When I stop and think about what it is that I find most meaningful about teaching at the collegiate level, it is the one-on-one time that I share with my students, not only working through repertoire, but hearing their personal stories and professional aspirations. Whether my students are celebrating accomplishments or struggling through disappointments, it is this individual attention that makes our lessons together so rewarding. With that in mind and regardless of which field they enter, my students must also be musically, academically, and professionally prepared, and they must feel confident that our work together has helped them reach their full potential. The foundation in my teaching comes from three basic approaches: first, understanding and contemplating the artistry in music; second, mastering the instrument itself through proven methodology and processes; and finally, assessing student success not only to attain larger goals musically but also to ensure that they are professionally competitive.
The Artistry of Music
It would be impossible to begin writing about a teaching philosophy without first commenting on the important task of teaching artistry. In many ways, I love to speak about music as art in motion: the way the colors move through sound, the way the voices change and multiply, the complex interplay between musical lines and players, and the resulting rich musical legacy that has accompanied human history.
As a player, my emphasis has always been on the beauty and expressive qualities of sound as the foundation to all playing, whether virtuosic or lyrical. There are two great inspirations that inform my approach to sound:
1. In any form of art, whether visual or musical, it is the skilled manipulations of colors and textures that make the art come to life. Legendary teacher Joseph Mariano once spoke of the fundamentals of sound as a three-legged stool held up by dynamics, vibrato, and focus. Much like the primary colors in art, the mastery and artful execution of these three simple concepts can lead to infinite possibilities in communicating both the sublime and the powerful in music.
2. In terms of sound production, there is no greater model than a singer. It is my strong belief that a beautiful sound cannot exist when there is overall tension in the body. Much like a singer, the way we breathe, support our air, and hold our bodies have a greater impact on our sound than the flute itself. A relaxed and balanced posture contributes greatly to the release of tension and allows the body to be open and play more freely. A natural approach to playing becomes almost therapeutic, challenging us to work with the body rather than against it, and improving every aspect of playing, from technique to projection to vibrato.
In addition, the warmth and clarity of the voice, as well as the remarkable range of expression and lyricism, are an artistic inspiration, as well. Jan DeGaetani, Jessye Norman, and many other singers raise the bar for us as musicians in every way. I highly encourage my students to listen to, and collaborate with, singers, and I also suggest practicing vocal repertoire in transcriptions and in books, like Marcel Moyses Tone Development through Interpretation.
In the Wheaton College Conservatory of Music Flute Studio, the flutists take great pride in being exceptional players, whether they are a performance or an academic major. One of the great challenges and joys I have in teaching is to determine the most effective way to reach each student. However, within this individualized approach, three basic components structure all of my lessons.
1. A conceptual approach, requiring frequent musical demonstrations and an emphasis on creativity including imaginative discussions about musical phrasing, colors in sound, and artistry.
2. A cerebral, intellectual understanding of music in concrete terms, with a strong emphasis on history and theory, including rhythm, harmonies, and musical structures.
3. An emphasis on fundamentals, including exercises in tonal control and expressivity, technical etudes, articulation exercises, scales, and arpeggios.
Strategy is essential to the development of the skilled musician. The issue of pacing is often discussed in sports, especially as athletes prepare to be at their peak level of performance at just the right moment. The same principal holds true in music, as well. Without question, time in the practice room contributes to success on stage. However, the pacing of this preparation must be carefully directed to achieve the most benefit while preventing injuries. For example, a student may have the equivalent of six years of work to do during a four-year undergraduate degree program in order to be competitive when it comes time to apply for graduate schools during senior year. On a smaller scale, the pacing of practicing can determine success in everything from juries to competitions. Careful attention to long- and short-term goals also helps the performer to learn repertoire more completely while managing nerves and avoiding panic on stage.
In my own experience, I have found that a balanced approach to music includes work both in and out of the practice room. This includes, work in the academic classroom, as well as careful study of scores and recordings. Academic work gives students the ability to understand music within a much broader context culturally, historically, and analytically as well as artistically. Also, a strong academic background gives students greater flexibility should they choose to pursue a career outside of performing.
Throughout the years, it has served my students well to have prescribed performance competencies. Although choices of repertoire can vary according to students tastes, I strongly believe that there is a core set of pieces, etudes, and exercises that each student should play. Additionally, juries and recitals help students to assess whether they are reaching certain standards in their playing. I also believe that it is imperative that students pursue competitions, professional opportunities, and summer festivals off campus to help them understand the competitive market they are entering.
My Purpose in Teaching
The truth is that I really love teaching, and I consider it an honor and privilege to work alongside my students during this particular phase of their lives. There is a certain sense of self-discovery that comes from studying any form of art, but the daily discipline of being a musician makes music such a vital part of our lives, that it feels as natural, and as essential, as breathing. For some, this love of music will leadto a clear desire to perform professionally and pursue a career on stage. For others, it will lead them to study the academic side of music, perhaps in history, theory, arts administration, or education. For others still, music will become the respite in their lives as they raise families and pursue careers in completely different fields. Regardless, my purpose in teaching is to help my students discover their own unique talents and gifts, use these gifts to enrich their own lives and the lives of others, and to simply enjoy a lifelong love of music.