Physics and Music

Like many musicians, I have an interest in the physics of sound, but not a formal background in the science. I recently came across this great YouTube video of Dr. Robert Astalos and Dr. Tracy Doyle giving a talk on physics and music at Adams State University (I taught there back in the early 2000s, although at the time it was Adams State College).

Dr. Robert Astalos, associate professor of physics, and Dr. Tracy Doyle, professor of music, provide a uniquely collaborative view into how music works via “mediums”, and why tones sound different on various instruments, utilizing the underlying principles of physics.

They go over a great discussion and demonstration of the harmonic series and how instruments, such as the euphonium, flute, and guitar, play over the harmonic series. There’s a discussion of tuning systems too. There’s a piano performance by Dr. Bill Lipke, who has been teaching at ASU since I was teaching there (it was sure cool to see a familiar face in this video).

While I didn’t learn anything that was completely new to me, the nuances discussed and the demonstrations were fascinating to me. I was particularly interested in the wave demonstrator that Astalos used to show how the standing wave gets subdivided to play over the harmonic series.

Don’t Get Medical Advice from a Music Teacher

I’m not going to link to the web page in this post. I don’t really want to bring more attention to it than I’m already going to do. If you really want to find it, I’m sure that searching the internet will get you to it. But I often see this happen – a music teacher giving medical advice about maladies that seem (to them) to be related or somehow connected with brass playing, even though the music teacher is unqualified (and probably wrong).

So let me start with my usual disclaimer any time that I discuss heath issues. I’m not a medical doctor and I’m not qualified to offer medical advice. I won’t be giving you any medical advice here, beyond the suggestion that you should consult with a medical professional for health issues. I would never trust my doctor, dentist, or some other medical professional to suggest how I can improve my tone or which alternate position to use, that’s not their area of expertise, it’s mine. So why should a music teacher feel that giving students medical advice is OK?

This part of the website is to provide information for musicians who suffer from physical conditions, especially those symptoms known as asthma, Bell’s Palsy, and focal dystonia. For some readers, the solution that I’m offering will sound too good to be true. They may even get angry, convinced that no single process can solve such seemingly different conditions.

No citation on purpose – don’t go to this web page for medical advice

It’s not that I’m convinced no single process can cure the above conditions (which is doubtful) as much as I’m upset that the above individual is acting in an irresponsible way. This person should be ashamed. If a student decides to forgo real medical advice for a serious condition because the student believes the above garbage there can be real harm. Asthma attacks can kill. What a non-expert thinks is Bell’s palsy could actually be a stroke. There are serious consequences here.

I’ve been down this road before…

No citation on purpose – don’t go to this web page for medical advice

Yes, this person has been criticized for offering misinformation about health and medicine before. Rather than consult with a professional about it and get facts straight, this individual chooses instead to double down and continue to mislead students.

The bottom line is, I don’t make claims without first doing research and obtaining evidence. 

No citation on purpose – don’t go to this web page for medical advice

This individual doesn’t provide any citations or links. “Research” isn’t about looking on the internet for information that supports your preconceived ideas, it’s about subjecting a hypothesis to an honest test in an attempt to falsify your idea. If it withstand scrutiny, then you might be on to something. If it doesn’t, then you need to revise your hypothesis. If you have evidence in the way of citations, then put them in your essay. Don’t make outrageous claims and that you say are based on “research” and “evidence” unless you provide them.

Out of curiosity, I looked up what research on the benefits of playing a musical instrument says about treating asthma with playing a wind instrument. The problem with searching the internet (or even an academic library) is that you’ll find a lot of references to journals of dubious quality. This is an issue in all academia, music research included. “Publish or perish” run rampant through academia, so many predatory journals have sprung up over the past couple of decades that publish poor quality research or are biased towards a particular viewpoint. If you want to find a “journal” that supports your position or a quack who agrees with you, it’s not too hard to do so.

