Diagnostic Devils


When ascertaining what is holding a student back, it is important to listen to others for advice, but come to your own conclusions based on your observations.  


I recently did a masterclass at a local elementary school.  The band teacher asked me to come in to work with two advanced beginner students.  “I can’t get them to use their air correctly,” the band director told me.  I psyched myself up for lessons on air use.  I had breathing exercises printed up, which I typically do anyway, no matter what the class, because, of course, as woodwinds breathing is fundamental to us.  I brought special tools for breathing discussions:  my breathing bag and pnuemo pro.  The pneumo pro is a great device. It is shaped like a plastic flute head piece, but makes no sound. As the student blows across the hole, they must direct air down and up to spin different levels of fans connected to a plastic piece across from the embouchure hole.  In this case, I wanted to test the students on whether they were aiming the air low enough to get a full sound. 


I got to the class, and soon learned I had prepared in the wrong direction myself.  We discussed diaphragmatic breathing and air use.  I borrowed internet teaching sensation Nina Perlove’s coffee cup analogy about using too much air at once.  You can keep getting bigger and bigger coffee containers , but if you spill the coffee out all at once every time, you are still left with no coffee.  The students listened politely.  I tested them with the pneumo-pro and they had no problems with air direction. What was it that the teacher was talking about?  When I finally asked the students to do actual playing, that is when I had my a-ha moment.  They were holding the flutes awkwardly and turning in a lot!  This of course smothered any sounds they were making. I had them both simply line up their flutes-embouchure hole lined up with keys.  Then we discussed holding the flute using three points of balance:  The left forefinger’s segment below the knuckle against the side, the right thumb more against the side of the flute rather than poking out under the keys, and the lip plate against the lip.  When these fundamentals were attended to, the students did much better with the air they were already using. Sometimes what seems like one problem is actually masked by a more fundamental problem. In this case, the students were using their air well, but got puny sounds because their headjoints weren’t lined up and they were turned in. 


 Like doctors do with medical patients, flute teachers need to diagnose their students’ problems.  Just remember, it sometimes takes some close observation to uncover the real culprits!       


How I use fun and pride to motivate my flute students


Introduction to myself-please read first!

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