I am a music educator and professional musician based in western North Carolina.

I am a music educator and professional musician based in western North Carolina.

Creativity is a Mountain Lion

Do you know about The Oatmeal? It’s enormously popular. Its creator, Matthew Inman, has been publishing his quirky web comics since 2009. His comics touch on a variety of subjects, including science, history, grammar, technology, and animals. He also has wonderful comic series on creativity that has a lot of great advice for anyone who is working in a creative field or who wants to be more creative in their hobbies.

But as you’ll see, creativity is not a horse. It cannot be trained or ridden. You cannot tell creativity “I would like ten of those, please.” Because creativity is not a horse. It is a mountain lion.

Eight marvelous and melancholy things I’ve learned about creativity, Matthew Inman, The Oatmeal

Inman’s eight chapters are:

  1. Erasers are wonderful
  2. Your ears are plugged
  3. Creativity is like breathing
  4. There are only bad ideas in brainstorming
  5. This is not a petting zoo
  6. The wondrous utility of self-loathing
  7. Killing your darlings
  8. The business of art

I can’t do justice to Inman’s style trying to summarize his thoughts, and it would also deprive you of the humor and insights he brings to the topic of creativity. Go check it out and see if it helps you be more creative too.

Exercises for Horn Angle Changes

In my last post I discussed horn angle changes that brass players will make while changing registers. If you haven’t read that post yet, I recommend you do so first so that you will better understand why these exercises are helpful and how to alter them to fit your own embouchure technique or those of your students.

Briefly, all brass players will push and pull their lips up and down with the mouthpiece rim along the teeth and gums while changing registers. The general direction of this “embouchure motion” is up and down, but the direction that the musician pushes or pulls to ascend can be different from player to player. Some brass musicians push up towards the nose to ascend and others pull down. But even within these two basic variations, most players have at least a little side to side motion that happens as well, although it should probably always function in a straight line. In the hypothetical example to the side the musician pushes up and to the right to ascend and pulls down and towards the left to descend.

Because teeth and gums are not a flat plane the horn angle will need to adjust while making this motion in order to maintain the stability of the teeth and gums underneath the mouthpiece rim and lips. The horn angle change, in combination with the above mentioned embouchure motion, helps the musician play a particular pitch with less effort and more in tune. See my post on Horn Angle Changes For Brass for details on what is going on and how to test individual players.

Once you’ve worked out the proper embouchure motion and horn angle changes for a particular student there are exercises that can be done to help the brass musician internalize those changes and make them part of their subconscious technique. With students more prone to freezing up or otherwise having difficulty concentrating on “how” to play can be advised to more their focus to as external a focus as possible. In other words, instead of concentrating on keeping the embouchure “legs” stable by putting more weight on one side of the mouthpiece rim, get the student to aim the bell of the instrument at a point along the wall across from them.

Octave Slurs

I usually don’t bother writing out the specific octave slurs, since it can depend on the current abilities of the student, but you can see some basic examples in the image to the left. I usually also have each set (between the “railroad tracks,” which indicate to stop for a moment and rest) repeated, but starting on a different pitch for each repeat. For example, play the first two measures as written (C in the staff to C below the staff) and then repeat it, but slur from the low C to the middle C. When you get to the sets that span two or more octaves repeat starting on each pitch (e.g., C in the staff, C below the staff, and C above the staff).

I will often use octave slurs as my warmup and have them be my first notes of the day. For each pitch there is a particular spot on the embouchure motion “track” and the accompanying horn angle change where the note sounds best and feels easiest. While practicing octave slurs you can watch yourself in a mirror or aim the bell or slide at spots along the wall to help you visualize where each octave sounds best. Work on keeping the amount of change the same between octaves, just moving in a different direction to ascend and descend. Play them slowly enough that you can make the small adjustments you might need at first to get every note in its correct spot. Over time you’ll find it easier to move to the correct angle change right away.

Spiderweb Routine

The Spiderweb Routine is one of Donald Reinhardt’s exercises. Again, it’s not really necessary to write this all out and the particular pitch you use as the center of the “web” will be different, according to the individual student’s particular needs and goals. In the example to the right the center of the exercises is the Bb on top of the bass clef staff. It starts by slurring up a half step (repeated) and then slurs down a half step. Then up a whole step and down a whole step. It continues with a minor 3rd and so on until each slur is an octave.

