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Kathy Blocki Interview

KW: When did you know flute was the instrument for you?

KB: I started on clarinet, but my sister was a great clarinet player, and of course I wanted to be different. So, I switched to flute. I had a terrible time with the sound and my embouchure. My fingers could move and I had a natural love for music, but the tone was horrible. At one point, I sat in front of the mirror in 9th grade with a head joint until I could get one clear sound. It took a long time to figure out how to get a good sound, but I just wanted it so badly. About a year later when the orthodontist suggested braces, they found out that I had a crooked jaw. To correct everything, they would need to break and reset the jaw and then start with years of braces. I chose not to do this as I had begun practicing for several hours a day and my sound had developed into a lovely tone. 

Those last two years of high school I had the privilege studying with Bernie Goldberg from the Pittsburgh Symphony. He was both my private teacher and my orchestra director in the Three Rivers Youth Orchestra. Bernie had a dry sense of humor. One day he paused in the middle of rehearsal and began waving my Taffanel and Gaubert book in the air saying, “Did anyone miss this, this week?” I quietly claimed my book, but thought it really did not matter because he always required me play everything from memory! 

During these years, Bernie was spending summers up in Vermont with Marcel Moyse. There, among other things, Bernie and other incredible flutists would play the Moyse’s 24 Little Pieces with Variations. Then Bernie had me play them in my private lessons. I had no idea what a privilege it was to learn these pieces from Bernie. He would always play them for me with such gorgeous legato and phrase endings. During these lessons I learned how to express these simple melodies and especially legato in the octave variations. Now as I look at my Blocki books and the Flute Zoo book I see how much these lessons influenced me. The books are filled with Moyse-like melodies to teach the same flexibility and legato that I learned from Bernie. 

KW: Having to teach yourself would certainly motivate one to come up with a system so that a whole generation of teachers and flute students don’t have to create it for themselves.

KB: When I was in college, Galway had just started to become famous. I was given the Galway recording of the Prokofiev Sonata, and was intrigued at how different it was from all the other recordings available at that time. That semester, my main teacher was on sabbatical, and I felt like I had to teach myself again during that year. I pretty much wore out Galway’s recording of the Prokofiev and then tried to figure out how to sound exactly like him. I wanted that intensity of tone and high Ds that were in tune. It was like trying to copy a famous painting, and I learned and grew so much.

KW: It’s important to have good models of sound. You have to be able to model what a good sound is on each instrument as a band director. What was your plan when you set out into the world with your university degrees? 

KB: My plan was to play in an orchestra and I started with the American Wind Symphony and then got a job with the Fort Wayne Symphony. After about a year, I went back to get my master’s degree at Arizona State University.

I also had a passion for teaching. This began when I was in high school by teaching the middle school players. I’m sure I learned more from them than they did from me. 

When our children were toddlers, my husband was a band director in a small school. Juggling schedules became tricky. Focusing more on teaching and performing in small chamber groups allowed me to have a flexible schedule. I helped with all the beginners and discovered that the flute band book was terrible. This is when I began writing many of my own exercises for the kids and began teaching flexibility and playing in multiple octaves starting with the head joint. The students thrived with this approach. Though I was only there for six years, two of the students I had started performed with the Fort Wayne Symphony—a talented 9th grader played the Ibert Concerto and a 6th grader played Dance of the Blessed Spirits. 

After this we began teaching at Goshen College, where my husband taught music education courses and I taught aural theory, flute, and flute choir. The piano pedagogy program at Goshen under Marvin Blickenstaff was incredible. He’s a fantastic pedagogue. I started sitting in on Marvin’s group classes for young piano students. Though my young flute students played well, they were not getting the well-rounded training that I observed in the group piano classes. I was amazed that these beginning piano players could transpose simple melodies into many different keys. I started experimenting with five note patterns with my flute kids and found that they could do the same, even without being able to see it visually on a piano. It was easy for them to use the five note patterns as the foundation for transposing simple melodies. 

