Now that I am just a little bit into my third decade of college low brass teaching, I have long since discovered that my uses of pop culture references to illustrate concepts often fall flat. While at the beginning of my career I was close enough in age to my students that we could identify with a lot of shared references, now that I am much closer to their parents’ age (sometimes older!) I usually have to explain myself when trying to use some pop culture artifact to convey a musical or technical concept. Often I decide that this isn’t worth the time and find some other illustration, but recently I had an idea that, while it required finding the clip online to drive the point home, was very effective.
Miss Congeniality is a comedy from 2000 starring Sandra Bullock and Michael Caine. Bullock plays Gracie Hart, an FBI special agent who agrees to go undercover to investigate a terrorist threat to the fictional Miss United States pageant. Caine’s character, Victor Melling, plays a washed-up pageant coach who is hired to turn the tomboyish Hart into a beauty queen. Melling is disgusted with Hart at their first meetings, noting that not only Hart’s frumpy appearance but even her plodding gait are utterly unsuitable for the Miss United States pageant and must be remedied if she is to be believable as a pageant contestant. He admonishes her to “glide” as she walks in the humorous scene here.
Of course, in miraculous movie fashion, Hart learns—more or less—to walk, talk, and act as a beauty queen just in time for the pageant, saves the day, arrests the terrorists, and even strikes up a romance with her fellow agent Eric Matthews (Benjamin Bratt). But how is all of this relevant to brass playing?
The longer I teach, the more convinced I become that many technical problems experienced by students are caused not by insufficiencies in embouchure, airflow, articulation, slide/valve technique, or any other easily identifiable technical areas, but rather by the failure to properly coordinate these in time. For example, when the air and tongue work in opposition to one another, the result is a heavy, explosive, and ill-timed articulation when the desired sound is delicate and graceful (yes, even on our large instruments). This requires a solid sense of musical time, and then the coordination of all the physical movements of playing in time—in this particular example, thinking of the air propelling the tongue and the tongue riding the airstream instead of merely interrupting it leads to an articulation that is much less harsh, more speech-like, and on the whole more pleasant.
In the movie, Gracie Hart begins to walk like a beauty queen when she learns to coordinate the movements of her body in a graceful and, I would argue, well-timed manner. In order to realize the best possible playing, we brass players must do the same.