Why “Schools” of Brass Playing?

I’ve griped about my pet peeve here more than once, but a recent forum discussion on the Trumpet Herald concerning mouth corners got me thinking about this topic again. The debate there centers around whether it’s better to worry about what your mouth corners are doing, which is an interesting conversation to have, but it got framed into different “schools” of trumpet teaching.

When I lurk on the dedicated forums* on the Trumpet Herald I notice that there is a lot of advice that is common across different camps of trumpet teaching and playing. There is also an awful lot of contradictory information. The trouble with the debates that crop up there (and elsewhere) are that it tends to focus on what a particular teacher said, rather than trying to understand why.

For example, the discussion on mouth corners led to a debate on whether or not it was useful to learn about what the corners are supposed to do when playing and how to use that information. Some folks cited teachers and players who argued against worrying about the mouth corners at all while others did the same for focused practice on the mouth corners. Both sides can’t be right, can they? Or does it really have to come down to try everything, use what works for you? Is there any way we can narrow down which approach is going to work best for our particular situation?

One potentially useful exercise to help us answer those questions is to speculate on some reasons why a teacher would recommend a particular approach. Looking then at the context of the argument you will hopefully be able to determine how much weight you should give to that instruction and spend less time on trial and error figuring out what works and more time making music. Here, then, are three hypothetical motivations.

1. Other playing mechanics need to be prioritized. There are many facets to successful brass technique. A brass player needs to coordinate breathing, tonguing, fingering/slide – all within the context of performing expressively and (usually) playing well with other performers. There may be more than one area where the teacher identifies playing deficiencies, but it’s really difficult to address more than one at a time. An experienced teacher will often prioritize which area should be corrected first (breathing, for example) and tell a student to not worry about another (embouchure, for example). Sometimes students (who often become teachers themselves later) will interpret that to mean you should never pay attention to how your embouchure is working because breathing will fix it.

Consider a masterclass scenario. If you only have about 15 minutes to work with a particular student and see a handful of things you can recommend you only have time to make so many corrections. The teacher will often prioritize things that can be addressed in that short amount of time. I have argued before that breathing is perhaps the most natural aspect of brass technique, is one of the easiest to fix, and is one of the areas where the field of brass teachers and players as a whole have the greatest understanding. Therefore, it will get much more attention in these sort of situations.

Furthermore, some teachers like to do the “crazy like a fox” style of instruction. Arnold Jacobs seems to have been quite good at telling his students how to play while at the same time telling them how to play. Here’s my favorite example, from Song and Wind.

A common problem is that of a double buzz, or as Jacobs calls it, “segmentation.” This happens when the embouchure is set for vibrations higher than what is actually desired. A major factor is insufficient air to fuel the vibration. It is, in fact, hardly ever an embouchure problem. The tongue’s position is too high and forward in the mouth. To correct segmentation, adjust the embouchure to vibrate at the pitch that is desired – play with a thicker air stream and keep the embouchure open.

The bold emphases are mine to help you see how contradictory some great teachers can be, in the same paragraph in this example. Another example comes from a tape I have of Donald Reinhardt giving a lesson. In it he discusses how he will raise a student’s horn angle to get them to change the position of the jaw, precisely because he didn’t want his student’s attention on the jaw at that time. Reinhardt goes on to talk about how over a period of lessons he will sometimes ask the student to practice with a horn angle that isn’t where he expects it should be. There are plenty of examples we can find where teachers will tell a student to go from point A to point C in order to make them go to point B.

If you don’t understand why a teacher makes a recommendation, you might take something too literally. Don’t just listen to what is being said, make an effort to decipher where that recommendation comes from.

2. The teacher really doesn’t understand that particular area. I frequently remind people to take my ideas with a grain of salt. All of us are wrong at times, even in areas where we are otherwise quite knowledgeable. Teachers tend to instruct their students in a  way that worked for them, and can get quite clever and practiced at helping their students – even when they don’t understand what students are physically doing when playing the instrument. Even (maybe especially) great players can have literally no idea how they play, but they can have solid analogies and highly charismatic personalities that lead to great teaching.

Some teachers know they are ignorant in some area and so simply don’t address that topic much. Others have come to ideas based on inaccurate information or an error in logic. Good brass teachers that fit this scenario come up with solid practice methods in spite of their ignorance through careful trial and error. They may not understand why it works, they just see it does. We can very easily fool ourselves into seeing patterns that aren’t really there.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? Well, that’s probably not the best attitude. What we can say is accurate about brass technique today is different from what was generally understood in the past. Educational psychologists have made great improvements in our understanding of how we learn and retain information and skills. Kinesiology has similarly made corrections in how we develop motor skills and what approaches train them faster and consistently.

Musical performance and education needs to be more fluid and self-correcting to take advantage of these advances. Before you pass on advice to someone else, it’s worth checking up on your source for that information and see if it holds up under scrutiny. Are our goals to advance as musicians and help others on the same path? If so, I argue we should make an better effort to try to keep current and give other ideas a closer look, even when they contradict our own cherished beliefs.

3. The teacher is right, at least to a degree. Great brass teachers are authorities in the area of teaching brass. While this doesn’t necessarily mean they are always right, their background as teachers and performers means we should pay attention to what they say. But in light of some of the contradictions you’ll hear from different teachers and players say about developing good brass technique, a little more context is needed.

Consider all the different ideas and techniques brass players have about tongue arch. There are some folks who swear they never change the position of their tongue while slurring notes and others who advocate changing it to play in different registers. Some folks let their tongue tip hover in their mouth while holding pitches while others will set the tongue tip below the lower teeth. There are some methods that instruct students to hold their tongue pressed up against their lower lip at all times. Brass embouchure technique is another example. I won’t go into that topic here because I’ve so frequently written about this topic before.

When we consider that the size and shape of everyone’s tongue, oral cavity, teeth, lips, etc. are different, it stands to reason that some folks will simply play better with an alternate technique. Some of these methods will be a little more common than others and some of those approaches may be dead ends, but that shouldn’t stop us from exploring why these techniques work (or don’t work) and come to an understanding why we should recommend them or not and under what circumstances.

Where to go from here?

I would be lying if I said that I’ve got the right answer. The above musings are really extreme caricatures of possible brass teacher motivations. Most likely there is a little bit of all three in you and me too. I hope, at least some of the time, to have the humility to consider that some of my ideas are wrong and explore different, better ways to teach and play. As musicians and music educators we should be more concerned with teaching our students how to think about music, rather than what to think.


* If you don’t read the Trumpet Herald forum, they have forums that are dedicated to discussing the teaching of a particular instructor or “school” of instructors.

Teaching Behaviors – Instruction, Praise, Criticism

[…] Compare Jacobs’ figure of 85% of the attention on not being on how to play your instrument with the roughly 75% of Wooden’s instruction on what to do and how to do it. This is a pretty large difference. Something I find interesting in the writing and recordings that Jacobs left before his death is how often he actually seems to be instructing students on how to play while convincing us that we shouldn’t be concerned with how to play. Perhaps we need to pay closer attention to what Jacobs did while teaching and put what he said into a better context. […]

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