Day 35, 19 April 2020

About flutes, learning, and teaching

Today in a twitter conversation with Dr. Rob von Thaden, I ended up encouraging him to check out local music lessons, and learn to play the instrument he’s been dreaming off for a while now. I have just the right blog post to show the additional benefits of learning to play from scratch. So, Rob, this one is for you! It was hiding in my drafts on my other blog, but it turns out it belongs more here, since it’s about teaching. I hope you enjoy it! (And sign up for music lessons already!)


Those of you who’ve known me for more than 20 mins have at some point had to listen to me boring you to death with everything flute. I can’t help it. This instrument found its way into my life in a very unexpected manner. First the repertoire, then the idea of learning to play it myself. It was a different kind of Yamaha I was envisioning compared to most who try to combat a mid-life crisis…

I’ve also joked over the past few years that nobody in the Berlin flute section needs to worry about their job… yet. I started taking lessons again in September 2018, and after only three sessions I found the “on” button on my flute every now and then. Dammit it feels good when that happens! If only I could do it every single session from the start through, and my fingers would move along fast enough to keep up…, then they’d have something to worry about in Berlin.

Since I started learning to play in January 2016, I found an unexpected side-effect is that it also keeps me honest as a teacher. It is so easy to forget what it is like to be a student, but knowing what that feels like is for me essential to being the best teacher I can be.


1. Being a student is nerve-wracking. I’m nervous as I walk into my first class with my new teacher. It always happens. I am always nervous before giving a talk, before an interview, even before walking into my first class of the semester for a course I have taught before, but I can hide it so well that people have commented on my lack of nerves. With the flute, I can’t hide it: the instrument shakes, my grip is tense; the sound comes out muffled and I can’t get anywhere near the high notes. After a few lessons, things get better. (I also remember not to drink coffee in the afternoon.)

Students are nervous when they walk into that classroom, or into my office. I’d like to think I’m not scary, but welcoming, and I offer as evidence the crowd of regulars who visit my drop-in tutorials for “tea and history”, but I also know that many of them are a bit (or a lot) nervous when speaking in class or visiting my office. It is no use telling them to relax, just like I know I can’t stop myself in my flute lessons from getting nervous. There is always a fear of the judgement that comes with putting yourself out there. “Will the teacher like this idea? Am I doing it right? Will it go as well as it went when I practiced this presentation at home?” Add to that the power dynamic that I am giving a grade to the students at the end of the semester which, at least for a brief time in their lives, will have a real impact, and it’s much easier to understand where it comes from. I can only hope that after a few classes, like myself, they can ease into the history of East Asia and feel less nervous, and we can get on with building an intellectual exchange.

2. It’s frustrating not to know things. I am not playing a lot of repertoire (yet), but what I have takes me into the Baroque and early classical tradition. I know enough to know there are differences for how you’re supposed to do trills and grace notes but I don’t know how to do them, and that when I move out of this era I’ll have to do something with vibrato and that it’s easy to do it badly and sound like a goat. I need to be patient, but for now: I know I am not playing where the music asks to be, but I don’t know what to do about it.

How often don’t I say in class “Ah, yes, but it’s more complicated than that,” after a student offers an interpretation. There is only so much time I have with them, when there is a lifetime of discovery of nuances, additional information and scholarship to bring to the questions we investigate. It must be frustrating for them to hear this time and again. I tried to give more information- either through lectures or with more readings, but that only leads to information overload, and they have not enough time to process what I throw at them. Instead, I now opt (where I can) for less content, but covering the material in more depth. The students also know there are plenty of things we don’t cover in class, but they also get a sense of how complex the small part is that we do look at, and if all goes well, they acquire the tools and skills to dive deeper into other topics themselves.

3. It’s frustrating not to be able to do things.

“I’m playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order” Morecambe to Andrew “Preview” Previn in the immortal Morecambe and Wise sketch

“I’m playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order!” Morecambe’s quip to Previn is the story of my flute-life. It’s C-D-B in that triplet, not B-D-C. I go through it again, and again, in isolation from the rest of the piece, until I get it right a few times in succession, then I add the previous triplet. I’ll have to do it again tomorrow. I keep missing the augmented sixth and seventh in the melodic minor scales on the way up. I put the book with scales in front of me. Darn it, I should be able to play this by now, after the entire summer practicing the scales in Taffanel and Gaubert! I can hear it’s not right, and yet I play it wrong.

