Wednesday, February 08, 2017

The Tuning Slide: 2.23- Beginning With Air

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music

I had a request a couple weeks ago for an idea for the Tuning Slide. It came from one of the students at last year’s Trumpet Workshop at Shell Lake, WI. Not one to ignore one of my one or two fans, I thought I would give it a go.

One of the days at camp Bill Bergren taught one of the permanent Shell Lake staff how to play a trumpet. The staff member had never played trumpet before. He was a musician, played bass as I remember it. But had never played a wind instrument. Bill is an excellent teacher in the Bill Adam tradition and is a former student of Mr. Adam. It was quite a “demonstration.” Perhaps some of the high school and college-age students can remember their first struggles with the trumpet. I cannot. It is a dim and clouded place in history, fifty-five years ago, somewhere between the space flights of Alan Shepherd and John Glenn. But I am fairly certain that I was not able to play “Mary Had a Little Lamb” as well as this volunteer did- after only 20 minutes.

Bill used no music, nothing about the musical scale or notes. That was not because the volunteer already knew music. If so, Bill would have said what notes were being played so the student could have a frame of reference. He was not told, “Now you are going to play a ‘G’, second line of the staff.”

He did start out by telling the student that it was all about the “air.” He did not even have the volunteer buzz the mouthpiece, an act of heresy to many band directors or teachers. He simply demonstrated what to do and then told the student to do it. [Any error in this description is due to my poor notes.]

I’m not going to go into any greater detail about the specifics of what Bill did, which I realize will disappoint any of us who may want a step-by-step description of what to do in what order. I will not do that for the simple reason I can’t. I can’t because first of all, my notes were not clear about what he did. I was more interested in watching and only recorded thoughts, not the steps. The second reason I can’t is that Bill wouldn’t tell me. I wrote him an email, and true to his style of teaching didn’t give me any such plan for instruction. Instead he wrote:
Everything I did was in reaction to the student. It's all about understanding the concept then articulating/communicating in your own words and style. IMO this can't be expressed in the written word and is the reason Mr. Adam never wrote a book. Imagine the master in Zen In The Art of Archery writing a book on his methods. I don't think so.
As usual, Bill nudged me into thinking about this in a different way. First, it is not about the method, it is always about the student. A good teacher in a situation like that must be ready to pay attention to the student and what the student needs. The good teacher must be able to read the student’s responses and adapt to what is needed at the moment. Not that the teacher doesn’t have lesson plans or a toolbox filled with ideas and methods. The good teacher knows which to use and when and is also on the lookout for new ways as new students are encountered.

Teaching is communication. So is learning. It is the receiving and reverse direction of communication.

With this in mind, I did look back in my notes to see what I could now learn from the little bit I did write down. What I found was two things.

We have taught trumpet as if the student is deaf. For example we tell them to push the 1st valve and you will get “F”. It becomes a technical exercise as opposed to musical. They learn that if you push this you will get what you are looking for. We don’t pay attention to what it sounds like. Bill had the student sing the note in imitation of what he did. With that we begin to enter into the realm of music and not technique. What does it sound like, is as important as what valves do I have to push to get that note on the page. Reading the music is very important (Doh!) but so it what we hear. We are not deaf.

I am sure we have experienced this when working on a scale. We push the wrong valve and the sound is wrong. We know by hearing that we have played a note that is not normally a part of that scale at that point. (Note that I didn’t say it was a wrong note! It just doesn’t fit what the scale sounds like.) We don’t know it because our brain tells us we pushed the wrong valves, we know it because it didn’t sound right. It is important to try to develop that sound awareness from the very start or build it back if you have lost it.

Playing music is more than just the right fingering, it is the sound! Which brings me to the other thing I learned from Bill’s demonstration lesson:

It’s the air that makes the sound, not buzzing. From he very beginning Bill talked about “air”. He used various techniques to have the student experience “air” including submersing the bell in a bucket of water for the student to see when his air flow changed. Can you feel the difference, not just see it in the water? That’s also at least part of the reasoning behind the Bill Adam technique of playing through the lead pipe without the tuning slide in place. It’s about the sound of the air. We learn by listening when the air is going well, when it is centered. You can hear the difference. We then learn to play that way with the tuning slide back in. I do notice I have a better tone in practice when I start with the lead pipe air exercise!

I had a quick example of how this works the other week in band rehearsal. I was talking with one of the other trumpet players about some of Mr. Adam’s ideas and things I have learned from Bob Baca and Bill Bergren. I mentioned the lead pipe air exercise. He asked me, “What does that do?” So I showed him. I didn’t tell him. I pulled the tuning slide out and played. I had not warmed up yet so the sound wasn’t centered. I showed what I knew how to do. I explained what I was doing. Then I did it one more time. “The goal,” I said, “is to have that same air no matter where on the scale you are.”

The result of all this in particular is back to the three things we should always have:
  • Great not good sound
  • Great not good rhythm and
  • Great not good ears.
Listen, imitate, put it together. The sound will follow if you listen, imitate, and put it together.

Those are the basics, and I have a hunch that no matter where we are on the skill development journey we will be able to learn from them. Oh, and a reminder to myself that if Bill does this demonstration at this summer’s trumpet workshop, I will record it.

That’s not all I got from Bill’s brief note. But that will take another whole post, so I will save that for next week.

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