“That’s not how my last teacher said to do it.”
These are the last words any flute teacher (or teacher of anything, for that matter) want to hear from a new student. It means you’re in for a long, slow slog of an academic year, with the student accomplishing little that is outwardly measurable.
In M’s case, she had come to our small city from a larger metropolis, where she had studied with a known teacher in that area. She played with a tight, “smile” embouchure, with her elbows pointed outward and the flute high on her lip. Her technique and rhythm were solid. Her tone, however, was tiny, inflexible, and sort of fell straight to her toes when it left her flute. I had made the audacious suggestion that she loosen the corners and lower the placement on the lip, and as anyone who has helped a flute student “undo” a tight embouchure knows, it doesn’t sound better right away.
“It sounds fuzzy. I don’t like it. I like my old way.”
It’s too bad M didn’t have the kind of problem I could have produced a “magical fix” for. Several years ago, when teaching in a different city, during a student’s first lesson, I walked straight up to the student as she was playing, and gently lowered her elbow, which was pointing straight out. She immediately went from “Tug Boat Tone” to “Little Galway”. The student and parent immediately signed on for a year of lessons, and left, gushing to their friends about the new magical flute teacher who had come to town, and they netted me quite a few referrals. (On the other hand, maybe it wasn’t such a good thing – Magic Flute immediately assumed that her lessons with me would be an elixir for all her flute ills, and that there need be no effort from her.)
I wanted a “magical fix” for M. because her previous teacher, after working with her for a year or two, had pronounced her to be “of mediocre talent.” Who says that to a kid? As if talent had anything measurable to do with it.
So, what to do with a student like M? The devotion to her previous teacher was cute (for about two seconds), but I suspected it had little to do with that. M had just been moved to a new, smaller town. She was in a new middle school (yes, middle school – the nightmare years) with kids who had known each other since birth, and having a hard time fitting in. Her whole world had been changed for her – and no one had really asked her what she thought of it.
I tried to keep this in mind every time M. reminded me that her other teacher “did it this way”, and I would calmly take a deep breath and explain why I was asking her to do it differently. I’d always start by praising her previous teacher (I know, but it’s about the end result.): “Ms. X has given you a good start with your fundamentals, but it’s time for you to progress. I do not believe in assigning talent values to students, so I’m going to assume you are a supertalent, just as I do with all my students. Therefore, it is my job to teach you well, so that if you ARE a supertalent, well then, you’ll have had a good intermediate experience. So, are you willing to humor me and try this silly new embouchure I am suggesting?” Her answer was yes, she would humor me. (By the way if her answer had been no, I would have called her mother to pick her up right that second, and referred her to the other flute teacher in town. I knew full well the other teacher would tell her EXACTLY the same thing I had, but . . . sometimes we need to hear things more than once . . .)
M and I went on like this, with me occasionally asking her to humor me, and her doing it (many of her first attempts at new ideas WERE pretty humorous . . .) for a FULL FLIPPIN’ YEAR. Though tempted, I did not take Tylenol even once before her lessons. Sometimes, she realized the wisdom of my ways right away, and other things, well, they took time.
Now M. has a beautiful sound to match her technique and sight-reading ability. And some lovely phrasing to go with it all. She is upgrading her flute, (and is actually taking my advice and trying off-set G’s, which fit the curve of her hand so much better . . . ) She smiles during lessons, even laughs, and tries things right away. She still struggles with confidence and projection. (Please people, never tell a student they are of “mediocre talent”. I mean, MOST of us are, right?)
Patience and persistence pay off. Don’t believe me? Got a year and a new, resistant student? Humor me.