Legit Pedagogy versus Jazz Pedagogy

Note – This post was inspired by an essay that Brad Edward’s wrote over 10 years ago. In fact I had started writing up this one a while back, but never got around to finishing it and publishing it. As I was looking through some old drafts, I came across this one and decided it was time to finish it.

I want to start this post off plugging Brad Edwards’s blog post (Encoding Habits) that got me thinking about this particular topic. In Brad’s writeup he poses an interesting hypothetical question when confronted with a relatively young student who wants to begin working on orchestral etudes. He described some thoughts he had when considering if the student was ready.

 [I]f a high school player starts working on these excerpts without solid technique and possibly not a clear concept of “how it goes” musically, they will probably struggle with the excerpt.

Furthermore, if they learn that excerpt with bad habits, they can pull out the same music years later and BOOM those old bad habits are right there!  It’s as if the bad habits are literally encoded into the music.

Brad Edwards – Encoding Habits

Brad’s discussion that follows is worth reading, but the above quote struck me as familiar. While I do tend to focus my artistic efforts on jazz, I also love playing classical music and keep a foot in both worlds, both as a musician and a teacher. While attitudes have changed, there still are some caricatures of the “jazz” teacher versus the “classical” teacher when it comes to how to approach teaching.

How might we look hypothetically at Brad’s thought, but from the standpoint of a young jazz student?

If a high school player starts working on improvising over tunes without solid technique and musical understanding they will probably struggle with the tune.

Furthermore, if they learn that tune with bad habits, they can play over the same tune years later and those bad habits return.

There are two parts to this conundrum.

First, there is the issue of the student playing with poor technique. This is one of the reasons why I tend to isolate technique practice and separate it from musical practice. I know that this idea isn’t very popular with some players and teachers who prefer to teach everything through assignments of music, but making technique corrections can take years of practice. If there is a concern about playing mechanics limiting the student’s abilities then I prefer to address them through assignments of exercises. The exercises should be simple enough to describe and while they might be a challenge to play, the student’s attention should be focused on playing correctly, not playing musically. The idea here is that fixing playing technique separate from music will keep the student from having to split attention into both how he or she is playing and how expressive he or she is playing. Once the technique has been assimilated it will become the way the student always plays – because that’s what works. This won’t risk teaching an unmusical performance because we’re going to work on playing with expression too, just at a different time.

The other issue is the musical understanding. This one is conceptually a more difficult concept to work with, I think. Let me offer a personal example.

For years as a young jazz student I struggled with playing the last measure of Blue Monk correctly. If you’re not familiar with the tune, the last phrase is played twice, but offset by a beat the second time in an unusual way that is a huge part of Thelonious Monk’s compositional (and improvisational) style. While playing the head I was constantly turning around the beat on this last measure and coming in a beat late on the repeat. I was aware that I was doing this, but I had a lot of trouble feeling this phrase differently from the way I learned it. Making the correction involved replacing that mental concept with the correct one through a combination of listening to the tune a lot and adding a mental count of the remaining beats to how long I hold the final note (“2, 3, 4..” instead of intuiting that the final note of the phrase ends on the previous measure).

I happened to be jamming on this tune last night with some students and didn’t screw up that phrase. I have established a new habit where even though the phrase still feels funny to me (I think that was what Monk was going for anyway) I no longer worry about playing it wrong.

Another example is the changes are too unfamiliar or move by too fast for the student to comfortably negotiate. Much like addressing technique separate from music, I like to address improvisation through isolating a particular topic and removing other elements from the mix for a while. For example, if the student is having trouble making a ii-V-I in a particular key I would have the student practice just that phrase outside of the context of the entire tune. If the tempo is the issue, we slow down or even eliminate tempo altogether. If the student has trouble playing good note choices I might have him or her practice improvising by only playing chord tones.

When practicing in this manner, the only thing you’re going to focus on is your particular practice goal. Anything else that comes out and happens to sound bad is OK for now. Improvising is a little like juggling many balls. If you focus on one ball, other balls that have not yet become unconscious will be dropped. That’s OK, you’ve now identified other areas that you can work on at another time in the same manner. Fix one issue at a time.

Jugglers have an expression, “If you’re not dropping you’re not learning.” As musicians and music teachers we should take a similar approach. Lessons and practice sessions are about identifying mistakes and correcting them by focusing on what’s wrong and what should be happening. I don’t feel the issue is so much about the risk of encoding a bad habit that comes back years later, but rather the lack of identifying the mistakes and making the effort to isolate and correct them early on.

The Left Hand Grip

Over the past couple of years I’ve been dealing with some pain in my left thumb after holding my instrument for any length of time. I’ve got a similar issue in my right thumb and wrist that fortunately doesn’t bother my trombone playing, but it can become distracting at the end of playing a 3 hour gig.

There are contraptions that I know many players use to help hold the instrument for them, but I don’t feel that it’s quite necessary for me (yet) to go that far. In fact, I’m a little cautious about any change in how I’m holding my instrument because it is a very important part of playing technique. On trumpet and trombone, for example, the left hand pretty much holds the instrument by itself. The height and angle of the instrument as it contacts the lips is very much going to influence the embouchure technique (and in more ways than a lot of players seem to realize).

For most of my playing career I’ve been holding my trombone in the standard way, with my forefinger over the shank of the mouthpiece and my other fingers griping the instrument like this.

What I’m now finding is that that group keeps my thumb pulled away just enough to start hurting after a bit. But making a minor change by moving my middle finger on to the other side of the brace takes the pressure off my thumb.

It’s less of an issue when I play my symphonic horn with an F attachment. The nature of that grip is such that I can leave my second finger where it is standard or bring it on the other side of the brace like in the above photo, just with my thumb on the F trigger. It’s a little awkward that way because my 2nd finger might get a bit in the way of pressing the trigger down, so I tend to hold that horn traditionally. Both grips are close enough to each other that it’s not hard at all to keep my instrument at my lips correctly and consistently.

If you do an Internet search for “trumpet grips” you’ll find a lot more variations than you usually find with trombonists. Some teachers seem to make a bigger deal of holding the trumpet a particular way than others, but it of course depends a lot on the individual player’s hand size and, to a certain degree, the music that player performs. For example, a lead trumpet player specialist is not going to need to kick out the third valve slide as often as someone who plays more in the lower register, so you could argue that the former’s trumpet grip doesn’t need to concern that characteristic as much.

What I don’t advocate for is a grip or way of holding the instrument that is inconsistent. I believe it’s better in the long term for the musician to find a comfortable left hand grip that enables him or her to play everything that they may be asked to and keep it consistent. A consistent grip will go a long way to a consistent embouchure.

Lastly, for brass musicians who play tuba, horn, and euphonium/baritone horn you will need to do some experimentation to find a position of the instrument that is both comfortable for you to hold for long periods of time and also is ideal to match your physiology. Horn angles, mouthpiece placement, and other features of brass technique are personal. If a horn player, for example, rests his or her bell against her leg it may or may not put the mouthpiece on the lips at the right angle and height. He or she will also have some trouble performing standing up for a solo recital. It’s better to learn to play by holding the horn off the leg. Tubists and euphonium players might want to consider adjustable instrument stands to help hold the instrument at the correct height and angle to fit their body.

Want more on the left hand grip, but from the standpoint of a bass trombonist? I highly recommend you check out Doug Yeo’s article in his FAQ, “I’ve been experiencing pain in my left arm when playing trombone. What is causing it and how can I fix the problem?