tenet (ten' it), noun: a principle, doctrine, or belief held as truth

Welcome to my blog! Here I will share some of my thoughts on horn playing and teaching, which I think about a lot, and maybe some other things, too. Since my job (which thankfully, allows me to do a lot of playing and teaching) keeps me very busy, as does my wonderful family, I may not write frequently. My goal will be quality, not quantity!

Please share your comments.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Teach technique or music?

I recently took Nathan Stark's survey about accuracy on the horn. Any horn players/teachers are invited to participate. Some of the questions and response choices got me thinking about the different approaches some teachers take.

Some teachers are very "technique-oriented." They spend lots of time explaining things like airspeed and tongue position, and how the lips should move a certain way, etc. Others are very "music-oriented." They spend most of their lessons talking about what the mood of this piece is, and what childhood memory that brings to mind, and telling students to close their eyes and imagine the scene - then "play the scene," or to play this like your girlfriend just dumped you, etc.

Truthfully, most of us fall somewhere in between. In my own teaching, I make use of both tactics, but I definitely lean strongly towards the "technique-oriented" model. This is certainly influenced by the fact that most of my students are young undergraduates who have had little private instruction before they get to me. If I were teaching mostly grad students with already polished technique, then I'm sure I would spend more time waxing poetic about musical metaphors.

However, even in my own practicing, I am very "technique-oriented." I know many musicians believe that if you focus on the music, the technique will take care of itself, but I believe if you focus on the proper technique, then the music will take care of itself - sort of. Please keep reading...

We've all heard technically impeccable performances that were extremely dull and boring. That certainly isn't what I want. The desired result is a musically moving experience for your audience (if you enjoy it too, that's a bonus). The technique must serve the music. The technique is a means to an end. If I have the greatest musical intentions in the world, but I don't have the technique to execute them, then those intentions are useless.

I remember reading an article by Pip Eastop a long time ago that stuck with me, called "Vanishing Technique." In it he talks about his obsession in his own teaching with technique, so that his students can make whatever music they want, and neither they nor the audience is distracted by the technique involved. His website is really great, and I highly recommend that you check it out.

Focus obsessively on technique in your practice, so that your performance can be as musical as possible.

(Disclaimer: My primary job is to help my students become good musicians. Since they've chosen the horn as their musical medium, I must help them become good horn players in order to make good music. I do spend time equipping them with good musical sense, and helping them develop their musical instincts.)

When I'm performing, music is much more my focus (as long as I've practiced properly), but I'm also thinking lots of technical thoughts, too. There are times when I get so "in the zone" that it's like I'm a member of the audience, just enjoying the music like everyone else, but this is the minority of the time. My job is to give the audience a good musical experience. Like I said before, if I enjoy it too (which I usually do), then that's a bonus.

The magician isn't as spellbound as the audience, because he knows how the trick is done. And he's busy doing it!


  1. NIce post. As I get back into shape, I find myself thinking about this issue a lot. I want to play music, but I have to have technique and fitness to do so, but I want to work on technique and fitness musically, but to do that I have to focus on technique itself so that I can play Mozart musically but also correct technically, but I don't want to be robotic so I....

    Well, you get the idea. I try to make every note I play as technically sound and musically interesting as I can, whether my intention in practice is musical or technical. Even long tones and buzzing need a musical intention.

  2. I can't remember where I heard this or who said it but I quote this to students:

    "In order to create the ultimate art, you must have ultimate technique."

    It's great if you can speak Spanish, but if your pronunciation is terrible no one will understand you.

    I agree that some teachers like to really focus on musicianship. This works great for students with strong technical skills. For the rest, it is not so great.

    Great post.