Thomas Stevens

Vacchiano's Rules Redux Part II

  • For Trumpeters Only

William Vacchiano's "Rules" Updated (continued)

When viewed in a 21st century perspective, "Vacchiano's" so-called "Rules," as well as their original sources (whatever/whomever they were), were overly simplistic strictures designed for simpler times and performance practices.[i]In those days, wind and brass players were trained primarily as ensemble musicians; there were no brass soloists and very few woodwind ones. The Rules, therefore, addressed, in the most fundamental manner, how to perform what was on the pages of western classically oriented music (the types of music performed by bands, orchestras, and smaller ensembles of various types), predicated on the idea the music would be played in an ensemble context. In other words, basic rhythmic placement (for vertical alignment), articulations, short phrases, and the like. 

With the advent of the musical developments of the second half of the 20th century, from scholarship in Early Music performance practices, advanced developments in New Music, the increasing attention being paid to historically regional/national traditions, and the evolving interest and development of solo and ensemble performance in the woodwind and brass communities, the misnamed Rules gradually became irrelevant over time due to their overly restrictive nature. Indeed, even Vacchiano himself was teaching fewer and fewer of those principles to his students from the late 1960s forward. During the period from 1966-74, I sent a number of students from the west coast to study with William Vacchiano at The Juilliard School, and I witnessed the changes in his teaching through their experiences.

I spoke with William Vacchiano in 1973 at the National Trumpet Symposium in Denver and, as a firm believer in the "nuts and bolts" method of learning music, expressed the opinion that rather than abandoning the Rules, they could be used effectively as the basis of a new set of pedagogical principles that took into consideration more advanced performance concepts, such as basic musical architecture, advanced cadences, style-based articulation differences, and so on, to wit: the same principles that artist level pianists, string, and woodwind instrumentalists learn through their standard repertoire. I posited that since we trumpeters have no serious 19th century music of our own on which to base our interpretations of such music, the creation of an updated/upgraded version of the rules might be of some help in this area. And, I suggested that I would like to try to do just that: The Rules 2.0. if you will. Vacchiano wished me luck but also said he thought it would be a “fool’s errand” since students no longer responded to that kind of teaching.

So, during the early 1970s, I developed an updated version of the “rules” that took into account the needs of the advancing musical culture of the trumpet community. With the exception of a few thoughtful and very gifted students, including a small number who eventually became successful professional artists (e.g. Håkan Hardenberger), most students absolutely hated doing those things, believing , as is often the case at the lower levels of our profession, that any such restrictions are generally viewed as a threat to musical expressivity. As always, William Vacchiano was absolutely correct: It was indeed a “fool’s errand,” one somewhat akin to the old admonition about never trying to teach a pig to sing because it simply annoys the pig!

What I had been slow to comprehend was the fact we had entered a new era in music education-the “Look and Listen” school of music performance practices (looking at the music-rather than actually reading it-while simultaneously listening to recordings). This is not intended in any way as a general criticism; all musicians do this to a certain extent these days. The most important consideration is how one utilizes this approach. Is it used as a point of departure/reference for educational/developmental purposes, or do musicians simply “parrot” recordings, playing them "by ear," to borrow a phrase from a previous era? When one hears performers play extremely difficult works (sonatas, concertos, et al) with remarkable virtuosity and then observes those very same performers being unable to comprehend or execute the most simple musical issues when asked to do so solely by reading printed music, without audio assistance, one suspects the latter could, more often than not, be the case. 

In view of the resurgent interest in some quarters regarding the old “rules/fundamentals of music” types of approaches to musical performance practices, and acting in response to several requests to do so, I brought the old teaching materials out of the closet, where they had been languishing for over two decades, and presented them in a few venues. While this approach has been more widely accepted in recent years than it was during the late 1970s-early 80s, now, as then, the majority of students have not liked it. We did, however, videotape some of the most recent classes in preparation for the creation of a teaching video on the rules. Some excerpts, mainly "outtakes" from the tapes from those events have been posted on YouTube (Thomas Stevens Trumpet), or links on Facebook (Thomas Stevens Music).

[i] As typical examples: many rhythmic figures and articulations were usually executed in the same manner, regardless of the musical context, or the music's physical (geographical/national)origins, or the historical period during which the music was written, as per the old cliché, “from Bach to Stravinsky.” One of the sillier rules came from Schlossberg, to wit: When quarter notes and eighth notes appear together in a musical passage, the quarters are played long and the eighths are played short (if life were only that simple).