This is particularly a problem with journals that are specifically devoted to so-called “complimentary and alternative medicine” (CAM). Do you know what medical professionals call complimentary and alternative medicine that has been proven to be both safe and effective? Medicine! There’s no need to separate it unless you’re trying to brand your treatment, which is what CAM really is – a marketing term not a medical one. But here’s what one article in a journal devoted to CAM has to say about asthma and wind instruments.

The literature search identified 867 citations, from which 8 (three RCTs and five nRCTs) low and high risk of bias studies were included in the review. All RCTs used music listening as a form of complementary treatment. One RCT of the low risk of bias indicated positive effects on lung function in mild asthma. In two others, despite the decrease in asthma symptoms, music was not more effective than the control condition. In two nRCTs a decrease in asthma symptoms was reported as an effect of playing a brass or wind instrument; in two nRCTs the same effect was observed after music assisted vocal breathing exercises and singing. Mood improvement, decrease of depression and anxiety were also observed.

The paucity, heterogeneity, and significant methodological limitations of available studies allow for only a weak recommendation for music therapy in asthma. This study highlights the need for further research of mixed methodology.

Do asthmatics benefit from music therapy? A systematic review, Complementary Therapies in Medicine
Volume 22, Issue 4, August 2014, Pages 756-766

The bold emphasis above is mine. If a journal devoted to CAM, like the one I quoted from above, is finding only weak results then you have to be a particularly stubborn or ignorant crank to claim that trumpet playing will treat or cure asthma. Or, more likely, you’re not really searching the literature well and simply looking for things that already support your preconceived notions.

Continuing with our misinformed music teacher:

Common health conditions, as labeled by the medical community, are frequently only a side effect of a hidden, more primary cause. Further, when you make a correction at the level of the primary cause, the side effects typically disappear.

No citation on purpose – don’t go to this web page for medical advice

Again, this individual offers no citations, but I’m not sure that the above criticism is even accurate. Medical professionals are very much interested in helping patients with correcting the cause of symptoms. I think it’s pretty well understood by doctors that curing a disease or disorder involves finding the cause and eliminating it.

In the case of our sample trio of conditions – asthma, Bell’s Palsy, focal dystonia – what is the cause? Ask a medical doctor. He will say, “We don’t know the answer to that yet.” The best he can offer is symptom management, in the hopes that somehow the body eventually heals itself. Of course, from his frame of reference, that means drugs, which not only don’t ever cure anything, but actually lead to the creation of more problems. As the old alternative health saying goes, “the body is not crying out for more drugs.”

No citation on purpose – don’t go to this web page for medical advice

It is true that medical science doesn’t always have all the answers about what causes the above listed disorders, but they have good ideas and I trust the judgement of scientists who have devoted their education and careers to learning more about disease and how to cure them. Sometimes managing symptoms and allowing the body to heal itself is the best treatment. Symptom management may be a stop gap in some medical cases, but if you suffer from asthma, for example, a prescribed drug may just save your life. A music teacher who actively discourages taking medically prescribed drugs is behaving recklessly.

Regardless, just because the causes of a particular disorder like focal dystonia isn’t understood by medical science doesn’t mean that a music teacher has a better idea. In fact, I imagine that a music teacher has a much less chance of understanding medical issues.

My day job is still [music] teaching. However, an increasing amount of my time is spent investigating the brain.

No citation on purpose – don’t go to this web page for medical advice

This individual has no business pushing crackpot ideas on neuroscience, no matter how much “research” this individual pretends to be doing. At what point should a music teacher be believed over someone who spent 8-10 years in school studying medicine, a year of residency, and multiple years or decades of clinical practice or scientific research on neuroscience?

As it turns out, a high percentage of chronic health issues actually stem from the negative mental environment created by a single, correctable brain condition – hyperpolarity of brain functioning.

No citation on purpose – don’t go to this web page for medical advice

Again, there are no citations provided for what “high percentage” of health issues are caused by “hyperpolarity.” This is getting dangerously close to blaming the victim for health issues that they have no control over.

