10 Proven Ways to Improve Your Breathing Collected By Will Kimball

I’ve posted before about Will Kimball’s excellent blog. Kimball teaches trombone at Brigham Young University and usually posts on historical topics. Here is a great essay he wrote concerning breathing for brass players. He searched through scientific literature to get at the truth behind breathing and came up with 10 Ways To Improve your breathing based on what we know scientifically.

  1. Practice taking deep breaths
  2. Eat fruit and vegetables
  3. Don’t smoke
  4. Stay physically fit
  5. Allow full expansion
  6. Don’t wear tight clothes
  7. Avoid eating a lot before performing
  8. Relax
  9. Maintain good posture
  10. Take big breaths, even when you don’t think you need them

Much of the above list he compiled is common sense, but some of it goes against the grain of our brass playing urban legends. For example, Kimball mentions the belief (among some brass players) that carrying some extra weight improves lung function or lung capacity, scientific studies actually show the reverse to be true. Time to hit the gym a little more.

The last point, taking big breaths even when it doesn’t seem necessary for the phrase, has at least one caveat. Citing Arend Bouhuys, a specialist in respiration who has studied musicians, Kimball points out that with a larger breath less effort is required to exhale air, helping the musician to maintain relaxed effort in playing. Essentially the internal pressure of having a full breath means the musician simply relaxes to begin exhalation, rather than having to engage the muscles of expiration. However, Kimball also notes that in soft playing that this practice could potentially work against the player as he or she will need to work against the natural tendency for exhalation with the full breath or risk moving too much air.

Although Kimball doesn’t refer to it, I think that the same can apply to extreme upper register playing as well. Playing in the upper register requires a much smaller aperture and moves less air, much like playing soft. Often times I find that taking a very large breath to attack a pitch in the upper register results in too much air pressure and taking in a bit less air makes it easier to get a clean attack.

At any rate, the whole article is worth a read and Kimball supplies links to all the scientific studies he cites there. Go check it out here.

Learning Jazz Language

I came across a very interesting article by Bill Plake on his website called “The Problem With Studying the “Jazz Language.”

The other morning I was giving a first lesson to a jazz guitarist ( a university student) and was struck by something I notice quite often: Young jazz students spending a seemingly disproportionate amount of practice time learning and memorizing jazz lines and improvised solos.

When I asked this musician what he practices, he said that most of his practice time is spent learning new tunes, heads (like Donna Lee, Milestones, etc) and transcribing and playing improvised jazz solos by the “masters”.

Plake’s observations were that this student, and many others, spend so much time trying to absorb the jazz language that they end up playing in an unoriginal style, the student’s improvisations sound stilted and disconnected from an emotional standpoint.

If you examine the work of the great innovators in jazz they all had one thing in common: They redefined, edified and expanded the so called jazz language. Sure they might have spent quite a bit of time copying other players and learning tunes and heads and so forth.

But they also did one other very important thing. They spent the vast majority of their time improvising (truly improvising) to find what they had to say as artists. In fact, many had to actually ignore the jazz language of their time. They needed to free themselves from it in order to find a more personal expression.

From a pedagogical perspective, I have some quibbles from it. First, not everyone’s goals are going to be a major innovator. For many jazz musicians it’s more important to them to be able to play convincingly in a style or directly imitate players they admire. This might be particularly important to musicians who want to specialize in a particular style period of jazz. For example, I play a lot of early jazz styles these days and with one group in particular we often perform music as an almost exact recreation of certain recordings, even to the point of playing the same solos note for note. I’ll come back to this point and my thoughts on avoiding sounding stilted when you do this, but Plake’s advice is worth more detailed consideration.

It’s important to keep in mind that, if you’re an improviser, your also a composer. You compose spontaneously, but you compose nevertheless. So follow the path of great composers. Study the tradition. Absorb and understand what has been created before you. But get down to the business of finding out who you are.

In my experience both as teacher and performer,  I’d say you’re best off giving this top priority, even when you’re at the stage of development where you’re mimicking and studying others. Don’t wait for some magic moment of creative maturity. You’re ready right now. Cultivate those moments every single day, no matter what level of proficiency you’re at. Make the music yours.

My preference here is to follow Hal Crook’s advice on practicing improvisation. In a nutshell, you select one or two topics at most and focus your practice only on those topics during that session. However, at the end of that session you must forget everything that you just worked on and improvise, letting the spirit and mood of the music move you.

I emphasized the later part of that sentence myself. When you practice this, and you should do this every time you practice your improvisation, you need to take some time practicing as you want to perform. Ideally in a performance you want to be focusing on expression and musicality, not technique or licks. If you don’t spend time practicing like you perform, you’re not going to effectively be able to pull that off in a performance.

