It’s the end of my first academic year as the Assistant Flute Professor at Bowling Green State University and I am celebrating with my three graduate students by taking them out to lunch. Claudia has just finished the second year of her DMA studies, Sarah will graduate tomorrow with her Master’s of Music degree in Flute Performance and Lauren has completed the first year of her Master’s. We’re also using this lunch to finish our pedagogy book discussion of Intelligent Music Teaching by Robert A. Duke. I am looking forward to talking with these three intelligent flutists about all they’re learning in the world of teaching, performing and becoming the musicians they dream of being.
We kick off the lunch discussion with the topic of “leaping back in sequence,” which means, instead of forcing multiple failed attempts during a student’s lesson, it’s much better to go all the way back to the last comfortable and accessible skill and work forward from there.
Claudia: You really have to go back, don’t you? Sometimes you might think it’s not necessary, but then you see how well it works when the students start over from scratch. I think that is the cleanest way you can teach. And the most honest!
Me: Exactly! It doesn’t get muddied with up with frustration about things not working.
Sarah: Yes! They’re practicing being confident while playing the easier version and then working with the reference of that good feeling.
Claudia: And I also like the easiness of it!
Me: Me, too! It also helps keep the focus on continuously upgrading fundamentals. It’s a great way to remember “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”
Claudia: I remembered that phrase that you use! I used that with a student last week. Her head was so full of Busy Brain and when I directed her to keep the main thing the main thing everything flowed so much better.
Me: I’m so glad. I got that phrase from a book called High Performance Habits by Brendon Burchard. Getting inspired by suggestions from authors like Robert Duke and Brendon Burchard can be so helpful in facilitating emotionally intelligent lessons. I do have to remember not to get Busy Brain myself though keeping track of all the good ideas!
Sarah: I really get that. That reminds me of Duke’s comments on assessment and his emphasis on doing more in lessons instead of talking too much. I’ve been part of countless masterclasses where there was so much talking and, especially if I’m nervous, I don’t always process everything. But when I get a chance to actually do the skills I walk away with tools I’m inspired to use on my own. Oh, and I wrote a note on the Assessment chapter about the phrase you use all the time … “What are you hearing me say?”
Me (laughing): Yes! I’ll never forget one of the first times I realized the importance of that question. I said to a student, “So you see, when you are truly present, breathing and willing to be fully involved in what you are doing, your vibrato and intonation are so beautiful!” After I asked, “what are you hearing me say?” the student replied, “I was sharp?”
We all laughed and agreed it’s so easy to think that we’re giving such wonderful information as teachers, but that without assessing what information is actually sinking in, the words themselves can be falling on deaf ears. I am pleased at the intelligent and thoughtful contributions these graduate students are each making to the discussion and marvel yet again, as I have countless times, how observant and mature they are. I am reminded in this moment how much I learn from my own students every time we interact.
Lauren: It also takes getting to know a student well. I am amazed at how their individual reactions to what I’m saying are totally unique. One might say “oh, that’s so cool!” while another may just have a small smile.
Claudia: Yes! I am learning more about that after reading the Feedback chapter. It’s about looking for that confirmation that they have learned something but also being more direct about communication in general. I’m working on not being afraid of that. In my country (Ecuador) we are so polite. We say please, maybe, perhaps … everything is often sugar coated. Of course it is still important to be respectful, but negative or constructive feedback needs to be clearly understood too. If you don’t go directly to the point, especially a young student may not really understand what you are trying to teach them.
Me: That reminds me of our book from last semester! Remember the T E A C H acronym in The Natty Professor by Tim Gunn? The T is for Truth-telling. Truth-telling and constructive feedback go hand in hand. I think the challenge is providing clear and direct feedback about what’s not working and then immediately pivoting to what would work instead. You guys know I’m all about Hocus Pocus Focus . That’s why I use silly umbrella terms like “weird” for what’s not working instead of a potentially accusatory feeling statement like “your vibrato is too heavy, too wide, pushing you out of tune and out of the style.” I just say, “okay, that vibrato was weird!” Let’s work on a more shimmering, in tune and stylistic vibrato that really helps this moment shine.
We take a break to eat and share memories about this past school year. With me from Texas, Claudia from Ecuador, Sarah from North Dakota and Lauren from California, we laugh at our adventures with Ohio weather and how amazing it’s been to be a part of the BGSU College of Musical Arts. Each of them has given beautiful and inspiring performances this year and my respect for them as musicians grows each time I hear them perform.
Me: So getting back to our discussion, I am loving how all of you seem to understand what a difference it makes to be fully present, always scanning and offering feedback along with assessing what is and isn’t working. It’s different from just telling students what to do and instructing them to “go do that.” I’ve heard flute teachers complain about students wanting to be spoonfed, but when that craving arises, I see it as a clue that fundamental skills are lacking.
Lauren: I want my students to be able to continue learning and teaching on their own. So it might seem like spoonfeeding, but they need the basics in order to be independent learners!
Me: I completely agree. Leaping back in sequence and rolling up your sleeves to facilitate true understanding in a small section of music is not so much spoonfeeding as filling in fundamental gaps in their relationship with music.
Claudia: Yes, that happened with another one of my students recently. At first she was frustrated and sounded “weird” (we laughed), but then I helped her focus on one small thing in one small moment and she began to truly understand the concept! It built her confidence so much and she came to her next lesson more prepared than ever. Finding that thing that makes it click or spark is so important.
