Posts Tagged ‘music’

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The Power of Mental Focus

May 13, 2015

In the time I’ve been teaching trumpet lessons, I’ve worked with students of all ages, interest levels, and experience- beginners getting their horns for the first time, high school students, professionals, come back players, and of course college students.   For the long term growth as a musician and trumpet player, one of the most important concepts (and sometimes the most difficult to teach) needed is mental focus.

When I first started teaching beginners, this is what I told them:

“If you practice everything I give you, the stuff you are responsible for in band is going to be pretty easy.  You’re going to sound really good in band, and your director will be very happy with you.  Your director and the other kids in band will think you’re very good.  But we’ll know the truth.”

Then I would explain to them what I meant by “the truth.”  The truth is that our playing is always changing.  Done right, our playing is always growing.  In the big picture we need to do two things:

  1. Practice how to play the horn. In other words- fundamentals.
  2. Practice what to play on the horn.  In other words- music.

(There’s a lot of overlap here, as fundamentals should be played musically, and playing music can certainly inform our technique and spur fundamental growth…but that’s a discussion for another day.)

So “the truth” is that there is always work to be done on our playing.  Always.

There are two reasons I told my beginners this.  They are:

  1. to give them confidence when playing in a group, whether in a performance or rehearsal, that they have the tools necessary to do a terrific job.
  2. to stave off the stereotype of the “cocky trumpet player” by letting them know that there’s always more work to be done.  When things go well, it’s a result of good practice, and not because they were anointed by magic fairies at birth with a special potion that made them the greatest players the world has ever heard.

This worked well. Since I started teaching college, it has surprised me how many students get this backwards.  I hear how their thought process in rehearsals and performances focuses on what is lacking, and the thought process in the practice room focuses on how good everything is.

I found this troubling.  So, like always, let’s start with the easy stuff:

Everyone has strengths and weaknesses

This seems like a simple enough statement.  Here’s why I bring it up.  When in a group, it can be easy to focus on someone else’s strengths, especially if they are your weaknesses.  This is a quick road to Insecureville, which is right next to Underconfident City.  Once you arrive there, it’s very difficult to play your best, as you will be telling yourself how much you can’t do.  Similarly, there are those that like to focus on someone else’s weaknesses, especially if it matches their strengths.  This is the express lane to Conceitedton, which borders Cockyberg.  Once you arrive there, you are so sure of yourself you don’t play your best because, no matter what comes out of your horn, you’ve already convinced yourself you’re the greatest thing since the invention of nachos (mmmm….nachos).

These are bad places for your mind to dwell.  Here’s how mental focus can help.

When practicing, focus on your weaknesses

Again, this may seem simple.  For a lot of people, closing the door to the practice room and really admitting to and working on a weakness can be very difficult.  Once you really commit to this kind of focus while practicing, you’ll see the benefits.

Which brings us to:

When performing, focus on your strengths

When it’s time to play with others, your mental focus needs to shift. Finding the mental place of being confident without being cocky can be a challenge.  Your mental focus will be most beneficial if it is focused on what you bring to the performance.  If you’ve been practicing well, this can help, as you’ve built a habit of playing the instrument well fundamentally and musically in the practice room.

The Circle of Growth

If you can take charge of your mental focus, you can build a circle of growth.  At the top of the circle is practice.  Since you’re focusing on your weaknesses in the practice room, you’re getting better and better at the instrument, building your confidence in what you’re able to do.  At the bottom of the circle is performance.  Since you’re focusing on your strengths in performance, your performances become better, building upon the good habits you’ve build in the practice room.  After your performance, you take what didn’t go as well as you’d like in the performance into the practice room and treat it as a weakness to be worked on.

Keep doing this.  Forever.

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Musicians Are Not Athletes

March 5, 2015

It’s time that we stop saying “Musicians are Athletes.”  It’s one of those phrases that has been repeated so many times that it is now accepted as fact.  There’s only one problem.  It’s just not true.

I’m a sports fan.  Those of you who know me also know that’s a bit of an understatement.  I have respect for the amount of work it takes to become a world class athlete.  Although there are comparisons that can be made in how athletes and musicians practice, saying “Musicians are Athletes” is just as silly as saying “Athletes are Musicians.”  I understand the correlation: Both musicians and athletes spend years honing the skills, both physical and mental, which are needed for their respective careers.

Now let’s look at the execution of these careers.  Athletes are preparing for competition.  The job is to, either as an individual or team, win by doing their job in a quantifiable way better than someone else (score more points, faster, etc.).  Musicians are preparing for concerts.  The job is to perform music for an audience.  (I’m intentionally ignoring music competitions the same way I’m ignoring sports showcases…they exist, but music isn’t quantifiable the same way as sports, and sports showcases take away the competition, one of the key components, from professional sports.)

The reason for bringing this up is not to take away from either group.  It is important that musicians think of themselves accurately.  Although we may share many superficial qualities with athletes, we do not belong under that heading.  We are artists, and should think of ourselves as such.  All of our training, practice, and rehearsals are so that we can step out on stage and create art.

Another significant problem I have in considering musicians athletes is the separation athletics employ.  Most sports are divided along gender lines, and size and shape play an important part.  I’ve witnessed some ridiculous discussions regarding perceived advantages of gender and size, especially as it pertains to trumpet playing.  These discussions have typically relied upon the worst kind of evidence: anecdotal.  Please don’t tell me that you believe a gap in your teeth is the secret to playing high because you saw Jon Faddis.  Or that a beard is necessary to play jazz because you saw Bobby Shew.  Or that military service is the secret to a great orchestral career because Mr. Herseth was in the Navy and Mr. Smith was in the Salvation Army.

As trumpet players, we work together regardless of gender, shape, and size because those things don’t matter when creating music.

The last point of discussion is a doozy.  I can’t count how many times I’ve heard some variation of, “playing trumpet is an athletic event.”  Please stop saying this.  Let’s start with air.  Take a look at the throat of your mouthpiece.  No matter what anyone tells you, there is only so much air that will go through there at one time (and it’s not as much as you might think).  Yes, you do have to hold the trumpet up while you play.  But if that’s a measure of athleticism, then playing bass trombone is a lot more of an athletic event than trumpet (you have to hold it up and move one arm back and forth!).  Then there’s the strength involved.  Usually this is referred to as chops, which generally means the ability to play for a long time, very loud, very high, or some combination of those three.  The root of this might be the corners of your lips, which do need to be able to stay in place while blowing air through the mouthpiece and holding the horn against your face.  But here’s a big secret:

It’s not all about strength.

It’s about coordination.

I’ll certainly discuss more about coordination, in detail, in the future.  But for now, please realize that the overlap in the way musicians and athletes prepare doesn’t make musicians athletes any more than it makes athletes musicians.

Now that we are thinking of ourselves as artists (and our chances of a concussion have decreased significantly), practice and rehearse with the idea of creating art each time you step in front of an audience.