The Science is Real: Attentional Focus and Motor Skill Learning

My students are well aware that I am not a teacher of ‘technique’ per say; I won’t tell you how to set up your embouchure or what you should do with your slide. You won’t hear me tell you how to tongue or make you do fancy high range exercises. Instead, I’ll direct your attention to the flow of your air through the horn, or the shape of the phrase and where the notes want to go. I’ll make you sing a note or spin a song on a pinwheel. You’ll have to know the words (or make up your own) to a particular tune.

No technique was ever arrived at without a musical reason for doing so. -Jan Kagarice

I’m proud to say that 100% of my students make a beautiful tone on their instrument, and can answer the question, ‘what is the phrase here?’. They can all play some level of tune by ear and are learning how to improvise and compose. A student last week, who has been with me since the spring, marveled at how easy a fast passage was. “I’ve never been able to play fast,” she said. “But I’m playing fast here and I didn’t even think about it.” (Then we both got a little teary and grinned at each other for a minute)

This probably isn’t news to many teachers- putting a student’s attention on an effect or ‘external focus’ is almost always more productive and longer-lasting than directing the focus inward, to what the movement is. The good news out of science is that we have concrete evidence to prove this.

Attention and Motor Skill Learning, Gabriele Wulf

Here’s a book I want to recommend to all my teaching colleagues, no matter what your field of education. While it’s based on studies and scientific analysis, it’s easy to read and offers practical suggestions on the implementation of her findings. I’ve highlighted the heck out of my copy. At its most basic, the evidence shows that directing learners (at all levels) to the effect of their movement (external focus), rather than the movement itself (internal focus), has both more immediate and long-term results on the efficiency and accuracy of the skill.

Here are some of the points that hit home for me:

  • Learning can be divided into 3 stages: Cognitive/Verbal, Associative, and Autonomous. It’s long been assumed that we have to, at early stages in our learning process, direct attention to our movements and technical execution. As we increase in ability, our movements have more autonomy and we can focus on the results.

Internal Focus in music learning: Beginner brass players are often told to put their “lips together as though they were saying the letter ‘m'” and to “blow fast air to push the lips apart”. They are also often told to shift their instrument or lip position, or adjust their jaw or facial muscles in order to achieve different ranges. As skill increases, theoretically these instructions can be lessened, but even at my advanced level I have had teachers give me advice on how to manipulate my body to achieve a certain result.

External Focus in music learning: Lip-reed instruments like brass and some woodwinds operate on columns of air. Beginner students in my studio (as well as all other levels) are instructed to leave their lips open and flexible, place the instrument on their mouth where it feels comfortable, and move air through the tube and out past the bell. Then, they are given a pitch to imitate (and asked to sing it first), and are told to hear the instrument making that sound, and allow their lips to vibrate with the air column. It make take some trial and error, but most students get it within a few minutes with minimal effort.

  • Learning by external focus enhances not only immediate skills, but also holds up in retention tests and under performance conditions. Anxiety can cause performers to shift to more internal foci, thus causing less fluent actions. And the body cannot learn efficiently under pressure- it must have the ability to focus on one external point related to the skill in order to gain the effects of the function.

Internal Focus in music learning: We spend our precious energy practicing out of technical etude books, looking for the newest ‘hot tip’ on increasing our range, buying expensive toys that are supposed to make things more ‘natural’, and in general obsessing over HOW we do what we do, and not WHY we do it. We think about having enough air, or if we’re moving our slide fast enough, and we practice those things. Often in performance, we’ll get anxiety about the very things we’ve been drilling ourselves on, and choke in the moment.

External Focus in music learning: By adopting external foci, we are in effect ‘practicing performance’. We’re looking for the results of our actions, and utilizing trial and error to let the body adapt its own mechanisms for implementation. Instead of trying to ‘take a big breath’, we might instead sing through a phrase and see where it wants to go, and make our air stretch to that point. Instead of ‘moving the slide faster’, we might train ourselves to react to what the tempo requires us to do through incremental practice (setting a metronome at a slow speed, hearing the phrase done cleanly on a piano or voice, and then imitating. Once efficient, raise tempo a small degree of beats, rinse, repeat). In practicing performance, we are always ready to perform and we feel relaxed and comfortable in our ability to do so.