Marvin’s piano students also had little composition projects each week and I thought, “Yes, flute players can do this too!” I formatted it in a different way, but tried to always tie the composition projects to whatever new concept they were learning. If the beginners were learning A to C and two finger movement, then they might have a composition with the notes G, A, and C. I broke it down a bit more than Marvin did. There’s pitch, harmony, melody, rhythm, timbre, and form. I’d give students everything except for a few elements, so it was very easy for them to be successful and creative. They might be given the rhythm and then would need to compose the melody with the assigned pitches. Within this framework, they could be creative and make it high or low, add trills, or staccatos. In recitals, the beginners will play a duet with me and then play their own composition. It is a big deal for the kids and parents to see their name listed as the composer on the program. 

KW: How did you go about creating the Pneumo Pro (https://www.blockiflute.com/PNEUMO-PRO-TRAINING-TOOLS_c_1.html)? I use it with my students all the time. How did you figure it out? How did you go about getting it built? I’m sure it involved business skills that we weren’t taught in music school.

KB: My father-in-law was a retired engineer and he loved to tinker. One Thanksgiving, I told him I used my hand to show the kids how to aim the air downward, but kids really needed something that was concrete–spinning wheels or something. His first attempt was 4 handmade paper wheels on rod, but we still needed something to show where the wheels should be positioned. When we came up with replicating a head joint with the embouchure hole opened all the way through, it seemed so simple, but it really revolutionized our idea. 

He made me a prototype where I could move the fans anywhere. Around 1999, there had been a Flute Talk article that described where the air stream should be directed for certain registers. Once I could concretely see where the air should be aimed, it became obvious that the air really needs to be much lower than previously thought. Even when playing softly in the high register, only the second to the highest fan on the Pneumo Pro would be used. The highest fan on the Pneumo Pro just shows that if you blow the same way on the flute, no sound will be produced.

After many different prototypes, we developed a wooden Pneumo Pro. The pieces were made of birch and were cut by a computerized saw. After we had the wood parts, we would dip them in salad oil and let them dry, dip them again and let them dry. Then, we would put them together (With the hardware each one had 48 pieces!). It became so time consuming and expensive to make each one. My dream was not that only a few people could afford it, but that it would be affordable for everyone. So, we pivoted to find out how to make it through injection molding and to design it so that it could replace the flute head joint. We hired a plastics designer– it was quite the process. Making it look like a head joint and getting the fans to spin well was a challenge. 

It was quite expensive to purchase the molds. I was wondering, “Am I sure I want to spend all this money without being sure that it would work out—I’m just a flute player?” A friend suggested that I call flute maker Bick Brannen. I sent him all the CAD drawings. He looked it all over and when we talked, he assured me that I was ready to move forward. I was so grateful that he took time to help me.

KW: What are the best ways to use the Pneumo Pro? 

The plastic Pneumo Pro can replace the head joint of the flute, so you can practice, either silently or while singing or humming the music. Playing on with Pneumo Pro on the flute takes a lot more air than just playing the flute, so it is also great for breath development. 

A lot of my students audition for the youth symphony and they must learn the Mendelssohn Scherzo. They practice this difficult excerpt by singing, and tonguing with the Pneumo Pro replacing the head joint. First, students need to learn to keep the air moving while double tonguing. This is easy to see on the Pneumo Pro because if the fans stop spinning the breath support has stopped. If the double tonguing is not clean, it is often because a lack of support or the air direction is too high. They also practice with the Pneumo Pro alternating between single and double tonguing to physically see if there are changes in air direction and air speed when switching. 

Last year I developed a series of short exercises for intermediate and advanced students to do during rehearsals. It’s the same concept as when the brass are buzzing to best utilize their time while the director is working with the woodwinds. The demo videos are on YouTube. My kids do these quick exercises not only during rehearsals, but also in the car. When doing a quick exercise in the car, they just use the Pneumo Pro and put their fingers on the yellow part as if playing a piccolo. These quick exercises cover flexibility, dynamics and double tonguing. 

Transforming Your Flute Playing During Rehearsals (or on the (blockiflute.com)

KW: Do you have other training tools that you have developed? 