Use the center of the “web” as home base for horn angles and embouchure motion. At first, when the intervals are small, there will be very little change to the horn angle. When the interval starts to get to be a perfect 4th and larger you should start to notice the appropriate angle changes. On the first time through each set the student can make small adjustments to the horn angle to make sure that it’s in the most efficient spot for that particular note. On the repeat strive to make the horn angle go to its correct position right away. Pay close attention to the amount of change by watching in a mirror or noting where the bell is pointing. Make the amount of change be the same to ascend an interval as it is to descend the same interval, just in the opposite direction.

As I mentioned above, the center note of this exercise can change according to the student. For players who have the anatomy suited for a Very High Placement or a Low Placement embouchure types I generally recommend a higher starting pitch. For me, I usually practice this exercise starting on the F above the bass clef staff and often use this as my first notes of the day.

I also tend to not practice this exercise just by itself in its entirety, depending on what my goals of the practice session are. The Spiderweb Exercise is part of a larger routine that Reinhardt used that he called Warmup #57 (he probably had a reason for that number, but I don’t know exactly why). In that routine you would play through four sets of the Spiderweb exercise (e.g., up and down a half step, then up and down a whole step), then play through one overtone flexibility study in 4 or more positions/fingerings, then play some ascending chromatic exercises before resting a few minutes. Then when you come back you repeat that patter, but now the Spiderweb Exercise is up and down a minor 3rd and then up and down a major 3rd before switching to the other exercises, rest, and continue. In other words, the whole routine is sort of like circuit training in that you’re touching on three different types of exercises, resting, then repeating each of those exercise types but expanding them in range.

The Spiderweb Routine can be a pretty strenuous exercise to play in its entirety, so it can be a good one to use if your practice time is limited and you want a good workout for your chops. But if you have even less time or want to spend more time on other materials you can skip certain sets in it so that you’re slurring first in minor 3rds, then augmented 4ths, major 6ths, and then octaves (these notes would end up creating a fully diminished 7 chord, by the way), or any similar sort of combination. I would recommend, however, that whatever interval you slur up to that you also practice the same descending interval. Use that as a chance to check and see if your horn angles are consistent between the intervals as mentioned earlier.

Embouchure Motion Stabilizer

This exercise is a variation on another one of Donald Reinhardt’s. You can read more about Reinhardt’s original exercise here. My variation starts on a higher note (one octave higher) and ascends first, rather than descending. Remove the mouthpiece and rest a moment at the “V.” Similar to the other exercises above, play the slurs slowly enough to give yourself time to make those small adjustments to your horn angle and observe the angle with a mirror or by sighting along your bell. On the repeats strive to go directly to the most efficient angle right away.

Ultimately, it’s not as much what you practice, but how you practice that is important. What these three exercises have, however, is they incorporate large enough intervals that the horn angle changes should be noticeable to both the teacher and player and they are simple enough so that the student can play them and keep the attention on making the horn angle changes (or, for that matter, the attention can be brought instead to tongue position, breathing, embouchure motion, or whatever fits the needs and goals at the time). The point here isn’t to teach yourself how to focus on horn angle, it’s to internalize the correct horn angles so that attention can be on something else, like music. I wouldn’t practice an etude or solo repertoire with horn angle changes in mind, but if it’s helpful you could also address horn angle changes then too. If, for example, there’s a large interval leap in a solo you’re working on you might draw an arrow over the note after the leap in the direction you want to move your horn angle to remind yourself to bring that horn angle to its correct spot. But generally speaking you want to use something simple and unmusical for this sort of technique practice, then forget all about it when you’re done with it for the session and work on other things, including sounding good.

Horn Angle Changes For Brass

If you look at a large enough number of different brass musicians play over their entire range you’ll notice that some of them will noticeably alter their horn angle when changing register. Some will do this to a large degree, others appear to not do so much at all. Some players might appear to tilt their instrument bell up to ascend, while others might do the opposite. Many players even bring their horn angle side to side as well.

What’s going on here? What’s correct? How much should a brass musician worry about this when practicing? How much should a teacher understand?

One of the first things to consider with regards to a horn angle change is the position of the lower jaw. Donald Reinhardt wrote,

The principal duty of the lower jaw while playing is to provide an adequate playing base or foundation so that both the inner and the outer embouchures may function as one solid synchronized unit, regardless of the player’s type classification. This playing base must hold intact while the jaw is protruded and receded (according to the register being played), regardless of any jaw malocclusion that may exist in the player’s jaw formation.

