Greetings and welcome to a new Flute Friday.
I was reorganizing my sheet music collection last weekend and found something quite intriguing. Shuffled between the pages of a piece that I had not played in several years was a copy of a letter of recommendation from a former teacher. Well….recommendation is not quite the right word… As I read through the letter, I was saddened by its contents. “Although she initially met my suggestions cursorily, she gave a satisfactory performance.” I remember seeing this letter years ago, not quite understanding where these comments came from. If I had acted “cursorily,” I did not know it and had never intended to interact that way with a teacher. A “satisfactory” performance made it sound like I successfully made it from the beginning to the end of the performance without falling off the stage or forgetting to bring my instrument. What saddened me the most, however, was never being aware that there was a problem or that I had not met goals when I thought I had. Lesson expectations were fuzzy at best and I did not know the difference between an “okay” performance and a “great” performance through the eyes of my teacher. It wasn’t until years later when I met a very encouraging and transparent teacher, that I realized the value of clear pedagogical communication. A great teacher understands their students and works with them to set and establish goals, monitor success, and encourages them to reach for the stars. I have patterned my own teaching after the lessons I learned working with both encouraging and not-so-encouraging teachers. Today’s blog features my Top 10 Teaching Tips based on my own teaching experiences and what I have valued over the years. I really hope these tips help you reevaluate how you interact with your students and inspire you to encourage students to follow their dreams. Help your students along their paths and always remain a beacon of hope rather than locked doorway to another dimension.
Top 10 Teaching Tips
- Always Encourage your Students. I think one of the biggest differences between good teachers and great teachers is effective coaching skills. Every student is different. It is critical that you understand who your students are, their interests, their strengths, and their weaknesses. Your approach with every student should be different based on an understanding of who they are, where they are in their flute study, where they want to go, and what is important to them. If students are struggling to understand certain concepts, do not immediately assume that they are just being “difficult.” There is a reason they are struggling and you may need to reconsider how you are explaining things to them and why it may not click. For example, if you know that your student is a visual learner, but you are trying to explain tone color by singing at them (loudly), they are not going to understand in the same way that your aural learners will and may become frustrated and discouraged. Change your approach and always encourage them to experiment, ask questions, and discuss action plans to further their understanding. Learning is about developing, experimenting, questioning, and improving. Inspire your students to become lifelong learners.
- Use the Socratic Method Often. Ideas are more meaningful to students when they are developed from the depths of their own minds. I love to make my students analyze their own playing before I tell them what I heard and provide suggestions for how to improve. “What did you think about that?” is a simple question to get students to think critically about their playing and not just get from Point A to Point B with a passing “good job” from the teacher. If they speak about poor tone quality, ask them what they think they can do to improve. This opens a nice dialog for you and your student to discuss tone improvement techniques and come up with exercises they can practice at home.
- Set Clear Goals. One of the difficult parts about being a student is constantly trying to guess what your teacher expects from you. Other disciplines use a syllabus very carefully to outline all course expectations, often including rubrics detailing what is expected to achieve an A, B, C, and so on, in the course. Lessons are very different because they are based on highly individualized sets of expectations and goals. I recommend using a syllabus or similar document to set studio policies that apply to all students (attendance policy, canceled lesson policy, recital expectations, masterclass participation policies, and so forth), but keep track of individual progress using a weekly student notebook. In my studio, for example, students are required to bring a notebook to their lessons, which I use to record all of the techniques we discuss and jot down practice assignment expectations for the next lesson. A notebook is a great way to keep students on track and clarify short and long term goals. Sit down with your students at least once per quarter or semester and discuss long range recital preparation, overall goals for the semester, and future flute playing plans including auditions, masterclasses, and competition goals. This is also a good opportunity to clearly explain what you expect from them over the course of a semester. For younger students, periodic chats regarding practice goals is also very important. Assign practice cards and chart progress on a simple Excel-based chart. Above all, keep expectations transparent and provide a supportive environment for students to ask questions as they progress throughout their goals.
- Monitor Progress. Students want to see that the time they put into their studies pays off in some sort of measurable progress. Practice cards, as I discussed above, is a good way to monitor practice goals, however monitoring overall performance progress can be a bit trickier. Encourage your students to record short videos of at-home practice routines to review during their lessons. Recording a video is very intimidating (even within the privacy of your own home), therefore you may also help your students deal with stage fright while also monitoring their flute playing progress. Review recital videos with students following a studio recital. Talk about what worked, what didn’t work, what was easy, and what was difficult. Ask them to grade themselves on their own recitals! Discuss the similarities and differences between your grade and theirs. Ask students to memorize scales, etudes, or pieces. It is easy to monitor memorization skills and create goals to memorize works a bit at a time. Whatever techniques you use, make sure to discuss progress with your students regularly. Let them know how they are doing and what they still need to do to achieve their goals.
