The Teaching Philosophy of Claude Gordon by Matt Graves

"Brass playing is very easy when it is done correctly.  It is very hard when it is attempted incorrectly . . . It is absolute torture when the player is playing incorrectly and trying to do it by sheer force."(1)  Such was my introduction to Claude Gordon in his own words in 1983 when I began studying with him.  Having persevered through so many of his own personal struggles, hardships and obstacles and overcoming bad teachers and erroneous and absurd playing theories, is it any wonder that Claude became the practical, common sense teacher that he was?

Looking back through such texts as Herbert L. Clarke's How I Became a Cornetist you can see that the youthful fascination with "how it works" has been around a long time.  At the present day, the theories on what enables the trumpet enthusiast to play well abound and prompted Claude to write, "Today there are thousands playing each brass instrument, and yet the great virtuosos can be counted on your hands."(2)

Claude had an outline of his teaching philosophy in what he called, "The Seven Natural Elements" which he likened to the physical laws governing the universe.  Briefly, the seven elements are:

1) Wind Power (i.e., breathing)
2) The Tongue
3) Wind Control
4) The Lips
5) The muscles of the lips and the face
6) The Fingers of the Right Hand and
7) The Left Hand.

Regarding breathing, Claude insisted on science rather than fiction.  The so called "diaphragmatic breathing" theory he dismissed on the grounds that the air goes into the lungs and the muscles surrounding the thorax (chest and back) squeeze like a bellows in exhalation.  The diaphragm is an ultra thin involuntary tissue with very few muscle strands which flex only during INHALATION to create the vacuum necessary to pull air into the lungs.  His practical teaching on breathing was to take a big, full breath and keep the chest up during inhalation and exhalation and let the air do the work.  Maintaining posture in this fashion develops the thoracic and abdominal musculature used in brass playing and preserves the full wind power playing potential.

His teaching on the tongue involved two concepts, namely the tongue position and the tongue level.  Claude advocated the articulation technique passed on to him by Herbert L. Clarke, one which seemed to lie dormant in Clarke's Characteristic Studies text after Clarke's death.(3)  The technique which Claude referred to as "K Tongue Modified" involves leaving the very tip of the tongue behind the lower front teeth and producing the "T" of the single tongue release with the front of the tongue.(4) When mastered, this technique allows more efficient articulation, a more confident range and increased playing accuracy. After utilizing K Tongue Modified as your "normal" single tongue, the tongue soon easily moves between the specific level or shape required for each note and there is no need to switch from one embouchure setting to another from low to high range.  In Claude's words, the player "will learn to feel every note."

Clarke's Technical Studies was one of Claude's tools for developing wind control in his students.  After he was sure a particular student could play Clarke's exercises accurately and had patiently and willfully achieved this goal, then he would allow them to strive for speed, repetitions and dynamics.  Of course, the player would never be finished with these exercises.  Upon completing the book, they would be assigned to the beginning again and encouraged to achieve greater results each time.  One of Claude's favorite sayings was, "A good trumpet player can't live without three things: love, good food and a copy of Clarke's Technical Studies."

"The Lips do not play the cornet.  They only act as a vibrating medium . . . "  So said Herbert L. Clarke in a letter to Claude Gordon dated October 2, 1936.(5)  Claude's teaching on the lips was brief and to the point.  "Place the mouthpiece in the center of the lips with approximately 2/3 of the mouthpiece on the upper lip. . . Let the lips work correctly; do not try to make them work or look a certain way. . . Once your embouchure is set, forget the lip. . . With proper practice, the lips will take care of themselves."(6)

"Lift fingers high and strike valves hard" was one Claude's favorite rubber stamps.  He would rubber-stamp the student's method books as a reminder for important concepts.   This approach to fingering insures accurate technical execution as well as reinforcing muscle memory.  With enough time and proper practice, it also enables the student to achieve great speed.  Claude also insisted that the trumpet be flat or flush against the palm of the left hand so that the student could maintain a proper grip on the horn and thus limit extraneous movements of the instrument.

These Seven Natural Elements could be explained easily and quickly.  However, Claude's tailor-made prescriptions for daily practice routines were much more valuable.  It was here that each student discovered Claude's heart.  His was not one beating with the egotism of the polished brass "theorist," but the steady unfaltering rhythm of a humble, caring physician, one who had himself been healed and was able to prescribe the proper remedy or preventive measure.  His assigned routines were hand written at each lesson using all the time-tested trumpet methods and exercises.

The comeback player will do well utilizing Claude Gordon's books Physical Approach to Elementary Brass Playing and Daily Routines.  His book Brass Playing is no harder than Deep Breathing is also an excellent text of his teaching philosophy.  Other books by Claude include Systematic Approach to Daily Practice, Tongue Level Exercises and Thirty Velocity Studies.

"Practice, practice, practice until it all works correctly - by habit." - Claude Gordon (7)

(1.)  Claude Gordon, Brass Playing is no harder than Deep Breathing, p. 6.
(2.)  Claude Gordon, Brass Playing is no harder than Deep Breathing, p. 6.
(3.)  Herbert L. Clarke, Characteristic Studies, pub. by Carl Fischer (02281),  p. 5.
(4.)  By front of the tongue, I mean the area of the tongue between the very tip and the center of the tongue.  Note: this is a very subjective matter.  In some players this area may seem more forward and in others it may seem farther back.
(5.)  Claude Gordon, Brass Playing is no harder than Deep Breathing, p. 29.
(6.)  Claude Gordon, Brass Playing is no harder than Deep Breathing, pp. 30 - 31.
(7.)  Claude Gordon, Brass Playing is no harder than Deep Breathing, p. 35.