Art of Brass

I went to see Dale Clevenger, the former principal hornist of the Chicago Symphony, give a master class in Spring 2014 at my old stomping grounds – the New England Conservatory. I hadn’t seen any of Mr. Clevenger’s teaching before, and it ended up being a really interesting class! Before he listened to anyone play, he spoke to us directly for about half an hour. He was very passionate in his opinion that every hornist should have answers, or be thinking about answers, to the following questions:

  1. Why do you play the horn?
  2. What do you dream of doing in 15 years?
  3. What is the purpose of being a musician?
jeff conner

Jeff Conner

This is my blog about music education, so it’s not necessarily the right space for me to air my own answers and thoughts on these questions. However, I think they frame the advice I’ve received in another project of mine called the Art of Brass. In this project, I’ve recorded interviews with a number of extraordinary east coast brass players: people who have played in the Metropolitan Opera, the Cleveland Symphony, the Boston Symphony, Broadway shows and two of the most successful brass quintets of our time. I cover a wide range of topics, but one of the ideas that came up in every single interview was that of purposeful playing and lifelong musical learning. As Jeff Conner (Trumpet, Boston Brass) said (and I’m paraphrasing), the study of musicianship is a never ending journey.

Is it important for eight-year-olsd, roughly the earliest that kids start learning brass instruments, to preteens to be able to say what they want to be doing in fifteen years or what the purpose of bring a musician is? Probably not. However, the exploration of those concepts of future and purpose is important! How, and to what extent, can music teachers help facilitate this exploration?

John Rojak, freelancer extraordinaire and bass trombonist with the American Brass Quintet, told me that one of the  best qualities a musician can have is to be someone that other people want to play with, “to be a great colleague, be supportive, be positive, [and] be someone that other musicians are really happy to see when they get to a job.” Interpersonal skills, from the way we treat colleagues to the way we support them musically, are essential parts of a musical experience whether you’re in a rock band, a trio, or an orchestra. This fundamental element of musicianship also touches on being a good listener, which everyone I have interviewed has touted as a must for successful musicians. I know from significant experience in the Wenham Street Brass that interpersonal difficulties within the ensemble negatively affect playing. Another former teacher of mine said that his successful ensemble had been through months of group therapy in the past to overcome interpersonal problems.

This is why I’ve always thought that music was a great medium to learn how to build successful relationships – social emotional learning or interpersonal skills, one of Gardner’s learning styles in his multiple intelligences theory, is at the core of music performance. We’ve figured this out without even talking about the purpose of the audience, which is an animal unto itself. Private teachers, ensemble directors, coaches, and general music teachers should all have a mandate to guide students toward better knowledge of themselves and others. Students who don’t grow in this capacity have a much diminished chance of developing musicianship.

michelle picture

Michelle Baker

Another way to enhance a student’s understanding of what it means to play the horn, or any instrument, is to invite them to actively listen to music often. I think this is especially true when the music features your own instrument. My amazing former teacher and current Metropolitan Opera principal horn Joseph Anderer may have said it best: “we listen to a lot of people, our teachers, players, particularly live… then we incorporate ideas that we get. We can’t be puppets;  we can’t just imitate. We have to assimilate what we hear and find our own voice.” By actively listening, we find out what kind of sound we want to have, how to phrase, and what each piece means to us. Deep listening and analysis can help us create our own ideas about the music we play. Perhaps it’s also relevant to reflect on Joe’s use of the plural first person point of view. He expects this of all musicians, including himself. That kind of standard speaks back to the social element of music and our shared common purpose. Joe’s colleague at the Met, Michelle Baker, spoke similarly of the importance of listening when it comes to transforming from “technique mode” to “performance mode.” Instrumentalists must to be able to “tell your own story” and “put your personal stamp on it.”

I shouldn’t rush over Baker’s mention of “technique mode.” Teachers have a lot of fundamentals to teach, from how to read music to creating a good buzz on a mouthpiece to posture to using a metronome. I don’t envy the oboe and bassoon teachers who teach students how to make reeds! But through the thick of things, we remember that we are guides tasked with helping students find meaning in what they do.

