Bill Adam 1988 Forward…

By Mark Van Cleave
©2014 MVC

I was lucky to study with Bill Adam in 1988 during his last semester teaching at Indiana, University. My first lesson with Bill was in 1978. My first lesson was unforgettable. Not monumental trumpet wise, but certainly unforgettable. For me, this is where he started me thinking in a new way about the trumpet, music, and much more. His influence has been with me every time I have picked up a trumpet since that first lesson.

Along with studying with Bill Adam, I also had the great pleasure to have studied with Jerry Franks, Max Greer, Claude Gordon, Don Jacoby, Charles Colin, Dominic Spera, Allan Dean, and Bernard Adelstein. My experiences with all of these teachers were important to my development, but Bill Adam stands out as the most elusive of all of these methods.

As I have always been a techno minded person (always wanting/needing to know how things work), the whole analysis is paralysis aspect of Bill’s approach really bothered me. I understood it, but always found it very frustrating to apply. Saying this, he had a peculiar and consistent way of getting his students to produce results. For me, these two aspects were a bit contrary to one another, but the results stood on their own merit no matter how I understood it all or not. So, I continue to struggle to apply this in my own practice and playing to this day. Notice that I said “I continue to…” You see, even though it is not a natural thing for me to think in that manner, I understand the theory and recognize the results... so I “continue” to apply Bill’s methods even today.

Applying Bill’s method for me meant that I would not NOT try to think about things, but rather to think about things that really count and try to focus on the end results more than the process. For me and many others, this is harder to do that it sounds.

Bill never wrote any of his method specifics down and would repeatedly remind me that his job was to teach and develop players, NOT TEACHERS. He had a couple of stories that he would always refer to about past students that got too deep into his methodology and how it negatively affected their playing. He used those stories to explain and justify his stance on not teaching teachers.

As he announced his retirement in 1988, I saw this as my last chance to study with him at I.U. I felt grateful for this opportunity! It also reminded me of Jerry Franks and how much of his method was lost because he never got it put down on paper. As someone that has always approached trumpet playing from a teach yourself first perspective, I really hated to see yet another great method be lost to retirement etc. So, this is what set my agenda for my first lesson with Bill during his last semester teaching.

He asked me what I wanted to accomplish this semester, and for the first time, I really had an answer for him. I told him how I wanted to understand his teaching method as I was already doing a lot of teaching and even though I had studied with him for 10 years, I really knew very little about his actual method. I explained my understanding of his method to him like this:

Your method consists of you, the teacher, not telling or burdening the student with details concerning the mechanics of playing the trumpet while at the same time taking on that burden of the technical analysis for the student. He agreed.

I then stated that this REQUIRES the teacher to know and understand the mechanics and physical aspects of playing (already having done the analysis) in order to have a base of understanding to make the correct analysis and then prescribed lesson for the student. He again agreed.

I then explained that since he did not teach any of the mechanics to his students (not teaching teachers), that by design, it would be IMPOSSIBLE for any of his students to actually teach his method because his students were never taught the analysis that is REQUIRED to teach his method. In essence, once he stops teaching, his method would also be gone. He once again agreed.

I told him that this is a big problem for me, and also for the trumpet playing world. It requires that each new generation of trumpet players has to rediscover how to play this thing on their own. I told him that I would like to help keep this kind of valuable information “out there” and to help carry on some of the tradition that he had created. In order to do this, I asked him to teach me the teacher mechanics behind his method. Basically, to teach me his analytical information as well as how he would implement these mechanics in his student’s playing.

He spent the rest of that lesson telling me how this was dangerous information and how it could ruin my playing. I argued my point vehemently to no avail. Where he appreciated my point of view and interest in the workings of his method, he held fast to his belief that this type of info was potentially harmful. I realized that I would have to take a different approach if I was going to pry this information from him. I told him that. He laughed. Game on.

For the duration of that semester, I used every lesson as an opportunity to understand his teaching method. Despite the fact that Bill told me that he did not teach teachers… he certainly had a teachers heart and was WAY into it. He just believed that going there was not going to benefit the student in the long run and thus, I met with friendly but formidable resistance for most of that semester. Most of my lessons were more about who had the thicker skull, but throughout it all, I could tell he enjoyed the pedagogical jousting and looked forward to my less than conventional lessons each week.