Me: Absolutely. Finding that spark is the most important thing!
Sarah: What are your strategies for finding that thing that will click or spark? For finding ways that will make it connect? Sometimes I feel like when I’m teaching, I’m just going through this process because I can’t find that one thing.
Me: Well, in some ways, there are wildly different strategies for a grad student versus a freshman for instance. But in many other ways, it’s all the same. An overarching theme for me is my almost obsessive focus on my student’s superpowers. I’m like a dog with bone. Once I know what they’re capable of (superpower) I’m not going to settle for anything less than that ever again. Since I’m obsessed, that dictates every step of the process and often results in other skills rising up to meet the level of their superpower.
Sarah: What about for challenging students? Or when their superpowers aren’t obvious?
Me: Well, I believe that our weaknesses are our superpowers in disguise, but I understand seeing those is sometimes tricky. One of my strategies is to never get cocky or assume I know what I’m doing. I keep in mind that, not only am I a brand new person since the last lesson, but the student is also a brand new person. They’ve had new life experiences, new classes, new practice sessions, listened to more music, etc. I’m not going to be so arrogant as to assume I understand them, because both of us are new since the last time we interacted with each other. Since I “fresh start” in every lesson, it helps me see potential superpowers more clearly.
I am pleased that I am getting one more opportunity to discuss pedagogy with Sarah before she heads out into the real world of music business, performance and designing her musical life. The conversation shifts to creativity and then the importance of taking breaks from the constant daily grind of work in order to refill the creative well.
Claudia: If you are able to take a break from practicing and look at a painting, appreciate the colors, go for a walk, smell the air … get inspired … then you can transfer that to the music!
Lauren: It’s good to be like children and take in every sensation. Though, it’s kind of hard sometimes when we get lost in the mundane tasks of everyday life. It’s easy to become desensitized to all the little things that make us human. The things that make us and our art special. Maybe that’s why breaks are so important!
Sarah: Taking breaks, relaxing, reconnecting to creativity … that reminds me of a lesson I taught to an undergrad while you were out of town, Dr. Sánchez. She was stressed out about the high notes in her scales, but I had her sit on the piano bench and take things really slowly. She relaxed so much and everything started working.
Me: That was a fantastic idea! Especially for flutists, relaxation is essential. When we relax, the muscles in our throat soften, our breathing is more natural and we begin to sound more effortlessly beautiful. When you had her sit on the piano bench and relax, she switched from a vicious cycle of judgment and tension to a virtuous cycle of enjoying her sound and thinking more clearly.
Sarah: That makes a lot of sense!
Me: That reminds me when you played in the dark yesterday, Lauren. It was so gorgeous!
Lauren: Yes, I’ve been realizing how much lighting and environment makes a difference. The dark atmosphere inspired me and playing was so much easier.
Claudia: We’ve got to experiment and try things in different ways. Helping students feel comfortable in lessons completely changes things.
Me: You are so right. Then again, there’s that balance we need to strike. Comfort and creativity are incredible tools, but we are also preparing them for the adrenaline and demands of performing in front of a live audience. We have to be willing to try new things and connect to an individual student’s needs, but remember to help them acquire the tools they need to handle any situation, no matter how uncomfortable. Teaching is never boring, is it?
Claudia: So true!
Lauren: It all comes back to sensitization doesn’t it? Trying different things in lessons opens up different pathways.
Me: Like when I put my hands on your back so you could breathe into them!
Lauren: Yes! And then when I stood behind you and heard your sound from a different direction it was so helpful. I use that with my students now too.
We all have busy schedules as usual, so we start wrapping up our discussion out of necessity. I am meeting with both Lauren and Claudia soon to do more work on hand positions and as we are chatting about this, the topic of breaking old habits arises. Our ongoing conversation about letting go of Busy Brain and being open to new ideas prompts Lauren to ask for a clarification.
Lauren: I know you’ve mentioned that it’s sometimes more challenging for older and more experienced students to change habits and that letting go of Busy Brain is even more essential, but is there a way to keep what we’ve already learned and incorporate the new ideas? How do we know what to keep and what to let go?
Me: There is a way to know! You just have to ask yourself, “Does the way I’m approaching this sound good and feel good?” For instance, when you had that really challenging trill in the Maslanka Quintet No. 3, did your left hand position feel good?
Lauren (laughing): No, it worked, but it actually ended up hurting!
Me: There’s your answer. If what you’re doing sounds and feels good, feel free to keep your ideas and simply enhance them with new concepts as you learn them. If not, it’s probably smart to wipe the slate clean and be willing to try something completely different.
Lauren: So how do you try the new thing without accumulating Busy Brain?
Me: By letting go of analysis paralysis and creating simple practice routines that allow you to connect with the world of sound and feeling. When you don’t rush or force results, you won’t be tempted to overthink shoulds and shouldn’ts. Allowing yourself the time and space to simply enjoy repetitions and exploration is what practicing is really about!
On the surface, it was a simple book discussion and celebration lunch, but it ended up being a memory that I know will change me as a teacher forever. I did my best to teach Claudia, Sarah and Lauren this year, but they may not realize how much they taught me. I left our lunch humbled, honored and inspired more than ever by the art and magic of teaching.
Interested in studying with Dr. Terri Sánchez at the BGSU College of Musical Arts? Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information!