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William Adam — A Personal Journey and Reflections on His Philosophy

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One of the most important aspects of Mr. Adam’s teaching is the understanding that he teaches the student, not the trumpet. What exactly does that mean you might ask. It means there is no “Adam Method,” which is a common misconception. What has become troubling is that, over the years, Mr. Adam’s teachings have been distilled down into his “daily routine,” and the importance of his teaching philosophy is lost in translation. I will discuss “the routine” in this article, but it is important to understand that “the routine” is a tool, and only a portion of the profound pedagogy of Mr. William Adam.

To preface this article, I have studied with students of William Adam from the beginning of my private study. This was not intentional. As a 15-year-old growing up in Cincinnati, OH I did not know anything about Mr. Adam, but I was exposed to his teachings because of the people with whom I studied. I began my private study with Dave Thomas. Dave, who had been a student of Pat Harbison and Mr. Adam, had me blowing the leadpipe, playing long tones, Clarke studies, Schlossberg studies, etc. He never spoke about the physical activity of playing the trumpet, but instead lead with having me imitate his sound. This then lead me to study with the late Mark Wilcox, who was teaching out of Wright State University at the time. Mark was a student of Dr. Karl Sievers (a first generation student of Mr. Adam), and Mr. Adam himself. Again, we were blowing the leadpipe, playing long tones and Clarke studies, and then he added some Glantz studies and Ernest Williams studies. Similar to Dave, Mark never mentioned the physical process of playing the trumpet; we focused on making a beautiful sound, and playing in phase with the instrument. I began to notice the similarities in pedagogy, and moreover I was seeing great results from approaching the instrument this way. When it came time to go to college, both Dave and Mark recommended I go to Morehead State University to study with Greg Wing. This would prove to be one of the most important decisions of my life.

In 2003, I entered my undergraduate studies at Morehead State. I was nervous, I was not a very good trumpet player, but I was prepared to work hard. I heard all of these amazing trumpet sounds coming out of the practice rooms, and most people began practicing by 7am. The sounds coming out of the practice rooms were of people trading off on the leadpipe, long tones, Clarke, Schlossberg, Glantz studies, Ernest Williams… all things I’d heard and played before. It cemented something in my mind; there must be something to this whole “Adam thing.” As I mentioned, my understanding of Mr. Adam’s teaching was parochial at this point. That would all change as my study with Mr. Wing began (and continues to this day). Mr. Wing, of course, introduced me to a much longer, more challenging, and always evolving daily routine. But more than that, he taught me how to be a good person and freed my mind so I could express myself musically. I learned the trumpet as a result of understanding myself and how my mind works.

It was an unbelievable experience and as I type this I find myself getting emotional thinking about the gifts of patience, kindness, and belief that Mr. Wing gave me. He believed in me before I ever had it me to believe in myself. After five years of study with Mr. Wing, I entered Indiana University as a graduate student, something I could never have achieved had it not been for his presence in my life. I teach at the University of Louisiana at Monroe because I owe a return on the tremendous gifts that Mr. Wing gave to me as a young man learning how to play the trumpet and carry myself in the professional world.

Eric Siereveld & William Adam.

I began my study in earnest with Mr. Adam in the summer of 2007, when Mr. Adam was 90 years old, and continued that study through the summer of 2011. I entered graduate school as a jazz studies major at Indiana University in the fall of 2008. During that time I studied with Mr. Adam regularly, almost every other week. There would be periods where we wouldn’t have a lesson for a month or so, because as you’d expect of a man of his age, there were other considerations in life that required his time and attention. However, it was an unbelievable experience to sit with him, hear stories of his most successful students, learn about this profound philosophy of trumpet playing, and most importantly have his guidance in helping me become the trumpeter, and more importantly the person I wanted to be. I must also mention that during my time at IU, I had the great fortune to study with Joey Tartell. And for those who know Joey, they know that he is one of the finest pedagogues of his generation. I learned many important lessons from him, and in another article I shall discuss influences on my pedagogy outside of the “Adam School.”