Note: Hyperpolarity of brain functioning is not taught in medical schools. Nor will you find it in any medical literature. In short, it is not recognized as a medically treatable condition.

No citation on purpose – don’t go to this web page for medical advice

This person doesn’t define “hyperpolarity of brain function.” A brief search for scholarly articles on “hyperpolarity brain” actually comes up with a number of hits. I haven’t bothered to read any of them, but it actually appears that hyperpolarity is recognized by medical schools. Here’s a link to a definition and short video explaining hyperpolarity and membrane potential put together by Dr. Marc Dingman, who actually earned his PhD in neuroscience, unlike our misinformed music teacher.

So, the advice I give you regarding hyperpolarity can in no way ever be misconstrued as “medical advice.” This is as close as I get to offering a disclaimer. 🙂

No citation on purpose – don’t go to this web page for medical advice

That above quote is what pushed me over the edge and prompted this rant. It’s incredibly disingenuous. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. Suggesting someone who has been prescribed drugs for a serious medical condition does more harm than good and then later stating you’re not offering “medical advice” is devious and reprehensible.

Elsewhere, this same individual wrote, “I do not have – nor do I want to have – a medical degree.” If you’re not willing to put in the hard work and learn to understand medical science, then you have no business talking about it. Particularly when it is contrary to the advice of those who have put that time in to become certified medical professionals. You might think, what’s the big deal? I invite you to look through this web site and understand the harm it causes. This person is openly advocating that prescribed medication for asthma and other maladies “actually lead to the creation of more problems.” Do not believe anything this person says about health! To be honest, I don’t really trust much of this person’s ideas on music either, but at least crazy ideas about music don’t end up killing people.

Purveyors of misinformation like the individual I’m complaining about deserve to be marginalized. Their b*******t needs to be called out for what it is. If you are looking for health advice, talk with your doctor, not a music teacher. Especially not this one.

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”

You’re Not An Auditory Learner

One of the most persistent myths in education is that students have a “learning style.” This misunderstanding is so pervasive that most teachers believe that their students will learn best when materials are presented to them in a manner that matches their supposed modality (most commonly broken into visual, auditory, reading, and kinesthetic). Unfortunately, this has not been shown to have any effect on student success. In fact, it’s an unnecessary approach that takes time away from presenting the materials in a manner that is consistent with the subject matter. In other words, the topic being studied should be presented correctly.

Music requires an auditory component. Some students are going to do better than others in picking up things by ear, but that doesn’t mean that students who take longer should be presented that material in a “visual” way. Some students sight read more easily than others, but that doesn’t mean that teaching music literacy in a kinesthetic manner is better for them. We are all visual learners, auditory learners, reading learners, and kinesthetic learners. We’re all analytical and intuitive.

Here’s a fun video I recently came across that describes the learning styles myth and goes into some details about the research that has (and hasn’t been) done on it.

I’ve written a bit about this topic before. It’s one of those things that a lot of people get hung up on, in spite of the evidence that it doesn’t work.

Pseudoscience in Brass Pedagogy

As a fan of science, I often like to step back from my world of music and take a look at what looking at teaching music through the lens of science is like. In the process, I’ve seen an awful lot of advice and support for methods that have the veneer of science, but are actually questionable, in my opinion. As a rule, us musicians don’t have the training or wherewithal to properly understand scientific methodology and we also frequently misunderstand or unintentionally distort science outside our area of expertise.

Pseudoscience, meaning claims that purport to be factual and scientific but are actually contrary to the scientific method, is pretty widespread in brass pedagogy. I wondered what would happen if I looked at some popular brass pedagogical methods and applied some of the same criteria that defines pseudoscience.

All the quotes and descriptions that follow are what have been actually said or written by brass teachers claiming a degree of expertise in this topic. I’ve left out names and resorted to always using masculine pronouns to protect the guilty and to stave off the inevitable accusation that in criticizing my real motive is to prop up my own value. If what I’m questioning resembles something you believe (or is something I quoted), please feel free to defend yourself in my comments or on your own blog, but please deal with what I actually write, not what you believe my motives to be. You know who you are. . .