It’s Qianlong, not Quianlong. It’s the Hundred Days’ Reform, not the Hundred Years, and the “Mandate of Heaven” is the concept we saw four weeks ago but they can’t remember the name. But then how can I expect students to memorize straight away strange names, locations and novel concepts if they’ve only just encountered them a few weeks ago, maybe only once, in the noise of all the other courses they take? I only can tell them to slow down and revise, practice it a few times, until they get it right a few times in succession and it is cemented in their head. I must also accept that not all of them are as bitten by Chinese history as I am by flute music, and that some are unlikely to want to spend the time necessary to get all the letters in the right order just to please me. But some express frustration at their initial inability to come to terms with historical procesess that feel very different to “our” history. They can tell there is something off in their analysis, like I hear the wrong note, but they can’t always fix it then and there. It’s called learning, and we need to accept that it involves failing, making mistakes, and if you want to get it right, you’ll have to rewrite that essay.

4. Regular, dedicated practice leads to investment on return. You can’t just pick up a flute and be good at it. Neither can you pick up a flute, practice for 3 hours straight, leave it for 5 days, and then expect to make progress. Crafts and skills, among them languages and music, require regular and dedicated investment of time and effort if you want to become good at them. Dedicated targeted practice means setting those SMART goals and working out a plan to get there. (Near) daily practice also means that you can have a bad day, write it off, and they try again the next day. You don’t have to hit top-level every single time, and even the bad sessions will contribute to growth.

My First Year Seminar is a bit like providing incentives for daily practice for beginning college writers. The aim of the Seminar is to get students acquainted with analytical reading and writing at college level. A lot of the assignments are not graded, but I set them up as “practice”, without grading until the students had a chance to review their work towards the end of the semester. By then they will have a nice portfolio of pieces that shows their growth as writers. The only way to become good at writing for college courses is to write, and the seminar provides a safe space for experimenting with a genre that is new to most of them. In other courses, too, I provide opportunities for rewrites, or doing the same type of assignment at least two times, so students get a chance to get the hang of it, and incorporate feedback. I am always trying to find ways to make them spend more time with the material we cover in the courses, without burdening myself with more grading, but it’s not easy. Yet regular engagement with the course materials is what they need to familiarize themselves with all this new stuff, and master it.

5. It’s exciting to learn new things. Discovering the repertoire is one of the great joys in my musical life, and since starting to play flute myself I play “spot the flute” in orchestral music and opera, and there are some fine lines out there for the flute, that I never realized existed and I keep adding to my bucket list. But even better is when I’m practicing and finally get all the notes in the right order, when I hit the right tone and the silver sings without effort: when I play music, not notes. If you’ve ever finished a long hard run strong, or pushed the “send” button on a submission before the deadline, you know the feeling. It’s when things connect to make something that is bigger than the individual pieces of effort that went into it.

Every now and then I see it happen in class: a student’s face reveals they just had a sudden revelation, the dots are connecting and everything is falling into place. That moment may also come when they make a discovery in a small research project; when we get into a conversation about the readings during drop-in tutorials; or even simply when they send me a link to something connected to class they saw on the web and they know I’d share the excitement of their find. Frustrations melt away in an extremely empowering moment: it’s sheer and unadulterated joy, the feeling of knowing things, the excitement of encountering new things and knowing where they fit. It’s not just names and dates, but doing history. And as a teacher, it’s what I live for.

I disassemble my flute and clean it out before packing it away for the day. Today was another good session, but it took some warming up to get there. If I knew how to switch it “on”, I wouldn’t fool around the first twenty minutes and get straight to the full sound I now know I can reach even in the high register. And then I realize that’s another thing: I need to give students some time to get warmed up, and settled into “history class mode” before we can hit those high notes. But we know we can get there. I keep learning…

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