Surely you’ve heard about the nightmare piano teacher? She’s the one who’d hit your knuckles with a ruler if you played a wrong note at the keyboard. Shudder.
While it can’t be said that ruthless teaching practices are limited to purely musical subjects, I’ve heard far too many of my flute students relate their own horror stories of bad lessons. Here’s some of what’s been shared:
He told me my tone was so bad I sounded like a drain pipe, and maybe that’s what I should try to learn to play instead.
Sure, my old flute teacher would listen to me play scales… while they checked their iPhone.
She said I should give up and forget my dreams of becoming a musician as a career because ‘I just wasn’t talented enough’.
She had so much sherry on her breath… goodness knows how she got through our lessons every week.
They seemed jealous of my rising success and so started saying really hurtful things about me to other teachers and the other students, too.
I get worked up when I hear stuff like this because it’s so unfair, outrageous, and lousy. And so while I inwardly simmer over these stories, this folks, is where Cornwall-based flautist Ruth Ballantyne comes in. She’s living proof that one can rise above an unsupportive, unhelpful flute teacher because she overcame failed music exams, undid unhealthy playing habits and has made a successful career as a flautist for herself despite many early setbacks. I like to think of Ruth’s story as a bit of a joyful response to soothe anyone out there who discovers their teacher is surfing a Twitter feed mid-lesson.
Ruth’s latest book series is written for flute players called ‘Preparing For My Grade’ which corresponds to the UK’s Associated Board of Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) requirements for taking Grades 1-5 exams. As an educator I adore her colourful, outside-of the-usual approach to this exam system so much that I wanted you to know about it, too.
By the way, don’t be put off with the exam part of the titles. Even if you aren’t into the ABRSM exam material, I recommend her series as it will help you to see any repertoire you are playing in a completely new (and excitingly creative) light. Be inspired in the interview below by her story of her drive and passion to inspire a whole new generation of flautists.
JQ: I’d love to know where your flute journey started as a child growing up in Cornwall. What was it that captivated you to start playing flute in the first place?
RB: I can remember very vividly the day I decided I wanted to learn to play the flute. I was just about to start junior school and we had an afternoon up at the school where some of the students performed in a concert for us. One girl played Grieg’s ‘Morning’ on the flute, it sounded so beautiful I was totally hooked! Being too small to start the flute I started the recorder and moved up to the flute a few years later. As a flute student I was quite average, but I loved it and continued playing throughout my school life.
I am curious about what it was like to be youngster working towards the British ABRSM exam system — I never had that childhood experience given my music education in the American school system.
My very first exam was Grade 3. Having played my three set pieces for the examiner, I went to leave. Surprised, the examiner explained that the exam wasn’t over and there were scales, sight reading and listening to do. Slightly bemused I told him that was all that I had prepared at which point he told me that if I didn’t complete the rest of the exam I would fail. At which point I promptly burst into tears! Needless to say I failed my first exam.
What was the result of that first failed exam?
From the beginning I learnt many bad habits that created barriers at every stage that took a lot of time and persistence to overcome. My lessons rarely provided solutions to the problems I was having and I found that most of the music I played was a mystery. I scraped through my Grade 8 during my A-levels having been told not to bother as I was going to fail anyway and amazingly managed to get a place at Exeter University to study music. Unfortunately my first lessons at university still failed to provide any solutions. Despite being told “to start from scratch” I was just given material and told to go away and improve. Having no knowledge of how to do this I didn’t improve. After a year or so of lessons –during which I was asked to repeat things again but better, but without knowing or being told ‘how’ –my teacher refused to teach me.
You’ve certainly been through the paces with a lot of angst in the early years in regards to playing. Many young musicians would have quit at that point, right?
The whole of my learning on the flute had been difficult and if I didn’t have real passion for my instrument there is no doubt I would have given up. I did find another teacher with the help of one of my lecturers and she was a great help in guiding me through the rest of my university years.
How did you go about finding the confidence to become a teacher yourself after suffering from so many setbacks from negative teachers and naysayers?
My experience made me determined to go into teaching, to create a more productive and enjoyable route for students to learn the flute. The 10 years following university were the most enlightening to my flute playing. I went on numerous courses and workshops absorbing and engaging with good practice and technique. There were lots of teaching workshops being run at the time and I went on as many as I could afford. It was daunting and inspiring at the same time.
How did you start your flute studio in the early days and what does your work look like now?
I started teaching within a year of leaving university in 1997, balancing it with part-time work, which I continued for a few years before becoming a full-time flute teacher. From then I have tried to continue to learn and progress, if only a little, every day. I love exploring new ways to encourage, inspire and teach my students. My performing work has grown over the years and I now enjoy regular performing work with a wide range of orchestras and ensembles. I am very lucky to be able to have a career balanced with teaching and playing, both of which I love.
