In this lesson room you must:
- Strive to satisfy my musical demands more than your own
- Learn to be patient with yourself
- Put reliability and control way up, and put speed, and flashy playing way down
- Do a small amount of literature played well rather than a lot played poorly
The student starts playing and he plays badly. How soon should I stop him? How can I make it clear to him that my opinion is correct; i.e., that he is playing badly? Do people become better players by playing badly for a sufficient length of time? Is progress inevitable?
One problem in teaching is trying to explain to students why they do not get better quickly and why they can’t benefit from simply playing through a lot of music. A good teacher understands the systems of playing and can watch the student more carefully than the students themselves.
Intonation, rhythmic control, control of dynamics, and consistent accuracy are four skills that separate the men from the boys or the ladies from the girls.
Talent or Method?
Some players play better than others. Is the difference in playing ability due to only such intangibles as talent and willingness to work, or is it due to the difference in physical approach? Does some of the “way of doing it” lead to more control than other ways?
The same types of differences pointed out in connection with brass players can be observed (if one substitutes wrist position for embouchure, etc.) with string, woodwind, and keyboard players. Examples are also found in athletics: several schools of thought on how to hold a golf club or swing a tennis racket.
Some of the different ways of accomplishing a job may seem like small, unimportant differences. Does it really matter which physical method one pursues, in view of the fact that all of the ways seem to produce results some of the time, and that none of the methods can guarantee to produce results all of the time? One might say, ”If the job is getting done, what does it matter how I go about doing it.” The truth is that all too often the job doesn’t get done because of these small differences.
It’s the end of the story that counts, and the sad truth is that many who have tried for years and have failed could have succeeded had they done the right physical things. The “small differences,” more than differences in talent, determine who becomes the expert player and who remains the unreliable player.
What is the right way? Is there a right way, or at least a way that is better than other ways?
It is difficult to describe physical activities in exact detail. The simple physical activity of walking is actually an incredibly complex series of orders from the brain, through the nervous system, to the muscles in various parts of the body. We walk well by habit, but one only has to see an unskilled actor try to walk casually across the stage to realize how complicated walking can become when the habit is disturbed by self-consciousness. That is the reason music teachers sometimes say, “Don’t think so much, just play!”
Many famous virtuosos are unable to describe their methods. They may not have analyzed their physical approach in a way that would enable them to express their knowledge in words, but they are so “perceptually gifted” that they always perceive and choose the most logical solutions to the physical problems of playing. Those who are by comparison “perceptually handicapped” must analyze and then deliberately choose the physically logical methods. The help of an experienced and patient teacher is of great value in the solving of such playing problems.
The physically most logical way to play is the way that brings muscles together instead of separating them. This is the way of strength, endurance, and control. Muscles should act together in an organized manner; for example, the greater power of the closed fist as opposed to the open hand. E PLURIBUS UNIM – one thing made of many parts.
Like in anything else, one gets out of a thing proportionally to what one puts into it.
A quick definition of a natural might be: a person who seems to learn to play decently in a relatively short period of time. A high proportion of professional players can be placed in the category of “naturals.”
The term “natural player” should apply primarily to that period during which the learning process takes place. It is during the learning period primarily that the player either makes fast progress and hence is described as a natural, or during which the player seems to struggle forward very slowly if at all, and then is perhaps described as “untalented,” but certainly not as a natural.
The natural (fast learning) player may be compared to the untalented (slow learning) player as the hare is compared the tortoise in the familiar story. But unlike the tortoise who wins the race against the hare (only in the story), the race to learn to play an instrument is almost always won by the quick learner – the natural. The moral of the story in the original sense is that persistence, perseverance, and keeping one’s eyes on the good always wins out in the end. Of course, no one has ever proved that moral with an actual hare and a real tortoise.
For our purposes, the moral could be just about reversed. It might almost be said that the slow, struggling learner never makes it and the natural player always wins the race. Animal categories notwithstanding, that sadly is what generally happens. If a quick learner (a natural) is matched against that rarity – an equally capable and artistic player who was a slow struggling learner – can any difference be readily noticed? No!
