Woodwind Pedagogy

One of the classes that I teach each fall is Woodwind Pedagogy. Most of the students who take this class are music education majors, and this specific class is one of their degree requirements. The goal is to have each student reasonably proficient on three different woodwind instruments by the end of the semester, which is quite a task. Obviously, the scope of this class must be limited so I’ve had to ask myself what the absolute essential information is that each student should be exposed to before the end of the semester.

I require that each student spend time with a single reed instrument, a double reed instrument, and flute. The only exception is if the student plays one of those already as his or her primary instrument. We cover various topics throughout the semester; some days the students play out of method books as a “beginner band,” other days we discuss articles on pedagogy. Later in the semester, as students gain confidence, they teach each other in the style of a private lesson or masterclass. The other students in the class offer suggestions on what went well during the lesson and what might be improved on. Students also offer advice on their primary instrument if that happens to be a woodwind.

So what do I want them to learn? I tend to think back to when I was a beginner on flute and recall the things that worked well for me as well as those that didn’t. For example, I played flute for an entire year before I realized that the tongue had anything to do with articulation. This type of mistake is something I hope my students are able to detect and correct before their students develop habits that are detrimental and quite difficult to change. I also think about the struggles my beginner flute students have had.

Here are some of the ideas I want to make sure these future band teachers have a good understanding of:
how to safely put the instruments together as well as take them apart.
the proper terminology associated with each of the woodwinds.
very basic maintenance.
healthy embouchure skills.
correct fingerings.
the general sound and feel of the different types of woodwinds.
cork grease doesn’t belong on a flute!

I also want them to know about resources that are available to them. When they inevitably are confronted with a situation they don’t immediately have an answer to, I want them to know where to find the answers.

As a flutist, teaching this class has been a learning experience for me, as well. I’d be remiss if I didn’t send a huge thanks to Dr. Bret Pimentel, who generously offered advice when I was putting together my woodwind pedagogy class last fall. He has fantastic blog posts about the work of a woodwind doubler/professor on his site, which have been excellent additions to my own class here at SDSU.

Woodwind pedagogy teachers and band directors: what other topics might be useful that I haven’t included above?

Basic flute maintenance

Basic flute maintenance
(from the flutist’s perspective)

Having taught flute for fourteen years now, I’ve taught a lot of folks. I’ve decided to compile a basic maintenance checklist for flute students. I’ve found that, usually, each student has a few habits that could cause damage to their instrument. Any damage is going to adversely affect your ability to play the flute and could potentially be costly to repair.

Now let me clearly define some limits to this advice: I am not a flute technician. I do not adjust screws, switch out pads, fix leaks, or replace cork. I don’t even adjust the cork in the crown of my own flute. The flute is a complex instrument, and I’m just not comfortable (or qualified!) enough to make any kind of adjustment. I’ll pop a spring back into place but that’s the extent of it. So the following advice is for normal, every day maintenance. Have a question about something that isn’t listed below? Feel free to ask!

– When you put the flute together, make sure that you’re assembling it so that the pieces are parallel. If you try to slide the pieces together at an angle, it can bend the metal of either part. Ever seen a foot joint fall off a flute during a concert? This could be the reason why.

– Cork grease has no place in your life. Ever.

– Make sure you clean your flute out after every practice session. Moisture is bad for the instrument. If you have a metal cleaning rod, make sure it doesn’t scrape against the inside of the instrument by wrapping the entire length of the cleaning rod with a soft cloth.

– When you clean the outside of your flute, I prefer for students to use a clean cloth with no polish. Specially-treated cloths that contain a polish are available, but I find that the polish usually ends up getting all over the pads. You should be careful that you don’t rub the pads when you’re cleaning the outside of your flute because it will eventually fray or tear them.

– Concerning the cork in the crown of your flute: you might have to adjust this once or twice in your middle and high school career. This is not a normal part of your tuning process. If you find that the crown of your flute spins freely, this means that the cork has dried out and needs to be replaced.

– If you have sticky pads, it usually means that they’re dirty. To prevent this in the future, make sure you rinse your mouth before playing, and never play with gum or candy in your mouth. Some people like to take a dollar bill, slide it under the offending sticky pad, press the key down, and yank the dollar bill out. Please don’t do this for a couple of reasons. First, the dollar bill is filthy. Secondly, if you pull the dollar while the key is pressed, you run the risk of dislodging the pad. Instead, use an absorbent paper to clean the pad. Some music shops sell specially-made papers, or you can use cigarette-rolling papers. Gently (!) press the key down with the paper under the key, and then release the key and take the paper out. Avoid yanking it out while the key is pressed.

– If a key (not a pad) is sticking, or slow to return to its usual position after you’ve pressed it down, it might be that your mechanism is gunky. This doesn’t mean you’re a bad person; it just means that you probably should have the instrument cleaned. This isn’t something you can do yourself but it needs to be done every once in a while.

– Please don’t leave your flute on the music stand or in a chair. Invariably, someone will knock it over or sit on it. Every little dent can cause a difference in your sound.

– Avoid storing your cleaning cloth and other materials (like pencils) in your flute case. Your case is designed to only hold your flute. If you try to fit other things in there, they can end up damaging your flute.