by Dr. Brian McLaughlin


mclaughlin“Do you want a career in music, or a life in music?” Henry Mancini’s question is still valid after all these years. Our colleges, universities, and conservatories are filled with young horn players who imagine that they will one day grace the sections of America’s orchestras. Performance majors walk the halls of every institution, and over the years I have heard many of them tell me thatthey are absolutely certain that they will never teach. “I just want to play,” they say. But all of us are part of a long tradition of teaching. The great players of our craft only got that way because someone taught them, and 99% of them teach as a part of their performing careers. It is a responsibility for us, as participants in the genealogy of the horn, to pass on what we have learned. We all are keepers of the flame.

So what does a “life in music” look like? For most of us who make our living as musicians, it is a patchwork of various musical activities, including performing, teaching, writing, arranging, conducting, and more. Each person emphasizes their strengths, and various components may take center stage for a while as the demands of our lives change. For those of us who will make teaching a major part of our musical lives, there are three interdependent topics that are good to keep in mind: musicianship, standard of acceptability, and musical imagination.

The essential thing for everyone who strives to be a good teacher is that they also strive to become a fine musician. While there are some great teachers out there who, for a variety of reasons, no longer perform, there are none who are not outstanding musicians. Learn all you can about theory, form, and history. Learn about the lives of composers. Learn about the lives of the great horn players of the past. Listen to performances of great violinists, pianists, vocalists, and other wind instrumentalists so that you can go beyond the mechanics of horn playing. Listen to the way they phrase their lines. Educate yourself so that your interpretation is informed. Let the music guide your musical decisions, rather than letting the difficulties of horn playing dictate them. Our instrument is so technically demanding that it is easy to get caught up in getting the notes out and miss the emotional communication of which the horn is capable. For students involved in a music education degree, this is your primary goal: while you are in school, do all you can to become the best musician possible.

In partnership with becoming a terrific musician is the idea of protecting your standard. I have discovered over the years that I cannot have two standards. I am not only a horn teacher, but also a high school band director. If I accept a lower standard of excellence from my students, I will eventually adopt that standard for myself. In order to protect myself I insist that my students aim for a professional standard of performance. They won’t always reach it, but the goal stays the same. I have found that I have to constantly refocus their minds on that expectation. Students don’t play poorly because the goal is too high, they play poorly because they decide that they are good enough already.

One of my professors at the University of Iowa warned me about this as I was leaving with my DMA: “Wherever you go,” she said, “surround yourself with best musicians you can find. Do all you can to maintain your musicianship.” Maintaining a performing life is an important part in protecting your standard. Playing with other good players makes us rise to the occasion, redefines our personal performance standard, and energizes our musical imagination.

Not all of us live in areas with ready made performance opportunities. This is where chamber music gives us the biggest bang for our buck. Put together a brass quintet, a horn quartet, or a wind quintet. Creating performance opportunities is better than waiting to be asked to join one. While it’s nice to be paid for performing, the goal here is not financial, but professional and personal. Maintaining our performing ability is an important link toward relating to our students. It’s our way of walking the walk. Our students progress faster when they see that we are wrestling with the same issues they encounter. Create opportunities to let your students hear you play. It keeps us honest and it’s fun for them!

Our musical imagination is the result of our success in the other two categories. The better a musician you are, the greater your musical imagination will be. The higher your personal standard, the higher the level of your musical imagination. I call this “feeding the inner horn player.” We have to make active listening a part of our lifestyle, and we have to take deliberate steps to hear the best music making we can lay our hands on. This has never been easier than it is in this increasingly connected age. A wealth of truly great performances are available to us at the click of a button, and sound equipment of superb quality is very inexpensive. Getting to a live performance is still best because you can be a part of the interaction of the music, but if you live in a place that makes that impractical, there are amazing performances available on the internet. I’m a big fan of the Digital Concert Hall, and we all know about YouTube.mclaughlin quartet

Let me relate an example to illustrate the importance of musical imagination. I recently served as a guest conductor for one of my colleagues. He felt that his students were just not playing as well as he would like. His band played well enough as he led them, but they played a beautiful piece in a really flat and boring way. He let me take the baton, and in a few minutes they were playing it with far more passion and were more deeply engaged. As we spoke afterwards he confessed that after his students were getting the notes and rhythms, he just didn’t know what to do next. Where had I gotten the phrase shaping and interpretation? Was I copying a recording? He could not quite grasp the idea that they had come from me, and that they could come from him. His problem was not with his students. They were ready to go. His problem was that he was bringing no musical imagination to them. We hear the same thing at All State auditions. Some students play through the music without a shred of musicality, while others play with artistry. It’s easy to hear the kind of teacher they have. It is the difference between competence and mastery.

The really top level teachers I know provide opportunities for their students to grow as well. In addition to providing your students with private lessons, see about giving group lessons where they can work on quartet literature or excerpts. Host a horn choir concert, and if your studio isn’t large enough, invite other teachers and their students. Take your students to masterclasses at the local college or University. Better yet, host one yourself before the big auditions. Imagine the excitement of your students as they get to play for a professional horn player you bring in! The only limit is in what you can imagine.

What resources do we have as teachers? Once again, the internet comes to the rescue with recordings and much high quality teaching material. Julie Landsman’s excellent website: www.julielandsman.com has a wonderful set of exercises and videos of the Caruso method, These are also available on the IHS website, as are the most common horn excerpts, audio recordings of famous players, and pedagogical notes. Some of the best books on teaching the horn include The Horn Handbook by Verne Reynolds, Collected Thoughts By Doug Hill, The Brass Player’s Cookbook edited by Kenneth Amis, and Teaching With Purpose by Peter Boonshaft. These can give you a good start. For real inspiration, ask a teacher you respect if you can sit in and observe what they do. That can be a real revelation!

Ultimately our success as teachers will not be about the techniques we learn, although you will build an expanding repertoire of teaching skills. Our success will come from the musicianship, the adherence to excellence, and the musical imagination we bring to our students. Our success will rely on the relationship we build with them, and our legacy, as Philip Farkas pointed out, will be in what they, in turn, pass on to others. We are each a distillation of what our teachers have given us, and what their teachers gave to them. The more we put into the craft of teaching, the more rewarding it becomes for both our students and ourselves.


 Dr. Brian McLaughlin is Director of Bands at West Milford High School in West Milford NJ.  He holds music degrees from West Texas A&M University, the University of New Mexico, and the University of Iowa.  Brian maintains an award-winning music program at WMHS and a successful private studio in addition to performing regularly across New Jersey and surrounding states as well as on Broadway.

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