Note Reading: Following the Contours

Note Reading is one of the most fundamental, but difficult, skills for beginner musicians.

In this blog post, I will share with you one of the novel approaches invented by a student and her father for reading simple melodies.

Rachel* (not her real name) was having trouble with note reading. She is nine years old and began playing the flute about a month ago. At a previous lesson, I had worked with her on seeing how a melody walks up and down by steps. We drew lines over the notes indicating the rise and fall of the melody. Rachel is a beginning student and she has learned the notes B-A-G but has trouble identifying them on the staff.

Over the next week as he helped Rachel with her lesson assignment, Rachel’s dad came up with a great new way to think about reading the contours of the line. This is a page from Rachel’s book showing a simple melody with the notes B-A-G.

note reading ideas

BAG notes


Rachel’s dad asked her to draw dots in a line to represent the pitches. Then he asked her to connect the dots. The first four measures looked like this:

reading notes by contours

Reminding Rachel to begin on the note B, I asked her to play the melody while looking at the dots. When the dots went down, she added one finger. When they went up, she lifted a finger. Success!

After playing the melody this way a couple of times, we compared the dots on her paper with the dots (notes) in her lesson book. It was easy for her to see the contour. Rachel was able to play the entire exercise with few mistakes. She was happy and so was I.

I wish I could take credit for this innovative approach, but it was Rachel’s dad who came up with this solution. He understands better than anyone how Rachel thinks. He knows that she is a visual learner but needs to have the information simplified. The regular music staff in the book had too much distracting information for Rachel to process. She was confused about the stems on the notes and was having difficulty focusing on the five lines. This very simple method eliminated all the unimportant information and made the contour easy to see.

This trick worked great today with a simple stepwise melody on three notes. It’s a solution for today, not a panacea. Tomorrow, it will be another challenge and we’ll find new, innovative ways to learn together.


The End of Average – book review

The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness

Are you average?end of average

Author Todd Rose argues that nobody is average. We all have unique, jagged strengths and weaknesses.

Scientists and statisticians use averages to draw conclusions about a group. However, applying the lessons of the average to an individual is not helpful, and can sometimes be harmful. This is called the “ergodic switch.”

Consider this example. A student takes a standardized test and the results show an average score. As you can see from the table below, this student is not uniformly average in all subjects. This student is above average in encoding and visual puzzles but below average in vocabulary. This student has some clear strengths and one area that needs attention. A one-size-fits-all education really fits none.


composite average score

Age of Average

The End of Average discusses how we have arrived at blindly accepting the lie that the average is a valid tool for creating policy. I thought the sections on genes, traits, Quetelet’s social physics, and Taylorism were particularly interesting. The rise of standardization in American culture was slow, but it has a strong foothold in our educational and business systems today.

The central question of the book is

“How can a society predicated on the conviction that individuals can only be evaluated in reference to the average ever create the conditions for understanding and harnessing individuality?”

The Benefits of Personalization

As a music teacher, I understand the value of a personalized education. Students come to me with unique problems, natural talents, and resources. Some have musical parents; others are the first in their families to study music. Some have natural vibrato; others require years of systematic instruction to learn the skill. Because I work with each student individually, I adapt my teaching. This makes taking private lessons so different than self-directed learning from a book or instruction in school band/orchestra.

My children are fortunate to be in a school system that allows teachers flexibility with the materials they use in the classroom. Through projects, the kids are allowed to choose the direction and intensity of study. For example, my daughter is working on a detailed diorama of Ireland, (shown here with our hedgehog dressed as a leprechaun.) My son who was in the same class last year, chose to write a report for that project. They have different interests and skills, but project-based learning allows them to maximize their jagged learning profiles.Ireland project

Online instruction has offered my son the opportunity to work ahead in math. An online math program allows him to take tests in various math concepts. If he passes the test, he can move onto the next subject area. When it’s new material, the program slows down and teaches him the concept, adding drills until the material is mastered. As parents, we are thrilled that he doesn’t have to complete worksheets on things he already knows. It’s this kind of dynamic, individualized learning that maximizes learning and minimizes frustration.

Wary of Averages

Rose’s book has opened my eyes to the times I have taken the average for granted. From now on, I’m will be much more suspicious when reading articles that try to apply generalizations to specific people. Consequently, I will take another look at the brain scans referenced in Brain Imaging on Musicians, but I hear the school bus… so that will have to wait for now.

