Teaching is a Two-Way Street:

My students: Tilly, et al.

by David Bellugi

Tilly, David and Valentina
David Bellugi with Tilly (left) and Valentina, two of his students at the Luigi Cherubini Conservatory

    reprinted by permission American Recorder Society
    American Recorder, Volume XXXIX, Number 5, November 1998, p. 17-19
     Copyright © 1998 American Recorder Society, Inc.
     ARS Email: ars.recorder@americanrecorder.org

I've been teaching the recorder for over 20 years, more than half of my life. I reached the "cracking" point in 1992 when I was seeing close to 100 students a week! In that period I used to boast/complain jokingly that after all the experience I had, I could teach a chimpanzee to play the recorder. I had young students, old students, talented students, hopelessly unmusical students, yet somehow I managed to maintain at least the outward appearance of the patience and humility one needs in teaching. With my better students helping as assistants, I managed to organize my schedule so that I could continue performing, but I was paying a high toll emotionally.

    Some of the physical and mental burden of all this teaching was alleviated a few years ago when the recorder became an "official" course in the Italian conservatory system (until then, I had been teaching recorder in the teacher's college division of the conservatory and in several private music schools). This allowed me to give up my other teaching jobs and concentrate my teaching energy in the conservatory, where the classes were limited to 10 students.

    While the more limited schedule helped me keep my sanity, I never forget that students are capable of giving back to their teachers as much as they take away. Here are some of my favorite anecdotes about students that have made my life infinitely more rewarding.


    Tilly is now ten years old. Her mother is a Japanese musicologist and her father an Italian science administrator. She transferred to Florence and the Florence conservatory when she was eight after having lived in Trieste where she studied with a colleague, Stefano Casaccia. I was, admittedly, at first, a bit skeptical about the idea of accepting her in my class, since I had no free positions and since I was a bit hesitant to take on such a young student. Tilly arrived in a bit of a flurry, ordering her mother around: "Hold this, take this, give me that." She then presented me with the program she would play for me as an audition (she herself had typed it out on their Macintosh). She played with incredible intensity! "Mother, give me the Giesbert," she ordered, and proceeded to play one of the exercises in the second half of the book (first staccato, then with two notes slurred, three notes slurred, and four notes slurred). I'd never seen anything like it before! She played with such determination - "TI-A TA TA, TI-A TA TA" - what Italians called "grinta." The notes were coming out because she wanted them to come out! I had her signed up immediately, ignoring all protests from the administration about her age.

    In one of her first lessons, a siren went off outside the room, and I casually asked her what the notes were. She immediately replied, "fa and mi bemolle" (I checked on my recorder; she had perfect pitch). I used to have a game with my daughters; on driving trips I'd make up as complex a series of sounds as I could and they would try to repeat them: "KTZMLPTKGRZM." I tried this with Tilly, using at first basic and then complex phrasing on the recorder. Sure enough, she did a remarkable job as soon as she discovered the trick of listening to the silences between the notes as well as the notes themselves. I then decided to try "conversing" with her musically. I'd ask a musical question and she'd answer. Her answers were so good that I becoming embarrassed by not being able to make up questions as logical as her answers!

    One day, she came to her lesson and, uncharacteristically, didn't look me in the eye. "What's wrong," I asked. Apparently, she'd forgotten what she was supposed to study (she is also studying judo and the cello, as well as attending elementary school). "Did you think I was going to be mad?" I asked. "Bite you maybe? Yell and scream?" So I pulled out the Telemann duets and she sightread them! I don't remember what prompted me, but when her instrument made a whistling sound while she was cleaning out the windway, I imitated her. This started a "sound" game in which I used as many "extended techniques" as I could think of and she, with the same determination as she had shown in the Giesbert exercises, repeated them - but with a twinkle in her eyes that I'll never forget.

    On a hot and muggy June day in Florence, Tilly came in to her lesson obviously exhausted and overheated, threw her music onto the stand, and dramatically sat back in her chair like a rag doll. The music she threw was Orlando Gibbons' two-voice fantasies - pieces that are very demanding rhythmically and written without barlines. The music landed upside down on the music stand. I waited until she put her plastic recorder together and asked her what we were playing today. Without saying a word she indicated the Gibbons with a small gesture of her head, but didn't make any effort to turn the music around. "O.K.," I said, "so let's play it!" So we began to play the music upside down! That perked her up! She read through the entire first page perfectly, and then we had to stop because no other music was visible! The edition of Gibbons that I have has a lot of impossible page turns in it, so we had photocopied all three fantasies, each one being around 4 pages each. I set up four music stands in a row and arranged the dozen or so pages on them and we proceeded to read through all three fantasies by crab-walking across the room! These are the moments of teaching that make it all worthwhile!

