Is there a culture of ignorance in brass pedagogy today? At one time I would have questioned anyone claiming so. After all, I’m always learning about new approaches and experiments brass teachers are coming up with and sharing with the field. However, as a fan of science and critical thinking I’m beginning to learn how much of what the profession as a whole is advocating is based on fallacious reasoning. I’m also getting quite used to resistance from many of my peers about my own academic and research interests of brass embouchures. Not only are many brass teachers ignorant about easily observed embouchure characteristics, many willfully and unapologetically remain so.
Generally speaking, my goal is usually not to go about trying to prove someone “wrong” about their own approach to brass pedagogy, but rather to share information in an accessible and easy to understand way so as to encourage a collaborative effort. I’ve learned that being overly critical is not conducive towards facilitating this goal, but occasionally I’m not big enough to avoid this trap. Today’s post is, I’m afraid, going to be one of those times. What I do hope to avoid, though, will be attacking individuals and instead will be going after the ideas and philosophies that have become pervasive in the field of brass pedagogy. Here then are a number of the errors in judgement that we, as brass teachers and players, regularly make that hold the field back.
Argument From Authority/The Myth of the Lone Genius
Often times when discussing an element of teaching brass I’ll hear about Famous Teacher who states that the secret to great playing is to do Instruction X. While a noted authority on brass playing is certainly worth listening to and probably has something valuable to contribute, we often accept their word uncritically simply because they were such a good performer or charismatic teacher. The huge number of great players Famous Teacher has instructed is irrelevant to whether or not Instruction X is effective. Their ideas need to be judged on their merit alone. Criticizing instructions that are demonstrably wrong is not “spitting in the face” of someone, it’s an attempt to address problems in traditional pedagogy.
Similar to the argument from authority is the myth of a lone genius working from his or her personal lab and coming up with Revolutionary Method that goes completely opposite from what everyone else believes. In the field of science advances are made in small steps as part of a collaborative building effort. Too frequently the authors of Revolutionary Method prove ignorant of the work that others are doing and fail to address important questions and concerns with their, often radically different, approach.
Please note that just because someone is making an appeal to authority or lone genius fallacy doesn’t mean that the instructions they’re offering is wrong, it just means that their arguments as to why they are effective need to be reconsidered. Again, ideas need to be discussed on their own merit, not based on who makes them.
Argument From Ignorance
Too often when I discuss my own research on brass embouchures with someone I get criticism back along the lines of, “The embouchure is too complex a topic to understand, so you can’t and shouldn’t analyze it.” Or they sometimes state that because they’ve never seen the situation I’m discussing then it must not exist. This is an example of the “argument from ignorance.”
First, just because an individual doesn’t personally understand a particular element of brass pedagogy doesn’t mean that others don’t have a better grasp on that topic and have something to offer. Furthermore, I find this attitude to be intellectually lazy. If one doesn’t have the curiosity to explore a topic further, that’s not necessarily a bad thing – unless you then discourage others from going deeper into it and offer advice on avoiding analysis. We will never come to a completely accurate understanding of all elements of brass pedagogy, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take steps towards reducing those areas where we remain ignorant.
It’s All In Your Head/The Goal Is the Method
This sort of instruction, which favors a “let the body figure itself out” approach, seems to be more common the better performer Famous Teacher is. These instructors ignore a discussion of brass technique over a purely musical approach. Since our goal is expressive music making, then everything must be approached with this goal in mind. Students are instructed to imagine the sound in their head and practice with musicality at all times.
Famous Teacher is often a “natural” player and never really had to work really hard to achieve great instrumental technique, other than simply playing a lot. Most of us mere mortals are not so fortunate. Many other examples of the Famous Teacher have forgotten all the effort and analysis they put into their technique. They assume that because they play better now without thinking of technique that the key to good mechanics is to only practice this way.
If you read brass forums and blogs long enough eventually you will come across something along the lines of, “I practiced my mechanical issue X for months without getting better and it wasn’t until I forgot all about it and just played that I figured it out.” This is sometimes called post hoc reasoning, after the Latin post hoc ergo propter hoc (after this therefor because of this). You can’t discount all the hard work one puts into mechanical issue X as being completely unnecessary and forgetting about it being the reason for the improvement.
The Natural Approach
The philosophy that brass playing should be approached similar to learning how to speak or walk is what I sometimes call the “natural” approach. The error is assuming that brass playing is as natural a process as learning to walk and talk. Our bodies and brains have evolved to learn to speak and move on their own and do so at a particular stage of development that is particularly conducive to learning by imitation and doing. Brass playing, on the other hand, is learned later in life and our lips have not evolved with these skills in mind. We can’t assume that learning to play a brass instrument is the same as learning, for example, to speak with a particular accent.
That’s not to suggest that imitation is unimportant, but just not the best approach at all times for all students.
This argument takes a couple of different forms. One is that “I tried Method X and it worked for me!” This assumption presumes that Method X is in itself responsible for your improvement, and not simply practicing more. It’s hard to tell, based on a single example, whether or not your success if because of Method X or in spite of it. Collecting more anecdotes from others who feel similarly is no better. The plural of anecdote is not evidence, particularly if all you do is go after the anecdotes that confirm your preconceived ideas and ignore or discount those that disagree.
It’s also common for advocates of Revolutionary Method to make a claim that the only way to truly understand it is to seriously try it. Or, in other cases, that you must have suffered from Serious Playing Issue X in order to understand why Revolutionary Method works. In the former case, I don’t need to try putting chicken guano on my head to grow more hair in order to understand why it doesn’t work. There should be an element of plausibility to Revolutionary Method. In the later case, I don’t need my orthopedic surgeon to have personal experience suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome to trust that he or she knows the best treatment program for me.
Anecdotes are important. They give us an idea of what we need to explore further and can help us figure out a mechanism for why Method X might be better than Method Y. However, they are not the gold standard of evidence and shouldn’t be treated as such.
The Straw Man/False Dichotomy
I saved this one for last because this entire essay is a good example of these very problems in the field of brass pedagogy. Note how I set up distorted viewpoints of what supposedly other brass pedagogues actually believe and teach and then easily refuted the arguments. While the examples I used to do so are based on real situations, I find that serious brass teachers rarely are so easy to dismiss.
Particularly on the internet, which is a mile wide and an inch deep, it’s easy to assume that what your debating opponent is advocating is all or nothing. When Famous Teacher states that, “good brass playing is all in the air” it’s easy to assume that what they really mean is that you should never focus on tonguing, the embouchure, fingering/slide technique, or anything else. Often we end up mistaking a rhetorical argument as representative of that teacher’s actual pedagogy.
So is there really a culture of ignorance in the field of brass pedagogy? Perhaps not more so than many other fields, but we can still do better. The best reason for learning about the above fallacies and how they are often used when we discuss brass pedagogy isn’t to dismantle the arguments of those we disagree with, it’s to learn how to avoid making the same errors ourselves.