Woodwind Pedagogy

October 9th, 2013 § Leave a Comment

One of the classes that I teach each fall is Woodwind Pedagogy. Most of the students who take this class are music education majors, and this specific class is one of their degree requirements. The goal is to have each student reasonably proficient on three different woodwind instruments by the end of the semester, which is quite a task. Obviously, the scope of this class must be limited so I’ve had to ask myself what the absolute essential information is that each student should be exposed to before the end of the semester.

I require that each student spend time with a single reed instrument, a double reed instrument, and flute. The only exception is if the student plays one of those already as his or her primary instrument. We cover various topics throughout the semester; some days the students play out of method books as a “beginner band,” other days we discuss articles on pedagogy. Later in the semester, as students gain confidence, they teach each other in the style of a private lesson or masterclass. The other students in the class offer suggestions on what went well during the lesson and what might be improved on. Students also offer advice on their primary instrument if that happens to be a woodwind.

So what do I want them to learn? I tend to think back to when I was a beginner on flute and recall the things that worked well for me as well as those that didn’t. For example, I played flute for an entire year before I realized that the tongue had anything to do with articulation. This type of mistake is something I hope my students are able to detect and correct before their students develop habits that are detrimental and quite difficult to change. I also think about the struggles my beginner flute students have had.

Here are some of the ideas I want to make sure these future band teachers have a good understanding of:
how to safely put the instruments together as well as take them apart.
the proper terminology associated with each of the woodwinds.
very basic maintenance.
healthy embouchure skills.
correct fingerings.
the general sound and feel of the different types of woodwinds.
cork grease doesn’t belong on a flute!

I also want them to know about resources that are available to them. When they inevitably are confronted with a situation they don’t immediately have an answer to, I want them to know where to find the answers.

As a flutist, teaching this class has been a learning experience for me, as well. I’d be remiss if I didn’t send a huge thanks to Dr. Bret Pimentel, who generously offered advice when I was putting together my woodwind pedagogy class last fall. He has fantastic blog posts about the work of a woodwind doubler/professor on his site, which have been excellent additions to my own class here at SDSU.

Woodwind pedagogy teachers and band directors: what other topics might be useful that I haven’t included above?

Two Types of Students (and the non-practicers)

November 29th, 2012 § Leave a Comment

As I was teaching today, I realized that there tend to be two types of applied students in my life. A student can move from one category to the other over time, or it’s possible for a student to stay one type for their entire time with me. Where that student falls is probably a factor of many things, including musical maturity, technical ability, motor skills, among many other probable causes. I’m not trying to make any sort of judgment of these two types; instead, I’m curious if other teachers find the same breakdown of students in their own studios, if they prefer to teach one type over the other, and how (or if) their pedagogical approaches differ between the two types.

With one type of student, we primarily work on musical ideas in lessons. Their repertoire might not be completely technically accurate in all respects. There might be a few wrong notes, and we work on refining that technique by practicing in small segments, by making sure we’re using the fingerings that make the most sense for that passage, by altering the rhythm and playing the passage in question backwards. We might work on refining the embouchure, or changing the direction of the air stream, or experimenting with faster or slower vibrato. However, it’s all in the name of musical experimentation and development. This group includes private students of all ages, college music majors, and college students who are taking lessons as an elective.

The lessons with the second type of student consist solely of technical nuts and bolts. Every lesson, we correct fingerings. I remind these students of the various fingerings for B-flat. I remind them to lift their left pointer finger for our middle D and E-flat. We work frequently on aligning the head joint. We count rhythms together every lesson. I also spend a lot of time with them supervising their practice during each lesson. I frequently coach them on how to practice things and specifically what to do and for how long in the practice room. Now I’m not naive; some of the students in this category flat-out do not practice. I understand that quite well. However, there seem to be those students who do spend time legitimately practicing and still have significant problems with just the basics of flute playing. As with the other type, this group also includes private students of all ages, college music majors, and college students who are taking lessons as an elective.

As a teacher, I’m genuinely happy to teach anyone who is an involved, enthusiastic student. I have very little patience for students who don’t practice at all. (Isn’t this true for everyone?) But teaching both of these types of students (Categories 1 and 2; not the non-practicers) is ok with me; it makes for an interesting, varied week of lessons. Reminding every student repeatedly of very basic information every day can be exhausting, and I have yet to be in a situation where I have only students of the first category. I always have a mix of both categories, with a few non-practicers thrown in to keep things interesting.

I’m interested in hearing from other applied teachers: do you have many students at any level (i.e., college, adult, high school, and so forth) for whom the fundamentals are very difficult? Is your pedagogical approach to them significantly different from your approach to Category 1 students?


Flute Lesson Grades!

November 26th, 2012 § Leave a Comment

As a college professor, one thing that can be difficult for me to assess at the end of the semester is how much progress my students have made in the preceding 14-or-so weeks. When grades are tied to assessing this progress, it makes things even dicier. Feelings, scholarships, and progress towards their degree completion makes the stakes high. After seven years of college teaching, some things have worked and some haven’t. Here are some ways I organize my assessment of my students’ progress, which can also be used by students for some self-reflection.