“Encyclopedia…,” p. 152

Reinhardt at times would advise his students to exaggerate the horn angle changes in order to encourage the correct jaw manipulation. So for Reinhardt, getting a student to change the horn angle was often a way to encourage the correct jaw position for the student. He didn’t want the student to be thinking about the jaw while playing so much, so by altering the horn angle the jaw would need to move into its correct position in order to maintain the foundation of the teeth and gums under the lips and mouthpiece rim (which Reinhardt often referred to as the “legs” of the embouchure, likening it to the four legs of a table or the three legs of a tripod). This tracks with what researchers who study the development of motor skills say about keeping your focus as external as possible. You could concentrate on the sensation of your embouchure “legs” by paying attention to how the rim is in contact with your lips, but Reinhardt wanted to move the focus outward, towards the bell of the instrument instead.

There does appear to be a direct relationship between jaw position and horn angle, but this can be personal to the individual brass musician. Many players will, for example, protrude their jaw slightly to ascend and recede it to descend and the horn angle should follow the jaw in order to maintain the “legs” of the embouchure. But almost everyone has a malocclusion to a certain degree and the jaw will often also move from side to side. Watch this trumpet player very closely and note how his jaw moves both in and out and side to side as he changes register, but also note his horn angle.

The view from his side shows that his jaw comes forward slightly as he ascend, while he also brings the horn angle lower, which seems opposite of what you might expect (more on this topic below). But I find the front view a little more interesting and helpful to demonstrate side to side angles. Notice that as he ascends his jaw moves to his left and when descending his jaw moves to his right. But his horizontal horn angle remains pretty static. Watch it again and listen for the intonation and tone on the higher and lower pitches. Does it sound just a little pinched and flat on the high C to you?

For fun, I asked him to play the same slurs, but to also try bringing his horn angle over to one side and compare what happens. Notice that when he slurs from the middle C to the high C he still brings his jaw over to his left while ascending. When he also changes his horn angle towards the right to ascend I feel the pitch is more in tune and the tone more focused. When he brings his horn angle to the left to ascend (the same direction his jaw is moving) the pitch on the high C is definitely flat. The effect is easier to see. Bringing his horn angle to his left to descend helps the low C to be more in tune and focused while bringing his horn angle over to his right (the same direction his jaw is moving) obviously chokes off the note.

This sort of side to side horn angle change is often accompanied with a jaw movement side to side as well and it seems to work best when those two things happen in the opposite direction. If the jaw is moving to the right to ascend, then the horn angle should probably move to the left. This seems to be universal for all brass players with some side to side motion in the jaw/horn angle. When this is working efficiently, according to the individual player’s variation, it can also minimize both the jaw change and horn angle change when they work together. It can also help correct some other mechanical issues. For example, for years I would have to reverse the direction of my embouchure motion to play a pedal Bb. It made playing down in my low register difficult for me. When I began to practice bringing my horn angle to my right while allowing my jaw to move to my left the reversal of embouchure motion direction began to minimize and is almost eliminated for me now.

Speaking of the embouchure motion the way a player pushes and pulls their lips and mouthpiece together along the teeth and gums while playing directly influences the correct horn angle as well. Consider again having the “legs” or the feeling of the rim against the teeth and gums. Our teeth and gums are not a flat surface. There’s some curvature to it, both along the horizontal and vertical. A player’s most efficient embouchure motion is usually also not straight up and down, there’s almost always at least a little side to side variation as well. When changing registers and making the correct embouchure motion a player should follow the shape of the teeth and gums underneath the mouthpiece rim and lips. If while ascending, for example, the brass musician pushes up and to the right the horn angle will probably work best if it comes up slightly and moves to the right as well, following the teeth and gums underneath.

Think of a ball and socket joint. The mouthpiece is like the socket while the musician’s teeth and gums are like the ball. When the socket/mouthpiece are pushed up and to the left it follows the shape of the ball/teeth and gums. It’s not the horn angle that dictates the embouchure motion as much as the embouchure motion dictating how the horn angle needs to change.

Since everyone is going to have different anatomy, everyone’s horn angle will be unique to the individual musician. But there are methods that teachers and players can use to help work out what works best. I’ve touched on this topic in my Embouchure 101 resource, but I’ll briefly describe how I currently work with students to help them with their horn angles.

