Utilizing Sound Concepts When Teaching Brass

Metaphorically, I think we all teach our young brass students to become one of two things: either a builder, or a sculptor.

Builders use mechanics like tone, pitches, rhythms, dynamics, articulations, etc. to construct something from the bottom up, hoping that the resulting building looks something like what their teacher is after. Sculptors, however, see all of those musical fundamentals as tools that they utilize to cut out their musical piece of art.  The latter category is what I think we want our students to become.

Before we can begin using those fundamental tools to chip away at our big block of metaphorical marble, we must first have a concept of what that final sculpture is going to look like. In our musical case, this sound concept is what guides us in choosing which tool to use and when to use it, making the work we put in always subservient to the final goal of creating that beautiful work of musical art. 

In most cases, students’ experience the first few years in band is drilling isolated fundamentals covering the most basic aspects of music and operating the horn, repeating them again and again, backwards and forwards, until those fundamentals become skills that can be utilized as an instrumentalist. That was my experience too, and it was a wonderful way to learn.

But as I got into college and began studying music, I realized that one crucial component had been missing in my musical development. I’d spent seven-plus years playing the euphonium without really having a concrete idea of what kind of sound I wanted to come out of my bell.

Thanks to a few college professors who repeatedly pointed me in the direction of the music library (where I could listen to recordings) I learned to make informed decisions about what kind of sound I wanted to produce.  And that changed everything about how I played, practiced, and improved.  And the best part is, I learned as a teacher that you don’t have to wait until college to start preaching sound concepts to your students.  In fact, the sooner the better!  Start right away!  How?  Let’s look at a couple of practical techniques that will help your students, no matter what age, start developing their own sound concepts.

Practical Technique #1 – Listen to Great Performers

  • Listening to professional-caliber soloists on their own instruments allows them to cultivate a detailed concept of what they should sound like as an individual (and soloist!).
  • Listening to great ensembles gives them critical insight into blend, balance, intonation, and the crucial element of style that is incredibly difficult to learn just by trial and error within the rehearsal setting.
  • Listening resources give our students cheap access to a wealth of recordings.
    • Spotify
    • Pandora
    • iTunes/Amazon radio
    • Google Play Music
    • Naxos Online
  • Youtube is completely free and contains a ton of wonderful music making (though you sometimes have to wade through the not-so-wonderful music making to find it). Here are some great brass videos to get you started.
  • Assigning listening homework has never been so simple or more beneficial to both our students and us!  I do a Tune-of-the-Week listening assignment each week with my college students that has proven to be an invaluable educational tool.

Practical Technique #2 – Singing

  • When you ask a student to sing what they’re playing, you gain direct access to the concept that’s in their mind.
  • You instantly find out whether or not they’re actually hearing what they’re playing (or whether they’re just pushing down buttons and guessing).
  • As a low brass teacher (where buzzing the mouthpiece is the least like actually playing the instrument), this also drives the oftentimes-controversial practice of using buzzing as a teaching tool from being solely a sound motivator to being primarily a pitch motivator and secondarily an air motivator.

As music teachers, I think we’d all rather spend less time teaching the manipulation of the instrument and more (much more, in fact) actually teaching music.  Developing sound concepts in our students and using them to drive concepts like rhythm, technique, and ensemble awareness is, in my experience, an incredible tool to make our students (and by extension, our bands) sound better faster.

Cale Self is Assistant Professor of Music, Assistant Director of Bands, and Instructor of Euphonium & Tuba at the University of West Georgia in beautiful Carrollton, GA. He also conducts the UWG Symphonic Band, Brass Ensemble, and Tuba Ensemble. Holding degrees in music education and instrumental conducting from West Texas A&M University in Canyon, TX. Dr. Self also holds a doctorate in euphonium performance from the University of Georgia in Athens. His teachers include David Zerkel, John Lynch, Allen Crowell, Patrick Sheridan, Sam Pilafian, Gary Garner, Joe Nelson, and Joseph Cox. Dr. Self has also taught high school band in Texas. Cale would like to give a special shout out to his beginning band teachers – Mr. and Mrs. Maxwell – who taught him all those necessary fundamentals!

Related Posts:
YouTube Finds – Brass
Avoiding the Most Common Pitfall – TENSION!
It’s a Tuba Thing
Promoting Musical Independence in Ensemble Teaching

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