Spotlight on brass
As we look forward to publishing a new Brass syllabus later this year, three educators share their thoughts on a range of brass learning and teaching issues.
Mum, please can I play the trumpet?
When should a child start?
For many years there has been a misconception that children should not begin to learn a brass instrument until their adult front teeth have appeared. This has resulted in many children waiting for their first lesson whilst their classmates are already becoming accomplished pianists and violinists. Fortunately, research has shown that brass mouthpieces rest on the gums rather than the teeth and that unless a child is going to play for many hours a day - possibly in excess of six - no damage will be done. So, learning a brass instrument can start as soon as the child has the physical strength to handle the instrument.
Which instrument is best?
It is not necessarily the larger instruments that are the most difficult to handle - supporting a baritone or euphonium that rests on the chair is less strenuous than holding an unbalanced trumpet. I prefer children to play their instrument of choice, but in reality some learners find it easier to produce the sound on a larger mouthpiece than a smaller one. If the student is desperate to play the cornet but is more suited to a tuba then you will need to negotiate, maybe agreeing to reassess after a short period of time (two weeks or a month). Most children are good at self evaluating and will be the first to suggest that perhaps, after all, they should try the tuba.
Is this a G?
Brass instruments require the player to physically create each pitched sound. Before they can play any note they have to develop and strengthen the correct embouchure, combine this with the right fingering and add the internal sense of knowing what it should sound like - a complex process. This means progress is slow when compared with other instruments. I would expect an average brass student to play a consistent range of a fifth after the first six months leading up to an octave by the end of the first year, although this will vary. It is worth explaining this to parents and students to ensure they have the appropriate expectations.
Can Esme learn too?
Brass instruments lend themselves well to whole class tuition or group teaching. Children who learn together are also more likely to be motivated and to feel comfortable in early lessons, and even if not played to the highest level, the sound of massed trumpets or mixed brass instruments, can be inspiring. Several years ago I started teaching three six-year-old girls. They played their trumpets with great conviction and made excellent progress, spurred on by natural competition and by supporting each other. When they joined the school orchestra it was as an entire trumpet section and much less intimidating than as solo trumpeters.
Which books do I need?
It is important to match teaching materials to the learner's own musical interests and to regularly work away from notation, allowing the music itself to become the main focus. There are many tutor and repertoire books to explore. Some have good backing tracks; some offer many pieces within a limited range - great for consolidating learning; others provide popular performance pieces. ABRSM's books of Music Medals Ensemble Pieces (for Copper and Bronze) are also an invaluable resource, providing cleverly written and arranged, graduated duets, trios and quartets which children enjoy playing. I also use the interactive Charanga Music learning resources, which provide a wealth of possibilities such as being able to alter the tempo of the piece and mute the solo instrument so you have a backing track.
Brass instruments have been designed to rouse and invigorate nations and to draw people together. They have the power and audacity to silence an entire orchestra. Learning to play a brass instrument can never be described as an understated, lonely or quiet activity, and there is no doubt that it can be a hugely rewarding experience for all concerned.
In the exam
Examining for over 20 years for ABRSM, whilst playing and teaching brass, has given me a wide perspective on how candidates approach their exams. The most common issue is one of stamina. There is a vital connection between breathing and the ability to vary pitch, and one of the first casualties in a tense situation is the breathing system. As teachers we should deal with breath control and tension, but too often the embouchure is called on to compensate, and that destructive element, pressure, intervenes resulting in an unresponsive lip.
We can minimise this problem in a number of ways: plan a programme that doesn't focus too much on a high tessitura; consider using the option of doing aural tests after the first two (accompanied) pieces; and reduce any pre-exam warm-up to exercises that will leave the lip fresh and ready.
Sight-reading is another area worth looking at. In particular, you should encourage your students to use the 30 second preparation time wisely, by playing the first note and any wide intervals that they see in the extract.
As examiners we want candidates to do well and are ever hopeful of being impressed. It is such a shame to witness a talented player fall victim to fatigue, or not use available strategies to boost their marks.
Breathing and posture
For brass players, how you blow out and, just as importantly, how you breathe in, can make all the difference to tone quality, attack and stamina. I have noticed many students stand or sit with the small of the back arched forward, particularly when holding an instrument up to the mouth. This means the head is pulled back, tension gathers in the throat and neck, and it is impossible to open up the rib cage to admit the air to the bottom of the lungs. They should, instead, tilt the top of the body slightly forward - weight firmly on the feet if standing, bottom and thighs relaxing into the chair if sitting - with the small of the back going back, solidly. This makes it possible to open up the ribs and inhale - through an open mouth - a much deeper breath. The diaphragm can then be used to much greater effect.
This is a subject that deserves further research and discussion. Some things are certain, though: if you get your breathing under control, it will give confidence, improve every aspect of your playing and help to overcome nerves.
Ian Lowes is a French Horn player and teacher. He is an ABRSM examiner and member of ABRSM's professional development panel.
Christina Thomson is a French Horn player, and horn and brass teacher. She is an ABRSM examiner and member of ABRSM's professional development panel.
This article was featured in the January 2012 edition of Libretto, the journal of ABRSM.