28. November 2018 · Comments Off on Sparkwork! · Categories: Teaching

I played classical music in my early training, but I was a bad, undisciplined student, so I would dread my teacher coming over. He gave me “Alley Cat,” which had syncopation with it, and finally I was like, “I’m going to sit here and play until I know how to do that.” He gave me a couple of other things, “Deep Purple,” by Peter De Rose, and “Stairway to the Stars,” by Matty Malneck and Frank Signorelli, and those chords did something to me.

—Jeff Goldblum

I read it here.

This quote reminds me that finding something to trigger a student’s interest is so important. Feeding them the music I like isn’t necessarily the ticket. Yes, they need to learn standard oboe repertoire, but if I can find something that piques their interest that may well get them to practice more and, eventually, move to things I think are vital for an oboist’s repertoire list.

I had one student who was quite accomplished but didn’t seem to have a spark I wished he could have. One day I pulled out some Scott Joplin arranged for two oboes. BAM! That did it. We pulled those out frequently. He could sight-read them quite well (he said, “I don’t count it so much as I feel the rhythms”), and doing those duets became quite a joy for both of us.

I’m writing this as much for myself as for others: recently a few of my students aren’t practicing. Perhaps I need to find a “sparkwork” for them.

21. October 2018 · Comments Off on A Good Reminder for All Instructors … · Categories: Read Online, Teaching

With many thanks to Bret Pimentel:

I have lots on things on my list for you today: we should double-check your rhythms on that etude, review those melodic minor scales that were giving you trouble last week, and discuss some finer points of vibrato.

But something about your sunken eyes when I met you at the door, the way you slouched into the room, the slept-in fashion statement, says that today you are Struggling. Not because you are lazy or undedicated. But because college life is fraught with deadlines for research papers and rent payments, and scheduled to the brim with marching band rehearsals and late shifts waiting tables, and fueled by store-brand Pop Tarts and never enough sleep.

Do read the whole thing (link above). This applies not only to Bret’s college students, but to all of our students. I have middle school students who are overly stressed. I have high school students who are so on edge it hurts my heart. All are more important than their oboes!

24. June 2017 · Comments Off on The Energy It Takes · Categories: A Musician's LIfe, Teaching

We “play” our instruments. But playing is just so very wrong … because, believe me, it is hard work. When I’m done with a performance I’m beat. The next day I’m often in recovery mode. Oh the energy it takes!

And then there’s teaching.

Teaching, like playing, takes a ton of energy. The focus is sometimes so very difficult. I have to remove all the clutter of current events — be the events distant or in my own home — and focus on the one student who is playing his or her best (I hope) for the lesson. I have to listen so very carefully. And I have to attempt to get each student to learn to listen as well. That can be tricky.

“What did you hear?”

The first time I ask a student that question I get a befuddled look. Sometimes I think the student has decided I’m an idiot! “Oboe!” might be her response. Or “Notes!” might come from him. Of course what I really am asking is “What did you hear that you would like to do better next time?”

I think I’ll put it that way this next week and see what my students come up with.

As I have told so many of them, one thing about what we do is that it can always be better. It’s the fun and the curse of this profession, I suppose. No room for boredom. But sometimes rather frustrating!

Today I had seven students. I’m now depleted of energy, but my weekend has begun and I don’t see another student until Tuesday. Time to relax, recuperate, and look forward to the next week of teaching.

03. December 2016 · Comments Off on Just a little thought … or maybe two … · Categories: Teaching, Technique

When you practice are you using the same posture that you use when you are in rehearsals or concerts? Is your head in the same position? How about the angle of the oboe and reed? I’ve noticed that so many of my students have their heads down further than they should be during the start of their lessons, when they are doing long tones and scales. They are looking down much of the time. When I ask if that’s how they sit and hold their heads when they are in rehearsals and concerts they say no. Reeds react differently if we have a different angle. Try to practice with a consistent angle, and use the one you use when at orchestra or band rehearsal.

Oh, and “I always do that!” is not permission to “always do that.” As I tell my students, a conductor would not respond well to me if I made a mistake and said, “I always do that!” as if that somehow makes it acceptable or at least expected. Don’t give yourselves permission to “always do that.” Fix it!

25. June 2016 · Comments Off on “In the Fingers!” · Categories: Teaching

I was talking to a student yesterday about knowing something so well that, should nerves kick in, my fingers just take over and play the notes. Sometimes it catches me by surprise, to be honest. It seems almost as if they magically do the job.

It’s not really magic. It’s practice. Careful, lengthy practice.

It’s work.

Students frequently accept mistakes. They make the same ones over and over. I hear the “I always do that!”, as if that makes it okay. Or at least accepted. Or expected.

Don’t accept. Don’t expect. It’s not okay.