The William Adam “Routine”

The biggest challenge I face with an article like this is trying to put Mr. Adam’s teaching into words. As I mentioned, there is no “Adam Method.” Mr. Adam never wrote a book specifically because he did not ascribe to a singular method. He did however have a thorough and disciplined philosophy of teaching. To fully understand where Mr. Adam’s philosophy comes from, I would recommend reading these books:

I’d also recommend reading the poems If by Rudyard Kipling, and Promise Yourself by Christian D. Larson. These writings will give you a glimpse into the guiding principles of his philosophy on life, and by extension his philosophy of teaching and playing the trumpet.

In preparation for this article, I went back and listened to my first lesson with Mr. Adam. He allowed me to record a handful of my lessons, and I kept a notebook in which I wrote important thoughts, some of his mantras, and several of his jokes. In my first lesson, we began by exchanging some basic information, where I was from, with whom I was studied, and where I was going to school. When I told him I was studying with Greg Wing (one of his most successful students), he said, “… Greg… God, I got a lot of respect for that guy. He’s a wonderful man and a wonderful trumpet player!” The next question he asked me was, “So what kind of instrument is that (pointing to my trumpet)?” In my anxiety to finally be sitting with Mr. Adam in a lesson, I did not think very quickly, but sheepishly responded with, “A wind instrument…?” He exclaimed, “That’s right! The air is what makes this thing go.” He then proceeded with a brief discussion about the physics of the trumpet, and some basic demonstrations on how the instrument works from a physics standpoint. (If you are not familiar with the physics of our instrument, I highly recommend the article The Physics of Brasses from the July 1973 edition of Scientific American.)

Eric Siereveld & William Adam.

After the introduction to the basics of how the trumpet “works,” we began going through “the daily routine.” There was a baseline version of the daily routine that Mr. Adam used as he got to know a student’s playing, and this routine included long tones, Clarke studies, Schlossberg flexibility and pronunciation (articulation) studies, scale studies, and exercises that Mr. Adam developed, ie. expanding scales. The longer Mr. Adam worked with a student, the more he would supplement that routine, or change the way a student approached a particular exercise. For example, for a period of my study, he removed all of the Schlossberg flexibility exercises, and supplemented it with Thiecke studies. He also had me playing expanding scales three times rather quickly as opposed once, steady and slow. Another major change we made in my playing was having me use the vowel sound “AH.” Previously I had been saying “OO,” and this change allowed me to move my air in a much freer and more open way. We also changed my tonguing consonant from a T to a D, it took me some years before I finally realized why we made that change, but it also allowed me to develop a clean and clear pronunciation. There were many other “changes” he placed in my routine throughout my study with him, and each of those changes were accompanied by selected etudes, solo rep, and musical studies to help me achieve the freedom in my playing we are all after.

There are many versions of the routine floating around online (including the version I use as a baseline with my students.) I certainly recommend finding a copy of the routine, and highly recommend picking up Charley Davis’ fantastic book, A Tribute to William Adam — His Teachings and His Routine. More importantly, I cannot recommend this strongly enough, work with one of Mr. Adam’s dedicated students for a period of time. This will help you understand the full benefits of having a dedicated daily routine. The basic routine that Mr. Adam was using when I was studying with him was this collection of exercises:

  • leadpipe,
  • long tones,
  • Clarke #1,
  • Schlossberg #6, #31, #14, #15, #13, #17 & #95,
  • Ernest Williams pronunciation, and
  • expanding scales.

Download the William Adam Routine [PDF 484 KB]
Remember: The approach to this basic daily routine was as varied as the players taking lessons with Mr. Adam. So again, while it is important to have these exercises and begin doing them everyday, it is equally important to seek private study with one of Mr. Adam’s dedicated students.

The William Adam’s Philosophy

Now that we have the daily routine out of the way, let’s discuss what Mr. Adam actually taught. If you have not read it, Mr. Adam’s 1975 Clinic Address, I recommend it. It provides excellent insight into his thinking and philosophy, in his own words. The reflections I am going to relate, are strictly that, mine. These are my views and interpretations of Mr. Adams’ teaching based on my study with him. Others may have slightly different views, or have had different experiences with Mr. Adam and I hold to the validity of my own experience and views, as they have contributed to my success as a trumpeter.

