“Fast Notes:” A Problem in Low Brass Instruction

My son, who is now eleven, began taking violin lessons at age six. While he has occasionally had the opportunity to perform in small ensembles of some kind, his musical experience thus far has consisted primarily of working alone on solos and etudes. Because of the years of individualized instruction, he has progressed at a reasonably fast pace, to the point that he is working on some of the easier sonatas and other pieces by Bach, Vivaldi, Pachelbel, and similar composers. He barely understands that his musical abilities are far ahead of those of students with five years of study on some other instruments, or in other contexts. While he still requires a great deal of coaching to work out the counting and complex figurations of long sixteenth-note passages, he has already encountered and executed far more rapid passages than the average low brass student who enters my university studio at age eighteen. This normal experience for a violinist would be exceptional for a trombonist, and that is a problem. I addressed this to some extent in my previous post and want to continue working through these ideas today.

While private study is the usual means of introduction to music for string players and pianists, wind players tend to enter musical life by way of school bands. Is that bad? No. The social and communal aspects of being part of a large ensemble make music appealing to many students in ways that individual practice alone does not. Both school and community bands once formed important parts of the social fabric of many communities, and I for one would love to see them do so again. However, those students who decide that they want to pursue careers in music will need to move beyond the band experience alone in order to be successful. I don’t mean that they should abandon wind bands—far from it—but that students should also seek to build a larger, wider musical experience. This is, for reasons I discussed last time and will continue to do here, perhaps more important for low brass players than others.

Why is this the case? Individual musical development, especially in the areas of rhythm and technique. I began thinking through the content of this article several weeks ago due to experiences with a particular student, but in twenty years of teaching I have encountered this same phenomenon multiple times. The low brass student I am envisioning will read and execute rhythmic patterns from whole notes down to eighth notes with relative ease and efficiency, but once a sixteenth note appears (or—gasp—even a thirty-second note), a certain panic ensues. The student loses all sense of rhythmic consistency or cohesion and in some cases begins flailing about on the pitches themselves, engaging random fingerings or slide positions and moving in the general contour until returning to more comfortable territory. The reason for this is very simple: Many low brass players move all the way through middle school and high school band having rarely or never encountered a sixteenth note. And thus, what has already become commonplace for my eleven-year-old violinist son is exceptional, unfamiliar, and frightening to some low brass students. Some of these students have so loved their school band experiences that they want to become music educators themselves, yet their understandings of and abilities to execute complex musical figures are literally years behind those of their colleagues on other instruments, including colleagues who also have only played in school bands, but on instruments whose assigned parts presented greater technical demands.For these low brass players, the common note values consist of whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, eighth notes, and “fast notes.” This latter category effectively includes everything sixteenth notes and faster, all “fast notes” that are of non-specific rhythmic value and very scary.

Is this phenomenon of “fast notes” a real problem? For the average band student who wants to play in the band and have a good time but does not aspire to a musical career, perhaps not. But for those who do aspire to more, especially for those who would be teachers, it is a huge issue. How do these students expect to teach the complex figures found in woodwind, string, and percussion music if they cannot comprehend—much less execute—anything faster than eighth notes? This problem needs to be addressed, preferably beginning while students are still in high school, but in any case continuing at the college or university level, where a certain amount of remediation will have to occur.

The main key to addressing this problem is simple: exposure. The sooner students begin to encounter faster and more complex rhythmic figures, the easier time they will have learning to execute these and becoming comfortable with them. This can largely be addressed through the means I discussed in my previous post, namely purposefully choosing band music with challenging low brass parts, and encouraging private lessons along with solo and chamber music. As students become better acclimated to the existence sixteenth and thirty-second-note patterns, they can set about the work of actually learning to count them.

In order to master counting challenging rhythms, I advocate isolating rhythm, working on rhythm comprehension and execution independent of any real playing demands. “Clapping and counting” using any of the various rhythm verbalization methods out there is very effective, my favorites being those that require the musician to speak all of the subdivisions of the beat while clapping the written rhythms. There are a number of methods available that provide rhythm exercises; I came up using the rhythm pages in Exercises for Ensemble Drill by Raymond Fussell, and I am also a fan of Rhythmic Training by Robert Starer. These and similar exercises can be executed by clapping and counting or by playing the written rhythms on a single pitch; in either case the point is to work on rhythm alone without allowing demands in pitch, dynamics, or other areas to cause additional difficulty. Use of a metronome to maintain steady time while doing this is of obvious value.

Isolating rhythm in this way can be helpful when learning any piece of music. Students encountering a difficult passage for the first time should address only the rhythm first, using clapping and counting, playing on a single pitch, or both, to work out the rhythm and articulation before adding other elements. Slow practice—using the metronome for consistency—is also helpful. Add other stylistic elements in order to have an almost complete interpretation of a passage, including rhythm, articulation, dynamics, and other style markings—basically everything but pitch—before adding the pitches. When thus taken in isolation from other musical demands, the “fast notes” become a little less scary, even after the moving pitches and their technical requirements are restored.

The above steps work with students at any level, but for older students who are a bit “behind the ball” on this—especially those hoping to become music educators—some additional philosophical work may be necessary. I have found that some students who have gone through 5-8 years of band without learning to play or understand “fast notes” are reluctant to work to remedy this deficiency, believing that they are already “good enough.” It is vital that they come to understand not only the individual musical benefit of developing greater competency in this area, but also that their success as teachers will depend in part upon it. Once the need for developing this competency is understood, the importance of systematic work should be emphasized. While it can be tempting for both teacher and student to try to accelerate the development of rhythmic understanding as much as possible, skipping steps in the process is ultimately unfruitful, as it leads to “faking” that will benefit neither students’ musicianship nor teaching. The above steps for working through challenging passages should be carried out diligently, along with making sure students understand the mathematical relationships between different rhythmic figures and the importance of the perception of musical time (i.e. “the beat”) as a prerequisite to success in understanding and executing rhythm.

But again, more than anything else, the key is exposure. Students who rarely or never encounter rhythms faster than eighth notes will find those faster rhythms to be foreign, confusing, and frightening. Make sure that low brass students—just like players of other instruments—encounter a fulsome array of rhythmic challenges and learn to both understand and execute them. And even if remediation is necessary for an older student, address both the how and the why of rhythmic development in a systematic fashion.

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, Tubist/Bass Trombonist of the Mississippi Brass Quintet, Bass Trombonist of the Great River Trombone Quartet, 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 his first solo recording, STEPPING STONES FOR BASS TROMBONE, VOL. 1, on the Potenza Music label in 2015. 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. The ideas and opinions expressed here are not necessarily shared by the employers and organizations with which the author is associated.
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