 12 minor keys.
8: They don’t know the difference between a Flat, Sharp, or Natural (think of the black and white keys of a piano).
Why does this matter?
Sometimes, parents say that’s OK, they just want their child to enjoy playing in a band with their friends. Well, I’m sorry to say, in most cases like this, it is NOT enjoyable for the student. It limits their potential development, AND they can get a bad grade if they don’t excel, even though the whole system is set up for them to fail UNLESS they get proper instruction.
Parents just want their child to enjoy playing in a band with their friends:
It’s hard for kids to enjoy themselves when they can’t play the correct notes or rhythms because they KNOW they are struggling, and they often compare themselves to those who aren’t struggling. This undermines confidence and self-esteem. It can also cause frustrated kids to act out and misbehave in class. There are usually a few kids who ARE taking private lessons in every ensemble, and THEY are the leaders in the group. And because the flute is so popular, the national standards for flute playing are extremely high: EVEN IN MIDDLE SCHOOL. Flutists are often among the best players in any school ensemble. They are the examples that set the standards for the whole group. While I think it’s unfair to expect kids who don’t study privately to play at the same level as the ones who do, it is done every day. The All-State standards are designed for kids who study privately, yet many band directors use All-State audition materials for things like tests and seating auditions for EVERYONE in their ensembles. Audition standards are very high for flute regarding any youth orchestra, advanced extra-curricular wind ensemble, or college music program: INCLUDING college programs and ensembles for non-Music majors.
While budget cuts have changed school music programs, the study of music as an art form has not changed. Playing in ensembles is meant to be done AFTER a student achieves a certain level of proficiency, and that is acquired through lessons that are dedicated to ONE instrument at a time: either in a private setting, or group setting, if private lessons are impossible.
Parents and students often just want an extracurricular activity to help with college applications:
That’s great, but terrible playing isn’t going to cut it. You might be surprised to know that over 95% of the top young musicians DO NOT become music majors or pursue musical careers. They’re becoming Doctors, Lawyers, Engineers, Architects, Scientists, Business Owners, etc... The point is that ANY students hoping to use musical skills to boost their college admissions chances are competing with kids who DID study privately and who DO play at a very high level for their age group.
How long does a student need to take lessons?
Short answer: years.
AT LEAST through high school for students hoping to play well, be a section leader, participate in All State festivals, youth orchestras, or for students who are hoping to use their musical experience to help get scholarship money, or if they want to participate in college bands or orchestras for recreation. MOST of my students who have been in All State, CODA, or youth orchestras, and used their musical skills to help with college applications have NOT become music majors. For students who will not rely on musical achievements to help with college applications, I would say, a minimum of 2-3 years of lessons would be great. But even ONE year at the beginning, would be very beneficial.