3 Key Ideas from a Master Class with Gail Williams

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My previous post on buzzing reminded me of another classic post from my original HTML blog not yet reposted to Horn Matters. Dated 3/6/05 and originally titled “Master class afterglow,” this post has some great performing and teaching tips.

As my Doctorate is in brass pedagogy I am perhaps slightly more attuned to this than others, but really any horn teacher who has hosted more than a couple guest artist master classes can attest that not all master classes are created equal. Surprisingly often you will find that you almost need to “debrief” the players that played (and the studio) after the class as though they had just passed through some ordeal. The best guests will however leave an afterglow that will be felt for weeks and lead to players making positive breakthroughs. We have had several such artists visit ASU recently and our guest artist yesterday, Gail Williams, certainly gave a class which will leave a great afterglow.

Gail Williams hardly needs any special introduction to horn players; a former member of the Chicago Symphony and founding member of Summit Brass, she is currently professor of horn at Northwestern University and has built a strong reputation as a teacher and performer. The class was full of good pedagogy and astute comments, not a surprise as I have seen her give classes twice before and actually played for her in a master class at the first Summit Brass event in 1986! More on that in a minute.

All her comments related well to the players who were playing for her and to what you could hear of their playing. So that online readers may benefit a bit as well, a few of the most significant and useful areas discussed include:

Buzzing. Gail Williams is a big proponent of buzzing. One student asked a good question, how much buzzing is enough? Do as much as you need. I am very in favor of buzzing as an effective way to work on problems, and will be buzzing even more now after this class. For additional info, there is [was] an article in my Horn Articles site on Buzzing on the Mouthpiece. [A portion of this article is here].

Rhythmic bass lines. This is more of a teaching idea that caught my attention. With certain solos and excerpts she played along with the students, improvising a bass line and holding a steady rhythm (eighth notes or whatever is appropriate to the music at hand). This really helped students be aware of rhythm. I have been doing something similar to this for a while with more the idea of helping students be more aware of pitch–drones mainly, based on ideas gleaned from our tuba professor Sam Pilafian (a teacher very full of interesting teaching ideas), but I will add rhythm to the drones now as I teach. The goal is to make students aware of their rhythm which must be perfect, especially in orchestral excerpts.

Listen to lots of music. You really need to listen to many different versions of an excerpt or solo to really get it ready. http://www.hornexcerpts.org/ is a very handy source for this listening to excerpts. Also, just listen to lots of good music in general to soak up style and nuance ideas. This is why most schools require people to go to a number of artist level concerts, and why you should not only listen to horn music.

I was also able to speak with Prof. Williams afterward for a time which was also great. One topic of conversation was scales. These are so foundational, yet some advanced students seem to just never really get them down well. When I was teaching at The Crane School of Music there was (and still is) a system of “levels” exams, which are a type of barrier exam and a component is scales. So at Crane scales were kind of an automatic part of teaching but at ASU I find that I have to require a scale component in my teaching. Prof. Williams uses the Schantl book, which I also have used with students (some of my students use the Pares Scales book as an alternate, especially music education students–I have a warm spot for Pares as it is where I first really worked out my scales; Prof. Williams as a student worked from the Schantl, which I recommend for my performance students) [see this recent post and track through the series there for more on scale materials]. Ear training was another big topic. At ASU in the brass area we give an ear training test to all incoming undergraduate applicants as a part of their audition and this year began to extend this to graduate applicants as well. Anyone reading this, you do need to work to make your ear as strong as possible; take your theory classes as seriously as possible and try to go way beyond what is required. Finally, teaching effectively was another topic I would want to mention. As I have said both to prospective students and online as well I prefer schools with full time performance faculty who view teaching you to be their main job, and she clearly prefers the level she is able to reach with students now that she is working with them full time at Northwestern over the level she could reach when she was part time faculty.

When I played for her in 1986 the items I retained the longest were on buzzing and posture. One of the students who played for her yesterday received a very similar comment to one she made to me on posture, and as she said it I am sure that student realized that I had spoken of the same issue to her a number of times. But hearing someone else say a similar thing in a different way can often make things click and progress will occur. I hope much was retained by all present at the class.

Working with a number of different teachers can be very beneficial. Get to good guest artist master classes as often as you can and build your playing in the process.

The other minor footnote I would add is I was actually present at the first concert by Summit Brass! It was in 1986 in an indoor tennis court in Keystone. That is however a story for another day.

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