So without further ado, I present some criteria and examples for considering pseudoscience in brass pedagogy.

It’s dogmatic

Proponents of a pseudoscientific belief tend to evolve very little, if at all, since the original idea was established. Research, if done at all, is often done in order to justify the belief, rather than improve understanding. A dogmatic belief accepts an authority as not to be doubted or questioned.

There are plenty of method books and instructions like this. Some instructors recommend 2/3 upper lip to 1/3 lower lip and some instructors the opposite. Some players insist that the secret to their success is playing a particular set of exercises while others have a completely different routine that must be relied upon.

The truth is there is no single approach that will address all brass education. The more dogmatic a teacher the less likely he or she will be able to adjust their instruction when the need arises to suit their individual students.

The idea is aimed directly at the public.

As far as a way of spotting pseudoscience, I have to take this one with a grain of salt when it comes to brass pedagogy. Most musicians and music teachers are concerned with making music and getting their students ready to make music. As a rule, we don’t run scientific studies and publish our results in peer reviewed journals. For someone trying to make a living in a field as competitive as music it’s only natural for brass players and teachers to market their products out to the general brass musician public.

However, there’s a point at which this becomes disingenuous. When responding to a somewhat negative review of his book in a professional journal devoted to medical issues suffered by performing artists, one brass pedagogue stated:

Dr. Steinhorn was certainly correct that [my book] does not offer any scientific data. It is not that sort of book. My intention was to offer a well-documented explanation to professional brass players of a perplexing dilemma.

The author of the above quote follows by admitting his collected “data” is anecdotal, but that’s fine because the book was written for musicians in mind. In other words, he felt it was OK deceive the general brass playing public into thinking that his research was scientifically derived because it wasn’t written for a scientifically literate audience.

Ideas that are non-testable.

Many pseudoscientific ideas in brass pedagogy can’t really be tested in any meaningful way. Often it’s because the claim is too vague or too broad to have any relevant way. The hazy thinking makes it possible to come up with an interpretation to fit the vague outcome of the original claim.

For example, one advocate of the so called “tongue controlled embouchure” once commented in an interview:

[I] honestly believe that those great players of the Baroque Era had to be using their tongues to control all the notes. We will never know for certain, but if I can play all the Trumpet parts that Bach wrote on the Baroque Trumpet with my tongue in this forward position as described by [name omitted] – what logical conclusion can we come to? To think that a great Genius like Bach would have accepted a spread and out of tune tone from a Trumpeter is ridicules (sic). If you look at all the Art from the period, it plainly depicts the Trumpeter as having puffed checks.

He at least readily admits that we won’t ever really know for certain, but states his method to be correct anyway because Bach is a genius and because artists show brass players puffing their cheeks. Does that mean that a cartoon tubist is a good example of good brass technique? It’s not evidence, it’s hopeful thinking.

If you’re going to accept art from the Baroque as evidence that trumpet players puffed their cheeks to play, then perhaps you should also consider that maybe you’re using the wrong cheeks. Just sayin’.

Verbose language and prose.

One reason that theories from pseudoscience are vague and untestable is that the language used by the proponents is far too vacuous itself. This often results in a ‘theory’ that is so conceptually slippery it becomes difficult to identify what is actually being argued – or how one might test it. Due to their nebulous content, such practices also nearly always hide all sorts of circular reasoning errors. Over-complex words, phrases and over-long sentences are employed in an attempt to ‘look’ scientific and intelligent.

Pseudoscientific theories are not only characterized by their vague and untestable claims, but the language that they use is often overly complex and written in a way that attempts to look scientific, but when you break their claims down the logic falls apart.

