I am fortunate to work with a wide range of trombone and euphonium players, from beginner to college music major, numbering 40 to 50 players each week. Despite a large number of students, the problems that we face in private lessons are relatively narrow in scope. I believe that the root of most playing problems come from the first year or two of studying the instrument.
It was Abraham Lincoln who said, "Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe." For brass players, "sharpening the axe" encompasses a range of skills that must be consistently addressed to ensure continued improvement.
If you teach, ask yourself this question: "Am I doing everything I can to prepare this student for the next leg of their journey, or am I teaching for what is convenient now?
"Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe." - Abraham Lincoln
Take a second and let that quote sink in.
Can you apply this quote to your classroom or private studio?
How many of us feel so much pressure for our students to produce right now that we roll our sleeves up and start hacking away at the tree before we check to see if the axe is sharp? I spent a good portion of my 20-plus years of playing the instrument this way, and I am pretty sure that I don't stand alone. If you are a middle school or junior high band director, consider the following.
While you diligently drill the Greatest Ensemble Warmup Ever Written © each day, are you cultivating the richest, most characteristic sounds for each instrument? Is it worth spending the rehearsal time blending a Concert F between instruments if the tone is under-supported and weak? If they don't know what to strive for, they are reaching out in the dark.
As always, there is more than one path to success. My suggestions below are based on my own eyewitness view of the process.
There must be a model for each instrument to follow. Ideally, a private lesson instructor or masterclass teacher for each instrument could serve as this model, but if lesson teachers are not available or outside of your budget, there is a rich collection of recordings available to help you, from commercially produced recordings to Youtube (caveat emptor). Play music as they enter the band room for class, and before sectionals. Have it playing in your office: you never know when something you are playing could inspire a visiting student! Whatever your model, it must be as consistent as possible.
Set realistic goals. Often, in an attempt to check things off of the list, we get ahead of ourselves and gloss over very important building blocks of instrumental playing. For example, there is no need to play lip slurs that extend into the 6th, 7th, or 8th partial if the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th partials aren't rock solid. Using this rock solid approach, any future development must be build upon what is already known. If only new things are introduced without review of previously learned material, the various skills will be part of a vast wasteland of random facts, rather than an interconnected web of applicable skills.
Give them the benefit of the doubt. Though uninitiated, they will pick up on EVERYTHING you do, both good and bad. If you look back on your school year and are unhappy with the product, there is always something that can be done to improve the outcome. It isn't the demographic. It isn't the budget. It is the approach! Are you doing your own instrument selection process? Is your staff aligned to teach the same things to all students, or do students receive different messages with each teacher? Though it might appear on the surface as burning up valuable practice time, taking time to align these things will make all the difference when you DO get to the music.
As always, I welcome your thoughts and ideas in the comment section below!
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