  • Feedback is only effective if it induces an external focus of attention. Feedback that highlights particular movements can be detrimental to the learning process, producing what Wulf names “maladaptive short-term corrections”, i.e. focusing on one part of the movement skill obsessively, and blocking out all other details. However, externally-focused feedback, and observational practice, can offer great insight into how to perform a skill effectively.
  • The distance of the external focus can have an effect on the learning outcome. For beginners, it may still be close to the body (for a golf club swing, thinking about the movement of the club) that then increases to a more distant goal (where does the ball need to go) as the skill develops, but the focus is still outside of specifying bodily movements.
  • External focus cues result in more efficient and technically accurate movements. A study using electrode analysis of the muscle movements on participants doing bicep curls had two groups of learners: those thinking about the movement of their arm (internal) and those moving the bar in a certain way (external). The analysis showed that the external group used far less muscle movement to execute the skill, wasting less energy and learning the technique more quickly and with less effort.

Internal Focus in music learning:  “Tighten your corners for that high note and blow faster air”- over-utilizing muscles that already have to take on a certain amount of pressure to play a higher note, adding stress and tightness and creating disappointing results.

External Focus in music learning: “Sing the note. ‘Play’ the note on a straw or pinwheel. Focus on the sound and resonance of the bell as you go higher.” Often its easiest to help students with range by assigning them a simple tune they know that can be transposed into different ranges to help them hear higher or lower notes. Their body will adapt the correct amount of pressure and lip aperture automatically, and learn intrinsically how to maneuver the speed of their air.

  • Learning by external focus is a relatively general phenomenon. Different types of learners (kinetic, visual, etc) show no variation in how effective external attention is on gaining motor skill confidence. People who suffer stroke, speech impediments, Parkinson’s Disease, and other neurological conditions have shown tremendous improvement utilizing external attentional focus. Children can benefit especially, as picking up a skill is no longer a matter of boring task-specific instructions, but instead can unlock abilities through their natural learning process.

Conceive, don’t perceive. -Arnold Jacobs

Even without the scientific evidence to back it up, I would still teach this method. Learning this way of thinking changed my entire approach to the trombone, and I credit the shift with why I am still performing and teaching today. I see the results every day in my students, and I am always adapting to their current needs while keeping their ‘ear on the prize’. And I believe it’s the most egalitarian way we can educate- not stifling learning processes with too much noise and information, not creating barriers for learners who might not be engaged by or capable of long hours of technical work, not holding any biases as to ‘who can do what’ (“you have big lips! you can be a tuba player” or “you’ve got a big set of lungs for a little lady”)- but instead knowing that every individual is capable of playing an instrument, if only we allow them to learn naturally and freely.

Conceptual Desire Paths and the Modern Musician

Many of my students know that I’m big fan of podcasts, and one of my absolute favorites is the design-focused program 99% Invisible. The shows are usually about 25-30 minutes long and cover all number of topics from architecture and city planning to the everyday objects you use and broad societal concepts that have been designed into our lives. It’s a brilliant show and it’s opened my eyes to so many new ideas and patterns in our world.

One of the latest episodes, a sort of compilation story they do every now and again with shorter ideas that can’t make up a full episode, introduced me to the concept of desire paths.

A desire path (formally referred to as desire line in transportation planning, also known as a game trail, social trail, herd path, cow path, goat track, pig trail or bootleg trail) can be a path created as a consequence of erosion caused by human or animal foot-fall or traffic. The path usually represents the shortest or most easily navigated route between an origin and destination. – Wikipedia

Of course we see (and use!) these everywhere, but I had no idea they had a name. The concept sat with me a few days, percolated, occasionally surfaced in real life (I cut across grass yesterday while gleefully bubbling a little ‘desire path!’ tune), and then suddenly came crystal clear as the description I’ve needed all along for how I’ve built my career and life.

Our lives are desire paths. We shape our careers, relationships, lifestyles, homes by shortcuts (and longest) to the most efficient or desirable ways of being ourselves.

Musicians trying to make a name these days are learning this the natural way- understanding how to navigate a changing field and career market and make an impression in the best manner possible. We have an industry structure: 1. Practice hard 2. Win a gig 3. Success, but we’re realizing more and more that that serves a distinct and small part of our musical population, and the opportunities to follow this path are not available to everyone. The rest of us can either quit in frustration, stymied by a metaphorical sidewalk that doesn’t go the way we want it to, or walk around it, making our own path.

