Becoming an Ideal Student
By Jeanne Baxtresser
Flute Talk—June 1988
As flutists we emerge individually. Think of all the students who have studied with the same teacher and it’s remarkable how different they all sound. We also evolve differently as teachers; each person is a particular combination of experience and personality who develops his own teaching methods. During vacations I like for my students to study with other teachers, and when they return to me I’m interested in learning from them other methods of teaching and attitudes. In this way I hope to learn things to use in my teaching. The level of students at Juilliard is quite high, and students are well versed in the technique of playing the flute. They simply need to learn how to develop an individual style.
While I was a student at Juilliard, Julius Baker, my teacher, was encouraging; if I did things well he complimented me. He didn’t want students to imitate him; he wanted them to strike out and play in their own way, with a great command of the instrument. He played a great deal during lessons, and he gave a beautiful example of how to play the flute. He would not tolerate bad intonation. We played duets, and I learned a great deal from that, listening to him and trying to match his intonation.
Looking back, I was not a model pupil at all times, believe me. It’s important for me to remember this when I deal with students today. I like to think that for the most part I had a positive attitude when I walked in, but I know there were probably times when I came in feeling that the world was just a little too much for me and looking like something the cat dragged in. Being alone for the first time in New York, living alone, handling life was a tremendous responsibility, and those low moments were just part of growing up. I may not have realized at that time that my relationship with Julie Baker would be life-long, as I hope will be the same with my students.
The relationship between a student and a teacher can be one of the most special and meaningful relationships in life. Like an apprentice to a master carpenter, or a young intern learning from a surgeon, the student musician will gain most from his relationship with a teacher if he is aware of his responsibility, thinking of himself as an active rather than a passive participant. In a good lesson, a student should maintain a balance between two specific attitudes that may seem contradictory but are not. One attitude is a kind of aggressiveness that says: “Look what I can play for you. Look what I’ve worked on this week. Look what I’ve achieved. Listen to me. I can’t wait to play this for you.” I like to see that kind of aggressive, positive attitude in a student, but this should be balanced with a strong desire on the part of a student to listen and to learn. This is the second attitude of reflection and introspection. One shouldn’t be a student who just wants to play, play, play. When the teacher speaks, the student’s attention should be directed away from himself and completely concentrated on the teacher and what he’s communicating. I find it terribly irritating when a student fingers a difficult passage in the music, anticipating having to play it again for me, while I am trying to give him some words of advice. It’s distracting to me, and I know the student’s attention is not on what I’m trying to tell him.
When the teacher starts talking, the student’s flute should come down to the side of his body and rest there, not in playing position. Then there is no temptation to fidget or fiddle around. After an idea is communicated to the student, he should take five seconds to assimilate the new idea, and not immediately start to play. Sometimes I see that flute touch the lips a split second after I finish talking. There’s no way the mind and body can assimilate ideas that quickly. It takes perhaps 5-10 seconds to understand, to figure out what to do, then to start to play with this new concept. I understand the kind of exuberance that makes a student want to try a new idea right away, but it’s important to take that time to allow the concept to register. Also, there may be something that the student doesn’t understand, and he may need to ask a question, which of course, the teacher should always welcome.
A system I find very helpful for students of all ages is to have players take notes during a lesson. Young pupils of the flute can’t write their own notes, but during high school years it’s important that they start to notate what transpires during the lesson. This involves having a piece of paper and a pencil on the music stand and taking short notes on the important points made in the lesson. Students may want to write directly on the music when the teacher makes a point about breathing, correct notes, a different articulation, or a dynamic marking. There’s nothing more discouraging than to have students make the same errors week after week. Immediately after lessons, students should go home and rewrite these notes legibly and completely, using the music as well as the lesson notes as a reference. At the next lesson, my students present me with a copy of these notes in order to reacquaint me with what we did the previous week. They take very complete, copious notes; I don’t have time to read four or five pages, so they summarize the last lesson on an index card that I keep. They personally keep their longer notes. An example of this summary might read:
As I read that, I quickly know what we did; I have an idea and I can appreciate the improvements made during the week. I can also comment on the things that might still need additional help.
