Common Deficiencies

I am often been asked about the quality of students at IU. This is a potentially hazardous question but one that I will answer as honestly as I can. I really enjoy the students. Will they all end up being professional musicians? No, but I hope they will all be music lovers and supporters. I think my students are great people and THAT is the most important thing.

IU is a large music school, certainly one of the largest, if not the largest in the country. Being so large offers many benefits - 4 full size orchestras, 4 concert bands, 4 jazz bands, world-class music library, multiple world-class faculty on each instrument, etc. Because it is so large it also suffers from the law of averages. When I consider The Juilliard School or The Curtis Institute of Music in comparison to IU, many thoughts pass through my mind. First of all, those great music schools are located in cities that have terrific orchestras, so students are able to attend concerts weekly without hours of travel. There is absolutely no substitute for experiencing what a great orchestra sounds like…LIVE. Secondly, they are smaller schools than IU and therefore can be much more selective in whom they accept for study.

I had intended for this column to address common deficiencies I encounter with the incoming students to IU. My rationale for writing about this is based in hope that by pointing out these common deficiencies, prospective students, headed to any institution, can be better informed and be better prepared.

One aspect of playing in which every student should be more accomplished is familiarity with basic scales and arpeggios. It continues to boggle my mind how unprepared students are regarding their scales. My friend, Chris Olka, who is the great tuba player in the Seattle Symphony, had a terrific analogy. He believes that in order to do the simplest math problems, people needed to know their math facts…the rudimentary facts that we all learned in elementary school. It is impossible to successfully and efficiently solve basic math problems without the knowledge of basic math facts. Chris pointed out that scales are the musician’s equivalent of math facts. How can one prepare a “Sonata in E Minor” without being totally comfortable with the tonality of E Minor? I totally agree with him. The amazing thing to me is that students can learn all of their scales very well without a teacher yet they do not! Learning all the major and minor scales should be a piece of cake to anyone going to college to study music. I mean, c’mon, get serious! Consider this: “Yes, I want to play in an orchestra/band for a living - or teach others about music, but I don’t know all of my scales.” YIKES!!!!! It is such a simple task. Rarely do the students that I encounter know their scales before they set foot in my studio. I guarantee when they leave, they know them. The best way I know to learn the scales is by following my Scale Pyramid. In one semester all of the scales are learned.

Another problem area lies in the perception of quality. Many students are too easily satisfied with what comes out of their bell. They just have no idea of what great playing sounds like from behind the bell. It really is just a matter perception.

I have learned a great deal from what I have read over the years. One concept that Philip Farkas explained in one of his books addressed practice and repetition. Many students will practice a difficult passage over and over again until they get it right, then they will move on. In order to make the odds of getting it right the next time through the piece more favorable, the student (and we are all still students) needs to practice the passage CORRECTLY at least as many times as they had practiced it incorrectly. Even then the odds are fifty - fifty. I have seen this hundreds of times. A student goes over and over a passage, missing a note here and there. The first time they get it right, they move on. 9 times wrong, 1 time right. I wouldn’t be too comfortable in Las Vegas with those odds.

Poor intonation is also a common problem. One thing that drives me NUTS is when a student, while playing with piano accompaniment, will sit on a note that is excruciatingly out of tune with the piano. I think it is a matter of comfort. The student, typically, is not used to playing with a piano and therefore focuses too much concentration on their own playing and not enough on the musical product as a whole. The best way to fix this is to play more often with piano accompaniment - and to record and listen critically. Good intonation is nothing more than being aware of how what we are playing fits with what others are playing. I am a big advocate of Stephen Colley’s Tune Up System. It can be found here:

It is a great tool for learning intonational awareness. If people are serious about playing in tune, they will use this product. If they aren’t, they won’t. End of story.

