Friday, March 07, 2008
The First Lesson with Vacchiano
Just as the trained physician accurately diagnoses the ailment and prescribes the cure, so too the experienced teacher is able to quickly zero in on a student's greatest need. Taking out his pad, the doctor jots down the pages from his Arbans Book of Remedies, makes sure he is properly understood, and sends the student on his way to practice. No need for flatteries or pleasantries. Problems are identified, and steps listed for healing are prescribed. Now just go do it.
Such was the case at my first lesson with Mr. Vacchiano in 1965 at the old Juilliard School on Clairmont Avenue in New York City. It was the most unlikely neighborhood for top-notch music instruction in that cultural center of the world. But be that as it was, that was where one went to improve. I was still an obnoxious self-confident high schooler, but I was well rehearsed for this anticipated moment, and determined to show him a thing or two about my pyro technics and exuberant trumpet playing, such as it was.
After an etude performed at great-neck speed, (the one in c# minor, in one) from Caffarelli's 16 Etudes of Perfectionment, and an overly emotional opera excerpt from The Art of Phrasing in the rear of the Arban Book, Mr. Vacchiano quietly turned to page 125 in Arban. With his pencil he tapped an impossibly slow tempo and commanded me to play staccato 8th notes, one line at a time.
Completely humiliated and frustrated, I failed to even come close to pleasing either of us. Every note could be heard for what it was, consistently sloppy. How could all of my preparation come to naught? After addressing a few personal observations about my approach to the trumpet, he sent me on my way. "Come back in two weeks when you can play one line on page 125 accurately."
I applied myself diligently to this new kind of discipline. I did it only because it was he who had assigned it. It must be worth doing. Still it was a lesson I needed to have taken again and again throughout my career. Unfortunately it is one which tends to be blown off by most students. "Bring on the concertos and the bravura excerpts, but don't ask me to play 12 notes in a row, clean, slowly, in tune, and perfectly accurate. What fun it that?"
I was beginning to learn that my concertos and excerpts would never mature and be ready for prime time until they were preceded by the slow discipline of preparing one perfect note at a time. I had given maybe 10% attention to fundamentals, and 90% blowing in the wind, albeit very impressive blowing so I thought. But the challenge was to receive the instruction that required attention to the excellence of details.
Precise instruction - great teachers know how to administer it, and great students learn how to receive and apply it.