Eli Epstein, preeminent Boston area teacher and former hornist with the Cleveland Symphony, recently wrote a beautiful book called Horn Playing from the Inside Out. In it, he covers an entire methodology of horn playing with equal attention to technique and musicality. While I’d advice everyone to go buy it, especially brass players, I’d like to quote a man that Eli quoted!

“The goal Is not to make music free of mistakes. The goal is to be complete in learning, and to grow well.” – W.A. Mathieu in The Listening Book


Note: I left some wonderful musicians out of this post, but rest assured they will not go missed for too long. Additional recognition should go to Tom Siders (Boston Symphony), Sean Scot Reed (Arkansas State faculty), and Jason Bitner (brass repairman and audio engineer).


Shared Fundamental Concepts

I’m very thankful for positive responses to my last blog post about Positive Psychology in Music Education. I’ve been utilizing the idea more often to good effect, both in my personal practice and in my teaching. Also since my last post, I began teaching horn at the All Newton Music School in Newton, MA! So far, it’s been a great place to teach. On January 10th, I’ll be performing with other brass and woodwind faculty at the school.

After pondering what I’ve left out of this blog over the past few years, it didn’t take very long to find a theme for this week’s post. The idea of “Shared Fundamental Concepts” was introduced to me once I started studying Music-in-Education at the New England Conservatory. The premise is quite simple: music shares fundamental concepts with a whole range of other disciplines, or abstracting musical concepts results in shared fundamental ideas with other disciplines. I’ve taken the following quote directly from a 2010 post by the Center for Music-in-Education and its project at the Conservatory Lab Charter School, which has since become an El Sistema influenced school here in Greater Boston: The description of shared concepts, shared strategies, shared context, shared representations, and shared assessment devices provide a good basic understanding of the idea.

…School adopts the Five Fundamental Processes (Listening, Creating, Performing, Inquiring, and Reflecting) intrinsic to fully engaged learning in music and any other subject area.  Interdisciplinary Lessons are designed to help students understand (1) fundamental concepts shared between music and language, math, science, history, movement, visual art, social-emotional development, and technology, and (2) key interdisciplinary features shared among all disciplines including:  Shared Concepts (proportion, sequence, part-whole relationships, symmetry), Shared Strategies (sorting, counting, collaboration, decoding, systems thinking), Shared Contexts (historical periods, cultural perspectives), Shared Representations (graphs, words, notations), and Shared Assessment Devices (performance assessment, tests, portfolios, rubrics).

What does all this mean in a practical context, or why am I bringing it up? Well, one reason is to combat the idea that being a musical artist means you have to have a pure talent for artistic, emotional expression. Not everyone agrees with me on this, but I have a firm belief that being expressive and engaging an audience artistically is a cultivated skill (even though some may be more naturally adept than others at the start). Key tools for being expressive include understanding the world of the composer, having a deep grasp of music theory (in Europe and American music history, a complicated system of shared concepts and representations based on the harmonic series, a physical concept), and developing an ability to understand emotion and narrative. For classical musicians especially, technical skill on the instrument most be very deeply learned over countless hours in addition to the ability to engage artistically. Having a capacity to reflect and assess are also important.

If I could summarize: Artists aren’t born artists. There’s plenty of recent books that address the 10,000 rule and “learned talent.” While I feel terrible for advertising two books I haven’t yet read, I’ve heard good things about The Talent Code and Outliers

The other reason I’m writing about “Shared Fundamental Concepts” is to discuss good practices for training students. For the purpose of this post, I’ll address music notation as a way to explore learning. To start, I have to admit something: I hadn’t really thought of music notation as a graph before graduate school. But that’s what it is! Albeit, a slightly confusing graph with somewhat limited vertical visual support. You can see the movement in pitch based on the vertical placement of notes on the “staff,” the way a note looks depicts its duration, the bass cleff symbols at the left side of the example below tell valuable information about how to read it, and like in western writing, it is read left to right.

Excerpt from a piece by Thomas Lupo depicting three part counterpoint.

Excerpt from a piece by Thomas Lupo depicting three part counterpoint.