My desire paths as a musician include:

-Seeking out effective resources to help me build a teaching studio and to teach effectively and inspirationally; developing my teaching philosophy (stay tuned to see that in writing, finally!); expanding my outreach and values geographically to the people who are ready to receive it

-Building a list of skilled and competent musicians (with a strong focus on women and/or performers of color) from which to build my community; finding my audience and incorporating it into that community

-Choosing the gigs I want- and developing the skills for them- carefully; being consistent with the image I want to portray and the healthy career/life balance I strive for: changing the ways in which the embedded musical concepts of ‘industry standard’, ‘authenticity’, and ‘virtuosity’ affect my mindset and my performance and taking only what is valuable

What are the ways you’ve incorporated metaphorical desire paths in your career and life? What ways can you see yourself trying new directions in the future? How can you help someone else navigate their own desire path? Let’s redesign this business, one dirt track at a time.

Lauren at IWBC!

I’m very excited to be traveling to Glassboro, New Jersey, this week, to attend the International Women’s Brass Conference! My friend Gabe Mueller will be joining me, and we both plan to compete in the Susan Slaughter Solo Competition, as well as attend workshops, performances, and clinics throughout the week.

Some of my lady brass heroes will be attending as well, such as pioneer trombonist Abbie Conant and the DIVA Jazz Orchestra.

Watch this space and my Facebook page for updates throughout the week!

2016: A Round-up Review!

Well, 2016 is coming to a close, as all years do, and it’s been one of the most professionally exciting and challenging years yet! It was one of the most diverse years for types of gigs, music learned, and students taught. Here’s a little recap of what 2016 looked like for me:

Performance Highlights:

January: BrassChix presentation to 12 delightful young women trombonists plus a performance of the first movement of Red Dragonfly; performing Stravinsky’s Octet with Winona Chamber Winds

February: “Lunch With…” in Sundin Hall at Hamline, a 30 minute recital for the community; auditioning for the doctoral program at the U of Mn

March: Exultate Choir and Orchestra’s performance of their signature pasticchio mass; Easter services at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in S Mpls,

April: Sitting in with the Hamline Wind Ensemble on bass trombone

May: Conducting and performing with the Hamline Brass Choir; The Satellites played the Dakota and 612Brew; Metro Brass presented “Hold On Tight” at the Capri Theatre in N Mpls

June: Something like a month off? Ha!

July: Brass Lassie at the Minnesota Scottish Fair; The Satellites at the Icehouse; Mill City Five at Como Pavillon

August:  Mill City Five at Minnehaha Falls and Bistro La Roux in Circle Pines; The Satellites back at Icehouse

September: My first performance with the UMN Wind Ensemble!

October: UMN Collage Concert, playing with both Trombone Choir and U Symphony Orchestra

November: Brass Lassie at Celtic Junction; UMN Trombone Choir feature recital; USO performance of concerto competition winners; Minnehaha Repertory Orchestra’s yearly concert

December: Holiday concerts with the UMN Trombone Choir, bass bone in the Hamline Wind Ensemble again; Holiday Polka with Brass Barn Polka Band at Bauhaus Brew Labs; Christmas services at St John the Baptist in New Brighton; and of course, my first doctoral recital!

Teaching Highlights: 

I taught over 800 individual lessons this year to 30 different individuals, helping them win spots in All-State bands, local honor groups like GTCYS and Minnesota Junior Winds, preparing them for solo and ensemble performances, and overall enjoying their company and growth as astonishing young musicians and people. I’m incredibly proud to have raised of $3000 in scholarship funds to allow low-income students to take lessons for a year. I continued my work at Hamline University and took on a new collegiate job at Century College in White Bear Lake.

Personal Highlights: 

I traveled to NYC, San Diego, Lutsen MN, St Louis, Iowa, and Chicago. I saw good friends and met amazing new folks. I hiked, kayaked, camped, and stewarded my gorgeous state’s natural resources. I biked all over Minneapolis and St Paul. I started my doctorate while balancing a full freelancing and educational career.

What’s in store for 2017?

