Friday, February 06, 2015

Is one month of lessons enough to assess?

I'm an adult beginner flutist, switching from years of another woodwind instrument. I have a highly recommended young teacher, and have had a month of lessons, but it seems that we're not covering the types of things I read about on your blog/website. I actually learned more in 24 hrs. from reading your site than I learned in four lessons!
Do you think I need a different teacher (one with more adult-beginner-due-to-woodwind-switching experience)?
My current teacher had me playing some high notes, which I read aren't really appropriate for beginners. What do you think?

Jen's Answer:

Hi there, thanks for the questions. They are indeed very good ones.
It's difficult to know.....perhaps you need a teacher with more experience with 'adult beginners who already play another instrument'. Or maybe you should wait another month or more before assessing fully your current teacher.
 I have some thoughts to share. They might help you assess. :>)

The first few months of any new teacher with a new adult flute beginner can be quite random-feeling.

An experienced teacher often needs about ten lessons to really learn about their student. These are things like:

- how they learn
- how much they practice
- how they practice
- what they already understand vs. new information to be assimilated over time
- what their physical strengths and weaknesses are on the instrument
- what their intellectual and emotional state (individual fingerprints, all of us) is like to work with
- how to establish trust and rapport (important for smooth communication)

So, when I'm teaching a new adult student (and I often teach adult beginners on flute who already play another instrument very well) I often wait and see for the first ten lessons or so, to find out how to effectively direct the teaching, based on each individual student.

So it may be that you're experiencing a feeling of "hodge podge" lessons when in fact it's only natural that it takes time to develop a workable flute program for you as an individual.

It's also possible that an inexperienced teacher is acting "hodge podge" because they haven't taught many other beginners similar to yourself. They may be finding their way.
This last point is what needs to be decided, and will take more time.


An adult beginner who already plays another instrument well may have misconceptions that they are transferring over from their other instrument that do not work well on flute.


- pianist force their fingers down too hard
- clarinetists unconsciously use mouth shapes that don't work well on flute
- oboists use too much blowing pressure and feel downright strange playing on a flute with "no resistance".
- trumpeters may tongue or shape their mouths in an unusual way (tongue supported embouchure, or "Tut" articulations that don't work on flute) etc.

So in the first ten lessons or so, these habits must be redirected and changed.
That can take time as the student is unaware of what they're transferring from their other instrument practices.

Thirdly: No two flute beginners are alike.

Some beginners get high notes on their first tries on the flute. Others get low notes.
Both find the opposite "difficult" at first.

During the first year or two the adult flute beginner may need to make many failed efforts to play the register that they don't naturally play easily.

It is more common to be able to easily play low notes at first, and to find the high notes blasty, fuzzy, screechy, and difficult to sustain.

And of course, it's a bad idea to force a student to play high note exercises before they are ready with their posture, breathing, fingering and everything else that beginners need to solidify before high register starts to develop more easily.

But, if the student needs a few free-time experiments with high notes to show them how to move their air faster, or how to blow more sustainedly, or how to blow more freely, playing random high notes from high to time eases them into the high register.

Yes, it's difficult and blasty at first, but a few forays into the high are a good idea.

An opposite problem happens when a caring teacher tries too hard to keep a student in the safer low register for too long. In this case a beginner can become too comfortable in the low register and put off learning to blow with more air-speed or to blow more sustainedly or more freely.
They might then play everything with a low register speed and embouchure, and find the high register "too scary" because it's so different from the low.
In some cases, kept in the low register too long, they become paralysed by perfectionism and will not "try" the high register without "over trying" or without self-criticism for the first few squawks and blasts.

So it's actually more dangerous to insist the student stay away from high notes for too long.

Yes, they need to solidify the low register, and make the tone and pitch and placement stronger over their first year, but this is not to say that they are not also strengthened by SOME high register playing.
It's best to occasionally investigate the high a few times a week, just to note how it's gradually becoming easier, and to adapt early on to the changes (fast air, more forward embouchure) as a beginner, rather than to delay it too long.


It's possible that your new teacher is indeed covering all this knowledgably, and you are just finding out more details by reading my blog, details that you may use in the coming months.

So, maybe you just need to explore all this with your current teacher over time.

Also, in order to make any judgement, I'd have to actually hear the lesson or see the lesson.

I can't tell that the teacher is not adapting to your needs, or that the teacher isn't aware of the true path of a beginner through his or her own inexperience.

A good idea would be to record one lesson on video or audio-recording and to listen back to it at home to see and hear the bigger picture.

Some examples of surprises I've found in the past with new students:

I've had adult first year flute students who:

- for some reason were sitting down on a chair to practice flute (because they'd previously played seated for their other instrument), and did not wish to experiment with standing to play flute which, (as those familiar with the Psoas muscle and how it attaches to the lungs will know) gives faster lung support.
Result: This student found high register extra difficult because of delaying standing to play flute.

- came to every lesson full of questions but never actually wanted to play their flute in the lesson; the entire time was filled with intellectual questions, (and perhaps a fear of failure of actually playing in front of me).

- spent too much time reading books on the flute/articles on the net, and over-analysed every aspect. This led to over-detailed self-analysis which led to embouchure and hand tension as they continued to ignore advice on relaxing while holding and playing the instrument, and instead sought to do EVERYTHING "correctly". Result: too tense to play easily and well.

- wanted to play hard music immediately with no slow and sensible steps toward it; just kept switching to another difficult piece every week, and abandoning what was taught the week before.

etc. etc.

So, as you can easily see, it's a slow and careful process to deal with each new student, as they all are complete individuals with different skills, different sense-of-self-in-space-and-time, and different preconceptions, misapprehensions etc.

So, yes, the teacher may not be experienced, but they may also be dealing with a set of variables that has not yet smoothed the way forward...
Let patient observation be your guide. :>)
And by all means record your lessons.

Hope this helps.

Comments very welcome, just use the comment button below. Thanks.

Comments (4)
Blogger KnittingToInfinity said...

I found this helpful. I am teaching my first flute student, a 12-year-old girl who has had a few years of piano. We just had our 10th lesson. I never did much reading about flute technique before, but since I started giving lessons I have gleaned a lot of helpful things from your blog that have also improved my own tone.

Saturday, February 07, 2015 6:55:00 AM

Blogger jen said...

Thanks for the comment KnittingMeadow (I knit too! :>)
More new teacher advice here too:

Best, Jen

Saturday, February 07, 2015 9:05:00 AM

Blogger Christina said...

Great response! I also teach adult learners and they are so self-aware that sometimes they resist progress only because it's different or because they are afraid of failure. Teaching the adult population is definitely a bit different than the young folks, but they can do great things. Trusting the teacher is so important! And you are right that developing a good rapport is essential for maximum progress!

Saturday, February 07, 2015 1:51:00 PM

Blogger jen said...

Thanks for your corroboration, Christina! Jen

Saturday, February 07, 2015 2:58:00 PM


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