Jennifer Cluff

Canadian Flutist and Teacher

The Top Ten Reasons why first year college flutists don't do their bests

I teach incoming first year University flute students in a small town. It is a junior-college that prepares flute students to transfer into a four year University 'Performance' or 'Music Education' programs in major academic Universities across Canada.

Each September there are several young flutists starting classes who don't excel at their studies. If you are a highschool flutist preparing to enter your first University music classes, you may like to be sure that these top-ten reasons can be averted by YOU. :>)

Best of luck, and here's hoping that you do REALLY well in your first year of post-secondary music study.

Top ten reasons why first year college flutists don't do their best:

10. The flutist has never had private lessons before and doesn't know what private lessons are like:

As unbelievable as it may sound, there are still schools that, because they need 'bums in seats' and haven't had enough students apply in a given year, accept flute students who've NEVER HAD PRIVATE LESSONS before. These students will not be able to quickly comprehend all that is required of their new lessons in University. Perhaps they've only played in highschool band, and have wrong fingerings, breathing problems, tone problems, and of course, have absolutely no idea how to go about learning all the scales, studies, pieces and technical exercises that they now need to prepare in their new flute lessons. Furthermore, they don't know how to practice every day, how to monitor their time, how to improve at the quickest rate, and/or they have no idea what bad habits they have acquired through lack of lessons, and are in for a shock when their University teacher explains that all their skills need to be taken apart and re-learned.

Don't let this happen to you. If you've never had private lessons before, consider taking a part-time first year instead, and rather than a full course load, taking two flute lessons a week, plus one or two lighter courses, so that you can upgrade your flute skills primarily, leaving all the other required courses until the following year. There is simply not enough time to learn how to take private lessons at the same time as taking eight other courses. It is too much work for one person.

For articles on finding a private teacher click here. Or contact your future University instructor, and ask for lessons before school begins in September. They will advise you as to how to proceed (and whether to enroll as a part-time student in order to catch up in private lessons before full-course-load begins.)

For articles on flute skills such as TONE, SCALES, ARPEGGIOS, etc. go to the articles for novices, and articles for intermediates indexes, and choose a topic to read about and practice, while you wait for lessons to begin.

To read about the common 'bad habits' of self-taught flutists click here.

9. The flutist did not practice all summer long: It seems fairly common that after a long hard year in grade 12, many flute students (including me when I was 18 yrs. old) feel they need time away from playing the flute, in order to deeply relax and psychologically prepare for moving away from home and for starting a new phase of their life. However, they show up in their first University lesson sounding worse than they did at their audition that won them placement in that University. The downside of this is that the teacher gets a poor impression of the skill levels the student has, the student feels that they are "behind" already, and that the first four or five lessons are wasted waiting for the student to get their skills back up again, instead of learning new, more advanced skills. Don't let this happen to you. It's okay to take one or two weeks off, and rest on your holidays, if you're really exhausted after high school's exams etc. but start your daily practicing again, and aim high. It's never a good start to be placed in the "beginner band" when you reach University, because you sounded out-of-practice when you arrived in September at your new school. For practice hints and ideas for how to practice over the summer see these articles:

Summer Practice; 'How to Practice' links; How to create a practice routine; Skill levels for University flutists; Repertoire lists; Technique with a Purpose.

8. The flutist arrives with a flute that needs repair: Often a flutist arrives for first year college or University with a flute that has leaks, has mechanical problems, or simply has not had enough repair and care taken with it, that it is malfunctioning and holding the player back. Sending the flute out for extensive repair during September or October causes many problems in having to rent a replacement, borrow a replacement, or going without an instrument. There is no time to be lost during the first few months of school. So make sure your flute is in top shape when you arrive. Send it out over the summer vacation, and make sure it's in perfect working order when you arrive in September.

For information on flute repair needs and care see these articles:

Flute Care; Flute repair. Is it the flute? Or is it me?

For the top flute technician's phone number and location, contact your new University flute teacher, or other flute professional in your area. (don't take the flute to the local music store, unless you know that the top flute repair person is AT that music store. And most importantly, do NOT buy a new flute without the the input of a top-level teacher or performer/flute professional to guide you in your choice.)

For an article on shopping for a flute suitable for University performance programs click here.

7. The flutist arrives with no sheetmusic or exercise books: I've had pupils arrive with no music at all, except their flute parts from their highschool band, which they've already played hundreds of times (and forgotten to return). This forces the college flute teacher to have lend out books and/or photocopy pages in order to teach the first lesson, and forces the student to spend the whole first lesson sight reading, all unprepared. But there is no reason to go all summer long, and wait for your first lesson in order to buy new music, and start working on it. There are many standard flute method books, etudes, daily exercises, pieces, orchestral excerpts and fun books to learn from prior to entering University in September. Contact your new teacher for a book list if you want to be prepared for your first lesson, instead of waiting, and arriving with nothing to play.

