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Pedagogy: Sharing All You Know

Ron Modell | December 2021 January 2022

    My pedagogical career began when I was in the Tulsa Philharmonic (1953-1960). I started teaching young students, usually beginning around the age of ten. I told the parents of my young students that fifteen minutes a day of a disciplined practice routine, would be enough to help them begin to develop not only their embouchure (or lip positions), but their musical abilities as well.
    One of the most important things in teaching younger students is to have some kind of musical reward at the end of each lesson. At that time, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass were tremendously popular, maybe the hottest group in the nation. I was able to find the Tijuana Brass books, which came in a set, and this music really excited my young students and bolstered their enthusiasm for doing the first part of the lesson. There we would go through the basics, practicing some long tones and learning their scales. Like most teachers, I would write out certain exercises. But, you can be sure every student I taught was going to be a disciple of the Schlossberg Daily Drills and Studies method, which is the same system under which I was first taught.

    At first I shared the common misconception, based on the Arban method, that the mouthpiece should he placed on two-thirds of the lower lip and one-third of the upper lip. Over time, however, I became certain, through talking with other teachers and players all over the world, that when you start with a student, you need to allow them to find a place that fits them best. Of course, if that place is completely out of whack, you make the adjustments. In most cases, 50-50 is a good place to start, and then the natural thing will happen.
    Before any brass player begins their practice, it is important to buzz the mouthpiece for thirty seconds or so before beginning to play, in order to get the air and the vibrations moving. I was never taught by any of my great teachers to do mouthpiece practice, perhaps because the great Schlossberg did not teach this method. It wasn’t until I was well into my forties or early fifties, when I took some lessons with Arnold Jacobs, the fabulous tubist with the Chicago Symphony, that I began thinking about using the mouthpiece as he did. On his way to work, he would have the mouthpiece in his right hand while driving with his left, playing everything from the Star Spangled Banner to the repertoire scheduled for that day’s rehearsal.
    I am now convinced that mouthpiece practice is essential to becoming an accomplished player. I never did get to study with the highly respected West Coast teacher Jimmy Stamp, but I understand that it was an essential part of his teaching. I believe that the current trumpet teacher at the Eastman School of Music, Jim Thompson, whom I admire tremendously, is also an ardent advocate of mouthpiece practice. In my daily routine as a young player, my teachers instructed me to buzz the mouthpiece for about thirty seconds: start playing a tone, tongue a few notes, and then use it as a fire engine, making a kind of Whooooo siren sound up and down, up and down.
    After buzzing the mouthpiece, I would start at the beginning of Schlossberg, with the long tones of low C, which we now know today is not the best way to start. Beginning in low C relaxed the embouchure – the position in which you set your mouth and face – more than was necessary. The second-line G for the Bb trumpet, I discovered, was the better place to start. My top priority was to immediately strive for a good tone.
    Not one of my teachers ever explained proper breathing to me. It was only after I finished my fourth season with the Tulsa Philharmonic that I went to New York to study with Frank Venezia and learned something about how to breathe. I think my life as a trumpet player would have been significantly different if any of the other great trumpet teachers I had would have taught me how to breathe correctly. In retrospect, I think because I immediately had a beautiful sound and played well right away, my teachers assumed I was breathing properly.
    I had no idea of the importance of using my abdominal muscles. In our very first lesson, Frank Venezia really opened my eyes to the fact that all these years I had been playing by using too much mouthpiece pressure, rather than using the air column properly. When I came back for my second lesson and played the exercises that Frank had written out for me, I complained to him that I was experiencing a lot of pain in my abdomen, my back, and my side. He was very happy and told me, “Good! Good! Now you are using muscles you have never used before.”
