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How Much to Change

Teaching is back in my life!

I’m on my second week of lessons at Valparaiso, and it is always exciting and fun to welcome a new freshman class into my studio.  The first few lessons are a getting-to-know-you time for both the student and myself, and by this point I have to start developing my plan of attack.  My challenge is to figure out how much to change.

When I start young students, I can mold them in the right direction from the beginning.  Not that that always works -  but by the time I send them off to college I at least trust that they know how to blow and what the fingerings are in the high register.  Incoming freshmen have LOTS of habits formed by other people.

Some come in with their fundamentals all in place.  They can play the oboe and just need a little encouragement and an ear to bounce phrasing choices off of.  Maybe some reed advice.  Those are the rare ones.  We always have fun.

Far more often, I have students come in who have not taken lessons before.  Or who have for whatever reason developed very peculiar habits.  Some are biters, who chew the reed into submission and play sharp.  Some are tense - so tense that they can barely function as oboists.  Some are unabashed non-practicers.  Some have evolved a rock-hard embouchure that works 100% of the time - as long as their reeds are wide open and no one asks them to play softer, in tune, or with finesse. 

With these students I have to tread a little carefully.  They are not children, and no matter how much better I think my approach is, I can’t just launch in and remake them on day one or week two.  For one thing, they still have to be able to play in ensembles.  If I destroy their functioning setup then they have weeks of struggle ahead with their conductors and colleagues listening.  For another, college is a time to develop your own style.  I don’t need my students to be carbon copies of me - I’d prefer them not to be, in fact - so I have to watch my own responses carefully. 

There are plenty of oboists out there, making their livings with (gasp) a different reed style than mine.  Not everyone holds their mouth just the same way, and obviously there are plenty of legitimate ways to interpret any given phrase.  Once I get into the rhythm of teaching, it’s easy to just boss people around.  This is what I try to fight against in myself. 

It’s easy to say that my way is right and to make students finger, blow, and phrase the way I do. But my physical approach to the oboe is based on my own physicality, and I can’t just change what some one else has developed because it doesn’t look right to me. I have to be able to point to a specific way that my idea is better, and have the student agree, before I do that kind of dirty work.  It really should be broke before I fix it.

And yet, the ensemble conductors like it when their players have a uniform concept of sound. It is nice for them when all of their kids can control the instrument, play in tune and in time, and at least acknowledge printed dynamics.  We grown-ups all more or less agree on the goal, and want to get there as quickly as possible. 

The fun is in getting the new players there without just restarting them from zero.  The fascinating part of the challenge is to work with what is already there, and add the missing elements, through the back door if necessary.  I need to work with the equipment they walked in with, and the skill set they have, and bump them up to College level in a matter of weeks.

I love to play the oboe, but in many ways teaching is my favorite part of my career.  I get to use so many different parts of my brain - analyzing what I see and hear, inventing solutions, putting those into words and metaphors that work for different people, balancing demonstrations and descriptions with letting them work things out by themselves, and doing all of those things in half-hour sessions, one right after the other all day.  I come home exhausted and exhilarated.

I love my job.

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