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Freedom Through Control or Control Through Freedom

by John Rommel

When studying the playing and teaching of music today, it seems there are two main approaches which are taken, although the goal of both approaches is no doubt the same. All musicians want to play musically, with great accuracy and control, but there are two distinctly different avenues taken to accomplish this goal.

The first approach to playing could be described as one of freedom through control, or freedom through accuracy. This system utilizes an analytical approach to learning the physical side of playing the instrument with the idea that once control is gained, the music will be free and natural.

One reason this analytical approach has become commonplace is the high demand placed on accuracy today, at times to the detriment of the music. With the perfection achieved by today’s recordings, many have come to expect the exact same perfection in live performances. Many musicians have as their main concern the issue of not missing notes. This concept of playing not to miss can lead to music that is accurate, but which lacks the freedom and natural expression crucial for great music making. As a result, it is common to hear musicians who sound virtually the same, with very little individual personality. In fact, many orchestras today play with less verve, and the music making is less personalized from orchestra to orchestra, than in the past. It will never be natural to add the music at the end of the process. The music must lead the way of learning at all times.

A second approach to playing is one where the music always leads the way, with the sound having great freedom and expression, and where the music comes alive. In this approach, accuracy is the end result of great music making, not the other way around. The goal is to be a natural player, where the instrument is an appendage, much like hands, arms and legs. The creative mind controls all aspects of the process, including the physical development necessary to produce the sound. These elements are what make this approach the preferred one.

In the United States, this natural philosophy of brass playing is most closely associated with the Chicago Symphony. While Chicago has long been a bastion for this concept, there is also a long-standing tradition of thinking and teaching this way at Indiana University; a tradition that continues today. (On a personal note, this approach was taught to me, after many years of searching, by William Adam at Indiana University and Vincent Cichowicz of the Chicago Symphony and Northwestern University.)

When following the path to a natural approach, it is important to realize that the human voice is the most natural of instruments. Therefore, our goal is to copy the human voice when we play. In essence, we are projecting the music outward by learning to sing through the instrument, not by physically learning to play the instrument. When our concentration is in the sound of the music and we sing through the instrument, our body will find the most natural way to produce that sound. We do not have to analytically and actively learn how to develop the muscles necessary to play the instrument. Our goal is to get our conscious mind out of our playing and let the muscles develop naturally for the task at hand. Our body will find the most natural way to produce the sound we have as a goal if we will only allow it to do so. This is where our focus must be.

The most important component (aspect) of this philosophy is to foster and maintain a positive attitude and approach. It is vitally important that we are not worried about what we do wrong. We do not worry about failures or try to avoid them, but work through them with confidence because this is how success is attained. Likewise, we must not be judgmental of what we hear because this will inhibit our natural growth. We are aware of the sound we produce, but our thought is focused on the mental image of sound we are singing through the instrument.

The image of sound must be alive and projected with great mental energy. Otherwise, the message is not strong enough for the body to find the natural path to success. If the message is strong enough, over time our body will find the easiest, most efficient, and best way for it to produce the sound of the image. This process does take time, just as it took time to learn how to walk, but with patience and attention paid to the process of our practice, it can be attained in much the same way. Trial and error are vital to the process, as well as not worrying about the failures along the way, because they lead us to success.

It is imperative that we keep our mind on the sound. If we are not focused on the sound, we are focused on the wrong thing. Our ears are our best teacher. We have to become our own teacher and let our ears lead the way in our development as musicians and brass players. Every note we play must be musical and in the sense of the phrase.

Obviously, there must be a delivery system in order for the sound to be produced. This delivery system is the air. Our image, which is sound and music, rides on top of the air. This is why the breath is so important. We must breathe in a natural way and not block the air as it passes through the instrument. If the breath is not natural or has hesitation before exhalation, the image we have in our mind will not be projected outward. The air must be released in a relaxed fashion without tension, and there must be plenty of air behind every note we play. This copious use of air is what allows us to keep our lips relaxed, as well as relaxing our tongue for articulation purposes. The exhalation of air is what sets the lips into vibration. Therefore, it is important not to preset the lips, as this causes excessive tension. Then, the air must be accelerated outward in much the same way we accelerate through the swing when playing golf, tennis or baseball. Success does not come from swinging hard, but from a fluid motion and follow-through.

There are certain qualities to listen for in the sound we produce. We want a full, rich and even sound throughout all registers. We listen for an immediacy of sound to the start of every note, whether high or low, loud or soft. It is very helpful to think in a horizontal way rather than a vertical one as we proceed from low to high. In addition, it is important to remember that simple is best. The simpler we keep our thoughts, the more successful we will be.

In choosing materials for practice, we must match the level at which we play. It is better to play easier things well than to play very difficult things poorly. We then can transfer the successes of the simple exercises to our practice of the more difficult ones. Often we go to the more difficult exercises when we are not yet playing the simple ones correctly, with a free, full sound and correct phrasing. Practicing easy exercises and etudes helps us to maintain our balance when practicing difficult ones.

In closing, we should always remember that playing a brass instrument is not hard work, but that playing well does take a lot of hard work focused in the right direction. If we think we are working too hard to play the instrument, then we probably are. This natural, positive approach to brass playing allows individual musical personalities to flourish and brings great vitality to the music.

John Rommel