This article appears in Helen Spielman's upcoming book A Flute in My Refrigerator: Celebrating a Life in Music, which will be released in 2013. Helen is a performance anxiety coach who works with musicians around the world via phone or Skype, teaching them to perform consistently with focus, control, and freedom. You may visit her website at PerformConfidently.com This article was previously published in Music for the Love Of It, June 1995 and is used by permission.
The Trill Seekers
Five years ago, I put an ad in the paper and posted flyers on bulletin boards, advertising my services as a flute teacher. I prayed that at least a few adults would find their way to my studio. Although I adore children, I wanted a varied student population so that my teaching day would be interesting and stimulating. God answered my prayers in a big way. Since that time, I have always had between 8 and 15 adults in my studio.
The children I taught would sometimes say, “Do you teach a girl named Kathy? She’s in my class” or “in my Brownie troupe” or “on my soccer team.” I never heard comments like that from the grownups, and I began to realize how separate they were from each other. So I started an adult flute group, which began meeting three times a year. The group has been so popular that, by the students’ request, we now meet four times a year. We have an evening activity followed by time for refreshments and socializing. Becky came up with the name “The Trill Seekers,” and we’ve been seeking trills and thrills together ever since.
My adult students were shy about playing their flutes in public, so for our initial session I invited Brooks de Wetter-Smith, the flute professor from the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, to give a talk about flute repertoire and play for us. “I don’t know if I would have come that first time if I had to play in front of the others,” Jenifer told me. “It was much easier to be introduced to the group this way.”
For the second session, we played Christmas music in three-part harmony, as an ensemble, and no one had to solo. The third session became Duet Night, with the students playing duets, either with each other or with me. Gradually I coaxed them toward the fourth session, where they played solos with a piano accompanist.
Recently, when I asked the students how they have benefited from participating in our group, the theme of performance anxiety came up in everyone’s response. “At first I was very nervous,” said Jenifer, “but now it’s fun. It was helpful to learn that other people get as nervous as I do, those who started as adults like me and those who’ve played for a long time. Every time we play in front of each other, I get less nervous. It really helps.”
Donna had a different perspective. “As an adult, it’s hard to be less than accomplished at something. Our group validates the whole experience of being a learner. It shows me the OK-ness of being a novice.”
“It’s nice to have the opportunity to play in front of people other than in a recital with a whole crowd listening,” Dianne explained. “This group has helped me build confidence and skill. And it’s nice to play and not be laughed at. At home, my cats laugh at me, and sometimes my children do, too!”
Jill focused on the social aspect of the experience. “I like getting together with a bunch of flute players and sharing a common interest with other adults. It’s rare to find a group of adult amateur musicians; it wouldn’t happen by accident. It’s a real plus for me to have this in my life.”
Robin had similar feelings. “I enjoy getting together with other people who like to play music, otherwise I’m doing it alone. In my community concert band, we work together as a group, but this setting allows me to play as an individual and yet have somebody else to share with. And we focus purely on flute music, so it’s a great medium in which to exchange information. I enjoy the talking and laughing and the fun of trying out new music.”
“It’s good to do something that’s not work-related, something just for fun,” Dianne shared. “And besides, the food’s always good.”
Jenifer said, “I’ve gotten to know the other folks in the group well. At recitals, there’s no time to get to know anyone. It’s so nice to have someone to talk to during the week, to go to the music store with, or to attend concerts together. Our paths wouldn’t cross without this group. The other people in my life don’t play the flute.”
Occasionally my students get together for non-flute-related activities. As with many friendships, a common interest can lead ultimately to a broader relationship.
When I asked the group what their favorite or most memorable sessions have been, everyone said they liked the sessions we have once a year when the students get to play solos with a piano accompaniment. They enjoy hearing what the music sounds like in its entirety. “Hearing the other half of the music, instead of merely imagining it,” Robin said.
“I not only like playing my own solos with a piano accompaniment,” Jill explained, “but I also love to see the progress others have made.”
Comments such as these show me that energies have shifted, that my students have grown and changed. After all the focus on nerves about performing, they’re now telling me that their favorite sessions involve playing for others!
“For me,” Jill continued, “the most memorable sessions are when Brooks gives a masterclass for us. I consider it a real opportunity to work with someone like him. What he can do with each individual student in fifteen minutes is amazing.”
During one of Brooks’ masterclasses, Donna was pleased that she could adjust her embouchure the way he showed her to. “I could do it!” she exclaimed. “It was exciting to learn something I hadn’t thought about before.”
For Dianne, the first time she heard Brooks play in my living room, where our group meets, was the most memorable moment. “I never knew a human being could make a sound as glorious as that. It was musical ecstasy.”
I derive just as much benefit from these sessions as my students. My heart swells when I see my students play beautifully in a relaxed manner in front of others. I learn to be a better teacher by listening to the conversations we have during these evenings, or by watching a master teacher work with my students. My role as “the teacher” diminishes, and I become “one of the gang,” just another person who loves the flute and likes to interact with friends in a meaningful way. My soul is nourished by the laughter, friendship, acceptance, and support we extend to one another.
I agree with Dianne, who said, “I like it all!” and with Donna, who said, “I appreciate the opportunity to create music for fun—to experience the simple, old-fashioned joy of making music.”
When we first became “The Trill Seekers,” I had no idea that the thrills we would find together would be so far-reaching and life-enhancing. In seeking a deeper relationship with music and with our instruments, we’ve been led toward love and joy, as well as social, emotional, and spiritual fulfillment. In the process of becoming music makers together, we’re learning to express ourselves as beautiful, creative, wondrous beings.