Review: Good Vibrations: Masterclasses for Brass Players, by Randy Gardner

Good Vibrations: Masterclasses for Brass Players is the title of a new book by Randy Gardner, goodvibrationsProfessor of Horn and Chair of the Winds and Brass Department at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. I have been meaning to write a review for the past several weeks, but as there are already some great ones out there in The Horn Call and at Hornmatters.com, I wondered if I could add anything new. As I read (and re-read) Good Vibrations, and thought about some of the themes presented in it, another book came to mind, Douglas Hill’s Collected Thoughts on Teaching and Learning, Creativity, and Horn Performance. And while it might be unconventional to begin a review of one book with an extended quote from another, I think that the following passage from Collected Thoughts summarizes my thoughts on Good Vibrations.

Do not pass on your prejudices or your own problems to your students. Try to discard such pessimistic attitudes and, as a result, raise the expectations of these students. Sure, the horn has its difficulties, maybe even a few more problems than some other instruments, but why should that become the focus? That is the challenge, and meeting challenges is what it is all about. I believe strongly that students learn as much from teachers’ attitudes as they do from the well-chosen words. (Douglas Hill, Collected Thoughts on Teaching and Learning, Creativity, and Horn Performance, pp. 67-68)

As with Hill’s book, Good Vibrations conveys an encouraging, positive attitude towards the challenges of playing the horn and other brass instruments. Drawing upon decades of experience as an orchestral musician and pedagogue at the highest levels, Gardner has assembled a detailed and practical resource. Though it appears to be geared towards the undergraduate-level horn player and beyond, Good Vibrations contains many helpful tips that could be applied to all levels, including beginners. Each chapter focuses on one or more of the components of successful and artistic horn playing, shown below.

  1. The Foundation
  2. Breathing and Embouchure Basics
  3. Tone and Dynamic Control
  4. Legato
  5. Articulation
  6. Range
  7. Flexibility and Endurance
  8. Accuracy and Intonation
  9. Lip Trills
  10. Stopped Horn
  11. Warm-Ups, Practice Routines, and Sight-Reading
  12. Appendices

Each concept is first explained, then followed by several exercises which target the development of  a specific skill or set of skills. While many of the exercises look familiar (Gardner gives credit where it is due), I have not seen them presented elsewhere in such a concise and usable manner. Good Vibrations is a book which belongs on music stands in practice rooms and/or teaching studios, so that these exercises can be incorporated into a daily routine. Most chapters conclude with “Skill Assessments” drawn from the standard orchestral and solo repertoire. These concrete musical examples provide the student and teacher with benchmarks to gauge progress in one or more areas. As in his previous book, Mastering the Horn’s Low Register, Gardner provides helpful technical and musical comments for each excerpt found in these Skill Assessments. Appendices at the end of the book include suggested Skill Assessments for trumpet, trombone, euphonium, and tuba.

Because it isn’t possible to delve into each chapter in detail, here are some other highlights from Good Vibrations.

  • Time Savers: Concise, yet powerful teaching tools which can drastically increase your rate of progress.
  • Emphasis on the importance of developing aural skills: The chapter on Accuracy and Intonation includes a discussion of the SING-BUZZ-PLAY progression, as well as several ear strengthening and intonation exercises.
  • Masterclass Tips: As the title states, Good Vibrations is written in a less formal style, similar to the way a great pedagogue might conduct a masterclass or group lesson. As a teacher, I was particularly excited about the many suggestions and “one liners” that could be used to great effect in a masterclass or other teaching situation.

I own lots of books about the horn and brass playing in general, but relatively few of them end up on my “frequently read” list. Good Vibrations is one of them, and should be on yours too!

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