Five Things All Marching Band Flutists Should Know

Just in time for marching band season, I present you with these pearls of wisdom.

I have played in and coached marching bands for many years. The flute is a delicate instrument and if not cared for properly, can be destroyed by marching band. Band directors, students, and parents would be wise to heed these common pitfalls.

Five Rules To Help Your Flute Survive Marching Band

1. Never use a dollar bill to clean the pads.

Every flutist in the country seems to have heard the urban legend that the best way to clean a sticky pad is with a dollar bill. Don’t do it. Paper money is dirty. Really dirty, like 3,000 different types of bacteria and cocaine dirty. Prevent sticky pads by swabbing the inside of the flute  after every rehearsal, store the flute in its case in a dry place, and never expose the flute to extreme temperatures, like leaving it in the car.

marching band

cleaning papers

If the keys become unbearably sticky, use a product specifically designed to clean flute pads like these papers made by Yamaha. Tear off a small sheet and gently place it under the sticky pad. Gently close and open the key. If the pad is really sticky, you may need to softly close the key and slowly drag the paper out.

2. Protect the flute from rain and snow.

This may seem obvious, but sometimes band directors forget that there are flutes and clarinets in the band. While a little rain and snow might not hurt the brass instruments, the delicate mechanism and thin pads of flutes can be destroyed by the weather. Complete re-padding of the flute is costly and rust inside the rods can be impossible to repair. In an emergency, place your flute inside the jacket of your uniform. Back inside, make sure you swab it out and allow it to completely dry before closing the case.

flutes for marching band

plastic flutes

Guo and other manufacturers are now making plastic flutes and piccolos that are impervious to moisture. It’s my dream to have music boosters buy enough for the entire marching band flute section. They are available in a wide variety of colors too!

3. The flute is not a baton for twirling. 

I’d be rich if I had a nickel for every time I saw a flutist twirling a flute at a football game. Leave the baton twirling to the majorettes. Twirling quickly becomes dropping, which can cause irreparable harm to the flute if you bend a rod or break a key. Other damage can include scratches and huge dents in the tube. The flute is an expensive piece of equipment and repairing this kinds of damage is costly.

4. Do not put the flute on a music stand.

bad idea

bad idea

This happens all the time with flutists. It seems like such an easy, convenient place to rest the flute, but DO NOT put your flute on a music stand. Music stands are not strong enough to hold a flute and when the upper desk drops, you flute will fall to the floor with a clang and a gasp from the rest of the band. If you are lucky enough to have a strong stand, placing your flute on the ledge is still a bad idea. Because the end of the flute hangs over the side, it is easy to bump into it and knock it off. Dropping the flute from this height will likely cause a dent or bend.

5. There are no good lyres for a marching flip folder.

marching band lyre

forearm clamp

I have seen three different styles of flute lyres for marching band, but all of them are miserable. The “forearm clamp” is available in several styles. This torture device involves tightly attaching a strap to the arm to hold up the music. There are two significant problems with this tool. First, you must tighten the strap like a tourniquet. If your fingers don’t turn blue from lack of circulation, sweat will make the device slide right off.

marching band

arm clamp #2

Another equally bad option is a metal clamp that attaches to the flute. This will scratch your flute and is hard to position, if you are able to get it to stay on the flute at all. (Amazon reviews of this product are pitiful.) Many years ago, I saw a third option: a lyre that would extend from the armpit forward. It was strapped around the back and cradled in the armpit However, I am not able to find that product anymore. It must have been so user un-friendly that the manufacturer gave up.

marching band lyre #3

clamps onto the body of the flute

Bottom line: lyres do not work for flutes in marching band. MEMORIZE YOUR MUSIC!

If you are a marching band flutist (past or present), what knowledge would you like to pass on to the next generation?

Grit for Musicians: Practicing and Parenting

Is Grit the Secret to Success In Music?

I first heard about Angela Duckworth and her research on “grit” on a Freakonomics podcast. Duckworth talks about how persistence, not talent, is the secret ingredient for success. It got me thinking about how grit translates to music, especially its application in practice.

What is grit?

