Success Flows from Rightly Ordered Thinking…In Music and In Life

Instead of taking my usual summer break from blogging, over the past few weeks I have written a little series I have called “Essential Concepts in Brass Playing.” A recurring theme in each of those posts is the importance of conceptualization. I attacked from several different angles the problem of trying to perform music with an excessive focus on process rather than result, as well as problems that arise from misconceptions of the physical processes used in playing. The longer I teach—and the longer I work on my own playing—the more convinced I am that big problems in brass playing grow out of seemingly small errors and misunderstandings at the most basic level. Just as a very small problem in the foundation of a house can lead to very large and noticeable problems higher up, so very big and obvious performance problems so often stem from a very slight misconception in some fundamental area of playing. And yet in both the house and in the musicianship in my examples any corrections of the larger, more obvious problems will be short-lived if the foundational problem is not addressed. Again, for the musician this error is nearly always a conceptual misunderstanding of some basic aspect of how to play. Success will only come when this conceptual error is corrected. The player’s disordered thinking must become rightly ordered for him or her to realize success.

I’m sure by now you are thinking, like me, that this concept applies to more than just music (or building construction). Wrongheaded concepts in all kinds of areas can lead us to erroneous thinking or actions. To use another personal example, a little over twelve years ago I started experiencing chronic neck and jaw pain, which spread to my low back and elsewhere after an automobile accident about a year later. After an MRI showing some congenital malformation of the spine and some minor disc herniation and deterioration, I concluded that I was irrevocably “broken” and that at some level I would always experience back and neck pain.

51Xa+ehwX0L._SX308_BO1,204,203,200_Fast forward now about ten years. A couple of years ago I discovered the work of Dr. John Sarno (1923-2017), Professor of Rehabilitation Medicine at New York University, and other physicians and authors who built upon his work, such as Dr. David Hanscom, Dr. Howard Schubiner, and Steve Ozanich. These folks theorized that much chronic pain lacks a clear structural cause, instead having to do with stress, tension, and repressed emotions. After ten years of almost daily pain I was willing to try anything, especially since the physicians with whom I consulted about my back and neck issues were not fully convinced that the structural abnormalities observed on the MRI were the primary cause of my symptoms (and one even suggested that my main problem was stress). In studying these ideas I discovered that there was much there that did indeed apply to me. By becoming more aware of how stress and even more unwelcome emotions resulting from it, like fear and anger, affect my body, my pain levels have gone down tremendously. Once again, rightly ordered thinking—in this case understanding that my pain issues were not entirely structural in origin—improved my quality of life. In time this facilitated my return to a more active lifestyle and some significant weight loss.

And there are even more important areas of life to which this applies. Politically I would call myself a conservative, and lean to the right on most issues. Why is this the case? Mainly because I believe that conservatives view the world and human nature as they are (or at least strive to do so), whereas progressives view the world and human nature as they wish them to be. Conservatives oppose socialism, for example, not because they think socialism’s goal of a just and fair society is somehow evil, but because both human nature and the observed experience of the past century dictate that such a system can never deliver on its promises, no matter how much its proponents wish it to be so. Good social and political policies must flow from—once again—a rightly ordered understanding of the world and of humanity. This isn’t to say that conservatives always live up even to their own ideals in concept or in action, but the ideals are at least the right ones.

francis-schaeffer-contemplatingSpeaking of human nature, that brings me to the most important area to which this idea applies, that of religion. After all, if God exists, created all things, and will demand an account of all of his creatures, then the most important area of life in which our thinking must be rightly ordered is our thinking about who this God is and what he demands of us. What we find when looking at religions is that Christianity alone gives us a worldview that is consistent with observed reality. Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984) would say that every worldview must answer three questions: Where did we come from?, What’s wrong with the world?, and How do we fix it?. He would then say that Christianity’s answers alone answer these questions in a way that fits the world as we see it. Those answers are that human beings were created by a good and holy God in his image, that we fell into sin and dragged all of creation down with us, and that this will be fixed in small measure as people work to serve God and others, and ultimately with the return of Christ to judge the world and reign in the new heavens and earth.

To the non-Christian perhaps that sounds like a bunch of nonsense, but think about it. To posit that human beings are “basically good” doesn’t fit the world as we see it. People of all walks of life, when left to themselves, will lie, cheat, steal, and sometimes even kill to get their way. And yet to say that they are totally evil or even morally indifferent doesn’t fit either, because human beings are capable of acts of great kindness, generosity, and charity. But to say that human beings were made in the image of a holy God, and that this image is still present yet distorted by sin—that fits what we see around us, a humanity that is bent toward evil yet capable of great good. Once we understand and accept this, the desire to know and be reconciled to that perfect and holy God who made us follows quite logically. Happily, God has made the Way plain in his Word.

Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963)

Of course, Christianity cannot be forced to exist only in the “religious” area of our lives, since it is, among other things, a lens through which one sees the world. But that understanding of a broken or “bent” humanity (as C.S. Lewis [1898-1963] might put it) has implications for all kinds of areas. It teaches us as individuals to love and care for our fellow man, but also to be wise and circumspect, knowing that that fellow man might turn and rob us. As societies it tells us to construct laws and policies that encourage the good while restraining the evil, neither assuming the worst about humanity nor naively hoping that the evil can somehow be educated or rehabilitated out of existence.

I could go on but this post is already lengthy. Success flows from rightly ordered thinking. As a musician, I must rightly know what I want to sound like and how to get there in order to be successful. Good health flows at least in part from a right understanding of one’s strengths, weaknesses, and ailments. A rightly ordered society flows from a correct understanding of the world and of human nature, a nature that is capable of imaging its Creator by doing great good yet is bent toward evil. And this right understanding drives us to seek the God who has redeemed a people for himself in the Person and Work of Jesus Christ, who saves all who call upon him in repentance and faith, and will one day return to make all things new.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” (Revelation 21:1-5)



Posted in Alto Trombone, Apologetics, Baritone Horn, Bass Trombone, Bible, Books, C.S. Lewis, Christ's Person and Work, Christian Worldview, David Hanscom, Essential Concepts in Brass Playing, Euphonium, Francis Schaeffer, Howard Schubiner, John Sarno, Music, Pain, Pedagogy, Performing, Physical Fitness, Playing Fundamentals, Political Systems, Practical Christianity, Practicing, Repentance, Society, Steve Ozanich, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Theology, Trombone, Truth, Tuba

Essential Concepts in Brass Playing 6: Technique Flows from Music

At any given time I will have at least one student—often more—who tends to think of music making like a chef following a recipe. I mentioned this in the first article in this series several weeks ago. These students approach playing as if quality performance must result from simply following all of the “instructions” with regard to execution and interpretation. The problem, as I noted then, is that the physical act of playing is more complicated than we think, involving a number of minute actions of which we are not often consciously aware. In that article—as well as most of the others that have followed in this series—I have emphasized this intuitive aspect of playing the instrument, and argued that a key to great performance is having as much of the physical activity of playing as possible operating subconsciously, allowing the conscious mind to focus more simply on “how it goes.”

To conclude this series, I’m circling back to this initial idea but approaching it from a slightly different angle. While in the first article I discussed how skilled, efficient technical execution should flow from a well-developed sound concept, today I want to suggest that the development of technique itself should flow first of all from musical ideas. The development of technique—particularly of new techniques—is basically the art of figuring out how to make the instrument reproduce the idea in your head.

266px-Arthur_Pryor_001As a doctoral student I devoted a significant part of my dissertation work to studying the life and music of Arthur Pryor (1870-1942), a trombone soloist and assistant conductor with John Philip Sousa (1856-1932) who later formed his own band and had a long career conducting broadcast and recording sessions for the Victor Company. Pryor’s father was a local bandmaster in St. Joseph, Missouri, who taught his son to play a number of instruments, but no one in town had ever seen a slide trombone until the elder Pryor received one in a seemingly chance occurrence. The younger Pryor was instructed to go and figure out how to play it on his own, and in time developed prodigious technical skills that would one day revolutionize trombone playing everywhere, his position touring and recording with Sousa giving him a worldwide audience unlike any experienced by a trombonist previously.

What’s my point in bringing up Pryor? Having had no instruction in slide trombone or any access to instructional materials or teachers familiar with the instrument, he had no preexisting ideas of the supposed limitations of his new instrument. He simply figured out how to play the music he had either performed himself on other instruments or heard performed by others. He had the musical ideas in place first, and then developed the technique to make that happen. I’m sure the same is the case with everyone who has developed some revolutionary new technique on his instrument. Think more recently of the development of extended techniques like multiphonics, or the various effects now possible by running brass instrument sounds through electronic processors. There were no instructional materials on any of these things, just musicians with ideas and a willingness to experiment and develop new techniques to bring those ideas to pass.

