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The Work is the Magic

I’ve learned a lot since I began teaching.

I used to assign etudes from the Barret Book - exclusively - to my college level students.  I was fairly insecure as a teacher at that point, and I knew that I could always find something to say about a Barret etude.  I was comforted by the accompaniment line that came along with every etude - if I was at a loss we could just play together, and I told myself that hearing good oboe playing was a helpful part of lessons, and playing duets taught them about momentum and direction and flow, and intonation, and pulse.  In the Barret book, the etudes are not always easy, but they are simple enough that a good college student can read them down, and I desperately wanted my students to have success. I figured that being able to play their assignment after minimal practice was success.  I wanted to be able to speak fluently and make observations in lessons and hear the tiny improvements minute to minute - and Barret was working for me.

More recently, though, I have been assigning Ferling etudes to almost everyone.  To more people than I had thought would have success in that book.  The etudes are much more complicated.  They are all beautiful, and satisfying - but the slow ones take a lot of figuring out, rhythmically and musically, and the fast ones are significantly technical.   The first few times I sent students out with these I was worried that they’d struggle and give up.  That they’d quit the oboe and hate me.  But sometime over the past ten years I pretty much stopped caring what students think of me, and now I unabashedly assign difficult pieces.

What I’ve realized is that students have to work hard to learn these etudes.  They have to be able to break the thing down into small chunks, and figure out how to approach it, and manage their time, and keep track of what they’ve done.  They have to plan their breathing and work out complex rhythms and devise metronome games to solve the problems posed by the piece. Whereas with Barret they could come in sight-reading and look to me for guidance,  with Ferling they have to do the work.  Sight-reading isn’t an option.

And it’s fantastic how they rise to this challenge.  My students are progressing faster than they ever have, and our lessons are MUCH more fun and engaging because they bring in a week of work and progress.  Yes, it does sometimes happen that they can’t accomplish the etude in a week, but they come in with questions about how to proceed and then they go back and do the work.  And finally, I have realized that the WORK is the magic, not the teaching.  

In the past few weeks I have been involved in a branding workshop with Greg Sandow which has been fascinating and challenging.  The final assignment was difficult for me because it was so vague.  I was to come the session prepared with images and words that I felt represented my personal brand.  What?? Images?  What kind of images?  Words?  I play the oboe! To my great relief, one of my classmates asked for clarification - but was denied it.  I stewed for days about what to do, present, say.  Was I supposed to draw something?  Write something?  Take photos?  Search the internet?  Images of what, for god’s sake!

So I fretted, and I worried, and eventually it came to me that I HAD performers that I admired, and whose brands I respected and aspired to emulate.  So I hopped onto the web and found a fabulous and characteristic shot of Fred Astaire.  From there I came up with words to describe him, and words to describe me, and one idea led to another, and before I knew it I actually had a little collage to present, AND - I understood what the assignment was about. Having to fight my way through the vagueness to a solution meant that I kind of began to understand who and what I am as an artist - and some of the ways I will be able to change my materials to present myself better. 

I admit that I had secretly been hoping for an ANSWER from the workshop - that I could hand in my C.V. and out would pop a solution to my total lack of career savvy - but of course that’s not the way things work.  What I actually got from the experience was a way in.   I had to do some work, and that helped me to focus my ideas on the work I have to do next, and although this all sounds like a lot of work it now seems manageable.  Understandable.  Like something I can actually do, with a little help and guidance along the way, and get better at as I go. 

The WORK is the magic.  Not the teaching.


  1. Great post. Your statement, "The WORK is the magic. Not the teaching" is *so* true. What we learn as we are searching for solutions is often more important that the solution itself.

    Since I've been enjoying your blog for some time, I put a link to your blog on my site:

    I hope you don't mind! :)

    My blog features most things relating to oboe. This year I'm on sabbatical from my university and am finishing both an oboe method for young players and a pedagogical work for teachers. I'll be posting some ideas I'm working with on the blog and hope you check it out.
    I welcome comments!

    Best wishes,


  2. Thanks, Christa! I actually discovered your blog only recently and am a delighted follower too. I'll look forward to seeing the results of your labors!



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