Another thing that amazes me is that many students do not know how to make their instrument work well, mechanically. Basic attention to slide and valve condition would make their playing life so much easier. Many students also do not know how to disassemble their valve for a thorough cleaning. The procedures are very simple, yet one must exercise great care to not damage the soft metals used.

Adjusting to a Teaching Career

When I decided to leave the Seattle Symphony to pursue a teaching career at Indiana University I was clueless about the amount of energy I would need to be a good teacher. I thought it would be much easier than the rigorous playing schedule I had become accustomed to. I WAS WRONG! I had never been so fatigued as in the first few months of teaching at IU. Playing trombone in an orchestra isn’t mentally fatiguing. There are lots of rests. There are lots of movements where we don’t play at all. During that down time we get to listen to the greatest music ever written and think about all sorts of stuff. As a teacher, I have little “down time.” I have knowledge that the students want to acquire. I have something that they want and the biggest trick is to figure out how to deliver it so that they will understand and accept it. Every student is different. Every hour I need to solve a puzzle. The puzzle is, “How can I unlock the door of the student’s mind so that they will benefit from the information I am trying to give?” What works with one student doesn’t necessarily work with the next. Some students want me to be as honest as possible, bordering on brutality. Those students really want to improve and are counting on me to help. Others only want to hear positive comments bordering on fantasy. A balance must be achieved to let the student know what needs attention and what has already improved. I would rather just be directly honest all of the time. Students are paying quite a lot of money for my expertise.

Consider these analogies:
A person takes their car to the shop for a strange noise coming from the rear axle. The mechanic (who charges $100/hour) takes a look, listens and says, “Your paint job is terrific. Your tires are brand new. Your upholstery is the cleanest I have ever seen. The stereo rocks! The trunk is nice and large.” In other words, the person has spent a great deal of money to hear only positive comments when they really went to the shop to get their car fixed.


A person who is overweight, doesn’t exercise, smokes, drinks too much, goes to the doctor for a check up. Instead of the doctor telling the patient what they need to do to be healthier, he focuses only on the positive. “You have stylish eye glasses. The cologne you wear is terrific. I like the your hairstyle.” Seems ludicrous, right?

Well, THAT is precisely what some students want to hear. They do not want to any pointers that aren’t phrased in a positive, warm-fuzzy manner. Part of my exhaustion has come from trying to sugar coat things. As I get older and more experienced, I care less about making students feel “good” and more about making them improve-precisely what they pay me to do.

It reminds me of a great email that I received from a former student:

Ten “Facts of Life” that every music student should know:

1. Life is not fair - get used to it!

2. The world won’t care about your self-esteem. The world will expect you to accomplish something BEFORE you feel good about yourself.

3. You probably will not make $60,000 a year right out of music school. You probably won’t be a world-class soloist, major orchestra member or in a touring chamber ensemble. The odds are against you.

4. If you think your teacher is tough, wait until you encounter a conductor.

5. Doing weddings, school shows and background music gigs is not beneath your dignity. Your teachers had a different word for gigging—they called it EXPERIENCE.

6. If you mess up, it is not your instrument’s fault, so don’t blow under your keys or start oiling your valves or adjust your tuning slide immediately after a clam. Don’t whine about your mistakes, learn from them.

7. Before you showed up, the older musicians in the orchestra weren’t as boring as they are now. They got that way from tedious pops concerts, ignorant conductors and listening to you talk about how cool you think you are. So, before you try to save the orchestra from performing the wrong edition of Mozart with the wrong style, make sure you count your rests.

8. Your school may have done away with winners and losers (and any grade below a “B”) but life has not. In some schools, they have abolished failing grades and they will give you as many chances as you need to perform that excerpt. This doesn’t bear the slightest resemblance to anything in real life.

9. Life is not divided into semesters. You may get summers off but you won’t get paid and very few employers are interested in helping you to be a star. Do that on your own time.

10. Music school is not real life. In real life people actually have to leave the pizza house and go earn a living.

It may be a bit harsh, but true, none-the-less.