Monday, December 28, 2009

Technical and Musical Development


“A career in music is tough business for those who are not highly accomplished artists. For those few musicians who develop their skills, ‘It’s a wonderful life’!”

“We must develop our playing skills beyond any challenges that will be encountered on stage.”

“It is important to perform well within the limits of our ability, not at the limits of our ability.”

“Musical and technical development is the result of musical and technical challenge.”

As a young tuba player, I recall a comment made by a very fine professional horn player, regarding some technical exercises he heard me practicing. He said, “Why are you practicing that stuff? You will never encounter it in any orchestral parts.” He was correct about not seeing the Arban, gruppetto studies I was practicing, anytime on stage. However, he was incorrect about my need to develop them anyway.

When I first began playing in a school band in the late 1950s, there was very little original music except for traditional Sousa, Goldman, and King marches. Most concert band music was in the form of orchestral transcriptions. The technically challenging orchestral string parts were played by woodwind and brass instruments.

I remember that transcriptions, such and Glinka’s Overture to Russlan and Ludmilla, technically and musically challenged almost every instrument in the band. As a result, there were many very fine clarinet, saxophone, cornet, and baritone players in most high school bands. Today, few concert bands play orchestral transcriptions.

As a result, the numbers of technically developed players has diminished dramatically because of the diminished challenges. I also notice that many of the orchestral transcriptions available are simplified arrangements.

A few years ago, I had an opportunity to conduct the Georgia Allstate Band in Savannah. I requested that they acquire a challenging original orchestral transcription that I knew was no longer published. The officials searched the entire state and eventually found a complete set of parts. Every rehearsal, the students asked me to play the music faster!

Until the emergence of the brass quintet by the New York Brass Quintet in the 1960s and the Canadian Brass in the 1970s, tuba playing skill was confined to the level of an accompanying rather than a melodic instrument. Players were not challenged technically so they did not develop beyond the simple music they were asked to play.
Harvey Phillips is credited with changing the image and musical expectations of tuba players with his artistry and numerous challenging solo commissions.

Before the 1980s, brass playing in Europe was generally less developed than in the US and UK. European players mostly developed their technical skills to the level of the orchestral music, which is generally not challenging technically.

The brass band movement in the UK and military style concert bands in the US are credited with the development of higher performance standards for brass instruments. Many American players went to Germany to fill vacant orchestral jobs in their concert halls and opera houses. They also brought American brass pedagogy.

Today, brass performance in most European countries has developed to international standards. With the assistance of American and European brass players, the same transformation is taking place in many Asian countries.


One summer in the late 1990s, I invited a young French trumpeter to audit my graduate brass pedagogy class at Vandercook College. At the time, she was studying with a very prominent French artist-teacher.

When I first met her, she was in tears. Naturally, I asked why she was crying. She replied, “Because I can’t play!” I confidently promised that before she left Chicago in the next week, her tears would turn to smiles.

She attempted to perform the last movement of the Concerto for Trumpet by Hummel. I could tell immediately that the technical challenges of the music were beyond her skill level. Execution was impossible. There were other playing issues beyond her technical limitations, but I could not ignore her technical weakness.

I knew we first needed to develop some technical skill apart from the concerto. I asked her to retrieve her Arban, Complete Conservatory Method book. I was astonished to hear her say, “What is that?”

She knew nothing about the world’s most important brass method book, authored by Jean Baptiste Arban of the Paris Conservatory! To her and obviously to her trumpet teachers, the challenges of Arban had no relevance to Hummel. I had my copy but I strongly suggested that she soon acquire her own.


“We must develop and condition a high level of technical virtuosity to avoid musical limitations in our playing.”

It was important that she first master the less technically challenging solos with variations in Arban. I introduced SING, BUZZ, PLAY and she was able to create significant success immediately. Throughout the week, I challenged her more technically until she was ready to transfer her developing skill to the Hummel.

Yes, her tears turned to smiles long before the end of her week in Chicago.


It was the final tour of the internationally acclaimed Philip Jones Brass Ensemble. One of their last performances was at Northwestern University, where I was teaching applied tuba along with Jake.

Philip Jones planned to retire soon after the tour. However, he would not allow his name to be associated with the group after his retirement. I was very disappointed to hear him say the brass ensemble would soon be disbanded.

The ten member ensemble had a very unique sound that featured several virtuoso members as soloists. One such member was the great British tubist, John Fletcher.

John was a converted horn player. Interestingly, Phil Farkas was a converted tuba player! Early in his career, John realized there were many very fine horn players in London and not enough tuba players. In the 1960s and early 70s, John came to Chicago to study with Jake.

The Northwestern concert was an inspiring experience! As an encore, they did a funny bit with John playing the Canadian Brass arrangement of “The Flight of the Tuba Bee.” Since it was only scored for brass quintet, five players had no parts.

Those players created havoc as John played his virtuoso solo part. Among other things, they pretended they were looking for their missing music in the bell of his tuba. It was very funny! However, John didn’t let any of the hilarity distract him from a single note. I was stunned at his artistry! His virtuoso performance left a powerful impression on me and the others who heard it! I knew I had to get the music and challenge myself.

Soon afterward, I did acquire the music and eventually developed it to a high level. I performed it with numerous brass quintets and also arranged it for tuba-euphonium ensemble. In my imagination, I could hear and see John playing but I was the one with an instrument in their hands.

My ultimate goal was to challenge the trumpet players in the quintet to the point where they complained about my tempo. I’m proud to report that they complained most of the time! I’m also pleased to say that these fine players always accepted and met my challenge.

Tragically, six months after the Northwestern concert, John had a fatal stroke that left him in a coma for six months. He was only 46 years old when he died.


