Written by Thomas Allard (horn student at Royal College of Music)
(Year 3 Teaching Skills Assignment)
“It is impossible to teach the horn. It is only possible to teach the students how to teach themselves.”
This is Pip Eastop’s main philosophy, and over the last three years I have gradually come to agree with it. The main reason for this is that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to give a totally accurate description of the physical processes involved in tone production. Furthermore, even if the professor can describe accurately what he does, it does not mean that students can do the same thing, simply due to the fact that the physical make-up of the inside of the mouth differs from person to person.
To tackle this problem, my professor has devised a practise method to help students address all aspects of technique and discover for themselves the way to attain an ideal sound and technique. Hopefully this eventually allows them to express themselves musically without succumbing to the technical limitations of the instrument. He calls this method the “workout”. It is a period of intense practise incorporating self-styled exercises for breath control and tonguing at different dynamic levels throughout the horn’s range, slurring over different widths of interval, double and triple tonguing, lip trills and attacks on high notes.
Emphasis is on having a heightened level of awareness of what you play, and on only playing to a level at which you can play everything perfectly. Trying to push past this level too quickly does not help you to improve. However, by playing only what you can play perfectly day in, day out, it becomes apparent that the level at which you can do this is always increasing. Once students have an understanding of how the “workout” works, they can tailor existing exercises and invent new ones to meet their specific needs at any given time.
There can come times, however, when the student has trouble advancing with a certain area of their technique, possibly due to the fact that the exercise they have been using does not quite address the problem or perhaps because they are not quite sure what outcome they are aiming at (e.g. tone, type of attack etc.). In an attempt to overcome this problem my professor has invented a teaching method based less on verbal description and more on the aural perception of both the professor and student.
It is called “horn tennis” and involves the professor and student sitting in such a way that their bells face each other so that they can hear each other as clearly as possible. Then, taking into account the student’s description of their particular problem the professor will play something short, usually from a “workout” exercise, which the student then has to imitate exactly. If the student is unable to do this, the professor will play something easier so that the student can imitate it perfectly. Then he will see how far his student can improve by gradually increasing the difficulty of what he plays (without, of course, allowing them to play anything that isn’t perfect) as they continually bounce these small snippets of exercises off each other.
I have seen many of the benefits of this teaching method. Firstly, when there have been faults in the way I have been practising exercises I have been able to spot them straight away. Often I realise that I have not had enough patience in slowly building up what I am able to do. Other times it has been a case of me not quite having had high enough a level of awareness and thus having allowed mistakes to creep in.
Furthermore, there have been times when suggestions of a new approach to a problem by either my professor or myself have led to the discovery of new exercises which have ended up benefiting both parties.
When I have felt stuck because of being unsure of my aims I have benefited from “horn tennis” simply because I have been able to listen to how my professor thinks something should sound and slowly infiltrate this into my way of playing.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, “horn tennis” has given me a valuable insight into the way in which my professor practises. This alone can often put my playing back on track. After all, if it can make him as good a player as he is, it can hopefully do the same for me!
Tom - thanks for allowing me to reproduce this on my website!