That’s not to say that this should be, in my opinion, the major focus of all your practice. I would argue that since you don’t want to multitask when you practice (or perform) you should always evaluate what you are trying to improve and not worry about playing with expression or musicality if you’re trying to strengthen a different aspect of your playing. Every individual is going to have different strengths and weaknesses, different priorities, and require different amounts of time splitting practice time between technique, facility with scales and chord changes, stylistic vocabulary, etc., but everyone needs to spend some time stretching out and “going for it” while improvising.

Poke around on Bill Plake’s web site. There are many other articles he’s put up there that are worth reading and I’m sure I’ll post more links and my thoughts here later.

The Thirty Five Basic Points of the Pivot System

In the Donald S. Reinhardt Facebook discussion page the 35 Basic Points of the Pivot System came up. While much of this will not make sense without the rest of the book, I wanted to post these points here so I could more easily refer to them. This come from the “Encyclopedia of the Pivot System,” by Donald S. Reinhardt, p. 229-237.

1. Be ever mindful of the SENSATION THEORY (question and answer twelve in chapter one), and make certain that its principles are constantly utilized throughout your playing. The primary purpose of the warm-up routines is to reestablish yesterday’s playing sensations, or to adjust and align your pre-playing and playing sensations until they merge into the all-essential unified sensation. Remaining alert to the sensations involved during your playing makes it possible to master any new mechanical (physical) point in the shortest time. During the early stages of any warm-up remain conscious of the blowing sensation rather than the pitch and sound factors. Commence your warm-up with a HOOO (no tongue) attack as this utilizes only the breath and the lip-vibrations. Think of the breath and the lips as the basic factors and the tongue as the refining factor (not a crutch) to both. Never warm up so loudly that you experience strain or so softly that you feel a pinching or a holding back. It is obvious, therefore, that your warm-up dynamic level will vary from day to day in order to cater to vast physical differences.

2. Saturate your lips with saliva. This is intended to include the corners of your mouth. It is recommended that you wet your lips several times before the initial playing of the day. This should be done because the saliva to the lips often acts like ink to a blotter, especially for the first few wettings. The idea of wetting the corners of your mouth is to facilitate the inhalation and to prevent embouchure distortion from excessive mouthcorner stretching. Certain present-day squeak artists do adhere to the dry vibrating point principle; however, other than their ability to produce the high ones — their over-all tongue manipulation and control is not worth mentioning. Because tonguing tends to dampen their vibrating points with saliva, their embouchures (with the dry vibrating points) fall apart and become useless under such conditions. With few exceptions, a wet embouchure should be the first choice of any modern brass instrument performer.

3. Your lips must be formed in such a manner that they are just touching—throughout preparation for placement—throughout your placement—throughout your inhalation—and at the completion of your blowing. Your lip aperture (the space blown open -not tongued open) must occur only during your actual blowing.

4. Form your lips as if to buzz so that the membrane of your lower lip is drawn slightly in and over your lower teeth, while the tip of your upper lip reaches down and contacts your lower lip (while slightly overlapping it) at the vibrating points. This is often termed a buzzing embouchure.

5. Always approach your lips for placement with your mouthpiece and instrument in the exact playing angle. This is very important because it sets your jaw as well as your embouchure and both are a must. If the angle jumps up during the attack, then your jaw was set with its position entirely too receding; whereas, if the instrument angle jumps down—then your jaw was protruding to excess during the placement of the mouthpiece. Check on this important point by diligent mirror observation and make the necessary corrections.

6. At the very moment that your mouthpiece placement is being enacted, sufficient grip pressure must be employed against your lips to make your outer and inner embouchures merge and feel as one solidified unit. Too little mouthpiece pressure may cause your placement to drift or float and completely upset your essential playing
sensations. This is especially true while your embouchure is in its formative stages. The mouthpiece pressure is applied toward you while you are executing your placement and during your inhalation from the corners of your mouth. The forward pressure (puckered resistance)—the backward pressure (mouthpiece pressure)—and the neutralization of the opposing forces occurs during your actual attack and throughout your blowing. When the forward pressure equalizes the backward pressure—the two pressures used during the playing reach a point of neutrality or freezing point. In the PIVOT SYSTEM, therefore, we press to neutralize—not to press! The forward pressure employed during the playing is the basis for the all- essential lip pucker. This works hand-in-hand with your PIVOT for your particular physical type.

7. Your mouthpiece should be placed upon an embouchure of almost buzzing firmness.This prevents any twisting or winding up during the mouthpiece placement. It is safe to say, therefore, that this essential firmness must be arrested with sufficient grip pressure during your placement and inhalation. The actual lip pucker occurs from the moment of the attack to the conclusion of the blowing. If this is carried out in the proper manner, your grip pressure will prevent too much flesh from rushing in and under the rim and into the cup of the mouthpiece. You can see that the lip pucker being the opposite of the smile is intended to neutralize both the forward and the backward pressures and assist in the formation of the hermetic seal of the mouthpiece rim and the flesh of the outer embouchure.

