David Wheeler – Learning to play the flute

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It is about seven weeks since I began to play a borrowed flute. I have worked at it for at least an hour each day, with the exception of one week about three weeks after the start when I did not touch it at all. Since I have worked entirely on my own, except for a few points from the flute’s owner (which could not be regarded as in any sense equivalent to ‘lessons’), I do not know how much of what I have learned to do would be regarded as correct by an expert. But my subjective experience tells me that I now know all the problems that I still have to solve to play the instrument fluently and accurately.

I brought to the initial confrontation an ability to play the piano and to sing. In both cases I have always performed from written music. I can use my voice to reproduce a heard melody but I have never developed the skill to ‘learn’ music by this method. I cannot, for example, learn how to reproduce a base line in four-part harmony merely from listening to the whole thing in performance (as certain of my friends can). As for the piano, I have never made any progress in learning to play anything ‘by ear’ and have always needed written music to play from. I would probably be classed as a fairly good ‘sight reader’ in both activities.

I brought, too, to my encounter with the flute a general awareness of its characteristic tone colour and flexibility from having listened to concertos, chamber music and the like, and from sessions in which I accompanied a good flautist. I also knew “how it worked’, in the sense of knowing that the fingers are used to alter the length of the vibrating air column by blowing across the mouthpiece as one blows the top of a bottle or a test-tube to produce a sound.

The first few minutes of holding and blowing the flute showed me that all that I brought with me in the way of experience and expectation was quite unusable. I knew that I had to adapt myself to the instrument since it could not adapt itself to me, but in the first few minutes I obtained no indications at all to give me any clues as to what I had to do with myself to meet it on its own terms. (I was quite shocked to discover that when I held the flute and tried to blow across the hole I had eliminated any place for my eyes, as I could see neither the hole nor my fingers. For a few moments I stood in front of a mirror but soon abandoned this. I must have known that this attempt to rehabilitate the role of sight was an interference with the dialogue that had to take place.)

But after about half an hour of search within the limited area defined by holding the flute in my hands and blowing at it near the mouthpiece, I made a recognisable sound and this gave me the first tenuous link between all that I already knew and what I wanted to be able to do. It gave me something tangible to work on and I was able to move in several directions: to modify the lip movements and mouth position in an endeavour to ‘clean up’ the sound (which was whistling and hollow) until it approximated more closely to what my ear told me was a more appropriate flute-like sound, to remove the flute from my mouth and replace it and try to reproduce what I had already produced, to alter the number of stopped holes with my fingers and try to produce a different sound. I do not know how I would have behaved if the first note had not appeared soon; presumably I only persevered for half an hour because I knew that other people played flutes and that it was unlikely to be beyond my powers to do the same thing. Whether this certainty would have been motivation enough if the first note had not come for several days (as can happen in the case of the flute) I just don’t know. But the first note seemed to me to be the first of a number of ‘breakthroughs’ each of which was a necessary stage in the development of the skill.

The use of the word ‘breakthrough’ requires some qualification. It suggests points of advance known in the consciousness. But I realise the term has relativistic and subjective elements in my use of it. I could have chosen to say that the first breakthrough occurred when I first detected a defined pitch as a result of blowing rather than delaying its application to the point when the flute ‘spoke’ with something like its proper voice. I have also made advances in breathing and sequential fingering, for example, which I not associate with particular moments of conquest: to talk of breakthrough in these connections would be to be wise after the event. Nevertheless the world expresses something about my conscious awareness of certain precise moments of progress and I have to leave unsettled the question why my consciousness selects some to emphasise rather than others.

The psychological reality of a breakthrough is not that it shows one has achieved a particular mastery but rather that it demonstrates concretely what is masterable. The progressive mastery of a complex skill can be measured roughly by the breakthroughs that have been forgotten because they no longer seem significant. Present awareness of a break- through focuses attention and mobilises the will to direct all the aspects of the self that are involved in the next stage of mastery. So that when, for example, I experience the breakthrough of being able, for the first time, to adjust my lip position and lip muscle tone while still blowing, rather than having to remove the mouth from the flute and begin again, I had not conquered that particular task (it could not be recaptured, in fact, on the next occasion that I picked up the flute), but I knew that it was the next skill for me to work on and that I would, in principle, be able to attain it.

