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

Part 4: The VALVES/SLIDE vs CONCEPT/SLOW PRACTICE

Recently, I recapped the excellent text of studies related to attentional focus and its affect on motor skill learning by Gabriele : . 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, & 3 we dove into AIR, EMBOUCHURE, and ARTICULATION and INTONATION.

Today, I’m looking at the VALVES/SLIDE, but more importantly, how we use CONCEPT and MEASURED PRACTICE to develop our technical skills in an externally focused manner.

MOVE IT OR LOSE IT

We’ve got our Arbans, our Clarkes, our Koppraschs, and any number of other texts, all engineered to help us develop fluid, fast technique on the horn so that we can master it. We practice scale studies and etudes and work hard on our execution. It’s definitely a necessity in obtaining a high level of performance on an instrument, so how we can we utilize external attentional focus methods to help lessen the task (and dare I say it- make it fun)?

I’m going to speak primarily from a trombone player’s perspective, since that’s what I play and mostly teach, but these ideas could apply to any instrument.

The main big idea I want to talk about today is CONCEPT- which has something to do with the ‘brain magic’ and ‘umbrella tasking’ I’ve discussed before. Basically, we need to be able to tell our body what the music we want to make sounds like, and so we rely on our concept to guide us. Too often, we go the other way- assess something as a technical skill, learning it as an action our body does and then trying to shoe-horn musicality in over it. We set students on the task of ‘learning their scales’ but we don’t always explain how those scales can show up in music or teach tonality instead. It’s just something we have to do to be better and it’s really boring.

But I think scales and drills can be fun, if you change your concept of them. An ascending scale pattern can have direction- aim for the top! pull down to the bottom!- thirds can be like skipping stairs, arpeggios outline cool chords that can be played underneath the student as they practice, showing them how Western harmony works. If we’re clear on our concept, we’ll have a better shot of integrating the technical skill we’re trying to accomplish into our skill set.

It is of utmost importance that we are helping our young musicians develop their ears. From an early age, they learn recognize sounds and intervals, and are seeped in harmonic structures and internal rhythm. As they begin learning a brass instrument, they can use those tools to conceptualize on the instrument more quickly and easily.

One of the hardest early skills to get on the trombone is a clean slide. Most of us start out slipping around and getting all the semitones between two pitches in the same partial, and have trouble lining up tongue, air, and slide to get a clean attack. Some approaches to going from F(1) in the staff to Eb(3):

Internal Focus: 

“Move the slide really fast and tongue right when you get to 3rd, trying to line the slide and tongue up together.”

External Focus:

“Let’s think of a song that uses this interval. Happy Birthday could start on Eb and go to F and then back- let’s sing that on those pitches (demo on piano). Can we hear those two notes cleanly on the trombone?”

Turn on a metronome. Encourage the student to arrive with the beat each next note, keeping that as their focus. Keep the tempo at a pace they can conceptualize and execute, and speed up slowly.

Another tricky skill is executing the whole step from F in the staff to the G above it. It requires changing partials and moving the slide from 1st to 4th. Most of the time, a beginner will end up glissando-ing down to the D in 4th before being able to make the upward change.

Internal Focus:

“As you’re moving out to 4th, make your air go faster and tongue on the G”

External Focus: 

“Let’s listen for Happy Birthday again, but this time let’s start on F. It’s going to go F-G-F, and we need to hear that interval as we play it. Let’s sing first!”

“Let’s try playing F in 6th position…did you know that was an alternate? Then, we can stay on the same partial and smear up to 4th. Listen (demo). Now, let’s try playing that cleanly from 6th to 4th. Once you have that, we’ll try 1st to 4th- let’s keep hearing a song we recognize as we do it!”

