Mark’s Flute Page | Mark’s Home Page
Search | New | Contact

Flute Beginner FAQ
How to Learn to Play the Flute

By Mark Shepard

Excerpted and adapted from the book How to Love Your Flute, Shepard Publications, 1999


For more resources, visit Mark Shepard’s Flute Page at
www.markshep.com/flute

Copyright © 1980, 1996 Mark Shepard. May be freely copied and shared for any noncommercial purpose as long as no text is altered or omitted.


Book cover: How to Love Your FluteShould I take lessons, or instead teach myself?

There are advantages to both ways. You may be a person who will benefit more from personal instruction than from reading a book like my How to Love Your Flute. Or you may be the type of person who needs the deadlines of a scheduled lesson to get you to practice. If you are serious about performing classical music, you will want to become absorbed in a tradition that seems imparted best in a teacher/student relationship.

There are also advantages to teaching yourself. Money and/or schedule constraints could be factors. You might prefer (as I do) the freedom of organizing and pacing your own learning process. Or you might even have trouble finding a teacher with whom you work well, or who can teach you the kind of flute playing you want to learn.

Whichever way you decide to go, don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t learn the flute without lessons. Many flutists have taught and are teaching themselves and have become quite good without formal training of any kind. (I speak from experience: I have never had a formal flute lesson, yet I played professionally for many years.)

If you decide to take lessons, it’s essential that the teacher you choose have a good rapport with you, be able to convey his/her knowledge in an exciting, involving way, and be able to teach you the kind of playing that you want to do. Finding the right teacher can mean a vital, enriching learning experience. Taking lessons from the wrong teacher can frustrate you and even destroy your love of the instrument.

Should I have a fixed practice period every day?

This depends on how you personally learn best. You may find that the discipline of a fixed practice period helps you focus and produces a steadier progression in your learning. Or you may find you work best by picking up the flute when you feel moved to and playing it only as long as the impulse lasts. Or you may hit on some balance between these two extremes.

Many times students are told they must practice every day or they will “lose what they have.” This may be true for advanced players, but it doesn’t seem so for beginners. Many musicians (myself included) can tell of having shoved aside their instruments for weeks at a time, only to discover when they picked them up again that their playing had actually improved!

Should I do exercises as a regular part of my practicing?

Again, it depends on how you learn best. Exercises can definitely be helpful in building your technique. On the other hand, it isn’t worthwhile to spend a great deal of time “building your technique” if it destroys your love of playing! You will have to explore this for yourself.

Should I learn to read music, or instead play by ear?

This is strictly a matter of personal preference, depending on how you feel you would like to play. There’s no reason you can’t do both! Of course, playing classical music will require you to read; improvising popular music or jazz means playing by ear.

Contrary to popular myth, it is not necessary to learn to read music before you can play by ear. (As Pete Seeger says, “Would you teach a baby to read before it could talk?”) If anything, first learning to read music makes playing by ear more difficult, since you then must overcome your dependence on the printed page. Another destructive myth is that only those people who are “musical” can play by ear. Anyone can!

Along with a book like yours, are there other resources I can use to help me learn the flute?

Yes, plenty of them. Listen to records. Go to flute performances. Stop flute players on the street. Ask questions. Play different flutes. Soak up everything that you hear or read, test it, see if it works for you. The whole world is your teacher. All you have to do is coax it a little.

What exactly do you mean by “how to love your flute”?

There seem to be two ways of approaching the flute. One is in the spirit of domination: The learner attempts to “conquer” the flute, to force from it the secrets of its operation, to subordinate it to his or her own musical wishes. It is an attitude of “overcoming.” This is not how to love your flute!

Loving your flute means being aware that you and the instrument are coproducers of the music, partners in the creation of sound. It means becoming aware of the instrument’s requirements, its musical preferences, its reactions to your own wishes. If you attempt to subjugate the instrument, it will fight you at every step; if you respect and work with it, you will find it responding willingly and demonstratively. As this relationship deepens, you and the flute can begin to grow together and gradually become, in effect, one instrument.

One of your major aims should be to develop a sensitivity toward the flute and its interrelationships with you, the player. When you approach the flute in a spirit of love, the instrument itself will teach you. If you are open to what it has to say, it will itself let you know how it should be played. And the instrument is always the best teacher.

In this special relationship, the lessons it offers may go beyond mere flute playing. The instrument can also teach you lessons about learning, about life, about love—because the same laws that govern the playing of a flute also govern the workings of the world around you and the world within you. In this way, the flute can become a focal point for the growth of understanding, a pathway to wisdom. Hermann Hesse, in his book Siddhartha, tells us that a person can eventually come to understand the entire universe by starting from any point within it—a butterfly, a rock, a river. The flute is one such point of departure.

There is truly much to be gained from a relationship with the flute—the enjoyment of its sound, the joy of creating music, the peace of a focused outpouring of the spirit, the insights that come with an openness to lessons taught. May all these and more be yours, as you grow in the love of your flute.