“How it Goes:” a Missing Element in Many Students’ Thinking

During several low brass lessons last week I observed students that were playing their solo pieces or exercises reasonably well (not great) and then would suddenly stop after a minor problem and spend several seconds trying to regroup before continuing. Sometimes a student would even have to experiment with two or more different starting pitches before settling on the correct one and continuing to play. For the most part, there were no problems with fingerings and only minor issues with articulation. Rhythm was problematic in some cases, and in others not. It quickly became evident to me that these students were playing their assigned music without thinking about pitch at all. They were concerned with fingerings and mechanical issues of the air, tongue, and embouchure, but would only consciously engage their senses of pitch when an obvious problem arose. These are students that do reasonably well in sight-singing and ear training courses, but fail to apply these skills when playing their major instruments. To say that this is a serious problem is an understatement!

I have sometimes half-jokingly said that one could be completely tone-deaf and be a marginally successful high school performer on any woodwind or percussion instrument, as well as piano and guitar. As long as one plays with good rhythm, correct fingerings (or sticking, or hitting the correct bars), and correct airflow (where applicable) the correct notes will “come out.” On brass instruments, however, there are multiple notes available for each fingering, and the player is responsible for hearing and “buzzing” the correct pitch. The “buzz” is the source of the pitch; the role of correct fingering is to make the instrument the length that it needs to be in order to resonate on that pitch. It is true that the natural harmonics of the instrument will help to correct a buzz that is “close” but not entirely precise, but the resulting sound will not be entirely satisfactory, and in parts of the range where the different partials are closer together, the player is as likely to find an incorrect note as a correct one. In order to play with complete precision, the brass player must “hear” the note “in his head” before playing. More importantly, the player needs to hear that pitch in the context of a broader mental picture of “how it goes.”

What I Mean By “How it Goes”

When a student’s playing suggests this particular problem, I immediately tell him or her that “you need to think about ‘how it goes.’” The look I receive in return is invariably one of perplexity. After all, “how it goes” is an imprecise and even colloquial expression, and the student is trying to execute the complicated physical task of playing a piece of music that itself might be very challenging. And yet, this complexity is at the root of the problem. The player is trying to think of breathing, and articulation, and embouchure, and fingering, and perhaps other minute physical actions, not realizing that none of us is smart enough to think about all of these things at once, and even if we could do so this complex thought process crowds out any conscious thought about how the music should sound, or “how it goes.” In order to be successful, the brass player must approach each piece of music with an overarching idea of how he wants the piece to sound, and keep that idea in mind while playing. This idea includes pitch, as well as breathing, articulation, dynamic levels, phrasing, and even the vowel shapes used when moving between registers.

In short, I use the term “how it goes” to describe a very simple mental concept of how the player wants the piece to sound, a concept which, paradoxically, includes all of the minute details involved in performance on a musical instrument.

The beauty of this way of thinking is that the conscious mind is engaged not in trying to micromanage these individual elements of playing, but in conceiving of a unified musical concept, with the tasks of execution relegated as much as possible to subconscious thought. If the player is practicing correctly, most or all of the physical work of playing will be handled just fine without the player burdening himself with trying to consciously control all of the minute bodily movements that are used when playing. Instead, the player is freed to pursue his “musical” aims, even in the most “technical” of pieces.

Developing the “How it Goes” Concept: Listening

We live in a day of unprecedented availability of recorded music. Recordings of the greatest players on any instrument can be easily purchased or (legally) downloaded. Even many student works have been professionally recorded by leading professionals, and those that have not been can be found on YouTube and similar services, though the available recordings are of varying quality. A number of works have accompaniment parts available for practice using services like SmartMusic. There is no reason that a student should be ignorant of how a solo work assigned for performance sounds when he first approaches it in the practice room; he should indeed have a fair idea not only of how his part sounds but how it fits with the accompaniment (where applicable). Recordings of a few études can even be found these days!

