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by Jocelyn Crosby
2001: Middle school band. I can picture the room, which seemed spacious when empty, but far too small when our band filled each chair. The walls were painted white, there were some posters hanging—the usual motivational poster, some composers’ faces and a chart of instrument families. A conductor’s stand was right in front of large windows. If you thought that would make it hard to see, don’t fret, the windows faced north and so the sunlight was never direct, certainly not at 2:45 pm in the afternoon when we rehearsed.
The problem was with the space; as noted, it was small when our band crowded inside. There were three rows of flute players as my memory recalls, and barely a few inches between our chairs. My flute weaved behind the head of the flute player to my right. Some of my fellow flute colleagues angled their flute down nearly 90° to avoid bumping their friends.
With proper posture impossible, we all strained our wrists and elbows, stretching them out meekly when the baton dropped. Taking a deep breath in our twisted torsos was out of the question. Abdominal support in this position, again, not possible.
Old buildings, one might be tempted to blame, but our middle school was only two years old, built when an elementary school was condemned (mold problems) and was moved to the original intermediate school. So then, whose fault was it that our flute playing suffered, that we played in pain?
Picture it: after a long summer of neglecting their flute, students come skipping into the band room for a sectional. Sloppily, they throw their flute together, only half-remembering how to do so, and sight read some band music. Perhaps their first finger stays down when they play a scale a Bb scale, and because they haven’t played in a few months, they don’t remember that D and Eb should have it up, or recognize that it sounds wrong.
Just like in any subject, summer learning loss is real. Whose fault is that?
Blame isn’t always helpful; but it’s important to note context. That’s why when presenting the data shown here, I don’t seek to blame band directors, who work far too many hours, are expected to be experts in all instruments, provide individuals within their enormous classrooms with the supports they need, communicate with parents, oh—and don’t forget to collect data to prove they are teaching and meeting school initiatives.
In a February 2023 survey, 90 private flute instructors from around the world answered fourteen questions on the frequency of various problems seen in flute students who arrive to them from band class. The context here is that these instructors have the advantage of working one-on-one with students, and are often experts on their individual instrument.
All surveys are conducted on a Never (blue), Rarely (red), Sometimes (yellow), Often (green), or Always (purple) scale.
#1 I have had flute students come to me using the “smile” embouchure technique.
#2 I have had flute students come to me using the “kiss and roll” technique.
#3 Flute students who begin in band are able to play in multiple octaves easily.
#4 I have had flute students only know how to play thumb Bb.
#5 I have had flute students using incorrect fingerings for notes (including putting their first finger down for middle D and Eb).
#6 I have had flute students who do not know which keys their fingers go on.
#7 I have had flute students who do not use their tongue to articulate.
#8 I have had flute students who breathe after every note or otherwise do not seem to properly use their breath.
#9 I have had flute students come to me with proper posture, hand positioning, and flute balance.
#10 I have had students who grab the flute by the keys to put it together and take it apart, or seem not to handle it with care.
#11 I have had flute students who use damaging materials on their flute, believing they are cleaning it or ‘greasing’ tenons.
#12 I have had flute students who do not swab their instrument, or do so with a poor choice of material.
#13 I have had flute students misalign the headjoint or footjoint on the flute.
#14 I have flute students who do not know how to fit their flute inside their case.
An additional question asked for location. We had six respondents from Australia, two from Austria (with one additionally being based in the Netherlands), five from Canada, and three from the UK. The rest were from various states. I sought to find regional or international differences, so I broke the US respondents into four regions: Northeast, South, Midwest, and West.
The 23 Northeast US respondents had a more promising report for the “smile” embouchure vs the group overall with 34.5% selecting “rarely,” 39% “sometimes,” and 8% “often,” and about a half percent each for “always” and “never.” Question four on the sole use of thumb Bb also showed improvement, with 39% “never,” 35% “rarely,” and 26% “sometimes.” Lastly, question 14 on placing the flute inside the case was slightly improved with those not knowing how to do so at 35% “never,” 39% “rarely,” and 26% “sometimes.”
Grimmer data was seen on question twelve on swabbing their instruments, with 4% responding “never,” 13% “rarely,” 13% “sometimes,” 57% “often,” and 13% “always.”
Questions two, three, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, and thirteen were all fairly comparable to the results overall.
