On Connecting the Ear & Brass Performance by John Schlabach
This article was originally published in the International Trumpet Guild Journal (Volume 26, Numberr 4, June 2002). With consent from the author and ITG, the article is included in this issue for two reasons. I continually observe the proven effectiveness of John’s teaching methods. In addition, I believe the pedagogical use of the voice is absolutely ideal for improved musicianship. ~ Jason Smith
The development of aural perception and skill is always acknowledged as one of the most critical elements of musicianship for any instrument. Due to the substantial physical requirements of playing a brass instrument and related challenges (such as working for a relaxed, efficient approach), many musicians lag behind in the development of aural skills and musicianship, unaware that their ear is not well “connected” to their performance. Very few exercises exist specifically for strengthening the ear in relation to performing on a brass instrument. Hopefully these comments and singing pattems will provide both insights into this problem and a tangible method to improve aural ability.
Many brass players believe their ear is engaged when performing, because they know instantly if they played the right notes, correct rhythms, achieved a full sound, etc. However, their ear (or brain) is only judging, or evaluating the performance. The mechanical parts of wind playing – principally the embouchure and use of air – are in control, and the ear is following, not leading the playing. The ear is only active in response to the sensations and mechanics of performing. This process leaves the player vulnerable to inconsistency, causing them to depend significantly upon that day’s “feel.”
If asked to sing an etude or solo (a chromatic, French-style etude for example), these players would have varying degrees of success, but would be either missing or “glossing over” many of the more challenging intervals. Usually they insist that they hear the notes in their heads, but just can not sing them. THIS IS FALSE; if a player cannot sing the notes accurately (regardless of vocal quality!), he/she is almost certainly not hearing the pitches before they are played. Consequently, the instrument is being used to quickly confirm each note for the ear.
Players often assume they are performing musically, as they can explain in detail where they will make a crescendo, ritard, accelerando, taper a note, etc. But most likely they have spoken words, or “instructions” occurring in their heads in response to what they see on a page of music while playing, rather than vivid musical sound in their minds. This is something like watching a complicated movie in a foreign language with subtitles. One can get the basic information or intention of the dialogue by reading the words, but would be missing the inflection, nuance, subtlety, and beauty of the language.
In order to perform in a truly musical manner, a player must have absolute knowledge of every pitch including each sixteenth note in a fast passage. Only then can the ear lead the mechanical aspects of performing, causing the physical components to respond correctly. When the player is closer to 100% pitch accuracy, other musical factors such as articulation style, note lengths, inflections, and musical line (the beauty of the language) will emerge more naturally, as sound becomes more clear and strong in the performer’s mind. These musical factors must occur intentionally, as the player is conceiving them in sound, rather than manufacturing them through the use of the “spoken instructions” mentioned above.
It is consistently noticeable that during clinics or lessons, very fine players sing musical examples with enthusiasm, authority, correct style, and of course accurate pitch. This is clear evidence that when they are performing on their instrument, an engaged and active ear is leading their playing. They make it look and sound easy!
So…what can be done to develop these critical skills? It must be understood that one track of playing development has to be mechanical. Fundamentals such as long tones, lip slurs, scale pattems, articulation exercises, etc. must be improved to the point that one’s performing habits can be led by the ear The muscle responses must be able to perform the task correctly, and there is no substitute for repetitions. This kind of practice, of course, has to occur throughout one’s entire playing career. But players should always remember that the goal of mechanical practice is to enable one to forget about the “how to” while playing, which depends in large part on the ear’s ability to lead (and lip slurs, for example, can still be practiced musically).
The other track of development is improving aural ability. One very important method is to sing every exercise, etude, excerpt, or solo before playing it. This strengthens the aural image. Another very helpful exercise is for players to practice on the mouthpiece alone, which also requires the ear to be more strongly engaged (my thoughts on this subject appear in the October, 1999 issue of the ITG Journal). Using the following exercises, which address both accurate interval perception and its connection to the brass instrument by having players finger the correct notes while singing them, can also refine aural ability. It is possible for players to have naturally good aural skills, performing well in all of the related classes as a college music major, but for those skills to not be fully engaged when performing. Their ear and playing are still not well connected, and consequently the mind is still functioning in that mechanical mode.
The following number sequences are scale degree pattems, arranged in increasing difficulty. They are to be sung and fingered on the valves, not played on the instrument. Each pattem should be mastered in every key, major and minor, before progressing to the next one. This could be frustrating, as it is tempting to think that if F major is mastered for a certain pattem, mastering F-sharp major or B-flat minor is not that important. However, by far the most effective improvement in connecting the ear and playing occurs when all keys are performed easily. This will probably require much repetition. Progressing quickly through the patterns is not nearly as critical as accuracy; patience is paramount. It is common for a player to have to work for a few weeks on a single pattern before it is wise for him to go on to the next one.
Another pitfall is for players to think they have mastered a pattern if they can sing it accurately, but still stumble on the fingerings in some keys (although it is interesting and revealing to note that players often sing less accurately in keys that are troublesome for their fingerings, even though they can sing the pattem confidently in easier keys). This means that the ear is gaining in perception, but the connection to the brass instrument is still lacking. The two factors are equally important.
At first it will be beneficial for many players to use a form of pitch reference such as piano, portable electric keyboard, or pitch pipe. This will provide a model for the ear if players need to sing along with the intervals or need to repeat them after they hear the pattem. Again, players should NOT play the pattems on the instrument first (or at all); that would reinforce the playing mechanics being in the lead again, providing information for the ear The whole purpose of the singing pattems is to reverse that process.
After improvement, the keyboard can be used to occasionally check notes after they are sung to reinforce accuracy. In time (repetitions and patience!), intervals in the singing pattems will become more obvious and automatic, and pitch reference will no longer be necessary. The eventual goal when singing and fingering is for the player to not think note names (those are “instructions” again) but for the singing and correct fingerings to become an automatic response in any key. It can happen! Another suggestion is for players to sing strongly and authoritatively, even if mistakes are made. Weak or “careful” singing shows up as tentative playing.
• Use any syllable (such as “La”) or solfege. • The 7th degree in minor should be natural, not raised, to differentiate it from major • The player should start with the first pattem that is not easy in every key, though nothing is wrong with starting with #1. • The pattems should be practiced in two, ten-minute sessions each day: one during regular practice as a break, and another independent session.
Singing/Fingering Patterns: Ascending and Descending (up or down arrows indicate ascending or descending interval for the next scale degree-the 7 th degree often goes underneath the tonic.)
The benefits of practicing these pattems vocally over a period of years are substantial. Players will start to notice more ease in getting around their instrument because technique is following the ear, and note centers will become more accurate. Subtle intonation tendencies and problems will become more obvious both in individual playing and in ensembles. Improvement of aural ability is also much more closely related to improvement in range and endurance than most players realize.
Improving aural skill does not guarantee musicianship, but musical expression usually occurs more naturally as the player’s ear becomes more accurate and perceptive. It is easy for players to ignore this kind of aural practice, but patient and systematic work will open a new world of awareness that will increase the joy of performance.
About the author…
John Schlabach is the trumpet professor at Ohio University in Athens, OH. He is very active as a soloist, chamber and orchestral musician, and clinician. Schlabach eamed degrees from Northwestern and Westem Illinois Universities.