I will ask a student to sustain a note and move their horn angle around left and right and listen. I want to see how far the musician can bring the horn angle to either side as well as hear what this does to the tone and pitch. If the pitch goes flat when the angle is brought to the left it will probably go sharp when brought to the right. Somewhere in between will be where the pitch becomes most in tune and the timbre will be the most focused. Then repeat on the same note keeping the horizontal horn angle where it is, but tilt the horn angle up and down finding where along the vertical access where the pitch is most in tune and tone is most focused. You can also try moving the bell of the instrument around in a circle, starting with a very big circle and then making it smaller and smaller, circling in on the best angle for the particular note. Repeat on higher and lower notes. I use pitches along the open fingering/1st position partials.

Each note will have it’s own horn angle that makes the pitch play best and assuming that overall embouchure form is working well enough and that the breathing and tongue arch aren’t getting in the way you’ll also note the individual player’s pattern. The horn angle will change gradually along one direction as the notes ascend and gradually in the opposite direction as notes descend. Typically the amount of horn angle change to ascend an octave from a particular pitch will be the same as descending from the same starting pitch, just in the opposite direction. If it’s not, try to see if minimizing the angle change in one direction or making more in the opposite direction works. As a starting point, I feel it’s best to keep these angle changes consistent between octave, similar to working with the player’s embouchure motion.

In summary, everyone will have their own unique changes of horn angle while playing because everyone has different facial anatomy. The player’s horn angle is determined primarily by the shape of the musician’s teeth and gums underneath the mouthpiece rim and lips and angle changes help provide the player with a firm foundation on the teeth and gums for the rim and lips. Some players will tilt their horn up and down more while others may bring their horn angle from side to side more. The amount of horn angle change a musician needs can vary from player to player, but it will generally be close to the same amount to slur up an octave as it is to slur down an octave from the same note. A teacher can help a student work out the best horn angles by watching and listening to the student move the horn angles left to right and up to down, paying attention to where the pitch goes and where the tone is most focused.

The next post will discuss some exercises that a brass musician can use to solidify horn angle changes and make them work subconsciously so that the musician can concentrate more on playing more expressively.

Basic Brass Embouchure Characteristics

Here is a 13 minute video I put together to discuss a couple of basic brass embouchure characteristics that I think are important for all players and teachers to understand. If you’ve poked around here on my blog or watch some of my YouTube channel before you already know about this stuff.

I made this one pretty quickly compared to the time I’ve spent on other videos I’ve posted on this topic. This video was specifically made to quickly address some things I was trying to discuss on a closed internet group that is nominally devoted to brass embouchure advice. I say “nominally” because the main purpose of this group seems to be the administrator pushing his wares, lessons, and Patreon page and there’s very little actual discussion about brass embouchure technique or advice.

The little discussion about brass embouchure technique that has been posted there has a lot of misinformation. For example, there are people who believe that lining up the teeth and getting the horn angle close to straight out makes the player blow the air stream straight down the shank of the mouthpiece (not true). Others seem to believe that tilting the horn angle up makes the player upstream and tilting it down makes the player downstream (also not true). Everyone seems to be well intentioned, they are just misinformed.

My big gripe over the direction the discussion on that group takes is that so much of the conversation revolves around information that’s just wrong. We can honestly discuss the details of things like mouthpiece pressure and jaw position (two things the administrator of that group is very focused on), but it bothers me when recommendations are based on erroneous details. It’s much better to base our pedagogy on reality, not confirmation bias. Particularly if the suggestions involve spending around $300 to purchase a device that is of dubious use, in my opinion.

Tips Writing for Wind Ensemble By Alan Theisen

A friend of mine, composer and saxophonist Alan Theisen, has an essay on his web site worth checking out. It’s called Ten Tips for Composing For Band. The title is self explanatory but the additional information and recommendations for score study are great. Here are a few items from his list and some of my additional thoughts about it.

  1. Make space for resonance!

With this tip Alan compares scoring for the orchestra compared to the wind band and recommends that the bass instruments be scored lower in their register and bring the inner voices up on the higher side to leave a gap between the lowest instruments and the next instruments up. He lists this as his primary piece of advice for writing for wind ensemble.

I think this is also good advice for scoring for big band as well. Frequently with my trombone voicings, for example, I’ll have the 4th trombone (bass trombone) at least a Perfect 5th lower than the 3rd trombone, sometimes even more. I will often do the same thing for the baritone sax and 2nd tenor sax. Here’s an example from my most recent big band chart, an arrangement of the 16th century Finnish Christmas carol.