Of 14 responses, the South’s results to Question One on smiling gravitated more towards the center, with 14% answering “often,” 64% “sometimes,” 14% “rarely,” and 7% “never.”
Fewer teachers in the South reported having students come with the “kiss and roll” technique, with only 21% selecting “often,” 29% “sometimes,” 36% “rarely,” and 14% “never.” They also reported fewer students who placed fingers on the wrong keys, with 14% answering “sometimes,” 50% “rarely,” and 36% “never.” Fewer also reported issues using damaging materials on the flute, with none at “always” or “often,” 36% “sometimes,” 43% “rarely,” and 21% “never.” Fewer problems fitting the flute in the case were reported with 14% “sometimes,” 43% “rarely,” and 43% “never.”
Reports of articulating without the tongue were more polarizing, with 7% responding “always,” 43% “often,” 14% “sometimes,” and 36% “rarely.” Posture was also more polarizing, with 36% reporting “often,” 21.33% “sometimes,” 21.33% “rarely,” and 21.33% “never.”
Misusing the breath, or breathing between every note was rated as more common, with 64% choosing “often,” 29% “sometimes,” and 7% “rarely.” Misalignment of the flute was more common, with 14% rated “always,” 43% “often, and “43% sometimes,” with no one selecting “rarely” or “never.”
Questions three, four, five, ten, twelve were comparable to the group overall.
With 22 respondents, the “kiss and roll” technique was more problematic at 45% choosing “often,” 36% “sometimes,” 14% “rarely,” and 5% “never.” Posture ratings were also lower, with correct posture reported at 23% “often,” 23% “sometimes,” 36% “rarely,” and 18% “never.”
Fewer reported students only knowing thumb Bb, with 14% rating “often,” 18% “sometimes,” 27% “rarely,” and 41% “never.” Fewer students were reported as not using their tongue to articulate, with 23% reported as “often,” 63% “sometimes,” 5% “rarely,” and 9% “never.” Misusing their breath was less frequent with 14% as “always,” only 32% “often,” 36% “sometimes,” and 18% “rarely.” Additionally, fewer students were reported to use damaging materials on their flute with 32% “sometimes,” 32% “rarely,” and 36% “never.” Along with care, students were reported as less likely to skip swabbing their instrument or using an inappropriate material, with only 5% at “always,” 45% at “often,” 45% at “sometimes,” and 5% at “rarely.” Finally, fewer students were likely to struggle with putting their flute in their case correctly, with 4% at “often,” 14% “sometimes,” 18% “rarely,” and 64% “never.”
Questions one, three, four, five, ten, and thirteen were comparable to the group overall.
With 15 responses, more problems were seen overall in these states. Teachers reported students were likely to use the “smile” embouchure, with 33.33% at “often,” 53.33% “sometimes,” 6.67% “rarely,” and 6.67% “never.” Along with this, more used the “kiss and roll” technique, at 60% “often,” 26.67% “sometimes,” 6.67% “rarely,” and 6.67% “never.” Considering both of these, it might not be surprising that the ability to play in multiple octaves easily showed only 13.33% “often,” 20% “sometimes,” and 66.67% “rarely.” Students having fingers on the wrong keys was reported higher with 33.33% “sometimes,” 46.67% “rarely,” and 20% “never.” Students were also more likely to miss articulating with their tongue, with 6.67% “always,” 46.67% “often,” and 46.67% “sometimes.” Breathing problems were higher, with poor breath use rated at 53.33% “often,” and 46.67% “sometimes.” Worse results were also seen with posture. Correct posture and hand positioning was reported only at 6.67% “often,” 33.33% “sometimes,” 46.67% “rarely,” and 13.33% “never.” Considerably worse results were reported for misaligning their flute, with 6.67% “always,” 60% “often,” and 33.33% “sometimes.” Finally, not being able to fit their flute into their case correctly was also worse, with 13.33% “often,” 13.33% “sometimes,” 40% “rarely,” and 33.33% “never.”
The West gathered more in the middle for trouble with students only knowing thumb Bb at 13.33% “always,” .67% “often,” 46.67% “sometimes,” 13.33% “rarely,” and only 20% “never.”
Slightly better results were gathered for using damaging materials on their instrument, with only 6.67% “often,” 26.67% “sometimes,” 33.33% “rarely,” and 33.33% “never.”
Question four and ten were comparable to the group as a whole.
