Intervals and Sounds, Not “Dots and Spots!”

A couple of weeks ago I was working on scales with a young student in an online lesson. This person has made good progress in the past year or so, going from being a minimally functional player with limited range to having three working octaves and steadily improving skills in rhythm, intonation, and other areas. Most of the school-aged students that come to me are advanced players looking to improve their standing in all-state ensembles, college auditions, and similar venues. Working with those students is rewarding, of course, but there is a particular joy in helping a struggling student to grow, improve, and enjoy music making even more.

Anyway, back to scales. This student first came to me able to play only a very few scales, mostly one octave. At present two-octave scales in every key are more or less possible, but only while using a scale sheet. This was made clear to me in the lesson I’m recounting because the student was reluctant to repeat a scale after I gave the instruction to turn away from the music stand, and even after I insisted still kept stealing “one more look” at the sheet before beginning to play. I told the student right then, “You aren’t playing the notes. You’re going for ‘dots and spots!’”

Conceptually, diatonic scales ought to be simple. Each of the seven letters of the “musical alphabet” occurs only once per octave, and all one really has to do to figure out the major scale in any key is to walk through that alphabet and apply the appropriate key signature. Same with the minor scales (with some modification) and even modal scales, but that’s a discussion for another time. The point here is that my student, who played the requested two-octave scale with relative ease when looking at the scale sheet, was almost entirely unable to do so when the sheet was removed. Instead of thinking through the names of and relationships between the various notes, my student was trying to remember where the notes occur on the page (“dots”) and what slide positions they require (“spots,” i.e. on the slide), with practically no consideration of what a scale sounds like, what pitches are represented by those “dots,” or how the patterns should be executed. This approach yields extremely slow improvement at best, and scales and other patterns “learned” in this manner cannot be readily applied as tools to help with sight reading and mastering new pieces of music. Even missed pitches can go unnoticed because the student is associating marks on the page with fingerings or slide positions (brass instruments having the unique possibility of playing entirely correct fingerings yet missing pitches), and paying little attention to the sounds being produced. We must teach students to conceive of scales, arpeggios, and other patterns as series of intervals, relationships, sounds to be achieved, and to trust that the mechanics will flow intuitively from such a conception.

So how do we do this? I think in part the answer is going to lie in how we address the initial instruction of brass players. My son started playing violin at age six, and I was struck by how much of early instruction in the Suzuki method is more or less by ear. Yes, the mechanics are learned, but music reading in large measure comes later. Beginning students are encouraged to develop an approach to the violin that is intuitive and musical, not forced and mechanical. Conversely, with wind players we tend to teach music reading and instrumental technique simultaneously, and even when simple tunes are interspersed among technical exercises the implicit focus ends up being largely on mechanics, not on music. To be sure, this is necessary to an extent, certain technical difficulties of wind instruments—particularly brass instruments—preventing an entirely intuitive approach to early instruction. But perhaps we can at least bring some elements of a Suzuki-like approach to the way we teach young wind players…and older ones. Here are a few ideas.

1. Teach beginners as much “by ear” as possible. The term “rote teaching” has a well-deserved bad name in education, but used sparingly it can be a useful tool. I have long advocated teaching fundamental exercises to beginning students without any music at all. This is no doubt simpler with brass instruments than with woodwinds due to the simpler mechanics of the instruments, but the goals here are two. First, we want students to associate the physical act of playing with the sounds they desire to produce, not merely with the markings on the page. Secondly, we want the students’ playing abilities to be at least a few steps ahead of their reading abilities. Then, as note reading is introduced we merely have to teach them to add the appearance of the written notes to the aural and mechanical skills they have already developed. In this way we aim to have both technique and reading flow out of musical concepts, rather than the reverse (which doesn’t work).

2. Make singing and buzzing central aspects of teaching and practice. Brass playing is more like singing than playing any other family of instruments. The reason for this is simple and should be obvious: the vibration—the tone—on brass instruments is produced not by a reed, string, or other part of the instrument, but by the lips, a part of the player’s body. The embouchure essentially takes the place of the vocal folds, and the thought processes and airflow needed to initiate and sustain those vibrations are otherwise similar to those of singers. Moreover because the vibrations are produced by the body and not by the instrument, it is vitally important that the player hear the desired pitch internally before playing, as the instrument will merely amplify the pitch being buzzed; it will not, except in a very broad and imprecise sense, force the player to buzz the correct pitch. Singing helps players to develop their “ears”—their internal perceptions of pitch—while also encouraging the expressive approach to music making common to singers. Buzzing the mouthpiece alone begins the process of transferring these concepts to the instrument, but without the mechanical complexities of the entire instrument. Taken together, singing and buzzing do much to ensure the success of brass players. No amount of practice of the instrument will compensate for lacking skills in these areas.

3. Teach scales—and everything else—as musical ideas, not technical ones. The immediate concern that sparked my writing on this topic was teaching major scales, so let us pursue that for a moment. While I do make and distribute scale sheets to my students, I use them as little as possible. Instead, I encourage students to think through the patterns. “What is the key signature?” “What is the starting pitch?” “Talk through the scale slowly while performing the fingerings.” This process can be quite slow at first, but the results in the long run are superior. Students begin to conceive of scales in terms of their tonal relationships, and not in terms of the mechanics of and/or written music for their instruments. In time, students are able to master these patterns and learn new ones more quickly, and moreover have less difficulty conceiving of musical relationships in the abstract, which benefits later studies in music theory, piano, etc. Perhaps most importantly, students that master patterns in this way begin to notice their presence in the music they play. This has tremendous benefits for sight reading, practice efficiency, and even improvisation.

While we as instrumental music teachers have to teach technique and mechanics, it is easy for both us and our students to lose sight of the musical objectives of what we do. Teach music first and foremost. The mechanics will flow from it. Teach mechanics first and foremost and the music will never come.

About Micah Everett

Micah Everett is Associate Professor of Music (Trombone/Low Brass) at the University of Mississippi, Principal Trombonist of the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, Interim Music Director at College Hill Presbyterian Church, Assistant Editor (Audio/Video Reviews) for the International Trombone Association Journal, and an S.E. Shires trombone artist. He is the author of THE LOW BRASS PLAYER'S GUIDE TO DOUBLING, published by Mountain Peak Music, and released two solo recordings, STEPPING STONES FOR BASS TROMBONE, VOLS. 1 and 2, on the Potenza Music label in 2015 and 2022, respectively. In addition to his professional work, he maintains an avid interest in the study of the Bible and of Reformed theology. He holds doctoral and master's degrees in music from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, a bachelor's degree in music education from Delta State University, and a certificate in systematic theology from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary.
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