Students assigned to perform a solo work should immediately find as many recordings of the work as possible, listening to different interpretations while also developing a more general idea of “how it goes,” including the solo part itself as well as the relationship between the solo and accompanying parts. If performing a transcription of a work originally for another instrument, listen to performers on the original instrument in order to develop a more authentic interpretation.

Developing the “How it Goes” Concept: Singing

Singing is perhaps an even more important part of this process than listening. When a student has pitch problems with a solo or exercise he is playing, my first question is “can you sing this?” Invariably, the student claims to be unable to do so, and usually admits to never having tried. Granted, some pieces of music involve extremes of range that are impossible to sing, but using falsetto or introducing octave displacements as needed eliminates this problem. In any case, if a student cannot sing an exercise with at least a moderate level of accuracy, he will not fare much better when trying to play the exercise on the instrument. Singing is a key element to developing the concept of “how it goes.”

How should the student sing? At first the assistance of a piano should be used as liberally as needed, perhaps even for every note. Eventually, though, the student will want to move to using the piano only for a starting pitch and occasional reference pitches. Besides, unless a student has exceptionally good piano skills he will not be able to play his solo part with rhythmic precision, and such precision is needed for singing to be an effective tool to learning “how it goes.”

Regarding what syllables or words to sing, a mix of solfège and “brass syllables” should be used. Singing pieces using solfège is extremely helpful in developing precise pitch, but using more neutral “brass syllables,” by which I mean the consonants (“tah,” “dah,” etc.) and vowels (“aw,” “oh,” “ah,” “oo,” “ee,” etc.) used to effect different articulations and ranges on brass instruments, is also an important part of developing a concept of “how it goes.” When playing a transcription of a vocal work, singing the text—in the original language—is also vital, as doing so helps the player to internalize and communicate both the meaning of the text and the inflections indicated by the diction of that text in its original tongue.

When singing, always do so with the utmost expressivity. Practicing phrasing and expression this way will make the task of doing so on the instrument significantly easier.

The Daily Routine: A Prerequisite for Successful Use of the “How it Goes” Concept

By the time a player has listened to recordings of an assigned piece (where possible) and learned to sing it reasonably well, he should have a pretty good idea of “how it goes.” Of course, he must still be able to realize that concept on the instrument. For this, I must return to one of my usual “hobby horses” as a brass teacher: the importance of extensive, comprehensive, daily work on playing fundamentals. Playing a brass instrument requires efficient and precise usage of the body, but effective interpretation of a piece of music is impossible when one is overwhelmed with thinking about the physical act of playing. A daily fundamentals routine occupying 20-50% or more of the day’s practice time will give the player the opportunity to focus upon and develop his physical ability to play the instrument. Then, when moving on to “real music” he is able to forego most thinking about how to play and instead focusing on what he is playing and how it should sound. In other words, “how it goes.”

Conclusion: “Song and Wind”

Those familiar with the history and development of brass pedagogy will see nothing new in what I have written here. It is in large measure simply a repackaging of the “Song and Wind” concept taught so eloquently by former Chicago Symphony Orchestra tubist and renowned pedagogue Arnold Jacobs (1915-1998). Mr. Jacobs spoke of 85% of brass playing being comprised of “song,” or a mental picture of how a piece should sound, and the other 15% of “wind,” using the air to fuel the vibration of the lips. My clumsier expression “how it goes” is not unlike Mr. Jacobs’s “song” in that it is an overall concept of how a piece of music should sound. Whichever term one uses, the essential contours of the approach remain. Players should develop their fundamental playing skills to a high level using a comprehensive daily routine, and after that leave behind most or all thought of how one uses the body when playing, since such thinking can prevent efficient and expressive musicianship. Instead, the player should listen and sing, developing a solid concept of how he wants a piece of music to sound, and then when it is time to play simply envision that sound, take a deep breath of air, and play that sound. The result is more accurate playing, playing which is more pleasing to the listener, and playing which is more enjoyable for the player.

Just think of “how it goes,” and do it!

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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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