MEASURED PRACTICE

“Slow practice equals fast progress”- Musician’s proverb

One of the biggest lessons I learned in my studies with Jan Kagarice is that CONCEPT has to meet ABILITY, not the other way around. In other words, if we cannot play something at the speed we have heard it done or want to play it at, we need to lower that concept down to where we can play it. That doesn’t seem like rocket science, but it’s an important piece of the puzzle. This includes all of the elements of a given phrase: direction (dynamics), style (articulation), and execution (mechanics). In a sense, we need to practice performing at all levels of our learning process in order to truly cement the finished project in our bank of motor skills.

For beginners, clean slide/valve technique and faster passages can seem like daunting tasks. But with measured practice skills, bringing concept down to a manageable tempo can make the task more accessible. Adding external focus techniques such as “what is this phrase saying/what does this interval remind you of” will keep the learner’s attention on the execution and not on the physical skill.

This is easier for some than most, but it’s critical in developing fluid, easy technique that responds to the musical goal one is trying to achieve. A metronome can be a lifesaver in this regard- it gives the learner something to aim for rather than guessing blindly at where the next note will be when their sense of steady time has yet to develop. I never move a student faster than they can play any given thing, and in fact sometimes we end up going even slower. To keep from boredom setting in, I keep the task manageable and limit the amount of time we concentrate for. Our brains, in addition to not being able to multi-task, really need time to develop focused concentration abilities. So be patient with your young students and don’t make them do one thing for too long- vary the tasks and move incrementally.

As one of my students said recently: “I can’t play fast stuff! But I’m playing fast without thinking about it!”

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

Part 3: ARTICULATION and INTONATION

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).

WHAT DOES YOUR TONGUE DO? DOES IT MATTER?

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.

ARTICULATION

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”

INTONATION

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!

 

Husting Studio Scholarship Fund- Year 3

 

I’m excited to announce that my Scholarship for the 1718 School Year is going to look a little different- and it’s going to reach a lot more music learners!

I’m developing a collaboration with Elizabeth Winslow, the band director at Richfield Senior High School, in order to bring high-quality brass instruction to her band kids. I’ll be offering private lessons, clinics, chamber ensembles, and sectionals- but I’m going to need your help to do it. Donating to my campaign will help pay for my time, skills, and program development. There will be more content as the program begins and I meet the kids, so stay tuned.

About Richfield SHS: Richfield is a inner-ring suburb of the Minneapolis area. The high school is about 67% students of color, and the median income falls around $55k/year. There is a strong need for support within in the music program, helping to develop a culture that values private music instruction and life-long musicianship.

Thank you in advance, and I’m looking forward to seeing what this school year brings!

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

Part 1: AIR

Last week, 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.

Let’s start with the thing that makes our brass engine go, shall we?

Is it AIR IN or AIR OUT?

Breath. It’s what makes wind instruments go (well, all instruments, but ya know). Brass players are obsessed with it, whole fads have sprung up around helping people increase efficiency and use, and all sorts of gadgets exist that supposedly measure our lung capacity and output. The first thing we’re usually told as a baby brass player? “Take a deep breath…”

Brands like The Breathing Gym sell many on the concept that breathing in is more important than breathing out; that we should be consciously thinking about the movement of our lungs, abdomen, diaphragm, etc. Breathing exercises might have us hold air in our lung in hopes of increasing our lung capacity, but there’s no evidence that our lungs can get any larger through use (They’re not muscles, after all). Our bodies can learn to get oxygen to the system more efficiently (source), but that has more to do with blood flow that the heart can take to our muscles and less to do with how well we sound on an instrument.

Telling yourself or a student how to take a breath IN is a reversal of the natural process of wind playing. It can even induce in our subconscious a subtle fear response- what’s the first thing you do when you are startled?- which makes the body rigid and tense, ready for battle or flight. I prefer to think of breathing in as a natural reaction to what I want to happen- i.e. sound coming out my bell. If I am focused on where my air needs to go, my body will take a relaxed, natural breath- just right to make the result happen.

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. Humans already know how to breathe in and out. We’ve been doing it since day one. What’s different about playing a brass instrument is where we want our external flow of air to go- and that’s the level that should get our attention.