There was too small a sample size for countries outside the US were appropriate to measure separately.
The final question on the survey was an open-ended response that allowed teachers to type their findings of additional problems. Read below.
1. “I have had several students come to me and not even making a sound just a “whoosh” but not tone. Only one of maybe the 4 I can think of actually knew that she wasn’t getting the time she should have been getting. The rest thought that was normal. They do sectionals but somehow these students still fell through the cracks.”
2. “Students only knowing B as Bb because they were taught Bb before B. Student not familiar with sharps past C#.”
3. “My biggest gripe is that they often do not know that B and E natural exists. If they do, they are mystified as to when to use them.”
4. “Deep Breathing by lifting shoulders-frequent; playing with the flute rolled in very far- frequent.”
5. “Most students learn 1&1 Bb first, as that is what the method books teach, and are not able to easily switch to thumb Bb. Embouchure problems are the most common issues I see (unless their band directors are flute players).”
6. “ 1)Don’t know where to look to find correct fingerings. Often.
2)Do not know how to play in tune, adjust placement on lip, air direction or use of headjoint to tune. Aways.
3) Do not know how to improve finger technique. (Play with fast fingers) Always.
4) Do not know the correct and healthy sitting posture or performance posture. Always.
5) Do not understand most rhythms or how keep a pulse. Often.
6) Do not understand how to create musical direction of a phrase. Often.
Right thumb placement!”
7. “Students only know to use 1+1 Bb.”
8. “Band directors talk too much about air speed (whereas air direction is more important). Air speed makes beginner flutes use their air poorly, meaning poor tone and tuning. Air direction (but always good air) solves the issues easily.”
9. “I’ve had students [not] know the higher octave note fingerings somewhat often.”
10. “I have a lot of students who have their tongue in a strange place, often hitting the roof of their mouth or they are producing a k with the back of the tongue instead of a t.”
11. “Some are taught to roll in or out to adjust their pitch.”
12. “I’m see this from the same districts and it affects almost all of the flute players. Students who are taught R1 B-flat first and then never make the transition to thumb b-flat. I get them after several years and it’s almost impossible to get them to transition. Why teach something in the early days of playing that really doesn’t apply to the real world? It’s easier to teach the thumb B-flat and then teach the B-natural thumb (something new) as opposed to making them relearn how to play. The districts that teach thumb B-flat and then introduce the other options tend to have the better flute players.”
13. “Right hand thumb placement is always a problem.”
14. “Balance issues seem to be very common with students coming from band. I think many band directors do not know 3 points of contact and have them put their right thumb too far forward.”
15. “A lot of inefficient hand and instrument positioning, lack of breath support. I’m a flute player myself and find it SO hard to teach!”
16. “My biggest issue is them being taught forked Bb. It is hard to switch them to thumb B-flat and it makes they’re playing much harder.”
17. “Most of the beginners I see have not been taught how to position the lip plate properly under the bottom lip—with bottom lip covering one third of the embouchure hole. Nor do they know how to produce the 4 sounds that you can get on the headjoint (using air speed and direction without moving their head).”
18. “I have had students who have been told to “roll in” or “roll out” to adjust intonation.
I have students who play timidly and show hesitation to play out, especially for high register notes.
I have students who are not accustomed to playing in natural or sharp keys.”
19. “A lot of the band music comes pre-printed with the letter names (without flats or sharps, just letters) so most of the kids can’t read the music at all. :(“
20. “Additional problems that are too common-the lack of thought given to finger work and how to perform a proper articulation articulation according to what’s in the music.”
21. “The band teachers seem to be on a schedule that is way too fast; correct breathing is not taught, notes and rhythms are added too fast and not mastered; and don’t get me started on never playing b natural or e natural.”
22. “Many students who come to me after learning in a band centred program can not play in keys requiring B and E naturals. They are told that Bb is “B” and Eb is “E”, and don’t understand the function of the flat sign.”
23. “No smile method problems but many overcovering the hole and trying to squeeze higher notes out instead of pushing the lips forward to angle the air up.”
24. “Many cannot read the notes. They figure them out and write the names above the notes.”
25. “Students do not understand fundamentals of tone production. Limited to blowing more or less.”
26. “Left Hand finger position, flat fingers, consistent misalignment of the joints, breathy breathing between every note/not practicing proper breathing technique.”
