Teaching with your ears

"listen" by Jay Morrison is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

We have this conversation often in my woodwind methods classes:

Me: What do you hear in so-and-so’s playing?
Student: Their embouchure is too tight?
Me: Can you hear their embouchure muscles?
Student: …?
Me: Not directly, right? But what are you hearing that makes you think their embouchure is tight?
Student: Well, it looks like it could be kind of tight.
Me: But what do you hear?

Woodwind teaching isn’t, or shouldn’t be, primarily a visual activity. Crucial parts of woodwind-playing technique happen entirely out of view, inside the player’s body. And the most important element—air—is mostly invisible.

But lots of teachers like to focus on visual things. (It’s easier!) My college students often arrive on campus able to explain in elaborate detail the “right” way to sit in a chair when playing, but with little understanding of less-visible concepts like breath support and voicing. Students in my woodwind methods course, given opportunities to critique woodwind playing, often zero in on how a classmate’s embouchure looks, rather than on the sounds they are making. I see educators from beginning-band directors to world-famous masterclass teachers tackling the most immediately visible elements of a student’s approach, while ignoring glaringly audible issues.

Additionally, visual evaluation is complicated by the variety of human bodies. I regularly have to talk students literally off the ledge, as they sit precariously on the forwardmost inch of their chairs, determined that this is the one-size-fits-all correct position, regardless of the size and shape of their bodies. And I can’t count the times that I’ve seen a pedagogical book describe in breathless detail the way a player’s lips should look when playing, always assuming that those lips are of a very specific size and shape (and sometimes color).

Like many teachers, I’ve done much of my instruction in recent months remotely, via video. In the early weeks of the New Normal, I got caught up in concerns about lighting and camera angles. But I find lately that I really don’t look at the screen much when my students are playing. Most of the information I need comes from their audio feeds. Visual evaluation is at best a helpful supplement.

It’s hard to break the habit of always using our eyes first, or of jumping to conclusions about things we can’t observe directly. Start with the sound, and work from there.

2 thoughts on “Teaching with your ears

  1. yes!!! This is a topic that is going in my thesis. Creating a system of teaching woodwinds based on sound isn’t as hard as it may seem, but there certainly isn’t enough of it.

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