Here’s a quote from someone who believes he has broken the embouchure “code:”

As a way to set up my own inner resonance system…chest, throat, back of tongue, soft palate, the rest of the tongue, jaw position, lips etc…so that when I freebuzz any given note the setting(s) for that note are the most efficient ones that are possible for me to achieve, all I have to do is to sing the note while my lips are in some sort of ready-to-buzz position and isolate the overtones which would be most desirable to me if I was playing the note on the trombone (The 5th and 6th partials, mostly. The  3rd and 5th of the “trombone” chord.) , then w/out appreciable change of that system transfer said “buzz” from my vocal cords to lips, and then place the m’pce on my chops (again w/out serious compromises) and start playing.

Inner resonance system? Isolate the 5th and 6th partials? Numbers and scientific terms make it seem profound, but what does that really mean? He continues with another common ploy, citing made up statistics:

I literally had about 40% or 50% more endurance than is usually the case, plus what I could play was simply…better. Bigger sound, more range, better connections, faster. The works. 

Now…I’m only talking maybe 10% better. 15%. Somewhere in there.

Using statistics to make your case that aren’t backed up by real data is extremely common in brass technique books. Here’s a couple of other examples, by a different author:

Teachers fail to consider the ida that only 10% can make the flat chin work.


Ninety-five percent of the players coming to me, whatever their age, are shallow breathers.”


Three out of ten players may receive some initial benefit from changing lip position, because three in ten will get better regardless of the system used.

Others invent scientific sounding terms or misuse legitimate ones. Here’s how one author defined what he called “the most common performance-related injury in brass playing:” 

For the purpose os discussion here, Embouchure overuse syndrome refers to any chronic embouchure-related playing problem which last for more that two weeks and includes any or all of the following: lip pain, chronic lip swelling or bruising, numb rubbery, or cardboard lips, recurring pressure-point abrasions, air-induced abrasions, lack of endurance, unfocused sound, lack of playing control, and chronic high-range problems.

Yikes, did he leave any technique problems out? Every brass student I’ve ever had has Embouchure Overuse Syndrome! Quick, let’s get to the emergency room before it starts catching!

Seriously, if there’s an injury to the lips or embouchure area let’s call it what it is, torn muscle, pinched nerve, lip abrasion, whatever. Classifying a syndrome for a myriad of very common playing concerns and then implying that they are all the result of something as vague as “overuse” smacks of snake oil salesmanship.

When I injured my knee my doctors didn’t tell me I had “knee overuse syndrome,” I was given an x-ray and then MRI exam to determine what exactly was injured (torn medial meniscus), surgery to help repair the injury, and then physical therapy targeted at helping me recover faster and avoid a future injury. I would hope that someone diagnosing what sounds like a medical condition to take similar care in prescribing treatment. A brass performer who has torn his obicularis oris is going to require a completely different treatment program than someone who has pinched a nerve or abrasions on the lips. Not to mention issues like lack of playing control and high range problems that are likely to be unrelated to any medical condition.

Conceptual hijacking.

One very common way brass teachers will engage in pseudoscientific practice is to take scientific concepts that aren’t well understood by the general public and to cite them as evidence for their beliefs. This can be intentional or blatant, and it’s particularly insidious because it seems so legitimate to us.

Here is a criticism of my embouchure research in which I use a transparent mouthpiece to observe the position of the lips inside the mouthpiece. He starts off with physicist Erwin Schrodinger’s thought experiment, the infamous “Schrodinger’s Cat.” Then he takes his turn into left field:

So the end result of this paradox is that as far as the observer knows, the cat is equally living and dead. Indeterminacy in its most perfect expression, and of course impossible.

OK…how does this apply to playing a brass instrument?

By opening OUR steel chamber (observing the airstream direction in this case), we terminate the experiment. AT THAT MOMENT, our airstream is doing whatever it must do. There is no telling whether that airstream is doing whatever is observed without stopping the system. As soon as it is stopped, the living embouchure is also stopped. End of experiment.

In our case, not only is the subject alive and/or dead (upstream or downstream), but there are infinite possibilities of HOW “upstream or downstream” it really is (HOW alive is the cat?)  

Indeterminacy squared.