27. “Appropriate pedagogy is abandoned to get flutes in band as fast as possible. Flute should NEVER start on D! :(“
28. “Frequently have students who have to think about the names of notes on the staff, who have very large apertures who get an airy tone, who have very, very poor practice habits, i.e., never playing outside of band or lessons, apparently practice records are no longer a thing in the area I teach in, and very little ownership over their flute practice and performance, i.e., waiting to be told what to do, what to audition for. Also very, very little scales being gone over in middle school band, no minor scales, and students not being able to identify scales and arpeggios in their music. Sightreading ability is also dismal, something I spend time with every student every lesson.”
29. “Students who pinch with lips only, to get middle register, and cannot open up/relax embouchure at all.”
30. “Only learn “long Bb” and have trouble utilizing thumb Bb, overblowing low notes for the 3rd register (usually D Eb F G) i.e., not learning/teaching 3rd octave fingerings. Sometimes wonky rhythm. Unable to play well unless in a band setting. Playing solo and having a steady beat, even with the band music, is challenging.”
31. “Transferring to piccolo far too soon, when they are still pinched in their flute embouchure and giving them a piccolo just worsens it.”
32. “Players who ONLY know 1+ 1 B- flat, tonguing between teeth, blowing harder to go high, no knowledge of notes below first space A, no idea what E natural/B natural are. Don’t think this is due to band program necessarily but just having a non-specialist or band teacher who chooses poor repertoire.”
33. “Problems with reading music, not being able to play octaves correctly, overall sloppy playing (fingers not coordinated, notes and articulation unclear), playing only approximately what is written, playing by ear rather than playing what is written, no idea of how they sound, only being able to play in band specific keys…”
34. “I have had students who have struggled with the concept of producing dynamics and controlling them.”
35. “Sometimes students can’t remember fingerings from week to week.”
36. “Habitually holding their flute close to their side due to seating setup in the band room.”
37. “Constant offenders in my area:
1) Thumb Bb does not get taught in our schools much, so students are usually mind-blown to learn about it and struggle to add it to their repertoire of “normal” fingerings, except in the case of maybe a fairly advanced high schooler that has figured it out in their own (But then they still don’t know the nuanced reasons to choose between any one of the 3 Bb fingerings – that seems to be a pretty advanced concept that needs a private teacher’s explanation.)
2) Smile or at least non-pouting embouchure is prevalent. Bottom lip not turned out.
3) Lack of tonguing, but usually not for lack of it having been taught; rather, students just don’t bother to do it or to follow articulation in music because it is not reinforced regularly.
4) Posture is possibly the worst….never have I received a student who already knew how to stand or sit with music stand to the left, left foot forward/right back, and hands remaining generally in front of body. They always try to hold the flute way out to the right, parallel with body, arms reaching uncomfortably across body. I regularly ask my students to “teach” their flute section and director how to accommodate good posture in the flute section. Also, I nearly always fix hand poison, curvy fingers and balance issues, but not so much which fingers to put keys on except with brand new beginners.
5) LH first finger is often, maybe always, left down on middle D and Eb. And high D is sometimes played with RH 3 fingers down, as for middle and low D.
6) Db/C# intonation is never corrected.
7) General tuning: while kids may learn to take a tuning Bb in band and might know they should pull headjoint in or out, they absolutely never have a consistent, fast flow of air to support good intonation to start with. Low/mid registers are very flat and weak, while high register is loud, nearly overblown and wildly sharp.
8) A related problem to #7 is the inability to create a range of dynamics while maintaining good air flow and therefore good flute tone. Usually, piano is just pinched or played with extremely weak air without embouchure support. Also, students don’t know how to really blow to get a solid forte sound that is well controlled and focused.
9) Embouchure flexibility is often lacking. Middle School students who are learning a broader range of notes into the high register are usually still splitting notes above the staff and getting octaves/two pitches at once.
10) I feel like Flute is the hardest for many band directors (unless they are a flute player) so that’s why so much of these bad habits begin. Due to the band teachers lack of Flute knowledge.
11) Articulations are usually a huge issue. They just don’t follow them. They also usually can’t play low notes which is what Trevor Wye says we must begin with as flutists.
12) Many students only learn flat keys and it takes a really long time to teach them the other B and E
13) I get multiple students a year who play in pain and think it is normal. Almost every band student I see plays with huge amounts of tension. They force. Also, their flutes are regularly in extreme disrepair and they think that’s normal too.