About halfway through the semester, we came to a sort of informal agreement on how we could BOTH accomplish our goals. I stopped asking him direct questions concerning how and what mechanical analysis he used to fix certain playing problems and instead would just tell him what I thought he was doing. Where he would resist just coming out and telling me specifics concerning his analytic methodology, he WOULD (and was happy to do so) agree with me if I guessed correctly. When this would happen, he would usually spend the rest of that lesson going into great detail with many examples etc. of the particular playing issue we were discussing and his strategy for fixing it.

This is the way I described his method to him:

A student comes in and plays for you. Their teeth are too close together. You decide to help open their teeth to the proper position. You will NOT tell them to open their teeth or mention ANYTHING concerning their teeth position. Instead, you will play with your teeth TOO FAR OPEN and tell the student to listen carefully to YOUR (the teachers) sound and “match it” ( *) (how many times do you remember Bill saying that!!??).

In order to match your sound, the student HAS to open their teeth. When you determine that their teeth are in the desired position, you change your teeth opening to the proper size and have them continue to match your sound. Once you are convinced that their teeth are opened properly, you send them off and tell them to continue to “get that sound”…“listen to your sound”… “match my sound”. Eventually, they will develop a reflex for the correct teeth position that has been guided and developed by the SOUND and not with analysis or information that may end up being obsessed upon.

He Agreed.

If you studied with Bill (especially at I.U.) you will probably remember him saying that when he did a lot of teaching, his chops were usually a mess. If he had a performance coming up, he would, many times have to back off from playing during lessons long enough to get his own chops back into shape. Always teaching by contorting his chops and playing mechanism in order to fix his students would take a short term toll on his playing. In a way, taking on his students chop problems onto his own chops in order to fix theirs.

With each student, he would develop a practice routine that was designed specifically for that student and their particular problems and goals. By design, this practice routine was not appropriate for anyone else. So, when his students would go off and teach his method to new students, by design, it could NOT work. It would only be appropriate if the student had the exact physical make up and playing problems as did the original Bill Adam student. I brought this up to Bill and once again, he agreed. “This is why I do not teach teachers!”

I also asked him about “THE ROUTINE”… and how all of his students seemed to practice it the same way. I asked him if that is what he intended. He told me “of course NOT!” He said, “remember, I only have control of what goes on here in my studio, not over there on the 3rd floor”. He said that “there is the practice routine that I give to every student, and then there seems to be the 3rd floor version of my routine that has NOTHING to do with what I give to my students”. He also said “THAT’S why I RARELY go to the 3rd floor”.

Bill had a HUGE impact on so many of his students in so many different ways, trumpet paying being just one of them. Because of this, many of his students continue to “teach the ADAM method” and have their students practicing the same way that Bill prescribed for them and their specific playing issues. This VERSION of the Bill Adam method is really not his method at all and is being taught with all of the best intensions by people that by design cannot actually teach it (Bill did not teach teachers).

For me, his method was about HOW he taught as much as it was about the specifics of his analytic information. Any teacher can apply Bill's method of teaching successfully with their own analytics as long as they have a good understanding of how the trumpet actually works. It just would not be the ADAM method per se. But Bill's analysis and approach combined to be a cutting edge and greatly successful method for teaching trumpet and brass!

I wouldn't trade my lessons with Bill for anything... that kind of value is PRICELESS. He was not only motivating as a teacher but he actually made you want to practice. This kind of motivation and dedication as a teacher is very rare indeed. For those of you that were lucky enough to have spent time with Bill, you know exactly what I mean. If you are too young to have had the opportunity to have studied with him, do some research. You will be better for it... and don't forget: IT'S ALL IN THE SOUND!!!

Every physical aspect of playing the trumpet can be heard in the eventual sound that comes out of the bell. Teeth that are too closed produce a very specific sound just as teeth that are too open will. Being able to recognize physical problems not only by seeing them but also by HEARING them is very important for a teacher.


When a student is playing with their teeth too closed (producing a very specific sound that is unique and different from having the teeth too open), the teacher will put their own teeth in a position that is too OPEN (producing a completely DIFFERENT unique sound) and then will tell the student to “MATCH MY SOUND”. Having a student match your SOUND when your teeth are too open with unconsciously guide them to open their teeth without telling them to. When you HEAR that the students teeth are in the right position (because their sound has changed/improved), the teacher immediately puts their own teeth into the correct position (that produces the desired sound) and continues to have the student “MATCH MY SOUND” or hold their teeth in this better position until they get used to the feel and SOUND of the new setting.

All of this takes place without the student even knowing what is being corrected. Then sending the student off to practice with a “Now, go listen to your sound. Keep that sound in your head. It’s ALL in your sound young fella”.



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