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

Part 2: EMBOUCHURE

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.

Last week we dove into AIR and concepts that can help us use it efficiently and effectively. Now let’s turn to EMBOUCHURE, another loaded topic in brass performance and instruction.

Is the embouchure SET or is it BLOWN?

When we’re learning how to make sound on a brass instrument, our teachers might tell us specific ways to set up our face and air column in order to produce sound. There are as many different ways to describe this process as there are teachers that teach it. The most common approach is to have a new student say the syllable “m”- and set their mouth in that position. They may also be told to tighten the corners of their mouth as though they were sucking on something sour. Those readers who’ve been following along might already know the reasons this initial approach doesn’t actually help develop long-lasting and efficient skills. It’s internally focused: we’re being told to offer functional commands to our muscles in order to enact a specific result, instead of asking for the specific result and letting our muscles develop natural processes for achieving that effect.

Additionally, we might be asked to create a buzzing sound as if we were blowing a raspberry at someone, and in order to that we’ll have to tighten our lips and really force air through them. The sound we get is not pretty, and it’s not how embouchures form.

The truth is, our embouchure is formed only through the production of an air column through our open lips. The scientific principle known as the Bernoulli effect will bring our lips together, allowing for vibration to occur with the air.

If a small volume of fluid is flowing horizontally from a region of high pressure to a region of low pressure, then there is more pressure behind than in front. This gives a net force on the volume, accelerating it along the streamline. (Wikipedia)

As we move air down a tube, our faster moving air will meet still air inside the tube, in what is called the balance point. At the balance point, there is a moment of resistance– the fast air will move everything forward and create resonance, and the backward effect will be low pressure on our lips, pulling them together to create our embouchure. (The best information out there on this subject comes from Jan Kagarice, and is outlined on pages 196-207 in Karen Marston’s excellent dissertation here: Finding The Balance: Jan Kagarice, a Case Study of a Master Trombone Teacher)

And if we’re using an external focus such as a balance point or direction for our air column, we’re utilizing the age-old natural law, “form follows function.” What we want will make the how happen. By focusing on how we do something, we’re going backward. We’re undoing the process. By focusing on the effect we want, we’re allowing our natural learning process the opportunity to try out what works, thereby developing the best technique for the command.

Now, once we have all that set up, and are moving air and allowing for relaxed, natural embouchure vibration, how do we get it to make the sound we want?

Right now, go ahead and read that above sentence out loud. Did you think about how those sounds came out of your vocal chords? Did you shape your mouth intentionally or focus on your tongue’s ability to articulate the syllables?

Nah. You didn’t do that. You just read it. You visualized the words and the words came out. And you didn’t learn to speak as a child by being instructed on the proper technique of talking. You started by making sounds and imitating your family, and gradually you developed better and better control of your functional language capacity.

And if it’s that natural to learn to speak, why shouldn’t we apply that tactic to brass playing?

 Because there is a sensation of blowing against something within the horn, activating the balance point results in sensory feedback for the player. As the amount of resistance changes, i.e. as the player alters pitch, there are corresponding shifts within the feel of the airstream itself. By focusing on this phenomenon, the player can become sensitized to the changing air pressures which control pitch. In order to make this information useful, it must then be systematically linked with musical statements so that the body can map sensory and aural information and over time learn to navigate the instrument efficiently in all registers. The player hears the target pitch and blows it into place on the instrument, eventually merging these two capacities into a feel, or sensory memory. Once this is absorbed by the player s/he no longer has to directly focus on finding the balance point. The process becomes automated. (Marston 204)

 

Internal focus: 

“Tighten the corners of your lips and blow really hard into the instrument”

This information really does exist in the world! See the photo below, and also as much of this video as you can stand:

External focus: 

“Horn comes up, air moves out”

Internal focus: 

“To play a low Bb, drop your jaw as if saying “oh” and blow really slow, warm air into the horn”

External focus:

“Sing this Bb. Think about how the horn would sound playing that. Let your air move down the bell and think about the sound of Bb.”

Internal focus: 

Everything in this picture.

External focus: 

Providing an example of a good brass instrument sound and, without giving too much instruction, helping your student reproduce their version of that sound.

Internal focus: 

Whatever these are.

[I have a long rant coming about maladjusted concept of putting ‘strength’ development first when it comes to playing.]

External focus: 

pinwheel
drinking straw
the instrument you play

[Hello! I am a broken record. Air moves out and form follows function.]

A companion to this post, a video breaking down internal and external approaches to embouchure formation, is on its way shortly. Now go move some air!

 

 

“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.

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.

Lauren’s System for Stress-less Freelancing

One of the things I love about summer as a freelancing brass musician is the renewed influx in gigs spanning many different musical genres other than classical and art music. But summer can also bring with it lots of ‘freebies’ and ‘exposure-generators’ that don’t do much for career or enjoyment. Because of this I have a (year-round) system for accepting gigs that has contributed immensely to my well-being as a musician and human being.