According to Angela Duckworth, grit is “passion and perseverance for especially long-term goals.” It seems clear that studying music is a gritty activity. Learning to play an instrument is a long-term commitment if any success is to be achieved.

From the book review of Grit in Scientific American: (

In this standardized testing culture, Grit is a good reminder that an exclusive focus on ability and potential can distract us from the importance of other variables important for success.

Grit may be more important than talent.

There are plenty of musicians out there with natural talent. Some even have the almost mystical ability of perfect pitch. Yet not all people with perfect pitch become professional musicians. It seems that talent can kick-start a musician because it creates a positive feedback loop. Talent says, “I’m good at this. It’s easy. People recognize my innate ability.” But talent can also be a hinderance. When music practice becomes difficult (and it does get hard at some point for everyone), only the gritty will push through and learn new skills. Of course when a student is endowed with both talent and grittiness, the chance of success is high. As a music teacher, however, if I had to choose between a student with lots of talent or lots of grit, I would choose the grit. Every time.

Want to find out how much grit you have?


Even if you score low on the “grit scale,” the good news is that grit can be cultivated, even increased.

What do gritty people have in common?

By studying people who are particularly gritty, Angela Duckworth has observed four things the grit paragons display and cultivate:

grit in musicians

Cincinnati Symphony – paragon of grit

  1. Interest
  2. Deliberate Practice
  3. Purpose
  4. Hope

Duckworth observed that people who pursue one interest for long periods of time “learn to substitute nuance for novelty.” I love that. As a musician, I’m not constantly switching instruments. I’m delving more deeply into the repertoire of the flute and perfecting the craft of teaching. There is always more to learn about a subject.

Deliberate practice is something I have discussed many times on this blog. Brain research is helping us understand that some kinds of practicing are better than others. Good practice habits include being able to isolate a mistake and employ solutions to remedy it. Another “grit” researcher, Anders Ericsson puts it this way: “So anytime you can focus your performance on improving one aspect, that is the most effective way of improving performance.”

How can parents help kids become more gritty?

As a parent (see my admission on this blog about being a Tiger Mother), I want my kids to grow up to be gritty. How do we foster resilience in kids? Perhaps studying music is one way to cultivate grit. When your child studies an instrument, there will be opportunities for improving grit (theirs… and yours!)

Don’t let your child quit music. Teach your child that playing an instrument is a long-term commitment. Everyone comes to a point when things get hard and quitting seems the only way out. Help your child understand that music, like many other pursuits, will seem really hard from time to time. Remind your child of other times they have been frustrated but persevered and overcame the challenge. If your child is just beginning to study an instrument and wants to quit, don’t give in! Set a reasonable time period (6 months – 1 year) after which you will discuss the possibility of changing instruments.

The Atlantic Magazine recently published an article “How To Teach Students Grit.” The author wondered about the role of grit in academic settings. One of the most interesting findings was the role of intrinsic motivation in achievement. Behaviorism, using rewards and punishments to change behavior, is proving to be a colossal disaster in the classroom. A 2011 study of behaviorism in New York public schools (“Financial Incentives and Student Achievement“) showed that incentives such as money had no effect on changing student performance.

In Dallas, students were paid to read books. In New York, students were rewarded for performance on interim assessments. In Chicago, students were paid for classroom grades. I estimate that the impact of financial incentives on state test scores is statistically zero, in each city. -Roland G. Fryer, Jr.

Behaviorism relies on the ability of external forces to change behavior. When students are motivated by rewards, it is called extrinsic motivation. Students who are intrinsically motivated do things because they want to or because they know it’s the right thing to do. As parents, we must be careful of using too many rewards, thereby discouraging intrinsic motivation.

I’ve discussed motivation in music in other blog posts (Motivation: Parenting and Practicing, Motivation: A Teacher’s Perspective), but if you are going to use rewards like a sticker chart or money to reward your child for practicing, do it for a short period of time.  Recitals, positive feedback, and continued success in music will foster intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is critical for finding purpose (see #3 in the characteristics of gritty people list.)

Be sure to show your child the world of art and music. Your child needs to see that he or she has a place in the arts, that she is part of something larger. Give them hope that there is more in the world of music than high school marching band. (Not knocking marching band– it’s awesome, but there’s so much more to discover.) A hopeful outlook is one of the hallmarks of a gritty individual.