Mr. Adam had a few overarching ideas about playing/teaching the trumpet. One of his principal philosophies was in regard to how we approach the instrument. He often said that he believed the mind was responsible for ninety percent of trumpet playing. The remaining ten percent was divided into nine percent air (or breath) and one percent physical, or as he often said to me, “everything else.” This means that playing the trumpet is largely a mental activity. If we stop to consider this concept, it actually makes a great deal of sense. After all, our idea of self resides in the mind, so it stands to reason that concept of sound resides in the mind as well. In fact, the mind is the driving force behind every activity on the trumpet. If we prescribe to this philosophy, we come to the logical conclusion, as Mr. Adam did, that changing our mode or method of thinking can solve most of our issues.

As I mentioned, the mind is the guiding force behind trumpet playing. This may sound like an oversimplified concept, but we often think exactly this way when we do many other complicated physical activities, like playing a game of catch. When you toss a ball back and forth with a friend, you keep your thoughts relatively simple; throw the ball, catch the ball. We do not micromanage our physical response/actions to the activity. Meaning that when we catch the ball, we do not attempt to control all the complex muscle motion that takes place in order to adjust the angle of our wrist, or close our fingers around the ball, or what muscles are required to control the angle of our elbow. Likewise when we throw the ball, we do not think about the role the muscles in our index finger play to create the necessary trajectory of the throw. We simply keep our eye on the target and throw the ball. If we approach the trumpet the same way, we often get very positive results, though the process requires much greater concentration and repetition.

Mr. Adam was fond of saying that “concentration is the product of a quiet mind.” We can drown out the noise in our head by focusing on the sound that we wish to create. This is reminiscent of the “Chicago School” of thought, and Arnold Jacobs’ Song and Wind. When we vividly conceptualize the sound, phrase, pronunciation, etc. in our mind, the goal becomes to produce that sound. Since we can only hold one conscious thought in the mind at a time, it stands to reason that if we are concerned with the feeling of our corners, the arch of our tongue, or the speed of our fingers, we are not fully focused on the musical product. We must keep the sound in our mind, and the mind in our sound. It is not enough to simply think of a pretty trumpet sound, but you must fully imagine the result before the sound is produced. When we do this, we often find that the body follows the imagination to produce the most efficient physical sensation it can to achieve the desired result.

An important point to make now is that Mr. Adam often spoke about “awareness points.” Meaning, we know the lips, tongue, fingers, breath, etc play a role in playing the trumpet. However, we do not focus on any of those physical sensations, we are simply aware of them. Here is an example; you are aware that you have a big right toe, but you never consider its role in helping you stay upright as you walk or stand. Though it is most certainly helpful in both activities. Similarly, our corners are important, but if we try to focus on their role in playing a beautiful musical line, we are not keeping our mind on the goal. The goal must always be the sound, fully realized and vividly imagined. We play the sound, not the feel.

There is so much of Mr. Adam’s philosophy that is “caught, not taught.” I can say from my personal experience that there was nothing like sitting in the room with Mr. Adam, Mr. Wing, Mark Wilcox and Dave Thomas. Knowing the guiding principles behind Mr. Adam’s teaching is a good start, but it’s really only the first step. When and if it is possible, studying with one of Mr. Adam’s successful and dedicated students is of paramount importance. Hearing “that sound,” learning the vocabulary, and getting first hand guidance will not only give you a better understanding of this tremendous philosophy, it will help lay the foundation for future successes.

As I stated before, it is difficult to encapsulate Mr. Adam’s philosophies into words. Words are open to interpretation, and though I have tried to choose mine carefully and keep them as simple and clear as possible, I am sure there will still be many questions about these concepts. However, I hope this article will peak your curiosity about this amazing man and titan of trumpet pedagogy. If nothing else, I hope it will inspire many of you to seek out study with one of his many fine students.

Now, as Mr. Adam would say, “Fire it up!”

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