“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.

Part 1: AIR




In the last installment, I want to try to put all this together as MUSICALITY, which, theoretically, is the whole reason we want to play an instrument! It’s important to our souls and to our audiences that we express what we really feel using the instrument as a tool. It doesn’t matter what level we are at, we can tap into our inner musicality to help us ingrain new skills deep into our performance practice.


Even with very basic phrases, music has a life of its own. It’s up to us to unlock the potential of each phrase and bring a piece together, but if we spend a little time learning to listen, we can start to interpret music on a deeper level.

This is going to be one of my more controversial opinions. You don’t need fancy technical studies, you don’t need to spend chunks of your practice every day isolating specific skills. It’s great to know what you need to work on, whether it’s clearer articulation or better intonation across dynamic changes. Here’s the problem though: you’re reverse-engineering. You’re putting the cart  (skill) before the horse (concept).

We too often see making music as a sum of all its parts. We’ll work on how to better articulate. Then we’ll practice range. Then we’ll play some scales in patterns. Then we’ll practice long tone crescendo/decrescendos. AND THEN maybe we’ll play something lyrical and work on our phrasing. Later on, we’ll try to put it together into whatever etude or solo we’re working on and maybe feel frustrated that some of those things are ‘sticking’ or transferring over to the music.

I want to use a very recent example to show how I might tackle a student’s technical problem with a musical fix.

My student, EB, is working on Hering #12:

As has happened a few times before for her, she’s finding keeping 8th notes consistent to be a bit of a struggle, and it’s informing how she articulates. Even though she played most of the right notes (and did some excellent phrasing), the overall effect was a little jagged and out of time.

At first, I had her try just doing some simple 8th note patterns, trying to match with the metronome and keep it even. But it wasn’t really working and she was thinking about it too hard, so it was just frustrating. Instead, I took away the music and left the metronome on, teaching her the phrase by ear and having her imitate what I was playing as closely as possible. The difference was immediate, and suddenly we had the first two lines not only rhythmically accurate, but going faster than before, with great direction! When we went back to looking at the music, the results were retained. It was a really dramatic change and it only took a few minutes.

Engaging our ears and trying to recreate a goal is external focus. This is exactly how EB will continue to develop better timing and more control over how she communicates what she sees on the page. The music should be a guideline, not a script. In this way we are practicing performance, not performing practicing. Performance gets hard-wired into our motor skill network, and once that happens, it’s hard to shake! We’ll feel more comfortable on stage, better prepared and more likely to relax and enjoy the experience.

One of the things I love to do is play tunes by ear, in as many keys as I have time for in any given warm-up session. I like to make sure that I know tunes that are smooth and flowing, jaunty, articulate, soft, loud, fast, slow. I like tunes that I can play in all registers and think about the sweep of the music, not the really high notes or really low notes. What that’s given me is a flexibility in all areas of technique that is tied to the music I want to create. Rather than choosing from a box (hm, I need my staccato hat on for this one), I can look at a line of music and think, that looks like it needs to be delivered crisply, with flair. I’m not worried about delivering on a technical skill, as long as I can tie it to the music. And if something gives me trouble, I figure out how to incorporate refining that by using the dictates of the piece or song.

Tomorrow on my Facebook page, I’m going to do a little live demo of how I learn a phrase of music, utilizing external focus. I hope you can join me, or save to watch later!

This is technically the last installment of “EotP”- but there’s going to be a little epilogue! I want to look at the ways music education that adopts internal foci has created barriers and problems for players at all levels. Stay tuned.

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