“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





As a final installment, I want to talk about why teaching in this pedagogy is so important to me, and how it can help create a more inclusive, equitable society of brass musicians with healthy playing and performance habits first and foremost in our minds.


There’s a prevailing attitude in music instruction, especially at the upper levels, that seems to think that because their teacher drilled them endlessly on Arban scale patterns, made them buzz into embouchure visualizers and jump up and down doing inhalation exercises, or was just plain salty about the type of work it takes to get good, that we all have to go through that. Unless we’re ‘naturally talented’ in which case we’re held up on a pedestal of unattainable glory.

There’s ample evidence, however, that the school of technical execution, especially in brass learning, is a relatively new turn in a centuries-long history of pedagogical approaches. McPherson and Gabrielsson, in their book The Science and Psychology of Music Performance, attribute the publication of the Arban Comprehensive Method in 1864 as the first in a long series of texts intended to fill a marketing hole in the music publication world. It may not have been the intent of the authors involved, but it created a shift in brass education away from imitation and ear training (external) and developed a dependence on technical acquisition (internal). (McPherson and Gabrielsson, 2002; see also Karen Marston’s dissertation on Jan Kagarice with an overview of relevant brass pedagogies starting on page 52).

The purpose of this epilogue is to allow me to take a few hypothetical leaps, to explain the reasons I am deeply commitment to external focus pedagogy, and to provide some hope for change in the future. There’s future research in this for me, and I hope to refine and defend some of this arguments not long from now in academic form. SO! Here we go.


What if a cultural approach to learning brass that focuses on technical acquisition, a strict checklist of music skills we need to be deemed ‘professional level’ and an iron grip on training interpretive performance skills (i.e. learning pre-composed music and performing to ‘industry standard’) is leaving a cohort of potential lifelong musicians behind, or excluding them from finding success in the music industry?

In other other words, what if training internally is turning off all the folks who can’t naturally approach systematic learning, who might have an improvisational or compositional voice, who might not need to read music or interpret the classics to share their musical inclinations?

What if we’re leaving young people (and in particular, young women and/or people of color) behind in the field of brass instruction because they’re struggling to interpret concepts that don’t actually relate to music performance, what if they’re turned off by the ‘higher, faster, louder, stronger’ school of thinking, that asks how hard they’re working, how uncomfortable they’re making themselves?

What if we’re hurting ourselves with our hyper-focus on technical instruction? What if the growing number of focal dystonia cases has something to do with teaching backwards, teaching muscle movements and breathing instead of sound concepts and air movement, making people maneuver instruments first and get music second?

What if performance anxiety is a facet of practice anxiety? What if when we don’t practice performance, but instead practice skills, we don’t know if we can trust them on the stage anymore?


Imagine picking up an instrument and having your teacher, someone you trust and admire, model the sound they want you to create. Imagine them steadily helping you build your skills, keeping your ear trained to the goal you want, watching as you unlock your potential for musicality.

Imagine a community of musicians that holds up all performance genres and contexts as valuable, teaches any number of styles as inherently human, sophisticated creations, allows many voices to join the throng. Imagine people joyfully sharing their skills without fear.

Imagine a healthy way of approaching both horn and life- curious and open, communicative, expressive, kind, and giving. Imagine all the different faces and personalities we’d see in the brass world.

Imagine how much more fun that would be.

[some important further reading here: http://www.mtosmt.org/issues/mto.16.22.1/manifesto.pdf]

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: