Prelude: Introduction to Brass Techniques and Pedagogy
Introduction to Brass Technique and Pedagogy
Brass instruments include a broad family dating back thousands of years in nearly every major culture of the world. The term brass is somewhat deceptive, as brass instruments can be made of any hard material, including animal horn in the Hebrew shofar, termite-carved eucalyptus for the Aboriginal didgeridoo, snail shell for the conch, spruce in the Swiss alphorn, and PVC in the modern-day P-Bone.
There is one element that characterizes all brass instruments. Unlike other families of instruments, the sound of the instrument initiates from the human body, specifically, the vibration of the lips as air passes between them. The mouthpiece serves as a collector of this buzzed sound, and the body of the instrument amplifies and clarifies this timbre to create what we characterize as a brass sound.
This shared trait allows brass instruments to share many characteristics in terms of their technique. All brass instruments use the same overtone series, which dictates how the instrument is manipulated in performance. All valved or rotored brass instruments (all standard band and orchestral brass except the trombone) also utilize the same fingering systems. These commonalities allow for an ease of concept transfer between brass instruments. In essence, once you learn the concepts for playing one brass instrument, you can easily transfer those ideas to other brass instruments.
As a music educator, you can use these similarities to help you to teach your students. While each instrument has its own details and challenges, many of the concepts are transferable. Throughout this text, an emphasis will be placed on these similarities which you can use to diagnose problems, propose solutions, and provide quality instruction. Specifically, two concepts will be returned to over and over:
Air is critical for all brass playing. It should be free flowing and relaxed, starting from deep in the torso. When breathing as a brass player, it is critical that the throat is open and that the breath is deep. On the exhale, brass players focus on steady air usage supported by core muscles.
Tension is the enemy of smooth flowing air. While there is a certain amount of tension that is needed to play brass instruments, excess tension inhibits full tone production. The entire air column needs to be relaxed, from the throat through the oral cavity to the lips. Even the arms, wrists, and fingers should remain without tension to allow for greater dexterity and positive ergonomics. Too much tension can not only affect tone but also lead to muscle, tendon, skeletal, and nerve injuries. Reducing tension when playing positively impacts tone production and ensures the long term health of brass players.
This text approaches brass playing from two perspectives. First, you will be guided through a series of exercises to develop your own technical development as a brass player. This progression is the standard for most brass players, starting with tone production, moving to pitch control, and continuing with flexibility and dexterity studies. The goal is that after a semester of study, you have competencies that are typical after the first year of study by a middle school student. The course is set up with an expectation of at least three to four weeks on each standard brass instrument (trumpet, horn, trombone, euphonium/tuba).
Second, this text will guide you in your pedagogical knowledge as an instructor of brass students. While your technical skills may be limited, you need to be prepared to teach brass students with solid fundamentals. The great news is that while each instrument has its own idiosyncrasies, many of the concepts you will teach are brass concepts which are transferable across instruments. While you are developing your own technical abilities, this text will also be pointing out common issues experienced by young brass musicians and problem solving steps to take in order to diagnose and correct those issues. If this text is being used as part of a class, you are encouraged to work with your peers to practice instruction. Your conceptual knowledge of brass techniques will likely exceed your technical ability if you are not a brass player already.
This book is organized to differentiate the technical exercises for your own brass development and the pedagogical concepts for your teaching practice.
Exercise boxes will include activities you should do as a developing brass player to establish technique and promote brass fundamentals. Many of these include activities that should become part of daily practice for warming up or sustaining strength and flexibility as a brass player.
Common error boxes will help you diagnose and correct common issues of beginning brass players. Throughout this course, those common errors could be done by your peers or you! In some cases, these errors will simply address what you should pay attention to in order to avoid the development of bad habits. In other cases, these error boxes will point to specific activities or exercises to correct problems or develop competencies.
This book is divided into four main sections.
- General Brass Techniques and Pedagogies discuss common concepts that extend across all brass instruments. As mentioned earlier, brass instruments are variations on a theme, and that theme is built around commonalities in acoustics, mechanics, and tone production. This section is perhaps the most important for the music educator who is not a brass player, as these concepts will extend across all brass instruments and reflect the most common issues beginning to intermediate brass musicians have. Mastery of this content will allow you to be effective in the ensemble setting when working with brass students.
- Instrument Specific Techniques and Pedagogies discuss the nuances between different brass instruments. While at the 10,000 foot view, these instruments are very much the same, they each have nuances that become particularly important as students transition from beginning to intermediate player which impact technique, intonation, and dexterity. This section can serve as a reference point for you in your own development and that of your students.
- Guided Practice Lessons provide daily lesson outlines that you can use between class meetings. While these are not intended to be repeated for multiple days, they provide a framework for your own develop as a brass musician.
- Resources and Activities provide a range of materials that will be used throughout the text. All of these materials can also be used as pedagogical materials to distribute to your own students.
As a quick side note, this text and all of its materials are created and distributed under a Creative Commons license 4.0 (CC BY-NC-SA). This licensing allows for the distribution, manipulation, and reapplication of any materials within it free of charge. There a couple of stipulations that come with this particular license:
- BY-If you use these materials, you must provide attribution of where they came from. This is as simple as keeping the license statement at the bottom of each resource sheet.
- NC-These materials can be used in any non-commercial application. If you repurpose these materials, you need to distribute them in non-profit manner.
- SA-If you use any of the materials within this text in a new format, you need to provide these materials under a Creative Commons license with the same level of access and distribution.
More details on Creative Commons can be found at https://creativecommons.org.
With that, let’s toot our own horns and blast the trumpets!