8. Always—place, inhale, play; never—inhale, place, play! A reverse order of these points means that you are seriously impeding the synchronization of your basic playing factors. This is a vital point; do not take it lightly!

9. During your formative stages, the mouthpiece pressure upon your lips during your inhalation should be the same as or more than when playing. This hard and fast correctional requirement may be modified according to your particular physical specifications when sufficient development permits; however, in the meantime, carryout this “must” to the letter. Forget your traditional ifs and buts and master this logic.

10. Inhale the high-pitched, whispered inhalation IM (not OM or UM) through the corners of your mouth (never the center of your mouth). Generally speaking, always execute this slower than you think!

11. During the IM inhalation, your tongue must recede about a sixteenth of an inch away from your teeth. This permits great quantities of air to pass freely around your tongue, without resorting to any abnormal stretch in the corners of your mouth to obtain it. The stretch in the corners of your mouth for the inhalation must be minimized.

12. The tongue during the IM inhalation must be very relaxed while receding. The tongue thus far should have two duties: one, it must contact your lower teeth or lower gums during the mouthpiece placement; and two, it must recede during the IM inhalation. The tongue will have additional duties later in the playing; however, it must be understood that no tongue stiffness must ever be tolerated.

13. Whenever time permits—always inhale slowly! This prevents all kinds of unnecessary nervous and muscular tension from entering into your playing. An over-rapid inhalation is often the cause of a quiver or tremolo—the unwanted tonal annoyances which frequently occur during sustained pianissimo playing.

14. During your inhalation, the position of your head and the angle of your instrument must not be altered in any way, because these faults permit changes to occur in both your jaw position and embouchure formation. You must learn to inhale with as little embouchure and jaw distortion as possible. Do not regard your inhalation maneuver as an opportunity to shift gears with the positions of the embouchure and jaw.

15. During your inhalation, especially after playing a number of lower tones, always retrieve your lower lip. This means that your lower lip must be returned to its starting point. In short, your lips during your interphrase inhalation must be identical in position to your initial inhalation. Do not take this important point lightly.

16. If your mouthpiece is placed slightly more to one side of your mouth than the other, then more air should be inhaled from the opposite corner of your mouth. This is vital to keep your embouchure in line. Check on this point by diligent mirror observation.

17. In the PIVOT SYSTEM, the start of the lower tone and the higher tone must be identical in that they are both produced at the outset with the just touching embouchure and they are blown (not tongued) apart. The principal difference must be in the amount of lip compression (pinching power) employed.

18. At the outset of any standard or normal mouthcorner inhalation, your diaphragm and abdominal regions must protrude with firmness. As this inhalation continues a slight expansion will be felt in your chest and an open, free feeling will be noticed in your throat. Make certain that you use this type of inhalation whenever and wherever possible. This is the same principle as air being blown into a large paper bag—the bottom fills first and then the top.

19. Whenever time does not permit, then use the quarter breath—the sniff breath—the gasp breath—the chest heave—etc. It must be thoroughly comprehended that this form of rapid inhalation must be used only to augment but never to replace the standard or normal mouthcorner inhalation. In short, they are intended to serve as a means to an end rather than the standard mode of playing. This habit has become so strong with certain Latin-American performers (because of short, choppy phrases) that they find it impossible to play any type of slow ballad or any sustained passages.

20. Positively never tolerate any lifting of your shoulders during any inhalation because this fault is a positive guarantee that you will be short- winded. Test this fault and notice how it restricts your inhalation.

21. During your inhalation think of the corners of your mouth, your inhaled air, and your tongue all moving backward together as one solidified unit.

22. DO NOT ALTER THE POSITION OF YOUR HEAD OR THE ANGLE OF YOUR INSTRUMENT DURING YOUR INHALATIONS! This point has been repeated because of its significance.

23. At the peak of any inhalation, positively never delay your attack. The exhalation or the blowing must gain momentum from the inhalation, and all work in one coordinated movement, rather than a delay during the so-called bridge between the two factors. You do not delay when you speak; therefore, do not delay when you execute an attack to play. The idea of bottling up the air for a so-called crisp, explosive attack is utterly preposterous. The desired result must be procured from nervous and muscular synchronization—not from any form of physical delay.

24. With each and every initial attack, the diaphragm and abdominal regions must lift (not protrude) in a firm synchronized manner. The higher the note played, the more pronounced this lift must become. Positively never protrude your diaphragm and abdominal regions for any form of playing, especially while ascending, because this old-time playing fallacy has caused more ruptures, hernias, hemmorhoids, etc., among trumpet players than all other playing faults combined. If you possess this fault—lose it! Remember, a clean musical delivery must be the result of correct muscular timing—not nervous delay.

