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Performance and Pedagogy Blog

A blog about the performance and pedagogy of music.

Just Trace It

Andrew Hitz

The great pedagogue Arnold Jacobs had a famous concept of always playing two horns at one time: the horn in your hands and the horn in your head.

He always talked about hearing what you were trying to sound like in your head and then simply trying to make that come out of your bell. I use this approach for literally every single note I ever play. From a tuning B-flat to a difficult cadenza. I hear it first and then simply try to make that come out of my horn.

I recently came up with an analogy that seemed to really resonate with students. (I won't mention the 30 before that that only kind of, sort of, not really registered!)

I asked them if they were good at drawing. All of them said they weren't which is something we have in common! I then asked them if they had ever tried to draw a bowl of fruit in art class. Most of them said they had and that it looked terrible.

I then asked them if they had ever used tracing paper to trace something and they all said they had. I pointed out that if either of us tried to trace a picture of a bowl of fruit that we would be able to do it well and it would be recognizable by anyone.

Finally, I explained that all we are trying to do is trace the sounds we have in our heads. And the key to tracing that well is having a crystal clear idea of exactly what we are trying to sound like.

When using tracing paper, no one is thinking about proportions, depth or anything else that makes drawing it by freehand so difficult. We just copy what is below that thin piece of paper and all of those difficult aspects of drawing a three-dimensional object magically take care of themselves.

The same goes for "tracing" the horn in our head. It gets the player (even the young one) away from focusing on process and towards making music which makes tone, phrasing and a long list of other things magically better.

The key to tracing something is of course not having a blurry picture underneath that tracing paper. So students need to be encouraged to have as clear an idea of what they are trying to sound like in their head as they can (which of course comes simply from practicing it.)

The more good playing and bad playing we hear (which I usually just refer to as data), the more in focus what we are trying to sound like becomes in our heads.

And then we just have to trace it.