Teaching Anxiety: Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained

So your student has an embouchure problem. Or so you think. You felt sure of this fact a month ago, when you told him to make some changes, but now you’re not so confident. He seems to be getting worse rather than better, and he’s certainly getting more frustrated. He’s never been a superstar, but he used to be one of your better players; why did you decide to fix something that didn’t need fixing? Now he can’t play above the staff…

This scenario represents many teachers’ (and students’) worst nightmare. The fear of misdirecting a student, especially a good student, weighs heavily on most of us at one point or another. When I stepped into a college environment, thus becoming the last (and sometimes only) private instructor for many of my students before they face the real world, the risks became downright sobering.

I would argue that any good teacher experiences “teaching anxiety.” Anxiety conveys to us that we care about our students, that we want them to succeed, and that we feel responsible for their progress. Those who don’t experience some form of anxiety tend to be either too lazy to invest in their students or too reckless to consider that all of us are fallible. But if the fear of “screwing up” a student prevents us as teachers from addressing a major problem, then we do our students an equally grave disservice, because we give them more and more opportunity to reinforce wrong habits. How, then, can we manage our own anxiety so that it does not prevent us from taking the risks that our students may need us to take?

In some ways, trumpet playing is really quite simple. It boils down to two main components: air and embouchure. When we speak of air, we are concerned with whether it is moving continuously and with whether it is moving quickly. When we speak of embouchure, we are concerned with whether the lips can vibrate freely and with whether the two opposing muscle groups that create the embouchure are in balance. If a student is having problems, one of these factors is almost always responsible.

Most of us are quite comfortable adjusting a student’s use of air. We think of these changes as reversible. Not so the dreaded embouchure change, which strikes terror into the hearts of teachers and pupils alike. In many ways, the two are not so different: both involve a learned habit which the student must override. Either can mean the difference between stardom or mediocrity. Neither change is, perhaps, essential for a pre-college student who has no aspirations to play professionally, but both can dramatically change a student’s experience with the trumpet.

But where embouchure changes differ from air changes is that the embouchure change can cause tremendous stagnation and counter-productivity unless the student believes in it as much as the teacher. This is because certain embouchure changes (not all of them) require a period of limbo, in which neither the old nor the new setup will feel quite right. And unless the student knows what to expect and has fully committed to the process, he will find himself stranded.

Herein lies most teachers’ anxiety. When my college students express concern that they “won’t know what to do” when teaching private lessons, I think they are primarily mystified by embouchure. But in reality, the type of worst-case scenario I’ve described above is usually avoidable if the teacher and the student both commit to the process and agree upon the desired result.* Furthermore (speaking from a college admissions standpoint), the number of students whose futures have been compromised by embouchure changes gone wrong is far less than the number of students whose teachers didn’t push them hard enough to be outstanding.

You have much to offer to your students! Do you know how to improve upon something your student is doing? Make this your goal; many problems are not fixed until they undergo several weeks of being improved. So start with any piece of the puzzle that you know how to improve and set assignments that will encourage progress in this area. Other things will become clearer as you go. If this clarity leads you to become convinced that your student needs to change something more drastic, consider explaining the process to the student so he knows what to expect.** This drastic change might be an embouchure change–but it also might be a vibrato change, a need to practice fundamentals, or a need to work with a drone to improve pitch. Regardless, most students will rise to a challenge if they can see the incremental progress as they go. It is in this way, moreso than the more overt alterations, that a teacher can often have the greatest impact.

So take a risk: dare your students to be outstanding. They won’t know what they can achieve until you help them see it.


* Some of you would probably like a play-by-play of how this process should work and how to tell if an embouchure change is necessary. However, my thoughts on embouchure are better summarized elsewhere on this site. I might consider an embouchure change as a possibility for a student whose setup did not adhere to the general principles outlined on that page, but the level of student commitment to a serious embouchure change is so high that I usually treat it as a last resort.

** A serious student should trust your judgement enough to follow your instructions without hesitation–but I personally prefer to explain my objectives for some of the more daunting assignments (Caruso studies, pedal tones, changes in mouthpiece placement, etc.). The key is to help your student to recognize his own progress when it happens–especially if “progress” isn’t going to sound like improvement at first.

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