Method Books: “Concepts over Checkmarks”

As a high school and undergraduate student, I made it a particular goal to “pass off” as many studies and etudes as possible in my trombone and euphonium lessons. I prepared as much material as I could each week, and took great delight in seeing my teachers write a new “X” or check mark next to a number. I even set a personal goal of working through all 120 Bordogni/Rochut etudes before finishing my bachelor’s degree, and did so, though I sometimes wondered if my teacher allowed me to sacrifice a bit of accuracy in the interest of covering a greater breadth of material.

When I was auditioning for graduate programs, I was able to observe the man who would be my next trombone teacher working with a student or two, and noticed that he was the kind of person who absolutely would not, if you will pardon the pun, “let things slide.” In time, I found him to be quite willing to spend an entire lesson on a single phrase or even a few notes. Despite my love for checkmarks, I knew this to be the kind of teacher that I needed at the time, and was glad when I was offered a teaching assistantship at that school. I later worked with the tuba-euphonium teacher there, as well, and found him to be somewhere between the two extremes represented by my other teachers. This is more or less where I have landed. My students typically move through instructional repertoire more slowly with me than they might have with my undergraduate teacher, but more quickly than they would have than my graduate trombone teacher. In fact, students who have had lessons with me and with any of my teachers have remarked that I remind them of the one they know. To hear from others that I am an average of my influences as a teacher is not surprising; I hope it means I am doing something right.

My thinking about this today was prompted by a student who asked a thoughtful question during his lesson yesterday. While he was appropriately respectful in his way of asking, he was bothered by the fact that we did not pass off material more quickly in our lessons, and wondered if he could—should he succeed in building a studio of his own one day—find a way to move faster. Of course, this depends largely on the student. Indeed, this particular student took longer to master new material at first; he is moving through repertoire more quickly this year than in the past. However, it also depends on one’s objective in working through etudes and study material. What are these materials for, anyway?

One purpose of etude books is certainly to read and master as much material as possible in the lessons. Perhaps there would be some benefit to limiting our studies to fundamental exercises, scale and arpeggio patterns, and performance repertoire (solos and excerpts); we would be able to cover more solo repertoire, anyway. However, working through one or two—or even three or four—solo pieces in a semester would not expose students to the breadth of ideas and styles provided by a greater number of studies and etudes. Music majors in my studio typically have four method books assigned to them at any given time: one for technique, one for phrasing, one for clefs (trombone, euphonium) or low/valve register (tuba, bass trombone), and one for “synthesis.” In a good week, we get to two of these plus fundamental studies and a solo piece. Could we go faster? Possibly, but not without sacrificing accuracy and, more importantly, interpretation.

The best method books are more than mere technical studies. I do my best to select materials that offer at least some degree of musical depth in addition to the obvious technical requirements. While it would be easy to “check off” an etude played more-or-less accurately without “digging a little deeper,” exploring good music at greater depth is almost always worth the extra time, even if that means that in the end we don’t move through the repertoire as quickly.

So, what is the goal of method book study? Are we looking simply to “pass off” as much material as possible as quickly as possible, or are we more concerned about developing concepts and ideas than about “pass-offs.” In other words, are we more concerned with breadth or with depth? I’m still not sure I know the answer. I’ll admit that I get almost as much satisfaction marking a completed etude in a student’s book as I did from receiving such marks myself, but I would find it much less satisfying if I thought that important underlying concepts were left unaddressed, or if there were simply still too many wrong notes present.

I suppose I come down on the side of “concepts over checkmarks,” but I am happiest when a student gets both.

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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