Learning Something New

Greetings and welcome to a new Flute Friday.

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Today’s blog is a little different from my typical Tips and Tricks posts or even my fun Flute Meme or Flute Quiz Fridays. One of my New Year’s Resolutions is to learn to play the guitar. I have always wanted to learn but have put it off thinking that my tiny flute fingers and short, stubby pinky would make things quite challenging. In reality, I was simply just afraid to try something new. As musicians, we often put a lot of pressure on ourselves to be perfect at anything musical that is placed in front of us. I’ve wanted to be the next Slash or Joe Perry for so long, but could not see a way to get there. Of course, the quick answer was just to jump in. That is precisely what I plan to do this year. I mentioned this intention to my husband, who immediately purchased a pink guitar for me to practice on (he is a drummer and was excited to have a chance to jam as a family). I have the instrument, a basic guide to chords, and dozens of YouTube tutorials to get me started. What I am discovering, however, is that the guitar is very different from the flute and some of my flute habits (such as playing on the pads of my fingers rather than the tips) often get in the way of my ability to play basic guitar chords. I am a student all over again! I can now put myself in my own student’s shoes, experiencing the desire to learn something but frustrated by my own lack of skill. I find myself feeling the same way my beginning flute student feel when they struggle to produce a clean sound on the flute or forget new fingerings, and often need to give myself the same pep talks I give to my students (“practice makes perfect,” “keep working a little bit at a time,” “you cannot become a master at something overnight,” “you’ll get there! Just keep working hard). It has been very eye opening to learn something new as an adult. I suddenly have a new understanding about how my students approach the early stages of learning. Today’s blog is devoted to some of the things I have learned in the short 3 weeks I have been plugging away on the guitar. I hope they help you to understand your own students a bit better and encourage any beginners to keep going. Anything great requires time, dedication, and a bit of elbow grease. You can do it!

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Leave your expectations at the door. One of my greatest challenges as a beginning guitar student is muted chords. As a woodwind player, I have come to expect that if I use the right fingering for a note, I will produce the necessary sound (even if the tone is a bit questionable). On the guitar, you may have the “right” fingering, but if your fingers are touching any of the other strings, you will have a muted tone. I have been trying to teach myself that there are other components to master before I can achieve the sound I desire. This is something that we can also teach our flute students. A fingering is not the end of the story. Air placement/direction and embouchure are as vital to sound production on the flute as placing your fingers exactly between the strings are to playing the guitar.

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Playing one instrument very well does not necessarily mean you will be able to play all instruments well. Learning a second instrument is quite a humbling experience. I remember learning to play the piano as an undergraduate student and struggling to read a new clef. Sight reading was always a frightening experience because I was not very confident in my abilities to quickly read, and understand, the bass line, especially when numerous chords were stacked on top of one another. Although my skills strengthened with time, I was never a concert pianist. What mattered in this scenario is that I enjoyed the instrument and enjoyed the challenge of learning something new. As I learn to play the guitar, I am reminded that I do not know everything. I can read music, I understand chord progressions, but those two things alone will not help me achieve the physical ability to create chords on this new instrument or memorize exactly where my fingers must go to play a good, old I, IV, V, I chord progression. This is also something that we can teach flute students who may have had previous musical training. It’s okay to struggle. This is not the same instrument that you are used to. It does not function the way a piano functions. The skills necessary to be a successful drummer are not the same as those needed to rock cello solo. Every instrument is different. Learn those differences from the bottom up without assumptions.

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Practice a little bit every day and avoid long, tiring, frustrating, repetitive practice sessions. There is a point when practicing simply to drill something into your brain is detrimental to your development as a musician. This is where bad habits occur. In the beginning, you are building strength gradually and, like any bodybuilder, you must give your muscles the opportunity to rest, strengthen, and reboot between sets. Your brain also must have time to process what you are learning, and calmly come up with new approaches to challenges. I advise beginning students to practice 20 minutes per day and build up their time gradually as they gain more experience with the instrument. I, myself, has been limiting myself to 20 minutes per day on the guitar as I get used to the numbing pain on my fingertips and the work out that my left hand index finger gets from holding down the strings. This helps me to rethink ways to position my fingers so that they do not mute the strings as much. I also use the time away from the instrument to set goals for the next practice session. Sometimes the mental work we accomplish away from the instrument is just as valuable as the work we accomplish with the instrument in hand.

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Posture is key. Developing good posture from the very beginning of your study is critical. I was initially trying to play the guitar with the neck too far down and outward, making it difficult for me to stretch my arm properly, which in turn caused me to misuse my left hand thumb. The left hand thumb is an important stabilizing anchor for the entire left hand (much like the side of the left index finger in combination with the right hand thumb is for the flute). When I altered my posture, my thumb was freed up and my fingers fell easier on the strings. Good posture, of course, is just as important for flute playing and should be the absolute starting point with beginning students. Remind students as the get tired or frustrated in the early stages that their posture will help them conserve both mental and physical energy.

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Finally, do not give up. This goes hand-in-hand with slow, daily bursts of practice in the initial stages of learning an instrument. I’ve had a few practice sessions on the guitar that brought out my inherited Irish temper. The more I practiced, the worse my playing sounded. At the end of the failed practice session, I found myself saying things I didn’t really mean (“This is a waste of my time!” “My fingers are too fat for this instrument.” “I suck at the guitar. What is the point??”). These statements were mere reflections of my frustration and not grounded in the truth. I always, however, picked up the instrument and tried again the next day. Beginnings are difficult, so take them slowly and remain calm. Rampal was not an overnight success (nor was Slash). Learn something new every day and set reasonable, attainable goals. Remind your students that frustration is totally normal as they learn a new instrument. It is the ones that stick with it that end up successful. Stay calm and learn on!

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Have you taken up a second instrument? What was it like for you in the early stages? What was it like to be a student again? Did you learn new things that could help your own students as they learn to play the flute? Please comment below!


Happy Fluting!


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