Welcome to the Big Pond: some advice for first-year college students

By Michelle Barraclough

As a flute professor, the beginning of the fall college semester is an exciting time for me. I enjoy reuniting with the upper-level students and welcoming the new students. The campus environment is full of fresh experiences: meeting people who may be very different from you, living independently without a parent’s guidance, and managing time well. It can be a lot to absorb. 

At the small college where I teach, I find myself not only teaching new students flute skills but also practicing habits, time management, and musical etiquette. Here are several suggestions for my new students.

Welcome to the Big Pond 

Before coming to college, you may have been a ‘big fish in a small pond’ at your high school. You may have been principal chair flute, attended festivals or workshops, played in special school ensembles, and won some awards. Now that you’ve arrived at your college, stop and take a look around. Most of the flutists you see are just like you and share many (and sometimes more) of these accomplishments. You are now in the big pond with a lot of other big fish! That can be a humbling moment. It’s also an opportunity-–you will now have to step up from your previous accomplishments. It’s a clean slate for everyone, so you get the chance to create new paths and habits for yourself as you work to improve. Time to swim with those other fish!

Say Yes 

One of the beauties of the college experience is new opportunities. There are ensembles to try, courses to study, music to learn, and ideas to ponder. When an exciting opportunity comes your way (especially if it is one presented by your teacher), say yes. Figure out a way to immerse yourself in these opportunities, even if you are concerned you may not have the time. I find that people will make the time for things that are really important to them. There are still some opportunities that I missed in college that I regret. Of course, you need to create your own priorities; not all things that come your way will excite you. But if you instantly light up when a specific chance is given to you, say yes!

Create Balance 

With all of these new opportunities, classes, people, activities, and ideas, it is easy to get completely overwhelmed. Balance is important. Most artists I know try to be continually aware of creating balance in their lives. You can’t create good art without any outside inspiration. So don’t live your life in the practice room. The break will refresh your brain, body, and spirit. You will find new inspiration and the will to continue. 

Do you have a hobby or interest outside of music? Maybe you like seeing films, playing video games, knitting, eating Mexican food, or something else. Find other folks who share that interest. You will meet people outside the music building and gain some new perspectives. One student said one of the best things she did was join a sorority because she met people outside of her performing arts major and learned some great networking and social skills.

Balance also means taking care of yourself physically. All of the standard advice holds true: eat good food, get some exercise, drink a lot of water, and get enough sleep. I have seen students ignore those things to their own peril–they became very ill, struggled to manage chronic health issues, or got into auto accidents due to lack of sleep. I want my students to be able to make music for as long as possible. Having a life balance will make that happen.

Take Notes 

I’m continually surprised at the number of students I teach that don’t take notes in class or lessons. When I was in school, I remember frantically writing down anything the teachers said, hoping to gain important insights, profound knowledge, or at least some fact that would turn up on the final exam. Maybe it’s because the notetaking methods have changed from pen and paper to computers, but it seems that there is less notetaking now. I see this as a huge missed opportunity (remember from above to say yes to opportunity!). Your notes can re-phrase the teacher’s words into your own, or you can draw your own pictures and doodles to illustrate important points. If you prefer modern technology, use one of the many apps available. There’s no substitute for your own comments, translations, and interpretations of your teacher’s words. Having notes makes it much easier to put your teacher’s suggestions into practice.

It’s important to give yourself time to adjust to your new flute teacher. I remind my students that I may say things in lessons that sound crazy now but will make a lot of sense later. I encourage you to be open to trying new things. Some ideas may click and others may not work for you. I tell my students that it’s important to find what works for them in the process and to feel free to disregard what does not. However, try the idea before rejecting them. Your growth will happen when you experiment.

“To thine own self be true” 

Shakespeare got it right. Coming to college is about learning to be yourself. You may have carried certain labels or stereotypes in high school. Remember that clean slate? It applies here too. You are now free to figure out who you really are, without the pressures of your high school teachers, parents, or community. Of course, those people have shaped who you are as well, so it’s silly to throw all of that away without consideration. One of my former students said, “College is about finding who you want to be and making the effort to get there.” I can’t say it any better than that. 