    Recently, the same siren went off again while I was teaching Tilly. This time, I started playing chords around the sound, using the distinct rhythm of the siren. She picked it up immediately, and within a few seconds we were improvising. Tilly was not imitating me; we were "jamming"! Then a bird made a loud screech, and I imitated it by covering the fipple with my right hand. Tilly twinkled again and did likewise.

    The same day a remarkable thought struck me. How lucky I am! Through Tilly's eyes I've been given the chance to relive all the excitement of learning the recorder's repertoire all over again - as if I, too, were seeing the music for the first time.


    Gili, 23, is an intensely beautiful, physically powerful-looking - yet at the same time soft - young Israeli. My first impression of Gili was of a person who had absolutely no fear at all. This thought, only partly true, was probably put in my mind since I knew that she had come to me straight from the two-year obligatory military service for Israeli women. She had some obvious technical and musical deficiencies. At my suggestion she brought a van Eyck, a Telemann fantasy, and a modern Israeli piece. The modern piece she brought was not particularly interesting, but I was struck by the fact that she had paid very little attention to what was written - very little phrasing, faulty rhythmic interpretations, basically lacking tools for expression. The "audition" quickly turned into a lesson, I pointed out that she wasn't observing the expressive marks the composer had indicated, and she put up a small defense by saying that she had studied the piece with a well-known Israeli teacher and had played it for the composer and neither of them had said anything. I didn't pay any attention to her comment (I know her teacher in Israel, Michael Meltzer, and he's a superb musician) and just continued showing her how she could technically express some of the "signs" on the page in front of her. Over that year, she balked a few times but worked consistently. In my mind, the turning point came after she attended a concert of mine at the conservatory, where I played traditional Jewish music as well as Bach, Bartók, Handel, and Chick Corea. I think that hearing me use, in a performance situation, the kind of expressive tools that I was attempting to give her in lessons made something click inside her. Over the next few lessons, she showed a real breakthrough in her playing. I'm proud of her! Of all my students, she takes the prize hands down as having made the most progress.


    Francesco, is the crooner; a tall dark-haired young man, he looks straight out of a Renaissance painting. Francesco first came to me about seven years ago at age 18. He comes from Pistoia, a small town between Florence and Pisa. At the time he had been playing the recorder and reading music for only six months, but he brought me a Telemann fantasia played on a tenor recorder. Although quite unfinished technically, his musicality was quite apparent and he made musical leaps and bounds over the years, easily taking his place in my mind as the most musical student I'd had until then. He mentioned wanting to sing in several lessons, and I knew that he had taken up singing in several choirs. Then, one September, while Vicki Boeckman was here in Florence teaching a course to my students, he sang a Purcell aria for the two of us, accompanied by a couple of my students. Vicki and I were both left with our mouths hanging open: he has the most beautiful countertenor voice I've ever heard and sings with great ease, ornamenting in an astonishing way. I have no doubt that this young man is going places!


    Gabriela was an Argentinean student. I remember one lesson at which she had brought the van Eyck tune "Wat zal men op den avond doen." She had practiced this piece very diligently but, because of the thirty-second notes in the last variation, she had chosen a very slow tempo, making the melody sound like a funeral march. "I don't know what 'Wat zal men' means," I told her, "but imagine that it means something cheeky like, 'What are you doing tonight after dinner?' The melody is so simple that it has to have some bounce and life to it." A few weeks later, a Dutch girl came to visit us at the conservatory, and I asked her to translate the title. "What ... are ... you ... doing ... this evening!" was her hesitant translation of the ancient Dutch!


    Charmian is my most faithful student. She's been studying with me for over 17 years! She's so persevering that we've managed to cover almost all of the recorder's literature and then some (like most of Bach's Art of the Fugue with two other students and myself). There was a period in which she decided to learn to play the bass recorder and to read the bass clef. It was three in the afternoon (I'd been teaching since nine in the morning) and we were playing a Bicinium by Ockeghem at a snail's pace, so that she could cope with the bass clef and the instrument. While I was playing, I fell asleep (this is not the first time this has happened to me) and found myself in the following peculiar situation on my reawakening. I realized three things: 1) that I'd fallen asleep, 2) that I'd reawakened, and 3) that I had been talking (in my sleep!). I managed to "rewind" my short-term memory and actually found the words that I had uttered in my sleep: "Some people think..." I paused while all this was sinking in and completed the sentence, "that that note is an F#." The next week I apologized to Charmian for having been so tired and admitted to have fallen asleep momentarily. "Really?" she said. "I hadn't noticed!"