In the first article in this series I admonished readers to “Begin with Sound Concept,” and my point was really that even as you are learning and practicing various playing techniques you should always proceed first of all with an inner idea of the sound you want to produce. My point here is similar, but takes it a step further. Don’t learn techniques and then figure out music to play with them. That is rarely how great music happens or new ideas are developed. Instead, get a sound in your head—whether a traditional one or something innovative—and then develop the technique to do it. If an established technique is what is needed, then still let that musical concept lead the way as you improve that skill. If a new technique is needed to bring your ideas to fruition, then experiment until you find and perfect something that works. Either way, technique flows from music.

Posted in Alto Trombone, Arthur Pryor, Baritone Horn, Bass Trombone, Essential Concepts in Brass Playing, Euphonium, Music, Pedagogy, Performing, Practicing, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba

Essential Concepts in Brass Playing 5: Everything You Play is a “Song”

A couple of years ago I wrote a post with a title very similar to this one, and although I don’t intend to repeat the content of that piece here, the concept is important enough that I wanted to include it in this “Essential Concepts” series. The main thesis is this: successful brass playing is never a matter merely of correct mechanics. There is a more intuitive musical element that must be present at all times. My favorite category for thinking of this is that of “song.” My best playing occurs when I subsume all of my efforts at playing under this very simplest of musical concepts, approaching even the most challenging works with the same basic approach that one would use to sing a simple folksong, hymn, or even nursery tune.

Let me use a recent example. While I have always dabbled in jazz and popular music despite being a primarily classical player, my usual role in big band gigs and such was to play the lead books and leave the improvised solo work to others. In the past few years, though, I’ve worked to improve my improvisation skills, a task made considerably easier with the advent of resources such as the iReal Pro app. This past week I played in a small combo for a charity event and played a solo on nearly every tune, and received a number of compliments on my work. Although this would surprise my younger self, I’ve become pretty comfortable as an improviser, at least on the standard Great American Songbook types of tunes.

So what changed? Besides improved opportunities to practice as I noted previously and the cumulative effect of 20+ years of listening, a change in my approach to improvisation really made the difference. My early attempts at improvisation as a young college student were essentially exercises in harmonic analysis. I made extreme efforts to read the changes correctly and play all of the “right” notes (whatever that means in this context). The results, as you might expect, were usually stilted, uninteresting, and fraught with tension as I worried about making “mistakes.” As I’ve gotten older my approach has become much more like composition or songwriting. Instead of worrying so much about analyzing the prescribed chords, I try to come up with interesting tunes or phrases (or “licks”), or maybe even melodic or harmonic variations on the main melody. This approach delivers better results that are more pleasing to the listener, as well as more fun for me. Essentially, I’m playing “songs” over the changes when I improvise now.

But this approach does not only work in jazz playing or improvisation. All music benefits from the approach. I’ve mentioned repeatedly in previous posts the need to move as much of the physical activity of playing to a subconscious, intuitive level rather than making these the subject of constant and intense thought. We really do want the mental process of playing to be as much like singing as it can possibly be. The result, even in fundamental exercises or challenging “technical” works, is a relaxed, expressive, enjoyable performance for all involved .

Everything you play is (or should be) a “song.”


Posted in Alto Trombone, Baritone Horn, Bass Trombone, Euphonium, Improvisation, Music, Musical Interpretation, Performing, Playing Fundamentals, Practicing, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba

Essential Concepts in Brass Playing 4: Airflow Is a Means, Not the End

Last week I began the third installment in this series with the following sentence: “Generous, efficient airflow is vital to playing any brass instrument, but it is important that players understand just what the role of the air is, and what it is not.” This week’s post might seem a little bit redundant, as I am going to touch on some of the same ideas as I did last time, but I want to do so today with a little bit different, perhaps more negative focus. Whereas last week I mentioned the subservience of airflow to buzz regarding their relative importance to playing, today I want to highlight some misconceptions that often happen with regard to airflow.