Follow the money 

It’s no secret that a college education is expensive. Additionally, being a music major has numerous hidden costs. Some of these extra costs may include:

  • Additional fee for flute lessons (not included in regular college tuition)
  • Owning a good quality flute that is well maintained
  • Purchasing sheet music
  • Appropriate concert attire
  • Musical accessories: tuner/metronome, folding music stand, flute bag, protective case and cover, cleaning swab, flute stand.
  • Additional instruments, like a piccolo
  • Earplugs

Because we’re dealing with such specialized equipment, costs add up quickly. I encourage students to take a solid look at their finances and find solutions that work well for them. You may see another student with a fancy flute–that is fine for them. There are so many options now for flutes, so work with your teacher to find something that is within your budget. Often you can find good deals on used equipment online as well. It’s not necessary to keep up with the next flutist in spending money. The peace of mind of knowing that you spent within your means is priceless. 

Form great habits 

Hopefully, you had strong practice habits prior to arriving at college. After all, those habits got you to this point! You will likely find that you need to adjust these habits, form new ones, and examine ones that are not effective.  The schedule of college life is quite different than high school. There is much less structured time as there are no ringing bells telling you when to change classes. College students are expected to learn material prior to attending class and be able to synthesize the material in the classroom. For flutists, this means establishing clear study and practice habits. Ask your teacher for suggestions if you need them. Some students (and some teachers require) a practice journal that logs their daily activity. Once you know your class schedule, you should figure out your daily practice time and treat it as if it is a required class. On busy days, try to squeeze in a short practice session because daily practice is what adds up to noticeable results. 

Great habits also extend outside of the practice room, including taking care of yourself. That means eating right, getting enough sleep, exercising, and recreational time. Remember balance? Creating solid habits helps maintain your balance. If you want more concrete steps about habit creation, check out Atomic Habits by James Clear.

Cherish the moments 

The college years can be such a wonderful time in a student’s life. You have more time to practice than you ever will later in life (trust me on this), you are exposed to a world of new ideas, and you create lifelong bonds with fellow music students. Those connections are important for professional networking, but more importantly, enrich your life enormously. It’s good to take a moment to appreciate how far you’ve come, consider the road ahead, and appreciate each moment. Celebrate your successes as they happen, and those of your friends! 

“Have courage and be kind” 

The dominating theme in Kenneth Branaugh’s live-action Cinderella movie is “Have courage and be kind.” It’s a good motto for flutists to follow as well. 

Being a flutist takes a great deal of courage. We stand up in front of others and communicate through our music, which means being vulnerable. Your lessons will expose your weak points and things you don’t like about your playing. Facing these challenges head-on is intimidating. Keep moving forward, you will eventually get the results you want. Remember that courage is not the absence of fear–it’s recognizing that it’s important to move forward and do hard things anyway. 

There are a lot of very talented flutists out there. It’s not necessary to be chummy with every single one of your college flute colleagues, but you should be positive and supportive of their efforts. That isn’t always easy, especially in times when someone else gets a better chair placement or a golden opportunity you wish you were given.  It’s difficult to swallow your pride, congratulate the other flutist, and move forward. You would want the same treatment if the roles were reversed. Collegial relations between all flutists in the studio make for a stronger studio where everyone can achieve. The teacher should also be encouraging this kind of environment. 

In the end, your college experience is what you make of it. Keep your balance, take notes, have courage, support your fellow flutists, and most of all, enjoy the amazing ride! I’m cheering for you. Enjoy your swim in the big pond!

Download Michelle Barraclough’s arrangements for two flutes:

Michelle Barraclough

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Michelle Barraclough is an adjunct professor of flute at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania, where she also teaches courses in flute literature and pedagogy, music appreciation, and American music. She is the director of the college Flute Ensemble. She has appeared in several solo and faculty recitals at the college and in the community and with her trio, The Silverwood Trio. She is a founding member of The Keystone Wind Ensemble, created by conductor and composer Jack Stamp. With that ensemble, she recorded eight albums of important wind band repertoire. In 2015, she helped coordinate the college’s participation in “Bach in the Subways”. In addition to her private teaching, she co-hosts a summer flute camp. Her students are members of local youth symphonies and honor bands and have won collegiate competitions and festival honors. She has a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Music Performance from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and a Master of Music in Flute Performance from Catholic University. Her teachers include Carl Adams and Alice Weinreb. Her current flute project is creating flute duet versions of standard repertoire so teachers can accompany students when there is no piano available.