“Ear on the Prize”: Employing External Attentional Focus in Learning Brass Instruments


Recently, I recapped the excellent text of studies related to attentional focus and its affect on motor skill learning by Gabriele Wulf. To review: where we put our attention when learning a new skill is important in the development of efficient and accurate movements and will contribute to longer-lasting results and quicker progress. Even at the very beginning level of a skill, an external focus will allow our bodies’ natural learning processes to take over and solidify our abilities.

In several installments, I’d like to tackle a few of those tricky concepts associated with learning the particular motor skills of brass playing, and offer some practical strategies for natural, effective learning.  I’ll address common methods, fads, and accepted techniques and then offer ‘external’ focus solutions for each.

In Parts 1 & 2 we dove into AIR and EMBOUCHURE, and now it’s time to approach the concepts swirling around ARTICULATION and INTONATION (both of which involve the tongue and its many machinations).


The motor skill behind each of the concepts involved in this post utilize the tongue (and by an extent, the oral cavity), so they made sense to explore in one post. There are more opinions on what one is supposed to do with one’s tongue when articulating and tuning then there are trombonists in the world (ok, that’s hyperbole, but still), and it’s easy to get overwhelmed with advice from all sides of the equation. Just Google “how to tongue on a trombone” and you’ll get all the hot takes you could ever wish for.

“The Teachers do what they do; they tell the Student what they think they do; the Students think they hear what the Teachers think they said about what they do; the Students then try to do what they think the Teachers said about what they think they do.” – Denis Wick

But as you probably already know by now, if you’ve been following along with this series, WHAT we’re trying to achieve is far more effective a learning strategy than HOW we’re doing it.

Recently, Boston trombonist and bass trombone guru Douglas Yeo participated in a study that allowed him to see the inner workings of his mouth and throat while playing a modified trombone set-up while in an MRI machine. When I first saw this post, I was pretty wary. The last thing most brass instrumentalists need is more stuff to think about and more focus of attention on the symptoms of our playing process. And on top of that, while more trombonists while participate in this research, we have at the moment only one player demonstrating these exercises and extrapolating them as evidence for what is  proper playing technique.

I don’t want to seem like I’m denying that this is fascinating information to have, or that we can’t learn something from demonstrations like this. I think it could be very useful if we lived in a learning culture where we trusted the educational effects of external focus, and could view the results objectively while still moving forward with our attention on the music.

But unfortunately we don’t, and I can see a whole generation of trombone players and teachers pointing back to this study and inflicting detailed internal focus instructions on themselves and their students. And the result will be inefficient, amusical playing.

Disclaimer time: Some players and teachers deny that anything is happening with their tongue or throat when a brass instrument is played effectively. I am not one of those people; I believe all manner of things are happening! It’s pretty cool that our muscles and tendons and neurons can all work together to form beautiful sounds and music. However, I’m just going to say it: I don’t care what’s happening. It’s just a symptom, and I’m going to let it keep doing what it’s doing and not interfere. Again, the more I focus on the results I want, the more efficient my technique will be.

“A symptom is not a prescription for doing.” -Jan Kagarice

There is enough scientific evidence out there now to tell us that we are not capable of actually multi-tasking. We can ‘serial task’: i.e. switch rapidly from one high level task to another, or we can incorporate an automated task (like walking) into a high level task (like talking on the phone), but we can’t do two high-level tasks at the same time, especially if they utilize similar brain functions. (Source) (I find fault with the example given in this article, listening to classical music while reading, because I certainly cannot focus on both!)