A basic list of flute books for those on a budget can be found here. (these are flute practice books that will be useful even if not on your new teacher's list as they contain the standard studies, exercises and a selection of great solos to play.)
And please, don't think that you can buy all your textbooks for your other courses, but keep forgetting to buy any flute books or flute sheetmusic. Remember that not only will you have to spend $200 on music history and theory texts, but also an additional $100 or more a year on flute sheetmusic. Budget for this, and buy it in advance of beginning lessons.
Your college flute teacher can provide you with a list of music even prior to the first day of school if you've had a few lessons from them at the end of grade 12.

If you'd like to know what kind of flute training is typical in a University performance program, click here. (PDF article)

6. The student is so overwhelmed with their new schedule that they can't figure out how to settle into practicing: This is very common. One of the most exciting things about going away to college and University is that every one and every thing is new. With all this newness, it's very tricky to settle in and start a practice routine right away. You may still be looking for housing that allows you to practice at home, you may still not know how to cook! You may be so lost on campus that it takes you 30 minutes to find every classroom---you may not know anybody, and be hoping to meet friends, and fit into your new peer group. All these things make it difficult to settle down and start practicing.

The solution is to undertake a good practice schedule in the summer BEFORE entering college/University, and then sticking to it, despite the confusion of the first few weeks at a new school. Take your class schedule and find four 20 minute blank spots a day, and then go to the practice rooms four times a day, and focus on your flute for that time. By the second or third week, you'll have found six to eight 20 minute time slots a day. Every time your class schedule shows a blank, fill it in with 20 minutes practice, and do the practicing BEFORE you go for lunch, go to the library, go to the gym, or go home.

If you don't do this you will fall behind for the first few flute lessons of your new school year, and your grade will fall as well, and then you'll be playing 'catch up' all year, trying to upgrade your marks, while the pressure to do homework and practice continues to intensify. Instead, start off on the right foot. Practice every day in your timetable's blank spots.

5. The flute student is so excited to be away from home (with no parents monitoring them) that they turn into 'Party-Central':

Who wouldn't be excited to be considered adult enough to have no parents watching them? We all love freedom, and we all love to create our own world in which we are the king/queen and master of all we survey. :>) You'd have to be a discipline-NUT not to want to sow some wild oats in your first year away from home. However, turning your world into one big party has the usual effect of helping you fail your first year of University, or at least, drop suddenly from an A or B student to a C or D student.

I can't tell you not to party, but my advice has always been, save one night a week for crazy wild parties, and stay home and work hard all the other nights. Maybe Saturday night is your WILD night.

But all other nights you will be doing more work than you ever did in highschool!! So don't waste your first year partying and sleeping through class, and failing tests. It's too depressing, and usually by February the party kids are all burnt out and dropping classes. Be smart. Work hard, and party only ONE night a week. Otherwise, eat sensibly, sleep sufficiently, and organize your days to get all your work done. Remember, you are paying for those courses you are failing. That's a bit expensive don't you think? Paying for something you're going to have to re-pay for, and re-do, all over again?

Everything in moderation is a good motto. :>)

4. The flute student has always gotten an "A" in band without practicing very much, because they had some natural talent. Now they discover they have to work really hard to get an A, and that's very confusing at first.

Getting an "A" in most high school bands is fairly easy. All those music students who have natural talent and show up for band class, and play the two or three big pieces at the end of the year band concert usually get an "A". However University A-grades represent a great deal of work, and typically require up to four-hours of practicing per day. (see no. 9 and no. 10 above for links to articles.)

You may be stunned to find when you enter a University music program that you are the 'bottom-rung" flutist at your new school, or that you are only the fourth-best-flutist, when at home, you were always the best, even when you didn't practice at all. It's a big change to go from being someone who can 'wing it' and 'sight read-because-it's-so-easy' to being someone who is constantly needing to practice extra to catch up even to the bottom rung of the new pool of flute-talent.

Investigate the levels of practicing and 'how to practice' before you get a shock at your new school.

See: Summer Practice; 'How to Practice' links; How to create a practice routine; Skill levels for University flutists; Repertoire lists; Technique with a Purpose.

Be ready to practice more than you've ever practiced before and to practice in new, more time-consuming ways, than you've ever had to practice before. A good book to read would be "Proper Flute Playing" by Trevor Wye or "Becoming an Orchestral Musician, A Guide for Aspiring Professionals" by Richard Davis Both authors outline just how tiny the top of the flute-performance pyramid is, when you get to the higher and higher levels of flute training. Most of the books on my flute-player's reading list are available using "Interlibrary loan" through your public library. You may want to get a bird's eye view of what professional music training is like by reading them over the summer.

3. The flute student doesn't hear their problems, and misses them when practicing, and this slows down their rapid improvement. Our ears always improve before our playing does, and this is just another bizarre fact about being a human being. If you don't hear you're playing out of tune, you can't correct your out-of-tune-ness. If you don't hear that your tonguing is sloppy, you won't work on correcting your articulation. If you don't hear that your tone is breathy, or pinched, you won't be challenged to spend 30 minutes a day on tone exercises.