The primary misconception—really the one from which everything else I’ll discuss today is derived—is that taking in lots of air automatically leads to a great sound. Last week I emphasized that great sounds come from lots of vibration being produced by the lips. This requires generous airflow, but one can move lots of air—particularly during the inhalation—without necessarily producing a good sound. Even the biggest breath, taken incorrectly, will not lead to the best sound. Why is this? In a word, tension.

Emory Remington (1891-1971), whose concept of the daily routine I referenced a couple of weeks ago, was an advocate of using a “conversational breath” in trombone playing. He believed that various forms of overbreathing led to tension that compromised tone quality. For a long time I dismissed this element of Remington’s teaching, concluding that this type of breathing could not yield an adequate amount of air to play the lowest registers of the bass trombone and tuba at high volume. However, as I noted in a post a few years ago, I have revisited this concept, wondering if the term “conversational breath” referred not so much to volume as to quality. In other words, what if one were to endeavor to take in a larger than normal amount of air, but still keep the body in the same relaxed disposition that it would have in daily conversation? Would this not yield the relaxation of the “conversational breath” but with the airflow necessary for all playing demands? I am increasingly convinced that this is so.

So what does this “bigger conversational breath” look like? First of all, it has a quiet inhalation. Often when students begin trying to take bigger breaths they unconsciously modify the throat, tongue, and soft palate in such a way that the air rushing in creates a very noticeable sound. While this tricks the player into thinking that he or she is taking in more air, in reality there is the same amount coming in, if not less. Moreover, the changes that create this noise indicate tension in those structures of the body which will have a negative effect upon the player’s tone upon exhalation. A good inhalation is as quiet as possible.

The Breathing Book by David Vining

Secondly, this breath is taken with no effort to manipulate the muscles of the torso in a misguided effort to assist the expansion of the lungs. Many of us (myself included) were admonished as young players to “breathe low,” pushing out with the abdominal muscles in an effort to help the diaphragm to flatten and the chest cavity to expand downward. This is entirely unnecessary and ends up leading to excessive abdominal tension (ask me how I know), an inhibition in the natural expansion of the upper chest, and ultimately less air available for playing. I suspect that this error arose in response to the equal and opposite error of lifting the upper chest and shoulders when breathing. This causes a different but equally deleterious form of tension. Arnold Jacobs (1915-1998), another famous brass teacher that I am fond of quoting here, admonished his students to “suck air at the lips,” and to play with “minimal motors.” He wanted students to take in lots of air, but to give little or no thought or conscious effort to movements in the torso as that air filled the lungs. Those movements should just be allowed to occur naturally, freely, and without tension. “Minimal motors” is an expression meaning that one should play with as little physical effort as possible. Once you stop trying to be a “belly dancing breather,” as David Vining calls it in The Breathing Book (which I highly recommend), moving air and playing becomes a significantly less taxing affair, and as a result becomes more consistent and more enjoyable.

BG_Cover_1024x1024The final breathing error I’ll address here is the habit of many players to focus on the inhalation rather than the exhalation. As I mentioned earlier, many people seem to think that taking a big breath—in other words, a full inhalation—will automatically lead to a great sound. We’ve already seen that this is not the case. If that full inhalation comes with excessive noise and tension in the oral cavity, throat, chest, abdomen—and even shoulders, back, glutes, and legs—the sound will not be full and the tension will render you unable to even use all of the air you have inhaled. Additionally, one must learn not only to inhale in a full and relaxed manner, but to exhale in the same way. After all, the reason we inhale when playing our instruments (well, other than sustaining life) is so that we will have plenty of air to exhale through the instrument! Many of the exercises in The Breathing Book (Vining), The Breathing Gym (Pilafian/Sheridan) and similar resources have as a partial goal the getting the player to both inhale and exhale in the fullest, most efficient, and most relaxed way possible.

So if airflow really is a means and not the end when it comes to tone production, why spend so long talking about it? Because erroneous thinking in this area—whether due to an unbalanced focus on inhalation over exhalation, to poor technique and associated tension, or other factors—leads to so many errors. We must first understand that getting the lips to vibrate freely and vigorously is the path to a great sound, and that generous airflow is only a means to that end. Then we must make sure that we are moving air both in an out in a way that best enables us to achieve that sound, that vibration, and we must eliminate extraneous actions and other errors that ultimately inhibit the free and relaxed movement of air. Once we do this playing becomes easier, better, and more enjoyable both for us and for our listeners.