Gaudete! Sax Voicings

You can see in this concert pitch excerpt from my arrangement the large gaps between the bari sax and 2nd tenor. I’m a major 9th away on the first chord. On the downbeat of the 2nd measure the distance between those two instruments is 2 octaves and a 2nd! The rhythm section is playing at that moment, but there’s no other horns playing at this moment to fill in notes between those ranges.

4. Think in terms of “flat” keys.

Again, when scoring for a big band I will also tend to favor flat keys. This is, of course, opposite from what you might do when scoring for strings. Yes, good musicians practice and can sound good in all keys, so this certainly isn’t a “rule,” per se. However, wind instruments tend to sound better in the flat keys by nature and flat keys just sound more natural to those instruments.

6. Keep an eye on rests.

Particularly with brass instruments you need to give the musicians a chance to take the metal off the mouth and rest the chops. What’s nice about following this advice is that it also can provide some built in variety to the sonic landscape you’re writing. By passing around the phrases/sections/etc. between different instruments and not having everyone play all the time together you have lots of opportunities to play with timbre and colors.

10. Study scores by Alfred Reed.

Reed was amazing at scoring music for many types of ensembles, but his wind band writing is golden.

For big band scoring and arranging I recommend the book Inside the Score by Rayburn Wright. This book takes 2-3 charts by Sammy Nestico, Thad Jones, and Bob Brookmeyer and analyzes them in detail, going through everything from voicing techniques to how the peaks and valleys of intensity figure through each chart. It’s an excellent book for big band composers and arrangers to see how three masters scored their music for jazz ensemble.

Check out the rest of what Alan wrote over on his web site.

“Greasing the Groove” for Brass Practice

There’s an approach to weight training that I’ve been reading about that I think might have some benefits for brass musicians, particularly those who have limited practice time due to demanding work or family schedules. The basic idea is to do fewer repetitions of weight training, but to do so frequently. It’s sometimes called “greasing the groove.”

…Tsatsouline advocates lifting weights for no more than five repetitions, resting for a bit between sets and reps, and not doing too many sets. For a runner, this would be like going for a four-mile jog, but taking a break to drink water and stretch every mile. Tsatsouline’s book suggests spending 20 minutes at the gym, tops, five days a week. In this way, he claims, you grease the neurological “groove,” or pathway, between your brain and the exercises your body performs. It’s not exactly the brutal routine you’d expect from someone billed as a Soviet weight lifter. But Tsatsouline contends this is the most effective way to build strength.

Lift Weight, Not Too Much, Most of the Days, Olga Khazan

This is obviously not a new idea for music pedagogy and practice. We already know that it’s better to practice 15 minutes a day (every day) over the course of a week than to spend a similar hour and 45 minutes one day over the week. It’s also pretty well established that our brains learn and retain information better with spaced repetition over cramming, but the concept that it’s better to train strength and/or motor skills this way often alludes our thinking when we apply it to brass practice. While many brass teachers advise students to rest as much as you play or never practicing past the point of fatigue, it’s really easy for us to get so focused on practice that we practice on tired chops, leading to reinforcing bad habits or even injuring ourselves.

What does “greasing the groove” look like and how can we apply it to brass practice?

One way to grease the groove is to just do the exercise whenever you think of it. Ben Greenfield, in Beyond Trainingdescribes how he would do three to five pull-ups every time he walked under a pull-up bar installed in his office doorway. By the end of the day, he’d have performed 30 to 50 pull-ups with minimal effort.

Lift Weight, Not Too Much, Most of the Days, Olga Khazan

I usually have one of my trombones out of the case on a stand at all times. When the horns are in my cases there’s an extra step to take it out and put it together before I practice. It’s not a lot of work, but if your practice time is limited during the day and you want to try this approach it helps to have your instrument ready to go. When you walk by your horn, pick it up and play a little.

These days my practice time is limited on week days due to my wife’s work-from-home schedule, so I absolutely need to carve out time to practice. But in the past I’ve found that practicing for a few minutes many times a day is a pretty effective way to keep my chops up. Practicing in this way you will never be playing while tired, so you won’t be resorting to those bad habits that can creep in when our chops are spent (excessive mouthpiece pressure, squeezing the corners too tight, etc.). It also can keep you mentally fresh every time you pick up the horn and play so that you can focus on what you’re practicing better.