Does the quick learner really learn how to play, or does he simply play? If he can’t say what he is doing, if he has learned something and doesn’t know what he is doing, then how can we know what he has learned? Can he tell someone else how to do it? What has his teacher told him that has helped him so? If the teacher’s advice and information is so true and useful, why do not all of his other students show equally fast results?
It is no great thing to turn out good players if all of them were good to start with and perhaps simply lacked experience and sufficient exposure to a well-rounded and musically stimulating atmosphere. Does the New York Yankees manager make great players or do the great players (enticed by the wealth and prestige of the Yanks) make the team and hence the manager seem great?
If we as teachers keep hoping to get naturals as our students, aren’t we possibly admitting our inability to really teach people to play? Doesn’t the typical complaint among teachers that “I don’t have a single talent (or several) among my students this year” constitute an admission of the same lack of knowledge of how to teach bad players the truths that will transform them into good players?
Unfortunately, teaching people to play musical instruments is not an exact science. Quite often those music students who learn the most “about music” – history, theory, repertoire, aesthetics, etc. – are the worst performers. And often those who become really proficient on their instruments are poor students in every academic discipline of music.
Getting back to the natural. What is he doing that works so well? Can the slow learner gain by observing the natural in action? Given identical physical equipment, why does one play so much better than another? Is the problem physical, mental, or is it perhaps a problem of perception and coordination? The slow to average learner might be said to be perceptually handicapped as compared to the fast learner.
The natural perceives almost at once that to produce such and such a desired result, he should combine and coordinate certain physical efforts in just one obvious manner (quickly obvious to him). The point is that it is only obvious to him, and to the non-natural player it is not only not obvious – it is obscure. The non-natural player doesn’t perceive the ready solution and struggles ahead on the long hard road of trying every possible way of playing in the hope of discovering the one truly right one for him. The efforts often become so bullish and the confusion so great that he is no longer even able to distinguish bad from good or right from wrong and therefore often passes by the very clues to correct playing production for which he is so ardently searching. He truly may be said to be handicapped in his perception of what is happening.
The real job of the teacher is to teach this perceptually handicapped player how to play, and to play so well and with so much understanding of the mechanics involved (with so much perception) that he equals or surpasses the natural player.
The natural player of course is not just one thing only. He may perceive clearly how to coordinate toward the desired results in certain problems only. He may very well be plagued with a lack of perception regarding some other problems (perhaps tonguing, intonation, etc.). It is conceivable that the slow, seemingly untalented player surpasses the natural player because he becomes skilled at working out some problems and then can apply this experience and skill toward working out the remaining problems.
Of two performances by two different players of the solo in Tchaikovsky’s 5th, the things to be compared are such things as tone, accuracy, phrasing, dynamics, security, etc. Only foolish partisans of one player or the other will say, “Yes, but it took your hero ten years to play. My hero could play that well in three years.” Or my man doesn’t get nervous or your man takes too long to warm up or even worse, your man can’t play the Strauss horn concerto.
Most of the ordinary physical things that we do are not subjected to any sort of critical analysis. Such seemingly simple things as walking and talking are actually the result of an incredible combination of physical and mental efforts and gradually acquired skills. Emotion also plays a part in these seemingly simple acts as when, for example, we do them on the stage as public performers. Then anxiety or nervousness suddenly makes a previously simple and natural act into a difficult, unnatural one. Trying to analyze “what just happens” usually spoils the performance because it disrupts the natural sequential flow of gradually acquired skills. Nevertheless, if we want to measurably improve our playing, we must analyze in great detail just exactly what it is that is happening. We must sometimes completely disrupt the natural flow and “take apart” in order to reconstruct with understanding.
This is one reason why it is foolish for a player with many weaknesses to attempt to copy the non-analytic approach of a player who may be playing relatively well. The advice to forget about the theories – just go ahead and play – does not work for a player with too many fundamental weaknesses.
Perhaps the main secret to playing an instrument well is that hard work is necessary. Without this hard work, no amount of theorizing will help. In fact, it is often the case that theories about how to play can do more harm than good. This is especially true when the student begins more in theory than in work. A good teacher, accordingly, is one who demands a great deal of work from the student and insists that the work be accomplished.
