Every year as summer ends and a new school year is about to start, I find myself reflecting on the nature of teaching and learning.
When I decided not to pursue a music education degree in college and focus on performance, I knew deep down that I wanted to teach. What I had realized was that I wanted to hyper-focus my own time (and the time that I would hopefully spend teaching in the future) and development on the flute.
Making that decision meant there was potentially a lot less structure to my future, but also the guarantee of a lot more creativity involved in figuring out how I was going to become, quite specifically, a flute teacher.
Good teachers have so many traits. They are skilled, knowledgeable, students in their own right, patient, creative, well-spoken, dynamic, and so many other things. Some of these great traits I certainly don’t have, and I highly doubt anyone has them all.
Teaching music is a singularly unique thing. Many people and schools don’t understand its value or place in education or modern culture. Music teachers work long hours, well beyond the school day, and fight for every ounce of funding they get. Those who dedicate themselves to this kind of teaching do it out of sheer love of music and the impact it makes on people’s lives.
Teaching music outside of any structured school system (like in a private studio of your own creation), and pursuing your own abilities in music, takes another special (insane?) type of personality.
We build our own schedule, structure, and rules. We set our own standards and expectations for both our students and ourselves. We are evaluated by the parents and organizations who pay us, but without a structured system of evaluation. We create our own curriculum - it’s up to us what and how we teach. Even now as an adjunct at a state system university, there are structured expectations of what my students will be able to do, but I am the only person teaching flute and so the curriculum in my studio is still very much my responsibility and creation.
I love doing all of these things. They take time, and some are quite difficult, but I appreciate both the challenges and the freedom to do something in a way that I think is effective and worthwhile. I feel a great deal of responsibility to continue growing and adapting so that I can offer my students my absolute best.
This past weekend, I attended an event that epitomizes much of what we do as flutists - the National Flute Association Convention. This happened to be the 50th anniversary convention, and was held in Chicago. I attended my first NFA convention in 2003 in Las Vegas, and have since been all over the country for NFA conventions from San Diego to Orlando. In total, I have attended 11 of these unbelievable gatherings.
I call it an unbelievable event because to anyone who isn’t a flutist, it really is hard to fathom. Attended by thousands, you are inundated with flute from the moment you arrive. Exhibitors, performances, lectures, masterclasses, workshops, and research are all at your fingertips for five days. Growing up in an era with much less internet made me even more amazed at everything an NFA convention had to offer and the distances people traveled from around the globe to attend.
As a student my wonder had to do with the overwhelming amount of new information and the unbelievable level of artistry. As a professional, I have an intense feeling of wonder that we all choose to love this one instrument and everything it can do and represent so much.
One of the things I enjoy in life is meeting people who aren’t close to any musicians and the reactions they have to what we do, or to the fact that you can attend a flute convention with thousands of other flute enthusiasts. It speaks to the bubble we exist in because of this particular thing that we are devoted to.
This year, after three years off due to the pandemic, what I wanted most from my convention experience was to socialize. I wanted to be with my friends from all over the world who also have decided to pursue this one particular skill in such an intense way. I wanted to talk about how we teach, and how we make a living while balancing our unique work with the world around us.
I realize that by now it may seem that I’ve diverged from my original topic of teaching and learning entirely. But I think that the NFA convention is a really beautiful example of all the things that education is and should be.
At these conventions, you find everyone from absolute beginners of all ages, to accomplished hobbyists, students, orchestral flutists, university professors, and genuine virtuoso performers. They all accept and entertain each other. There is no judgement about what level of flutist you are - everyone is welcome to fully immerse themselves in the rich history and scope of the instrument and learn as much as they can absorb.
For those of us who are no longer students, the convention offers a space for us be enriched. I always leave with new music to learn, new ideas to share, and better equipped to help my students navigate their abilities and purchasing new instruments. As in education, you get out of it what you put into it - your attitude and willingness to interact make a significant impact on your personal experience and how much you benefit.
There is camaraderie for everyone. As a flutist, it’s truly one of the only places that you can find someone who shares the same job as you. Whether you are a freelancer and adjunct or a private teacher who works a “day job” you will likely find someone who is or was in your shoes. We can learn so much from our peers.
There are challenging moments as well. We often realize just how well so many people play and perform. We might question our own habits and approach, but with the right attitude can walk away inspired to do more rather than succumbing to comparison and shame over what we feel we might lack.
As a teacher in recent years, I have seen so many of my students quit the extracurricular activities they love because they feel overwhelmed by a schedule full of AP or honors courses, or because they need to diversify their college resume by participating in every type of activity. The standardized testing they endure at school leaves them feeling like there is little room or value for creativity. I can’t blame them when they spend their earliest years in an environment that praises grades on tests over creating something beautiful.
I wonder how I can continue to show my students the value of playing an instrument - self expression, community, deep learning, focus, and personal enrichment - in a world that doesn’t seem to value those things at all.
After the convention this year, it occurred to me that what I want to create for my students is exactly what I experienced. An environment where you can be inspired by others, express yourself openly, and find value in a pursuit not because someone will give you a grade or praise but because it enriches your experience of life.
The freedom of creating my own curriculum and environment for my students outweighs so many of the challenges of being a musician who teaches. My deep love of learning and being challenged is why I ended up on this path, and I want my students to understand that both of those things always have value. I want them to always feel it’s worthwhile to pursue what they enjoy and grow through even if it’s not a “useful” or “practical” job or skill.
The pursuit is what matters most - that we are trying. That we have something we care about. That we share our skills and knowledge with others. Talent and achievement are nice, but not important.
A certain level of mastery might be required for what we’d like to do, but mastery and recognition are not synonymous. All of us are teaching through our actions, whether we aim to or not, and even on a small scale we can make a big difference.
So while I’m especially glad to have seen my friends face to face that I have not seen in person in at least three years, I am inspired by the level of performance demonstrated by my peers, and I am glad to have found new music to learn and teach, this year I feel a different sense of gratitude and perspective returning home to a new school year.
Maybe what I knew deep down years ago and am just now able to articulate is that I didn’t want to teach music in the first place. What I wanted was to at least try to experience and teach the satisfaction of depth and exploration.
I am grateful to this community of people that all agree it is worthwhile to pursue something in earnest just because you love it, whether you make a living doing it or not, and whether or not the rest of the world says it has value.
I am looking forward at my school year with a renewed commitment to creating a pocket of this community for my students. An environment for deep learning and exploration of something we know has tremendous and lasting value.
Hi, I'm Morgann! Flutist, teacher, aspiring yogini, and life long learner figuring out how to create my way through life one crazy idea at a time.