Of course this isn’t the only way to practice and if you want to be able to play 2-3 sets of lead in a big band without tiring you’ll want to spend some time practicing over longer periods of time, but depending on your schedule “greasing the groove” might be a better way to practice. In normal times I usually have regular rehearsals and gigs that keep me playing for 2-3 hours with less breaks, so I don’t feel like I need to practice for hours at a time. I can usually maintain endurance by playing those rehearsals and gigs. “Greasing the groove” during these times does seem to help me build and maintain my correct playing form so that when endurance does become a factor I’m much more likely to play efficiently and it’s not usually a problem to play for long periods of time. In fact, I strongly suspect that for a few minutes at a time many times a day could improve your endurance even without playing your horn for hours at a time. And if you do have longer periods of time set aside for regular practice, resting as much as you play and spacing out your practice sessions over the day is good advice too.

Try it out and let us know in the comments how it works for you.

Hanging With Brad Goode – Trumpet Gurus Hang Podcast

Brad Goode is a multi-instrumentalist (trumpet, bass, and drums) and teaches at the University of Colorado. Back when I was a grad student at DePaul University Brad lived in the Chicago area and I would go down to the Green Mill to hear his group play on Wednesday nights (my trombone teacher at the time was Paul McKee, who played in that group). Getting to sit up close and listen to some of the top jazz musicians in Chicago play on a regular basis was in many ways more important to my development as a musician than the studies I was doing at the time.

Brad recently went on the Trumpet Gurus Hang Podcast and talked trumpet. Along the way Brad discussed how Donald Reinhardt’s writing saved his career and how and why he teaches embouchure mechanics now. I’ve cued the following video right at that point.

Brad discusses at about 45:00 into the podcast his experiences struggling to learn to play trumpet that mirrors some of my own background struggling with trombone and how I currently teach.

Some of my early experiences with trying to understand the trumpet and figure it out, I didn’t get direct answers. I got philosophical treatises or theoretical responses. I didn’t get somebody to say, “I see what’s going on there. Change this, do this, and this will be fixed.” . . Because there aren’t a lot of people who are willing to go into the specifics of embouchure technique people who do what I do now are sometimes viewed with skepticism by the community of people who believe analysis is paralysis, which is a big movement in brass pedagogy right now. As a player I believe I can show an example of the opposite, somebody who analyzed his way out of many problems.

Podcast host Jose Johnson also recapped his own personal experiences with his own embouchure.

It wasn’t until I met Doug Elliott and Doug worked with me a little bit. And he was the one who kind of put things together for me. And he said, here’s your problem. . . The problem is that because of the problems that you got because from the embouchure change and how hard you worked at that your mind is fighting against itself. Because you know what you want to do but you’re reverting back to that habit that they had instilled with you. . . When I would do the things consciously that he would say, no problem. But I started to play music and I would immediately switch back to that old ingrained pattern. . . That’s where we get into trouble when we just let the subconscious go. . . If the subconscious has been programed wrong . . . then you’re in big trouble.

The whole interview is great and worth checking out.

External Focus to Optimize Playing Technique

To paraphrase Dr. Gabriele Wulf, a central question for music teachers is: How can learning playing technique be facilitated and how can musical performance be optimized? In her article, “Attentional focus and motor learning: a review of 15 years,” Dr. Wulf addresses what research into motor skill development published between 1997 and 2012 tells us and offers some practical suggestions that teachers and musicians can use in their practice.

I’ve discussed similar concepts before. My most comprehensive attempt was A Review of Implicit and Explicit Learning Strategies in the Development of Motor Skills and its Application To Teaching Instrumental Technique. In that paper I discussed the difference between implicit (goal oriented) and explicit (detail/technique oriented) instructions and what the literature tells about those two extreme pedagogical approaches. My (inexpert) findings from that research were that if we rely only on one or the other, the implicit approach where one focuses on the goal of good sounding music will work better than spending time on the details of how technique is developed correctly. That said, it’s not an either/or dichotomy and much of the literature acknowledges that both approaches happen in teaching and learning and the there should be some sort of balance between the two. Wulf’s 2012 article on attentional focus and motor learning was published the same year I did my research and wrote my paper.

That’s a slightly different topic than Wulf’s article, but I have come across her work before and posted about it here. In my post Golfing Focus Applied to Music I considered the idea of keeping the musician’s focus as external as possible. In that post I discussed some thoughts about an interview she gave for a golf podcast and how her suggestions to improve golf performance might be applied to music pedagogy and practice.

Here is the paper abstract.

