Thomas Stevens

Vacchiano and "His" Rules

  • For Trumpeters Only

The Rules

William Vacchiano was unquestionably one of the most important brass teachers of the twentieth century. His teaching philosophy represented a utilitarian approach, one somewhat more akin to the way attorneys and medical professionals are trained rather than as things are traditionally done in music schools today: provide students with the basic tools to allow them entry into the profession, leaving any further professional career development to their own devices and experiences.

Many are of the opinion his emphasis on rudimentary issues, including the use of “his” well-known Rules* represented his strongest suit as a teacher. By concentrating on musical and technical fundamentals and deferring certain related musical issues (solo/chamber/contemporary/whatever) to his students' various in or out-of school musical activities and experiences, his pupils were given considerably more freedom to pursue and develop personal musical interests than would have been the case in the more structured training programs of traditional music schools. Additionally, for quite obvious reasons, the fact the schools in which he taught were located in New York City has to be factored into the Vacchiano pedagogical equation.

While certain of his teaching concepts, especially workplace-oriented issues, are perhaps démodé relative to the present day music world, others are timeless and every bit as valuable to student musicians today as they were during his active teaching years. The one area of commonality among his pupils, at least those who studied with him up until about the late 1960s, was their experience with the Rules.  

For this Quotables page I have included some flippant, yet extremely relevant, comments he made about those rules during my studies with him (1961-63). To the best of my knowledge they have not previously appeared in print and are included here, verbatim, as transcribed directly from post-lesson notes. One might say they represent the maxims that supercede "the" Rules:

“ Always follow the rules unless you’re being paid not to.”

“ I don’t follow the rules when my musical instincts tell me not to.”

“ The rules are useless if you have don’t have a musician’s brain.”

“ You can’t break the rules if you don’t know what they are.” (This writer once observed conductor Michael Tilson Thomas asking some musicians not to “play” the bar lines, but to “phrase over them” in a dance movement of a Bach orchestral suite. In view of the prevailing circumstances at the time, (no further comment necessary) MTT’s instructions instantly reminded me of this Vacchiano comment.)

“The rules are very clear. You have to be smart enough to understand them, but even smarter to know when to ignore them.”

“Sometimes I think I could teach a monkey to do these things if I had enough time!” (He probably could have done so!)

And, finally, my absolutely all-time personal favorite: (edited to provide a coherent printed version)

“Stevens, the rules are like the route method. Have you ever heard of the route method?
“Well, Stevens, it’s like this: You are driving down the street and the signal light turns red, you automatically stop, without thinking. If the light is green, you keep going, also without thinking. If the light is yellow, then you must think before you react. There are not many yellow lights in music.”
.............“In other words, Stevens, in the route method you just do what the music says.”

* The "Rules" were not his, and he never said they were. They were principles of music he had learned through his student and professional experiences, from his grade school solfeggio teacher to trumpeters such as George Mager, Max Schlossberg, Gustav Heim, et al.