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Lessons on Lessons

by Clint Goss, April 17, 2012

This article appeared in Voice of the Wind, 2012, Volume 2.

If you mess around with flutes long enough, someday you’ll find yourself giving a lesson. It might be to help out a first-time flute player at a festival, coaching novice players at a flute circle, or something more formal such as a class presentation. But whatever the context, there are some basic guidelines to making the transition from player to teacher that we will look at in this article.

Unlike formal school programs, flute lessons come in many shapes and sizes. There are one-on-one lessons and group classes. These can be single sessions, multiple sessions over several days, periodically throughout a semester, or done occasionally over a long timeframe. And unlike formal school programs that assume all students have a quantifiable background in a lock-step program of learning, Native American flute students arrive with vastly different musical and life backgrounds. They also have a wide range of goals. Combine that with your own specific background and approach to the instrument, and the teaching possibilities are endless.

How People Learn

Given all these teaching scenarios, it’s useful to look at some of the basics of how people learn. The generally accepted model is that we have a limited “working memory” (or “short-term memory”) in which to take in new information and actively solve problems. Meaningful observations and problem solutions move into our vast store of long-term memory that grows into our mental representation of the world ([Atkinson-RC 1968]). This world-model, co-created with our environment, enables us to recall solutions to real-world problems by finding matching situations from long-term memory, without burdening our limited working memory in problem-solving. This is seen when chess players recall board configurations from long-term memory rather than puzzling through each move (see [deGroot 1965], [Chase-WG 1973], and [Burns-BD 2004] The Effects of Speed on Skilled Chess Performance). I believe that we see it when a flute riff is called upon as a single learned unit, or when appropriate ornaments just emerge at appropriate places in our melodies.

A widely accepted theory of learning says that learners can only construct a mental representation of the world through engaging in active cognitive processing (see [DAngelo 2009] Constructivism for an overview of Constructivism). You can’t open a student’s brain and pour in the information – they must process it through an active process that engages the mind. Or, in the famous quote from Confucius: “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand”.

Building Blocks

The extreme limitations on working memory mean that new information can only be absorbed in small chunks. For example, if someone is interested in learning to play a “pop” ornament, typically used at the end of a melodic phrase, you might break it down into several components. Since it involves breath articulation and finger dexterity together, you can work on each skill separately:

  • Have them say “what”. Then transition to breathing the “what” without vocalizing it, cutting off the air flow as their tongue clamps to the roof of their mouth.
  • Practice the new skill.
  • Then get used to the finger motion of going from Finger diagram closed closed closed closed closed closed to Finger diagram open open closed open open open in one motion, without breath and sound.
  • Practice this new skill.
  • Then combine the two new skills in one “pop” ornament.
  • Practice the combined skill in isolation.
  • Practice playing short phrases that end in a “pop”.

This is the “building block” approach to lesson plans, based on the assembly of solutions from a solid foundation of learned sub-solutions. As knowledge and skills increase, the base expands, supporting further learning.

The goal in teaching the “pop” ornament is not only to wire the complex finger and breath motions into long-term memory, but to associate them with the sound and feel of the ornament. I believe that the association with the sound works in reverse when we are playing, causing us to “hear in our mind” the sound that we want and also causing the ornament to appear in our music, not by conscious thought but by an association between sound and the finger/breath motions in long-term memory.

And excellent background in the best-practices of learning is provided from an unlikely source: the Federal Aviation Administration. Their Aviation Instructor’s Handbook ([FAA 2008] Aviation Instructor’s Handbook) provides a practical roadmap for experts in a field (commercial pilots) who have no background in education. The 1977 version of that handbook was my constant companion when training to be a flight instructor, and those same skills transfer beautifully to teaching music.

One element emphasized by the Aviation Instructor’s Handbook is lesson plans. The outline of teaching a pop ornament is a good example — an outline for teaching a skill. Developing these approaches and outlines takes time. But as your interest in teaching grows, you’ll start asking yourself “how could I teach that?” Simply developing a mental plan for how you might teach something will begin to build up a mental library for teaching the myriad elements of the Native American flute as well as music in general.

Fully-Guided versus Partially-Guided Instruction

A major debate in education over the last 50 years centers on how students learn most efficiently. The approach of fully-guided instruction advocates providing the student with full, explicit instructional guidance – providing demonstrations and direct guidance for the proper or best way to accomplish a task. The various partially-guided approaches to instruction (including discovery learning, problem-based learning, inquiry learning, experiential learning, and constructivist learning) are designed to provide partial or minimal instructional guidance and expect students to discover some or all of the concepts and skills on their own. Partially-guided advocates take the view that students do best when they construct their mental world model through guided self-discovery.

Significant effort has been put into researching these techniques, and some educators have recently declared that the debate is over: fully-guided instruction is more efficient and has the best long-term results ([Clark-RE 2012] Putting Students on the Path to Learning: The Case for Fully Guided Instruction and [Kirschner 2006]).

However, what these studies offer us may be limited in scope. I believe that fully-guided instruction is ideal when teaching small, well-defined tasks such as the pop ornament. But when looking at the larger context of adults seeking personal expression and self-actualization, self-discovery methods might be exactly the best approach.