Over the past 15 years, research on focus of attention has consistently demonstrated that an external focus (i.e., on the movement effect) enhances motor performance and learning relative to an internal focus (i.e., on body movements). This article provides a comprehensive review of the extant literature. Findings show that the performance and learning advantages through instructions or feedback inducing an external focus extend across different types of tasks, skill levels, and age groups. Benefits are seen in movement effectiveness (e.g., accuracy, consistency, balance) as well as efficiency (e.g., muscular activity, force production, cardiovascular responses). Methodological issues that have arisen in the literature are discussed. Finally, our current understanding of the underlying mechanisms of the attentional focus effect is outlined, and directions for future research are suggested.

Attentional focus and motor learning: a review of 15 years – Gabriel Wulf

I do feel that some of the criticisms I noted in my review of implicit and explicit instructions also apply to Wulf’s paper. For one, an awful lot of the research she sites in her paper were written by her or with her as one of the listed authors. On the one hand, it’s a sign that Wulf is considered one of the experts in her field, but if you’re looking for a consensus opinion it is also a sign of a potential bias. Not having read most of the papers she reviewed I can’t really say if any criticisms or confirmations she covers in her article are valid, but as I recently have been reminded, you can often tell what side of an argument a paper will come down on merely by looking at the authors. Wulf’s research seems to suggest that an external focus is always better, in spite of that not being a universal suggestion.

That said, Wulf does address the research that conflicted with her own findings and discusses potential issues that might cause the differences of opinions. And she also acknowledges that at times it is essential for us to attend to the details of technique. The trick is to make the focus of attention as external as possible, rather than focused internally on the motor control. One study she cited came up with a creative way to teach golfing technique with a more effective external focus. An important part of the golf swing is apparently how and when a golfer shifts weight towards the front leg. The study, “Carry distance and X-factor increases in golf through an external focus of attention,” compared golfers instructed with an internal focus (shift your weight to the left foot) and an external focus designed to elicit the same mechanical procedure (push against the left side of the ground). As expected, the external focus worked better.

All but one of the papers and articles Wulf cited were unrelated to music, but one study with piano students was discussed.

Duke, Cash, and Allen (2011) examined attentional focus effects on music performance. Music majors were asked to perform a keyboard passage, which consisted of 13 alternating sixteenth notes (A and F) that were to be played as quickly and evenly as possible. All participants played the sequence under four conditions: with a focus on their finger movements, on the movements of the piano keys, on the hammers, or on the sound of the keyboard. On a transfer test that involved the reverse tone sequence, a focus on the more distal movement effects (sound or hammers) resulted in greater consistency than either focusing on the more proximal effect (keys) or the internal focus (fingers).

Attentional focus and motor learning: a review of 15 years – Gabriel Wulf

My takeaway is that when technique is addressed in teaching and practice that some creative approaches to keeping the attention external is more effective than focusing on fixing the mechanics with an internal focus. Considering trombone technique as an example, here are some of my ideas on creating an external focus to achieve a specific motor skill.


Arnold Jacobs and some of his former students had some great ideas about making the breath technique external. Jacobs was pretty adamant that he didn’t want students to think about “filling up the lungs” or otherwise thinking about the expansion that happens with inhalation. If you need to take in more air in an efficient way he advised paying attention to the feel of “wind” moving past the lips. Concentration on the belly expanding is a very internal focus. Moving it to the lips is a little less, but still internal. So how can we think about inhalation in a way that is more external?

It’s necessary to be a little creative here. I like to draw on mental imagery. Rather than feeling the inhalation at the lips, imagine that your breath is drawing in air from across the room.

For the blowing I’ve been borrowing from ideas I’ve gotten from Sam Pilafian’s and Patrick Sheridan’s book, The Breathing Gym. There’s an exercise in there where you imagine blowing the air as if you were shooting an arrow, throwing a dart, and tossing a paper airplane. So, for example, to help a student keep the air moving smoothly through a phrase you can have them visualize floating a paper airplane on the air flowing out of their bell.


The embouchure motion is a relatively easy technique to move to an external focus. The specific technique we’re trying to encourage is the pushing/pulling of the mouthpiece and lips along the teeth and gums. The mouthpiece itself is external already, but if we want to follow Wulf’s findings that the more external the focus the better, we can instead focus on the bell of the instrument moving up and down or side to side, whichever matches the individual player’s embouchure motion. If the horn angle should change somewhat while changing registers, rather than think about how that feels at the lips, focus on what’s happening at the bell.