25. POSITIVELY NEVER SMILE TO ASCEND; LEARN TO PIVOT AND THEN TO PUCKER!

26. The tongue is now BLOWN FORWARD in a very relaxed manner from its IM (slightly receded) position so that it strikes the back of the upper teeth, the upper gums, or higher depending upon the range being played. This is sometimes called the first stage of the attack. The proper tongue-arch level may be assisted by using the vowel AAA (DAAA or TAAA) for the lower register—OOO (DOOO or TOOO) for the middle register—and EEE (DEEE or TEEE) for the upper register. Since there are eight distinctly different tongue types, the matter of tongue obstruction, etc., must be discussed during one of your early lessons in the PIVOT SYSTEM.

27. NEVER PERMIT THE TIP OF YOUR TONGUE TO PENETRATE BETWEEN YOUR TEETH AND LIPS IN ANY REGISTER, AT ANY TIME. This is a hard and fast rule but strive to live up to it at all times. TONGUE PENETRATION IS ONE OF THE CHIEF CAUSES OF INADEQUATE RANGE, ENDURANCE, FLEXIBILITY, ETC.

28. After striking, the tongue immediately snaps back (and down in some cases) into the mouth to permit the cone-like air column to strike the back of the compressed embouchure formation, where the least resistance is presented for the blowing. This is often referred to as the second stage of the attack.

29. The duties of the tongue up to this point are as follows:

  1. It must contact the lower teeth or lower gums while the mouthpiece placement is being enacted.
  2. It must recede a trifle during the IM inhalation.
  3. It must strike the back of the upper teeth, the upper gums, or higher depending upon the particular register being played. Remember, the vowels (already suggested) will assist you in achieving the essential tongue-arch level.
  4. It must never be permitted to penetrate between your teeth and lips in any register, at any time.
  5. It must snap back (and down in some cases) into your mouth to permit the cone-like air column to move forward to create the essential lip-vibrations for the particular range being played.
  6. Its arch-level is used to control all types of slurring and flexibility in general.

30. The length of the tongue backstroke is one of the controlling factors for both volume and speed; whereas, the level of the tongue-arch is one of the governing factors for range. Keep these facts in mind while analyzing any tongue problem.

31. All prescribed mechanical (physical) procedures must be carried to extremes during your daily practice periods; however, while you are playing your engagements give your entire attention to music. This is both necessary and proper.

32. Remember, the only time that any sensation is new is the first time; therefore, when you strive to master any new mechanical point make certain that you do not expect the new sensation to be as vivid in later attempts, or you will be carrying the point to extremes. Failure to observe this important fact has caused many performers to experience extended playing frustration.

33. Remember, there are no playing secrets—just logic and common sense. Intelligent, consistent daily practice and study invariably wins out over this word talent.

34. The primary purpose of the PIVOT is to make it possible for you to retain constantly the all-essential line-up between your lips and teeth, so that the lip-vibrations will not be impeded or obliterated in any particular part of your range. It is for this reason that you must study this ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE PIVOT SYSTEM and the PIVOT SYSTEM MANUAL thoroughly and completely. In the PIVOT SYSTEM four standard embouchure and jaw types and five subtypes (nine in all) are utilized and you are directed to fall into one type or the other. This is the only method whereby your individual differences are given scientific consideration. In this manner Mother Nature is satisfied.

35. If you are really serious about your study, I suggest from an hour and a half to five hours of study and practice daily. You must learn to rest exactly as long as you practice. Five minutes of playing means five minutes of resting, etc. In this way you are constantly building up your playing reserve and endurance and never permitting a thoughtless, illogical practice period to tear it down and destroy it. May I suggest a daily review of these thirty-five basic points of the PIVOT SYSTEM.

The Encyclopedia of the Pivot System is out of print now and hard to find. If you do find a copy, it’s a bit difficult to read through it and get a firm grasp on what Reinhardt wanted unless you get some help from a former Reinhardt student or someone else who is well versed in Reinhardt’s pedagogy. It is written in a FAQ style and isn’t written in a way that is designed to help you grasp basic concepts first before moving on to more advanced ones. Stick with it, though, and it is one of the most comprehensive and complete discussions of brass technique that I’ve found.

Why You Shouldn’t Memorize Music (or at least revisit the score when you do)

For both jazz and classical soloists it’s extremely common to perform with your music memorized. There are usually a few reasons given for memorizing, including that it frees you up from the distraction of the page, it allows you to focus more completely on the sound, and it simply looks better without a music stand in front of you. Here’s an interesting take on memorization from a classical guitarist, called An Argument Against Memorization.

To watch a soloist, or an ensemble, perform without the score, without any physical partitions, and with a steadfast memory of the work, is incredibly compelling.

