First steps are precious things.

I was reminded of this when I had the opportunity to teach the flute class of a beginning band camp. I jumped at this because it was a chance to work with young people who were naturally enthusiastic and alive. I wanted to harness this natural energy and also give them a wider vision of themselves as flute players and artists.


So – surprise, surprise – I took a slightly different approach than would probably have been traditional (“we’re going to get through the first 3 pages in the band book”). Here are some of the things I focused on:

Building community. These 6th graders had all been at different elementary schools last year; while we balanced our flutes using just 3 points of contact, we introduced ourselves and talked about things we like to do. I learned all of their names and made a point of using them. I also told them that, as teenagers, “the crazy” was out to get them – and that the way to fight it off was to be supportive of each other. We practiced helping each other out and clapping when someone got a skill that was hard at first. (No more flute sections out to destroy each other socially.)

Exposure to multiple styles. The flute can be used for just about any kind of music, I told them, and then I proceeded to prove it. We took breaks by listening to sound samples and watching YouTube videos of everything from klezmer to dizi. “The flute is kind of the best instrument because you get to do everything,” one girl told me, and I beamed in response.

“Karate Kid” exercises. We talked about the hanging-up-the-jacket scene (they’re 11, so the more recent film is what they know – you probably know it as “wax on, wax off”). Sometimes your teacher wants you to do mystifying things, I told them. Trust that. So I had them chanting tutututu, dudududu, gugugugu, kukukuku, tukutuku, dugudugu, tukututukutu, dugududugudu – and voila, on their 4th day of playing the flute they’re already double and triple tonguing. (Side note: I have never understood why that should be “advanced” – why not take advantage of the opportunity to imprint on the whole flute? Whatever they get used to now will be “normal.” Call it the baby duckling advantage.)

Body mechanics. Your body is perfect, I told them. The flute is not. So when we talked about how to hold the flute or posture more generally, we looked for what actually felt comfortable. I drew attention to shoulders that were drawn up or ring fingers hyperextending to that doggone G key. IMG_2195The key doesn’t care if you press it in the middle or on the edge, I told them. But your finger does. We talked about the difference between listening to your ego and truly knowing what you’re doing.

Embouchure development. Of course I’m going to get them to make a sound. What I wanted was for them to aim for a focused sound, from day one. So – in another nod to Karate Kid – we took a “flute field trip” outside and practiced spitting wheatberries using a “puh” motion. Lots of them. “Feel which lip muscles are tired?” I asked them. “Use those.” We went back inside and their long tones on their headjoints were suddenly much stronger.

Exposure to the history of the instrument. I brought in a book about the history of the flute and we looked at how much it has changed over the past 400 years or so. We watched videos of renaissance and baroque flute to learn that, no, they weren’t “imperfect” instruments, no matter what bias some folks will try to get you to take on.

Improvisation. I wanted them to feel the thrill of playing one part of a bigger sound, right from the beginning. Once they had their B-A-G notes down in their left hand, I turned on a backing track (an 80s rock jam in e natural minor!). We went around the circle and had everyone take a solo. This was easy for some kids and terrifying for others. No matter what, it was good for everyone.

And then we all applauded, in appreciation of each other.