A Mountain or a Molehill?

At one time or another all of us brass players will find ourselves teaching our instrument to someone else. The big question is; what is our approach to imparting the knowledge we’ve gained? Is it in one large lump sum form, one molecular piece at a time, or a little bit of everything, with nothing specifically targeted? I wish I knew the answer. It would probably depend on the learning capacity of the student, their personality, and a host of other factors. Do teachers try to fit their teaching method to each individual student, or adopt a “one size fits all,” philosophy?

Back to the first question; I have a hunch that the “throw everything at the student at once,” method would result in a small percentage of people clawing their way through the mass of information and eventually coming out with an excellent result. Another larger group would probably get overwhelmed and give up out of futility, at least that’s my feeling. What about the middle ground approach, where a reasonably sized amount of information is presented to the student, with no one aspect emphasized? Would that approach result in a mediocre player? Perhaps.

An extreme example of the molecular approach would be the old Russian way of expecting every student to memorize every note that was brought to a lesson. They were told; “never bring music to a lesson!” Of course like everything else this places importance on one aspect of learning at the expense of other and equally important facets. It would mean that a minimum amount of repertory would be studied, but that repertoire would have an extraordinary amount of time spent on it learning the notes, but not necessarily learning the music. Again, I think certain students would thrive on this program and others would struggle.

Let’s analyze our most famous method of learning to play a brass instrument; the complete method by Jean- Baptiste Arban. Certainly the most well-known complete method ever composed. While being the standard bible of brass players, it has been criticized for getting too hard, too fast and has spawned a whole industry of “intermediate” studies to fill in that perceived gap. Probably few people have spent their entire preparation for a career solely on the Arban method. It would be interesting to find someone who has and see how it affected their advancement. Personally I think the most valuable part of the Arban method is the very beginning; studies on the quarter note. I am a firm believer in fundamentals, and the Arban quarter-note studies are the foundation to solid fundamentals and production of basic sound quality. Nothing more fundamental than that right? I used to have only certain of my students play these studies at every lesson. Now I insist that everyone play them daily and in different styles and lengths. It seems the simplest things are harder than we think, and with solid fundamentals, the hardest things are simpler than we think.

So, what’s the best approach for the most people to be successful? 1. Throw everything at them and see who survives? 2. Take one thing and drill it incessantly? 3. Give a smattering of a general concept, not emphasizing one thing?

If you’re a regular reader of my articles you probably know my preference when it comes to teaching philosophy, but I would be interested to find out about studies addressing this topic. Studies that investigate how people learn and how they ” inculcate “ the material into themselves. Having information provided to you does not mean it is instilled in you. That’s a whole other process. That’s what I’d like to explore. Anyone having some documented scientifically accepted research on this subject, please provide them and I will report findings in a future article.