Monday, May 14, 2018

Music Institute of Chicago: A Different Tune: Brass For Beginners

Music Institute of Chicago

The Music Institute of Chicago offers a variety of summer programming for brass players, including summer jazz camps for youth and adults and Quintet Attacca Chamber Camp. Among those options are several that offer a unique approach: Brass for Beginners® camp for youth and Brass for Beginners® classes for youth and adults.
The innovative Brass for Beginners® (BfB) program, developed by Music Institute faculty member Chris Hasselbring in collaboration with music educator Jack Hasselbring and historian Kirsty Montgomery, uses the natural trumpet (an historical trumpet without valves) to limit learning variables and jump-start the development of fundamental brass and aural skills while stimulating students’ capacity for creativity. A recipe for success, BfB has proven to be an efficient and effective way to prepare students to play any of the modern brass instruments. 

The Music Institute talked with Chris Hasselbring about the method.

How did Brass for Beginners come about?
My interest in early music and the natural trumpet, coupled with my desire to create a more meaningful educational experience for my trumpet students, eventually led to the idea of creating a curriculum for complete beginners.
One of the first things you realize when you pick up a natural trumpet is, to get the “right” note to sound, you first need to hear it in your head. This makes the natural trumpet a great first instrument because students must focus on embouchure development (use of mouth and facial muscles), aural skills, and more precise pitch production. Unfortunately, historic replicas of natural trumpets are very costly, so to make it possible for my students to experience the benefits of playing them, I developed my own authentic-sounding “Frankenstein” trumpet, something I called a “Hose Horn.” The instrument was accessible and inexpensive, and, by 2006, word had gotten around at the Music Institute about the strange-looking instruments my students were playing. I received a call from then-Board Chair Kay Mabie, who had heard I had students making their own instruments. She explained that David Dushkin, the Music Institute’s founder, thought it was important for students to understand how their instruments worked and provided resources for students to make elements of keyboard and string instruments back in the school’s early days. Kay was fascinated by the idea of teaching students with a modern version of an historical instrument and offered to fund outreach programs through the Music Institute’s Arts Link program.
Meanwhile, my brother Jack received funding to do the same from the Mount Olive Education Foundation in New Jersey, and we were off, except for the fact that we had no instruments for these programs! We scrambled to find junk trumpets, bought a bunch of vinyl tubing and cable ties, and got to work making “Hose Horns.” These instruments took a lot of effort to produce, didn’t look beautiful, and were a bit inconsistent, but they played quite well and students were intrigued. Beginning in 2007, we began running tuition-free enrichment programs for under-served 3rd graders to provide them a head start and increase their chances of success in 4th grade band.

As you’ve continued to modify and enhance the program, where do things stand today?
Since we first launched, many institutions, artists, and collaborators have supported the project. We developed and tested six versions of a beginners’ method, resulting in the method book we use today, Around the World in Twenty-One Trumpets: A Brass Odyssey.
In 2013, we incorporated as an LLC and formed a partnership with Skokie-based entrepreneur Jason Wyrwicz to take on the challenge of engineering a low-cost, user-friendly natural trumpet and make curriculum and instruments available in a scalable manner. Since then, we have been sharing the program at educational conferences in the United States and abroad and have found that music teachers everywhere appreciate our work developing new and creative ways to make learning music more meaningful. We are excited to see the program taking off in the UK, thanks to the Wallace Collection and the Mayor of London’s Music Fund, and we are looking forward to increasing the program’s reach throughout Chicago.

In the simplest terms, tell us what the Brass for Beginners method is and why is it especially successful?
BfB is an interdisciplinary method for learning the basics of brass playing using the natural (valve-less) trumpet. The curriculum includes notated music and a language-based (learn-by-ear) approach, much like the Suzuki method.
There are three reasons this method is so successful:  

  1. The lack of valves and slides (any moving parts) helps students focus on developing the fundamentals of brass playing—sound production, articulation, and navigation of the harmonic series.
  2. Its use of a learn-by-ear approach is particularly effective. Since the natural trumpet limits the available pitches to the harmonic series, it becomes easier to focus on and build aural skills. Players learn to hear and produce the correct pitch vibration at the embouchure to select “the correct note.”
  3. Finally, its interdisciplinary approach helps unlocks students’ technical and creative abilities.
Having the chance to develop basic skills in a patient and nurturing group environment can make the difference in whether or not a beginner is able to stick with it. I have found that when beginners have the opportunity to develop and discover their abilities in the early stages, they have a more meaningful and lasting connection to the experience of playing and learning.

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