No doubt about it.

However, the goal of memorization is one that too many of us rush into without consideration of the harm it might be doing.

The author, Simon Powis, offers some good points on ways where memorization actually inhibits our ability to perform music. For one, he notes that what frequently happens is the musician is memorizing music through a kinesthetic process (“muscle memory”) and that it becomes difficult, if not impossible for the musician to pick up in places other than at the beginning of that phrase, or even the entire piece.

But worse than that, memorizing a piece of music leads to practicing that music only without sheet music, and this can be inhibiting.

If we have hammered in our kinesthetic memory via thousands of mechanical repetitions (which does work eventually) we are making it very, very, VERY, difficult to change and evolve over time.

So, no matter how far we evolve as a musician, our stubborn muscle memory will maintain a fingering, articulation, and execution that is inferior and less than our current capabilities.

What a shame, and what a loss!

Powis points out that this can cause the musician to resort to the easiest fingering, rather than exploring other options. Something that works for you now might not sound the best down the road. Certain instruments have different sounds with different fingers or positions and only playing a piece from memory might lock you into something that won’t sound as good.

Less of a concern to jazz musicians, where the music is improvisational and meant to be changed every time, is loosing focus on what the composer originally intended.

A score is incredibly complex. When a student comes to me and says “I have it memorized now” what does this actually mean?

Following this statement I will often ask what the harmonic progression is in the second phrase? Or, what the dynamic markings are in the coda? The answer is always a blank look.

This is because the score contains more information than just where to put the fingers. It is a veritable treasure trove of information that reveals itself over time.

You need time to explore the score, and if you respect the music you will give it that due time.

And the final point that Powis makes is that our memories are fallible, and we can memorize a piece wrong. Or it can drift away from what is correct over time.

Those of us who play jazz or other improvisational styles of music might be less concerned with Powis’s points than classical soloists, but I think there is some food for thought even for jazz musicians. While I usually feel freed up as an improviser once I’ve got a tune committed to memory, I do think there is some value to revisiting the sheet music and looking at the composition again visually. I have a tendency to look ahead when reading music, whereas when playing a tune by memory or by ear I am more in the moment. There’s something to be said for starting your improvised phrase already thinking about where you’re going.

I don’t think that Powis is really arguing to never memorize your music, but when doing so we should be thinking about the drawbacks. Being aware of the potential problems helps us avoid them, while still holding on to the benefits from playing without written music.

On Learning the “Classics”

I recently came across an interesting blog post Ronan on his Mostly Music blog. This post, entitled 21st Century Bebop, asks some good questions that jazz educators might want to consider.

In a musical world which has moved away from traditional jazz repertoire, at least as far as the vast majority of the general public is concerned, what is the relevance or otherwise of these skills – playing standards, playing changes, playing common repertoire, the swing idiom etc. etc. ? Why, the question is often asked, should we spend so much time teaching a type of music that hasn’t been popular for over 60 years? What is the relevance of standard repertoire in the 21st-century, and are we holding onto this type of teaching out of some misguided sense of loyalty to the past?

Years ago, when I was still teaching in academia, I was sitting in on a juried recital for a drummer jazz studies major. He was accompanied by a couple musicians that he played around town frequently with and they seemed to draw the music primarily from the tunes they play on their gigs. The performance was excellent, but I was concerned about the lack of variety I heard. Afterwards, I commented to the student’s studio instructor that I wanted to hear something in the swing style and was confused when he insisted that there was. It took me a moment to realize that while I was talking about a jazz style and repertoire from the 30s and 40s, his instructor was thinking of something that had swing 8th notes.

It still seems strange to me that an undergraduate student completing a bachelors degree in jazz studies would go through 4 years of higher education and not be required to demonstrate a familiarity with performing in jazz styles developed prior to the 1950s or 60s. Perhaps it’s my professional bias as a trombonist to find myself performing traditional jazz and swing styles more than a drummer might, but I see a familiarity with the history of the style to be more than simply being professionally ready to play a gig where you need to play in a non-contemporary jazz style. Ronan addresses this too.

So – technique, aural training, harmonic knowledge, rhythmic skills, reading skills, musical memory, deep listening, understanding of form and the ability to instantly create melodies over moving harmony. All of these are necessary in order to able to be able to play standard jazz material. This is a serious set of skills for any musician venturing into the professional music world, and some or all of them are transferable into any kind of musical situation you may be find yourself in.