When we provide our brass playing self sets of internal instructions at the same time- “Strike the tongue at the tip of the teeth and pull back while moving the slide rapidly into position and blowing”- we are asking ourselves to do this all at once, but we are really serial tasking. When we provide external instructions- “These notes all connect and they sound like this. Imitate what you hear”- we form chains of functions that can occur simultaneously because we are not giving them high-level concentration. It’s sort of like ‘umbrella tasking‘; combining all the elements of successful brass performance under the umbrella of our concept. It goes back to what I referenced earlier in the Wulf text:

This lines up with what Wulf calls “optimal attentional focus” (Wulf 149) and what I call “brain magic”. When we learn a complex skill, the components of the skill line up in a queue of actions, and if we want to be most effective, we will let the highest-level affect lead our focus. All other components will tick off without need for conscious intervention.  (Husting)

Ok! So you get the point. Whatever we’re trying to do, we should get out of the way and not interfere with the system. So let’s get back to it.


Internal Focus:

“Your tongue should strike the back of your top teeth and interrupt the air but not stop it”

External Focus:

“We’re playing Hot Cross Buns today. Do you know the words to the fast part? ‘One-a-penny Two-a-penny’. Let’s say that together- can you hear how clearly we articulate that when we sing it? Let’s imitate it on the instrument.”

[I love teaching my students simple songs and making sure they know the words. We don’t teach young children how to manipulate their tongue when they are learning to speak, so why not utilize the same type of mimicry for brass playing?]

Internal Focus:

“This scale is staccato. Play really short notes by flicking your tongue quickly and using a hard syllable”

External Focus: 

“This scale says to play it staccato. What kind of character could we give it? Bouncy? Cheeky? Let’s listen to what that sounds like on piano for reference”


I have to do a little more exposition here. There is no reliable INTONATION without reliable TONE. Before I even introduce my students to the idea of ‘playing in tune’, I train their ears to recognize that they are resonating the whole horn and matching whatever pitch I give them. It will take time for them to develop the capacity for fine adjustments, but it will be much easier if they are producing a good sound. If they are struggling to play something in tune, I might take them back a few steps to AIR and EMBOUCHURE. The idea that the position of our tongue, the shape of our oral cavity (because of the position of the tongue), and the relaxation or tension of our throat has an effect on intonation is not unprecedented: the shape and tension of physical objects determine pitch according to acoustical science. But don’t put the cart before the horse. Form follows function. Those physical objects have been fiddled with over centuries to find the desired sound and range du jour! All because someone had a concept, and they wanted to improve upon the form of the tool they were using to execute it.

Also, a note on tuners. I generally discourage overuse of tuners in my studio in favor of things like pitch drones and reference instruments with stable intonation (like an electric keyboard). I find that staring at a tuner turns the focus inward, and players start to fiddle with physical aspects rather than trying to blend or match a sound. There is one great (and really cheap) tuner on the app market, and that’s Tonal Energy. It has lots of great tools, like metronome and playback, but most importantly, it provides high quality drones in a variety of sound types (including trombone!) that allow you to really work on expanding your ear and your sound’s relative pitch.

Internal Focus:

“Move your tongue up or down to create a better/more in tune sound”

[What I’ve noticed about this: Moving my tongue around in my mouth really only affects the pitch if I’m not thinking about resonating my sound all the way out to the bell. If I’m effectively resonating my instrument with a good tone, moving my tongue around has little to no affect- UNLESS I give it an intention along the lines of “now I want to bend the pitch and make it sound lower/higher”]

“Watch the tuner and react to what you see”

External Focus:

“Listen to the drone pitch. Hum or sing along, and then move air against your balance point and resonant the instrument with that pitch. Only look at the tuner for confirmation, and then start the process over by refocusing on the drone sound.”

[Intonation also works differently in different settings. If you’re playing the melody, you’re going to play the melody in tune with itself, and your accompaniment will adjust (unless it’s a piano, haha) to you. If you’re playing with piano, you can play your phrase on the keyboard to see what it sounds like in equal temperament, and then imitate those relationships on your instrument.]

That’s a lot! But I think these are really important concepts to consider when trying to approach your instrument in the most efficient and healthy way. Stay tuned for Part 4- the topic of which is yet to be determined but will probably be something along the lines of slide technique- and a second live video soon!


3 Replies to ““Ear on the Prize”: Employing External Attentional Focus in Learning Brass Instruments”

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