A flagrant, and unfortunately quite common misinterpretation and misuse of quantum mechanics. He offers no evidence that mere observation of a player’s lip position with the use of a transparent mouthpiece is unknowable in the same manner as subatomic particles. It’s akin to recommending that you play billiards in the dark because the photons from the light are going to interfere with your shot.

As I mentioned above, sometimes the conceptual hijacking is seemingly unintentional. When writing to support Arnold Jacob’s assertion that a vowel sound of “oh” tongue position was best for playing brass, he cited a scientific paper.

This research has confirmed Jacob’s claims . . . Hence, high notes need a relatively higher air pressure than low notes, but this air pressure will be bigger at the lips, not because of the obstruction of the tongue, but because of more expiratory work by the respiratory musculature, which is why the use of vowels with a high tongue position to facility playing in the high register doesn’t not seem appropriate.

I cut a bit from the above quote to get to the heart of what the author is communicating. He is advocating to keep the tongue position lower in the oral cavity and avoid raising the tongue position higher to ascend. However, when I went to the cited paper, I discovered something contrary to what was being claimed. The emphasis is mine.

The tract geometry affects the played pitch by typically 20 cents over both instrument-dominated and reed-dominated regimes in both instruments. It can also cause a transition between different playing registers.

In reality, the paper doesn’t really address the topic of whether or not arching the tongue higher in the mouth to ascend is proper technique or not, it simply shows that it has an effect on timbre, intonation, and can influence the playing register. The argument that the tongue arch should consistently remain low in the mouth or change according to the register while playing could be debated, but the cited paper doesn’t really provide evidence for the former.

Confirmation bias (selective evidence).

One of the most common examples of confirmation bias is the experience of hearing your phone ring just as you are thinking about someone in particular and it just so happens to be that person calling. It’s a notable coincidence and sticks out in our minds, as opposed to all those times we are thinking about that same person and they didn’t call.

We are all victims of our own confirmation bias, it’s part of what makes us human. We’re great recognizers of patterns, even when patterns don’t actually exist. This means we need to be very careful interpreting the results of our teaching and practicing, particularly when applying them to a general population.

I am my own favorite example of confirmation bias. When collecting data for my dissertation research on trombone embouchures I had convinced myself that I was able to predict a trombonist’s embouchure type simply by looking at their anatomical features. In reality, I was remembering all those times I got a hit, but forgot about the misses. When I crunched the numbers and looked at the data I learned that I was wrong.

I mentioned above the author who used the term “embouchure overuse syndrome.” He believes this to be the single most common cause of practically every embouchure symptom anyone has ever had. While reading the following passage by this author, think about what I wrote about statistics above:

In the eighteen-years of my research, 4736 bona fide embouchure overuse injuries/playing disabilities were reported to me from all of the world.  [a whole bunch of statistics were then cited about these subjects, which I’ve eliminated because they are meaningless]  These histories formed the basis of my thesis on embouchure injuries, and the resulting rehabilitation system I developed grew out of my one-on-one sessions with injured players.  I know of no other author who has collected such a huge database of information on the subject of embouchure pain, problems, or injuries.

This individual has not published his methodology or data, so I cannot say for certain if the flaws I see are accurate. Until that information is made publicly available, however, the burden of proof is on him. In fact, I would argue that ideas that are supported without evidence can be dismissed without evidence too.

How was it determined that all 4736 subjects were “bona fide” injuries caused by embouchure overuse syndrome? Was their data collected via self reporting or was a more reliable method designed to avoid confirmation bias used? More bluntly, how many of those over 4000 subjects were actually seen in person and how many were self reports from player’s who just happened to come across the author’s web site? Were all those subjects who emailed and called and were included in the “thesis” also made aware that they were participating in a medical study and gave permission to use the results? What sort of survey was given to determine the statistics? Did he take the care to make sure that he wasn’t leading the subjects’ answers by asking question like, “Did your problems follow after a very demanding playing engagement?” 

