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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One thought on “The State of the Trumpet Address

  1. Richard, I noticed that one of the tags to this blog was ‘Confirmation Bias’. I understand this to be a heuristic which will deliver a familiar course of action when associated with a practised point of view, particularly where one tends only to search for knowledge which supports this point of view. For example, one could argue that religion is based on what one wants to read and hear, rather than empirical evidence. Unfortunately, so much bias these days is attributable to third parties who were never actually directly involved. Given that there are around 30,000 Protestant denominations, if they all point to the same god, then why do they inherently need different badges (?)
    Whilst this may be true of all religions, it’s also true of all teaching methods (aka pedagogies) as they are not designed to be complementary. Like you, I also have a rather refined classical approach to trumpet playing (ironically I’ve done most of it over the last 40 years in places of worship). Nevertheless, I’m rarely impressed by jazz players, not because they are better or worse technicians of their instrument, but simply because the ‘repetition’ bores me after about 10 minutes of listening. This pattern of repetition is known as a ‘fluency heuristic’ and every jazz player has formulated their own distinctive style though this ‘repetitive’ process. It’s obviously much more difficult to identify a Classical player merely by sound when they are performing prescriptively from music (until we get to the cadenza), than it is to identify a jazz trumpet god, from any ‘trumpet planet’.
    To take the above point a stage further, it’s always fascinated me to see 3 adjudicators in a box judging brass bands when it’s fairly obvious which band is playing on stage by the time we get to a cadenza or solo section. Ironically, I wonder how easy it would be to judge the British Open Brass Band competition (assuming there were cadenzas written) if one year all the solo players were inadvertently moved around (placed in different bands). Herein lies the problem with ‘confirmation bias’, I would argue that more often than not, the adjudicators are in fact searching for evidence to support a ‘preconceived bias’, rather than an honest interpretation of the music, albeit subconsciously of course(!)
    Forgive me if I’ve missed the point of your blog Richard, but in so doing, maybe I’ve only read what I wanted to comment on, which was the tag (!!). We often get this issue with politicians when they deliberaly use a ‘straw man’ to completely re-engineer somebody’s point of view, however, that’s definitely not my intention here. Nevertheless, the ultimate product of any trumpet playing ‘pedagogy’ or method of teaching is likely to be something that we ether choose to listen to or not. For example, in the last 20 years, my neighbours have only ever commented on my daily practice whenever I’ve asked them, so do they actually listen or do they lack the nerve to deflate my ego (!)

  2. Hi David, thanks for your comments. Something you’ve highlighted is that thinking in this way easily translates to other aspects of life and I would believe that through such analogies it is easiest to observe our own behaviours.
    I was quite cautious when I began writing about trumpet technique that I wasn’t simply searching for anything that confirmed my own findings but as time has passed since my paradigm shift I’ve found that in the brass world we are battling with a number of contradictions that are unlikely to lead us to humble agreement. The fact that as a pupil and teacher develop a personal relationship over years of study will only lead to the pupil developing an emotional connection to their style of playing. Indeed, how else would we be able to express ourselves in music if we felt nothing from the sensation of playing? This means that it’s incredibly difficult when, confident in your approach, you’re presented with a pupil who needs the opposite advice to what helped you learn to play. This alone is complex without even approaching the the fact that we’re effectively using instruments of war to perform slow beautiful melodies….
    I’ll tread carefully on the subject of brass bands as despite my roots in the genre I haven’t been a part of that world for well over a decade. I find it hard to understand how people judge a musical performance without being allowed to watch it, and I can only agree that the most likely solution is to have a preconceived set of expectations and penalise anybody who doesn’t fit your mould. This approach is probably the reason that the brass band is an ensemble based upon conformity rather than one of musical, or tonal, exploration. I already feel that I’ve said too much, and it wouldn’t be fair to acknowledge that if the brass band were to considered a classical ensemble then maybe it’s role should be considered one of historical preservation rather than forward-thinking development!
    I guess that when it comes to the ultimate product I’d be inclined to agree. I feel as though the result of recording technology and globalisation is slowly resulting in a reduction in variation of the various listening options we have, but this may only be a temporary state whilst we learn to appreciate differences rather than dismissing them as incorrect.

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