Teaching Philosophy

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    My horn teachers and chamber music coaches taught me a principle that I have retained as a mainstay of my own teaching: the style of the music dictates the technique, and not the other way around. In 25 years of teaching, I have thought every day about how to apply this principle in the way that best prepares my students to create musical beauty at a high level. This has led me to a simple idea that I feel has enormous power to help students: all musicians must first create, in their imagination, the sound of the music they are to play. Then, they must play, following the model. Then, they must assess: did they succeed, did their playing match their model? And if not, in what ways? Then, try again.
    While this may seem like an obvious idea, in my experience many students do not engage their imagination when they play. They pick up the instrument and begin a series of body movements that make it sound, but without a coherent plan of exactly what they are trying to accomplish. The result is that progress is not only hard won, but relies largely on the physical body rather than the mind.

    So, how does this new strategy work in real life?
    The first step is the creation of a model: how should each phrase sound? Often, a student has difficulty creating a model because he (or she) simply does not know how the piece should go. He therefore must listen to recordings and study the score. When he begins to understand the style of the piece, he can think about how it should sound, in detail. What is the tone? What should the articulation of each note sound like? What is the dynamic flow? Where do the phrases crest and ebb? How should the releases of notes sound? The best way to answer all these questions is to sing the music with the voice. Rarely have I found students who sing their pieces unmusically, and most students sing much more intuitively than they play. The role of the teacher in this step is to guide and challenge: are you sure you sang the phrases clearly and musically? Is the style correct for that composer? I often sing back to my students, either amplifying their ideas or suggesting other ideas.
    Next comes the playing. At this point, the student is imitating the sound of his (or her, or my) voice. Is he producing the kind of tone he wants to produce? Is he articulating in the way he sang, and shaping the phrases in the way he imagined? Is he releasing the notes the way he wants to? The student who follows his musical imagination is empowered: he develops the ability to hear how closely his performance mirrors his own ideals. If the student cannot achieve the desired effects, it is time to devise drills that help – hence, the physicality of horn playing derives from musical demands. I often will look for etudes that address a particular issue, or create my own. The overarching desire is not to master a technique just for this particular phrase, but for every such phrase. In this way, a student gains a skill that is global rather than local. In discussing technical solutions, I favor the language of singing over muscular instruction. For example, the typical technical instruction “bring the corners of your mouth in” becomes "say the vowel oo” or “create more resonance in your mouth.” In this way, playing is more organic to the body (and more closely related to singing).
    Finally, the player assesses. He is constantly comparing what he just played to what he heard in his head (or what he sang). This is hard. Having the focus to play an instrument, keep a model in one’s head, and listen at the same time requires practice. But as students gain experience, they begin to notice that they are not creating the sounds that they wish to create. At that point, the instruction begins to come directly from the student rather than from the teacher. In this way, I teach students to teach themselves.
    When students work in this fashion, they develop their imagination, sense of style, sense of line, self-direction, musical voice, ability to both play and listen at the same time, and an attitude that involves creative exploration and problem solving. Rote mechanical drilling is required, but it is motivated by the need to create certain sounds that originate in the student’s head.