Notes on a lesson with Phillip McCann

I was able to have a cornet lesson with Phillip McCann yesterday of at The University of Huddersfield.  To set the context of his remarks you need to know a few things about him as well as some of the things I have heard and observed in the 2 weeks I have known him.  The former Principal Cornet of the Black Dyke Band and a famous soloist, Phillip is a very, very demanding and uncompromising musician.  And he is unapologetic for his constant push for excellence.  He went so far as to say he often gets into trouble by being honest about what he hears, as some people really don’t want to her the truth.

My Rowan students would probably rather hear my softer more relaxed teaching side was reinforced by Mr. McCann, but that isn’t what happened.  In our first B&R rehearsal McCann actually complemented a horn player on a nice gesture.  The next entrance was a split.  He stopped the band and said “That’s why I never complement anyone.  It just makes them mess up again the next time.”

One of his former students (who now plays for a top band) told me that he can’t remember a single complement from Mr. McCann in 4 years of study.

In our lesson we talked at length about why we practice, what we practice, how much, and to what end.  I was totally in agreement with everything he said. After a time, He asked me to do some playing.  Since he had already revealed he wasn’t interested in lots of fast notes I was happy to play something with a tune.  I choose the opening of the Bellini Casta Diva solo from Norma in the back of he Arban book.

I think he wasn’t totally disgusted by the performance (thought I sounded like a trumpet player trying to play a cornet) and said the first thing we needed to talk about was vibrato.  Here are the important points:

  • Vibrato is part of the cornet sound.  Period.
  • Cornet vibrato is just like violin or soprano vibrato……part of their sound
  • Think of a brass band not as a brass ensemble (like Philip Jones) but as a brass orchestra
  • Cornets are the violins of the brass orchestra in terms of their vocal style and vibrato.
  • To make vibrato the lower jaw moves
  • the movement is very small and very fast (narrow fast vibrato)
  • The movement is so small that if you stop moving the jaw even just a little, the vibrato stops completely
  • It doesn’t get wider just because the sound is more intense or the dynamic increases.

Other points on music and cornet playing:

  • Vibrato and articulation have nothing to do with the airstream which is constant.
  • Forte is not an actual dynamic it is an impression.  FF is a huge sound but not harsh or pushed.
  • Tension is NEVER the answer
  • At all times make it feel and sound like you are singing.  This applies to phrasing as well.
  • Playing well is hard work, get used to it.  However it must look and sound easy.
  • Solos and band pieces are played well not because you practiced them but because you can do all of the techniques that allow you to play them well.
  • Don’t spend time only playing band music.  Spend practice time becoming a better player and musician.
  • A true test of a bands ability is being able to play a piece well at sight.

As you can see we covered a lot of material.  Though nothing was sugar coated he did say my basic sound was “not objectionable, if a bit cold like a trumpet”.  I’ll be with him for 2 more rehearsals this week at B&R and then he is away for a week with his band in Switzerland.  He is apparently wiling to see me again (which he had not agreed to prior to our lesson) so I’ll work hard and go back in a couple of weeks to see if I can start to actually sound like a cornet player.

Let me know if you have questions or comments.  I can still be reached via email at:


4 thoughts on “Notes on a lesson with Phillip McCann

  1. Bryan,

    Sounds like an intense lesson! I am reminded of Branford Marsalis’ famous comments on the issue of what students want to hear from their teachers. If you have not seen that video, let me know and I will send you a link.

    After thinking about it for a bit, I believe that students who really want to become great musicians do not care about compliments; however, compliments seem necessary to keep students who do not “get it” from quitting.

    Maybe this is too harsh, but I am thinking no.


  2. I have played in a band that Philip McCann used to “guest” with as a friend of the MD’s.. Each to their own, but I wouldn’t consider taking ANY advice from the guy. Why ?. Because he has spent so much time fraternising with players from Yorkshire that, like a lot of people who don’t understand the culture of Yorkshire folk, he thinks it’s OK to cross the line between honesty and plain b..dy rudeness !. Also, I always thought he was an overrated player … far too much vibrato = an excuse for imprecise pitching.

  3. Hi Rowan!
    This is terrific feedback quite unlike most blogs. This is from an actual lesson with the great man himself!
    I was particularly interested in the comments on vibrato as this is an area I would like to improve on, but was previously unclear about how to do this. But you have done just … made it nice and clear, and I am on my way!
    Thank you so much!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s