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).


About Justin Stanley, Teaching-Artist
I'm a musician and educator based in Boston, MA.

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