zondag 14 maart 2010

A short text about teaching saxophone at the Fontys Conservatory

Saxophone teaching
My first three years

I have been teaching saxophone to young professionals for three years now. Next year my first end exam students -the ones I have I have taught from the beginning of their studies- will play their end recital. Very exciting, for them of course, but surely also for me. I have seen these students grow and develop as a musician and as a person. But they also have witnessed the birth of a teacher. I never taught before. So I am still learning, and I expect I always will.

From the beginning I have been trying to find my own way of explaining music and the saxophone. The basis of my current teaching is to have to student find his own solution. In stead of always telling him how I myself do it. I am convinced this way he will find a more personal way of playing his instrument. Also it is a necessity because I am still adapting my playing and my way of thinking about music. There is no one way of doing things and I still try to find different entrances to making music and playing the saxophone. I will keep experimenting. I do notice this is sometimes very hard for the students. Every once in a while I see frustration in my class room when the student realizes things are still not working even after he put so much time and effort into it. I recognize this from my own studies. I spend hours and hours each day on fixing my sound and only being happy with it once every year or so. But in the end I did find my own embouchure, my own sound, my own way of practicing. Of course my own teacher Arno Bornkamp had a lot to do with this. He let me free to experiment, also sometimes to his frustration One week I could play much better than the period before and the next week I put myself months back. This made me a stronger musician. I know what I want, and I know how to reach it.

These are some aspects of my teaching so far:

The technical base is very important. It is the stuff the students build their 'house' on. I try to tell my students that there are different of ways of constructing a house but that the base should be able to support the house. The base is build in a quite 'objective' way. That is, I try to provide my students with a neutral base. I want them to be free to play however they want. Of course the base can be built in several ways, and this way comes from me, but in the end the base is not visible anymore when they have build their own house on it.

*Breath support. Music consists of phrases and gestures that are connected, just like in speech. To connect those we need air support from the diaphragm. There is a lot to be said about this, which I will not to do now...
*Mechanical technique, fingers, concentration. I start every student out with 5 Klosé books. I want them to study one from every book every week and one scale in different forms (seconds, thirds, triads, minor/major parallels, later on bigger intervals and other scales (chromatic, octotonic, etc.)). The student should be able to dream these exercises after maximum one and and a half year. Every exercise is in a certain key and at about half way it has one or more traps (funny modulations, strange intervals, etc.). The point is to recognize these traps and find the focus to keep going without mistakes.
*Embouchure. I do not emphasize a certain way of playing except in the lowest base: the corners of the mouth should be centered, the diaphragm should provide enough support, the back of the tongue focuses the air and the rest is relaxed. The rest is up to the student. This basic embouchure is a great base to experiment with different sounds. I find a relaxed embouchure to be very flexible in sound, register changes and other techniques (vibrato, multiphonics, flutter tongue, etc.).
*Although I do not specifically prefer one type of vibrato in teaching, there's one that I personally prefer: the jaw vibrato. I use only this one, which I sometimes combine with a little bit of throat. The basic vibrato I teach my students is the one that goes through the middle but more below the center than above, and does not touch the ceiling and bottom of the sound. But in practice it is more interesting to experiment with this and use different amplitudes and speeds throughout a piece of music.

I try to avoid imposing a certain 'interpretation' of a piece of music onto the student. My goal is to be a coach that helps the student to find his own way of playing the piece. But I do put great value on the written text and in principle I do not like to override it.

I find that a lot of students ask me what I thought of their playing. I try to avoid answering this question in the way they want me to. I always bounce the question back whenever I can. I think it is very important that the students develops his own taste and discovers what he likes and how he wants to play and most importantly, that he learns to give this the greatest value of all. In the end, the student is the one who should believe in what he is doing.

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