A breakthrough is simultaneously an encouragement and a frustration. It encourages by giving one the evidence of having achieved something once that can never be achieved again; it frustrates because it defines a problem that is not yet mastered and which one may not have known even existed until the breakthrough made it apparent to the consciousness. All this suggests, of course, that a ‘breakthrough’ is not a direct description of some mastery of the task but a particular ‘break- through into consciousness’ of some aspect of the demand made by the task on the self.

I chose deliberately not to have a teacher to give me any instruction; I did not even get a fingering chart until about three weeks had elapsed. By the time I had already worked out how to finger the lower two octaves (which is not such an achievement as it sounds as with two exceptions the two octaves are fingered in the same way) and could play simple melodies. But from the start I used written music to play from music which was much too difficult for me to realise (Handel sonatas, a Mozart concerto, for instance). This was, for me, a technique dictated by the desire to relate as directly as possible what I was now working on to what I already knew. It also gave me the occasional moments of sheer joy when I managed to play a bar or a short phrase well enough to demonstrate to my ear that what I was able to do was recognisably related to my experience of how that tiny extract should sound. This way of working also enabled me to meet each new difficulty in context; in fact I was generally working with several difficulties at once within the total complexity of the demand of the music on the player. Nevertheless I found myself attending to particular elements at particular times. My first preoccupation was with producing the right sounds, then with producing them in approximately the right rhythm. Intonation was of marginal importance at first. It was several weeks before I seriously considered the problem of breathing – I just took a new breath when I wanted one at the expense of the flow of the music.

By plunging into the full complexity of endeavouring to play, say, a Handel sonata, I gave myself a learning situation in which there was always something new to attempt. I have not for one moment been bored with any of this activity and have usually felt sorry that I became tired or unable to concentrate for more than an hour at a time. I have not played any ‘exercises’ which would, I think, have bored me. My experience is that I have had, after the first few days, when I was really only concerned to blow notes associated with particular arrangement of the fingers, two or three problems present to my consciousness which I could work on; and that as a degree of mastery was achieved in one, another appeared, so that I was still presented with a choice, and each new problem now emerging contained earlier problems among its elements. For example, if I consider two current preoccupations, phrasing and speed of articulation, they include all the problems of lip control, amount and direction of breath, breathing, fingering, and so on. So although I am able to ignore these earlier problems for most of the time, they are always still there and attract my attention at times when they fail to ‘look after themselves’, I. e. when my unconscious control of them falters. This analysis suggests that by immersing myself in the full complexity I neither took it all on at once nor did I pick a linear path through the elements; but rather, I worked on a sub complexity of the whole which expanded by stages until it comprised (will comprise, I should say) the total field.

It may be relevant to add that when I was preoccupied largely with problems of fingering and blowing at the right octave, as soon as I could play the right notes for a simple folk tune it held no further interest for me. I can now return to a very simple tune and try to play it with good phrasing, tone colour and appropriate dynamics. So an element in the situation is the kind of challenges I can find in it at any given time, and these change and expand as my awareness of the situation grows.

Although I brought to the start of my learning an aural acquaintance with some flute music which gave me criteria for judging the sounds I have produced, I find that these criteria have changed – or at least have become more subtle and exact. Listening to a record of Rampal playing Telemann now has a quite different effect from listening to it before I started to play. The fact that I am now awestruck at his skill, whereas before I would have known at once he was a fine player, suggests that I can now enter into his account of the music from his side, aware of much (though certainly not all) that he has to do with himself and his instrument to produce such results. Perhaps this is the point at which I can introduce, almost for the first time, an analytical approach which will enable me to use what I hear with my new ears to instruct me more precisely on my own performance. I can now direct my ear to search for better models than the one I have already acquired unconsciously.

