The State of the Trumpet Address

I’ve always been blessed and/or cursed with a desire to do things in the simplest way. In my life there have been a number of things that I may have become obsessed with shifting people’s opinions about. Usually it’s just because I think there is an easier way of doing things but for many people the idea of change is a bigger hurdle than the change itself would be. So maybe it could be said that for me the concept of “Learn, Unlearn, Re-learn” comes naturally. This concept is one that comes straight out of Mixed Mental Arts. I like this podcast and the community it has spawned not only because it encourages self-reflection and a thirst for knowledge, but also because those involved have a good way of explaining things that I feel but have been previously incapable of putting into words.

Any frequent visitor to my website will have noticed that it has been nearly five months since I published a blog post. It certainly isn’t that long since I wrote one, but I haven’t written anything that I’m happy to share. Despite receiving a lot of positive feedback for my writing and more readers of my posts per month than pounds that I earn in that time, I feel that in an attempt to share the fruits of my reading and playing experience I may be contributing to a system that I do not wish to be a part of (i.e. a trumpet-ideology pissing match). Subscribing to a modern and yet-to-be widespread method of playing puts me in a position whereby I go out of my way to find multiple sources for any ideas that I promote. I’m sure that I present a balanced set of arguments, backed at least by quotes and sources, if not evidence. But as I am about to explain, this isn’t always enough.

Something else that comes up on the podcast is the concept of internet echo chambers. The internet has allowed everyone access to more information and different ideas than ever before but using services like Twitter, which allows you to select who you follow, and Facebook that actively censors your news feed so that you more-often-than-not see things that you like, creates an environment where you’re only exposed to groups of people that agree with what you say. This can give somebody the impression that they have all of the knowledge that they need and prevent exposure to ideas that could help them grow. Whilst listening to Mixed Mental Arts I often notice myself finding examples of the things they talk about in behaviour on the Trumpet Herald Forum. The forum contains a bunch of self-moderated sub-forums dedicated to specific teachers and pedagogical ideologies. If you’re in the wrong place and you suggest an idea that isn’t in line with what a certain teacher taught then your post just gets deleted. All questioning of the guru’s wisdom is thwarted and in many ways this can prevent newbies from ever understanding how their thinking differs from the ideas being discussed. Naïve realism rules the roost and the idea that somebody could learn from cognitive dissonance in totally unheard of (Naïve Realism is the belief that we see the world as it really is and anyone who disagrees is somehow bigoted or misinformed).

One problem that I believe we’re all dealing with is ego. Let’s not lie about it this one thing: Trumpet playing is hard! I would go as far as to say that the trumpet is one of the most difficult instruments to play and it’s absolutely true that most who try it fail. Whilst music students with other instruments can concentrate on playing and learning about music, brass players have to spend a lot of time cultivating their technique just to make the instrument work at all (Radiohead weren’t wrong when they sang Anyone Can Play Guitar!). This is then compounded by the problem that for many, playing for more than a couple of hours per day is a physical impossibility because their embouchure gives out. It’s not hard to understand therefore that when a trumpet player gets really good at playing that they believe that they’re in possession of the holy grail. This is where the fundamentalism kicks in – if something works for me then everything else must be wrong. Quick, shut the doors, lock the windows, no further learning is required here.

I want there to be no doubt about what I’m going on about here. In a way my ambitions and desires are at least twofold. When I’m wearing my teacher’s hat I want to be able to look at the brass teachers and the education systems that are out there and see a team of enthusiastic experts sharing their experience and knowledge in a way that enables learners to question, think and grow into a better generation of musicians and teachers than have come before them. When I’m wearing my enthusiast’s hat (by which I mean someone with a thirst for knowledge about this crazy instrument I play, who wants to share with and learn from others for the benefit of all, write a crazy blog, be a better trumpeter, take over the world…) all I want is an environment where I can discuss modern ideas, demonstrate current techniques, debate the heroes of the past and come out the other side without feeling like I’ve been bickering with children. The unfortunate truth is however that neither of these two situations are currently a reality, but when I think about it I see the problem and solution to both situations is the same. People believe that the day they leave school is the day that they stop learning. Many teachers out there were taught in an era before the internet made the sharing of knowledge so easy. In those days learning required effort and it was expensive, plus exposure to alternative playing methods from the other side of the world was rare. Well anyway, if you can play or teach well enough to get paid then why do you need to be any better?

There is also a problem that I’ve tried to discuss in the past but I know I made a bad job of it and have since removed the blog post and it goes like this:

  • Many of the great pedagogues from the past taught and adjusted their methods on a pupil-by-pupil basis – Good.
  • Those people are now dead – Shame :.(
  • Neither their books or their past pupils are capable of offering true representations of what those people taught – Fact.
  • People are out there promoting these books and their limited experience of their teachers as the last word on trumpet playing despite the fact that it’s obviously not true – Stupid.
  • There is a better understanding now of how instruments work and how to develop playing technique than when those pedagogues were alive – No really!

I’m not saying that your hero was wrong, but if they were alive today then they would be continuing to build on their knowledge with current ideas so buck up kiddo because your fundamentalism is holding you back.

It baffles me why people are so defensive about the teachings of their heroes. In a recent interview on The Other Side Of The Bell Greg Spence talks about how he has been shunned from the Claude Gordon community because despite teaching techniques that come directly from Gordon’s books he also suggests that players should use tension in their embouchure. Indeed that is all it takes to be ousted. In a blog post on the MMA website Hunter Maats discusses defensive behaviour and suggests that it is a result of insecurity. It’s quite a simplistic explanation, but if the shoe fits, you wearin’ it. I don’t understand what people have to be insecure about unless they can clearly see evidence of their beliefs being wrong and if that is true then why not dig a little deeper and find out more? Or stick your head in the hole, whatever…

In the past we’ve looked at the world of trumpet playing in terms of national schools of playing. The way that anyone learned to play came straight out of the music colleges and traditions in their locality and this made for some interesting variation in styles and approaches to playing and teaching. Globalisation and the internet have changed that. The availability of recordings, books, and direct contact with experts from anywhere on the planet has put us in a position that in the MMA community they refer to as “Humanity’s First Family Dinner” and we all have to learn to tolerate each other’s company because unlike your on Twitter feed you can’t chose to unfollow this one.

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