Airflow is important, even vital, but it is only a means to the end of a full, vibrant sound, produced by a freely vibrating embouchure.


Posted in Alto Trombone, Arnold Jacobs, Baritone Horn, Bass Trombone, Breathing, Contrabass Trombone, Daily Routine, David Vining, Embouchure, Emory Remington, Essential Concepts in Brass Playing, Euphonium, Music, Pedagogy, Performing, Playing Fundamentals, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, The Breathing Book, The Breathing Gym, Trombone, Tuba

Essential Concepts in Brass Playing 3: Vibration Creates Tone

Generous, efficient airflow is vital to playing any brass instrument, but it is important that players understand just what the role of the air is, and what it is not. When working with new students one of my first questions is something to the effect of “how do you produce a tone on your instrument?” The answer given nearly always focuses upon airflow. The problem with this way of thinking is easily demonstrated by blowing air through the instrument without producing a pitch. After such a demonstration, students quickly correct themselves, stating that the tone on a brass instrument is created by buzz, by vibration. The role of the air in brass playing is to cause the lips to vibrate. The vibrating lips—the buzz—creates the tone.

In light of this, I want to briefly highlight three concepts in this area that help to facilitate quality tone production. First, despite the way in which I introduced this article, airflow really is important. Breathing exercises such as those in The Breathing Gym and related resources really do improve playing by helping musicians to move air effectively. Aerobic exercise—I am partial to swimming because of its peculiar benefits for wind players—has a similar outcome. While the buzzing of the lips is what creates a musical tone, the air is what causes the lips to vibrate. Make sure you are able to move a maximum amount of air throughout both inhalation and exhalation.

Secondly, embouchure strength, flexibility, and response must be maintained and increased. In last week’s post I discussed the importance of structured, comprehensive, daily fundamentals practice. A key purpose of the daily routine is getting the muscles and tissues of the embouchure into the best possible shape. When the embouchure is in top shape the lips will vibrate with less effort—and even less airflow—than they otherwise would. Effortless playing is efficient playing, and is more enjoyable for both player and listener.

Finally, the more flesh you have vibrating in the mouthpiece, the fuller your sound will be. One major pitfall of an excessive focus on airflow is that players will mistake “using lots of air” for “creating a full sound.” The two do not necessarily coincide. For example, when the aperture is too large a great quantity of air can pass through the mouthpiece and instrument without actually contributing to the vibration of the lips. This leads not to a fuller sound but rather to a more airy one, and leaves the player needing to breathe more frequently in order to produce this inferior result. An opposite problem has to do with allowing too little of the lip tissue to vibrate in the mouthpiece, such as what happens when a trumpet player tries to play on the tuba, but still using a trumpet embouchure. The tone is thin because the entire lip area inside the mouthpiece is not contributing to the buzz.

To put this more briefly, if you want a full sound your goal is to fill the instrument not with air, per se, but with buzz. Play in such a way that the entire lip surface inside the mouthpiece contributes to the vibration—imagine the whole mouthpiece cup being filled with vibrating flesh. Learning to move large quantities of air is a vital means to this end, as are exercises to improve the strength, flexibility, and efficiency of the embouchure. But the goal must always be to fill the instrument and, in turn, the room in which you’re playing, with vibration. The more vibration there is, the better the tone will be.

Posted in Alto Trombone, Baritone Horn, Bass Trombone, Breathing, Contrabass Trombone, Daily Routine, Embouchure, Essential Concepts in Brass Playing, Euphonium, Music, Pedagogy, Performing, Physical Fitness, Playing Fundamentals, Practicing, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, The Breathing Gym, Trombone, Tuba

Essential Concepts in Brass Playing 2: Daily Routines Work

I cannot think of a time in my life as a brass player that I did not believe in the importance of daily, systematic practice of playing fundamentals. The public school band program of which I was a part growing up always had us playing ensemble routines of at least long tones, lip slurs, scales, and articulation exercises, along with regimented systems of “pass-offs,” and my private instructor prescribed her own routine, as well. I had heard of “Remington long tones” long before I knew anything about Emory Remington (1891-1971), the famed trombone teacher from the Eastman School of Music who ended up becoming, in a manner of speaking, my “trombone grandfather,” since my undergraduate trombone professor was a student of Remington.

