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Saturday, April 4, 2015

Musician? Going to University? Read this First!

By Sarah Anne Wolkowski

The Most Effective Method

How do we learn to play instruments? There are three ways. In Guide to Teaching Woodwinds, noted scholar Frederick W. Westphal explains that, “Individual instruction...is by far the most successful way of teaching and learning a woodwind instrument.” For timpanists, piccoloists and everyone in between, private lessons are the quickest and most efficient route to skill acquisition.

The next best option is to learn in a group class where everyone plays the same instrument. A gaggle of trumpeters, if you like.

The least effective but most common framework is a band with a wide variety of instruments. This has become the model for school systems across North America.

Although each instructional setting has its own advantages and disadvantages, it’s interesting that we’ve come to accept the third least effective format to teach music in schools.

Not that band class doesn’t have a lot to offer. That is probably where you first met your instrument. (Was it love at first sight?)

If you’re planning a career in music, the school system can only go so far. Band class will not prepare or equip you with the skills you need to move forward.

If your dreams are of the musical kind, acquiring high quality private instruction could be the best thing you ever do.

Skills Provider

Most fundamentally, your instructor will ensure that you are playing the instrument properly. There really are right and wrong ways to play. It’s better to establish good habits right from the start. Fixing poor technique can be extremely difficult and it is much harder to do at the post secondary level.

Many music students drop out of programs because they are, essentially, unprepared. A lack of instruction or poor quality instruction during the high school years can lead to frustration, disinterest, and, ultimately, failure.

The first year of university will be full of challenges. Better to begin the process without the extra burden of a skills deficit. There will be other students, your new colleagues, who have had extensive training, and perhaps a lifetime of musical studies. The curriculum doesn’t care if you’ve never had the same opportunities. It’s sink or swim.

How much time will you get with your professor at the university level? It’s a good question to ask. Private lessons are often taught by adjunct faculty who are paid by the hour, or full time professors, who have very busy schedules. This situation requires that students be self-motivated, and ready and willing to learn quickly.

University faculty members are top professionals. They love what they do and are enthusiastic about sharing what they know. If you have some background, you will get more out of these people. The more advanced your understanding and the better your skills, the further you can go.

However, to quote internationally recognized master teacher, Eugene Rousseau, one must, “start where the student is”. If you don’t know how to play a C Major scale, the professor is obliged to start there. That is a major waste of his or her expertise. A solid technical grounding in scales, ├ętudes and basic repertoire can easily be obtained in the years prior to university study.

An excellent instructor will show you how to practice. Yes, it must be learned! There are many strategies, and it can take some time to identify all the best practices for each individual. Learning how-to-learn is critically important. Without this skill, post secondary studies will be challenging. Being inspired to find your own motivation and how to be disciplined is important. These skills pay large dividends over the span of a scholastic career and a working life.

One reason the private lesson format is so effective is that you are on-the-spot. You must be able to demonstrate playing skills in real time, in front of someone who knows how it should be done. There is no relying on the group or other students. Your abilities or lack thereof are exposed and, thus, easily addressed.

Information Provider

Where should you go to school? What should you look for in a university professor? Who is offering the best programs and the best training? What kind of scholarships and bursaries are available? What equipment will I need?

An informed instructor can help you pick the right schools to apply to, prepare you for the auditions, and help you make a final decision.

Not all programs are alike! There are massive differences in terms of what streams of study are offered, but also of quality. All competent professionals know the best places to study. Don’t overlook the fact that you are paying for this and that you have a choice. It is wise to do your research and be selective so that you can get the best possible education.

Your professor will probably have the biggest impact on your experience. It’s important to find the right match. Your current private teacher will encourage you to connect early in the application process. University professors are usually very happy to meet with you in advance, provide a lesson, and allow you to sit in on a class. It’s a great way to get a feeling for the university and the teacher you will be learning from for the next four years.

What will you be doing at university? It’s a brand new world. Your current instructor can explain the ropes. He or she will have completed the process successfully, perhaps several times over, at different institutions. Qualified instructors with university degrees know what you need to know.



Your instructor will be aware of career options. You may not have thought about what you can do with a music degree, but your teacher has. It is very helpful to begin a discussion about your career aspirations before you begin formal studies. One-on-one instruction provides an incomparable opportunity for someone to assess your interests and skills, and suggest areas of study that seem suited to you.

Your teacher will help you navigate this entire process - from start to finish.

Inspiration Provider

Private instructors are often terrific role models. They are real people who live in your community and are making a living in music. When you study with a true professional, you have an unparalleled opportunity to see how he or she addresses the challenges and triumphs of a music career in action.

You may not realize how much valuable information you are soaking up just by being around them.

All professional musicians have biographies that explain who they are and what they do. It’s no surprise that most musicians honour their private instructors by listing their names in this mini summary of career highlights. With reflection, all artists come to realize what a profound impact these individuals have had on their own success.

Toronto based, Oakville born saxophonist Arran Luxford works as a woodwind specialist at Long&McQuade - Bloor.


He wasn’t particularly enamoured with the saxophone when it was assigned to him in Grade 7. Things got much better when his father rented him an instrument in good working order and signed him up for private lessons with John Lightstone. While learning the basics, Arran began to understand the time-honoured strategies used to build competent musicians. He says, “I did feel from an early stage, the importance of learning how to practice and develop proper technique.” Arran found true joy playing the saxophone, and this led him to complete a Bachelor of Musical Arts Degree at Western University, and a Music Industry Arts Diploma from Fanshawe College.



Reflecting back, he recommends taking the time to research each program, and to asses one’s personal skill set. He counsels, “If you have a weakness - take lessons in that area.”

Arran found his first year at university to be an intense period of growth. His thoughts and ideas about music began to change as he was adapting to life on his own. He appreciated that his saxophone instructor, Bobbi Thompson, was able to recognize his strengths while helping him work through his weaknesses. Along with John Lightstone, she became an important role model.

Realizing that his initial interest in teaching had shifted, Arran decided to pursue some training in recording technology. Once finished at Western, he continued on to Fanshawe. He states, “Doing that program has added a notch in my belt, and allows me to be more versatile in my current work environment.”

Arran’s first rental saxophone was from Long&McQuade, and the journey feels like a full circle. Navigating a career in music is never straightforward, but insightful private instruction throughout his studies helped guide the way.

Deciding on how to begin a career is like standing in front of a giant forest. The world seems exciting and dangerous at the same time. You realize your future lies somewhere beyond the trees. The question is: how will you find your way through?

A good private teacher is like a compass. With insight, experience and compassion, your instructor will put you on the path to developing your own potential.

Sarah Anne Wolkowski
Saxophonist Sarah Anne Wolkowski has been playing since she was in the seventh grade. She holds two saxophone performance degrees: a Bachelor of Music from McGill University (High Distinction) and a Master of Music from the University of Alberta. For several years, Sarah maintained a vibrant studio at the Alberta College Conservatory of Music at Grant MacEwan University. She is an adjunct faculty member at Mohawk College in Hamilton, and offers advanced instruction for all levels at Saxophone by the Lake in Oakville.

Read Sarah's exclusive series on saxophone technique:
Presented by

Sarah Anne Wolkowski, B.Mus (McGill) M.Mus (U. of Alberta)
Saxophone Performance and Instruction

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