    Regardless of their teaching techniques, every great brass player agrees on these key points. You still have to put the instrument up to your mouth. You still have to buzz your lips. You still have to push air through the horn. The approaches may be different, but these are always the basics of playing a brass instrument.
    I remember the late great Bud Herseth, trumpeter with the Chicago Symphony, saying that he did not like to use the word “register.“ Herseth felt that all the notes were the same. Many brass players used to go to Orchestra Hall with a pair of binoculars to watch Herseth. There was almost no movement when he was playing; red face, yes, but no movement in the embouchure. One of the most defining statements anybody could make about the perfect embouchure, while not thinking about the concept of register, would be what Maynard Ferguson did in his album A Message from Newport. On one track, he played one of the greatest big-band charts ever, Framework for the Blues. On this track, Maynard’s very last entrance, he hits a double high C and, without removing the trumpet or mouthpiece from his lips, uses a little improvisation to go from double high C all the way down to low F#, the lowest possible note on the trumpet.
    What else can I say? In a brass player’s perfect world, the hardest notes still feel like you’re playing the easiest ones. For giants like Bud Herseth and Maynard Ferguson, every single note they played on the trumpet had the same relaxed feeling as I did when playing an easy note like middle-G.
    A defining experience for my own playing was studying with the great teacher Don Jacoby, to perfect his concept of the pivot note. At the time, I was playing principal trumpet in Dallas, and we were rehearsing Pagliacci in the Dallas Civic Opera In this opera, the very first entrance for the Bb trumpet starts on the Bb above the staff. You have to work your way down, never taking the horn away from your lips or resetting your embouchure. I was having a tough time with it, and Don Jacoby said to me, “Well, when you get ready to play that first Bb above the staff, are you setting your embouchure for that Bb above the staff?“ “Of course,“ I replied. Don said, “This is where we change your life. Now we are going to introduce you to the pivot note.”
    The pivot note concept was to simply look at a passage, find its highest and its lowest notes, and then set your embouchure for the middle. In this case, that would have been a third-line Bb. Don Jacoby then had me play three, four, or five middle Bb in a row and, without taking the horn off my mouth or the mouthpiece from my lips, he would have me start at the high Bb and play the passage all the way down. It worked like magic because now everything felt like I was in my perfect range, right in the middle of the horn.
    Don Jacoby also cured me of my chronic apprehension about playing the famous solo near the end of Der Rosenkavalier, a popular part of the Dallas Symphony’s repertoire. I dreaded it, because it was one of the few pieces in my entire career in which I lacked the confidence in my ability to play it without cracking it. It didn’t help that I was playing such challenging music on a Bb trumpet, instead of an easier C or D trumpet. After Don had me apply the pivot note theory of finding the middle ground, I never missed it again. I even began to anticipate and love playing this solo.
    Still another critical aspect of trumpet technique is how a musician initially attacks the first note in any passage. As a teacher, I quickly learned to never make a general statement and claim, “This is the only way you can do something” because as soon as you say this, someone will come along and do it ass-backwards, or completely differently, and get it done just fine. The one thing I have felt very strongly about is that when you make the first attack of any passage, you must use the consonant T. For instance, on a low note, think of tah; in the middle range, think tu, and for the upper, think ti. I know there are many teachers who believe in simply blowing air and vibrating the lips to begin the tone. In his book, Trumpet Techniques, my uncle Louis Davidson advocated instead a three-part process of attack. Step one, you put the horn up to your lips in complete repose, without setting any embouchure. Steps two and three happen simultaneously. If it is going to be a middle G, then you simply get your tongue right behind your top teeth, and as soon as you take your breath, your tongue immediately strikes behind the top teeth with the syllable tu.

