HBM – Two Approaches

Two radically different approaches exist for teaching and playing brass instruments:

The first is based on the work of the great horn teacher, performer, and instrument designer Phillip Farkas. At one point during his career with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Mr. Farkas ran into playing issues and was granted a year’s leaf of absence to work through them. He was successful and published his work as The Art of Brass Playing. The overall approach is a scientific, analytical approach to playing. The philosophy is that you must understand physiology and control muscle function to play well.

This is text is a marvelous reference source for anyone who has a sound foundation in pedagogy and can evaluate how much of this information should be shared a particular student. A danger exists in diagnosing problems that don’t exist – experience and wisdom are required to put this information to use in a way that does not interfere with a student’s development. It is quite possible for musicians to encounter “paralysis by analysis” with this approach – the mind becomes so involved in trying to control muscles that it “hangs,” just like a computer with insufficient memory trying to multi-task too many programs.

Having tried both, I strongly recommend the second approach which is based on the teaching of Arnold Jacobs, tuba player with the Chicago Symphony for 40 years and world-renown brass pedagogue. I was fortunate to watch him teach two weeks of masterclasses and take a half dozen private lessons with him. Mr. Jacobs’ premise is that the mind focuses on what you want to sound like and allow the subconscious mind to move the muscles to produce those sounds without interference from the thinking part of your mind. (This is very much like The Inner Game of Tennis and The Inner Game of Music.) It is a very natural way of learning based on trial and error and is how we learned to walk and talk. It is a not a very collegiate way of doing things, but it is how the mind and body are designed to interface.

It is also how we learned to ride a bicycle. I don’t think anyone remembers learning to walk or talk, and it’s a good thing because if we could remember the process, that is what we would have to think about to move. If there was a fire, we’d have to remember what to do each muscle in our legs and how to alternate them back and forth. We’d probably fall over and never be able to get away from the fire. Instead, we just run!

The goal is to be a “natural,” someone who is musically literate and physically ignorant, who knows what they want to sound like and have virtually no idea what happens in the body. Another goal is to be a cyborg, an integration of person and instrument — the instrument is an extension of the mind. I imagine most of you achieved this with a bicycle – once you learned how to ride, you never again thought about it; just hop on and go!

As a teacher, the reality is that you should strive to use the conceptual, but there will be times when it is necessary to be more analytical for a brief period of time. As soon as the student begins to make progress, they need to forget the “how” and focus on the “what” – “what do I want to sound like,” not “where do I put my tongue” or similar questions.