When I was first told, “we read music graphically” at NEC, I of course knew it to be true. But perhaps I’d never said it that way before. I just say “I read the music that I play,” which is true as long as I’m not improvising. But what if I’d learned about reading music differently? What if I’d been asked to create a method of reading music? More generally, are there effective ways to let learners explore musical concepts through their fundamentals shared with other disciplines? 

Many students are taught western notation through rote memorization and – perhaps overused – mnemonic devises (think “every good boy does fine” to learn the lines of the treble clef). I’d like to propose two other learning styles to help students create a deeper understanding of music notation at a younger age. The first is inquiry-based learning, and the second is learning through immersion. I’ll provide examples of each that relate to music notation.

The Montessori approach to music gets students to go through various well-controlled investigations, a very important part of inquiry-based learning. A key tool is the Montessori Bells,  a set of diatonic bells (bells that play a full scale) that are all visually identical. Students are set to the task of playing simple songs on the bells. Students experiment with bell placement, or how best to play each song. Eventually, students begin to put the bells in the order of the scale (C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C). This deep understanding sets students up to with a great understanding of order and sequence in western music.

El Sistema relies to some extent on immersion learning, which you may have only heard of in relation to second-language learning. While immersion isn’t really mentioned, the “Nucleo,” or musical community for each El Sistema center, encourages young musicians to immerse themselves in musical learning for many, many hours each week. From the age of three, students are put into small ensembles with simple instruments. As they grow, they choose their main instrument and are constantly mentored by teachers and older students. Learning about music notation happens organically over a number of years of experimenting with rhythm, melody, and all the fundamentals of playing music. If you don’t know about El Sistema, you can find a document written by Eric Booth, an incredible arts educator and advocate, at this link:

I write about both the Montessori approach and the El Sistema approach with limited knowledge of both. I worked as an after-school enrichment teacher at a Montessori School, and I briefly worked coding the journals of El Sistema fellows through the Center for Music-in-Education. My preference has always been to personalize lesson plans and curriculum to help students explore the subject matter, but I find myself inspired by ideas from both programs. To me, the importance of inquiry based learning is that it lets students meet music on their own terms, exploring music’s connections to subjects about which they already know. Students who feel empowered to make music their own will grow naturally.

Positive Music Education

This is my first post since A Street Music closed, and I think it’s going to be a good one! Unfortunately, we decided that it was in our best interest to close our storefront in Quincy back on July 1st. I had a wonderful three years working with our teachers and students, as well as Aaron Belyea. Aaron is still repairing instruments around Boston and the South Shore, and you can reach him at his new email address if you need your instrument repaired!

I decided that not having an education department to write about shouldn’t stop me from exploring music education, something about which I’m very passionate. Music education has obviously had a huge impact on my life. For one, I decided to be a musician. But in a larger sense, I think it was the relationships I made through music, the feeling of performance, and the musical achievements I made in my youth that shaped a lot of who I am today. So it’s fitting that my first post is about Positive Education in music.

In a book called Flourish, Martin Seligman outlines his theory of well-being. Seligman is the director of the Positive Psychology Department at the University of Pennsylvania, and through a few decades of research has come to view “flourishing” as having the following elements: Positive emotion, Engagement (or flow), Meaning, Accomplishment, and Positive Relationships. I’ve experienced each of these in various ways through music. However, that isn’t true of everyone who’s engaged in music, and that’s why I want to write about embedding positive psychology in music education.

Flourish, by Martin E.P. Seligman

Looking back at my older posts on this site, I think that, consciously or not, I’ve advocated for positive music education in student performances, lessons, individual practice, and in playing in groups. I’ve heard so many stories, especially from people in my generation and older, of dreaded piano lessons with strict instructors. Many of those students didn’t continue to play. I heard a “Fresh Air” interview with composer John Zorn recently. Zorn recalled his experience in guitar lessons as a child, in which his guitar teacher would not let him play any songs at all until Zorn could play a chromatic scale from the bottom of the guitar to the top of the guitar and back in under 12 seconds. Zorn tried hard, but couldn’t get it to under 18 seconds. What did he do? He stopped studying with that teacher. In Zorn’s case, he was so very interested in music that the experience didn’t deter him, but so many people seem to have been jaded by those early musical experiences. I had very positive early teachers.

