The well-intentioned but evil consequences of the college brass techniques class

By Mark Van Cleave
©2015 MVC

When studying to become a music educator, every music ed. major is required to take at least one brass techniques class. These are required so that a flute playing band director will know the fingerings for trumpet and slide positions for trombone etc. They are also taught the basics for producing a sound as well.

It used to be that during the normal day to day process of growing up, everyone knew what a trumpet sounded like. When I grew up, the trumpet was on the radio all the time in many different genres of music from classical to pop. Nowadays, it is rare that you will ever hear a trumpet at all when growing up unless you seek it out intentionally.

Without a solid understanding of HOW the trumpet is supposed to sound. it is very unlikely that you will develop a good playing concept. But do not worry! Your well intentioned flute playing band director will demonstrate what you are supposed to do and how you are supposed to sound from the information they learned many years prior in the one semester crash course on brass techniques.

The teacher will pick up the trumpet and explain how the sound is made by buzzing your lips together… then proceed to demonstrate this by sounding something like a flatulent rodent getting run over by a car. This is now the ONLY understanding these beginning trumpet students have of what the trumpet is supposed to sound like. And believe it or not… this is now their GOAL. 

After this demonstration, the teacher says something like... “now, all together… “ and then a very unusual FRAPPING sound is produced by the newly christened trumpet players. This FRAPPING sound is amazingly similar to the one demonstrated by the well intentioned flute playing band director. 

Over the next several weeks, these new trumpet players continue to try to match the original sound produced by their well-intentioned band director. This is now their GOAL! These new trumpet players will learn to perfect this sound.  This will be the goal that will be reached ...the goal that was originally presented… a well-intentioned flatulent rodent sound.

I once came up with the phrase: ”without a goal it is difficult to reach one”. I thought it was pretty good and somewhat profound (at least for me). After letting a friend of mine (a non-musician) proof read the book, they pointed out that this phrase was completely WRONG! They explained to me that without a goal, it is NOT difficult to reach one…. It is IMPOSSIBLE to reach one! So I changed the phrase. 

Goals are not just IMPORTANT, they are CRITICAL!

When my first child got to middle school and started playing the trumpet (like there would be a choice), I stayed out of it. I gave him basic pointers like which end of the horn to blow in etc…. and then let him go at it. With my dad being a band director, I knew how it was to have an ogre in the room. It did not make a positive learning environment for me. So I stayed quiet on the sidelines and kept my mouth shut most of the time. 

Around Christmas time, just before his Christmas concert, I asked him how he was doing in band. He told me that he was first chair in the beginning band (of course). I then asked him a few more specific questions… like: How is your sound compared to the other players? He got this funny look on his face and then told me that “my sound is twice as loud as anyone else” …I gave him a high five! 

This has happened with all 3 of my kids (yeah… ALL trumpet players)… and also my niece and my nephew that played the trumpet in school. 

I have been told that it is genetics….. or whatever… but my niece and nephew are not blood relatives to me. The ONLY real common denominator between all of them is that they had heard me play and heard other trumpet players from CD’s that I had played for them or gave them to listen to. Armed only with a solid GOAL of how a trumpet should sound and a quick checkup every Christmas, they all ended up to be the top players at their schools. hmmmmm

I have a couple of CD’s that I put together of great trumpet playing that I give to every student (especially beginning and younger students) to listen to over and over again in order to develop a keen sense of what a trumpet should sound like. This CD contains performances of all different styles of music with one common denominator…. the trumpet players are producing BIG OPEN RESONANT trumpet sounds.

Once the goal of sounding like a trumpet is set in the students mind/ear, everything else will almost fall into place… or at least the odds have SUBSTANTIALLY improved for that student.

I am NOT bashing any of the hard working and well-intentioned band directors out there that do not play the trumpet as their main instrument for all of the problems that beginning trumpet players face, but the above scenario can also apply to beginning flute players being taught by well-intentioned trumpet players and so on. 

If you do not play the instrument that you are teaching well, it is very important that you give your new students the best possible examples of how the instrument is supposed to sound… because THAT will become their goal and will end up being the sound that they will produce in your band. Playing CD’s of great performances on that instrument can REALLY help define the GOAL!

If your budget can afford it, bring in local pros on each instrument and have them give a clinic to the beginners on that instrument… and make sure that they PLAY a bunch in the clinic. Really have them define the GOAL. You will be amazed at how much this will help their development for years to come!



© TPO 1992-2015