Being a beginner on your doubles

April 6, 2017

I’ve mentioned often on this blog the idea of “being a beginner” on your woodwind doubles. Here’s what I mean by that.

When I was a college saxophone major just starting to get serious about doubling, I arranged to take some flute lessons one summer. At my first-ever flute lesson, the teacher told me she knew that I was an accomplished saxophonist already (a generous assessment) and therefore wouldn’t need much more than some instruction on embouchure. That made sense to me, so she sent me away with my first repertoire assignment: a Mozart concerto.

I had a fingering chart and plenty of misplaced confidence, so I hacked my way through K. 313 that summer. I did learn quite a bit in the process, and could sort of play it, but my flute technique had significant unaddressed gaps.

If I could go back and do that first lesson over again, I would ask that teacher to treat me like a beginner, since that is exactly what I was. I would have been an informed, adult beginner, and we could have skipped ahead on the every-good-boy-does-fine, but in terms of flute technique I needed to start from the ground floor. I would ask the teacher to recommend a good beginning method book and coach me through it page by page. Maybe get started on some one-octave scales and some nursery-rhyme tunes.

Starting from a beginner level might seem too elementary for someone who plays another instrument well, but those early lessons are crucial. Practicing a few pages of whole and half notes on three or four pitches would have done wonders for developing my breath control and tone production on the flute, and given me a chance to absorb correct fingerings in a slow and methodical way. Developing a strong middle register would have given me the foundation for beautiful and effortless tone in the highest and lowest octaves. I haven’t had many gigs since that summer of flute lessons that required me to play a flute concerto badly, but I’ve had plenty that called for steady, consistent, in-tune whole and half notes.

If you, like me, have made the mistake of trying to start a new instrument at an intermediate or advanced level, it’s not too late. Ask yourself what you would do to give a beginning student the best possible start (weekly lessons with a top-notch teacher? a well-organized daily practice routine? lots of attention to fundamentals?) and provide that for yourself. Don’t be too proud to spend a week on a few pages of whole notes.

Mozart will wait.

Comments

  1. Gentry Ragsdale-Szeto

    I completely agree with this. While I actually had a great foundation on the flute, I remember getting frustrated spending entire hour-long lessons on long tones, breathing exercises, and octave leaps. I did not have the patience necessary at the time to take them seriously, wanting to skip to method books and sixteenth notes. And for about two years, every passage of every piece of music was a struggle.
    Fast forward to becoming a band director. I’d play daily with my sixth graders, demonstrating breathing and long tones and Remmingtons, etc. I played slow, correct scales. Played slow chromatic technique builders, slow octave leaps, easy vibrato-building exercises at slow tempos, then gradually increased the tempo each week as my students improved. And interestingly enough, playing fundamentals five days a week affected my higher-level reading ability immensely. I remember tackling the Mozart Concerto you mentioned–my first read back when I’d been playing for a year or so–just awful. After years of teaching sixth graders every day and demonstrating in 7/8th/HS sectionals? It sounded like Mozart. I was pretty proud.
    So yes–fundamentals, though tedious, are absolutely the best thing for development. I should remind myself of that more often. :)

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