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.