What and how?

There’s a major issue behind teaching the horn, and probably teaching any physical skill. It is the danger of trying to explain How? For instance, how do you play short notes? How do you play with a full sound? How do you play fast, or smooth? Students want to know, and teachers want to tell. And there’s the problem.

How do you walk? It is a sequence of muscle contractions, precisely timed, that shift your balance forward and propel you onto your newly positioned other leg. But that’s not really how you walk. You walk by walking. Whatever your muscles are actually doing is secondary to any physical description, no matter how correct that description. Try walking by contracting one muscle and then the next. Muscle contraction is what happens, not what you DO.

Another great example is weight lifting. I freely admit that I cannot curl a 50 pound free weight*. Any weight lifter, however, can do it easily. How? Let’s ask. “It’s easy. I pick up weight [this is a Russian weight lifter] and I curl arm up nice and easy. I feel power from belly, source of all strength in human being.” Great! Let’s all pick up a 50 pounder, curl it up nice and easy, and feel power from our bellies.

The point is that the description of a physical activity, especially one that has been mastered, should not be confused with the prescription for how to do it. The real way to learn to curl a 50 pound weight is to start with a 2 pounder, work your way up, and when you can do 75 pounds, 50 will feel easy and you’ll curl it up and feel power from your belly, source of all strength. But for now, no amount of belly squeezing will get that thing up.

As a French horn practicer, I am constantly falling into the trap of How? It is so easy to forget that we learn by imitation, by doing, and by erring. That’s how we learned walking, talking, and all the other basics. Want to make a good sound on the horn? Get in there, make a bad sound, do it over and over, hear it improve, refine it, criticize it, practice some more. Once you’ve got it, go ahead and describe how you produce that beautiful sound, but it won’t help anyone. We each need to go through our own process of physical exploration and discovery. We may or may not end up with similar descriptions of what it feels like when we do it right, but that’s what makes the world go around, at least my world.


* I admit that I cannot curl a 25 pound free weight, but I don’t admit it so freely.

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