I also recommend that students keep a piece of paper in the practice area so that they can write down any questions that arise. Usually these questions resolve themselves during the week, but those that remain unresolved can be directed to me at the next lesson. An example might be: “Having difficulty with my larger skips, the note cracks.” I address such questions at the beginning of each lesson.
Note-taking while practicing is good discipline for the students, and having these notes gives me a wonderful sense of continuity that helps me to be more effective. If I forget what we worked on three months ago I can refer to these cards and we’ll see exactly what it was. Taking notes also keeps the student actively involved.
I must stress the importance of proper decorum during this lesson hour, one of the most precious hours for those students who are serious about their music. I always appreciate it when a student greets me warmly at the beginning of a lesson by saying, “Hello. How are you?” and then thanks me at the end of the lesson. This may seem incidental, but it’s very important to preserve these simple gestures as a matter of tradition and respect. Too often students are so overwhelmed with school or home responsibilities, they come to a lesson tired and can barely manage to assemble the flute. I sense their “Well, what now?” attitude, and I think it’s important that teachers discourage such an attitude.
If a student disagrees with an idea concerning something like articulation or is confused by a request—and this happens often—the student must remember to keep an attitude of flexibility. He should try to comply, first of all, with any request. If he decides at some point he doesn’t like this particular musical idea or technical idea, that’s fine, but he shouldn’t reject an idea until he can do it. I’ve often said to my students, “You should be flexible enough to do it my way, but also to do it Mr. A’s way, Mr. B’s way, Miss C’s way. When you can do all those ways, and perhaps it will be a combination of all three. Who knows? The key word here is flexibility. It’s also very good training for what comes down the road in terms of orchestral experience. one doesn’t argue when a conductor says, ‘Do it this way.’ You must be able to do it.”
There are many different ways of articulating, for example. When I was in Canada, I had many students who came from a French background and in many instances they articulated with the tongue between the lips. I suggested something slightly different from that. It’s not a moral issue where there’s a right and there’s a wrong; it’s simply a matter of finding the way that works best for that particular student. if my way doesn’t work after some experimentation, then I’ll back off. If it sounds good by articulating with the tongue coming out between the lips, I won’t change it. I only try to work on something if I feel it could be improved.
If students have difficulty, it’s important that when they speak to their teacher they don’t do it in a challenging way, especially not challenging the teacher’s authority. When they ask questions they should take an approach that doesn’t alienate the teacher or put him on the defensive. For example, if a student says to me, “My other teacher said I should never use vibrato on moving notes, so I don’t,” it puts me in a position of having to defend why I want him to do this. I don’t like to be in that position. A student could say something like, “I’d like to learn to vibrate on these moving notes as you suggest. It’s difficult for me, because my previous teacher told me not to. Can you give me some exercise that will help me do this?” This way the teacher knows it is an unfamiliar idea, but that the student wants to learn.
Another headache is poor preparation. It’s important that students be well prepared for lessons. A teacher can be fooled only for a short amount of time; then there sets in either a battle of will and conflict, or, on the part of the teacher, indifference. Both of these are to be avoided at all costs. Sometimes a student just runs out of inspiration and discipline. This can happen to anyone, even a dedicated and sincere student; it happened to me. I went through a couple of bad months, and I’ll never forget the day when I started to come out of this low point. I whipped off a Chopin Etude and Julie’s face lit up. He said, “That’s more like it.” Through this time, he was very patient with me; he understood and appreciated my sincerity and he realized that this was just a passing stage.
When students contract for private lessons, they should ask if this valuable time can be spent on something specific: on the Prokofiev because it will be played in a competition, or on orchestral excerpts because the student is going to take an audition, for example. When people call and say, “Miss Baxtresser, I would like to play for you,” I suggest they come with a clear idea of the help they need. I got a call from somebody just a week ago who said, “Miss Baxtresser, I want to come because I want you to work on my tone, and I have four or five excerpts that I want to work on with you.” That helped prepare for the lesson before she arrived. It’s important that students don’t leave my house feeling inspiration that will last only 10 minutes. Before they’re home, they’ll forget what it was all about. That’s why I want them to have specific goals in mind for the hour that we spend together.