Practicing, learning in lessons or classes, or rehearsing shouldn’t be all smiles either. Learning can be fun and rewarding, but it’s not a teacher’s job, nor a student’s responsibility, to be consciously having fun or experiencing joy. A teacher’s job is to guide students, to the best of the teacher’s ability, in the students’ exploration of and development in the subject matter. Warren Senders, an incredible musician, teacher, and mentor of mine, expressed that thought much more artistically: “a teacher acts as a guide through the wilderness of learning.” This concept is important because it helps me remember that each student learns differently. A guide has to help each student learn music (be it performing an instrument, learning theory, composing, improvising, etc.) in each student’s particular starting place. There ARE some students who love the structure that very strict (and maybe even cold) teachers can provide. There are MANY students who won’t respond to that.

So all students learn differently, and teachers should personalize their approach to education (especially in one-on-one lessons). Now let me get back to one of the “elements of flourishing” I mentioned above: engagement. According to Csíkszentmihályi, the founder of Flow Theory, engagement requires (among other things) a loss of sense of self, timelessness, intense concentration, and intrinsic reward. It’s during flow that students’ learning takes place; in a particularly intense lesson, a deep practice session, at a rewarding concert-going experience, or during a great performance. The wilderness-guide aspect of teaching comes through in his or her ability to help facilitate Flow for students. How does a teacher do this?

One way is to set practical goals that aren’t too easy or too difficult. If I ask a horn player (I’ll go with a student of my own instrument in this example) who’s only been playing for one month to learn a difficult etude, the student will not be able to concentrate because he or she won’t understand the goal. If I ask that same student to play a scale in quarter notes and in half notes, the student will be able to understand the goal. To make the engagement intrinsically rewarding, the teacher has to understand the student’s motivation for playing and amend the process of achieving the goal. That brings me to one of my favorite new activities: “What-went-well.”

In Flourish, Seligman introduces the What-Went-Well Exercise…

We think too much about what goes wrong and not enough abut what goes right in our lives. Of course, sometimes it makes sense to analyze bad events so that we can learn from them and avoid them in the future. However, people tend to spend more time thinking about what is bad in life than is helpful. Worse, this focus on negative events sets us up for anxiety and depression. One way to keep this from happening is to get better at thinking about and savoring what went well. 

In the What-Went-Well exercise adapted for music students, the student describes three things, no matter how big or small, that went well during their practice, lesson, or rehearsal. In addition to describing each good thing, the student writes why it happened, or what caused it. This can help students and teachers get to know what motivates students. Additionally, it promotes habits of identifying and “savoring” good things in learning. I believe that this will lead to greater engagement. Students will feel more gratitude for their own determination and to mentors, and may be able to start identifying their strengths.

While I could keep writing about the other elements of well-being theory and music, I think I’ll stop with this quote from Flourish:

“…human beings are [perhaps more] often…drawn by the future than they are driven by the past, and so a science that measures and builds expectations, planning, and conscious choice will be more potent than a science of habits, drives, and circumstances.”

Positive Music Education can take students where they are, and build character in students, helping them choose to engage in education (not just music education), and to expect achievement.

Concerts at A Street – A Monthly Series

We’re happy to announce our new concert series at A Street, featuring students of all ages and our awesome instrumental faculty. Each month, we’ll have a few of our students and a faculty member perform here in our shop (our office handily converts into a small performance space).

Rachel Massey and Daniel Hawkins played at our old location last year as the Driftwood Duet

Rachel Massey and Daniel Hawkin’s played at our old location last year as the Driftwood Duet

March 23rd marks the first event, featuring piano and violin students, and a performance by Geni Skendo. After our very successful violin classes last month, I’m sure we’ll see more and more violin performances!

Concerts at A Street

The fourth Saturday of the month at 5pm

One Elm Avenue, Quincy, MA 02130


Violin in February and a Review of November’s Guitar Class

Thanks for reading our first post in 2013! We at A Street Music hope everyone had a great holiday, and we’re looking forward to Spring and Summer projects. Before we get to the “meat” of this post, I want to remind everyone of a few programs. First, I want to make clear our new payment options for private lessons. The deadline for enrolling in the Spring tuition (17 lessons in 20 weeks at a low cost) is Saturday 1/5/13. You can sign up for a six-lesson package or for single lessons at any time, but the Spring tuition deadline is approaching soon. For more information, visit Saturday (extended from Friday) is also the deadline to apply for the Spring lesson scholarship. Download the form here!