14) Right hand thumb too far forward
15) No idea how to breathe.
16) Not knowing what a sharp or natural is. Band directors get lazy and refer to Bb and Eb as B and E, for example.
17) Articulating with a P, lips closed – occasionally. Being told to roll in or out for intonation as the only option – often. Fingers flying off the keys – almost always. Using the wrong part of the finger to press the key – almost always.”
Clearly, many teachers are re-iterating the problems with hand positioning, specifically the right thumb placement. There is also a reflection of differing opinions on the introduction of Bb fingerings, though on the whole it seems whichever one is introduced first seems to be their go-to regardless of appropriateness. Embouchure problems, independence as a flutist, breath use, intonation, and problems with reading naturals and sharps are also widespread from these reports.
Limitations and Considerations:
We don’t know where the band directors in any given state were trained, but ongoing professional development might play into how these regional differences occur. More questions arise here. Often, music educators receive the same professional development as other subject areas, meaning they are not given subject-specific professional development, unless they attend a conference such as ones held in many states as a branch of the National Music Educators Association. However, attendance at these is not necessarily guaranteed or paid by the district. Are band directors receiving any ongoing professional development in their subject area? Does it vary by grade level? My experience as a public teacher teaching high school music is that I did not receive subject-specific training except through attending PMEA (Pennsylvania Music Educators Association) conferences, and the topics would vary.
Another question to ask is where did the more positive responses come from? Did these students have more time in band, or were their band directors flutists? What is currently bringing success?
Additionally, differences in reporting from teacher to teacher might suggest differences in their own priorities or knowledge. A more accurate way to measure students from place to place, using a detailed scoresheet, or even better, a video that is scored by the same flutist, could reveal more accurate regional differences in the education of flutists in band class.
Implications and Call to Action:
Overall, the Midwest appeared to have the most scores that faired better than the country as a whole, and the West scored lower than the country as a whole.
Regardless of region, as it appears by the responses, there are widespread problems with basic flute playing. These questions did not begin to delve into intermediate or advanced performance challenges. Many addressed issues that band directors would be able to teach, given adequate time and resources.
One fact is obvious: they don’t—have adequate time or resources. As one respondent stated, “The band teachers seem to be on a schedule that is way too fast…” and another insightful teacher wrote, “…not for lack of it having been taught; rather, students just don’t bother to do it or to follow… [instruction in] music because it is not reinforced regularly.” “Transferring to piccolo far too soon…” and a complaint that students suffer to “… get flutes in band as fast as possible…” also relay the viewpoint from the outside.
While we cannot gift them time, as we are often introduced to students after they have joined the band program, we can gift them resources: us. The true way to improve student outcomes is for flute students to regularly be in contact with skilled flute teachers from an early start. Masterclasses and guest clinicians are often brought in for high schoolers, and on a rare basis, at least where I am from (Pennsylvania, USA). By then, many problematic habits are ingrained and much more difficult to break.
Ideally, flute professionals should be working with sectionals from the start, or even to teach private lessons to students inside the school. Summers should not be seen as “time off” from an instrument. And yes, we should be paid for this effort. How the funds are raised would be a topic for another article, but simply returning to old budgets prior to the constant slashing of music education would be a start.
Jocelyn Crosby is a concert flutist, freelance performer and collaborative musician based in Lancaster, PA. She won third prize for the 2022 National Flute Association’s Alto Flute Artist Competition in Chicago. She was a 2021 scholarship recipient and performer for the international Galway Flute Festival and was featured on WHYY’s House Concert Series. She has subbed at the Fulton Theatre in their pit orchestra. She enjoys teaching the flute out of her home in Lancaster and at the Community Music School in Collegeville, PA. She additionally serves as a board member for the Flute Society of Greater Philadelphia and volunteers with the Musical Arts Society of Lancaster.
Ms. Crosby is a twice graduate of Temple University, most recently having earned her Master of Music degree, and she has obtained an additional Master of Education degree from the University of Wisconsin. She is Pennsylvania certified to teach music from grades Pre-K to 12. Her flute teachers include Ms. Diana Morgan, Dr. Adeline Tomasone, Ms. Eileen Grycky, and Dr. Lynne Cooksey.
You can read more at JocelynCrosby.com and connect on Facebook.