Some of the other secrets (none of which are really secret at all) are that the student must have patience, courage, and determination. He must have good musical goals, which will develop naturally if he listens to a lot of good music, including many different performers. Just as there is no substitute for hard work in developing the player, so is there no substitute for listening to develop musicianship.
However, to say that work is more important than theory does not mean that we dispense completely with theory. We can similarly say that a conductor who talks too much is generally not much good, which does not mean to say that a conductor shouldn’t talk at all. If a student practices a great deal, but is doing many things wrong from a physical point of view, he will most likely wind up unsuccessful and frustrated, in spite of hours and even years of hard work.
A great number of good etudes and musical pieces have been written for brass players, and more will be written. All of this provides the basic material which players should use regularly and in a determined and disciplined manner. The hard work refers directly to the time spent mastering this musical material.
But students must do more right things than wrong things if they are to reap the benefit of all that work. The ideas are more to be seen as a prerequisite to the daily work on etudes and musical pieces. They are in the category of warm-up material. They are warm-up routines that require work in themselves, and they are based on theories of playing. In other words, they are designed to develop the right things.
Many years ago my first horn teacher used to begin my lessons by having me play some low note patterns, consisting of several chromatic figures without changing valves. The reasoning behind it was never explained, and we gradually discontinued the idea. In recent years, I have seen many trumpet players practicing a similar idea on the extreme pedal tones, followed by attempts to develop the extreme high register. This approach of extreme low followed by extreme high has proven to be highly successful in many cases.
The patterns themselves supply no theory as such. The same thing can be said of patterns presented in the books of Arban, Schlossberg, Clark, and others. Written material presented for practice (generally of a warm-up style of pattern) gives no explanation of any theory behind the patterns.
I feel that it is worthwhile for the student to understand the reasoning behind the patterns. For example: Why play pedal tones? How should they be practiced? How do they relate to high notes?
Playing a musical instrument is a form of physical labor, physical effort that is directed toward the accomplishment of specific goals. In this sense, it is essentially no different than any other form of physical labor. Like all laborers, the musician is applying force to achieve specific goals.
The specific goals of unskilled labor are obviously different from those of skilled labor and are immediately apparent. Unskilled labor is generally thought of as using more force to accomplish simpler goals. Conversely, skilled labor uses less force to accomplish more complex goals. The instrument is no more than a contraption that emits sounds resulting from the player’s physical efforts. Perhaps it is more important for us to stress the points that are similar rather than those that are different since we musicians tend to think of our work as being so highly skilled (cerebral) that we ignore, or greatly underestimate, the presence of force in all music making.
At bottom, the problem is and always remains how to achieve controlled force. When the problem is stated in this way, we can begin to see that playing musical instruments need not be approached in a haphazard way. The general question of controlling force is what mechanical engineering is all about, and many of the principals of that discipline are directly applicable to our work. Basic mechanical theory is concerned with: the study of movement and changes of direction, inertia, resistance, compression and storage of energy, force, and momentum, etc.
We would do well to think of our bodies as machines that are guided by our intelligence. When we say that a person has a high degree of physical skill, we are saying that the person has discovered how to temper his force with his wisdom. He has discovered how to use his own physical power to accomplish goals he has set for himself. When we say that a person has a low degree of physical skill, we do not necessarily mean that he is either physically weak or that he is of low intelligence. What we are saying is that the person in question has not discovered how to temper his own force with wisdom.
By and large, we all have enough strength to play a musical instrument if we exclude the very young, the very old, and the sick. Most of us also have the potential, in terms of intellect, to control and direct that strength.
A player must be able to create and store power, and he must be able to apply or direct that power toward an intelligent purpose. We use our physical strength to implement our ideas.
The comparison of music with sports is apt because in both music and in athletics the performer must develop physical skills (directed strength), which must be capable of quick and accurate action, usually in the public eye, with success or failure immediately apparent.