Slow, methodical, careful practice is a good thing. Get passages in your fingers. Nerves kick in and you just don’t want to fall apart. Like dominoes. One goes down, they frequently ALL go down. If you get something in your fingers incredibly well they carry through. It might surprise you, but it’s true!

I grow weary of the four words, “I always do that!” They nearly always occur as a student’s excuse for making a mistake. It’s as though if he or she always does that there’s no reason to fix it. It’s “just the way it is”, after all, and I suppose I’m just supposed to look the other way.

Can you imagine if we used those four words in other areas of our lives?

Try telling a police officer who pulls you over for speeding, “I always do that!” I suspect you’ll still get a ticket.

How about getting a wrong answer on a math problem and telling the teacher, “I always do that!” You’ll still be graded accordingly.

So why is “I always do that!” okay to tell a music teacher? Try something new …

First, don’t accept the “I always do that” excuse. Attempt to fix the problem. Slow down. I really mean that! S L O W D O W N !!!

Get it?

If you make a mistake, stop and think about WHY you are making the mistake. Sometimes it helps to say something out loud. I’ve been known to say, “Don’t play an A flat there!”


Sometimes I have to tell myself what I’m doing wrong in order to really fix the issue. Perhaps a more positive approach would be to yell out “A NATURAL!” That would work too.

Whittle things down to a manageable and FIXABLE portion of music. If you “always do that!” in measure 14, stop working from measure 1. Start with ONLY measure 14. Fix the issue. (SLOW DOWN! Remember?) Take it as slowly as you need to to play it perfectly. Yes, it might be miserably slow, but if you don’t fix the problem it will remain a problem, yes? After you find the tempo that allows perfection, play it five times IN A ROW perfectly. Then move the metronome up a notch or two. Do the five times in a row thing perfectly again. Move the metronome up a few more notches. Repeat. Do this for a while.

But you aren’t done yet!

You might have fixed measure 14, but you’ve not linked it up to measures 13 and 15, have you? So do that next. You might have to slow down again. Use your metronome. The five times in a row rule applies again. You get the idea. After that are you finished? Nope! It’s time to link those three measures up to their next door neighbors! And yes, that five times in a row rule applies yet again.

Trust me, if you do this diligently the “I always do that!” line can disappear from your vocabulary.

Accuracy matters. Greatly. Don’t settle for less.

On occasion I’ve had parents or students ask about how they can improve more rapidly. It’s a tricky thing, this “How do I get better more quickly?!” question, because each student is so different. Some pick up an oboe and struggle greatly. Some pick it up and make a fairly decent sound right away. Some can hear note errors and some (most, I’ve found, have very little or no music in their homes) haven’t a clue when they play a wrong note even if it seems rather obvious to some of us. Some have what I call an internal metronome and some are unable to clap evenly.

We are all different. An obvious statement, I know, but not one that everyone realizes when it comes to music.

I was talking to a student yesterday about ability and music and whether it requires an innate talent or if it can be learned by anyone. Can anyone be a Mozart? I don’t believe so. Can anyone play oboe? I think the answer is yes, just as anyone can pick up a paintbrush and paint some sort of picture. My goal with students is to get them to be the best that each of them can be. I can’t compare. I won’t compare. But I will push, to be sure.

What can a student do to help with playing and listening skills?

  • Listen to music: don’t just play the oboe, but hear what others sound like. Attend live concerts. It’s a good thing to do.
  • Practice slowly and carefully. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked a student, “What did you hear?” and get the “I wasn’t listening!” reply.
  • Don’t accept mistakes. Stop. Find the error and work on just that area of the piece. Then link it back up to the rest.
  • No excuses! Don’t just say, “I always do that!” and allow that to be the reason you miss something. (Yes, I hear this a LOT.)

    … there is more … but I’m heading out the door and need to stop typing. 🙂

    But is there a formula? I don’t think so. Certainly more practice can help, but one student might practice for thirty minutes and play quite well while another might practice for two hours a day and still struggle. I think the only formula I would give out would be “Practice to the best of your ability. Listen carefully. Correct mistakes. And be patient with yourself. Very, very patient.”

    One More Thing
    Attend lessons regularly! I can’t tell you how many fall behind because they attend maybe once or twice a month. Truly!

  • 07. November 2015 · Comments Off on Rewarding · Categories: Teaching

    What a delightful day of teaching today! I don’t write enough about the students I so love to teach. Today was a great day: most of the students came in very well prepared. All are delightful and I enjoy their lessons greatly. I’m feeling so very fortunate!

    29. October 2015 · Comments Off on Sometimes I Miss The Mark · Categories: Teaching

    For the most part teaching brings me great joy. I love working with students, including those with less ability. It’s a bit of a challenge, really, to find out what will get them to work harder, catch on to something they struggle with (rhythm, articulation, intonation … the list is long!), and I do find that energizing much of the time. Working with the more advanced, ability-filled students is wonderful too, although even that comes with challenges.