This year our primary focus has been on finishing the development of the Flute Flex Pro tool. We are in the final stages and the steel molds are being made as we speak. Many prototypes have been made and tweaked to arrive at a final design. Most of my students use the prototypes and they have been super helpful to ensure a consistent position every time they pick up the flute. The fact that it has such a positive impact on their playing, makes all work and invest of developing this new tool worthwhile. 

KW: I really enjoy the Planning to Play In Tune book (https://www.blockiflute.com/Planning-to-Play-in-Tune_c_135.html). What’s the next one going to be?

KB: Thank you! I’m so glad you enjoy the Planning to Play in Tune book. It was helpful to get all those exercises of how to hear and tune with difference tones gathered into one book.

The Flute Zoo books (https://www.blockiflute.com/Flute-Zoo-Books_c_144.html) are our newest books. We’ve taken Blocki Flute book 1 and divided it into 4 books in the Flute Zoo series. It’s designed for 4-5th graders and below, but my adult beginners love it. We hired a full-time graphic designer to complete the project and my dear friend Molly Shortridge drew most of the pictures. The Flute Zoo series of seven books just won the 2022 NFA Newly Published Music Competition in the pedagogy category—the same competition the Blocki Flute method won in 1999. 

We poured out hearts into the Flute Zoo books, and there are about two hundred accompaniment tracks available on YouTube. When I was teaching Kinderflute in Taiwan, teachers said the Blocki flute books were too long for the younger kids. They were accustomed to using the shorter books like the “Little Mozart” series for teaching piano. This sparked the idea of developing shorter and more colorful books. The kids do get so excited when they graduate from Flute Zoo Book one and then get their certificates. They are motivated to get to the next book in the series and truly feel a sense of accomplishment. 

KW: This sounds similar to the organization of Suzuki books. 

KB: I have done some Suzuki training, but Kinderflute and the Flute Zoo books are quite different than the Suzuki books. I must say that I have great respect for the Suzuki teachers, and feel quite honored when Suzuki teachers take our KinderFlute teacher training class. They agree that it is a very different approach to teaching. 

When I took the Suzuki class, I was already an established teacher and I was planning on writing the Blocki flute book. I wanted to see what else was already out there. I also took classes in Dalcroze, because I wanted to understand different approaches for teaching music students.

The Blocki Flute and Flute Zoo books are comprehensive and include much embouchure training, note reading from the beginning, a strong emphasis on theory and five-note patterns. Our method of teaching rhythm is systematically planned so that even the rhythmically challenged students succeed. Each of the books have comprehensive teacher’s manuals and supplemental duet books so the teacher can play along with the students.

KW: How did you come across the work of Dr. John Ratey at Harvard? I’m familiar with his work on ADHD. I’m assuming you incorporated some of his suggestions about exercise and movement.

KB: Yes, I’ve incorporated that with Kinderflute, especially with the games that involve movement. My daughter was severely disabled, she had had strokes before she was born. She could not stand by herself. The main physical activity she could do was swimming while being held. The school district was going to deny her that, even though it was the only thing that she could do to fulfill the physical education requirement. 

This led me to investigate the importance of aerobic activity as it relates to brain development. I was intrigued by the work of Dr. John Ratey and his ground breaking research. This knowledge helped me secure swimming for my daughter, and I started incorporating his ideas into the Kinderflute classes. The more complicated the movement is while playing the games, the more it lights up the brain to maximize learning. After the movement activities, students’ brains are primed to best learn new concepts. The classes are set up to create a joyful environment to maximize learning potential. 

My final questions is if there is anything that you’re passionate about that you would like to include in the interview.

KB: Yes. I am wishing that I could tell my younger self to make connections. Why didn’t I go to study directly with Moyse? Why didn’t I go study with Arnold Jacobs? Jump on opportunities to learn from others. They’re not going to be around forever.

KW: Thank you for taking time to speak with me.

Kathy Blocki bio: https://www.blockiflute.com/About-Us_ep_7.html

  1. Hi Kelly! Thank you for doing such a great interview. It was so lovely to get to know you. I look forward to connecting again. Will you be at the NFA this year?

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