In this next installment of little rules of thumb that we music teachers tend to forget from time to time I wanted to hit on something that is specific only to teaching instrumental music. It's always tough when you have a music student that seems to be trying very hard yet they can't seem to get the hang of things. You spend hours working with them to adjust their embouchure or change their hand position and yet it still doesn't seem to help. How many times have we chalked up the inability to play an instrument to lack of talent or initiative when if we had just bothered to pull out the Sani-Mist and spray the thing down we would see that it was actually NOT their fault? In this day of Swine Flu scares and other nasty maladies we don't check things on our student's instruments as much as we should, so before you tell a student they are doing it wrong, spray that sucker down and test it for yourself first! Here are some examples.
This is more a problem for brass and percussionists who also teach woodwind instruments. Reeds are finicky beasts, and especially for clarinetists trying to play across the break. On many occasions I have thought that a student had an embouchure or finger position problem that was preventing them from popping up to the high register. In some cases it was a poor quality or worn out reed that was simply not working right. In others it turned out to be a bridge key alignment problem, a leaking pad, or a missing cork. The moral of the story? Always try playing on the student's instrument if they are consistently having problems. If a student has the same problem week after week despite obvious practice and attention to the problem, it may very well be their instrument's fault. What may seem to be a physical problem to the teacher may actually be a mechanical/reed problem instead, especially to those teachers who did not grow up playing the instrument.
Just as the woodwinds have issues with reeds brass players also have instrument maintenance problems that can masquerade as other things. Some common instrument problems can mask themselves in ways that the teacher assumes is the result of poor embouchure. Take for example a horn student of mine that always had an airy tone despite consistent embouchure exercises and buzzing practice. One day I had to play on his horn to demonstrate something (because I did not have my own horn with me that day) and discovered that it felt stuffy. A quick trip to the custodians office and a jet of water from the hose blew out a piece of plastic wrap that had been stuck in one of the tubes. Once it was out his tone was awesome and the high notes were not as big of a problem.