We’ll continue to roll out our group lesson program – a benefit of having more space at our new location – and we’ll begin a series of “in-house” concerts. Today, however, I want to announce February’s Violin Class (every Saturday at 1pm) and review our intro-to-guitar class! Let’s start with guitar.

Ken Freeman graduated from Berklee College of Music in 2005 with a degree in Music Education. He began his career teaching in public schools where he worked with students from the elementary to high school level as well as teaching private individual and group lessons with a focus on guitar, bass, brass, woodwind, voice, music theory, business and songwriting. Ken has been a teacher at A Street Music since we opened in September 2010, and we were very happy that he decided to teach our November group class! I’m a beginner on guitar, so I decided to sit in on the class. While I am the education director here, I did my best to shut-up-and-learn over the four classes.


From top to bottom: Head stock, “nut” (what holds the strings above the fretboard), neck and fretboard, body, sound hole, bridge

Five students between the age of 12 and 16 enrolled, and we began where one might expect: learning the parts of the guitar. Ken held a guitar like the guitar pictured to the left, and compared it to a human body, from the “head” to the “body.” We discussed how to set the guitar on our leg when sitting (neck pointed slightly up and out from the body), where there the thumb should be on the left hand (acting as one side of a pincer on the back side of the neck, leveraging power for the rest of the fingers), how to hold a pick, and so on.

After that, we went pretty much right in to strumming chords. Over the course of the four weeks, we learned to play: E, A, D, B, F, C, G, B7, Em, Am, Dm, and Bm chords, and the song “Love Story” by Taylor Swift (the last of which I had to miss because I was out of town). These are all fairly standard chords that at least one student in the class and I had attempted to learn on our own previously. I’ve seen many people come through the store because they’ve run into walls where they can’t progress past what they learned from a book or online. So the question for me is, “what is the advantage of having Ken teach us these chords and a song over learning online?”

There are quite a few. For one, Ken, like our other guitar teachers, is very good at spotting problems immediately so that none of the students form bad habits. From the basics of counting strings and frets in order to learn the names and hand positions, to what muscles in your arm should be engaged when strumming the strings, there are plenty of pitfalls for the self-taught to create a habit that isn’t helpful (I know this all too well in playing and teaching brass instruments).

Another very valuable feature of having Ken work with the students was his patience. I find, and I know students to as well, that when learners are left alone to practice, we are not very patient with ourselves. This is a big stumbling block for kids and adults who want to tackle something new. Immediately we want to be able to strum chords in succession or play one of our favorite melodies. The process of really learning chords (which can take months as the action moves from short term memory to long term memory) can be discouraging. What Ken was able to do is slow everyone down, focusing intensely on repetitive chord changes while being aware of posture and movement.

guitar repeat exercises

The top line should be read: “Strum E chord for four counts, A for four counts, E for four counts, A for four counts, and repeat.”

Since we were for the most part beginners (or near beginners), Ken gave us sheets with chord positions and basic repetitive exercises every week. He suggested not playing more than 10 minutes twice a day at first. Because we only were introduced to a few chords each week, Ken thought that we would be more likely to lose patience with ourselves and lose sight of that attentive deliberate goal described in the above paragraph. As our repertoire of chords grew, I personally found that small amounts of experimentation at home became more and more enjoyable.

Some of our students have continued with private lessons after the group class, and we’re very excited to have them learn more! I’ll do my best to keep up with them. Ken also plays professionally in his own band “Wishful Thinking” and with other groups performing in the Boston and surrounding areas. Ken’s performance work is not limited to a specific style as he works with bands ranging from classical to contemporary with many in between. Through these practices Ken is able to convey a wide range of experience and knowledge of music education and performance to his students.