    But sometimes I fail. Sometimes I fail miserably, and sometimes it’s just that I know I never managed to get a student to work at his or her full potential.

    A few years back I had a student who played well, but I just felt something wasn’t quite all there. The playing was pretty accurate, although there were a few surprising simple mistakes. After a number of lessons I pulled out some sight reading for the student.

    The sight reading was played just as well as the assigned lesson!

    Ah-hah! That student had managed to get by merely by sight reading lessons. A good sight reader can often do that. There were a few rare occasions after that where I could tell something had actually received attention but, for the most part, I do believe lessons continue in sight reading mode. I am going to bet that student, now in college, no longer plays oboe OR has finally learned that one can’t sight read through life. I’m hoping it’s the latter, because I think she found oboe to be an enjoyable thing to do.

    I highly recommend that teachers out there occasionally check in with a student and hand over a little sight reading that is at the same level as the students’ assignments. You might be surprised and learn that your students, too, are just getting by on their innate talent.

    Other students who don’t have the sight reading skill (at least not yet) try to get through lessons while barely looking at the music during the week. How to motivate those students is a challenge. I’m up to it with most of them: there can be ways to encourage a student to practice. There can even be ways to cajole them into it. It takes a lot of effort sometimes, but I know that every student can improve if we can find the right “key” to get them motivated!

    Music is hard work. Oboe is a difficult instrument. It takes time, diligence, desire, and a whole lot of stubbornness! It also takes good practice habits and, in my opinion, a good teacher.

    17. October 2015 · Comments Off on Some Challenges of Teaching · Categories: Teaching

    I don’t often write about my own teaching experiences here. I definitely don’t write naming any names, and I attempt to keep things as anonymous as possible. I’ve seen teachers write publicly either on a website or, more frequently, on Facebook, and I think it’s wrong to do that, just as I don’t like seeing students write negatively about a teacher. I do, however, have no problem about writing about the issues I and other teachers have faced. They are rather universal so one doesn’t have to point out a certain student or parent to write about them.

    Here are just a few issues I’ve had:

    The Rude Response
    Sometimes I say something and a student comes back with a rather rude response. I honestly don’t think all of them even know they are being rude. Sometimes it’s just lack of savvy to that sort of thing. Sometimes it’s how they behave at home. Sometimes, and I suspect this is most common, it’s a way of covering up fear, insecurity and/or mistakes. I won’t tolerate rudeness, and I call them on that. If they are questioning me in a way that is rude I explain that to them, and I hope I give them ideas about how to ask questions without coming across in a rude manner. Questions are great. Rude questioning is not.

    The Lying Response
    Students who lie about practicing (and yes, I’ve written before about that) will, in all likelihood, be found out. My response to a, “Yes, I practiced that every day!” when something has clearly barely been looked at is, as I’ve mentioned before, an, “I’m really sorry to hear that! I was hoping you were going to say you forgot to look at this one because it sounded as if you were sight reading!” I am hopeful that most learn that they may as well come clean at the start. If the piece isn’t good enough they’ll have to repeat it anyway, so admitting it wasn’t worked on saves us all a bit of time and energy.

    The Questioning Response
    Yes, I said I like questions. I really do! What I don’t like is when I tell a student how something should go, or point out a mistake and they look at me as if I haven’t a clue and say, “REALLY?” I’m sorry to say my sarcasm often clicks in at that point and I have to admit I sometimes even say, “No, I was just lying to you.” Mostly I say, “Yes, really. Why would I tell you something that’s not true?” I also get the, “Well, my BAND director says …”. That’s a tough one. I don’t care to contradict a band director, but the majority aren’t oboists and they sure give out a lot of bad information! Recently a few youth orchestra directors have been doing this same thing which was quite new for me to deal with.

    The Non-Responder
    These are the students who simply ignore the errors I point out or don’t listen to my instructions. When they do that it’s usually a chronic problem. Again, I think sometimes this is about fear or insecurity. If they just don’t hear me, they can ignore the issues. When I get students like this I have them repeat what I have instructed or have them tell me what the mistake was.

    I’ve been teaching for a very long time. I know about all of these responses. I deal with them. I hope that I manage, in the end, to get students motivated and excited about oboe. I hope I also encourage them in the long run. Sometimes, though, it’s incredibly difficult to find encouraging words. At the end of those trying lessons, though, I do hope I send the students home with an, “I know this wasn’t as good as it could have been but I have NO DOUBT you can do better!”

    All of that being said, I find these challenges to be somewhat invigorating much of the time.

    Do note, thought, that I didn’t write “ALL of the time”!