Breaking the Rules in Adult Music Lessons

A Flutist Enjoys a Few Shortcuts


“Can I tell you a secret?” asked my flute teacher, Susan.

I was playing a piece entitled “Almost Waltz.” The time signature was 5/4—close to the more common 6/4 signature for a waltz—hence the “Almost.” In the six years since I picked up my flute again after a 35-year hiatus, I’ve played many waltzes, with 3/4, 3/8 or 6/4 time signatures. This piece, with its 5/4 signature, felt strange. My inclination was to hold the fifth and final beat too long. But after a while, I got off the last quarter note in time to move on to the next measure.

Now, Susan stopped me for another reason. I hadn’t reached the high E in the middle of a group of slurred notes. It sounded low and airy.

“You can lift your right pinky for the E,” Susan said.

She demonstrated by playing the run with her right pinky up instead of down—the usual fingering.

“Now you try,” she said.

I slurred the notes, moving from a C to the E—it slipped out easily, without my having to blow hard or change my embouchure, tightening my lips.

“Amazing! Why didn’t you tell me this before?” I asked.

Susan smiled.

Over the last six years, Susan had occasionally demonstrated shortcuts, each trick doled out like Halloween candy. Sometimes she shared them conspiratorially, other times matter-of-factly.

Maybe it was like writing: you could break the rules of grammar once you had practiced them enough correctly.

One of the first secrets Susan shared was how to use your left thumb for the B-flat. It freed up your right hand and made fingering easier. She had waited an entire year before she shared the thumb trick.

I learned that pianists have their own set of shortcuts. They can hold two adjacent keys with one finger to improve their reach. They can omit a note from a difficult chord or play the notes separately as a broken chord.

Now, apparently, I was ready for the “secret to the high E.” The high E was a common problem for flutists. Susan often referred to it as “a challenging child.” She told me, “The entire upper register is fake.” High notes were added when the shape of flutes changed many years ago. If you didn’t have the right amount of air and correct embouchure, certain high notes came out too low and airy, even squeaky. Susan watched me struggle with the high E in other pieces. Why hadn’t she shared the E trick earlier? Maybe it was like writing: you could break the rules of grammar once you had practiced them. Perhaps, I had needed to practice my E’s the traditional way a little longer—until today. Today, I was ready to break the rules.

Before turning back to play the “Almost Waltz,” I eyed Susan suspiciously. She is a petite woman in her 60s with brown hair and a warm smile, hardly furtive. Yet I couldn’t help but wonder what else she was keeping from me.

Copyright © 2018 Nancy M. Williams. All Rights Reserved.

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