Transfer of Knowledge

Ours is a day of great specialization. At one time the Bachelor of Arts degree—with a broad curriculum covering philosophy, theology, history, mathematics, music theory, ancient and modern languages, etc.—was the normative course of study for undergraduate students. In modern times, however, this pursuit of “general education,” while still given a nominal place in most baccalaureate degree programs’ “core curriculum,” has given way to majors in any number of fields of study, and with an increasing vocational thrust. Being broadly educated is no longer seen as desirable; students instead receive implicit or explicit encouragement to specialize as early as possible in their academic careers. An unhappy side effect of this is that students (and graduates…and teachers) often view those remaining vestiges of the core curriculum as mere annoyances—a series of “hurdles to jump over” or “hoops to jump through” before getting to the “real” content of their degree programs. Sadly, this produces “educated” people who fail to see the myriad interrelationships between all fields of academic inquiry and artistic pursuit—indeed, between all areas of life and thought. In our pursuit of specialization we have achieved compartmentalization of knowledge and skills, to our detriment.

We see the results of this in numerous areas. With respect to the other subject about which I sometimes opine in this space, so many Christians fail to see that the implications of their faith reach far beyond Sunday worship. Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) famously said, “There is not one square inch of the entire creation about which Jesus Christ does not cry out, ‘This is mine! This belongs to me!’” Likewise in the sociopolitical realm, politicians and social reformers of all stripes so often display an unhappy myopia regarding their policy goals, leaving the populace to experience the fallout of “unintended consequences” that were easily foreseen by those taking a broader view of proposed policies and their implications. Moving back into the realm of education, despite well-intended efforts and initiatives over the years to promote “teaching across the curriculum,” students at all levels display a fundamental failure to connect even closely related fields of study. How difficult it is to effectively study the development of music, art, and literature without understanding the historical circumstances surrounding the creation of the great works, and conversely, how difficult it is to develop a real understanding of the real people that experienced important historical and political events without examining their art, music, and literature.

Even within single fields of inquiry the tendency to specialize and compartmentalize produces negative effects, effects which I see nearly every day in my own university music students who can have difficulty seeing how the different aspects of the music curriculum and even different aspects of their applied music studies inform and affect one another. This evening I will discuss three areas in which music students too often fail to achieve the transfer of knowledge and skills that is so beneficial and necessary for success, and suggest ways to remedy this lack. Happily, just being aware of these connections goes a long way toward ensuring that they will be made and explored in the pursuit of better musicianship.

Interrelationships between Undergraduate Music Courses

The first semesters of tertiary music study are a real sea change in the academic lives of most music students. Whereas music exists on the fringes of the curricula of most high schools (despite the insistence of music educators’ groups that music is a “core” subject), college and university music majors find their time dominated by music study from day one. Beginning in that first semester, students at most schools will take courses in “written” music theory and analysis, “aural” music theory (solfège, dictation), class piano, and a major applied area (instrument or voice). In all of these areas of study, students are exposed to scales, arpeggios, standard chord progressions, and other fundamental “building blocks” of music. And yet, sometimes I think students learn these elements four separate times, learning, for example, the C major scale once in written theory, once in aural theory, once in piano class, and again in their applied lessons, never realizing that in every instance this is the same C major scale. I have had students that can sight-sing very well using solfège and yet continually miss partials when playing the trombone, or that are adept at chord analysis but fail to correctly play arpeggios on the tuba. Later in the curriculum, students that learn the characteristic interpretive traits of music from different periods fail to apply that knowledge when preparing assigned music from the same periods for performance.

Again, the major part of the solution to this problem is being aware of it. Students, there is only one C major scale, whether you’re writing it, singing it, playing it on the piano, or playing it on the euphonium! Late Baroque music shares certain interpretive qualities whether you’re listening to a Bach suite or playing a transcription of the same suite on the trombone. Strive to make these connections—you’ll save some brain power and give more informed performances, as well!