For something like a smile embouchure I like to again resort to mental imagery. If the problem is the mouth corners are pulling back to ascend, rather than focus on what the mouth corners are doing imagine a long spring on either side that is attached to both walls on one end and at the mouth corners on the other end. As the student ascends, those springs are pushing against the corners and keeping them in place.


Tonguing is the most difficult topic of brass technique for me to come up with ideas for external focus. I think the current standard of using the tongue in a vocal manner works pretty well. So rather than thinking about raising the level of tongue arch to ascend the student will imagine saying, “tah-ee.” Another thought I had would be to imagine that there are motion sensors in the tongue that project its movements to a giant, artificial tongue so that they move in tandem. While playing ascending slurs the student could visualize what that giant artificial tongue is doing, rather than focusing internally on their own tongue.

A visualization that seems to work pretty well for me is to imagine that there’s a line of air coming out of the bell that is at the precise level of my tongue arch. As I slur from a middle range note to an upper range note that line of air is raised higher. Again, the point is to move the focus away from the internal (inside the mouth) to the external (on the other end of the bell).

Some of the above ideas aren’t great, but I’m really just brainstorming right now. I’ve been experimenting with moving my focus external in my practice for a while now but I haven’t tried it more than a few times with students. From that small sample I suspect that different visualizations and different degrees of distance in the point of focus will vary from player to player. This jives with some of the research Wulf mentions that the more advanced the subject the more distant the point of focus can be.

One thing I would like to point out is that my examples, and many of Wulf’s, involve someone (a teacher, coach, or other independent observer) knowing and understanding exactly what and how the performer should be doing. With the knowledge of how to play a savvy teacher or performer can come up with methods to affect a specific motor skill using the more effective external focus. At no part in this process does it appear that it’s recommended to ignore the playing mechanics. Interpreting this research as advocating letting the body figure itself out would seem to be less effective than approaching it through an understanding of what efficient playing technique is and working towards that physical goal using a focus that is as external as possible.

And of course it should go without saying that the sound should be the guide for the teacher and player here. The point of moving your focus to the external is to create the habits we want to adopt for good playing. When you’re done working on the technical aspects of performing for the time being it’s good to forget about them and put your attention on playing with expression.

Try it out in your own practicing and teaching and see how it works for you. What other ideas for shifting the focus from something internal to more external can you think of? Please leave your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.

Playing On the Red Blindfold Test – Answers

Back in October 2012 I conducted a pilot study to see whether it would be accurate to state that one could simply listen to a trumpet player and tell by sound alone whether or not that player placed the mouthpiece with a significant amount of rim on the vermillion of one lip. Since then the plugin I used to collect the participants’ answers is no longer being updated for WordPress and is no longer available, so you won’t be able to take the test that way. Furthermore, the original page I created to show the answers and videos to the participants after they took the test seems to have been lost into the aether. This page is my recreation of that post, but it’s been so long I don’t exactly recall how much I wrote there.

Since I’m writing this up now as a post I’m going to put the results below the “read more” fold. If you’re catching this post from the home page you won’t be able to see the results until you click that link, so try the survey out first and then come back to see how well you did.

All the embedded videos below are the same video with all six trumpet players. I set up each embedded video to start directly on the particular player, however.

Continue reading Playing On the Red Blindfold Test – Answers

Free Software to Separate Vocals and Instrumental Tracks

I recently came across a web-based app, melody ml, that is pretty neat. If you upload an MP3 file its software will separate and put together MP3s of just the bass part, just the drums part, just the vocals, and all the instruments without the vocals. If you’re a bassist, for example, and you need to transcribe and learn the bass part to a song this could be a helpful tool to allow you to hear the bass bart as clearly as possible. If you’re a vocalist looking to create a practice track you can upload an MP3 and get back just the backing track.

I tried it out with a couple of tracks. “Don’t Change Horses,” by Tower of Power, worked perfectly. I also tried it out with a recording I made about a hear ago, “Grandpa’s Spells,” to see how it would handle something that doesn’t have vocals. It didn’t work as well. The separated tracks were mostly silent and the instruments without vocals track sounded the same as the original track (this track, by the way, is a quartet of piano, bass, guitar, and trombone).

So the uses that you might get out of this app are limited to rock style tunes, at least for now. I hope that this app eventually adds the ability to separate other specific tracks in different genre’s of music. I’d like the ability to use it to separate an instrument solo track or just the horn section for transcription purposes, but for a free, web-based app it’s pretty cool.

Try it out here.