Bud Herseth, Maynard Ferguson, and Ron Modell

    In my experience, one of the greatest challenges is to effectively attack a high note softly. My own approach was to use the same forceful stroke of the tongue as you would for a loud note, while simultaneously controlling the amount of air that is released. This gave me the psychological confidence that made it unnecessary to try to sneak into any soft attack, an approach that too many players rely on.
    My whole philosophy in teaching the trumpet technique of tonguing was that if you could master the legato single-tongue – where you have no break in the sound, but simply sustain a note and interrupt it with the correct syllable then the art of articulation would never be a problem. In order to play the legato single tongue, the student must practice long tones, interrupting each one after the initial T attack with the du syllable. For example, start on an easy middle G and proceed to sound out tu-du-du-du-du without any interruption to the air column. As the student progresses, the du syllable becomes shorter and in time changes into a simple tongue staccato which still retains the sound of the original long tone. The same principle holds true for the more advanced techniques of multiple tonguing, or double and triple-tonguing.
    During the twenty-eight years that I taught at Northern Illinois University, we had three or four days a year when students would come to audition for entrance into the School of Music. It was amazing that when I would ask any student on a brass instrument to play a major scale, if their articulation was such that they had never been taught about legato single-tonguing, many times it came out sounding like a motorboat, a sort of “putt-putt-putt.” You would hear the scale with very short abbreviated notes, with no quality of sound to them or really good pitch. On the other hand, students who had been taught about legato-style tonguing would play a scale that sounded very different.
    When I was studying with my teachers and being assigned the long-tone Schlossberg exercises, I didn’t realize it at the time, but every few months they would have me shorten the stroke, so I would still retain the beautiful sound of a legato tone just being interrupted. They were teaching me all of the different articulations, so if I needed to play something heavily punctuated with a marcato, they would have me do that. It was a learning process that I didn’t even realize was going on, but the foundation was the fact that I could legato single-tongue, and I carried this forward into all the playing that I ever did. I was always very comfortable in being able to play a long legato and then cut it short to a very staccato sound, while still having it come out with a good tone quality, a good definition of pitch. Never, except in rare occasions, such as a Stravinsky piece, would the tone become secco, or a very dry short sound. I used that kind of sound in Stravinsky’s Firebird, and I also remember using it in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
    I also used portamento tonguing, which is a slur line on top of notes with dots underneath them. To me, this tonguing produced the most beautiful articulation. I always thought of Felix Mendelssohn’s Fingal’s Cave Overture, or the second movement in Beethoven’s first symphony.
    It became absolutely imperative with my students that they master the legato single-tongue because that was the key, the common denominator to all tonguing articulations. When we got into multiple tonguing double and triple-tonguing using the famous studies in the Arban book for some reason, all the teachers and players I ever talked to taught triple-tongue before they taught double-tongue. You started with a tu-tu-ku, accenting the ku very heavily. In the first two notes, there was no interruption of the air column, simply a long tone.
    During my tour with Cornelia Otis Skinner’s Paris 90, our conductor Nat Shilkret introduced me to one of the greatest trumpeters of our time, Rafael Mendez. He invited me to his home the next morning for a private lesson and asked me what I wanted him to help me with. I said simply, “You are known as the world’s greatest double and triple-tongue player. Could you show me your secret?“ What an astounding shock when he immediately went over to his books, pulled out the Arban volume, and turned to page 155, saying, “You start by going tu tu ku tu tu ku with a heavy accent on the ku. You are just introducing a new syllable into your mouth and into your playing, and you must heavily accent it without breaking the rhythm.” It usually took my students about eight weeks before they could triple-tongue at a fast tempo. The easiest part of triple-tonguing, of course, was that the same note was repeated over and over. The difficulty comes when the notes start to change. And it gets tricky when the fingers have to coordinate with the tongue. Mendez pointed out to me that most Spanish-speaking people, and Polish people as well, always had phenomenal double and triple-tonguing, simply because of their native languages. In Spanish, many words begin with a K articulation, but this is far more rare in English. Once again, perfecting the legato single-tongue can do nothing but lead you to the greatest results in all the articulations on a brass instrument you will be called upon to do for the rest of your musical life.