I would take this a step further. I may be misremembering who exactly said this (and I may even be making this up entirely, but the point is still valid), but I think it was Wynton Marsalis who said it’s equally important for jazz students to get experience learning to play “classical” music as well. First, the pedagogy and practice on development of instrumental technique has been refined already with classical studies to a point that I still don’t see with jazz methods. The skill set you will learn from performing a classical recital or performing in an orchestra or concert band is going to benefit in a way that playing in a jazz combo just can’t provide. For example, if you’re performing a solo concerto you are going to have to have the chops to make it through all the movements and play what’s on the page, whereas when we improvise we unconsciously make choices that we already have the technique to play. Classical music challenges jazz musicians to improve their skills and become familiar with phrasing, articulations, and other nuances that you just won’t get playing contemporary jazz.

And, for that matter, I make the same argument for classical musicians learning to improvise and become familiar with jazz styles. I’ve listened to and played many pops concerts and noticed how uncomfortable the classical musicians sounded trying to phrase and articulate jazz and pop styles.

Of course we’re all going to have our personal preferences and strengths. There are some musical styles that I have little to no interest in learning to perform and others that I have made a conscious effort to become as good as I can playing. However, my experience has been that becoming a well rounded musician has been beneficial to performing in my preferred styles. Furthermore, my abilities as a “musical chameleon” have made it possible for me to work successfully as a professional musician and music educator in a wide variety of situations that many of my peers cannot.

Paralysis By Analysis “Godwin’s Law”

In 1990 Mike Godwin famously wrote about Usnet discussion groups, “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1.” The corollary is that once this comparison is made, the individual who made it automatically looses the argument. It’s become known as “Godwin’s Law.” I propose a similar adage for the expression, “paralysis by analysis.” As an online discussion about brass technique gets longer, the probability that someone will come along and reject a logical or factual argument with the term “paralysis by analysis” approaches 1. When that happens, that individual looses the debate.

I’ve blogged about my problems with this expression before, but it’s worth repeating.

The first issue I take with this expression is that it is almost always used to dismiss someone else’s points without actually addressing any of the logic or facts that were brought up. Someone can provide a well-documented and rational argument about some point of brass technique and rather than pointing out flaws with the argument, a contrarian will reject the entire argument without having to provide any evidence or logical explanation. If they don’t use the expression, “paralysis by analysis” they often say something like, “you’re thinking too much,” or “the body will figure itself out.” It’s intellectually lazy at best, and at its heart it’s bad advice.

analysis
noun, plural analyses

1. the separating of any material or abstract entity into its constituent elements (opposed to synthesis).
2. this process as a method of studying the nature of something or of determining its essential features and their relations.
3. a presentation, usually in writing, of the results of this process.

Analysis in musical pedagogy and practice is a good thing. It allows us to learn about the details of playing technique, put music into an historical and theoretical context, and help us to communicate the results of our study to other people. When people discourage analysis they are not just recommending against a valuable tool for teachers and students, they are actively encouraging students to NOT explore, question, and learn.

Do music students often freeze up when trying to play their instrument? Of course, but it’s worth looking deeper (dare I say, analyze) what’s actually happening to musicians when this happens. There are two scenarios. First, and I suspect most common, the musician is trying to multitask and rather than making for an improvement it leads to the musical equivalent of “athlete’s choke.”

Multitasking is really just task switching. It’s not really possible for people to think about more than one, maybe two, things at a time. Instead the focus changes from one thing to another. Because there are so many different physical skills that need to coordinate for playing a musical instrument it’s really impossible to keep them all in mind while playing, so we need to be selective on what we concentrate on while practicing and performing. Analysis should be done prior to picking up the instrument and the particular task to be practiced is selected based on what the player or teacher determines needs correction. Once the work on that particular point of focus is concluded, the musician should move on to another task. At no point is the analysis itself causing the freezing up, it’s the action of trying to analyze while coordinating all the physical tasks, and often trying to make corrections on the fly at the same time.

“Paralysis by multitasking” just doesn’t have the same ring to it, but it’s much more accurate.

The other scenario that happens when a musician struggles with analysis is that they aren’t drawing the correct conclusions from their analysis. This is why we have teachers, who presumably have more experience than the student and understands better what’s going on. Where I have a problem is when music teachers discourage their students to analyze because they want to always do that for their student. Those students are going to need to learn to do their own analysis, and so it’s better for the teacher to instruct the student in what correct playing mechanics are and how to spot check their own technique and make their own corrections. Furthermore, most serious music students end up doing some sort of teaching at some point in their careers, even if it’s just offering advice on the internet. When students consistently hear from their teacher, “paralysis by analysis” they take that mantra too seriously and it becomes an excuse. They use it to justify ignoring or dismissing information that is useful and it becomes a cover for teachers who simply don’t know what’s going on with their students.

“Paralysis by ignorance” doesn’t rhyme either.

So I herby declare that in the comments section in this blog, if you use the expression “paralysis by analysis” to dismiss a logical or specific point of view you don’t agree with you automatically loose the argument.