A final thought

If grit is the secret to success in music, and music is the key to success in life, then grit and success have a direct relationship. The more grit, the more success. Not just in music. In everything.

Embouchure Variations

Embouchure Variations

What does the “perfect embouchure” look like?

I’ve been asked many times what a “proper” or “perfect” embouchure should look like. The answer is simple: There is no one right way to play the flute.

Go to Larry Krantz’s website where you will see 18 pictures of the lips of professional flutists. (

A quick glance of the pictures will show you that there is a wide variation of embouchure formation. Some are off-center. Some of the lips show a pronounced “teardrop” in the middle.

The “teardrop” is a natural feature of some lips. I’ve heard of beginning band directors who will not allow students with a “teardrop” lip to begin playing the flute. That is absolutely ridiculous!

Early in my teaching career, I was interviewed for a book (Sign Me Up!). I talked to the author about how I felt that a child’s interest and enthusiasm were much more important than their physical traits. I still feel that way after 20+ years of teaching.

With enough passion and careful instruction, students will adapt to whatever shape their lips happen to be.

Marking Rhythms (Miss It? Mark It! part 4)

Marking Rhythms (Miss It? Mark It! part 4)

This is the fourth article in a series about “marking music,” providing visual solutions to problems musicians encounter during practice. Our brains cannot remember everything. By carefully and consistently making marks in the music, musicians will learn music faster and with less frustration. This blog post will focus on how using pencil marks can aid in the learning of difficult rhythms.

Rhythms are the analytical, mathematical side of music making.

There is little grey area in interpreting rhythms. They are either right or wrong and learning them correctly from the beginning is critical.

My favorite way to mark rhythms involves drawing lines to represent the beats in a measure. I draw a short vertical line directly over the note that is to be played on the beat. The lines occur in the same place that my foot comes in contact with the floor when tapping the tempo.

rhythms visually organized - vertical lines show beats

Doppler’s Hungarian Pastoral Fantasy

In the above example, a have drawn vertical lines to represent where the beat falls in each measure. Notice that in the syncopations, the vertical line is drawn between the notes. When playing syncopated rhythms, it is important to feel the beat (or the foot hitting the floor) in the space between the notes. In this example, notes are played on beats 1 and 3 but not on beat 2.

Marking the beats can help with complicated rhythms. Consider this passage with a 9/8 time signature:

rhythms made easier by marking the music

from Danse de la Chèvre

This measure is made much more readable by adding in vertical marks over the large beats (dotted quarters). Visually, the organizes the measure into three distinct parts. By tapping my toe, I have kinesthetic feedback to tell me if my notes are starting on the right beat.

This is a simpler example from a student’s etude in 6/8 time:


etude in 6/8

In this example, I wrote in the numbers 1-6 for each of the eighth notes within the measure. This makes it easy to see how the notes relate. We could re-write this measure in 6/4 time with quarter notes and eighth notes to achieve the same rhythm and the same counting.

For the final example, I offer this example from the opening passage of Doppler’s “Hungarian Pastoral Fantasy.” I have added vertical lines to represent where each of the six eighth note beats occur in the measure. You will notice that there are longer lines over the two larger beats – the dotted quarter notes.

wild rhythms, organized

Doppler’s Hungarian Pastoral Fantasy

I am a visual and kinesthetic learner so marking my music with vertical lines to represent beats is essential. It graphically organizes the music into discreet packages that I can see and feel easily. Of course, this is not a new idea, nor is it one I created. In fact, I see these kinds of marks all the time in orchestra music used by professionals. I have developed a system that works for me. Now, go find one that works for you and use it consistently!

More ideas for marking music:


New Ideas for Marking Music (part 5 of Miss It? Mark It!)

Miss It? Mark It! part 5

A new student arrived at her lesson this week with music beautifully colored. Last week I had encouraged Madeline* to write in her music. I suggested that if she missed something twice, she should mark it. (Miss It? Mark It! part 1) We have just started talking about how to practice, and marking the music seems like a good place to start.

Because she owns this book, I told her that it was OK to use color, not just pencil. (The book, my current favorite flute method, is Flute 101: Mastering the Basics by Phyllis Avidan Louke and Patricia George.)marking music

I was delighted to see that Madeline had created her own colorful system to help her with this week’s assignment. In blue, she had highlighted the pieces in the key of F major. The pink circles indicated exercises that were easier and the orange circles indicated more difficult exercises. She told me that it was an easy way to see which exercises needed extra practice (orange.)

