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When students want to work on music that's challenging...

I just got back from a trip to Michigan with some college friends. At the end of my trip, I stayed with a friend who just recently finished his DMA in flute performance. We have similar teaching philosophies, but teach at different levels - I’m here in the trenches with you in Middle and High school teaching while he’s teaching at the college level.

We talked about a recent experience I had with a student who wanted to play etudes that I judged to be too hard for them, and he gave me an interesting perspective that I’d like to share with you.

One of my young high school students recently asked to start working on Ferling etudes in lessons. For context, the student is currently about ⅓ of the way through the Barret etude book. I would typically require that students finish working through the Barret Melodies before moving on to the Ferling. The Ferling is harder, but the etudes are often shorter. I made the agreement with the student that we could work on the first Ferling etude, then alternate between a Barret etude and a Ferling etude.

My flutist friend had some interesting thoughts about the situation. He first asked me: “Why did they want to play from the Ferling? Where had they heard about it?” An excellent question, which I didn’t think to ask in the moment. He then made the point that perhaps they heard a bit of a Ferling etude on YouTube or TikTok, or from a friend. Understanding where the desire to play that music comes from can provide valuable context in which we can work on the piece OR choose to not work on the piece.

If the student is trying to play flashy, hard music to impress their friends, we would want to prepare and talk about the music differently than if they are feeling un-challenged by the easier Barret etudes.

Then my friend suggested that we work on just a portion of a Ferling etude that will work on the skills that student needs to work on, in addition to the easier Barret etude. Rather than overwhelming the student with something that’s too hard in its entirety, pick an excerpt of it!

He also recommended playing the etudes out of order based on the skills the student wants or needs to work on. I love teaching both etude books, and hadn’t considered going out of order. I like routine, order, strategy, and progressive exercises and etudes, it’s part of who I am as a teacher! But, I also like to accommodate students’ reasonable requests, and work towards student’s self-identified goals.

So, ultimately, I think I’m going to revisit why the student wants to work on the harder etude book, and consider if working on just part of the harder etude, potentially out of order, would fit her wants and needs.

Why am I sharing this? One of the joys of summer, for me, is that I get to reflect on the past year with colleagues and learn from each other! I try to talk with my musician friends during the school year too, of course, but over the summer I have the time for hours-long conversations which bring me different perspectives and make me a better teacher.

What about you? How do you handle students who want to play music that’s too hard for them? Am I missing any ideas? Do you also have hours long conversations about teaching over the summer? Reply and let me know, I’d love to hear from you!

Until next week,



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