It is with some trepidation that I publish this post as the subject matter is still very much a work in progress for myself and my students, but I’m now confident with the improvements and results in general that I have decided to go ahead anyway. I always asked the great John Wilbraham why he didn’t write a book. He said people would only get it wrong! I would be interested in readers thoughts, too.
Do you remember the age old instruction to young brass players to ‘sing’ as they play? My early teachers were keen on getting me to learn the words and singing them musically in my head as I learned to play.
Ever since I have studied at Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester I have wondered about the benefits and the styles of ear training that I hear about out there. At Chetham’s I found myself beginning each school day with a small class under-going aural training for one hour each morning. The system used was largely based on the style of solfeg training published in the 333 sight reading excercises by Zoltan Kodaly. The teachers had been trained in this system in Hungary and I found myself making some progress back then. I was also very impressed that the other pupils who had been at the school for a while seemed to have a high proportion who had developed perfect pitch.
After three years, I left Chetham’s to undertake four years study at the Royal College of Music in London. I think we had aural training about once a week. I can’t remember whether it was for one hour or 30 minutes back then, but the lessons were based around the material ‘Elementary Training’ by Paul Hindemith. I didn’t progress so quickly with this system and, in fact, decided that it was a bit of a waste of time. Perhaps that said more about me than the system.
Over the years, I have always been impressed with my jazz colleagues, who can play ‘anything’ without music, or so it seems to me. I do a bit of teaching these days, aside from an extremely busy playing and practicing schedule. I only teach advanced students, really. Those who want to be pro trumpeters or those who are doing university degrees specialising in the trumpet etc. I had started to notice that although all students made rapid progress, but those who progressed quickest appear to be the ones who have a good ‘ear.’ Conversely, I noticed that those who were struggling appeared to be lacking training in this area. Everyone has the ability to develop their musical ‘ear’ – some have a higher concentration of development in these aspects of playing than others.
So I decided to look into this and do something about it. I always to do what I teach myself, as a matter of principle. Therefore I decided to improve my own sense of pitch and ear whilst studying with my students. The results have been encouraging. I have been studying myself with an internationally renowned teacher who himself studied in what has become known as the Arnold Jacobs School of teaching from Chicago. I have always been impressed with Jacobs’ concepts, which is why I study with a renowned student of his. The concepts of ‘Song and Wind’ taught by the students of Jacobs appears to be working very well for me and my students and I think I have a good grasp why. Going back to the subject of this post, I decided to choose the ear training system with which I had found success, the Kodaly ‘method’. I subsequently found that all the books on Jacobs and those by his students all seem to recommend this same system. There are quotes from Jacobs himself recommending this as a good way to proceed.
Let me just digress for a paragraph and explain why I think this system gets results and works better than others I know of. Singing and brass playing are very similar in so many ways. We are the only types of musical performance groups were the sound is produced entirely inside our bodies. By this, if someone walks over to a piano and presses a key, the desired pitch is produced, or put your fingers on a guitar in the correct place, strum and the required chord will be produced. With singing and brass playing the sound has to be created by sending instructions from the brain to produce the relevant sphincter to vibrate. In the case of singing, air is blown to the vocal cords to make them vibrate and in the case of brass playing, air is blown to the lips to instigate vibration. Control over pitch is basically determined by the actions of the surrounding muscles in both cases. To have any chance of producing the required pitch, a good ‘ear’ (this slang term should really say brain not ‘ear’) is essential, really. The better the player’s command of these aural abilities the easier it will be to play correct pitches. I think that singing solfege, away from the brass instrument, is a first class way of developing pitch. Mouthpiece practice, for me, is an equivalent form of solfege for the brass player, whereby the brain has to instruct the player to play correct pitches. This ability has to be learned in the same way that a child learns to speak, through imitation and memory basically. I am finding great benefits becoming apparent by combining singing solfege and mouthpiece buzzing whilst ‘singing’ solfege in the head at the same time.
I find the best book available for information on how the physics of brass playing works is ‘Teaching Brass’ by Kristian Steenstrup. A must for any brass player’s library!
So, for about ten – fifteen minutes each morning, I sit at the piano with my Kodaly book and my trumpet mouthpiece. I do two pages each day and encourage my students to do the same. The pages alternate between a page where the musical pitch is given and the student has to work out the solfeg names in his head and a page where the solfeg names are given and the musical pitch must be worked out in the brain. I don’t think there is any particular magic in these exercises. Any hymn book or whatever will do. It is how it is done that matters! I always check the pitch by sounding ‘Do’ on the piano before I start (no matter which pitch the exercise begins with -I find it beneficial to work out the pitch from sounding Do alone) and when I finish each exercise. For the reasons given in the previous paragraph I play each excercise twice. I sing the first version as musically as possible to the solfeg names. On the repetition, I play them by buzzing on the trumpet mouthpiece and thinking the singing solfeg names in my head at the same time.
I can already imagine some cynics out there saying this is all a waste of time, but I am finding the results to be very impressive. Not just with my students, but in my own playing. It gets the brain going quickly as I warm up. It is great ear training and gets my lips vibrating nicely and quickly in the morning. When I pick up my trumpet, I am making my best sound right away after this. Mouthpiece playing will do no harm whatsoever, I assure you. To those who say they don’t have time to execute this sort of routine, my response would have to be to get up fifteen minutes earlier, as I do.
Choral Method – 333 Reading Exercises, by Zoltan Kodaly – published by Boosey & Hawkes (My copy was about £3 on Amazon)