Physical Strength and an Area of Physical Intelligence
The mind as such does not do any of our jobs for us unless we can consider it a function of thinking, deciding, considering, rejecting, choosing, or wanting as jobs.
By “jobs,” I mean to say the physical effort required to achieve the goals chosen by the mind. As an example, if we want to turn a page, it is at work. But the mind cannot turn that page. The mind tells the body to do the job and a marvelously complicated, yet effortless, series of coordinated physical efforts follows to do the job. A simple way of stating the case is to say that the mind cannot do the work of the body.
Playing a musical instrument is a form of physical labor, no different essentially than any other form of physical labor. But, like all forms of physical labor, playing an instrument calls for its own particular directed efforts.
Intelligence in the body has a hierarchy. The brain is of course at the top of the hierarchy, but it has helpers throughout the body. We could call them “intelligence agents.” We can also say, in effect, that some parts of the body are smarter than others.
Which are the smarter parts of the body? For our purposes, only a few have to be suggested in order to make the point. We can agree, without seeming prejudicial, that our fingers are smarter than our toes. Certainly we would be in total agreement that our fingers are smarter than our kneecaps, our arms are smarter than our legs.
Simple acts are those in which this process: desire -> command -> power (physical strength necessary for the particular command) -> local intelligence agent -> success. We call the acts that fail difficult.
The lips are definitely one of the more intelligent areas of the body. Although not in the category of the fingers or eyes, the lips are used to following various orders from the brain (whistling, talking, smiling, etc.). It seems logical therefore to conclude not only that the lips can intelligently handle and control the simple release of air (by creating compression), but that they can, in some magical way (using great cleverness or great strength) actually alter themselves and the air passing between them so as to produce notes over the full range of any brass instrument, notes that are sometimes long or moving at high speed, notes that are chromatic or very far apart, loud, soft, legato, or staccato.
All of this is, of course, illogical. And yet, it is an easy trap to fall into because we let ourselves exaggerate the intelligence of the lips.
Musicians often do not bring an analytic approach to their playing problems, which is understandable and even natural in view of the fact that music is an intuitive and expressive art. The first, strongest, and most lasting attraction that most of us feel for music is the personal response we feel for the meaning and beauty of the music. This personal, emotional response is a necessary prerequisite for a musician.
In order to be willing to change one’s playing system from a merely workable system to a more correct and relaxed system, one must honestly appraise one’s playing limitations. Ask yourself, “What can’t I do?” rather than “What can I do?”
Musical Performance: Theory and Practice
A developed intellect and musical understanding are, of course, prime prerequisites. High standards, courage, and patience are important. But the actual notes, the sounds themselves, are produced ultimately by physical means. No one has ever thought a note into audible existence. The thought or concept of the note should come first and it should guide the physical activity, which produces the sound. The concept, the muscles, and a responsive instrument work together to produce artistic results.
A correct warm-up should prepare the player, physically and mentally, to either perform a piece of music successfully or to begin to learn it successfully. This definition implies that a correct warm- up is almost necessary (with exceptions) if a player hopes to succeed in either the learning of a piece or in performing it.
The process of learning a piece is not quite the same as the experience of performing it. Generally speaking, we can perform what we have learned. The quality of the learning will be reflected in the quality of the performance. That is why performance remains the true test of learning. That is also why examinations remain the true test of the quality of the study and preparation that preceded the exam. This is true in any discipline.
In music there are a greater number of failures in the successful learning of a piece than there are failures in successful performance. The obvious reason for this numerical difference is that most players will not attempt to perform a piece in public that they have not succeeded in learning in private. Literally thousands of players try to master a piece of music, but relatively few have succeeded sufficiently so as to be able to perform the piece before others, especially before a discriminating audience.
The requirements of a degree program in a school of music demand that students perform an exam each semester and finally, a solo recital, whether or not the students have mastered the material. All this is as it should be, as it is the only true test of learning. It explains why such exams are often painful to students and teachers alike. However, out in the real world, the new graduate rarely subjects himself or an audience to a performance of music that he has not truly succeeded in learning.
