Connecting observations to techniques

October 18, 2017

In my woodwind methods class, I try to create lots of opportunities for students (future instrumental music educators) to practice observing woodwind playing and giving feedback. For the feedback to be useful, it needs to connect an observation to a technique. Here are some examples of what not to do:

Observation without technique

“Your tone sounds good.”

“Your intonation is problematic.”

“There are response issues.”

First, it’s important that an educator can articulate their observations with clarity and detail. What is “good” about the student’s tone? (Are you saying that it is characteristic? That it is consistent from note to note?) What is problematic about their intonation? (Is it flat overall? sharp overall? Is it unstable over the course of a phrase? over the course of a single note?) What “issues” are there with response? (Notes responding late? Notes responding with extraneous noise?)

But once the problem or success is clearly identified, it still isn’t of much use unless it comes with a recommendation.

“Your tone is very consistent. Nice work using steady breath support.”

“Your pitch is scooping upward into each note—be sure to articulate with just the tip of the tongue so your voicing remains stable.”

“Let’s see if a softer reed will allow your notes to respond more quickly and clearly.”

Technique without observation

“Try relaxing your embouchure.”

“Use more breath support.”

“Keep your fingers close to the keys.”

Barking orders without explanation might produce some short-term results, but when students know what result you’re trying to produce they can be proactive.

“Remember, you can get that bigger, clearer sound if you relax your embouchure.”

“Use more breath support so those high notes will be up to pitch.”

“You’re having trouble covering the toneholes because your fingers are starting from too far away. Keep them closer so they can find the holes more easily.”

When my students learn to give feedback that connects their specific, precise observations with clearly-taught techniques, they are preparing for fruitful lessons and rehearsals with their own future students.