Introducing my “System for Stress-Less Freelancing”- a simple formula that will help you work while you create your art and create your art while you work.

Gigs generally fall into one or more of the following 3 categories:

  1. Offers fair compensation for your time and skills
  2. Is artistically valuable to you in some way (i.e. good or unique repertoire, challenges or refines your skill sets, is enjoyable to perform)
  3. Gives you the opportunity to work with people you value and/or like as people and musicians

If a gig can offer you at least 2 of these categories, it’s worth considering. If it’s just one- or none- well, you might find it’s not the gig for you.

Sometimes a gig just pays, and pays well, and in that case it might be a good thing to take it and use that financial freedom to take a ‘riskier’ gig down the road that you really want to do or offers you a new experience. But it’s likely that even if it seems like it just pays well, it probably also affords you networking opportunities or is a resume-builder. You also never know who you’ll reach with the communication you offer through your art. That said, remember that you’re in charge of keeping your musical soul healthy, and too much of just ‘work’ can really dull the joy of making music.

Being an artist isn’t just a job. If it’s starting to feel like one, take a step back. Maybe putting a few ground rules to what you say yes to will help you find the opportunities that really make you sing.

 

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.

IWBC Recap

Last week I was able to attend the International Women’s Brass Conference for the first time, and it was an experience of a lifetime.  In a nutshell, I met some of my heroes, made some new ones, connected with old and new friends, competed against some top-class performers (3rd place- not too shabby!), heard amazing performances by individuals and groups alike. Here’s a little breakdown of what I took away:

Day 1

  • Prelims for the solo competition- I performed movements I and II of the Rota Concerto and was awarded 3rd place for my age category.
  • Heard soloists Ashley Hall, trumpet, and Velvet Brown, tuba, perform with the Rowan Uni wind ensemble, helped honor the conference’s Pioneer Award winners
  • At the opening reception, met and talked with one of my inspirations, Abbie Conant, and worked hard to stay collected and calm. 🙂

Day 2

  • Recitals by Natalie Mannix and Ava Ordmann, trombones (all music by female composers!), and Donna Parkes, trombone (AMAZING rendition of the Sulek)
  • panels by Debra Taylor (on focal dystonia and recovery) and Stacie Mickens (on practice habits and tricks)
  • evening performance by Athena Brass Band (new life goal: get in this ensemble!), an all-female British-style brass band.

Day 3

  • Panels on Alexander Technique with Lori Schiff (Julliard School) and racism in the music world with Marquita Reef (St Louis educator)
  • Recitals by Julia McIntyre, bass trombone (some of the loveliest playing I’ve heard in a long time), and Ashley Hall, trumpet (incredible sounds!)
  • Heard my dorm-mate Kaitlin rock her finals performance for the competition
  • Played duets out of my new duet book with Gabe
  • Knockout evening performance by DIVA Jazz Orchestra

Day 4

  • Panels: “Who Gets the Gig”- social psychology and music by Maureen Hogan, Georgia Tech, and “Entrepreneurship” with several working musicians in different fields
  • Jeannie Little, trombone, presented a lecture-performance on the Tomasi Concerto and the influence of Tommy Dorsey- her performance of the Tomasi was superb.
  • Recital performances by Velvet Brown (MOJATUBA- with dance and percussion), and JAM- Joanna and Michael (tubaeuph/cimbasso duet)
  • Final evening performance from Monarch Brass, the signature group of the IWBC. Such. Sounds.

Some slight organized thoughts:

  • It’s so inspiring to see all these women working at a high level. Meeting the heroes of the earlier generation and mingling with those of mine- it’s great to see how far we’ve come
  • That said, we have ages to go. The competitions, open to all genders, were mostly won by men. I have thoughts about how they could be structured different, but in the meantime- what will it take to get women into those winning spots more frequently? Is it confidence? Training? Access?
  • I would like to see more rest/social time built into the conference schedule. It was jam-packed, and everything was interesting, so we were exhausted at the end of each day.
  • I would also like more time to play and network with my colleagues. Reading sessions with all the trombones, or ad-hoc brass quintets. Anything to get us out of our cliques and talking to new friends.
  • The conference, like much of the music industry, is still very ‘job-oriented’, focused on winning that orchestra job or finding the tenure-track college position (that will disappear in the next 10 years anyway). I wanted more from freelancers, non-conventional performers, and educators building careers in their communities using all the strategies available to them. How does the younger generation find work in a changing economy? How do we all stay happy and healthy as musicians, whether we’re top dog or working like one?

All in all, it was a week to remember. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to have gone, to have had the chance to compete, and to make new connections. I’ll have lots to sustain me for the next few months, and I’ll be back for the conference at ASU in 2019 (hopefully with my own panel/performance, and with Brass Lassie in tow!)!

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!