Vandiver studies trumpet teaching method in Germany

December 8, 2011

PLAINVIEW – Throughout the years, many elementary school students have answered the question, How did you spend you summer vacation? For Joe Vandiver, assistant professor of music at Wayland Baptist University, last summer’s story has the potential to be a prize-winner, if only he could tell it.

Vandiver, whose expertise is found in teaching and playing trumpet, spent a month in Mannheim, Germany, studying trumpet and teaching techniques under Gunther Beetz, a renowned trumpeter who played for the German Brass and now teaches at Hochscule Mannheim, what Vandiver describes as a specialized school.

Beetz keeps his method as secret as possible in order to avoid misinformation. Vandiver said his approach is not necessarily new or different, but rather a combination of existing techniques coupled with his own style.

“It’s elements that he pulls in for a more holistic approach to doing things more efficiently,” Vandiver said. “He claims there is nothing new to his system of teaching. It’s just the overall picture and which elements he is pulling into his particular method. A lot of it is very new to us, over here. But he says in Germany they have been doing it for hundreds of years.”

As an example, Vandiver said Beetz will spend nearly five months teaching beginners the proper breathing method using a simple wooden chair with other props or tools attached to it. Students, however, never sit in the chair. They are always standing. A similar chair now sits in Vandiver’s office.

Little more can be said of the technique by Vandiver who embraces the Beetz system. This means he also embraces the secrecy that Beetz requires from his students.

“It’s pretty commonly known as a brain washing,” Vandiver said with a grin. “He wants to make sure that if you’re learning his method, it is being taught by someone who actually understands it.”

With the prevalence of information available, there is the vast potential for information to be misconstrued or misunderstood. Vandiver said Beetz tries to avoid this as much as possible by controlling not only who teaches his method, but who is learning it as well.

To date, Vandiver is the only American to have studied under Beetz … and it wasn’t easy to gain acceptance from the German.

Vandiver became thoroughly impressed when he heard a recording of Beetz. He said he was amazed what Beetz could do on the trumpet. Vandiver began researching the German trumpeter and found that he had been teaching exclusively since 1990 and had not given a live performance since 2000.

“I dug a little more and found out that he had a particular method that he taught and is very secretive about,” Vandiver said. “Every trumpeter in the world is looking for a new high note. If you are not careful as a teacher, that is all your student is looking for … a magic little pill. Beetz is very against that. His method is not a simple thing. It is a life changer. It’s about how you do things, not just what the final product is.”

Vandiver emailed Beetz in October 2010, inquiring about taking lessons from him. Beetz responded by saying he was not interested.

“Of course, I responded and stayed on it a little more,” Vandiver said.

Beetz finally agreed, putting him in touch with another teacher at the school whose English was much better and who had permission to teach the American his method. But there were still hurdles to be cleared.

“I talked to her about it and she said no,” Vandiver said.

His persistence eventually paid off as he proposed going to Germany to study for several weeks.

“About three weeks later she said, ‘OK. Professor Beetz said I can teach you the method,’” Vandiver said.

In March 2011, Vandiver traveled with the Wayland band to Germany where he first met with the professor. As the band landed in Frankfurt, Vandiver split off and headed for Mannheim where he had a four-hour lesson. He then jumped another train and caught up with the Wayland group in Leipzig. That four-hour lesson, however, resulted in further acceptance by the German teachers. Vandiver was able to line up another trip to Mannheim, spending 30 days with the teachers at their school.

“I had daily lessons and ate up a good chunk of what would have been my retirement,” he said.

Vandiver explained that students generally have lessons three days a week. Private lessons are held in a room where other students may be studying as well. He said this leads to peer critiques, and generally there are other people observing the lessons. Vandiver said most of his private lessons were with the professor who was more accomplished at English, but Beetz did work with him a little. Most of his interaction with Beetz, however, was observing the German instructor teach others as another student translated from German to English for him.

While Vandiver said nothing is really unique about the teaching method, it does focus on making the individual think through the process.

“Essentially you have and I have the same muscles, apparatus, lips, brain, the whole works. It is just a matter of how you coordinate those efforts to produce a product,” Vandiver said. “Even when you are making a mistake, depending on how you think of it, it is still a success.”

As part of his teaching method, Beetz would ask his students to play. When he stopped them, he asked them to explain their mistakes, then he challenged them to make the same mistake again.

“If you can physically produce the effort a second time, you are that much closer to breaking it,” Vandiver said. “Usually nobody asks you to reproduce the bad stuff, it’s just a matter of getting the bad stuff out. This is a real in-depth way of controlling your body to do certain things as a reaction.”

While Vandiver may never be allowed to fully discuss Beetz and his method, the Wayland professor is incorporating parts of it into his own teaching. He will also use what he learned for part of his doctoral research. Vandiver, who is pursuing a doctorate of musical arts in trumpet performance, hopes to wrap up his education by May. He said his final lecture presentation will be on Beetz and his method.

“It was a phenomenal experience,” he said. “Beetz took on every student as a personal challenge to ensure that no matter what, they were going to get it. Seeing the energy that he put into each class, each lesson, it was more than I had experienced from any professors. It was really an inspiring thing.”