On teaching styles of horn teachers, and creativity

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Not too long ago a colleague made an offhand comment about another teacher, saying they were a “method” teacher. That observation, and looking at the Jeff Agrell book on creativity (reviewed here), were key thoughts toward this article. Essentially there are two extremes of ways you could teach the horn (or any other instrument, really).

One type is the method teacher with a long list of technical things you have to master. They will have materials they like to use to teach those things, and you have to progress from the foundational things on to higher levels, the idea being if you do it all correctly as the expert teacher instructs you then you will succeed!

I don’t consider myself a method teacher of this type, but I can see how some elements of this teaching style are there. A great low range is a foundation to advancement, great tonguing, great control of dynamics, etc. But I don’t use charts and graphs, there is no one-size-fits-all plan of horn study that I follow. Every student is an individual after all.

One of my own teachers, Verne Reynolds, was very much a method teacher. I don’t think that he would have thought of himself to be, but clearly, he had certain things he expected you to do and had very specific materials that he used to teach those elements – and when I was at Eastman, everyone studied exactly those same materials! His etudes are actually a prime example of materials intended for method teaching. As noted in the prior article, there is absolutely nothing in the 48 etudes that you are supposed to be creative with. The whole goal is to play them exactly as written. Exactly! That is why they are written like they are written. The strong impression he left me with was that the only correct interpretation of his music in general was one that followed the markings exactly. Your job is to develop your absolute control of technique to achieve it.

Many horn teachers do something like this with Kopprasch as well, expecting a very specific interpretation of the music with a very exact control of dynamics and articulations. And there is a lot to be said for that level of attention to detail, especially as you look forward toward orchestral excerpts. Speaking generally, there is a narrow range of ways any excerpt sounds correct. Audition committees are not looking for a new, creative interpretation of Tchaik 5! Method teaching has some real applications toward this.

At the opposite extreme you have a style of teacher that is very free-form. They may not give you as a student any assignments, they simply want you to work on what you think you need to work on. Another flavor in this category would be the teacher very interested in motivating students by inspiration, so that it will propel you forward in your studies. Either flavor might work well with the right student, someone somewhat advanced and self-motivated, but then again, even then that student might appreciate some specific direction (a “method”) to help them toward solving problems and reaching their goals.

Creativity can add a spark to either type of teaching in various ways, but I can particularly see how it would help strengthen the teaching of a method teacher to enhance the interpretative ability of students, so that they can play more convincingly in general.

For example, let’s say you assign Reynolds 5 to a good student. There is a challenge to playing it as written and I believe Reynolds wanted it to stay exactly at the one dynamic he requests for the entire etude; the trap he laid was that the lines naturally tend to change dynamic and you have to counter that tendency. However, how about doing the opposite; ask the student to come up with a scheme of dynamics for the piece of their own. It really opens up the etude, and is a refreshing exercise for everyone as there is no one correct answer.

Another classic publication that I have been exploring more this semester than any prior semester, with an eye to creativity, are the Gallay unmeasured preludes, as discussed in the previous article. What is great about these is you actually can’t play them like Kopprasch. You have to be much freer in style, play it much like you might hear a fine cellist on a Bach suite. You make the phrases and dynamics work. Personally, I really am enjoying working on these on natural horn, it has made a great practice challenge for me recently.

Obviously, this article only scratches the surface of a pretty large topic, that of teaching styles. There is no one correct style but it is something to be aware of as a student. This older article has a few more thoughts on the topic, and this video provides a humorous look at the classic mean teacher. 

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