As our current group class in saxophone comes to an end, we hope to have just as much success in our Violin Class with Rachel Massey in February. The class is free (though donations to help us continue the program are accepted and appreciated). Download the group class registration form to sign up, or just come into the store and talk to us. We only have eight openings for the class, which we’re opening to elementary school age students. Give us a call to learn more. You can view a blog that Rachel wrote here.

We hope to see you in the shop! In the meantime, here are the fingerings for a few of the chords we learned with Ken. One more note about learning guitar: introductory students also seem to have a difficult time time tuning the instrument. There are guitar tuner apps for smart phones, and we also have tuners for purchase. Some are better and easier to use than others, so search around until you find out that’s easy to use!

These are read from left to write (low string to high string), and up to down on the fretboard (from area closest to headstock down).

These are read from left to write (low string to high string), and up to down on the fretboard (from area closest to headstock down).

Spring Scholarship

Hi Readers,

As the holidays approach, I want to make available our application for the Spring financial hardship scholarship! This scholarship provides fifteen free lessons for eager students who can’t afford the cost of music lessons. Please download the file from the link below, and carefully answer the questions. Deadline for applications is January 4, 2013. We’ll be accepting either one or two students.

A Street Scholarship Application Spring 2013

In other news, I am proud to formally announce the addition of Samantha Dearborn and Rob Megna to our faculty! Samantha and Rob will both be teaching on Thursdays at A Street Music.

sam dearbornSoprano Samantha Dearborn has performed on stages in the U.S. and in Europe, presenting recitals and appearing as featured and guest soloist in both concert and recital repertoire. Her passion for music and performance is evident in her teaching. Emphasizing the importance of breath, she encourages a healthy technique for a sustainable voice. She strives to create a safe, positive atmosphere for her students to learn, grow, and discover. During a study program in Hungary, she was trained in the Kodály Method, which she also incorporates into her lessons.

Ms. Dearborn holds a Bachelor of Music with honors in vocal performance from Capital University. Currently, she is pursuing a Master of Music in voice at Longy School of Music of Bard College.

rob megnaRob Megna is a professional drummer living in Boston, Massachusetts. He is well versed in styles including blues, jazz, latin, rock, funk and country. Rob has played live at music venues such as Lupos Heartbreak Hotel in Providence, RI, B.B. Kings in New York City, the Worcester Palladium, and Tobey Keith’s in Foxboro, MA. He recently headlined a sold out show at Nectar’s in Burlington, VT with folk/blues quartet Hey Mama.

Rob began playing drums at the age of 5 and was instantly recognized for having natural talent. He studied privately with Martin Vazquez, owner of M.V. Drums on Cape Cod. Rob has considerable experience teaching young drummers on Cape Cod and the South Shore, and performs regularly with A Street guitar teacher Paul Chase.

To see full bios for either of our new teachers, see! Short update today, but I’ll be back with more soon!

What We’ve Been Learning

Hi blog readers! I hope you’re all planning something great for Thanksgiving!

We’ve had our first three “Intro to Guitar” classes with Ken Freeman here at A Street Music. I, Justin, sat in on the class all three weeks to try to improve my own lowly guitar skills (I’m a French horn player by trade). We’ve had a great three weeks, focusing mainly on learning how to move between common chords in rhythm with proficiency. I’ve certainly been impressed with how quickly teacher Ken Freeman has helped me and five local teenagers use good technique to sound good together! I’ll try to post some notes about the class for you or the guitarist in your life to use after the class ends next week.

Our new space is working really well for us. In addition to rooms for group classes, we’ve hired four great new teachers in the last couple of months. Sarah Troxler and Ben Moniz I’ve already told you about. I’ll post soon about Sam Dearborn (voice), and Rob Megna (drums) very soon. We will also be able to have mini-student recitals here at the school, which requires space we simply didn’t have when we were in Quincy Center. If you haven’t come down yet to see the new place at 1 Elm Avenue, Quincy, Aaron and I would love to see you.

The last exciting thing for me to post today is our FREE December saxophone booster course. If you know someone between 11-14 who’d like to improve his/her playing before the holidays, let them know about this great opportunity with A Street teacher Beth Goodman! See below for more information.

If you’d like to keep updated about the other departments at A Street, including retail, repair, and education, sign up for our mailing list at Look for a post here again soon!