    I had my pre-war French Besson trumpet in a little cloth gig bag, which I took out and prepared to play. Rafael took out his Olds trumpet – he was a big sponsor for the Olds company – and proceeded to do his warm-up with pedal tones, something I had never done in my life, going up three octaves with tremendous flexibility. After five minutes of this, I started to put my horn back in its bag. Rafael looked shocked and asked me what I was doing. “Do you really expect me to play something after what I just heard?” I asked him. He said he had hoped it would inspire me, so I got out my horn again, and we started working on triple-tonguing.
    Something else that really interested me during our lesson was that I noticed that so many of your solos were written in keys with four or five sharps. Why was that? He told me that when he started his study in Mexico, unlike American students who begin in the simple key of C major (which has no sharps or flats), he was immediately immersed in music with key signatures of many sharps or flats. This kind of training also contributed to his unusually strong third valve finger. American beginners spend so much time in the key of C that their first two valve fingers are usually much stronger than their weaker third valve finger. Rafael’s third finger was just as strong as his first two.  Another bonus was that, for recording purposes, keys with many sharps give the trumpet a much more brilliant sound.
    As I came to my lessons each morning with Rafael Mendez in his Culver City house next to the MGM studios, I noticed a big jar in the entryway. He went over to the jar and took out something that at the time I didn’t know was a jalapeno pepper. He took a bite and invited me to try it. Not knowing any better, I took a taste and thought my tongue was coming right out of my mouth! “Wow!“ I exclaimed. “That was hot!“ Rafael Mendez replied, “Yes, it gets you up in the morning, gets you right up, gets you feeling good.
    One of the things that I prided myself on during my career was that I had achieved a true pianissimo on the trumpet. In a big auditorium, I could play pianissimo, and the note would be heard by the person in the last row. It took a lot of practicing at the dynamic, just as you would practice a good fortissimo. Sir Georg Solti himself gave me some wonderful constructive criticism at the conclusion of his season with us in Dallas, as conductor, telling me, “The one thing I would like to see you do, is when you play fortissimo to have you produce the same beauty of sound that you do when you play pianissimo. He asked me if I had ever played in a church, and of course I had played in many.  Maestro Solti said to think of the quality of sound you get in a beautiful church with exceptional acoustics. The one thing that should be in your mind at all times when playing fortissimo is that you are never playing loud for loud’s sake, but rather that you are imagining the beautiful sound of fortissimo as if it were being played softly. The beauty of sound has to be in your mind and come through the horn, just as you would with a pianissimo.
    It really did work. At many clinics, I would play the opening of the Tchaikovsky fourth symphony loud for loud’s sake, and then I would play it loud the way it should have been played. I think students were amazed by the striking difference, a strident ugly sound as opposed to a round beautiful sound, yet both with the same fortissimo dynamic.
    My main objective in teaching was always something my uncle Louis taught me: that whether you were playing one note, a scale, or a concerto, it had to be musical. Whenever my students played a scale, whether in the practice room or for a final jury, it was not simply running up and down the scale to show off technical prowess, it was a musical event. When given a choice, I would have my students slur a two-octave scale, making a crescendo when ascending and a decrescendo when descending, always insisting it be musical.
    In the hundreds of clinics that I have conducted in my lifetime, the main lesson I have always tried to put forth is that there are two halves to musical performance. The first half is learning the music well enough to play it flawlessly from a technical standpoint. This is the easy part, for now we even have computers and synthesizers that can be made to do that. The second part is much harder: to make the music come to life and project to the audience or to yourself something beautiful. I have emphasized to my students that when you go out to perform, always know that the audience comes in devoid of feelings, and it is your responsibility to give them something to take home with them that they didn’t possess when they first arrived. It is never enough to merely play all the right notes – you can do this yet still not achieve the rewards of making music. To make music, you have to make those notes come alive, to project feelings and emotion. The ultimate goal is to project your own joy and exuberance in making music. This entire process is applicable to any discipline.
    Dr. Robert Long, a Dallas psychiatrist whose son I instructed in trumpet, put all of this in perspective during a conversation we had about the career of Adolph Herseth. Dr. Long did not know anything about music, but he went to all the concerts he could, whether symphonic, opera, or jazz. He just loved music. I commented that if Herseth missed a note, the orchestra would probably turn around to see if he was still alive. What Dr. Long said that night helped me for the rest of my career. “I don’t know about Mr. Herseth,“ he said, “but you know if ten percent of the time you leave a performance feeling as though no one could have ever played as well as you just did, and another ten percent of the time you leave wanting to throw your trumpet against the wall, well, neither of those ten percents counts for very much.“ He went on to say that although you always aim for one-hundred percent perfection, if you can manage to get into the ninetieth percentile in your playing, you’ve achieved as much success as any human being can expect. All kinds of things can impact your performance, from ill health and personal issues, to world crisis, severe weather, etc.
    Rich Matteson, one of the premier jazz educators, told a gathering of band directors, “If a major league baseball player gets three hits out of ten times at bat, he is seen as a success. If a quarterback completes six out of ten passes, he is also a success. Now think about your ensembles, a hundred-piece band, a sixty-piece band or a hundred-piece orchestra. Think of the incredible percentage of accuracy that your students give you every day, at every concert, or better yet, imagine each student only getting three to six notes correct out of every ten. It is amazing what incredible accuracy they achieve with a multitude of players.”
