This is the first of a short series of articles that are written partly tongue-in-cheek but also completely based in fact. It has been quite some years since I began devoting time to studying the world of trumpet pedagogy. My research consists of a few things: Reading trumpet history and method books, reading doctorate research (dissertations etc.), reading online forums and trumpet players’ websites, browsing the wayback machine to read websites that are no-longer live, talking with other brass players of all calibers from the seasoned professional to the seasoned amateur, taking lessons and practising ideas that many modern-day teachers are pushing. In doing this there have been a number of behaviours that I’ve noticed from a wide range of brass pedagogues and it’s these things that I’m going to write about in these articles.
Part I: The Myth Of The Failing Student
The myth of the failing student goes like this: John wants to play the trumpet. He seeks the help of the best teachers he can find but they all feed him the same traditional ideas. They teach using music and studies, telling John what to play but not how to play. Truth be told this is exactly how things are to this day. It’s not something that has changed since any of our gurus were failing to learn to play. Having been to a number of teachers John, driven by his failure, sets out to do some research and find out for himself how things are really done. John discovers that all of the best musicians he observes are playing differently from the things he was being taught! John writes a book and opens a teaching studio. A guru is born.
This story, or variations of it, has been told many times by many people and helps to attract failing players to a guru in the hope that by following their method they too can master playing the trumpet. It’s a good way to sell books and attract pupils. Because the ideas contradict tradition the guru can grow quite a following from players at all levels.
This story comes from Costello’s article titled Only One Correct Way To Play Any Brass Instrument that was published in Metronome magazine in the mid 1930s.
“At the age of eighteen, I studied with a teacher who was credited with 50 years experience. After spending five years with this man I discovered the only theory his teachings were based upon was the altogether too common one of “I play the horn this way and so should you”. This finally awakened me and caused me to desert the old school straight and narrow and I turned to the right. This road led me right into swollen lips, cracked notes, poor intonation, useless mouthpieces, hours of meaningless practice, tired lips and if I struggled really hard perhaps I could squeeze out and F or G below high C. I tried system after system, teacher after teacher and finding so many abuses as well as abusers, I decided to turn to the left and make a thorough study in the hopes that some day I could openly challenge and refute the unscrupulous commercial teachers and systemizers and give to their victims a sound proved method – one which would apply to any brass man and not one which would have to be changed and altered to fit different individuals.”
Dr Donald S. Reinhardt
This story is quoted from an article by David Wilken on trombone.org
“Donald S. Reinhardt began his musical studies early, beginning with a six hole flageolet at the age of four and progressing from there to many other instruments. His first formal musical instruction began at the age of eight on violin, but his interest at that time was instead on learning to play the French horn. Instructors told him at this time that he would not be able to play the horn or trumpet because his front teeth were uneven and so he began lessons on the trombone.
While his initial progress on the trombone was good, it wasn’t long before he reached a barrier in his playing and was sent to another instructor to help him correct his problems. This teacher was also unable to help Reinhardt and he was again sent to another instructor. After eighteen teachers tried and failed to help, Reinhardt resigned himself to playing second or bass trombone since he did not have the required range to play the first chair.
One day an accident flattened the tuning slide of Reinhardt’s trombone. After being repaired the instrument was returned to Reinhardt with the counterweight still removed. When Reinhardt played on this front-heavy instrument his horn angle was significantly lower. Because of this lower horn angle the membrane of his lower lip had rolled in and slightly over his lower teeth and for the first time in his life Reinhardt was able to play a high B flat. With a little more experimentation he was able to work his range up to the F above this B flat.
This sparked an interest in how other brass performers played and Reinhardt began to study the embouchures of every brass player he could. Through the use of mouthpiece visualisers and later transparent mouthpieces he discovered that while some players produced their high notes in a manner similar to him, others played exactly opposite. Reinhardt had discovered the difference between upstream and downstream embouchures that became the basis for his approach that he would term the “Pivot System.” He would eventually identify four basic embouchure types with five subtypes and eight distinct tonguing types.”
Although the conclusion of this story is different in that Claude Gordon did not devise his own method but instead went on to study with Herbert Clarke, and later Louis Maggio, I feel it is worth bringing into the mix as Claude’s story will be relevant in further articles. It is quoted from Gordon’s book Brass Playing Is No Harder Than Deep Breathing.
“As a young player I was happy and never worried until I started to take lessons. I was studying with a fine player, but everything changed. I remember when he said “Keep those corners tight!!” and “Get that jaw out!!”. I had never heard these things before. In fact, I had never thought about the lip at all. I was dedicated, however, and practised hard, looking in the mirror, watching every movement. Finally I could keep the jaw out and the corners tight, but now I couldn’t play my high F any more. I also started worrying. Is my lip OK? Is my jaw out? Are the corners tight? All frustration began. I kept on taking lessons but played continually worse and worried more. Every time a good orchestra came though town, I would meet trumpet players and ask myriads of questions. The answers became a conflicting mumbo-jumbo of “Try this” or “Try that” or “Get this mouthpiece or that”. I had boxes of mouthpieces and could not play any of them. I was still playing professionally at 18 years of age, but not as well as when I was eight years of age. Some valuable things were learned, however. I had learned every wrong way to play that has ever been devised. From this I can truthfully say, “It is hard to play wrong and it is torture”.”
The following story comes from Jerome Callet’s book Superchops.
Jerome Callet, for the first twenty five years of his life, was a frustrated embouchure failure. The more avidly he sought to develop his embouchure, using the best teachers and most accepted methods of the time, the worse he performed.
In utter frustration, he decided to devote his life to finding out why no one could teach him how to develop a good embouchure, and indeed, whether it is even possible to develop a good embouchure. Perhaps he thought one has a good embouchure as a result of natural capability, body development etc.
His first assault on the problem was to study the chops of great players in photos of these artists while they were performing. He noticed that most of the great players were positioning their chops on the mouthpiece in direct contradiction to all the accepted embouchure methods!
More amazing, he found out that none of the world’s greatest trumpet players could teach their children to play!! The reason for this is that while they believed what was being taught to beginners was correct, they themselves played differently. As a result none of these artists, probably because they could not describe the “feel” that a proper embouchure gives, never had a child who amounted to anything as a performer!
From this beginning and after 30 years of research, Jerome in Superchops shares his findings with his fellow trumpet players in a wonderful combination of book and video.
As you can see there are famous brass teachers here of varying popularity. The methods that each of them went on to develop and promote were all quite different but one message remains constant. None of these teachers felt that the traditional approach to brass teaching was adequate and yet to this day the traditions that they spoke out against remain.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief insight into the world of the trumpet guru. If you have, then please feel free to comment below and share on social media.