Emory Remington (1892-1971)

Emory Remington

There are two developments in trombone pedagogy, as well as brass pedagogy more broadly, with which Remington is perhaps most often credited. One is the use of the trombone ensemble as a teaching tool. While the idea of a trombone choir or ensemble or consort goes back at least four or five centuries, the establishment of the Eastman Trombone Choir as a combination of performing group and group instructional time started a trend that has been replicated in college, university, conservatory, and other music programs worldwide, and on more instruments than just the trombone. Like-instrument ensembles provide a special forum for group instruction, in which younger or weaker players learn by emulating the sounds and techniques of more experienced players, and all benefit from the challenges of perfecting balance, blend, and intonation in a context where minor discrepancies cannot hide among the timbres of different instruments. For low brass players such ensembles also provide an opportunity to perform more challenging melodic and figurative material than our instruments are normally assigned in orchestras or bands, and transcriptions of band and orchestra works allow future conductors to learn parts normally assigned to other instruments. Such ensembles really are a vital part of applied instruction, which is why I established both trombone and tuba-euphonium ensembles at Ole Miss immediately upon my arrival.

A second development associated with Remington, and the primary topic of my discussion today, is his concept of a “balanced daily routine.” Remington believed that trombonists should practice playing fundamentals each day in a consistent, balanced, and comprehensive manner in order not only to “warm up,” but more importantly to both maintain and extend basic playing skills. I wrote at length about the elements of such a routine a number of years ago when first starting this blog, so rather than repeat myself today I’ll refer you to that two-part series here and here. As you’ll see from reading there, I advocate covering in some way practically every facet of brass playing technique in some way on a daily basis.

As I alluded in the opening paragraph, I began approaching playing fundamentals practice in this way even before I had heard much—if anything—about Emory Remington, and have continued to practice in this way for nearly thirty years. As I am fond of telling my students, I came by having a “good ear” more or less naturally, but technical playing skills do not come naturally to me at all. If I neglect fundamentals practice for even a day or two I notice an immediate decline in my playing abilities. Nevertheless, in the past ten years or so I have heard more and more players, particularly in online forums of various kinds, “pooh-pooh” the idea of a daily routine. These folks insist that daily repetition of exercises leads to stale and uninteresting musicianship, and is a waste of time that could be better spent playing “actual music.” To that argument I would respond in several ways.

First of all, I’m willing to concede that there are some people who are simply gifted technicians on the instrument, people who develop even the most advanced technical skills with seemingly no effort. I had a friend like this in college and it made me sick—he could do some of the fastest lip trills I’ve ever heard without practicing them at all, while I had to practice them daily for five years before I could play them decently. I still have to practice them daily to maintain the skill! Most of us aren’t so fortunate in this area, and even those who seem to be “naturals” on the instrument should still engage in some daily fundamentals work, both to build stamina and to better learn how to teach others who have a more obvious need for such exercises.

Secondly, most players who argue against playing the same fundamentals routine each day do not actually advocate totally neglecting fundamentals practice. They are simply more willing to modify their routines from day to day, selecting from a wide variety of exercises according to the needs of the moment. One way or another, their practicing still tends to systematically address the same types of skills that I listed in those previous two articles. And while I definitely tend toward the “same routine every day” end of the spectrum, even I will make small modifications as needed for time, or to address particular needs.

Finally, while the voices on the internet questioning the need for a daily routine sometimes seem to be many, they aren’t usually the best voices. One of my favorite activities when attending conferences like the International Trombone Festival and the International Tuba-Euphonium Conference is going to the daily group warm-up sessions, which are conducted by some of the leading players and teachers in our field. Interestingly, they all advocate some kind of thoughtful, thorough, daily approach to playing fundamentals. None of them “just pick up the horn and play.” I enjoy taking insights from these sessions and making improvements to my own routines in response.