- Create a Toolbox of Go-To Techniques. This will help students become their own teachers for life! Create a list of short descriptions or acronyms for techniques that you discuss often in lessons (air in cheek, conducting and playing, frog breathing, ducky-ducky articulation, march and play, etc). These will help students recall simple techniques quite quickly when they realize they are struggling with sound or technique. This list is, essentially, their flute toolbox. If you are a fan of the Socratic Method, you will find your students using these short descriptions in their answers to the question, “How would you improve your performance of this passage,” or, “What did you think about your tone in that excerpt? What would you do to improve your tone?” These toolbox techniques will last years and decades after your time together.
- Encourage Improvisation. Good teachers have a duty to their students to cultivate creativity and part of that means tossing out the rules once in a while and letting students explore music on their own terms. Improvisation is a great way for students to explore their sound and technique in a safe, inclusive environment where the music does not stop for a “wrong” note or “wrong” type of sound. I like to end most lessons with 3-5 minutes of improvisation. Students really look forward to this time and it always helps us discuss things they have wanted to try out but, for some reason or another, have not had the opportunity (advanced techniques, for example). Let creativity flow. Your students may discover cool, new ways to play the flute that they had never even thought of before.
- Technology is your Friend. YouTube. Smart Music. Classroom blogs. Apps. Internet research. There are so many great tools to combine with traditional instruction that really enhance the studio environment. I have mentioned many of these programs in previous blog posts. I think the one that is my all-time favorite, however, is Smart Music. This program is great on so many levels and really helps students understand their scores to maximize time spent with their accompanists. I also think that YouTube has changed the way we think about performance. I encourage my students to create YouTube clips of their playing (turning off comments if they are a bit on the shy side). Finally, having a studio blog is a great way to help students learn from each other in a safe, inclusive environment. Brush up on these programs and invite students to suggest new programs to use in their flute lessons.
- Host Studio Masterclasses. A studio masterclass is a nerve-wracking, yet fun experience for all of your students. Performing in front of peers helps students confront stage fright, which is something that often gets swept under the rug. We all have to deal with it and when we address it as a group, it is no longer a lonely, frightening experience. The masterclass environment is also an opportunity for students to learn from each other. Two students may be confronting the same types of challenges in their lessons but use different methods to solve the same problems. They can discuss these issues out in the open and analyze what works and what doesn’t. Older students can inspire and encourage younger students through their performances and parents can participate in their child’s flute study simply by being observers. A masterclass is also a wonderful opportunity for all students to sight read flute choir music together, encouraging a collective, and supportive, learning environment.
- Listening Assignments. The world of flute playing is a lot bigger than the Rubank series or the confines of Bach Sonatas. Encourage your students to broaden their horizons by assigning listening assignment that include super difficult pieces (Jolivet or Ibert), strange non-traditional pieces (Berio Sequenza), flute choir works, woodwind quintet pieces, pieces for flute and orchestra, Jethro Tull!, Jazz flute, and non-western flute works. YouTube includes a variety of recordings that students can easily review and discuss through journaling or classroom discussions. Perhaps they will gravitate towards a particular piece or composer or maybe even hear something that they want to practice in their next lesson. Part of learning is having the necessary space to explore the infinite possibilities of the Universe.
- Competitions, Auditions, and Summer Studies – Go for it! Whatever their level, preparing for an audition or competition is something that a student will remember forever. The worst thing that can happen in any of these instances is that they do not win (the chair, the job, whatever). The preparation work to get to the competition stage, in my opinion, however, is far more valuable than any trophy or title. This is goal setting at it’s finest. I felt that I got into the audition and masterclass scene a little late, as I was often under the impression that these things were only available for a select few, more talented, players. Wrong! Preparing, performing, analyzing, and pulling yourself up by your boot-straps and trying again is part of the learning process. This is how we improve. This is how we encounter and measure ourselves. This is how we set goals for the future and learn through experiences. Being a good teacher requires you to have faith in your students and to push them to succeed beyond their expectations. Anything less is a disservice to your students and to yourself.
What do you think makes a good teacher? What have your best teachers had in common? What are the most valuable lessons you have learned from past teachers? What do you value in your lessons? Please comment below!