Over the past few weeks, I’ve had several older middle school students—kids who should know better—bring me very dirty flutes because their joints aren’t fitting right. In one case, I learned about the situation by the student’s mom texting me to ask what brand of cork grease is best for flutes! (NONE! I think I texted back something like NOOOOOOOOOOO!)
Because I taught all of these students how to clean their flutes when they first got them, I went on my happy way, assuming that that lesson was well and truly learned. Clearly, it wasn’t! In each case, we went over it again, with me showing them how to swab their flutes and then gently wipe away fingerprints and grit from the body, especially the tenon and socket that hold the footjoint to the body. I didn’t even complain about having to wipe away the cork grease!
Now that I’m thinking about it, I see so many areas where we really could stand to reinforce our young flutists’ good habits, whether in regards to flute hygiene or practice skills or large ensemble etiquette. Here are a few of the things I’ve seen lately!
1. Literally tongue every note that isn’t under a slur, literally all the time. This seems obvious, right? We teach them to tongue, we teach them what slurs are, and following that pattern feels like a natural outcome. However, it’s a lot of effort for a young student to remember that all the time, right off the bat. I have taken to adding it to the weekly practice log as a freestanding item: practice tonguing every note as indicated in your music. I also act like a friendly broken record. I do not let it go.
2. Practice your fundamentals, no matter how much music you have to learn. I’m a big believer in fundamental exercises to maintain a high level of playing, no matter what repertoire you’re learning. I live this out in my own life as a performer, and I encourage my students to do the same. Still, there’s always one or two who will choose anything over their tone studies, scales and etudes, and they are routinely amazed when I can tell in their repertoire that they have stopped adhering to their good habits. But it’s obvious! The balance of the instrument in their hands is not quite as refined. Their phrases aren’t as long, their control in the high register not as complete. Reinforce the lesson: it’s important to maintain a strong skill set in order to bring all the music to life. It’s false economy to skip your scales!
3. Work the rhythm like a math problem. My region has taken to having our all-state qualifying etudes composed, and they are tricky! My students always want to hop in and go, but there are things in these that will cause even me to stop, slow down, and count the rhythm the way I was taught as a child. Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. Work our the rhythm like a math problem and then smooth it back into the whole of the piece.
4. It’s never too late to go slow. I keep hearing myself say, “Feel the distance between now and the deadline. You have so much time! Go slow. Figure out that measure at a tempo where you can be in control. You can do it!” We all get turned around by upcoming deadlines, but parts of the music that are hard are not intrinsically unsurmountable. Slow it down, break it apart and put it back together once you understand what makes it tick—even if it’s the morning of the concert!
5. And finally…clean your flute. Every day! If your flute is in good shape to begin with, you should be able to maintain it by simply swabbing out the moisture (I still prefer a wooden rod and a silk cloth) and wiping away the fingerprints and lip print. Make sure that you do this to the tenons and sockets where the pieces of the body connect, but avoid the keys, for the most part. You’ll never get all the water out of the headjoint, and that’s ok. Get most of it out and move along! If you are in school and have band after lunch, try to carry a travel toothbrush and toothpaste to school with you to brush, which will help avoid sticky pads. And stay away from the cork grease!
Fellow teachers, I am certain that you could double or triple this list! We have so many things to teach our students, and I’d imagine you’d agree that a lot of it bears repeating!