Most young brass players are not prepared for the technical challenges of difficult music. Preparation in a practice studio must come long before an appearance on the stage.

MULTIPLE ARTICULATION (double and triple tonguing) This subject will be covered more
thoroughly is a future essay.

Words have a powerful impact on the conscious and subconscious mind. As a result, I avoid using the word “tongue”. The instant the word is spoken, the brain begins to analyze the tongue both with mental imagery and by feel. We never create this distracting analysis in speech or when chewing food. Frequently, I found when I lectured about “tonguing”, I would become aware of my own tongue and begin to stutter.


“Overlap single tonguing speed with double and triple speeds.”

“Tonguing has to be 5% consonant and 95% vowel. Use no more tongue than in normal speech.

“When practicing etudes, first develop them slowly. Then speed them up.”

“Practice various ways of articulating everything”

“Whenever you have difficulty technically, think of the passage more musically.”

It is very important to understand that any advanced articulation skill, including multiple articulation, must be developed on a solid foundation of excellent tone production and basic articulation. We can never substitute multiple articulation for inadequate single articulation. We must transfer the skill first developed in single to multiple articulation.



“Your subconscious mind already knows how to play the notes. However, it must be highly aware of the notes you want to play.”

“Nothing you attempt to play can be by mindlessly blowing and fingering. Every note, regardless of range, dynamic, or speed, is only motivated by a vivid conscious awareness of the sound.”

“The most powerful awareness sound is achieved by vocally or mentally singing in a musical style.”

“There is no such thing as technical playing without it being musical also. Imaginative musical playing will motivate your technical playing. It’s not the other way around”


“If you can sing it, you can play it.”

If we accept Vandercook’s statement, then logic dictates that if we can’t sing it, we can’t play it.


One of my students was preparing to audition for the Leonard Falcone International Euphonium Competition. The repertoire list consisted of numerous solos and technical etudes that test every element of the player’s musical and technical development.

At the end of his final lesson before the competition, I asked him if he had the discipline to do what I was going to ask of him. He replied with a very confident voice, “Yes, Mr. Rocco, I do!” Yes, I believed him!

Included on the repertoire list, were several of the Characteristic Studies from Arban. The compass of the fourteen studies is only two mid-range octaves. However, they challenge the player both technically and musically.

I asked the student to develop the etudes one or two measure at a time, using the following procedure.

1. Play sets of four repetitions, starting slowing and increase the speed with each repetition. Repeat sets until you have achieved the ability to play at least 15 beats per minute faster than the required tempo.

2. First buzz and finger the sets, using a BERP. Then, play and finger with the mouthpiece in the leadpipe. Alternate buzzing and playing with continued repetitions of the sets.

3. After you are satisfied with your development, repeat the process with the next measure. When you have developed the second measure, repeat the process playing both the first and second measures together. Then, master the third measure. Repeat the formula playing three measures together. Master the fourth measure and apply the formula playing the four measures together.

4. Repeat this process four every four measures. Each time you master a group of four measures, go back to the beginning and play the four measure groups together until you have mastered the entire etude. If you experience weakness with any particular measure reapply the formula to that measure or group of measures.

This process may seem tedious but is actually works very quickly because it’s “success oriented”. Most players take the approach of starting at the beginning and playing to the end to see how many notes they can execute. Unfortunately, there is mostly failure associated with that approach.


“A history of success creates an expectation of success. A history of failure creates an expectation of failure.”

“The function of a teacher is to create opportunities for success.”

The student won first prize. Today, he is recognized as one of the finest euphonium players in the world.

I also apply the same formula of repetitions when I’m working with groups of instruments. I usually substitute vocally singing for the buzzing when working with strings or woodwinds.


Technical and musical development are combined elements of producing sound with an instrument. They cannot be thought of as being separate because musical playing motivates technique, and technical development allows the player to be more musical.

All technical skills, such as fingering or tonguing, must be developed methodically over time. If a player attempts to perform beyond the limits of their ability, they will create a history of failure. That history will cause a self perpetuating expectation of failure.

We must develop our playing skills well beyond any challenges we expect to encounter on a performance stage. Any playing skill must be motivated by challenge. The development must take place gradually to mostly allow for success rather than failure.


“Solving life’s problems requires NEED, DISCIPLINE, TIME.”

The following is a list of recommended advanced method books for brass instruments. All brass players, especially euphonium, trombone and tuba, should learn to read in two or more clefs.

ARBAN – COMPLETE CONSERVATORY METHOD (pub. Carl Fischer) (treble and bass clefs)

KOPPRASCH – SIXTY ETUDES (pub. Carl Fischer) (all brass)

SCHLOSSBERG – DAILY DRILLS AND TECHNICAL STUDIES (pub. Maurice Barron) (treble and bass clefs)

CLARKE – TECHNICAL STUDIES (pub. Carl Fischer) (treble and bass clefs)

BONA – RHYTHMICAL ARTICULATION (pub. Carl Fischer) (treble and bass clefs)

PARES – SCALES (pub. Carl Fischer) (all instruments)

ROCHUT – MELODIUS ETUDES (three volumes, pub. Carl Fischer) (bass clef) The original Bordogni vocal etudes are available in treble clef and with piano accompaniment.


CHARLIER – ETUDES TRANSCENDANTES (pub. Leduc and Carl Fischer) (treble clef)


“No etudes or technical studies should be merely thought of as exercises. They should receive the same attention and development of any other repertoire.”


“I sing the notes in my head (regardless of range, speed, or dynamic) as I play them. It doesn’t matter how my lip feels or how I feel.”


  1. Mr. Rocco, what do you do when the student tries to buzz a tune on a mouthpiece but (s)he can't keep the melody steady and the intonation is not satisfactory? Do you just suggest an easier tune or just have him/her buzz repeatedly?


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