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.
…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!