Over the past several months I have been thinking more and more about the idea of equating learning a musical instrument - especially a brass instrument, to that of learning a foreign language. While developing and discussing this concept in depth with James Thompson during one of my recent lesson he mentioned an article by Dr. Aaron Witek, Instructor of Trumpet at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, where he addressed a similar idea of utilizing Active Listening to improve a player's playing. In this article, he addressed the idea for a player to improve all aspects of their playing by focusing on these categories: Tone, Vibrato, Phrasing and Dynamics, Style, and Rhythm. This is exactly the idea that I was addressing in my personal study with James Thompson with my students.
Dr. Witek addressed wonderful ideas and, in my opinion, he hit the "nail on the head" with a break down of how a player should address these ideas of using Active Listening. Although, if I may add one detail to what he may have left out in his article. When we approach the idea of Active Listening, a young player is often very impressionable on what they hear and where they get their information. Dr. Witek does address getting information from various sources, but in many ways younger players will process what information comes to them first. In my application of this idea I like to equate this to the idea of learning a foreign language. If you were to study a foreign language, you would want to learn that language from someone who has spent either years utilizing that language in their lives or grew up around that language. I personally grew up in Southwest Virginia, so I would assume no one would want to learn second-hand french from me. I grew up in a household where the word Y'all and Yonder were apart of the everyday vernacular. If I were to teach someone a foreign language - lets take french for this example - they would learn to pronounce things in that new language in the same manner I did.
In terms of applying this concept to learning a foreign language and brass playing, a student would want to learn from a teacher whom has established him or herself as someone who has shown they have somewhat mastered a particular language in a real world application. This means that a brass student should draw examples in Active Listening from performers who have proven themselves in the professional performances. I understand that this statement of implied "professional performances" is very loose in its implication, but as a student we have to find a way of defining a level of performance that establishes a performer as being able to provide examples of the brass "language" at a high enough level that allows us to gain the in's and out's of this new language.
Once we have established the appropriately level of the performer, then the student should begin to pick out aspects of a particular performer that really stand out to them of being exemplary and aspects they personally need development. Examples of these aspects could be the way a player moves in and out of various registers, or even the way a player articulates. These nuances of the "language" allow for the development of personality in each player. Once a student has found several of these elements, they should being to try and replicate these idiosyncrasies in their own practice. They should record themselves and consistently switch from their practice recordings to the established professional exhibiting that selected aspect. This "trial and error" process will also allow the student to listen and tweak their application of this selected aspect. This is so similar to the way language lessons do "listen and repeat" sessions for their students.
This process should be monitored by a teacher so that the student continues to gain basic fundamentals during this process. As a growing player, students need to be refocused during their earlier years before being left to their own devices. This is to ensure that they are practicing in a safe manner and not engraining poor habits during this "listen and repeat" process. As students begin to engrain and accomplish these selected performer aspects, they are metaphorically adding these "tools" to their performance "tool box" so that they can be used in direct application of their performances. As the player progresses their "tool box" begins to gain more and more refinement and professional aspects in their playing. Think of a young student gradually growing from a small tool box to one of the larger multi-drawer tool chests that professional mechanics have in their garage. Even professional players, still find ways to get new tools added to their performance tool boxes.
Source: Witek, Aaron. "The Use of Active Listening to Help Improve Your Playing." International Trumpet Guild. 39.4 (2015): 58. Print
This year has been one crazy and exciting adventure! Throughout the past several months I have: finished my doctoral coursework, performed solos with two wind bands, gotten married, moved away from Rochester, and started to find new musical outlets and performance opportunities in the Greater Washington D.C. and Baltimore areas. These events are both really exciting and a little scary. I know for a musician moving away from where you have established roots to begin a new life, especially if you have no connections in the area, can be very scary. My wife has been working here for the past year performing in a premiere military ensemble, but for me, that stability in region is very unknown and daunting.
It has not been bad moving to the area. I have had the opportunity to make new friends in the music community around here - primarily in the premiere bands of the U.S. Army. The members of that ensemble (U.S. Army Field Band and Soldier's Chorus) are wonderful people, not just in the trumpet section, but the whole ensemble. They have reached out to get to know me and where I come from just as fast as students are when starting a new collegiate experience. Getting to know and play for them has been a great treat the first several weeks in my new home. The next step is to find new outlets to perform and teach in the area. It is always so easy in school because universities serve as a "go-to" when local ensembles are trying to find extra musicians. Being here, and not being attached to any established ensemble makes the hunt for performances that much harder. I have applied to be a music substitute teacher in my area so that I may continue to work with students and help them make music. If anything, I want to continue to be able to work in my field of study as much as possible so as to continue working on my instructional skills and keeping myself on my pedagogical toes!
My musical transplantation from Rochester to D.C./Baltimore is just beginning and with the start of a new year it also makes it much harder to step into any collegiate teaching. The only thing I can do at the present is study for my upcoming comprehensive exams to complete my degree, but also practice my butt off and find ways to present my playing to local musicians for critique and feedback. It will be a long road to travel, but keeping my head up and going for every opportunity is something that any musician in a new area must do! The adage of "good things come to those who wait" will come true!
Until next time, back to the practice room!