How did you come to the point in your music journey where you decided to write your latest book series?
The book evolved from sheets that I started to create many years ago to help students with their exams. It started off as a simplified outline of everything they would be required to do for their exam so they knew exactly what to expect. It then started to grow into games, quizzes and challenges that they could take away to help them remember, engage and apply the skills and information. As students interacted with them I found the things that worked, and then refined or changed the ones that didn’t.
It sounds like it is almost a remedy for what you experienced when you did your first exam.
I did this series to ensure every student entering an exam knew exactly what was required of them. Not doing well in exams because you haven’t put the work in is one thing, not doing well because you didn’t understand what was expected of you is quite another. It is sometimes difficult to explain to students all of the elements involved in an exam so they will remember them, but by having a sheet with it all clearly laid out both you and the student can be confident what is required.
There is nothing unique about the information in the books and I would never have considered the possibility of publishing them had I not been approached at the British Flute Society convention in 2014 following my talk where I used the book as an example of teacher-inspired resources.
You say that there’s nothing unique about this approach, but I would disagree! I love the way that you have assembled a method that is a highly artistic, intuitive and creative approach to interpretation that is accessible to a beginning flute player. What were your aims for this method?
The main idea of the book is to provide all the answers with everything you need to know for each grade. It aims to inspire students to look more closely at their music, finding out more about it and the composers who wrote it. It engages students with musical terms, encourages them to explore their instrument and listen to famous flute players past and present who can inspire their playing. It uses the ABRSM syllabus material to ensure that all the elements a students needs at that grade are there to support their playing as well as hopefully stimulating their interest to find out more. It also aims to encourage students to look constructively at their music, inspire both independent curiosity and learning and to get into this habit early!
It’s often the case that some pupils I have come across have only been encourage to learn 3 pieces of music for the exam and don’t often give much thought as to how they might interpret them creatively, or even do a bit of research about the pieces beforehand. It’s often the only music they ever play, too. Your series seems to try to remedy this limited teaching approach.
The number of students that you come across that don’t know anything about the pieces of music that they play for their exams, even the simple things like who wrote it, and when is remarkable. Knowing more about your pieces, particularly who they were written by and when, also helps to create a base of knowledge in the different styles and periods of music which is a great resource to their aural training. It is much easier to identify the style and period of a piece of music if you can recognise features and techniques from a wide variety of pieces. The same can be said for colour and character. By getting students to engage with this sort of exploration of their pieces they were soon in the habit of identifying these features in all of the music they play.
Were you writing with a child learner in mind, specifically?
I use the books with all students young and old. While the pictures may seem a little childish to some, the language and information in it is hopefully clear, simple and to the point making it practical for everyone. Although geared around the ABRSM syllabus in terms of content, the book can be used on any three pieces of the student/ teacher’s choosing– so not necessarily just for those taking an exam. This gives those not wanting to take the grade exams an opportunity to ensure they understand all of the terms, techniques and language at that level.
I think that your method really is useful especially for a teacher that feels overwhelmed at teaching all of the ABRSM material in a weekly 30 min. lesson slot.
It can be really difficult for teachers to ensure that students cover and remember everything in the run- up to exams. The books help to give some focus for students to work outside lessons when they are perhaps unable to play their flute. It also gives students a consistent resource with everything they need to know for their exam clearly written for them to refer to. Pages from the book (see samples here) can be set by teachers on a weekly basis for homework and games like the timed scale quiz can be run regularly both in lessons and with parents or friends at home to show improvement and build confidence in the run up to the exam.
I have to say that the timed scale quiz has been a big hit with my students. Can you tell us how it fits into a wider methodology of teaching? (for example, does it have any ties to what Paul Harris offers in his ‘simultaneous learning’ methodology)
Like many teachers Paul Harris is a real inspiration and his books have been a well-used part of my teaching repertoire for many years. In conjunction with my books I use Paul Harris’s ‘Improve your Aural’ which are a brilliant introduction to the grade tests. I would like to think that the books fit into the ideal of simultaneous learning where engaging with a student’s imagination and creativity you can inspire them to develop the skills to explore music themselves and ultimately become independent.
Is there anything similar that could link this approach to other books beyond just flute pedagogy?
I’m not aware of anything similar. There are many publications which engage with elements of grade preparation but I’m not aware of anything this interactive that draws it together in quite the same way.
I agree, and I think the series will be really successful, Ruth. I can see you publishing it for other instruments, too.
For more information about Ruth and her latest music projects, visit her website at http://www.ruthballantyne.co.uk/. Her book series is published by Forton Music, and can be found at Just Flutes and Musicroom.
It’s an absolute pleasure to also mention that Ruth will also be giving flute workshops on creativity and interpretation at the next Flowing Flautist Retreat here in Cornwall. Click here to find out more about what she’ll be offering and to join us this September.