Internal Focus:

“Breathe into your diaphragm/stomach/bottom quadrant of your lungs”

[Personal pet peeve alert! You have no control over your diaphragm (it’s an involuntary muscle, just comes along for the ride when we take in air)/there are no lungs in your stomach/air is a gas and will go wherever it wants given an empty space.]

External Focus:

“Let your air move down the tube and hear it leave the bell”

“Air wants to move. Let it go!”

Internal Focus: 

“Take a big, rib-snapping breath to make sure you can play this entire phrase in one breath (or at a high volume)”

[ouch]

Alternately, I have heard this described as: “Inhale with the syllable ‘WOH'”, implying that this will get more air into your lungs than a normal inhalation. Probably true. But unnecessary.

External Focus: 

“Where do you want the phrase to go? Where do you want the sound to go?”

[I’ve also advocated for “take a breath wherever you need, and as long as you hear the phrase moving on it will communicate through to the audience and they won’t register your breath.”]

An observation I’ve made is that when my attention is fully outward, on the task of communicating the music, my intakes are no bigger or deeper than a normal conversational breath.

Internal Focus: 

Breath Builder
Breathing Bag

Both of these items claim to increase lung use and capacity, but really make the user focus on how much air they intake rather than what they do with it. I could argue a case for finding external foci for these implements, but…why not spend less of your money on something simpler and more effective?

External Focus: 

drinking straw

Hold a straw in just in front of your airstream (not in your mouth), and move air out the end of it, hearing the resonance of the straw react. This is a great tool for developing range and will make a return cameo in later installments!

pinwheel

“Play” the phrase you are working on on your pinwheel, keeping it spinning as long as you hear the notes connecting. You can really feel the resistance of the pinwheel, which imitates the resistance of the balance point in your instrument.

your instrument

I mean… it’s what you’re learning to use, right? What better tool than that? What do you want it to sound like? Think about the result you want, and activate that brain magic to help you get there.

Please feel free to share your strategies for healthy air flow in the comments, or ask questions or clarifications!

Stay tuned for the next installment of “Ear on the Prize”: Embouchure. Another laden word in the brass community, I will try to break down the myths and misconceptions of creating a healthy brass embouchure and give some of my tactics for doing it efficiently and easily.

Summer is upon us!

Students, friends, family, and fans,

Summer is in the air and it’s time for an updated lesson schedule as well as info on upcoming gigs and performances!

If you are a student or a potential student, make sure to check out my Summer Schedule for lesson availabilities.

I also will keep my Performance Calendar updated as the summer goes on. Upcoming gigs include a stint on bass trombone with the Swing Sisterhood and Brass Lassie’s first summer show at the Normandale Lake Bandshell in Bloomington.

Brass Lassie will be very busy this summer, performing at the State Fair, the MN Irish Fair, and the Vintage Band Festival in Northfield! I hope you can make a performance.

Video from my 2nd Doctoral Recital!

Hey, all!

These have been up for a while but I’ve neglected to get them on the blog. My April 3rd, 2017 recital in Lloyd Ultan Recital Hall at the University of Minnesota is now available in convenient YouTube form! Take a gander:

Thanks for watching!

A message for my students

My dearest students,

Well, we’ve reached the end of the election cycle, a particularly nasty and divisive one as these things go, and I know that even though most of you are not old enough to vote that it can still be tremendously emotionally consuming to experience.

No matter where we all fall on the political spectrum, whether we are happy this week or sad, I want you to know that I am proud of you, and I am so impressed by your generation and your spirit. I don’t believe for one second all the think pieces that come out saying derogatory things about your age group. I know better. I see young folks who have smart, considerate, and progressive things to say, who look out for their friends and family, who take risks and work hard and engage in their communities. I see you making music, and I am so incredibly privileged to be your teacher.

We have some work to do to make the two halves of our country get back on speaking terms. I’m sorry this mess gets passed along to you, but I want you to know that I will always have your best interests in mind, I will always make music with you. Anyone who wants to learn and create art is always welcome in my studio.

Let’s get back to work.

Your dedicated teacher,

Lauren