At the beginning of each semester, during the first lesson, I determine where that student is as far as tone, technique, and musicianship are concerned. Obviously this task is easier if I have taught the student before. It can be a little tricky if the student is brand new, but there is always room to make adjustments later. At that point, we decide together on various materials that will be used during the course of the semester. It depends on the student; if this is a young or inexperienced student, sometimes I will primarily use one method book. If it’s an older student, we tend to include etudes, technical exercises, repertoire, and other materials from a variety of sources. While I think there are certain materials that every student should eventually work through, I don’t feel like every student must be playing from the same sources at the same time. (This also makes lessons more interesting and varied during the week!) We come up with an approximate amount of material that can be covered; for example, we might outline one etude a week, three heavy technical exercises, tone studies, and two works to focus on for the entire semester. We talk about a reasonable amount to cover each week and try to identify performance dates for the pieces. This way we have benchmarks to hit at various points throughout the semester and can pace ourselves accordingly. I make sure to get students’ input here, as well. Maybe their vibrato doesn’t strike me as something that needs to be heavily addressed during the semester, but the student is quite uncomfortable with it. I will make sure that we cover that. Perhaps they know a piece that they would really like to work on. As long as it is appropriate for their level and is well-balanced with their other repertoire, I’m happy to allow them to make those decisions.

I also do a mid-semester “check up” to see if we’re making sufficient progress towards our outlined goals. If we’ve decided to finish one etude a week, and it’s taking three weeks to get through one etude on average, it’s time to reassess. Are the etudes really that difficult, or is the practice time spent on these insufficient or badly organized? This can be tricky to determine. Sometimes there are circumstances that we aren’t aware of as teachers, and it takes a good amount of trust to know whether a student is being lazy, has a mismanaged life, or is really having trouble with the material.

There is also the circumstance where something that wasn’t apparent in the first lesson reveals itself as an issue that must be dealt with immediately. Perhaps there are serious embouchure problems or major rhythmic inaccuracies in a student’s playing. Things so fundamental must be addressed before making progress towards other musical goals. In this case, a student might not get through all the material that was outlined in the first lesson, but if serious progress was made on these other aspects, it has been a successful semester.

If a student is making good progress towards the outlined goals, everything is in good shape. It’s still worthwhile to have that mid-semester reminder that there is still work to be done and grades do inevitably happen at the end of the semester. And of course, if a student is making progress beyond what was initially outlined, they will hear no complaints from me!

By making expectations completely clear at the beginning of the semester (and giving a reminder midway through), this lessens the possibilities of misunderstandings or hurt feelings when grades are due. Also, by making the student involved with the decision-making, that student has more ownership of the situation and hopefully feels more in control of his or her musical development.

Technique stuff

September 20th, 2011 § Leave a Comment

If  you are interested in following along with Sir James Galway as he overhauls his technique, check out the following video. He has issued a “Practice Challenge,” where flutists from presumably around the world will all be working out of the same technique book. He will be using Marcel Moyse’s Daily Exercises book. I will be following along with the challenge loosely. I usually work out of this Moyse book every day, so I am going to be adapting the challenge by fiddling around with the articulations.


I’m also feeling rather sheepish about my short-lived experimentations with circular breathing. I started work on it a little over a year ago but didn’t commit to it like I should have. Now I’m kicking myself; if I had stuck with it, I would have probably been fairly fluent in the technique by this point. I’ve dug out my book and am considering adding it to my practice regimen. Anyone out there have any experience with circular breathing?

Taffanel and Gaubert practice tips

June 20th, 2011 § Leave a Comment

My battered copy of 17 Daily Exercises. The cover is around here somewhere...

The book “17 Daily Exercises” (or 17 Grands Exercices Journaliers de Mécanisme) by Paul Taffanel and Philippe Gaubert is the flutist’s bible. Since its publication in 1923, it has become a standard method book for all flutists. Taffanel began writing this book, and it was finished by his student, Gaubert, after Taffanel’s death.

I start my students in this book at a young age with the expectation that they will use it for many years. Even if they initially move at a slow pace, they are still developing technique and will use the book throughout their musical careers.

Some practice tips:

- If you are just starting in this book, work at a very slow tempo and be sure to use a metronome.
- Establish a tempo where you are able to play through the exercise comfortably (and write that tempo down!), then work on increasing the tempo.
- If you run into any problem spots, stop! Work out those isolated areas until they’re as comfortable as the rest of the exercise.
- When the exercise is moving along fairly comfortably, start using the different articulations listed at the top of each exercise.
- Try to work through one of these exercises each week. If that’s too much for you, divide it in half and spend two weeks on each exercise.

Eventually, you will want to work your way through this entire book. However, I prefer that my students tackle exercises 1, 2, 4, and 12 before moving on to the others.

* A note about breathing: Make sure you are breathing in places that make sense. For example, in exercise 4, place a fermata on the first note of measure 5. This is halfway through this key. Then place a fermata on the first note of measure 9. This is the switch from C major to its relative minor. After pausing on these notes, take a breath, and then begin the next section, repeating the note that you held under the fermata.

With diligent practice, you should see nice results in just a few weeks.

Have T&G practice tips of your own to share? Comments welcome!

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