This is why alot of students think that they play at a higher level than they actually do. They don't hear the difference between their playing, and the playing of better flutists, until they enter University, and suddenly are hearing better flutists every day, in the other practice rooms.

In order to compare your flute playing to higher levels of flute playing you must spend time doing two things:

1. Recording your own playing and listening carefully to it (most of us avoid this because we don't want to know!!! This is human nature; we'd rather be ignorant and blissful, than to KNOW and to HATE how we sound. You have to take the bold plunge and listen to yourself.) A good book on this topic is "To Hear Yourself as Other's Hear You" by James Boyk. You can record yourself on your computer, on a mini-disc, or using a cheap old tape recorder---whatever you can afford---but it's in your best interest to really sit back and listen, and decide what you need to work on.

2. Listening to professional flutists perform. Go to concerts, buy flute CDs, and listen to every flute player you can, in order to develop your ears. A list of "desert island flute recordings" and online flute listening can be found here.

2. The flute student gets so tired from all the new things in their new college-life, that they get burnt out: Many young flutists start in September at their new college and University full of spunk and ideas, and discipline, and plans for greatness, but get pooped out by the time they hit November. The preventatives for this would be: take your vitamins, get lots of sleep, eat healthy food, exercise, and set up a decent and realistic schedule for getting all your homework done. If you DO get burnt out, and have big bags under your eyes, your roomates party all the time and the house is such a mess you can't even go home, if you are failing a couple of really tough classes, and you took some bad drugs, or are waking up with terrible hangovers, etc. take a look at the basics of life, and set a new course. Make a fresh start.

All the changes that University demands of you are do-able, if you don't slide too far down the disorganization ladder.

Ask for help from your family, friends, teachers, counselling service at school, and get real help before you get too burnt out. We all go through times in life where we are just overwhelmed all of a sudden. Stress does mount up slowly, and you need to de-stress before your mind and body start to rebel.

So at the first sign of "My life is out of control!!" sit down and write down all your problems, in one column, and then write down the solutions in another. Then tackle the solutions one at a time. It could be that you'll need to move, find new roomates, go to the gym once a day to get rid of body-stress, sleep more, or go to counselling to help deal with issues (family issues that have plagued you for years but only surfaced when you finally left home.) This is all very normal, and should take place early in the school year. Don't wait for the stress of juries and exams before you ask for help, and start a journal of solutions that you've decided to try. Good luck. Life is complicated. But people will help you. Trust that. :>)

And the number ONE reason why first year flute students fail to do their best:

1. Flute students who haven't yet decided what their major is going to be, but chose music it was "FUN" and "a free year to goof off in".

This is by far the most common reason for failure in first year music programs in University. Not fully committed, and loaded down with music homework that's far more difficult than they foresaw, undecided students may have difficulty focusing on all the musical work they have to achieve during their undergraduate degree.

And because it once was so easy to do well in music when the student was younger and had tons of free time to fool around on their instrument, and because music is so BEAUTIFUL and FUN, many many many young people go into first year music in University, thinking that it's an EASY course, and maybe even a bird-course, and think that they can just glide along without any hard work or challenges.

Wrong. University level music is one of the most competitive and, in the long run, one of the least monetarily compensatory courses you can take. If you aren't mentally prepared to write essays on Bach's composition style, or sit up late learning to sight sing, or if you're not facinated by learning to write inverted chords, or sight-read atonal music, or figure out how to play a string quartet on the piano, if you're not really fascinated by these topics, it will be tricky to feel inspired to complete all your homework assignments.

I think that many unfocused music students who spent high school just "showing up for band and playing tunes", don't realize that in University, you're being trained to be a fully employable musician who can do anything from arrange piano pieces for brass quintet, to teaching music history and compositional theory, to conducting children's choirs.

So, if you are taking student loans to study music, think carefully. How will you pay back those loans?

Music and economics are oxymoronic.

Unless you are inheriting a family fortune, you will probably earn your living doing some other day job, and not as a musician, unless you are one of the top 2% of gifted musician-performers in the country in which you live.

If you want to go into Education, remember that you will have to be in the top 5% of all the music educators graduating in your country of origin, in order to secure a good paying music-teaching job.

If you just want to pay your tuition fees in order to have fun in University for a few years, fine. If you have your family's financial support, fine. But if you are paying for your own education, and have chosen music, it's the same as if you had decided to be a dancer or an artist; there is very little chance of landing a job that will pay you a wage, and you'll have to be at the top of your game (the best dancer, the best artist, or the best musician) in order to gain employment after graduation.

So consider doing a "music minor" instead, unless you know that there is no possible other career that you're interested in other than music.

As a music minor, you can enjoy music for the rest of your life, and then you can pay for your musical interests with a real money-earning job.

Don't day-dream that taking music in University is an easy way to go. It's expensive, and you will be no richer when you finish, except, of course, spiritually. Plan ahead and see what work lies ahead of you before you commit to a full music education. Then work as hard as you can to enjoy yourself the most.

Good luck.

Jennifer Cluff

Flute teacher at the University level for 15 years.

Flute articles on all topics, to help you play the best you can!!

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