Guest Post by Aleah Fitzwater
It is all too tempting to give a student the answer to a question that pops up during a private lesson. Providing the solution right away is not very beneficial. Allowing a student to figure out the answer on their own will allow the student the following:
- More engagement
- A more firmly planted memory of the answer
Think all the way back to when you were in high school. Do you remember those teachers? The ones who rambled on and on at the whiteboard, telling you every detail and having you write down notes about the lesson judiciously.
Your private flute lessons don’t have to be like that class. In fact, they never should be like that class.
Guiding Young Students Through Theory and Reading
One of the most effective ways to teach music theory and music reading is through guiding questions.
For younger flute students, I like to start by using emotions to describe modes. You can even use this method to gently correct mistakes due to missed key signatures.
For example, one of the students in my private studio was playing Spooky Scary Skeletons in major instead of minor, because she was forgetting two flats (Ab, and Eb). She noticed this and said, “It sounds funny when I play it”. And I said, “Okay, let’s start from there. Now I have a question for you. Does the song normally sound happy, or chilling?” Of course, she replied “Chilling!”
Then, I responded like this “Okay, so to make our song more chilling, we need to play it in minor. Double-check your key signature! Which flats do you see?”
It’s important to not leave your students feeling stranded. Leave enough time for them to think about it. But, if it seems like they are getting stuck and nervous, provide another (smaller) question that is closer to the answer. There were several points during this short conversation where my student got stuck, so I gave her more little questions and fewer arching ones. But guiding questions can be used at any age. The more advanced students get, the more often I employ queries that lead them to a stylistic choice.
Guiding Questions and Stylistic Decisions
Say you are teaching Bach’s Partita in a Minor, and you and your student are looking at the second movement: Sarabande
Whenever I start this piece with a student (or any slow piece, for that matter) I start with a statement. For the Sarabande, I say: The beginning of the piece is soft and gentle. Next, I pose a guiding question. This time, rather than fixing notes in the key signature, we are going to guide towards a stylistic choice. The way I would guide a student towards a stylistic/ dynamic decision looks like this:
“If you were watching a movie that had this music in it, what would be happening in this scene?”
It is extremely important to allow your students to make stylistic decisions that you personally disagree with, especially at first. We don’t all want to have flute players doing Bach’s Sarabande the same way. If we operated under those standards, we’d only need one flute player for everything!
I actually find it to be more important to ask guiding questions about movies / imagined scenes with adult students than with young students. I know that it can be very easy for me to sit down and just ‘play the notes on the page’ if I’m not careful. It can be difficult to phrase such questions in a way that doesn’t sound silly, or rather, sounds mature. But I’ll be silly with my adult students all day long if it helps them reach their expressive goals.
My undergrad flute professor was a master at asking questions that allowed me to make stylistic decisions. One of his favorite examples was a sun rising at the beginning of the Bach partita (movement 2). He said the whole movement was like the sun. The sun rose and then set. And that explained the movement: The gentle beginning, the swell in the middle, and the extremely soft dynamic at the end.
I can vividly recall him getting so animated with this story he made and had expressed at my recital. Ever since then, I knew I wanted to teach expression with stories – But I wanted my students to be the ones telling them.
Throughout my years as a private flute instructor, I have heard many creative stories from students about what might be happening in the movie that is within the music. From “I’m stealing an alto flute”, too, “I am a Pirate” to “It’s the blooming of a flower”. Guiding questions are one of my favorite tools to steer the ship when it comes to private lessons. I hope you have fun employing them in yours, too!
About the Author: Aleah Fitzwater is a classical flutist, music educator, and music blogger.
You can find more of her work at
where she teaches musicians how to digitize sheet music, and at her website https://aleahfitzwater.com/