Thomas Stevens

Vacchiano's Rules Redux

  • For Trumpeters Only

Willam Vacchiano's "Rules" Updated

Many trumpeters who received their professional training during the mid-20th century knew, or at least had heard of William Vacchiano’s so-called “rules” for trumpet performance.

 “Vacchiano Rules” for trumpet performance were not “his” rules, he never said they were, and they were not specifically about trumpet performance. Moreover, the term "Rules" was indeed (unfortunately) the one he used, but  it was really a misnomer. In point of fact, the Rules, as Mr. Vacchiano taught them, were very standard rudimentary performance strictures that were neither special nor unique at the highest levels of the music profession, and many of the famous legendary teachers in the United States (principally symphony orchestra musicians who had been trained in Europe (mainly in Paris) during the early 20th century and then emigrated to the American continent) used them in their studio teaching, although they did so via their standard repertoire rather than as isolated concepts. This writer has listened to audiotapes of distinguished teachers, such as Marcel Tabuteau of the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Curtis Institute-a person considered by many as the father of American oboe playing-as well as countless others articulating some of those same performance principles in their teaching, although the manner with which they expressed those concepts and principles was not always the same. By the mid-20th century, however, Vacchiano was one of only two major American trumpet professors-possibly the only two American brass instructors-teaching those rules, with Roger Voisin of the Boston Symphony Orchestra being the other professor doing so. Being the creative and methodical individual he was, Vacchiano exhibited a more structured approach to the teaching of those materials than did Voisin-organizing those basic rudimentary performance principles into a very clearly defined set of spoken but unwritten strictures, which were then applied to traditional cornet and trumpet training materials, such as Arban, Saint Jacome, Clarke, Walter Smith, Charlier, Sachse, and others. The adaptation of cornet materials was necessary because there is no serious original 19th century music, arguably the most important period in the development of written Western Music, written for the trumpet. Other, non-brass playing instrumentalists have, to this very day, learned such concepts and performance practices through the study, preparation, and performance of their instrument's standard repertoire, but since the chromatic trumpet was in absentia during the 19th century, its practitioners have needed to resort to other educational approaches and techniques to familiarize them with such practices.

“Classically trained” trumpeters today are familiar with both Early Music and New Music performance practices; however, the same assertion could not be made with respect to 19th century performance practices, which is particularly unfortunate since most of the so-called traditional, or mainstream repertoire, such as mid-to late 20th century concerti (ie: Arutuinian, Tomasi, et al.), representing only one category as an example, are based on the 19th century structural model.

In recent years, there has been a renewed interest in those old tenets. There have also been questions raised with reference to exactly where Vacchiano himself had acquired those musical principles. Unfortunately, the answers to inquiries regarding the latter issue have been obfuscated by the fact that, over the years, Professor Vacchiano offered differing, sometimes conflicting versions as to their origins. As an example, leading Vacchiano students from his early teaching days (e.g. Broiles, Ghitalla, Joseph Alessi II, et al.) posited that he had credited his association with Georges Mager of the Boston Symphony (and a graduate of the Paris Conservatory*) as being an important source-a very credible attribution since many of the rules comport with the teaching principles of those major woodwind players (and others) who had studied in Paris during the 1920s. Adolph Herseth of the Chicago Symphony, Bernard Adelstein of the Cleveland Orchestra, and Roger Voisin of the Boston Symphony had studied with Mager, and although they were entirely different types of players in terms of style, sound, et al., their execution, per the old strictures, was uncannily disciplined and almost textbook in nature. Other sources cited by Vacchiano to his students (most notably during his later teaching years) were Max Schlossberg and Vacchiano's solfeggio teacher from the days of his youth in Maine. Additionally, there is the fact William Vacchiano was the principal trumpeter of the New York Philharmonic for a period of nearly four decades, and as one who has had a similar experience in a major orchestra, this writer is of the opinion that if musicians occupy such a position, stay awake and keep their ears and minds open to all that is spoken and played onstage in that environment, their education as performers, notably as regards 19th century performance practices, will be unmatched by any other on our fair planet.

The most frustrating thing with respect to reaching a determination as to the true origins of Vacchiano's so-called Rules is that the answers to any questions only lead to more questions. Unfortunately, in my personal experiences with Mr. Vacchiano, I can specifically recall receiving different answers/information from him on certain subjects when dealing with him as a professional colleague than I had earlier received from him on those same subjects during my student days. This is understandable, and I state this in a non-judgmental way because I, just as in the case of some of my colleagues, have behaved in the very same way. The reality is that in our business there exists a candidness among professional colleagues/peers that is generally not replicated in dealings with students or other outside parties.

Therefore, in view of the fact we will never have definitive answers in this regard, it's probably best  to simply accept the rules for what they are: An invaluable tool for our work.

(to be continued……)

*As an interesting side-story, while teaching a master-class at the Paris Conservatory in 1979, I was surprised the students had no idea of these solfege principles, especially when considering the fact the "Rules" presumably had their genesis in that institution. When asked about this, Professor Pierre Thibaud informed me that brass and percussion students took a lower form of solfege than the general student population during the early part of the century; so, those musical principles were not a part of the trumpet students’ curriculum. I asked how it then could have been possible, if the "historical" accounts were true, for George Mager to have brought those tenets to the USA. The answer was indeed surprising: Georges Mager graduated from the Paris Conservatory with diplomas in both viola and cornet; so, as a violist he had learned the higher level Paris Conservatory solfege with the general student population, leading one to pose the following question: How pleased would self-respecting American trumpeters be to learn that a violist (of all things!) had been one of the most influential teachers of their instrument?