Composition Exercises

It’s common for instrumentalists to practice exercises and etudes to practice technique or expressive playing. These materials usually are never intended to be performed, but are instead done for the benefit they offer the musician. Composers can similarly practice composition exercises that aren’t intended to be heard by anyone, but help the composer get comfortable using a particular approach or get the creative juices flowing. Here’s a resource with 4 exercises.

Exercise 1: Compose Three Short One Minute Compositions

In this exercise you have two weeks to complete three short compositions. I like the idea of challenging yourself to complete something specific on a deadline. Some arranging commissions I have gotten are like this exercise, the client needs an arrangement of a specific tune by a specific date.

Exercise 1b: Compose One Composition Two Minutes Long

The details of this exercise include avoiding your compositional comfort zone. Again, it’s not an uncommon situation for a professional composer or arranger to be commissioned to write something that he or she might not take on as a personal project. It’s useful to be able to put your personal preferences aside and explore something completely different from your own style.

Exercise 2: Vocal Rhythms

Exercise 2b: Vocal Rhythms in a Foreign Language

I’ve used this idea many times. Select a text from somewhere and say it out loud rhythmically. Write out the rhythms you come up with and they can become the basis for an extended composition. As an aside, this works great with young music students to get them composing music together as a class. Ask them a question about what they did over the weekend and you might get an answer like, “Birthday parties, two in a row!”

Use these rhythms to create percussion music or add pitches to create a melody.

Check out the details of these exercises and then get composing.

Use Eye Tracking to Study What a Pianist Sees While Playing

I love hearing about research like this done on musicians (and other artists). I wouldn’t be surprised if something similar hasn’t been done for athletics, so it’s nice to see that musicians are taking advantage of the technology too.

 

In this video they show the difference between an older, more experienced, pianist and a younger, less accomplished, pianist. They tracked both of their eye movements while playing a memorized piece and also sight reading. While playing the memorized pieces the experienced pianist visual range on the keyboard was much more stable and consistent than the inexperienced pianist.

The results of the experienced pianist sight reading is directly relevant to anyone sight reading. His eyes are scanning ahead of where he is playing. It also jumps between the treble clef and bass clef staves consistently. This skill of reading ahead is perhaps one of the most important things to develop for sight reading.

Golfing Focus Applied to Music

There’s seems to be a lot more research done on the development of motor skills with athletics compared to music, so often times musicians will look at athletics and sports training methods for ideas on improving musical practice and pedagogy. Recently I came across a podcast called Golf Science Lab and listened to their episode, What Every Golfer Ought to Know About FOCUS with Dr Gabriele Wulf.

Where should your focus be in during a shot? Or when you’re learning how should you think about a move to make a change in the most effective way.

Although the motor skills used in golf are pretty different than those used in playing the trombone, for example, it’s not too far of a leap to assume that what applies to golf might also be useful for musical practice. Wulf says,

Performance is often enhanced immediately when I focus externally as opposed to internally, but also the learning process is facilitated when learners adopt an external focus. So learning is sped up. You reach a higher skill level sooner than you would with an internal focus.

An internal focus refers to the coordination of body movements, where an external focus is on the intended effect. In golf the examples of things that a golfer could use as an external focus were the club, the ball, the hole, even the player’s belt buckle or buttons. One of the interesting points made in the podcast were the distance effect. In other words, the further away the point of focus, the better the results. So focusing attention on club face would be better than focusing on the handle of the club because it’s a bit further away. Focusing on the ball is a bit further than the club face, but focusing on the flag or the hole would do better. Here’s the rub, the optimal distance of the focus depends on the skill level. An expert golfer would focus on the trajectory of the ball or target, but a novice would do better focusing on the club face, because they still need to practice the technique.

The tricky thing is to try to teach and practice the necessary technique with external focus. Wulf offered a golf example. Rather than telling the novice golfer to transfer his or her weight to the left foot (an internal focus), teach them to push off of the ground on the left (external focus).

What does this mean for music practice? Off the top of my head, with brass embouchure practice try taking the attention off the lips and move them on to the mouthpiece rim. When practicing breathing instead of paying attention to the feeling of the stomach and chest moving, focus on the air as it passes the lips or even visualize the air blowing across the room.

What ideas can you think of to teach musical technique in such a way as to move the focus from internal to external? How can you take that idea and make the focus even further away the more expert the musician becomes?

What Is the Rational For How You Set the Mouthpiece?

IIIAA topic over at the Trumpet Herald got me thinking about the initial placement of the mouthpiece on the lips. Robert P asked,

When setting the mp are your lips completely relaxed or do you in some way manipulate them – tense, flex, stretch, pucker etc.?

How would you describe what you do when you set the mp?