Madline’s lesson was well prepared and her practice was focused. I told her that I would take a picture of her colorful music and share it here, on my blog. Perhaps it will inspire others to experiment with novel ways to mark music. There are many creative solutions for marking music, some of which I have talked about elsewhere on this blog. I invite you to find systems that make your practice productive.

Marking Music… again

Update… Madeline came to her lesson this week with an even more sophisticated system of marking the music with color:


Now there are three levels of difficulty: pink, blue, and orange. Key signatures are highlighted in blue and time signatures are in orange. It goes without saying that Madeline was very well prepared for her lesson this week also. Bravo!

For more ideas about marking music, please check out my series “Miss It? Mark It!”

  • part 1 Practical Advice for Music Practice
  • part 2 How To Mark Music
  • part 3 Pencil Marks
  • part 4 Marking Rhythms

How do you like to mark your music? Do you use color? Do you have a system for showing which lines need extra work?

*names of students are changed


Choir Practice Ideas

Choir Practice.

Many of my blog posts have focused on practicing the flute, but today we will look at some special considerations for choir practice.

As a musician who wears many hats, in addition to teaching private flute students, I also direct an adult church choir.

choir practice

NUUC Choir – I’m on the left playing a drum

Choir practice is the focus of my weekend. At our church, choir rehearsal is before the worship service on Sunday mornings. Choir practice goes much more smoothly and we are able to achieve a higher level of performance when everyone comes to rehearsal prepared with their parts. Instrumentalists are used to learning their parts at home, but singers sometimes wait until rehearsal to learn the notes.

Vocalists in a choir will enjoy the music more by spending a little time each week practicing at home. Choir directors are grateful when singers come prepared with their parts. When we don’t have to teach notes, rhythms, and pronunciation, we can focus on musicianship and ensemble.

The following article has lots of good ideas for choir members. You don’t need to be able to play the piano to practice your part!

Practicing Choral Music: Ten Ideas for the Singer Who Doesn’t Think They Can Practice on Their Own

I completely agree with Doreen Fryling that silence is imperative for mentally working on parts, or “audiating.” Many people are surprised to learn that my husband and I don’t have music playing in the house most of the time. In fact, I never have background music playing when I am in the office. I may actively listen to the piece I am preparing, but I find other music to be very distracting. Background music further robs my brain of the blank space needed to work on music subconsciously. If I listen closely to my brain, there is almost always some music being tossed around up there. Right now, the house is completely silent, but our newest choir piece is “playing” in my head.

Utilize Online Resources

YouTube is one of the best resources for choirs. I use it a lot to discover new music, prepare my weekly rehearsals, and get performance ideas. When I find a particularly good video, I pass it on to my choir. Even a bad YouTube video is helpful. Recognizing what doesn’t work in music is an important step in developing good musical taste. Sometimes we even post a YouTube video of our performances. This is a video that we made for Kiya Heartwood, the composer of “Higher Ground,” when we rehearsed and performed the arrangement she made for us.

As for foreign language pronunciation, there are many good online resources. Here’s one for Ecclesiastical Latin, for example.

What are your practice routines? Are there any resources, online or otherwise, that are particularly helpful to you?

Practice Research: study shows faster, better learning

New practice research suggests ways to make learning more efficient.

Thanks to cognitive researchers we are understanding more and more about how the brain processes information. A practice research study published in January 2016 by Pablo A. Celnik, M.D., looked at how modifications in practice routines can dramatically improve learning. ( )

A good blog article about the study can be found here:

Scientists Have Found a Technique That Helps You Learn New Skills Twice as Fast ( )

In this study, subjects were tested on how quickly they could learn a new skill (moving a cursor on a computer.)

The volunteers were split into three groups, and each spent 45 minutes practising this. Six hours later, one of the groups was asked to repeat the same training exercise again, while another group performed a slightly different version that required different squeezing force to move the cursor.

The third group only completed the first training session, so they could act as a control.

At the end of the training period, everyone was tested on how accurately and quickly they could perform the new skill, and predictably, the control group did the worst after their one training session. But the surprise was that the group that had repeated the original training session actually did worse on the test compared to those who had mixed things up and trained in new areas – in fact, the group that modified their training did twice as well as those who’d repeated the original skill.

