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Why Are We Doing This Again?

At this point in my life, I’ve been a teacher for 32 years. My current flute students range in age from 14 to 86 and I have a new class of undergraduates in my Intro to Body Mapping course at Oberlin Conservatory each semester. I was shocked, though, a few months back, to discover that one of my long time students had no idea why I had been assigning variations on the same exercise for a year. This grabbed my attention because I realized that while the long term goal was crystal clear to me, it was non-existent for my student. I realized that I was only doing part of my job as the teacher, if I didn’t clearly articulate how the techniques that they are learning are actually used. I’ve started to ask my students, “Why are we doing this again?” frequently during their lessons or class time.

“Why are we doing these movement explorations again?”
When my college students are doing different movement explorations during class, the answer to this question might be, “Because we are experiencing all the different ways our spine can move on purpose,” rather than, “Because you told us to do this.” The next question is, “Why do we want to know what it’s like to have our spines moving on purpose?” and the answer is, “Because music is a whole body activity and if we’re trying to hold still, then we’re using extra muscular effort, which means those muscles can’t do their music making jobs.” Ultimately, learning to move well without the instrument builds awareness and that transfers back to actually making music with the instrument in hand. That’s the long-term goal.

“Why are we doing these harmonics again?”
For my flute students, this means understanding all of the ways that practicing harmonic exercises can help. They help improve flexibility of the embouchure, they require that the air speed and direction are exactly right. They require that the middle of the bottom lip is engaged, as well as the middle of the top lip. This is what I had been saying, but it really wasn’t that engaging for them. The long-term answer is so that they can consistently nail it when they have a jump up or down to a high note. We are looking to build consistency over time, which is something that they desire. I have started to have them practice using harmonics during lessons; for example, if there’s a big skip up to an E and F# above the staff, I have them use low E and F# fingerings and overblow when executing the skip.Then we go back to the regular fingerings and the notes just pop out because the embouchure is in the right place because they can’t cheat and still make the harmonic speak. Somehow, there was a disconnect between learning to actually do the harmonic and then learning to use it as a tool to make something better in the music.

My students do a lot of Ghost Harmonics, which I learned from Angelita Floyd’s book about studying with Geoffrey Gilbert. If you are unfamiliar with this technique, start with a high E fingering. Keeping the fingers the same, can you get a middle and a low sound out? They will be out of tune and that’s ok. What’s important is the change of air stream.The full pattern is high note, middle, low, middle, high. Generally, the problem is getting the middle one at all, and then moving from the middle one back to the high note. I have my students do Eb up to A.  What are we doing this again? Same answers as in the paragraph above, but there’s a bonus for this one. High E and F# tend to crack a lot. If they really listen carefully, they can diagnose their own problem. If they’re trying to play high E and the middle ghost harmonic comes out, then they know that their air stream was usually aimed a teeny bit too low or the air speed was a teeny bit too low. 

It’s up to us, as the teachers, to connect the dots. We teach the techniques, but also need to explicitly teach how to actually use them. I’ve found that repetition needs to be frequent and consistent. We cannot assume that our students always know what to do with the information that we’re giving them. Ultimately, the goal is that our students become capable of delivering musically engaging performances on their own and become appreciators and intelligent listeners of all types of music.

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