Today I’m going to go after one of brass pedagogy’s sacred cows, Arnold Jacobs. Since so many teachers and players have been strongly influenced by Jacobs’ teaching (myself included), I should give a little background first.
Jacobs sometimes summarized his teaching philosophy as “Song & Wind.” This influential concept is sometimes described as the musician’s focus should first and foremost should be on being a musical communicator, the “song.” After that, a brass musician’s attention should be placed on good breathing, the “wind.” One of the reasons that this is such a popular pedagogical method is because it’s very effective. Putting attention on the musical expression does have a tendency to work out the kinks in a player’s technique. Efficient breathing is also an extremely important part of good brass technique.
Just so I’m clear here, I’m not advocating that we throw the baby out with the bathwater. However, just because Jacobs had an expert understanding of the physiology of breathing and application of that knowledge to playing brasswind instruments doesn’t mean that his statements on other areas should be taken for gospel truth, as many seem to think. Case in point, his statements on the embouchure.
That video has a number of clips pulled together from different master classes by Jacobs where he mentions the embouchure. While virtually everything I’ve ever come across by Jacobs discussing breathing and brass playing was golden, in that video (and in the writing about him) Jacobs never demonstrates that he clearly understood how brass embouchures function differently for different players. He admits, “I hardly ever consider the embouchure.” If you don’t honestly look for embouchure issues with your students, you’re not going to find them and you’ll never broaden your understanding of a topic by ignoring it.
In my humble opinion, Jacobs made too much out of the idea that the embouchure simply responds to mental stimulus from the brain, as if singing. While I agree that this is a valuable goal, I don’t think that we can conclude that we should train our embouchure the same way we develop our voice. Millions of years of evolution have “hard wired” our brains to use our voices to communicate. Pressing metal against our buzzing our lips is simply not as natural an act as using our voice. It requires a little more conscious manipulation than Jacobs gives it credit.
Beginning around 3:12 into the video is an example of Jacobs’ “famous embouchure trick.” He performs this gimmick in order to demonstrate his philosophy that attention shouldn’t be on the embouchure, but rather on that the “lips must vibrate.” Since any functioning embouchure is also a vibrating embouchure I don’t see the distinction. This circular reasoning is then used to bring us back to a discussion of breathing. The discussion about the cranial nerves seems superfluous, but does make it sound more scientific.
At about 5:35 an audience member asked Jacobs a question about how to change a student’s mouthpiece placement. Jacobs’ responded, “I always do that through assignments of music.” He elaborates that by stabilizing the music that the embouchure will stabilize because the student will figure out through trial and error what works. I liken this to throwing a plate of spaghetti up against a wall. Sure, some things will stick, but you’re still going to have a mess to clean up afterward.
There are two problems I have with this approach. First, why use unconscious trial and error when a little conscious manipulation of embouchure form is faster? Secondly, assignment of music or particular exercises will not fix certain embouchure problems. Many issues players have with their embouchures are not caused by lack of proper muscular development but rather are because of inconsistencies in their embouchure form and function. Sometimes simply moving a student’s mouthpiece placement or horn angle can make for very dramatic improvements without resorting to unconscious trial and error. If you know what to look for, sometimes these inconsistencies can be obvious, but again, if you don’t ever look for them you won’t even notice.
Ultimately, my criticisms about Jacobs’ approach to embouchure pedagogy have less to do with what he says, but instead with what he leaves out. It’s possible that he had a more complete understanding of brass embouchure types than he demonstrated, but I believe that his interest in breathing biased him to emphasize embouchure issues as breathing problems too much. While Jacobs’ pedagogy is effective, it is not as complete as it could be.
Ultimately, we all stand on the shoulders of giants. As the field of brass pedagogy develops we will find ways to improve our teaching above and beyond our heros’ approaches. Just as the sum of our musical influences should be more than their parts, we will want to expand on what great pedagogues like Arnold Jacobs had to offer. There are approaches by others that contradict Jacobs, and many of those have something to offer that Jacobs wasn’t aware of. Let’s use Song & Wind as a starting point, not the end goal.