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.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

How Much Should a Teacher Play in Lessons?

     I'm a little behind on my Horn Call reading.  Recently, I was reading James Boldin's interview with Douglas Hill in the February 2011 issue (Vol. XLI, No. 2).  This quote caught my eye.  Discussing what it takes to be a successful, effective teacher, Hill says...

"Developing verbal skills is important, and maybe even developing vocal skills, or demonstration skills. I don't demonstrate much on the horn, mostly because I'm not asking people to imitate. If you rarely play for students in lessons, the best sounds come from them. I'm not denouncing imitation - it's useful for many things - but we can get that by listening to CDs." (p. 50)

     I was surprised that he said he doesn't play much in lessons.  I try to play some in every lesson I teach. Usually this happens in any of 3 ways:

  1. When I assign a new etude, I usually play all or part of it to demonstrate tempo, style, etc.
  2. I'll play duets with my students, to work on sight reading, intonation, etc.
  3. I'll demonstrate a passage that they need to improve in an etude or solo.

     I agree with Prof. Hill that verbal and vocal skills are very important.  I try to explain things verbally in the clearest way possible, and I encourage my students to develop this type of vocabulary too, since most of them will become teachers themselves in some way.  I also sing in lessons a lot.  (Maybe more than my students would prefer!).  But, many times, if I play something on the horn, it can save a lot of talking and singing.  A picture's worth a thousand words.
     I also get what he's saying when he says if the teacher doesn't play much, then "the best sounds come from them" (the student).  Some students may get discouraged when they've worked on something so hard, and then their teacher picks up the horn cold and plays it even better.
     The amount of demonstrating I do on the horn depends partly on the level of the student I'm working with.  Do they already have the musical "vision" inside them?  (i.e. a crystal clear idea of the sound, tempo, style they're after).  I've heard of other situations where a teacher plays along with the student on almost everything, particularly with younger students.
     Looking back on my own experience as a student, I studied with William Capps at FSU for two years, and never heard him play a note.  Yet, I learned a tremendous amount from him about horn playing, and especially about musicianship.
     In the quote above, Prof. Hill also mentioned listening to CDs for an example to imitate.  This is super important. Since I don't take regular lessons anymore, this is how I stay motivated.  Occasionally, I find I've started to get a little complacent, and I need a reminder of what our instrument is really capable of.  Listen to as much great horn playing as you can, via CDs, iTunes, YouTube, horn workshops, etc.  Soak up that sound and use it to hone your musical vision.
     I'd like to hear what your experiences and philosophies are about how much playing a teacher should do in lessons.  Please comment!


  1. I agree with your point of view, Travis. CDs are great, but they aren't "in your face" the way someone next to you is. The student has to hear what it should sound like "up close," because that is usually the only place we hear ourselves.

    I try to avoid at all costs showing off, and will only resort to that if the student is really clueless or has attitude. Most of the time I'm just trying to demonstrate one way (my way) to solve a particular musical problem. If the student has his or her own way which works just as well, all the better.

    Playing duets with the student is an awesome way to communicate style and musicianship while still allowing autonomy. Plus, it keeps you in shape! Highly recommended.

  2. Except in seventh grade, I've never had a horn teacher play in lessons much except for duet excerpts like Beethoven 8. Consequently, any time I'd hear my teacher actually play, it was a wake up call: as in "wow, I need to practice if I want to sound that good." Another similar experience was hearing the professors' ensemble at the southeast horn workshop. In retrospect, I think I would have liked to hear my teachers pay more often. Other students may not need it as much. Different strokes for different folks.

  3. Great discussion, Travis. I've only been teaching horn for a few years. I hardly played at all with my first horn student, except for little passages here & there. I don't remember what prompted it, but one day, we played thru an etude together. The student gave me feedback that this was tremendously helpful and I have to agree based upon the almost instant improvements I saw in his performance. Then I got my second horn student. When I tried this "successful" approach with her, it back fired! She really seemed to resent it, as if I were dominating HER lesson with MY playing! I believe we have to be flexible & willing to try different approaches with different students. I agree that listening to recordings isn't always the best way. When I started one student on her first Mozart solo, she came to her next lesson totally frustrated after listening to a lightening fast performance on YouTube. "You really think I can do that?" she asked incredulously. I took her through the piece slowly, one mini phrase at a time. First I'd play, then she'd imitate. She felt a lot more confident in her abilities after that.


  4. I agree with Roger Kaza; playing duets is a great way to interact with students.

    I will always be grateful to my first horn teacher in high school who insisted on playing those "Amsden's Celebrated Practice Duets" at the end of every lesson. It taught me a LOT about style and tremendously helped my sightreading. We'd switch parts regularly.

  5. Well, for sure it depends on the student, the kind of repertoire and the schedule of the repertoire.
    With the young students I play a lot because usually they have difficulties on knowing the pitch of the notes. With the older I try to explain by words and only play when I feel they are not understanding. I do this on the beginning of a new repertoire, but more they are near a concert or exam, I "step out" and avoid playing in the classes.
    Most of all I think the teacher should be able to know the student, specially in individual lessons, because some understand better with words and some with music. One aspect I really believe the teacher should play always is when doing warm up, with scales, metronome to give the example. Students tend to give more importance to solo repertoire and forget the scales and exercises, and here I really think is not enough only say you should warm up and practice scales with metronome. Is useful take some specific classes and play this technical aspects with the student to give the example.

  6. My teacher John Zirbel played in many of my lessons. I absolutely loved it. Firstly, because his sound is just... the most beautiful thing I've ever heard. I was really striving to sound like that. Hearing him on CD and live with the Montreal Symphony is great, but there is something about sitting there one on one in a lesson and hearing him play. We focused mostly on sound and nuance. And hearing him do those things and having me mimic back at him -- more valuable than any verbal cues.

    My undergrad teacher didn't play as much. I didn't need it in the same way then, however. With him, I focused on improving technique, getting better at the horn. I knew what those things sounded like and I knew how to phrase. With Zirbel, I was searching for my sound and my artistry. What better way, than to hear from the master?

  7. I guess my view is somewhat different than most... I don't think that horn teachers should always play the pitches for their beginners, nor do I think their playing should dominate the lesson. The student then becomes reliant on that "pitch finder" and is hindered when trying to play on the correct pitch themselves. I do think, however, that the teacher should play some in order that the student hear the necessary tone. My beginning teacher never played, so I am mostly successful with pitches, but I have to work on my tone. Now (as a high schooler), I prefer to hear my newer teacher play so that I can hear the nuances and articulations that I lack. I can definitely see both sides of the argument, though.