Repertoire first, routine second

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I’ve recently changed the order in which I teach my lessons. I used to start most lessons (at least with younger students) by working through lip slurs and other fundamentals. By covering the technical bases first, I felt like I could already tell how their practice the previous week had gone, what issues were causing problems, and maybe even where I should focus during the lesson. This is the way most of my teachers structured my lessons, and it is very effective.

There are a few downsides, though. When I organize lessons with fundamentals first, my students sometimes misunderstand the point of these exercises and think I’m having them “warm up” during lesson time. They either resent this (because they’ve already warmed up), or worse, they neglect to warm up before their lessons (figuring they’ll have to do it with me anyway). For some students, no amount of explaining the difference between warm-up and fundamentals convinces them. Teaching fundamentals first also seems to divorce the practice of technical skills from the students’ concept of musicality. The exercises and routines happen before they’ve engaged the musical side of their brains, and they end up playing with dull timbre, lazy articulation, or other “unmusical” sounds even while accurately rendering the exercise.

To solve these issues, I’ve started having my students play their etudes first. Students now know they have to walk into their lessons already warmed up, because otherwise they won’t be able to perform their first etude as well as they’d like. The etude repertoire makes them play with style, phrasing, and vibrance right from the very beginning, and they develop the habit of taking care of every note they play, from the first to the last.

If their fundamentals all sound good throughout the etude, I can safely talk about interpretation, style, and historical context. However, if there is a technical element that seems uncomfortable, it becomes my segue into fundamentals, and I choose an exercise that addresses that specific skill. Because they just ran into troubles with that skill, students are more likely to pay attention to the details of the exercise and attempt to master it rather than merely going through the motions. Their takeaway graduates from “I have to do this routine” to something like “I need to improve the integration between my upper and lower ranges by doing wide lip slurs.”

Placing etudes first also gives me the opportunity to teach practice techniques. We talk through each etude and identify problematic areas, and then together we abstract those difficult sections into the fundamental skills that need work. I then instruct them in how to improve those skills separately from the etude, so that their improvement translates from that week’s repertoire to future challenges. Through this process, students learn that having complete control of their instrument allows them to perform whatever notes they happen to find on the page in front of them, with whatever musical interpretation they desire.