In working with student flutists, whether adult, college, or high school age, I have come to realize I have specific expectations. It turns out that these expectations come from my own work ethic and style—philosophy, if you will—so I thought it might be useful to briefly outline some of these details. I hope they might be found useful not only for playing the flute, but in the process of living life as well.
Number one: no matter your age, you must be teachable if you hope to evolve in life or in playing the flute. Being teachable means that you are willing to make yourself vulnerable, which requires courage. This means opening yourself completely, by acknowledging that you do not already know everything you could know (no matter your age and experience), and every opportunity offers new lessons to learn. This is what has been referred to as being a “Life Student”, because an internal open-ness to all lessons life offers is the most alive approach you can receive from. Perhaps that is a better way to put it: open your mind and heart to receive, if you wish to evolve. Open your mind and heart to evolve, if you wish to receive.
Having innate curiosity follows from a willingness to learn, and by this I mean questioning/examining everything. As Socrates put it, “the unexamined life is not worth living”. This, too, requires courage, because it might make us different from our neighbor, and our human tendency is to congregate in herds so we feel we belong and are accepted. Questioning also requires special effort, and effort is also something we would rather avoid—whether examining traits in our own psychology, personality, work habits, or our overall approach to life. We tend to frequent the well-worn paths of least resistance (least effort) because we won’t have to stick out and be different, where more might be required of us, or where others might “judge” us for being different. I am a firm believer that one way is NOT the only way, no matter the topic. So expending this effort in questioning everything you have been told means you will ultimately find your own truths and methods, and this is the sure path of truly knowing anything—byknowing it internally.
It is interesting to note that most of our schooling—grade school through high school—more consistently taught us a method of learning by taking in a horde of information. It most often did not teach us toquestion. Look at the word education. It is derived from the Latin word educare, which means “to draw out, lead out”. Notice that it does not mean “to put in, to stuff full of ”. Drawing out means that something magnificent is already inside you, and a teachers’ job is to bring it out of you and get you to think for yourself. In the end, you must be your own best teacher, and you cannot come to this if you have merely accepted everything an authority figure or person you admire says. After being “taught” something, why not ask yourself questions about it, so you can go to a deeper level of understanding? For example, how about the actual sound you wish to produce on the flute? Do you just produce it as you are told, or do you ask yourself questions about what kind of sound you want? If you ask yourself what kind of sound you want, you will need to make yourself familiar with as many different flute sounds as possible, to determine what might be possible, what you like best and why (or don’t like, and why), and then try to accomplish it for yourself.
One of the many magical things about honing ones craft on an instrument is that it is a perfect Teacher toward life itself. We get to work on the large to microscopic philosophical, intellectual, and psychological aspects of our own being within the perimeters of music. Everything that needs work in learning to play both the flute and music itself will be a perfect analogy and insight into your own being. I say both flute and music separately, because learning flute is primarily technical, and learning music is a sublime act originating from ones soul.
This active process of learning ones craft also requires courage, because it is actually an act of constant self-confrontation in seeking your own truth. Your heart will be confronted, as if you are being questioned by an external Examiner. Only if you can respond with an open, inner yes, show me, can you start to work at “fixing” or honing the perceived problem. (Again, becoming teachable). You will soon be confronted with so many of life’s personal challenges, and you will get to work on them directly: impatience into patience; frustration into persistence; sloth into diligence; self-critic into compassion; stagnate and un-flowing into passion; emptiness into soulful-ness. Look at your self-critic, for example. Make note of how you speak to yourself internally while you are working. Are the words harsh, cutting, and somewhat self-punishing? If so, is that making you a better player? Is that the best way for you to be taught? Of course not. After you catch your own internal dialogue that is busy criticizing your playing, try turning it around to compassion toward yourself. Think how you might speak to a young, innocent child if they were playing in the way you would have just described yourself. You would speak to them lovingly and with encouragement as to how to progress—you wouldn’t dare be chastising them. It would be good for us to learn how to be this way toward ourselves, then. Thus, what we truly practice is how to become a better human being, not just a better player of the flute.
While you work on your Human Condition, you will become more unique and authentic both in your playing and personally. It is the opposite of being an imitator. It’s good to imitate in order to learn something, but then one must grow beyond imitation into authenticity. You don’t really want to sound like so-and-so, because you are not them, and they are not YOU. Learn from them to expand yourself, and then return to center, as it were. Only you alone have been given your particular makeup as a human being—it was Given to you. Dedicate yourself to honing what has been given, and look for the paths that allow all of this to flourish. As you do so, you will then be giving back your gifts to others, as life seems to work in this circular way. It is like breathing in, and then breathing out. You open yourself to learning, examine everything possible and grow to greater understanding and depth (honing your craft), and then you give it all back to the world in a new and alive way.
Finally, give your music-making purpose in life. Try to find deeper meanings of why you play the flute (remember joy?), and what it is you want to do for your audience or anyone listening to you. Personally, I think it’s great that music is “entertaining”. We are said to be in the entertainment industry. But that description falls far short of how I view it for myself. As I mentioned earlier, music is matter of the soul. It first touches my own soul, and then my job is to simply give it away in performance and hope that it can touch any other souls. I hone my craft as much as possible, and the moment I walk out onto the stage I am no longer in “honing” mode, I am walking out there to literally offer up everything I’ve been given, no holes barred, and allow the great Mystery that is music to do its own work. After all, when you have finished your practicing and move into performance mode, the only thing TO do is to let go and let it fly, because you are doing what you love, and that is why you are there in the first place. Keep sight of that in all your participations with music, whether practicing, listening, or performing. It is the greatest of privileges—loving what you do.
10 recapitulating suggestions:
- Be Teach-able. Through everyone and everything you encounter.
- Question everything. Be curious, so that your own unique way and methods will evolve.
- Practice viewing the world through learning the flute. (View the “Bigger Picture”). It is a perfect analogy and insight into your own being, in all the complexities of soul, personality tendencies, and intellect, with positive goals.
- Your most essential work in practicing the flute is to become a better (happier) human being, not just to become a better flute player.
- Practicing is an ACTIVE process, and it is largely based upon REPETITION. Be happy to work hard with your mind alert to all details. Repeat, repeat, repeat. (That is, your phrases you are practicing to learn, as well as this sentence).
- Be unique and authentic, not just an imitator. Breakthroughs and discoveries will sprout from within all that you alone have been Given. (That is why some will call you “Gifted”).
- Be kind to yourself. You are a Life Student, not just a once-for-all-time learner. Dis-empower the self-critic by learning to diagnose a problem and simply work the solution with compassion toward yourself.
- If you want to save yourself time, practice SLOWLY. One thing at a time, all the time it needs. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
- Blow your Soul wide open. Blow the flute from your soul, not just your lungs.
- Be bold. Create a purpose for yourself: think about what you want your music to be for YOU, and what you would like it to be for your LISTENERS.