“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”: Live Video!

Earlier this morning I took to Facebook Live to talk through my concepts for healthy brass tone production and skill development. Please give it a watch and feel free to ask any questions or give feedback. I hope to refine this over time and produce some companion videos aimed at beginner and intermediate brass education.

“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.