Thomas Stevens

Vacchiano on Transposition

  • For Trumpeters Only

William Vacchiano's Approach to Musical Transposition: This Musician's Experience

Over the years a number of students have asked me to tell them how William Vacchiano taught musical transposition, a logical question in view of the importance he placed on the subject in the training of his pupils.
My knowledge of the subject is strictly limited to own studies with him plus some anecdotal information gleaned from colleagues who studied with him during the same general time period. Here is a summary of that information presented in the Quotables format.

By Request: Vacchiano on Transposition

Vacchiano’s teaching with respect to technical issues like rhythmic placement, articulations, and transpositions, often times stood in stark contrast to standard pedagogical methodology. Traditional educational protocols, like the ritualistic pas de deux wherein the teacher assigns material-student prepares material-teacher then hears material prepared by student, etc., were not always followed. (Serious musical issues were a different matter altogether since they obviously required a certain degree of reflection and repetition.)

Vacchiano considered musical transposition to be a mundane rudimentary issue that needed to be “neutralized” early on in the training his students. His goal was to enable them to read any music, in any transposition, at any time, and to do so simply as a matter of routine. This philosophy was similar to that of the great 20th century jazz pianist, Bill Evans, who opined that instrumentalists should practice musical rudiments like scales and chords until playing them would be subconscious acts, like the “movements one makes when driving an automobile” (Evan’s words), thus providing the underlying technical foundation for the development of their improvising skills.

During my studies with Vacchiano, the basic application of his transposition pedagogy was as follows: At each lesson he would ask me sight-read an exercise/study/etude (i.e. Sachse) in one or more transpositions, coaching me, if necessary, with respect to the specific transposition techniques involved, (clefs, intervals, key relationships, etc.-see “The How,” which is the subject of the following post) and that was it! He would then mark a large “V” on the top of the page as a reminder to himself that I had been assigned the piece, and then he would never again hear me play it. (If, during the sight-reading segment, I committed too many “misreads,” (mea culpa) he would ask me to hand copy the piece in the offending transposition a number of times to reinforce my “learning experience.”) It was my responsibility to learn that etude or the particular transposition issues it addressed*, because the following lesson would include yet another sight-reading exercise for which the previous one would have been a precursor of sorts in a loosely ordered incremental series organized by level of difficulty. (The serial order itself was so arbitrary, some might say haphazard, that one couldn’t try to beat the system** by determining the sequencing as many students do/did with in-the-classroom sentence translations in their foreign language classes.) The ultimate purpose was to develop the ability to transpose, not to learn otherwise meaningless transposition exercises.

Many students were uncomfortable with Vacchiano’s approach, which did not feature a great deal of “positive reinforcement.” There were very few personal accolades and no gold stars, just the trademark “V” on the top of each assigned page. Indeed, the fact one was moving forward was, for the most part, the only discernible validation of one’s progress, just as not moving forward implied something altogether different. Quotable: “We are not supposed to be comfortable. We are not in the comfort business. We are musicians”-Conductor Zubin Mehta (1969)

William Vacchiano was an extremely affable and charming human being, a man who was always a joy to be around, but when it came to his teaching, it was always about the task at hand. It wasn’t about him, and it wasn’t about us. It was about the music. (Imagine that!)

And that’s the way it was!

*Quotable #1: “Always work on your liabilities rather than your assets.” –William Vacchiano (ca. 1960s)

Quotable #2: “………[P] ractice smart! -Bass Trombonist/Conductor/Educator, Jeffrey Reynolds (ca.1990s)

(At first glance, the above two quotes may seem like silly platitudes, but anyone who has walked through the hallways of the practice facilities of the world’s top music schools knows these two distinguished gentlemen's points are extremely well-taken.)

** There is a rumor of long standing that during his days as a Vacchiano student, Mel Broiles, the co-principal trumpeter at the Metropolitan Opera for decades, memorized the entire Sachse book in order to “ace” his lessons. Mel most assuredly had the personal discipline to have done such a thing, making the rumor eminently believable.

Update: An ex-student of mine reminded me of something I had related to him many years ago regarding my studies with Vacchiano: Every lesson was a depressing experience because I could never meet Mr. V.'s standards-the man was relentless! One day, out of a sense of exasperation, I scheduled a lesson with Mel Broiles to consult with him about this (Mel and Fred Mills had made the original contacts with Vacchiano to convince him to accept me as a student), and Mel just laughed and told me "William" was very pleased with my work, and further, that if the day ever came when Vacchiano praised my playing on a regular basis it would be the "kiss of death," indicating that he had given up on me, and I may as well quit. Thank you very much and nice talking to you, Mr. Broiles!