Teaching a Musical Instrument


I once witnessed a Master Class where the so-called Master taught a student unfamiliar with playing as the subject in a Master’s Class. Needless to say, the student started with performance anxieties. As a result, he needed a little experience to learn how to relax and produce what he normally produced, what he usually played. Just a minute or two would have given him security to face the rather imposing Master.

However, this teacher did something I considered rude, mean, and most unsuccessful and inappropriate, despite this man’s reputation and teaching position at a University. In short his so called teaching failed miserably and accomplished nothing but creating an unanswered puzzle for the lifetime of the student. “What was that man trying to get at?” Well, you could not tell.

Here is what he did: the student played only one or two notes and the Master stopped him, each and every attempt to play. The so-called master then talked around the issue of starting the tone, desired tone and his idea of how to approach the first note. All of his instruction either reiterated standard ideas of playing, contributing little to the students already fairly advanced understanding, or he spoke in such vague terms one could only wonder what he might be getting at. In the above Master Class the conclusion of the Master was that the student needed a Greg Black mouthpiece: then his troubles with tone production would be resolved and he would learn how to play the trombone. I've never witnessed more ineffective teaching. He never gave the student a chance to overcome his jitters! A waste of time and effort.


Many years ago Urbie Green demonstrated the futility of that approach, at a Master class during an International Trombone Workshop, with students and certain other notables in the trombone world in the audience. The discussion in this masterclass centered fairly quickly around using proper equipment. Just as in the above case, several in the audience concerned themselves with they feeling that the student should not play without a good trombone. Meanwhile, Urbie focused his teaching on helping the student bring out his natural musicianship.

After a while of interruptions and obvious disagreement from some in the audience, Urbie left the stage. He then found the instrument storage room of the school we used, and eventually emerged with a poor example of a student trombone. There was a rhythm section on stage and they proceeded to accompany Urbie Green, who played as well, as beautifully as he always did, on the “beater” as it was called.


Sitting next to Philip Farkas on a bus, traveling through France to Switzerland for a couple of lucky hours, Mr. Farkas commented to me on this subject and the unfortunate mistake that focus on equipment can be. He said one never knows what lies ahead, what circumstance may befall a person. Learning to play an instrument has to do with learning how to learn to understand playing the instrument. Whether you play on a piece of $250 cheap brass horn or a $5,000 horn, the principals, the movement, sensations remain consistent. We may encounter slightly different sensations depending upon the instrument, as all instruments are different. However, unless you understand breathing, embouchure, tonging, control over harmonics or overtones, slurring, playing scales and arpeggios and relaxed endurance, you will never play well, no matter what equipment you chose to play. Mr. Farkas had seen Urbie Green do his "beater" playing in other Master classes. He said, “What a great way to get the message across.” So, he urged, the next time someone tells you to try other equipment, have pity on all musicians and refocus your activities on leaning how to play and make excellent music!

Technique will follow. Technique is not fixed, i.e. once you develop it, that does not guarantee you will use the same technique over a lifetime. You probably won't.


There is something profound about the human experience exampled here. Teaching is an art and not at all about telling. One can instruct, impart information, show, (not show off!) and critique, but bottom line the teacher is there only to act as a sort of conductor, or facilitator bringing out the student’s awareness, curiosity and learning skills. Certainly, the role of teacher never fosters his/her way as the only way.


Denis Wick, the English trombonist humorously describes the problem with teaching:

The players/teachers do what they do; they tell the student what they think they do; the students think they heard what the teachers said about what they think they do; the students then try to do what they think the teachers said about what they think they do.

-Denis Wick, Retired Principle Trombonist, London Symphony Orchestra


The result of making music should create the most beautiful sounds possible. Once one can realize that a well placed ugly sound can be beautiful, one should have no problem with this definition and approach. As discussed in earlier blog posts, we hardwire our individual vocabulary, an understanding sound, by the time we are 11-12. Making music is at least 140,000 years old. So, it is in our DNA. When we produce good music the good feelings that follow can transform us, some say to paradise. So clearly, beauty, goodness, creativity, healthy activity - these constitute major reasons for indulging in daily practice and performance.

Teaching should foster these qualities and oppose shaming. That is what the above teacher example used for his approach. Any teaching action contrary to these goals becomes counter productive.

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