by BOBBY SHEW
My basic goal with a student is to make them responsible for their own decisions about their playing styles and the resolution of their problems. I feel that the best teacher that any of us ever really get is ourself. No matter who you go to, no matter what reputation they may have, no matter how good they really are as teachers, they are people who inspire us to go home and think more closely about our final decisions and out playing.
SOUND is, in my estimation, the most critical point on which a musician can develop a personal identity. I do a considerable number of drills on sound variables with my trumpet students. I’ll show a student how the mechanics of sound production occur with air and aperture control. I’ll show him a couple of simple exercises he can do with aperture fluctuation to change the sound from fuzzy to dark to bright to fragile to whatever. Then I have him go home and play something, like the first eight bars of “My Funny Valentine”. He’ll try it with each of the different sounds we come up with. Try it with a dark sound. Try it with a fuzzy sound, and so forth until he makes up his mind as to which one feels emotionally true to what he senses and feels inside of himself. That tends to make the student decide his own aesthetic relationship with the music, rather than me telling him what he has to do.
I’ve tried a lot of things with internalization. I get the student to listen not necessarily just to the sound bouncing off a wall but the internalized sensations of playing the horn. I use cotton balls. Practice with one cotton ball in one ear first, play a little bit, and then put another cotton ball in the other ear. You’re much more into the feeling of the instrument and not just the hearing of it. It makes the awareness of a student come up considerably, not just taking a teacher’s commentary as some sort of rule.
I think there are various levels of playing a musical instrument. There’s a physiological level, and a scientific level with regard to muscular physiology. There’s a lot of information available about that. This also applies to rehabilitation of muscles when you get really tired on a gig. I try to teach as much factual information as I can, but I tell a student to go home and see if it actually works for him. If not, I have him come back and check how he’s using the information to see if he’s applying it correctly. The student still has to make all of his own decisions.
I really don’t think it’s fair to a student to force him to think in a particular way. In this day and age, we’re seeing a tremendous number of students coming out with a much more eclectic approach to music. Allen Vizzutti is a wonderful example of a young trumpet player who has come out with a brilliant expertise and classical music, a wonderful composer, and who plays in the jazz idiom with a fusion approach. He has played on big bands, he is an amazing talent in my estimation, and a very nice guy on top of that. This kind of tendency with the young kids coming out is putting a lot of pressure on teachers to try to really keep the inspiration going. It’s difficult not to put these kids in any kind of tunnel-visioned approach to our old ideas about music.
Quite a few of the students who have come to me have really opened my head to an awful lot of things. That has been very healthy for me. I prefer not to sit on the teacher’s throne with a know-it-all attitude and assume that I can’t learn anything from the students as well. It sort of becomes a situation of us getting together to share ideas, trying to keep a student thinking on his own feet. That’s really ultimately what’s going to be an important factor for those who are out there in the real world. Those who are out there surviving, playing shows, recording sessions, whatever happens to occur, they have to learn to make decisions….oftentimes very quickly!
I have heard horror stories of teachers who discourage their students from paying attention to any other philosophies or approaches to the trumpet. That also tell the students, “You don’t have to think. I’ll do the thinking for you. Just do what I do and don’t even question anything.! ”. That, to me, is approaching a high crime in our field of education. You find kids who eventually don’t even know HOW to think. They depend totally on the teacher for everything. This is criminal. Some teachers love that feeling of altitude over their students, often referred to as the “Guru-Disciple Syndrome”. But, trust that there are a lot of very good and dedicated teachers out there….and there are a lot of “wankers”, too! Learn to recognize the differences.