An implication in all of the above is that there is a right way and a wrong way to go about learning successfully. The implication is that the right way will lead to successful learning, and therefore to successful performance. It follows that the wrong way will lead to failure and frustration. Anyone who has been in the music business for an appreciable period of time has known many individuals who have devoted hours and years in the frustrating pursuit of their dream of becoming good performers. People who have worked with an almost maniacal persistence, who have expended real effort, but who have not succeeded in their goal. A convenient catch-phrase to explain these failures is to say that these are individuals without talent. Another phrase so often used is that “some have it” and “some just don’t.” I think that these characterizations contain some truth but also a great deal of untruth. These are concepts that deserve further examination.
For my purposes, I would like to proceed on the assumption that most people (and certainly most music students) have the potential to learn successfully and therefore to perform successfully.
Progress and playing ability must be measured and tested accurately and precisely. Attempts to do so appear ridiculous in cases where basic playing problems have not yet been solved. If they serve a value at all, it is that they do make clear that the problems are unsolved. It follows that players in such a condition should not waste time trying to practice such test materials. Full time and effort must be devoted toward the solution of the puzzle of playing. This of course also uses note patterns, which might by chance coincide with test patterns (scales, thirds, studies, etc.). But the thrust of practicing is quite different. Only when the player is indeed on the right track do test patterns make sense. And at that point, they do make a great deal of sense.
Looking for Answers
One looks for answers; when young with the help of a teacher; when older, usually on our own. Students soon realize that even the best players and teachers are still looking for answers.
Some of the answers are never found. It should be obvious that any teacher who knew all of the answers would produce only successful players. He would be swamped by students and professionals from all over. As of yet, no such teachers exist.
One can only hope to get experienced and intelligent help while looking for the answers. The feeling should be something like: somewhere in these pages lies the truth. Now I must search it out. This is true in any art form.
The premise is to take a series of separate notes, each of which has been mastered as perfectly as we are able, and to combine them to create the music of the printed page, be it a study, concerto, or orchestral passage, which might still not be perfectly played but which can come much closer to perfection.
This approach, rather than the approach of working on the combined totality of the music to be played, without attempting to refine each of the individual notes, is more likely to be successful.
If you can:
- have accuracy, security, and confidence
- play loud and soft in all registers
- change registers at various speeds and at different volumes
- play slurs in time
- control the time placement generally
Then you don’t need this book!
Patience, hard work, and a bit of experimentation can lead the player towards a better and more direct way of doing things. One could imagine as an example the way professional golfers are always striving to find a swing that is more efficient. The more efficient the motion becomes the more reliable the result. Playing the horn is a very physical process that can be learned!
It is my hope that this book can be something that can be reread and referred to on a “bad day” and that it may help to remind the player of important things being neglected.
It is more important to know by “feel” just how the lips and wind are today and to know what to do with them to make them improve enough to get by if they are in poor shape. This is more important than to recall that I played well yesterday, so I know I can do it. Such thinking is merely an attempt to artificially bolster confidence.
The real confidence comes when you have learned how to judge the condition of the ingredients needed; knowing that you can usually bring them around enough to make it when you’re on the stage. You should feel ready to play right, each entrance as it comes. It isn’t enough to recall that you really felt ready to play yesterday or even this morning but now in the midst of the performance.
It follows that the sensible test for a horn player is not how fast he can whiz around the whole range of the horn but how reliably and predictably he can play. More specifically stated, how secure he feels in his playing abilities.
One should try to arrive at the moment of performance with the feeling of security that comes from being in touch with physical forces required for the battle.
Can people be taught to play in tune? Who is to be blamed when intonation is bad? Is there hope for those who are “hopelessly out-of-tune”?
Intonation – playing or singing in tune – is often a painful and embarrassing subject. It is one of those subjects that are ordinarily avoided, or at best briefly touched upon with careful delicacy in polite company.
Among musicians, everybody worries about intonation but nobody ever does anything about it (to paraphrase Mark Twain). We all know that it is important to improve intonation, but we don’t quite know just how to go about it. The answer is avoided because it is so simple and because the answer to the problem requires honest self-appraisal and patient work.