    Basically, what Dr. Long was saying was that you try for one hundred percent. But if you played a hundred percent every night, what would there be to look forward to? If you can consistently play at eighty percent or better, and you aim for the upper-ninety percentile, you will have really achieved success. That made me feel better. I don’t know of any players that have gone through perfect seasons.
    In my first year as principal trumpet in the Tulsa Philharmonic, our conductor said to us during our first rehearsal for the season, “I know that anyone can make a mistake. I consider two a habit.” That can scare the hell out of you, because if you make your one mistake at the beginning, you have to worry about the whole rest of the season, or it can be a challenge based on the way you look at it.
    It is a daily chore to prove yourself, or it can be a challenge based on the way you look at it. The old adage is true: the hardest thing isn’t getting the job: it’s proving day in and day out that you are worthy of it. That is something I often heard from my uncle Louis, and I, tried to pass this on to my students as well.
    Finally, one of the greatest lessons I ever learned about the psychology of playing, especially if you are a principal player, was the season in Dallas when we performed Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G, a piece written for a small orchestra of 35 musicians. At the end of the first movement is a famous little double-tongue solo, and you have to play this pattern eight times in a row. From the very first rehearsal, I struggled to get through it. I went home after dinner, I sat in the living room with a cup mute, and just kept playing the passage slowly over and over.
    The next day at rehearsal, I managed to get four or five measures of the pattern before I lost it. That night at home, I put the cup mute in again and played the passage 20 or 30 times, a little faster. I did this the entire week up until our first concert on Sunday afternoon. When I left our apartment with my wife, I told her this was only the second time in my life I was going to a concert knowing there was a passage I could not play.
    But at the concert, I absolutely nailed it to the wall. In fact, the orchestra turned around and shuffled their feet (the ultimate compliment), for they knew I had been struggling with it. Monday night, I also played it flawlessly. I started to wonder what had happened. I finally figured it out, and it was a revelation: the fact that I had practiced it every night, increasing the tempo ever so slightly, until I was at the proper tempo by the night of the concert. When I had left on Sunday to perform, the final piece of the puzzle was my comment to my wife that I was leaving for a concert where I knew I couldn’t play a particular passage. I was able to bring myself to a relaxed state to the degree where I could just go out there and do the best I could. The other element was by practicing it maybe two hundred times that week; I had prepared myself well to perform it.
    It is also important, however, to realize when you encounter a passage that you know you don’t have the capability to play and to step back for the sake of the music. I remember performing at the Playboy Club in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin with one of my idols, the great jazz vocalist Mel Torme. We had a four-hour rehearsal and were planning to break for dinner before doing the show. I had been playing third and fourth trumpet among some of Chicago’s great trumpeters – John Howell, George Bean, and Russ Iverson.
    Near the end of our rehearsal, the last tune was Fascinating Rhythm, and Mel looked at me and said, “Ron, you play lead.“ I took the part and looked through it and, oh boy, right dead smack in the middle of the arrangement was a famous trumpet riff from the tune Bugle Call Rag. Here the trumpet plays a solo that goes up to a high G above a high C, which I had not done in a very long time, and which I certainly found formidable after three-and-a-half hours of playing third and fourth trumpet.
    We started the chart, without me having the chance to say anything, and when we got to my solo, I didn’t play. Of course Mel stopped the band, looked at me, and asked what was the matter. I told him I couldn’t play this and suggested that George Bean should do it; I knew George could perform it without even thinking about it. What is important about this experience is that I never had the least concern that the guys, or Mel Torme, would think less of me.  My only thought was, let the person who can best play it, play it, so we get the maximum performance of the music. My first rule for our NIU Jazz Ensemble musicians was always to check your ego at the door. Our purpose, every moment, was to help each other make great music.
    My son Christopher grasped the nature of performance at a very young age. When he was six, he heard me come home and practice, every night for two weeks, just four measures of the trumpet solo from Richard Strauss’s Das Burger als Edelmann. It was only a four-bar solo, but it began the third movement and was very exposed. Christopher and the rest of my children must have heard me play it at least twenty times a night, or between 240 and 300 times.

    The afternoon of the concert, Christopher sat directly below the guest conductor, Anshel Brusilow, former concertmaster of the Cleveland and Philadelphia orchestras. When it came time for my solo, I played it just as I had dreamed of playing it. I was so happy it had come off beautifully.

    When we were backstage after the concert, my wife asked Christopher, “How did you like the concert?”
    “Fine,” he replied.
    “How did you like dad’s solo?”
    Christopher responded, “That was terrible.”
    “Because Daddy practiced that so many times and he only got to play it once.”
    Is there a better description of a performer’s life? Do we not practice and practice, rehearse and rehearse, and then have that one shot, that one chance to do it? You are on the spot, and it is only because of preparation, correct practice, and discipline that you possess the confidence to walk out on stage and feel there is no way
in the world you are going to make a
    The human mind plays such an incredible part in everything we do. If we put in the required, disciplined practice and then simply relax, it will come if it is within your playing capabilities, which it usually is. Let the mind relax and the fingers and tongue will take care of business.     

    This article is adapted from Ron Modell’s 2014 memoir, Loved Bein’ Here With You. (Molo Publishing,