Take, for example, the activity of listening to music and how it might help a new flute player. Most of us listen to a lot of music, but often in a relatively detached, entertainment-based fashion. But as musicians, there is a wealth of things we can learn from deep music listening. You might listen to a piece of music with a student, and then offer the things you heard: what was the song structure, the use of ornaments, the variations in different repetitions of a verse or chorus, the use of rhythm, sound textures, dynamics, silence, beginning and ending styles, song forms such as solo-drone, echoing, call and response, or shadowing, etc. Then ask the student to bring a piece of music the next time and offer their own self-discovered analysis.

The rationale for this approach is the basics of the Constructivism: converting an otherwise passive casual listening experience into an active cognitive process.
Another aspect of teaching music relates to the many cultural messages that we receive by the time we are adults about our own musicality. This often interferes with the basic aspects of our music development. Adults who have been told (and believe) that they have no rhythm are a good example of people who, I have found, do not respond well to direct, fully-guided instruction. After years of experimentation and coaching in humanistic teaching techniques, I’ve found that:

  • putting flute players in an environment of strong, simple rhythms (on a sound system or with live drummers),
  • having them move to the rhythm, then
  • join the rhythm with their voices, then
  • reduce their vocalizations to just breathing and moving along with the rhythm, and then
  • playing simple long tones along with the rhythm (while continuing to move)

can turn the most musically inexperienced players into playing right along with the beat. The experience is set up in a fully-guided way, but the learning and feeling of accomplishment are born of self-discovery (“Yes, I do have rhythm!”)

Lesson Structure

Another challenge is how to structure a lesson, especially if it is a single one-on-one lesson with a new student.

After finding out a bit about their background and intentions, I often ask them to “play something”. From a humanistic approach to teaching (see Chapter 17 of [Rowan 2005]), which places the teacher in the role of supportive facilitator rather than judgmental critic, we realize that even a request such as “play a song” can put students into crisis mode, so “play something” or “play anything you like” can be far more effective.

Beginning a lesson with unstructured playing by the student is a great way to focus and structure the lesson. The focus is off the teacher, giving us freedom to listen, observe, and diagnose the areas where the student has the most opportunity to improve. For me, the game is to come up with two or three things to focus on — ideally a mix of areas that can be immediately improved as well as ones that can be set as more long-term goals.

Maybe the student uses only one attack at the start of each note. Maybe they have not yet developed vibrato or are playing at a very quiet volume. Maybe they are uncomfortably stiff in their body movements, or have choppy endings to their notes.

You might pick a few of these and structure exercises to overcome them. Of course, simply telling them “you’re too stiff when you play” isn’t very helpful. This is where fast thinking and creativity (and practice structuring lesson plans) comes into play. How can we get them to loosen up? “Great … play the same thing, but walk around the room while you’re playing”. If they’re still stiff: “OK now make small circles with your shoulders as you walk and play”.

For people who always play in a certain way, such as very quietly, it may be simply be a matter of helping them explore other styles. One thing you can do is have them emphasize the trait you would like to change: “Could you play that extremely softly” … and then “Could you now play it extremely, ridiculously loudly”. Then you could move on to having them play a phrase very softly, then very loudly, then back to soft, and so on. This approach avoids the problems of teacher criticism while allowing them, in a safe space, to expand their musical options.

Some things, such as teaching vibrato, are special topics that deserve research to find the best teaching approach. After many experiments, I’ve found that having students lay down on a fairly hard surface and attempt vibrato breathing with one hand on their belly can dramatically shorten the time it takes to “get” vibrato. However, they should know that, while most techniques on the Native American flute can be learned with a few minutes practice a day for a week or two, vibrato can take a year or more to develop.

And possibly the most valuable thing you can offer during a lesson, especially a single one-on-one lesson, is to share music training and enrichment techniques that a student can bring forward into their everyday life. Simply the act of walking can be a musical exercise. Windshield wipers slapping, singing in the shower, meditating on your breath on a busy train, deep music listening, readings from your suggested reading list, listening to all the sounds in our various environment … the list is endless.

Moving Forward

Of course, this article just skims the surface of a very, very deep field. If you’re teaching a class, do you need a textbook, and which one will you use? How do you handle students with a high level of experience on the flute, or with formal music theory training?

Here is some advice from Cornell Kinderknecht, an experienced flute teacher with extensive formal music training:

  • After you develop your lesson plan for a single one-on-one lesson, develop elements that would apply to on-going lessons. These can include: learning to know more about the student personally to bring that into their music, setting goals that are per-lesson and longer term, finding how to measure and instill a sense of achievement over time, considering how to deal with set-backs, motivation, etc.
  • Explore the different types of learners and various personality types. Become comfortable teaching musicians who follow by example, those who like step-by-step details, those that like to play solo versus duets, those that like to improvise versus compose their melodies versus those that like to play established melodies, and those that need more or less encouragement to flourish.
  • Study some classic forms of traditional music education, such as the master class, dexterity exercises, and composition techniques, and explore how they can be applied in the context of a Native American flute lesson.
  • Find how to strike a balance between reinforcing a student’s own style of playing and sharing your particular style and approach to the instrument.

In the end, I’ve found that a focus on teaching brings me a far deeper understanding of my own musicality and a stronger connection with the instrument. And, as another old saying goes: the best way to learn something is to teach it!

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