The following several posts offered essentially two different procedures. Some folks stated that they set the mouthpiece on the lips only after they firm the lips in some way. Other players offered that they prefered to place the mouthpiece on relaxed lips and firm the embouchure before playing. What I find most interesting, however, is the rational behind these opposing viewpoints.

For the record, I’m in the “firm your lips first” camp and my thoughts here pretty much come from Donald Reinhardt’s here. To paraphrase Reinhardt, it’s best to have as little distortion in your embouchure formation as possible. Firming the lips first and then placing the mouthpiece on them is meant to help they player keep their embouchure formation stable and avoid any twisting or winding up of the lips with the mouthpiece. It also helps the player place the mouthpiece more consistently in the same spot on the lips.

So what is the rational for setting the mouthpiece on relaxed lips? That’s a little harder for me to summarize. It seems that few players actually advocate this, it’s simply what they happen to do. Some of the Trumpet Herald users seem to do this because they are either emulating a player who does this or following the advice from a particular teacher, without elaborating on why they feel this way. The best argument for I’ve heard is that it helps maintain relaxed playing technique and the lips are only firmed when they need to be, while playing, although I don’t think this outweighs the benefits from firming first.

One post brings up the “paralysis by analysis” trope. There’s too much to think about already so why bother? The problem with that argument (or rather, one of the many problems) is that if one way will lead to better results, not adopting it is limiting. If one way can lead to problems not being aware of those issues makes it impossible to accurately troubleshoot. Certainly teachers need to intellectually understand this.

Speaking of embouchure problems, I have heard several logical reasons why placing the mouthpiece on relaxed lips isn’t ideal. I’ve already mentioned above that this can lead to twisting or winding up the lips with the mouthpiece. If you’ve put the mouthpiece pressure on the lips and then firm the lips you can pin the lips in a position that is inconsistent every time you place the mouthpiece back on. The lips have to slide against the mouthpiece rim in order to get into their ideal position inside the cup which means you’re hitting a moving target with your embouchure every time you replace the mouthpiece. If you’re not putting on enough mouthpiece pressure until that split second before the initial attack then you’re making it even more of a moving target.

Regardless, one important point to discuss before moving forward is that regardless of how you set the mouthpiece for the initial attack, when you inhale between phrases if you open your embouchure formation to take in air and firm them again at the attack you’re going to be hitting that moving target again – even if you set the mouthpiece on firmed lips to start with.

Advice and Conclusion

Reinhardt’s process for setting the mouthpiece and how to maintain a stable embouchure formation is, in my opinion, something that all players can benefit from practicing. While his description is of an ideal, making small steps towards that goal can provide good results without obsessing over every small step in the process. Here is a way you can go about practicing this by breaking things up into small chunks.

  1. Pick a warmup with at least 5 minutes of simple exercises that you already have memorized. Long tones and overtone slurs work great for this, particularly if you start in different ranges for a bit.
  2. Use a mirror or video your embouchure so that you can see what you’re doing. Don’t worry about analyzing what you’re doing while practicing, but be aware of what you see.
  3. For that 5 minutes or so of your warmup always firm your lips before placing the mouthpiece on your embouchure formation. It’s not the lips center that holds them firm, it’s the mouth corners. You’re not worried about what note you’re going to play, you want the mouth corners firmed and locked in their playing position.
  4. At first, after setting the mouthpiece breathe through the nose to get used to the “ideal” of having the embouchure already in place. As you practice this, watch your mouth corners in particular in the mirror or video. At first they may loosen up or wiggle around a bit when you inhale and before the initial attack. Before and after the attack you are striving to make it look the same. Your ideal goal is if you turn the sound off on the video you would be hard pressed to tell when the sound starts by watching the embouchure alone.
  5. As you get comfortable with nose inhalations, begin breathing through the sides of your mouth while keeping the lip center touching lightly together inside the mouthpiece. Maintain the mouthpiece pressure as if you were already playing. Simply relax the mouth corners and inhale slowly. It might help to really wet the mouth corners with saliva before placing if your finding they want to stick together. When you attack the pitch the mouth corners should snap into place.
  6. After a few minutes or so of this, forget about it and move on to whatever else you want to practice.
  7. Take a couple of minutes during your warm down to practice the placement again.

That’s it, just a few minutes or so a day. You might find this very weird at first, particularly if you have been doing things differently for decades, as I had. It took me years of practice to internalize this technique to the point of where it’s automatic when I perform. During that learning process, however, I noticed my embouchure formation being more consistent even when I was skipping or missing steps. Other players may take to it quite easily. It’s well worth the effort you might have to put into it to head towards the ideal.

Do you already firm your lips before placing the mouthpiece? Was this a conscious effort on your part or the natural way you play? If you haven’t thought about it before or if you consciously place the mouthpiece on relaxed lips, please considering trying this out for a couple of weeks or so and report your progress. Did you find it helpful or a waste of your time? No change?