Playing Fundamentals versus Playing “Real Music”

Moving on to considerations within the realm of applied music, students too often have disparities between the ways that they play fundamental exercises and the ways that they play “real music.” While I am aware that the consistent and rarely altered “daily routine” has fallen upon hard times with some teachers and players, I continue to both practice and promote this “Remingtonian” concept. While not all of my students “buy into” it as fully as I would like, those that do find their playing to be greatly enhanced by it.

And yet, many students sound markedly better when playing long tones and other fundamental exercises than they do when playing their assigned solos, etudes, and excerpts—sometimes that difference is even present between the simpler fundamental exercises and the more complex ones. While the promotion of relaxed breathing and blowing, efficient use of the tongue and lips, and good timing throughout all of this is easy when playing simple exercises, these positive traits are too often not transferred to other playing assignments, instead being discarded in favor of unhelpful tensions once the difficulties of “real music” are introduced.

The solution here is not as simple as thinking “don’t tense up.” That works about as well as saying “don’t think about giraffes.” (What are you thinking about now? Be honest!) Instead, have students cultivate that relaxed, efficient, and well-timed approach during the daily routine, and encourage them to make “mental notes” of how this approach “feels.” Then, when unwanted tensions begin to creep in, have students remember, visualize, and apply the better approach to playing used (and reviewed each day) during the daily routine. This positive (“do this”) way of thinking is much more effective than the negative (“don’t do that”) one.

“Classical” versus “Commercial” Playing: Not “Reinventing the Wheel”

While most brass players will follow career paths that lie predominantly in either the “classical” or “commercial” realms, these days the player is rare that can entirely avoid doing at least some work in both. Students do realize this, and many actively try to develop their skills in both arenas. Still, their development is hindered when they fail to realize that these styles are at least as similar (if not more so) as they are different. Just today I demonstrated for a student how the same scale studies we play every week—normally with a more or less “orchestral” approach to sound and articulation—take on an entirely different character when given more of a “jazz” inflection. Indeed, those very studies can provide “licks” to use in improvisation! One of my favorite anecdotes heard in a master class is one from Wycliffe Gordon, who recalled Wynton Marsalis giving him a copy of the Technical Studies by Herbert L. Clarke (1867-1945) and telling him to “get to work!” As originally intended, the Clarke studies are hardly a picture of jazzy excitement, yet they formed one piece of the technically brilliant jazz playing that we have come to expect from Gordon and his students.

I do not mean here to minimize the important differences between the “classical” and “commercial” approaches. The former brings with it a program of study consisting of both new and established solo works as well as excerpts of important pieces from the orchestral canon. The latter requires more time spent memorizing shorter tunes and their changes—in all keys—and learning to improvise interesting and appropriate melodic material “on the fly.” Time constraints alone will prevent practically every player from fully mastering both approaches. Nevertheless, when the similarities between the two are recognized and appreciated, specialists in either realm can learn to “switch hit” at least reasonably well, having realized that the differences between the two rarely constitute entirely different musical “languages,” but are frequently matters merely of inflection, of “dialect.” As with everything that I have discussed today, the vital thing is to know where there are similarities and where there are differences, sharing (with yourself!) knowledge and techniques where those similarities exist, and thus freeing up energy, time, and effort to address differences.

Transfer of knowledge (and skills). Such a vitally important yet often lost concept!

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About Micah Everett

Micah Everett is Associate Professor of Music (Trombone/Low Brass) at the University of Mississippi, Principal Trombonist of the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, Bass Trombonist of the Great River Trombone Quartet, Assistant Editor (Audio/Video Reviews) for the International Trombone Association Journal, and an S.E. Shires trombone artist. He is the author of THE LOW BRASS PLAYER'S GUIDE TO DOUBLING, published by Mountain Peak Music, and released his first solo recording, STEPPING STONES FOR BASS TROMBONE, VOL. 1, on the Potenza Music label in 2015. In addition to his professional work, he maintains an avid interest in the study of the Bible and of Reformed theology. He holds doctoral and master's degrees in music from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, a bachelor's degree in music education from Delta State University, and a certificate in systematic theology from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. The ideas and opinions expressed here are not necessarily shared by the employers and organizations with which the author is associated.
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