by S. Earl Saxton

Do you know a more genuinely "do-it-yourself" occupation than horn playing? Right from the start most kids spend a lot of time practicing on the horn, alone. Of course, few young hornists try to go it all alone, without any help. What successful "do-it-yourselfer" student does?

Experienced players are nearly always available and willing to help an aspiring student, usually for a price. But how far and how successfully one goes into horn playing is not really established by the teacher. That is determined by the student himself or herself. Let me give you my line of reasoning.


I believe firmly in the necessity for guidance derived from excellent teaching in any skill or craft that is to become one's profession. I also believe that bad (wrong) or mediocre (disinterested) teaching can be detrimental or harmful to a student's performance potential. But I feel that along with the knowledge and inspiration that only a fine teacher can impart, something else that is tremendously important has to be taking place inside the student. That "something" is, like spontaneous combustion, internally generated. It is self-determination, with the emphasis on self.

When the gifted student has fine instruction, much of the learning, the technical and musical improvement, and the development of artistic drive is accomplished by the student, alone. If you, as a teacher, could not see this happening among your better students week by week between lessons you would be disappointed - and might even question your own effectiveness. I would.


What has struck me at each of the Horn Workshops I've attended was the incredible display of virtuosity that was so inspired; and inspiring to hear. It sent little chills of pleasure up and down my cheeks to listen to such horn playing. All of them had learned the elements of musicianship and hornsmanship from some of the world's finest teachers.

But the unique something that made each of them distinctly different, that went beyond the mere knowledge and skill, that reached deep into one's heart and soul, was inspiration: conjured up and nurtured into full bloom by self-determination.

When I hear horn playing of that high caliber I know that astronomical quantities of practice hours have been spent getting it that way. Virtuosity is not something that can be achieved in a short-term effort. Years and years of careful thought and action, built upon habitually consistent scheduling of daily work hours, week by week, month in and month out, always encouraging one's reflexes towards the correct and discouraging them from the incorrect, went into the preparation for such artistry.

All that could produce insufferable boredom were it not for the constantly beckoning gesture of one's inner determination to see it through to the ultimate.


While teachers do not provide self-determination in a student, I believe they can have a lot to do with how positively the student formulates it. Heretofore, in this discussion, the word "self-determination" has been used as though it were only positive. Negativism can be just as much a product of self-determination as great achievement.

The title of this article can, in reality, be interpreted as a continuum, referring to the endless possibilities that lie between utter defeatism and the ultimate in possible heights of positive action.

We guard against the chance that a chain-reaction may be started in the wrong direction within someone we are teaching. In some people whose psyches are not strong it may be as easy to cause the blocks of self-determination to come tumbling down, as it is difficult to encourage their positive construction into something monumental.


My wife, Marylee, who teaches fifth grade, has a marvelous approach that works nearly 100%. It is, "Try to get every child to like himself or herself, and he or she can accomplish just about anything." Of course there are limits to "just about anything," but children who enter her classroom, having experienced various styles of push and pull to get them to learn, and who often hate anything the resembles work - or acceptable behavior - suddenly find that there is a teacher who genuinely likes them, just for themselves.


Trained educators know the principles and the statistical applications available. Because horn players frequently find themselves teaching more as a happenstance than as a planned goal, they may have picked up little or no knowledge of educational psychology as an integral part of the learning process.

I'm afraid that I know some horn teachers who evidently feel that their only responsibilities towards their students are to get the musical and technical information across to them, regardless of how.

It would be well for horn students attending colleges and conservatories to enroll in as many psychology courses as they can fit it; and those who aren't in schools to read up on the subject in well-recommended texts.

Most of you who succeed in your pursuit of making fine music on the horn will teach. Give your students the advantage of having a broadly educated teacher, as well as learning how your own to mind and emotions function, for it can be a major factor in your own success.


By no means have I attempted to deal with all the aspects of ego-building - positive reinforcement techniques that are inherent to superior quality teaching - and the learning process. If a concrete reference is desired to help the reader understand better what I have attempted briefly to outline, then acquaint yourself with W.Timothy Gallway's book, The Inner Game of Tennis.

Another fine reference that I want to cite is Rebecca Root's article, "The Psychology of Brass Playing," The Horn Call Vol. VII No. 1, pp. 11-14. Hers is an excellently presented discussion of her own experience with a positive approach to the problems of living and playing horn.


One of the most important ways to improve, no matter what your present ability level may be, is to commence believing that you can, and will, get better. If you believe you can improve, you will. And if you prove to your self that you can bring about even a small change over what you thought you could do, you will like yourself infinitely better for it.

Liking yourself is the foundation for positive self-determination and positive self-determination is a keystone of success.

Excerpts from an article originally published in THE HORN CALL Volume VIII No. 2.

S. Earl Saxton was a former member of the IHS Advisory Council. He played with the San Francisco Symphony, the Oakland Symphony, and the Pittsburgh Symphony.

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