Pedagogical recipes

December 21, 2015

I want to follow up on something I touched on in my last post. I described in that post how I had my woodwind methods class evaluate some online pedagogical resources, and mentioned that I had them compare the information found online to the information presented in class. My idea was to prepare them to deal with conflicting information, which will be part of their reality as public school band directors.

Woodwind pedagogy, unfortunately, is a mishmash of contradictory ideas. This is supported by a culture of hero worship of certain teachers and performers, a permissive editorial process for publishing pedagogical materials (increasingly so with the rise of the internet), and an attitude that music is not subject to scientific method.

When conflicts exist between one school of thought and another, in some cases that is because one or both sides is incorrect. In other cases the problem is a communication failure: both sides are applying the same techniques in the same way, but describing them poorly (or at least differently). But I think there are other cases where the difference can be attributed to what I think of as different “recipes.”

photo, Sarah Horrigan
photo, Sarah Horrigan

There are many ways to make a chocolate cake. Some cake recipes might be objectively better than others by some measure or another. Some might produce results that are generally satisfactory but especially suited to certain tastes. And in some cases, two different recipes might produce results that are very similar. In those cases, the way the ingredients and techniques balance is significant: one recipe might call for two eggs instead of three, but has more of another ingredient that makes up the difference, or a difference in baking time and temperature.

I think a similar thing can happen with “recipes” for woodwind playing. Equipment preferences are a fairly clear example: one clarinet teacher might favor very stiff reeds, while another prefers softer ones. Both might produce excellent results, so long as they are balanced properly—the first teacher probably balances stiffer reeds against mouthpieces with a more closed tip, and the other might use softer reeds with more open mouthpieces. One oboe teacher might clip his reeds to 70mm while another clips hers to 69.5mm, but they probably balance this with narrower or wider shaper tips, or tweaks to any of a dozen other variables.

Playing techniques are a little more abstract and complicated to separate out, but I think the same concept applies. One bassoon teacher might encourage some jaw movement when articulating lower notes, while another teaches a more stable embouchure, but it’s always more complicated than that: the technique’s usefulness and effectiveness has to be evaluated in the context of each teacher’s approach to breath support, voicing, embouchure, equipment, and more.

The idea that I wanted to bring across to my class is that, for band directors or other musicians and music educators who might not be specialists in each of the woodwind instruments, it is important to beware little pedagogical proverbs taken out of context. Something like “firm up your embouchure” or “use a stiffer reed” or “use the alternate F-sharp” can seem like a quick and digestible solution, but can’t be applied casually and without understanding of the larger picture.

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