Becoming the Smart Musician, Part I of Series
by Robert Levy – Professor of Music, Lawrence University
Getzen Artist & Clinician
While I have spoken in previous issues of choosing the more beneficial aspects of playing and selecting a good daily routine, there are some additional thoughts I’m pleased to share. First, I want to thank those hundreds of trumpet students I’ve worked with over the past, nearly forty years, and my many musician friends who have given their time to share their thoughts and ideas in teaching.
I believe we sometimes simply take many things for granted including the belief students will be able to sort through an approach to learning on their own. If learning is, according to Webster, “the acquiring of skills or knowledge” there is a process we must go through to acquire those skills. I’d like to view this whole idea within a framework that leads to developing total musicianship. Yes, we all are continually learning new ways and new skills, and better ways of doing things, but I think we can find easier ways and possibly save time. This is what I refer to as “becoming a smart musician” rather than simply becoming a tongue and blow player. Perhaps this is an oversimplification, but I have seen and worked with both types of musicians and seen my students make many mistakes that they could have avoided.
The “smart musician” can learn an approach to playing and practicing that is direct and concise and gets to the heart of the matter. It also ties in with reducing the complex to the simple. One non-musician friend many years ago was sitting in the audience with me attending a symphony concert. He remarked, “how is it possible for all these players to do all which is necessary to play together as they do?” I thought that was a fascinating comment, and as I thought about it, the idea is rather amazing. How many other fields or occupations are there where one person will multitask or think about so many things simultaneously: pitch, rhythm, intonation, balance, blend, style, articulation, releases, hand and finger positions, breathing, embouchure, trying to make a beautiful sound. Add to that phrasing, watching the conductor, and listening to everyone else on stage. When you stop to think about it, that’s truly amazing. Yet, we do it and many do it in terrific fashion.
Now, how might we approach things in the learning process? If an etude or musical composition appears difficult, we want to somehow “reduce the complex” to make it simpler and easier. This begins not just with slow practicing, but also by isolating the elements one at a time. First, get your pitches, then get the rhythm (you can even speak it without playing), the work on the articulations, add the dynamics, accelerandos, ritards, etc. Finally, add phrasing and musicality and begin combining all of those elements while practicing it slowly and gradually increase the tempi as the passage becomes more comfortable for you. Last of all, listen carefully for good tuning and play with your best sound. The key is to isolate and learn each aspect separately when working on something difficult.
With these tips, you’ll learn the piece BETTER and FASTER. It’s another example of how you can become a “smart musician”.