    This story dates considerably more than ten years back, but I've never forgotten it.

    Giulia, eight years old, looked to me like Little Orphan Annie. A big mop of curly hair and the largest, darkest eyes I'd ever seen. Giulia was a very slow learner on the recorder. We spent most of a school year studying the first (left-hand only) section of the Duschenes method (soprano). Around March, we were still on "Mary had a little lamb"! She'd look at the music, look at her fingers, play one note (badly), look at the music, look at fingers, play another note badly, etc. Excruciating! That day, my patience worn thin, I said to her, "Giulia, you don't need to look at your fingers when you play. Watch this." And I proceeded to play the first "capricio" from the last section of the Giesbert at lightening speed from memory all the way through with my eyes closed. I then stopped and looked at her for her response. She opened her huge black eyes and said, "Did you study the recorder, too?"

American recorderist David Bellugi has attracted attention in the U.S. since the release of his innovative CD Landscapes in 1995. When David is not on tour he resides in Florence Italy, where he teaches at the "Luigi Cherubini" Conservatory of Music. His email address is: and his home page is at: http://www.davidbellugi.com

1. Update on the article

UPDATES of some of the students mentioned in the article: GILI got married in the summer of 1998 and received her diploma this last June. She is now studying with Michael Meltzer at the Rubin Academy in Jerusalem.

TILLY: passed her third year piano and solfege exams last June and has also been accepted into the 'cello class with friend and colleague, Andrea Nannoni. As I'm writing this (mid-January 1998), I've only just managed to catch up with all of the work that Tilly has done this summer on her own. Over the summer holidays she studied all twelve Telemann fantasies, Vivaldi's C major concerto, and Bach's solo sonata (which she plays by memory). She's now going through the Handel Sonatas at the rate of one a week. I have Tilly play both the recorder and the bass parts. By the way we're using the excellent Lasocki/Bergmann edition that Martha Bixler also highly commends in her article. We spent one enjoyable and hilarious lesson on Telemann's "Gulliver Suite" duo that was originally for violin. Last week she performed with me a Telemann duet for a school concert that I gave. She, of course, silently absorbed the rest of the concert (where I played Renaissance and modern music as well as the three Klezmer dances from "Landscapes"). The next day, at lesson, we were working on Handel's C major sonata and in the last movement there is a passage of ascending dotted quarter notes that cover an octave and Tilly, obviously imitating my glissandi in the Klezmer tunes, did a perfect glissando in tempo, up through the entire octave. I was just barely able to get through all of the 16th notes in the bass part before we both burst into laughter.

I would also like to thank all of the people who have taken the time to write me their kind words and thoughts about the article. Many also had very lovely stories that they shared with me as well.

I found it a fitting coincidence that my stories appeared in the same issue as the very interesting article by Martha Bixler as it was for Martha that I had originally written the stories. Martha's remarkably speedy recovery from her terrible accident is a lesson for all of us in courage, strength and determination.

I would also like to thank all of the students that I DIDN'T mention in the original article, and there have been many in the past 20 years, much too many to name individually. Many are now close friends of mine and quite a few have gone on into the music profession and are now colleagues of mine. Andrea Carmagnola, Salvatore Dell'Atti, Donato Sansone, Ugo Galasso and Gabriela Soltz (these last two married each other) have a group called "La Fontegara" that is now releasing their fourth and fifths CDs called respectively, "Vox nostra, El camino de Santiago" (ed. Dynamic) and "Carmina Burana" (ed. Amadeus Tactus). The other CDs they've released are "Il Giardino dell'Amore" (ed. Bongiovanni), "Giovanni Gabrieli Canzoni e sonate" (ed. Tactus) and "Ludus Danielis" (ed. EMA records). Another former student, Marco Di Manno, who also plays with the "La Fontegara" on at least two of the above recordings, has recently won the "Alessandro Stradella" competition here in Italy. Marco is my teaching assistant at the "Luigi Cherubini" conservatory and wonderful player. Upcoming professionals include Alejandra Lopera (Peru) and Terri Hron (Canada) who both attended the Virtuoso Recorder Program at the 1998 Amherst Early Music Festival. They are both pictured on page 3 of the September 1998 issue of the American Recorder -- respectively, third from the left and second from the right.

2. Additional photo(s)

This is a photo of a group of my students performing together with Persian percussionist Ali Tajbakhsh. (click on the picture if you want to see a larger version)