A Culture of Ignorance?

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.

Anecdotal Evidence

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.

Lyle Sanford

This is a great overview of the subject. Being client centered as a therapist, my pet peeve is anyone saying theirs is the best way for all. Keep wondering if the medieval guilds, with their restricted membership and holding technique in secret and being very hierarchical didn’t have something to do with creating some modern pedagogical mindsets that seem a little odd to outsiders (and a few insiders as well!).

For me, you’re getting to the heart of what teaching music is all about, making these post very helpful.

Paul T.

Excellent post! I couldn’t agree more.

And, while many others have said similar things, you go above and beyond in covering your bases, discussing a variety of topics and with great objectivity. I’ll be bookmarking this post of yours.

Here’s an “anecdote” you can use for “evidence” (featuring myself, recently, and a renowned brass pedagogue in a university setting):

Me: I want study more about how people play brass instruments, to better understand how they do what they do, and how they might solve problems they have.

Professor: I really recommend you pursue something else. Some people, I’m sure, have studied some of that a long time ago. But we’ve moved beyond that now, haven’t we? No need to move backwards here.

Me: OK, I see. On an unrelated topic, I’m having problems playing. Do you know what’s wrong?

Professor: No, I’m sorry. It looks and sounds like you’re doing everything right. Maybe go listen to some more music?

From a more serious angle, I believe imitation is a very important aspect of the learning process, even though, as you say, we do not have the same instinctual tools at our disposal as we do when it comes to general kinesthetics and language.

However, understanding that there exists a variety of methods and physiologies at work in brass playing allows us to bolster our instinctual learning with our intelligence. For instance, understanding about different embouchure types allows to understand why imitating a player of a similar type is beneficial, whereas trying to imitate a (very successful) player of a different type might actually harm our playing.

(I’ve been through this one myself, and that one piece of knowledge has catapulted me ahead in remarkable ways.)


Hey, Paul. Is there a Human Performance Laboratory or something similar at your school? I wonder what advice they would offer you if you went and described the type of research you’re interested in over there. Maybe they can give you some ammunition to take back to your music profs. At the very least, it might be interesting to hear what they have to say.

Lyle Sanford

One more thing. The neuroscientists are telling us that making (and even just listening) to music lights up more of the brain than just about anything else we do. To me than means there are various activities going on simultaneously and that they’re all an important part of the final result.

These different methodologies you’re talking about often focus on just one subsystem of what seems to be a distributed network. I guess the assumption is that if you get that part of it right everything else will naturally follow, which I don’t feel to be the case. There’s also the issue of individuals having differing genetic makeups, which means there’ll be differing strengths and weaknesses for everybody. (Some folks will naturally “get” embouchure mechanics and others might have a terrific ear.)

You’ve mentioned in several posts the idea that simply practicing a lot for whatever reason and in whatever way can be helpful. To me, part of that is because spending a lot of time means you’re going to end up working on all the different subsystems, either consciously or unconsciously.

Jonathan West

The problem with teaching brass and wind technique is that what actually is going on for instance to produce a good tone is all hidden away inside the body.

With strings, how the bow is being wielded and which strings are being iused is something which is immediately visible, and people have come to learn how tone and visible technique are associated. There’s a vocabulary for it, in terms of bow movement, position on the string, attack, pressure, bow speed and a dozen other things.

Much the same is true for percussion, you have the choice of weight and hardness of stick, the speed and weight of stroke, and where exactly on the surface of the drum you strike. Again, all of these things have a visible association with changes in tone.

But for wind, you are trying to visualise what is going on inside your body in order to produce tone. The techniques for actually seeing what is going on are very limited. That means that inaccurate visualisations are harder to spot and refute, and so the fallacies which you have described have much more opportunity to spread.

And even if a teacher does have an anatomically accurate way of describing for instance the operation of the diaphragm muscles, it may be that the student just doesn’t feel it that way, and the description proves unhelpful.

As far as I can tell, these problems have bedevilled brass and woodwind teaching for ever. I wish I had some sure-fire solutions for this but I don’t. All I can say is that as a result of training and learning in logical thinking, I’ve learned to spot logical fallacies irrespective of the subject, and so I can apply that to what I hear about teaching methods and techniques as much as for any other subject. That means I can recognise such things as the Argument from Authority for what they are, and so don’t accept statements based on it as being necessarily true.

That helps, but only at the margins, it allows me to recognise that confident-sounding statements may be wrong. But it doesn’t get me much further forward in working out which of several mutually conflicting descriptions is right!

Still, I suppose that even to realise the problem exists is an advance of sorts.


Those are some good points, Jonathan, but in some ways I think you’re leaning towards the “argument from ignorance” in your comments. Just because it’s difficult to learn what’s actually happening doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make the effort. Perhaps your point was to simply point out why these problems are inherent in the field of brass pedagogy. If so, there is certainly some truth to that, but there’s also simply some laziness on the part of the field as a whole. Most of us don’t have the training in critical thinking that you have because we went to school to study music and didn’t have much time left over (or inclination) to develop those skills. Even worse, many teachers actively discourage analysis as being counterproductive. Paul T.’s experiences (see his comment above) trying to get his professors on board with his research interests is one (anecdotal) example of how this culture of ignorance perpetuates.

I also don’t think that everything is as hidden as you seem imply. We actually know quite a bit about the physiology of breathing, for one example. I use the example of brass embouchures in this essay because this is one area where a lot of misinformation is spread simply because a lot of teachers and players haven’t bothered to actually take a moment to look. Transparent mouthpieces are cheap today and there are plenty of resources available (both online and in print) that do more accurately discuss embouchures in some detail. Many teachers claim expertise in this subject, yet remain willfully ignorant. That is, simply put, a problem in the field that should be corrected. In this day and age, if you don’t understand at least basic information about brass embouchure types you’re simply not bothering to look.

Analogies are useful for teaching, and I certainly don’t want to discourage their use. Rather, I think it’s valuable to understand when we’re teaching by analogy, when we’re speaking of actual fact, and how to avoid confusing the two. Inaccurate analogies may work, but they can also start to not work if the student takes them too literally – even after initial success with that concept.

Jonathan West

I agree entirely that out knowledge of physiology is better than it used to be, and that can often help with visualisation. In pointing out that it is difficult to know what is going on I didn’t in the least bit intend to suggest that we should give up trying, but rather that it is only to be expected that some aspects of our knowledge will lag behind the equivalent bits of knowledge held by our string and percussion friends. But that just means more research is needed, and more effort to spread the word concerning the research results that are available already.


Thanks for clarifying, Jonathan. I think I got your gist before, but in case you hadn’t already noticed, I enjoy playing devil’s advocate. I assumed you were too, and figured I’d respond in kind. Makes for confusion sometimes, but also helps spark further conversation.

Yep, I’d like to see more research and more efforts to spread the word too!

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