The control of intonation is frequently the one thing left unlearned even by otherwise competent players or singers. We have all heard people who manage to produce all or most of the notes (regardless of speed), who have good control of rhythm and volume (who even sometimes perform excitingly), but who don’t perform in tune.
Control of intonation is perhaps one of the hardest things to teach. It is, as a matter of fact, rarely taught at all. People who play in tune generally teach themselves to do it. They learn by listening to other performers and to themselves. They learn from thinking. They learn from understanding or perceiving. They learn by comparing.
The answer to the intonation question is to first play in tune with oneself. The person who plays in tune with himself can be then able to play in tune with others. The same concept is true about playing in time.
What does it mean to “be in tune with yourself”? It doesn’t merely mean trying to tune each of your notes to the others of your own scale. It means tune to that mental pitch that you are or ought to be thinking.
Playing in tune depends ultimately on sheer mechanical control; i.e., being able to make the instrument do what you want it to do. In intelligent practicing, the player knows what he wants, he knows his goals, and he has standards. When he is able to achieve what he wants, when he can reach his goals, and when he can meet his own standards, then he may be said to have gained control. It follows of course then, that before one can begin to work for control, one must have standards, one must really know what one wants. To apply this specifically to intonation, the player must first know the exact pitch of the note he wants to produce. Not merely the name of the note, but the exact location of it in his head and in his mental ear. It is much like a painter trying to get the exact shade of a color that he wants or needs.
Let me say at this point that I feel that players get busy working for mechanical control before they have taken the time to know what they want to sound like and what their goals are as regards intonation, rhythm, dynamics, tone, etc. This kind of practice is like a chicken running with its head cut off. It never knows where it is going and never gets anywhere. To return to intonation specifically again: you hear a clear mental statement of the note before you even try to play it. You must hear it in your head. To proceed without this mental statement is dishonest and wasteful. With the mental image as a goal and a standard, play the same note on the instrument and compare notes, the mental invention as against the physical copy of it.
The real note is the silent mental one. The inner note that the mind is thinking or hearing. The mind is always more in tune than any instrument. Copy the note that you are hearing. Strive to copy it, and as you strive you will learn to tune, first to yourself and then to others. There is no shortcut, no substitute for inner hearing. Nobody else can hear for you.
The student wishes he could play as well in tune as the professional. He thinks he would be happy then about having finally solved that problem. But the professional, who is clearly superior to the student, is not always made happy by his own intonation. Intonation is an always-present problem for the instrumentalist or singer who is responsible for the pitch he creates. This includes all players except those who play the piano, the organ, or non-tuned percussion instruments.
The most urgent place for a concentrated attack on the problem of out-of-tune playing is on the student level. This is true not only because the problem is often severe at that level, but because the successful teaching of intonation control at the student level is the only way to improve the professional level of the future.
We will often judge intonation and then give our opinion. It’s good or it’s bad, or you’re sharp or you’re flat. But is rarely is the important problem faced directly, and rarely are students advised how to practice for intonation.
First, it is import to confront the problem honestly. Sweeping it under the rug won’t help. Next, it is important to realize the individual nature of the problem. I must hear the desired pitch before I try to play. I must take the time or trouble to compare the mental pitch with the pitch produced.
Hearing is not quite the same thing as listening. Hearing is primarily a sensory function. Listening is an intellectual effort. Most of us can hear, but few of us listen. Listening is thinking and comparing. Step number one is to listen, listen hard, listen searchingly, and listen tirelessly.
Most of us are more skillful listeners for someone else’s playing than we are for our own. We find it easier to remain objective (better able to think and listen) and calm when we are not worried about our own performance. Some players never listen to themselves and, at the other end, some players hear themselves only enough to know if they’ve missed a note. The quality of the listening itself is also important. It is not enough just to listen to one’s self; one must listen critically.
Only when we have become skilled listeners can we hope to correct and improve our basic playing weaknesses. Only when we can listen critically to ourselves while playing can we begin to bridge the gap between amateurism and professionalism, between professionalism and artistry.