In recent months I have been considering writing a few books to aid my students, and anybody in the brass-playing world, to learn to play their instrument more easily. In the past I’ve been torn over whether this is a good idea or a waste of my time. Indeed there are already countless books out there for brass players. However in my day-to-day life I constantly see evidence that whatever manuals and systems we have in place at the moment are failing aspiring brass players. It’s not just children struggling in bands but adults in amateur settings and even professionals in professional settings. I often see people on gigs struggling with basic note production and poor tone because their only solution to these problems is to think about air.
When I adopt pupils who were started by other teachers they often don’t even know exactly what the valves on their instruments do, let alone have an inkling about the basic mechanics of their embouchure. Some of the most celebrated brass teachers from the past half century knew nothing about embouchures and even actively discouraged their pupils from thinking about it, touting nonsense like “if you learn to blow right then the rest will fix itself”. I’m not saying that anyone learning a brass instrument needs to digest Doc Reinhardt’s Encyclopaedia of the Pivot System (that’s my job!). But I do believe that knowing what the word aperture means is at least twice as useful as “tighten your lips”, which commonly gets thrown around by the well-meaning but mis-informed brass tutor.
In my country, at least, budding young musicians (or maybe just their parents) are obsessed with the process of taking exams. This might be a good idea if it were an accurate measure of a pupil’s progress but unfortunately the syllabus provided by the ABRSM demonstrates clearly that it was written by people who do not understand how to measure progress or guide development on a brass instrument. To make matters worse, a huge proportion of brass peripatetic teachers use this syllabus as though it is a curriculum, just pushing pupils from one exam to the next – something that even the ABRSM states you should not do – resulting in people learning the bare minimum of tricks and pieces just to earn a certificate that says that they can do something that in six months they may not be able to do any more.
A specific example of this, just so that I am not accused of conjecture, is the expected range of notes required for the pieces and scales for each exam. For Grade 1 you are required to be able to play up to the note C5 (these are written pitches, so on a trumpet in B-flat they should be considered one tone lower); Grade 2 – D5; Grade 3 – E5; Grade 4 – F5; and so on to Grade 8 – C6. This is an expected rate of increase in range of one tone per exam. This sets a pretty low bar for anyone who is learning an instrument and thinks that it is commendable progress. The other problem (more serious) is that it trains the aspiring player to believe that learning to play high notes is difficult. Something that with proper guidance and understanding is simply not true. In recent years the Trinity Board has re-designed their syllabus, but despite them including lip-slur style exercises for a short time (something now superseded by a far inferior book of technical studies) they still have the same poor expectations for progress and even give pupils the choice of opting out of aural tests, scales and music theory. What exactly does one learn about music when the exam board allows you to choose not to learn any of the basic skills required for musical development? This situation is abominable.
So here’s a problem – countless books are written and published to fulfil the requirements of these exams. Let’s face it, if you write a book like The Second Book of Trumpet Solos, which has been on the syllabi for 30 years then you’ve hit the jackpot! But not a single one of these books teaches the learner how to play better. Not one of them explains why the technical exercises (Trinity) will make you a better instrumentalist, and what you have to do with your face in order to make a brass instrument produce these sounds in a pleasing way. The “stick the tube on your face and blow” approach is simply unacceptable. It’s fine for people like me, who developed the range required for Grade 5 in six months of starting out, but for everybody else – it’s inadequate to say the least.
Well there we have it – apparently the world needs my books. I’m aware that there is a lot of material out there and this is a slow and long battle, but if I can help and inspire anybody to play better through understanding rather than myths and mysticism then it will be worth my effort.