The plan is to keep rocking it out. Brass Lassie, The Satellites, and Mill City Five all have more to come. My second doctoral recital is currently on the schedule for April 17th. I’ll present at BrassChix again in January and will also perform portions of my recital for the kids of St Louis Park. I have big ideas and big plans for both my teaching and my art, so stay tuned. 🙂


Lauren’s Comprehensive Crowdsourced Tune Library

Friends, Colleagues, and Students! You know by now that I’m a big advocate for playing tunes by ear, in all keys, to help develop sound, phrasing, musicality, intonation, range, technical ability, dynamic contrasts, theory skills, composition and analysis– jeez, is there anything tunes CAN’T do for your musical progress?

Well, oftentimes I come up at a lack for a tune to do or I’ve done the same few for several weeks and need something new. Or, a student might need a new tune and wants something up a level, or in a different meter, you name it. Yesterday morning I started making a list of simple tunes.

By afternoon I’d created a whole spreadsheet detailing each tune’s level of difficulty, range, meter, tempo, style, and basic technical considerations. And then I shared it as a collaborative link.

Collaborative Tune Library

How to use the document: 

1. Decide what level of tune you want to try (easy- basic intervals and key; medium- some altered tones, bigger range; difficult- modulations, technical passages, long phrases) and what technical considerations you might want to involve (range, dynamics, articulation, etc), and pick a tune accordingly.

2. Decide what key is easiest for you to start in. If you are looking to work on higher register tones, start in a key where the tune’s highest note is in your comfort range, then transpose the tune upward by half steps until you reach the range you want to improve. This can be done in the opposite direction for low range. You can move around the circle of fifths, also.

3. Find a good tempo for you to learn at, and set your metronome.

4. Put a drone track (free mp3 download) to your first key. Headphones are best for this, unless you have a quality sound system. Make sure you can hear both the drone and your own sound.

5. Play that tune!

How to add to this document:

1. Open it.

2. Make sure the tune you want to add isn’t already on it.

3. Add your tune and all the relevant details. Feel free to add comments about why you like it or how it helps you.

4. Repeat with another tune!


Summer, to the max

Let it be said right off the bat: I am a summer baby. It’s my favorite season- my birthday! cabins and camping! the beach! bicycles! sweet balmy nights with a icy beverage and good friends! I COMPLETELY understand wanting to make the most of summer and not be tied down by responsibilities.

As a professional musician, summers also mean lots of gigs, hopefully, and you can definitely fill up your schedule with outdoor concerts and festivals. That means I get a lot of ‘face time’ on my instrument and need to maintain a routine to stay viable for all those potential gigs.

But for many of my students, busy in the summer means travel, or ACT-prep, or a part-time job, and this can mean that music falls to the side as schedules change constantly. You may not have time for a lesson every week, much less put the horn on your face everyday.

Which means it’s time to think about your routine, and how you schedule it.

I have a student this summer who’s home from her first year of college, and she’s hoping to expand on her musical knowledge so as to return to her band program stronger in the fall. I’m so inspired by this. I took summer lessons one year out of all 6 of my college and graduate school years combined, and the rest of those years I picked my nose and hemmed and hawed about practicing until about August, when I realized placement auditions were fast approaching. But this girl, she’s got it figured out. She’s smart.

Many of my grade school students have already had their placement auditions for the fall, and so musical growth is taking a backseat for the summer. But summer can be a tremendous opportunity to learn things outside of the range of band, pick music you like to play, develop new techniques.

Here are a few simple steps for keeping your summer musically healthy:

1. Find a regular time to practice. 

If your summer job is MTWF 10-4, maybe you practice from 9-945. Or 430-530, before dinner. But it’s always the same. On days off, you can expand your time, but keep the time slot the same.

2. Do your warm-up routine every day.

If this is all you get to- great! You got to it. You stretched your muscles and kept your musical brain strengthened. Next time you can add scales or a part of your etude.

3. Set small goals week-to-week, and one or two big goals for the whole summer.

If you’re taking lessons, I’ve assigned you a few things to focus on, like two or three scales, a technical pattern, a tune in different keys, an etude. These might serve as good weekly goals- “I’ll get C major learned in two octaves,” or “I’ll increase my double-tonguing  speed by 15 clicks.” They should be part of a larger goal for the summer- “Learn all major scales in 2 octaves,” “Multiple tonguing at quarter= 142.” etc.

4. Don’t sweat taking time off for travel. 

You get to take breaks. It’s okay. A week off the horn won’t make you forget how to play- it may make you fresher! It’ll take a few days to feel normal on the horn again, but you may notice that certain things are simpler once you’re back in the game.

