In over twenty years of playing the flute, I have started over three times. Three times – for weeks at a time – I alternated long periods of focusing on just the air with much shorter periods of actually blowing into the flute. Each time was different: once, it was tendonitis in my arms; another time, it was excess tension and overuse in the lips; then finally, it was the result of trying to align my body in a way that it wasn’t designed to be aligned. These rehabilitative periods prompted deep examination of the connections between the mechanisms of breathing, playing, thinking, reacting, emoting, stretching, and centering, and have profoundly influenced my performing and teaching.
The literature I read and put into practice (including Pedro Alcantara’s Indirect Procedures: A Musician’s Guide to the Alexander Technique, and particularly Robert Dick’s Tone Development through Extended Techniques) had been as significant to my recovery as my teachers’ patient optimism and disciplined care through those slow periods. My teachers at the time, Marzio Conti and Tara Helen O’Connor, not only continued to believe in me and my gifts, but also empowered me to realize that these slow periods were a golden opportunity toward achieving mastery. Complementing this support was my own experience of heightened awareness. What I did not expect from awareness was how it could seamlessly cultivate connections between disparate areas and improve the overall mechanism of playing and the quality of music making. For example, what could work for a violinist’s wrist during a clean bow stroke could work for my articulation if I anchored the tongue, or the buoyancy I felt in my knees while riding the subway could be reproduced on stage to release tension in the lower back and help enhance resonance. I believe that the potential for making these kinds of connections is the foundational purpose of a comprehensive university education.
These experiences have led me to emphasize in my teaching the importance of an integrated approach to playing that involves not just technique, not just tone, not just body alignment, but the whole person and that person’s experiences. I have found it equally important to ask questions about what kinds of thoughts a student is having prior to, during or after both a poorly executed passage and a well performed one. Critical thinking and creativity go hand in hand. It is the questions that open up curiosity, and that then access the door to solutions.
When teaching, I aim to help students improve their physical efficiency in playing the flute, to strengthen and refine practice skills, develop sensitive musicianship and artistry, as well as help them learn how to listen and to observe their own experience in order to help them become their own best teachers. Beyond mastery of the basics, I endeavor to help students experience direct musical communication within a supportive peer environment. In studio classes, I aim to support a student’s exposure to new perspectives on musical learning and encourage listening and understanding through attendance at student, faculty, guest artist, and other live concerts. As students discover and merge points of commonality among various disciplines to deepen their understanding of a work, I aim to provide the support a student needs to prepare for optimal public performance.
With these objectives in mind, the outcomes expected include improvements to a student’s physical freedom throughout practice and performance, the establishment of practice routines that promote maximum progress, and the advancing demonstration of musical and technical expertise. I expect students to be able to apply appropriate knowledge for interpreting the standard literature. I also expect students to show their support for peers, guests and professors through concert attendance, and to display professionalism in all areas. I expect students to tap into their transferable skills and apply them to music: for example, using analytical and research skills to find patterns in music that would give them an overall understanding of a work or etude, even if they possess a limited theory background; or to liken punctuation to a Baroque phrase structure.
Means of achieving objectives
To achieve these objectives, I first observe a student’s overall physical use (body use, embouchure, balance points, etc.) when playing the flute, assess strengths and determine any inefficiencies, and try to understand how these factors contribute to the music being made. If there are areas to improve, I ask the student about their experience playing, and determine how my evaluations connect with the student’s explanations. Heightening a student’s awareness of an area that needs attention can sometimes liberate those areas immediately. Sometimes further attention work is needed. To help a student make progress, I administer a personalized set of exercises from various sources that include work on harmonics, breathing, liaison slurs, tone development, various articulations, scales, arpeggios, etudes, sight-reading, speaking skills, singing (and sing/play), localized muscle releasing, analysis (including "chunking" and finding the structural "skeleton" of a passage), listening, use of imagery, use of self-recording, standard orchestral and band excerpts, and literature from the standard and emerging repertoire. I measure the effectiveness of the exercises or repertoire choices by listening to the quality of the sound and musical line, the atmosphere of the music created, and the overt quality of concentration during performance.
I believe that to really know how to teach, we must know how to perform and how to overcome obstacles to reach our fullest potential as musicians and people. I also believe that pursuing one’s deepest dream and vision is an education in and of itself. The ups are extremely important, and there is also much value in the downs of life that foster motivation and give birth to innovation, with the energy and audacity to pursue, and ultimately achieve, a particular goal, beyond what others, and sometimes, even one’s self, can believe is possible.