Arguing For Science Based Brass Pedagogy

Learning to play any musical instrument, including trombone, is an inherently “knacky” experience. So much of what you need to do to be successful involves trying something a bunch of times, making small physical adjustments each time, until it clicks once. Then there’s a lot of trial and error trying to make it work that way consistently. Each musician’s playing sensations are going to be different and be influence by not only anatomical differences, but also the history of how they played before and their personal beliefs and biases.

This is undoubtedly why a lot of brass pedagogy involves teaching musical artistry first and teaching technique through modeling and metaphor. The end result, however, is that there is less consensus about what good brass technique is and how to achieve it. We have a tendency to look towards so-called “natural players” for advice, who may be the least qualified to tell us what’s actually physically happening when performing.

Couple this with a persistent culture of ignorance in brass pedagogy. It’s normal for some brass teachers to discourage folks to analyze their playing. It will to lead to “paralysis by analysis.” If you do,  you won’t see the forest for the trees. Imitate the sound you want and you’ll learn it, just like you learned to talk as a baby. If a centipede had think about how it walked it would get nowhere. Don’t think, play.

I find this attitude confusing. Why would a teacher disparage questioning and thinking? That’s the message it sends. And that’s what those students end up passing on when they become teachers.

The other side of this coin is the vast amount of pseudoscience you can find in brass pedagogy. Part of this is due to literal interpretations of analogies and over reliance on fallible playing sensations. A lot of it is due to us over estimating what we actually know. At its heart, it’s a lack of scientific literacy. Trombone teachers usually aren’t scientists, but we tend to misunderstand what science actually is and mistrust it. It’s often seen as a non-overlapping magisterium with both music and teaching. If the science suggests something we’re teaching is wrong, that’s just an egghead in the white tower who hasn’t spent enough time in the trenches.

Science isn’t a collection of disciplines like anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, and acoustics, although those disciplines might inform how we teach trombone. Science isn’t about acquiring facts either, although they might help us too. At it’s heart, science is about exploring the limits of what we know. It’s about testing a hypothesis and challenging assumptions. And it also happens to involve a lot of creative thinking, much like in music.

Superficially, we probably already do this in our instruction. We try out something with a student and assess whether it worked. We test it out for a while and then try something else. If we can’t find the answer is a resource we have, we create one specific to the student. When something works for one student, we try it out with another student and see what happens. Over time, we can develop a large repertoire of analogies and methods and get a good feel for when to try one and when to try the other.

However, we sometimes confuse this for science. Science recognizes that the nature of that experimentation we did in our teaching studio is inherently biased. It’s too easy to simply confirm what we already believe, rather than learn something new. You can’t look for evidence that your hypothesis is right, you look for ways to falsify your beliefs. If you ideas withstand that sort of scrutiny, then maybe you’re on to something. Brass pedagogy has long only looked for evidence to support our preconceived beliefs.

Herein lies the scientific method’s greatest strength. It is self-correcting and always looking to learn more. Science-based pedagogy has been more popular in other disciplines (e.g., athletics) because brass pedagogy hasn’t been as good at fixing our old mistakes. We routinely revere long dead pedagogues, now and then referring to their texts as “bibles” and former students of those teachers as “disciples.” This isn’t an attitude conducive to change.

There is good science being done on brass pedagogy. Our understanding of both the acquisition of motor skills and the specific physical process of playing the trombone is better understood now than it was when I was a student. The exciting part is that access to this research and the scientists who do this is easier than ever. What’s difficult is vetting the information into a correctly nuanced context. That takes some effort and should be an ongoing process. You can’t just look at what we know, but also question how we know what we know.

Katie Berglof

I agree! Well written Dave!!! I’m always happy to read your writing. Please continue the good work. You are redefining the outdated conception/studies on embouchure form and function, and it is needed. Although I can understand people’s concern for over-analysis of embouchure mechanics….only if they are initiating it in their own playing somehow.

The study of form and function shouldn’t hinder their conscious or subconscious act of performing unless for some reason they are choosing to do so themselves, or their teacher/professor is making them focus on it too much through literal physical application of it in their playing; like an embouchure change or something drastic like making them focus on tongue placement or embouchure formation to the point that it’s all they can think about 24/7.

But just like in sports medicine, it is important to learn about anatomy, movement, and function. It is needed. But it shouldn’t interfere with the conscious and subconscious act of performing. The only reason it would cause some concern is when the contexual knowledge is abused/overstressed, or overused on a specific function. Ex. someone tells you one way to cut a sandwich in half, including placement of the fingers, angle, direction, and so on perfectly this one way over and over again…..and overly emphasizes this detail of cutting daily.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.