Did you get that? The group with the varied practice routine performed twice as well as the group that received a second training on the skill. It’s interesting to note that the groups that performed the best received a second training 6 hours after the first training.

The idea that varied practice leads to stronger learning is not a new one. The authors of the above study call this phenomenon “reconsolidation;” others call it “interleaving.” It’s not a new idea. In the book How We Learn, Benedict Carey points to two other studies, on badminton and beanbags, that show the same results.


Richard A. Schmidt and Robert A. Bjork, “New Conceptualizations of Practice: Common Principles in Three Paradigms Suggest New Concepts for Training,” Psychological Science, Vol. 3, No. 4, July 1192, 207-17

R. Kerr and B. Booth, “Specific and Varied Practice of Motor Skill,” Perceptual and Motor Skills, Vol. 46, No. 2, April 1978, 395-401

What can musicians take away from these practice research studies?

  1. A varied practice routine is far more effective than doing the same thing over and over again.
  2. Small changes will yield large gains.
  3. Space out practice sessions to achieve maximum retention.

Ideas for varying practice can be found in several of my blog posts, including

Rhythm Spinner

Grouping Game

Bite Sized Pieces

Karate Chops

Flute Acoustics

Flute Acoustics: the mystery and the science

simple drum

Madinga slit drum – simple drum

The flute is the second oldest musical instrument in the world but flute acoustics are highly complicated. The drum is the oldest musical instrument in the world, and their acoustics are rather straightforward. A hand or mallet strikes the drum and it begins to vibrate. The air around the drum expands and compresses to create sound waves.

Completely unlike the drum, the flute produces a tone by splitting an airstream on an edge. There are many different kinds of flutes. For example, a recorder is a kind of flute. The recorder produces a sound when air blown through the mouthpiece is directed at the sharp edge of the whistle. Pan pipes are also a kind of flute, because air is blown over the opposite edge of an open tube. Instead of keys, each tube on the panpipe is a different length and creates a different pitch.

On all flutes, vibration is caused by the displacement of the jet of air and the pitch is formed by a resonating pipe. Changes in the pitch are produced by changing the pipe length. That’s the short explanation of flute acoustics.

flute acoustics

giant pan pipes

For a more technical explanation of flute acoustics, check out these websites:

Flute acoustics: and introduction

General info on acoustic physics of the flute: (also other instruments)

The modern flute is an acoustic wonder. The lip plate and tone hole are carefully crafted for the proper edge resistance. The Boehm System flute that most flutists play has 18-20 keys. The keys open and close tone holes to create approximately 40,000 fingering combinations. The flutist’s bible for fingerings is A Modern Guide To Fingerings for the Flute by James Pellerite. It contains page after page of standard fingerings, multi-phonics, trills, tremolos, and fingerings for special situations.

flute acoustics modern flute

A student recently told me about some online resources for fingerings. (Thanks, James, for the links!)

“The Virtual Flute” allows you to find fingerings using an algorithm. You can ask it to generate all tones that can theoretically be produced by a given fingering or you can ask it to find all the fingerings for a given pitch (or pitches). This is a fantastic resource for composers looking for new sound capabilities of the flute. It’s also a novel way to find new fingerings for difficult passages in flute music or to find fingerings that may be useful for correcting pitch problems.

Another website offers flute fingerings for a variety of flutes, including ones with different footjoints and Baroque flutes:

 Note-by-Note acoustic response data (experimental):

Opening and closing the tone holes isn’t the only thing that influences pitch. The angle of the air, speed of air, and temperature of the room will have an effect on the pitch. Manufactures have different “scales” they use to determine the size and placement of the tone holes. I am especially interested to know if there is an algorithm that understands the slight differences in a manufacturer’s scale. There are some trill fingerings that are radically different depending on which brand of flute is played. Some flutes will have extra tone holes, such as the C# key and this creates even more fingering possibilities. Because pitch and tone quality are inextricably linked on the flute, the player’s body will have some mysterious effects on the sound coming out of it. But that’s going down another rabbit hole…

Flute acoustics is a fascinating topic, one that is worthy of study. Save these links for a good reference and enjoy a bit of a left-brain workout when learning about the science of acoustics. Now, go practice!