by Aiva Elsina
Oh, teaching, TEACHING! “What a wonderful job!” I usually hear people saying when I mention my profession. Yes, we teachers have an important task to shape our students’ lives, to teach them discipline, concentration, sensibility, and many other indispensable skills. It is rewarding to see them progress with time, becoming better musicians and developing their own unique personalities.
Sounds like a dream job, right? But sometimes there are bumps and potholes on the way leading to the music paradise. In this article, you’ll find my TOP 5 strategies to defeat laziness and reluctance of the most challenging students to face musical difficulties. Let’s start with a little story…
A few years ago, I was trying to build my private music studio. Things were improving slowly, but they weren’t great. I was struggling to get my name out, and unfortunately my shy personality didn’t help in promoting flute lessons! The financial side kept pressing hard and I ended up accepting everyone who expressed the tiniest interest in playing the flute and everyone who I could persuade to try. My “not being choosy” strategy resulted in a group of very different students. Some of them were truly amazing – very committed and it was a real delight to work together. Some of them were usual students with their best and worst moments, sometimes enthusiastic and sometimes struggling to practice at home.
And then there were those who I call “Lazy Giovanni”s or “Tired Suzie”s. They were the kids that came to the lesson, and every time the first thing that came out of their mouth just right after ”Hello!” was ”Oh my goodness, I am sooooo tired!” or “I just want to go to sleep…”.
At the slightest difficulty, there was a moan: “nooo, it is too difficult” mixed with a good amount of repetitious “I can’t do it!”. I spent most of the lesson time convincing them to play at least something, not even mentioning practicing at home.
If you have never had this type of student, I congratulate you sincerely. Probably you have been luckier than me, or you might have had a choice or ease to let these students go. But for those who have to teach Lazy Giovannis and Tired Suzies, I know you feel my pain. These lessons are like dementors from the Harry Potter story. They suck all the energy and enthusiasm out of you and generates despair. It was dreadful for me to see the clock hands move closer to the lesson time and to notice how slow they became once the lesson had started. It was enough of having one “Tired Suzie” per day to feel drained and miserable!
After a while, I found myself not being able to continue teaching lessons like that but at the same time not being able to let my Tired Suzies and Lazy Giovannis go because of financial reasons. It was a nightmare. I had to do something about it.
I racked my brain for the right solution and finally came up with an idea.
I decided to make the lessons much more game–like to trick my difficult students into playing and eventually to help them in developing the habit of constant practicing. It’s widely known that game elements are very useful in teaching. They help to shift the attention from the difficulties of practicing to the fun without lowering the level of results achieved. My only task was to adapt these game elements to flute playing.
Here are my top 5 strategies. They are very easy and don’t require much preparation time.
1) Use the dice.
May the soul of the person who invented dice be blessed! It is my favourite secret weapon to defeat “Nooo, I don’t want to do it again!”.
There are many ways to use the dice. You can roll it to see how many times to repeat one difficult passage. Or if you have many little exercises roll the dice to see which one you have to play.
I find dice especially useful when teaching first notes B, A, and G. It is very hard to make a beautiful piece of only three notes and most beginners can’t hear and understand the melody they are playing yet. The breathing, posture, fingers, music reading is involved, there is a lot of coordination work going on at this stage, and it is of crucial importance to obtain good skills to play these notes. For the little student, it might seem dull to repeat endlessly three notes, and the last thing the teacher wants at this point is to bore the young player.
I usually prepare six little exercises and add a number to each of them. The student has to roll the dice and play the number he/she gets. We continue the game until all the exercises have been played.
2) Play 3 times in a row without making any mistakes.
I love this game. Even the laziest student is competitive. Challenging a student to play 3 (or 2, or whatever number you think is appropriate) times perfectly is a good workout for focus, and it makes the student repeat the passage many times without getting bored. If a mistake is made, you have to start everything from the beginning.
I love to use a picture for this game. It’s laminated and you actually can stick the figurine of a boy or girl to it with a blue tack! It’s amazing how much fun my students have while “climbing the mountain”! Every single time your student plays the passage right makes the figurine climb higher. You can draw your picture, or you are very welcome to use mine! Print out the pictures, cut out the boy or girl, and make him/her climb all the way up. More I admit we laugh heartily whenever the mistake is made and the poor flutist falls off the mountain.
3) Scale cards
The most difficult task to do with my Lazy Giovannis and tired Suzies is to practice scales. For that reason, I have created the scale cards. You simply have to let the student pick a card with a scale to play. Or you can make cards with different articulations like staccato, legato, non legato, and you can add arpeggio, thirds, dominant seventh chord card too… Whatever you need at the moment! You can work on scales until all the cards are done or you can play a game of “pick 3 (or more) cards”. There are a lot of options! Allowing the student to choose their scale is a way to avoid being the “big bad teacher” who asks and asks to do the boring tasks. That’s a simple shift in responsibilities, and it WORKS! It’s enough to say “you chose it, you play it!”.
Setting a timer is a good solution when a moment of complete 100% focus is needed. I use the timer when something needs to be done no matter what. Usually, I break down the task into smaller goals and set the timer for no longer than 5 minutes. After the timer rings, we chat a little while or do something easy, and then we do another timer session. It creates a good contrast between highly demanding brain work and something relaxing.
5) Treasure hunt
An easy way to get things done is to make some “treasure boxes”, spread them around the studio, and hide a task in them. If you have several tiny gift boxes to use, it would be even better! But you can also print out some treasure box pictures to use them as hiding places! It’s unbelievable how exciting children can get if they have to find their task! It’s even more interesting if the boxes are not easily visible, and you have to look for them (the “hot and cold” game could be used to locate them). You can hide big tasks like playing the whole piece, or break them down into smaller ones like “play the passage from bar 34 to 42 five times”. It’s completely up to you and the type of tasks you have to work on!
I hope from all my heart you can find these game-like strategies worth trying. I believe one or a maximum of two games should be used per lesson mixed with classic way of teaching. My goal has always been helping the student to develop a healthy habit of practicing while acquiring new information and facing some difficulties. Having some fun moments on the way is a wonderful distraction from all the hard work, and it is always nice to see the students smile and having a good time! And you never know, maybe it can stimulate the young mind eventually to practice at home too.
To download the materials mentioned in the article please visit https://www.funnyflute.com/free-resources.html
I wish you all the best and good luck with your students!
Professor of flute at St.Louis School of Milan and International Music School of Milan (Italy)
Founder of website for flutists www.funnyflute.com
Author of two books for beginner flutists “Play with fun. Summer edition. Grade 1” and “Five star studies”.