5. Make it fun. 

I mean, duh. Music is about enjoyment. It’s a shame it has to be constantly ‘proven’ to be valuable to education programs and overall societal health to be taken seriously. I think it’s okay if music exists because it’s intrinsically valuable, not because it makes you smarter (although it will do that, too). Get your friends together and sight-read chamber music. Or start a band. Buy a book of songs from your favorite movie arranged for your instrument. Play for folks in a park or in front of a store on a sunny day. Think about your instrument and smile- you’re doing this for you, not for anyone else.

Happy practicing!


Why Students Really Quit

Why Students Really Quit Their Instrument (and how parents can prevent it)

An interesting look at what motivates young musical learners.

Some pertinent quotes as they relate to taking lessons:

Students don’t know how to get better.  Without the proper tools and practice habits to get better at anything, students will become frustrated and want to quit.  It is the role of music educators and parents to give students ownership over their learning.  Teachers must teach students why, how, where, and when to practice, and parents must obtain minimal knowledge about how students learn music in order to properly support them at home.

Most of learning an instrument is learning how to practice, and your private teacher is there to guide you to efficiency in this regard.

Students discontinue playing over the summer.  Statistics show that students who do not read over the summer find themselves extremely behind once school starts — the same goes for playing an instrument!  A year of musical instruction can quickly go down the tubes over the summer vacation if students do not find small ways to play once in a while.  Picking up an instrument for the first time after a long layoff can be so frustrating that a student will not want to continue into the next school year.

I offer summer lessons, and I think they can be some of the most fun. We get more opportunities to play fun things and grow creatively when we can guide our own studies.

The instrument is in disrepair.  A worn down cork, poor working reed, or small dent can wreak havoc on a child’s playing ability.  Sometimes the malfunction is so subtle that the student thinks they are doing something wrong, and frustration mounts.  Students, parents and teachers need to be aware of the basics of instrument maintenance and be on top of repairs when needed.

Instruments that are hard to play are not fun to play. Let me know if your horn needs help, and I will recommend a good repairperson (I know several)!

And parents, I am always available to help you understand what your child is learning from me (and why!).

Happy practicing!

Hey, I can tell when you haven’t practiced

Listen, I was a student, too, and I have gone to my share of lessons unprepared (but I only did this once for Jan at North Texas, and received a well-deserved lashing for it). I have also tried to hide this fact, or cram before the lesson, in order to not disappoint my teacher.

It never works. As a teacher now, I can tell you this: we can always tell. It would be much better for you to say, hey, I haven’t looked at this, I’m sorry, than to fake your way through something. Chances are I’ll be disappointed, but we can find a way to make the lesson productive: Either you can demonstrate how you WOULD have practiced it had you made the time, or we can work on some other aspect of technique or theory.

Now, that doesn’t mean we can spend every lesson avoiding what you didn’t have time to do. I expect that my students find the time during the week (it doesn’t have to be much; 20-30 minutes a day maybe, is better than bigger chunks with gaps in between) to work on what I’ve assigned. You take lessons because you want to progress beyond the skills you need for band, or to match them, or to get access to different music than you might otherwise. There are lots of reasons to take lessons, and lots of reasons for me to have certain expectations about how you will act upon them.

So, how do we get around this dilemma? How do you practice ‘enough’ to ‘fool’ me? Well, first of all, you don’t need to fool me. I am here to help you, and so that means if something gives you trouble, I should be the first to know. If you’ve worked for ages on these two bars and just can’t get them, maybe I can help you move beyond them. You don’t have to be perfect, just prepared.

Now, time management. Kids, and adults, these days, are BUSY. Does anyone know what free time is anymore? How does music fit when it competes with homework, athletics, clubs, friends, downtime?

You could always think of your music practice as homework. 30 minutes of something you have to do every evening even if you don’t have a class the next day. You could think of it as athletic conditioning, which is constant. You could envision it as a project you do for a club that ensures your participation is 100%. You could make music with friends or practice as a way to relieve stress from everything else.

There’s no right or wrong answer here. The only right way to go about managing your practice time is to make sure you’re focused and consistent. And if you’ve been focused and consistent in your personal practice, that will show in your lesson. That will give us something to move forward on.

Happy practicing!


Even though Ohio State is a rival of my alma mater, Wisconsin, I have to hand it to their band. This is one of the most creatively executed halftime shows I have ever seen.