Building Character One Note At A Time – The Power Of Private Lessons

By Jennifer Witt, Music & Arts School Services Marketing Manager

My musical journey began at age nine with a used flute my father found advertised in the newspaper and a beginner level book my mom bought at the local music store. That Armstrong beginner flute looked a little worse for wear, but a tune up after years of being stored in the attic made it playable. It was quite possibly the best investment my parents ever made in my musical potential and future success. 

I remember sitting on the living room floor, huffing and puffing with the head joint to produce whistle sounds until I was so lightheaded, I had to take a break. In time, the lightheadedness dissipated, and the whistle tones turned into Hot Cross Buns, London Bridge, and Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. Music became the first subject I studied when I got home from school, and twenty-minute practice sessions became thirty, then an hour or more as I practiced the tunes I was assigned until they sounded good. 

As I entered my teen years and a middle school band program, being a flutist had become a part of my identity and a voice that I could use to express my feelings. When I picked up the flute and played a song, family members listened and clapped. That applause was validating, and I discovered that I could bring people joy by simply playing holiday carols or a heartfelt rendition of Happy Birthday To You. 

My mother came home from parent-teacher conferences in the fall of my seventh-grade year with big news. She announced that my band director gave her the name of a private teacher to contact and arrange weekly flute lessons. He told her that I needed more one-on-one attention than he could give me in class, so I could fully develop my talent. Every Monday at 5:30 p.m. for the next six years, I received generous doses of her encouragement and legacy.

My flute teacher was tenacious, having earned and held the principal seat in a professional symphony orchestra for decades, in an era when men traditionally filled that role. She had a dignity about her that came from knowing her abilities and demonstrating them capably. Above all things, she had high standards and taught me to strive for excellence and be well-prepared, never leaving anything to chance. 

Although my lessons included the standard progression of tone development warm-ups, scale studies, technical exercises to reinforce accurate rhythmic interpretation, and solo repertoire to enhance lyrical expression, I also gained valuable life lessons which still inform my choices today. I learned to budget my time, prioritizing my academic commitments while preparing for solo and ensemble contests and auditions that were important to me. With the 80/20 rule as my guide, I devoted 80 percent of my practice time to the 20 percent of measures that proved most difficult. It helped me learn to work more efficiently and meet deadlines. 

Private lessons aren’t just ideal for students that are excelling and need more of a challenge, they can also help students that have switched instruments catch up on grade level standards so they can play confidently with an ensemble. Music & Arts offers an online scheduler that allows families to preview qualified instructors in their area from the largest network nationwide, opt for in-person or virtual lessons at a day and time that works best for them, and even take a trial lesson for free. In addition to becoming better musicians, students will gain valuable life skills in the process:

  • Manners – Musicians that behave politely and follow the stated rules of music-related events often experience better outcomes. This includes arriving on time, wearing appropriate attire, limiting distracting behaviors, and supporting one another by offering applause when appropriate and bowing in acknowledgment.
  • Responsibility – Beyond showing up on time and ready to play, musicians strive to perform the music on their stands in a manner that honors the composer’s intentions, specific to the genre and composition era. Mastering one’s parts shows a level of dedication to the ensemble while acknowledging that it is a privilege to perform for an audience.
  • Time Management – To be early is to be on time; to be on time is to be late. The downbeat waits for no one. Successful musicians allow for adequate practice sessions so that during rehearsals, attention can be given to how everyone else’s parts fit together while maintaining mental focus on one’s own part. 
  • Self-Discipline – Daily practice for brief time intervals is far more beneficial than occasional marathon sessions. As Olympians of the fine motor skills, musicians make progress faster when it is habitual. To play something correctly once or twice is luck. Doing so accurately several times builds proficiency through repetition.
  • Preparedness – Opportunities arise and when musicians have done their homework, sightreading unknown pieces becomes less intimidating. Private lesson students are exposed to more diverse time and key signatures by studying instrument-specific repertoire, which builds fluency and informs their stylistic choices, so they can better respond to the unexpected.
  • Listening Skills – Musicians develop their ears to identify and maintain the correct pitches that they read with their eyes. They also develop the ability to listen to everyone around them and adjust their sound to either blend or stand out depending on the dynamics in the music. Hearing and heeding corrections fosters maturity and accountability, while cultivating a growth mindset.

The real secret to musical success is truly just practice, practice, practice, and with the help of a caring lessons teacher, students can achieve their goals. Mine in high school were to audition for and earn the first chair seat in the state honor band and earn my proficiency level medals in the state-level solo contest. I achieved those goals, because my lessons teacher was my cheerleader throughout the process, guiding my efforts and providing affirmation, even when I doubted myself. 

There were also some disappointments along the way. While those lessons were bittersweet, they were necessary. Although I showed up to auditions and played my absolute best, there were times when my performance was not THE best and others exceeded my efforts. My flute teacher was there for those moments, too, and helped put things into perspective. She understood and consoled me in a way that no one else could, having dealt with her own setbacks as a musician.

In retrospect, my parents invested in what was inarguably the foundation of my character formation, as much as it was learning to play the flute. My instructor’s patience, wisdom, humor, and constructive criticism, when needed, showed me the ultimate act of optimism: she believed in me. The person I was becoming was just as important as what I could do musically, because of those weekly lessons. Now a lessons teacher myself, I see clearly through the efforts of my students how the gift of music changes lives and pays dividends for years to come. 

Jennifer Witt is the School Services Marketing Manager at Music & Arts and the Flute Instructor at Mount Saint Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland. She works with flutists of all ages and abilities, as well as directs small ensembles, helping them achieve their goals and play their very best.

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