In last week’s article which began this “Essential Concepts” series I opined that sound concept is more important than technique, and in subsequent entries in the series I hope to advocate something of a “singing approach” to playing. Indeed, if I were to add a third element of Remington’s influence to the two I mentioned earlier it would be his practice of singing with his students for the entire hour, seeking to instill in them an approach to tone and expression that were like those of great singers. While the daily routine’s focus on technical skill development might seem to be at odds with this more intuitive approach, it really isn’t so—and Remington clearly didn’t think so. Rather, the daily routine’s purpose it to prepare the body in such a way that it is most responsive to the commands given by the player’s brain. Only when the body is optimally prepared to play can that intuitive, singing approach truly take place.


Posted in Alto Trombone, Baritone Horn, Bass Trombone, Conferences, Daily Routine, Emory Remington, Essential Concepts in Brass Playing, Euphonium, International Trombone Festival, International Tuba-Euphonium Conference, Music, Pedagogy, Playing Fundamentals, Practicing, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Trombone Ensembles, Tuba, Tuba-Euphonium Ensembles, University of Mississippi

Essential Concepts in Brass Playing 1: Begin with Sound Concept

Today’s post is the first in a series of short articles I have planned for the summer entitled “Essential Concepts in Brass Playing.” I’ve always considered myself to be a primarily “nuts and bolts” kind of brass teacher, and since the vast majority of my students are aspiring music educators it is right that I be so. While I make sure that these students gain adequate exposure to solo and orchestral repertoire and other advanced materials, they will benefit most directly in their careers by thoroughly understanding the fundamental techniques and concepts that inform great musicianship and—more importantly—how to explain those techniques and concepts to others.

And yet there can be a danger in too much focus on technique and even in the various rules by which we often seek to explain musical expression. At any given time I will have at least one student—often more than one—who seems to think that if he or she will simply apply the right techniques and the right phrasing rules, quality musicianship will happen. I sometimes call this the “recipe approach” to brass playing. Just as one bakes a cake by mixing correct proportions of sugar, flour, eggs, etc. and baking for a prescribed amount of time, these students think that if they will “do all the things” then great playing will occur automatically. This never, ever works.

What’s the problem? There’s a lot more to great playing than the actions of which we are consciously aware. When a student tries to play by micromanaging all of the aspects of the physical execution I challenge him or her to walk across the room while describing in detail all of the muscle movements from the hips down. This, of course, is impossible. We don’t walk by sending detailed commands to individual muscles or muscle groups; we envision moving from one place to the other and then the body executes the needed actions automatically, the mental commands occurring entirely on a subconscious level. The physical actions involved in playing must occur as much as possible on the same level. Arnold Jacobs (1915-1998), Chicago Symphony Orchestra tubist and famed brass pedagogue, had much to say about this. Here is a short extract from a master class he gave in 1991, hosted by the United States Marine Corps.

Arnold Jacobs (1915-1998)

…what we must understand is that we are an enormously complex piece of machinery but made very simple for use by what I would call it, “bio-computer level” of the brain. Regions above the brain stem where the coordinate functions of widely diverse fiber groups that coordinate what ones to fire, what ones keep you straight, what ones should not fire—and it takes all of these things at a computer level rather than at the intelligence level of the person. You don’t even know that they exist and that makes you free to do what you want with your body because you don’t have to worry about it. Only in music do I find people worrying about using their bodies right. Go to the products, get the results—don’t worry about the body, just make sure it sounds better than anybody else. That is the big factor.

 “Go to the products, get the results.” In order to do that, one must have a clear mental concept of the desired result; this critical factor is nearly always missing in students using the “recipe approach.” They think they know all the physical techniques and musical rules to apply, but fail to understand that in great playing there is activity going on both physically and mentally of which the performer is consciously unaware. When one begins with a desired sound in mind, the brain can—on an unconscious level—set about sending the body the commands necessary to bring about that desired result. This does not totally negate the necessity of being consciously aware of certain physical and musical techniques, but one should seek as much as possible to move these to the automatic, subconscious level, as well. In this way brass playing becomes more and more like singing, except that the source of vibration is the lips rather than the vocal folds.

Of course, in order to begin with sound concept one must listen to enough great music—both by players of one’s own instrument and by others—to develop such a sound concept. Happily, there are more readily available resources for this today than ever before, if one will only take advantage of them. Live music is best, of course—go and listen whenever possible!


Posted in Alto Trombone, Arnold Jacobs, Bass Trombone, Essential Concepts in Brass Playing, Euphonium, Music, Pedagogy, Performing, Playing Fundamentals, Practicing, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba