I am certain that as a player I am still suffering in some areas due to incorrect teaching and bad habits that I was taught when I first started playing. Thankfully I have found ways to play that work for me and have allowed me to develop much further than I ever thought I could. I also see this with almost every new brass student I take on and it is very frustrating. So, I always try very hard to get things right for new beginners in their very first lesson. The lessons learnt in this first session literally paves the way for success or failure so concentrating on the simple basics of playing a brass instrument will help prevent problems in the future.
Before outlining what I do with beginners and what I find creates the best results I will list some things that all brass teachers should look out for with any of their students. Fixing these issues can be the subject of separate articles. At this stage I simply want to raise them as issues to be aware of and try to avoid.
1) Shallow breathing or reluctance to breath at all
2) Sniffing to breathe all the time (the issue I see the most!)
3) Total removal of lips from the mouthpiece when breathing
4) Breathing through the mouthpiece and instrument
5) Raising of shoulders when breathing (tension anywhere)
6) Incorrect posture
7) Incorrect holding of the instrument
8) Fingers (especially third) not placed on valve tops
9) Rigid fist gripping of the slide (trombone)
10) Too tight a sound
11) Overly tight embourchure/stretching of lips
12) Smiling to play high
13) An inability to play any dynamics (and when asked to play louder the student plays higher)
14) Inability to tongue
15) No tongue independence (torso moves when tonguing)
16) Frustration when mistakes are made
17) Frustration when something doesn't work straight away
18) Fear to try new things
19) Believing that difficult things are impossible
20) A mouthpiece placement that is drastically limiting a students ability
21) No knowledge of note names or rhythms (only reads from valve/slide numbers which get written by the teacher, my personal pet hate!)
22) Does not practice or practices the wrong things
23) Expelling air before breathing in each time while playing
24) Breathing in and holding before playing a note
25) No idea what to practice, no targets
26) Huge pressure building up while playing, getting a red face
27) Can't correctly tongue or slur
28) Tension or closing of the throat when breathing and playing
Then to a lesser extent these are also things instrumental teachers can help with but are not directly related to actually playing the instrument:-
1) Poor organisation, forgetting music or forgetting their lesson
2) Not looking after their instrument
3) Singing abilities and ear training
4) Understanding how the instrument works
5) Understanding what the instrument is capable of doing
6) Manners and social skills in general (I always greet my students when they arrive for their lesson and expect them to do the same to me, they should not be afraid to speak to you!)
Okay, so that is a big list and I am sure I have missed things out but I have taken on new students who display almost all of this! The sad thing, is that much of this can be addressed in the very first lesson!
So let me run through what I would do with a new beginner brass student (for this example I will presume the new student is a child and the first lesson is at least 30 minutes in length). I would have previously spoken to the parent and obtained all the relevant contact information and any important info about the child. I would have given clear information in advance with regards to the cost of the lesson and when payment is expected and outlined the importance of a regular practice routine at home (parents play a huge role in this and can have a positive or negative impact!). I would have made all necessary plans to ensure the student has a good enough instrument and that it is ready in perfect (or as perfect as possible) condition for the first lesson. I will have made sure the student knows the exact day, time and location of the lesson.
When the student arrives I would be happy and excited for them and try to create a fun, trustworthy and comfortable atmosphere. I would ask how they are, what made them want to learn this instrument, what their favourite music is and some questions about whether they already know anything about music.
Now, the student is desperate to get the instrument out and make some sounds so it is important that this happens soon for them but at the same time this is the first opportunity to assess their personality, behaviour and patience and it is important that the student understands you are the boss and that you are going to give them excellent teaching but it will be at the appropriate pace. Discipline, behaviour and patience are important lessons to install here because learning a brass instrument is not as simple as other instruments due to the fact that we have to create the sound ourself and progress can take some time.
It is also important to clearly show the student how to open the case and assemble the instrument (trombone especially). I normally briefly tell them that the slides come out and the valves can be unscrewed but tell them they do not need to do this at this stage and I will enlighten them at a later lesson as to how to clean the instrument or why slides move etc. I normally then put the instrument back in the case and ask them to take it out and get it ready to play to check they understand. Putting all this in writing obviously adds up to a lot of text but in reality it hardly takes any time in a lesson. I would also mention how important it is to look after the instrument and not to allow friends to play on it or to play it on the bus on the way home etc, common sense stuff but its amazing how little common sense some kids (and some adults!) have sometimes. I find the use of a practice diary to be essential for both student and teacher because it really helps track the progress and keeps the student more organised not to mention helps them know exactly what you want them to practice at home. Some teachers see a practice diary as a pointless written task and they actually write the most useless things in there but I find I write a lot and students (and parents) are very grateful for this. Speaking to the student about getting into a practice routine at this stage is also very important. They are very keen and will tell you when they can practice so this can be written down in their diary and shown to them to help remind them.
Okay, time to make some sounds.....almost! It is important to show the student the exact correct way to sit and hold the instrument. Take the instrument and demonstrate and get them to do it a few times. Then is time for the most important lesson and the thing that gets overlooked so much....BREATHING!
You can joke with the child by asking them if they know how to breathe (I've had some say no) which can lead them to learning that in order to play the instrument they must breathe different to how they do in every day life. The main things to think about is making it deep and relaxed. So I ask the student to take some deep breaths in and out and watch how they breathe. Often they breathe through the nose first and this is a great opportunity to inform them that they must never do this. I appreciate there are benefits to nose breathing further along as a player, it can create a deeper feeling breath (some singers will encourage it for this) and it is also important of course with learning to circular breathe but none of this is important at this stage so make a massive point that only mouth breathing is allowed. Normally talking about the fact that having a cold can block your nose makes the student see why it is not good to breathe through the nose. I just make sure the student is breathing deeply and that they understand that they need to push the air out strongly with stomach muscle support (like blowing out candles). Asking them to feel the cold air on the inside of the back of their throat ensures the air is going in fast and various paper blowing exercises are well known to help with making sure the air is being moved fast. Also ensuring they have no shoulder tension is important, no tension anywhere for that matter.
Then I ask the student to take the mouthpiece and do the same but through the mouthpiece. (Always demonstrating first) usually the student automatically places the mouthpiece in what would be classed as a good position, even for French horn players I find this is the case. If they don't then you can help them again by demonstrating. If you yourself have a less conventional mouthpiece placement then do still demonstrate what would be classed as a correct placement otherwise the student will just copy you. Now is the time to ensure the student breathes correctly with the mouthpiece on the lips, not removing it from the lips, dropping the jaw or breathing through the mouthpiece but breathing through the corners with the top and bottom lips still touching the mouthpiece. You can still speak while doing this so you can get the student to try doing that. It is likely that when the student blows into the mouthpiece they might make a 'buzzing' sound anyway which is great! If they do not then again demonstrate by making a strong buzzing sound on the mouthpiece for them to try and copy. I normally try and avoid using the word buzz and never tell a student to buzz their lips. I use the word buzz to describe the sound that is made. If the student still hasn't made a sound I would ask them to blow faster air and allow their lips to touch more at the corners so they can imagine a slightly rounder shape in the middle. Once the student can make a sound on the mouthpiece I ask them to try and hold it as long as possible and as straight as possible. In their practice diary I will have written number 1 - Breathing, number 2-Mouthpiece. So I would draw a straight line to remind them to first try and make one straight sound which they control. Then comes another crucial part. I would ask them, (demonstrate also) to make the sound go up and down like a wave. Again I would draw this in the diary so they know what to practice. Most of the time the student will move their eyebrows, head up and down and generally be quite confused at how they go about changing pitch. Some naturally do it correctly just from watching you but most need to be told to make the air go faster and slower. This normally results in instant success and not once have you had to tell them to do anything with their lips! You can also describe it and demonstrate it as doing motorbike revs, even with the hand on the throttle for some fun. I appreciate that at this stage the experienced ones amongst us will be asking how I would eventually go about teaching a student to play high but at a soft dynamic because it seems I am saying that to play high you just use faster air. I am not going to go into details here about this because it is not related to complete beginners. I find the lips (and everything else) just works correctly if the air is strong and controlled and no further explanation is needed that can confuse a student. This is the way I find I have the most success with new students and it gives them the ability to have much more control over their future range, sound quality and ability to change dynamics. There are many other factors at play of course. Air direction, tongue level, embourchure muscles, support, aperture size but it is best to keep any descriptions to a minimum and let the student learn by watching you demonstrate.
Now finally it is time to use the instrument. Yes this seems like it is a long way from when the student first showed up but it really doesn't take very long to go through and plus it is absolutely essential. By this time on the guitar or piano I am sure I could have taught a monkey to play a simple tune but it just doesn't work like that for brass and cannot be rushed.
I like to get stuck in straight away with learning to read notes so I draw a treble (or bass) clef and a low C (or concert Bb) in the practice diary and get the students to play each note up the scale one at a time as a long held note and go up as far as possible, learning and understanding what each note looks like on the stave, what each notes name is, what the valves/slide position is and how it sounds. Give out lots of praise. At this stage I write the note name and valve/slide position down as well but as soon as the students seems to understand the notes then I never do this again unless it is a new note. Always encouraging students to listen to their sound to make it nicer and learn from their mistakes. If a student can do 5 notes then I think that is good, if an octave then great. If just one or two notes then fine, they should be made to feel good for any achievement. So then I reinforce that they should practice trying to play each note as long as possible without it drooping, keeping it at the correct pitch using strong air and faster air for the higher notes. If the child struggles to make a sound at all then perhaps you can talk about bringing the lips together more but it is not normally needed. Getting the student to make higher pitched buzzing sounds on the mouthpiece can help. Not all kids will get it straight away but if you focus on what the air is doing I find it is more successful.
The next step is to get them correctly using their tongue so I ask them to try to tongue each note they played before but 4 times each. Demonstration is normally all that is needed to get them doing this. Make sure they (and you) play 4 notes with one air column so the tongue is made to work independently. Often you find the student can suddenly play a higher note than before now they are using their tongue. Again write this in the diary so they remember what to do at home. I know some brass teachers will go into the importance of making the student say Tar or Dar or Too or Tow or pretend to spit a piece of paper off their tongue or all sorts of other ideas but there is just no need at this stage, humans learn best by copying so just play and let them copy. Much further along I do find it important to practice saying the double or triple tongue technique (Ta Ka etc) before trying it on the instrument but that is miles away for a beginner! It is important to remember the tongue releases the air, it is not an attack as such, everything related to the sound we make is based on what is happening with the air so do not over complicate the simple task of tonguing. For more advanced players with tonguing issues related to producing first notes, practicing starting notes with no tongue often helps greatly but that again is for a different article! The tongue doesn't make the sound, the air does!
The next step is getting them to understand what a slur is. This can be done by asking them to play a C to a D (Bb to C) without tonguing and just by pressing the valves and increasing airspeed. Again, draw it in the diary showing the slur or legato line joining the notes, demonstrate it first and they will copy. If they are successful you can try increasing the slur intervals until they can get a 5th (without changing valves). This part has to be tweaked for trombone players, I normally wait until they are ready to try slurring the 5th (first position). Again, write this in their diary and always keep checking they understand. Sooner rather than later get the student to hold one note and crescendo without slurring up in pitch so they get used to the relationship between slurring up at one dynamic and getting louder at one pitch and vice versa the other way round.
You might not cover all this in the first lesson but it should be possible. Then each of these steps can be developed every week and form the students daily routine or warm up so every time they practice they work on:-
Long notes (this can progress to other scales eventually)
Tongue (eventually increasing speed)
Slurs (the two note slur of a fifth can progress to more notes over time)
This method gives the student a greater grasp of the basics and actually puts their abilities on the instrument way ahead of their ability to read music. It is great to be able to then work on reading music with a student without them encountering any issues with playing the higher notes or tonguing correctly. I find if I teach a student who can already read music then they will really progress incredibly fast. For the first few weeks I would test the student can remember all the note names/valves/slide positions etc and recognise the notes on the stave without valve numbers written along with play each note as a long note with a nice sound. Every lesson I try and cover a students whole range and will always teach them what the higher notes and lower notes are if they seem to be learning it all okay. Often a student will keep playing a lower note by mistake so just teach them what this note is rather than saying they are playing a wrong note, make everything positive. There is no rush to get higher notes but I have come across teachers who actually say "I don't let my students play above an octave" which is totally ludicrous and is drastically inhibiting them, not to mention causes unnecessary psychological damage. Why do so many brass players fear the high notes? This fear is taught by their teachers in the early lessons when they are told over and over that high is hard.
I hope this article is useful to some people and I welcome any feedback or questions about it. These are my opinions based on my experience and I am sure some experts will disagree with some bits but the most important thing is to be aware, with an open mind to any new approaches to teaching. No two students are the same and teachers must differentiate their lessons to suit the needs of the student and not just stick rigidly to what they believe to be the only way to do things. It is also possible that some of my writing won't make complete sense as the best way to put all this across is by demonstrating it so if anything is confusing then feel free to drop me an email and I can discuss it with you.
(Thanks to Nicky Glover and Adrian Flowers for their input)