It is clear to me that I have relied entirely on my own ears to monitor and advise me in my trial, error, success, refinement. In the process I have educated my hearing as much as I have educated my fingers, my lips and my diaphragm. If I had used a teacher I would have added another pair of ears to the situation and obtained feedback of a sort from those as well (mediated by the teacher’s response to what he heard). The advantage would have been a greater certainty that I was ‘on the right road’. It may have been at the cost of delaying my own aural education considerably.

Although I have often presented myself with the idea of learning to play another instrument I have never gone about it seriously until now. I am surprised to find out how easy it has been and, by implication, to wonder why I had not embarked before. But I am unable to answer that question in any other way than to say that my success indicates that I was in some state of readiness. I mean by that only that I have never been halted by not knowing what to work on at a particular time. Even after a week’s forced abstention I was able to pick up again precisely where I had left off as if all the relevant bits of myself were still poised waiting to continue. It is this feeling that gives me the confidence to say that I now know all the problems that I still need to solve in detail before I can let myself be heard as a flute player by others.

The rapidity of my progress (for such it seems to me) has some relation to my knowing when it was best to forget and when to remember. If, for instance, I had not been able to let myself forget in the early stages exactly what good flute tone was like, or how dexterously the instrument can be played, I would have been discouraged at the distance I had to go. It happened that I was able to say, with pleased recognition, after four weeks or so, that I had accidentally produced a ‘real’ flute sound. I could then let myself recall it more often and even undertake special experiments to see what I could do to make the sound I was producing even more flute-like.

I was more conscious of an open conflict in the early days between the spontaneous movements my fingers would sometimes produce when I was looking at written music – these movements being occasional reflexes related to my piano playing – and the movements I had to will them to make with a flute in my hands. At moments I would find that I was releasing one finger when depressing the next, or even moving my right hand fingers to the left to get a lower pitch. At an intellectual level I could easily say to myself that I had to work in basically the contrary direction to that used on the piano, but when my awareness of my fingers slipped from me, being preoccupied with, say, my lips at the time, I would get these errant intrusions. (A piece of behaviour I cannot at all account for is that I found, during the first couple of weeks, that when I had assembled the flute I had usually managed to get it with the mouthpiece on the right and had to ludicrously swivel it through 180 degrees before I could begin.

Now, after seven weeks, I can call upon any of my previously existing knowledge, know-how and sensitivity whenever I feel I can use it. It is no longer an obstacle – I feel, in fact, that I have absorbed into my flute playing all the previous systems that I had that are still relevant to the new job. I can use my singing to suggest when a touch of vibrato, or a slight crescendo-decrescendo on a sustained note, would be suitable, or my piano playing to suggest phrasings of baroque figurations. It is as if I had to shut off the past (or most of it) until I had come to terms with what is unique in playing the flute – that is, the new set of muscles I had to become conscious of and learn to control voluntarily. Once I had done that, even though I had not obtained mastery of these muscles, a bridge had been constructed which connected the old and the new systems. I can say now that playing the flute ‘belongs to me’ is a part of my set of competencies; it is no longer detached or tentative. That sounds arrogant, but I make it as an objective observation. It says no more than that like, say, writing it belongs to me, however far it is from exhibiting the fluency and power that I would like it to achieve.

© David Wheeler 1970. Published in The Science of Education in Questions – No10 – Une Education Pour Demain, France. December 1993

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“Learning to play the flute”” by David Wheelert is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.


A brief biography

David Wheeler taught mathematics in secondary (high) schools in London, England, for 12 years, then spent 13 years at the University of Leicester, England, involved in the pre-service and in-service training of mathematics teachers.

In 1972, at Caleb Gattegno’s invitation, he moved to New York and joined the staff of Educational Solutions, leaving in 1975 to take up a position in the Mathematics Department at Concordia University, Montréal, Canada, which he held until he retired in 1990.

In Britain David was active in the Association of Teachers of Mathematics; in Canada he helped to found the Canadian Mathematics Education Study Group (Groupe canadien d’étude en didactique des mathématiques) and in 1980 launched a new international journal, For the Learning of Mathematics, which he edited until 1997.

He died in 2000. There is a A Tribute to David Wheeler on line.