Updated: Sep 12, 2022
Starting flute lessons is an exciting time for both student and teacher. Whether you’re teaching individuals or groups, in person or online, I hope you’ll find these tips useful.
1. First things first
Something frequently overlooked is to make sure the student has their flute case the right way up before opening it! This might seem extremely obvious, but in my 35+ years of teaching, I have seen flutes fall out too many times, and a damaged instrument is a very sad start to learning. If the case doesn’t have a brand name on top, put a sticker with the student’s name on the lid. It can also be fun for the student to think up a name for their flute and put the flute’s name on the lid too! My first flute was called “Ariadne”. I have no idea where I found this name; maybe I knew about the Princess of Crete in Greek mythology, or perhaps I’d read the name in a book, anyway, Ariadne it was, and I celebrated her birthday with her every year.
Whether you use only the headjoint or the whole flute in the first lesson, also ensure the student knows how to put the parts back in the case – again something which for us is easy, but to a novice can be confusing. Maybe take a photo of their flute in the case for them to refer to when packing the instrument at home. If there isn’t time in the first lesson to teach them how to clean the whole flute, maybe at least show them how to clean the headjoint.
2. A sound start
Of course, the question on every student’s lips is, “Will I be able to make a sound?”
Like many other flute teachers, I prefer to start with the headjoint only. Some students are lucky enough to produce a sound with ease, others find it very difficult. No matter what the student’s lip shape or size, it is possible for everyone to play the flute. How to help the student form their embouchure is a topic for another blog, but suffice to say, you’ll most likely need to try different approaches for different students.
Even if the student can’t get a sound, make sure they know what to do so they can continue to work on this at home – often in front of a mirror helps. If they are having difficulty, make sure you do lots of other activities in their first lesson, so they don’t tire and don’t get too frustrated.
Once the student can produce a clear sound on the headjoint, let them explore how many different sounds they can make, either by blowing differently, or by using their right hand to cover the end of the headjoint or by placing their pointer finger at varying places inside the headjoint. If the student is confident, maybe put on a backing track or play a simple chord progression on the piano and let the student freely improvise on their headjoint – any sound is fine!
If you are teaching very little flutists with Toots, of course there is no problem with sound if you use the first notes lip plate. Check they don’t put too much of the Toot mouthpiece into their mouth and blow fairly gently, then you can start experimenting with short and long sounds in the first lesson, maybe first imitating, then a call and response pattern.
I never tire of seeing the joy on a student’s face when they make their first sound on the flute, it’s a wonderful moment!
3. New Notes
This is the part of the lesson that will probably vary the most depending on the student’s age and how easily they produce a sound. You might ask the student to play long and short sounds on the headjoint, or even do some simple rhythm reading.
For older beginners, you may want to teach them the fingerings for a note or two. If your student can already read music, simple 3-note tunes might even be possible.
Which notes you start with is a hot topic of debate amongst flute teachers! If your student is learning in a band, you may need to start with the notes they need for band, but for individual flute lessons, I prefer to start with B, A and G. These notes are easy to finger, with easy co-ordination between the notes, and allow the student to feel the balance of the flute.
4. Fun is Fundamental
The overriding aim of the first flute lesson is to have fun! If the student enjoys the lesson, they’ll want to play their headjoint/flute at home and will be keen to come back for the next lesson.
Try to have different activities for the first lesson to keep the student focused, especially the younger children. The lesson could include some playing, listening, rhythm games, note reading games, movement – don’t stay on one activity for too long and don’t talk too much!
I like using games in my flute teaching as they generate a feeling of relaxation and motivation, enhancing the learning process. As research (Rose and Nicholl) shows, “A brain enjoying itself is functioning more efficiently. When we enjoy learning, we learn better.”
Blowing games are great fun and help students learn about breath control. Simple ones are blowing through a straw to move crumpled paper balls, or foam packing peanuts across a table. If the weather is warm, you might enjoy going outside and have blowing races with plastic toys across a tray of water.
Another fun activity is note reading games. For younger students you can put five staff lines on the floor with washi tape and they can place a toy onto lines or spaces. Older beginners might enjoy some note naming games – even if they don’t know the fingerings for all the notes, they can start learning note names. I use music card games for rhythm and note recognition in first lessons and find that children love them.
5. Take home
At the end of the lesson, I review what the student can work on at home during the week. I also like to give them something to take home to establish that they have formally started flute lessons. It might be a practice chart to colour in each time they play headjoint sounds, or the cards for a note naming game, or if they are ready, their first flute method book.
Many of the activities from the first lesson will be explored further in the first year of learning. With beginners it’s important to pace the introduction of new concepts, with one, or a maximum of two goals as the focus of each lesson. For example, if you are working on posture in a lesson, maybe leave any problems with tone or articulation to another lesson.
The most important factor is that the student has fun in their first lesson, hopefully producing a sound, and enjoying different music and flute related activities, getting them off to a great start in playing the flute!