Sometimes students ask if they can bring a tape recorder. I use a tape recorder in my class lessons and I appreciate the benefit of taping. Always ask a teacher if he minds if you tape the lesson. Being recorded makes some people uncomfortable. I like to have the tape recorder there, but I like to have control over the dials, so I can cut it off if I say something that might be of a personal nature. While I’m playing and demonstrating, if I feel like I’m in good shape, I’ll turn the tape recorder on and the student can take the tape home. If I haven’t warmed up because I just got up out of bed early on a Saturday morning, I don’t particularly want a recording of how I sound. I think the taping is very helpful, but, in master classes as well, always ask the teacher. It’s a matter of respect. If I’m asked permission, I usually grant it.
One source of help students sometimes forget is their peers. They should learn to regard their peers as a resource, not as a threat. Don’t isolate yourself from people who are doing what you’re doing. We all have strengths and weaknesses; students can learn from each other, and help each other. Certain things come easily to some people and other skills to other people. Interactions among students will prove this. Play for each other something like Density 2.5 by Varese. Ask your colleagues what is wrong and what is right. This teaches you to think analytically about why a certain tonguing sounds wonderful or how an articulation sounds wrong. When I was a student Julie Baker encouraged this sort of camaraderie among us, and now I encourage it in my own pupils.
By themselves or with others, students don’t always realize the severity of their problems. Try as a teacher may, students may just refuse to change misshapen embouchures or other technical handicaps. Sometimes they simply aren’t ready to take the teacher’s advice. Rather than reacting emotionally, the teacher should realize that this may just not be the time when his advice is going to click. It’s best to send the student to somebody who might be able to be more effective. Even if the next teacher works on exactly the same thing, this will emphasize to the student the need to correct the problem as well as reinforce his feeling of trust in the first teacher.
If there is a conflict, for whatever reason, and things just don’t work out, it’s difficult. Students should commit themselves to a certain period of time to try to work out the problem. if they aren’t successful, they should go to the teacher and speak honestly, saying, “This is not the right time for me to be studying with you.” They should not do it behind closed doors and have the teacher hear of it a month later from another teacher. In turn, teachers should be understanding and try to see things from their students’ perspectives.
I don’t encourage teacher-hopping, where students try different teachers every semester, hoping that just one magical teacher will make everything easy. There’s a big difference between changing teachers because the personalities and the timing are not right and changing because you’re looking for an easy solution. If things aren’t working out it’s better to sever the relationship before too much time is wasted.
In thinking back over the past 20 years of teaching, I realize that my best students were not always the most talented flute players. All of my best pupils have had combinations of discipline, a wonderful desire to learn, a driving curiosity that inspired me, and a rare quality that I can put into one word: enthusiasm. I can’t stress enough the importance of expressing genuine feelings of excitement and inspiration. Too often students hide this from their teachers. We are human beings, too; and all human beings react positively to encouragement. As teachers, we need to know when we are leading a student in the right direction.
It’s great when a student says, “I love that exercise. I enjoyed it. It really helped me with that problem;” or, “That was a fun lesson;” or, “I really appreciate your idea in this passage in the Mozart because thinking about that makes it easier.” A little acknowledgement like that is helpful for the teacher because he hears that something works and has an idea of the direction in which to continue. If the teacher’s suggestions work, tell him. It doesn’t have to be a grand compliment, but every now and then indicate what works well for you. Everyone needs to hear words of encouragement, no matter who he is.
I’ve always been fascinated by the quality of some students that enabled me—in fact, forced me—to reach further into myself as musician for answers to their needs. They make me think about things that make me a better teacher than I was; they press me to the point where I am reaching new goals. Students with these qualities are a joy to teach.