What active brass player doesn’t have difficult and challenging performances from time to time? They are quite common for almost every serious musician. It’s like thinking of someone as the phone rings and it being them on the phone. You don’t think about all the times you played hard and didn’t get injured, but if you get injured you notice.

Data that doesn’t attempt to address confirmation bias is not data, it is anecdote. The more anecdotes you have that conform to your beliefs don’t make it more compelling.

No matter how high you stack cow pies, they won’t turn into a pile of gold.

Metaphorical/analogy driven thinking.

Metaphors and analogies are important to both science and music pedagogy. Particularly complex or abstract ideas often rely on analogies in order to get the point across. It’s perfectly valid and, to a degree, unavoidable. That doesn’t excuse otherwise intelligent teachers and musicians from drawing erroneous conclusions about reality based on a mental image that clicked for them.

We must let our minds fill with the sound of our musical message and related emotions. . . Our thoughts must go to the stimuli (“songs in the head) as we overcome the challenges of music and the physical phenomena of playing a brass instrument. . . When thinking of the body, stiffness results. But, when thinking of the sound, relaxation can occur. Some performers play so effortlessly and naturally that they are sometimes referred to as “natural player.” All you have to do is imagine that you are a natural player long enough, and you will become one.

The bold in the quote above is not mine, it is in the original text. Read it again. What he’s telling you is that if you want to be a fine player, all you have to do is think you are for long enough.

This sort of magical thinking is all the more tempting because there’s a kernel of truth in there. When teaching skills that require motor control, whether it’s playing a brass instrument or making a golf putt, intrinsic learning (focus on the goal, such as a beautiful and expressive performance or a successful putt) has fairly conclusively been shown to be superior to extrinsic learning (focus on the mechanics of playing or putting), at least in the short term. What proponents of the “think about music and the body will figure itself out” approach improperly do is turn their pedagogy into a false dichotomy. While the brass musician’s goal should be effortless technique while all attention is on the musical message, that is not necessarily the best path.

These advocates are also fond of the tired cliche that focus on technique will lead to “paralysis by analysis,” which strikes me as an excuse to be intellectually lazy and not learn how and what to analyze. I’ve written more about this tired expression here.

Anecdotes as evidence

There are so many examples of this fallacy around that I won’t even bother to quote any here (look above for some). Anecdotes have their place, but must be placed in proper context. Way too many players and teachers find a method that seems to do wonders for them and some of their students and immediately presume that their method is correct for everyone.

Special pleading (elusive evidence)

Special pleading is sometimes informally referred to as “moving the goalpost.” When confronted with evidence to suggest our ideas are wrong, it’s easy to move the criteria around. Or we state that the evidence is an “exception.”

One individual with a reputation for helping players with severe embouchure issues treats their problems as an emotional condition, rather than a physical one. When confronted with students that don’t respond to his emotional counseling, however, rather than consider that the approach he is taking might be the best for the individual and try something different (or refer the player to someone else) he states that the reason for their failure to improve is because:

There are many people. . . that will never be willing to make the right effort. . . Most people who don’t respond to treatment are not really disciplined.

One brass author feels quite strongly that all brass players free buzzing embouchure should work exactly the same as his free buzzing embouchure. When I showed him a high speed video of noted trombonist Stuart Dempster both free buzzing and playing in a transparent mouthpiece instead of modifying his theory he decided that he had not at that time worked much on “transferring his free buzz to his horn (or the reverse) with as little change as possible.” He was probably not familiar with Dempster’s playing. 

While questioning one author’s assertions I was told that I was incapable of understanding.

If there is any bias, it is yours. You have apparently never suffered a performance injury, and yet, you are attempting to judge a body of work about something you clearly do not understand. It is like a person who does not have carpal tunnel syndrome who buys a book on CT treatments and tries to judge the efficacies and worth of those treatments.

I don’t know for a fact that my orthopedist has ever had a knee injury like the one I had, but he certainly understood the efficacies of treatment and did a damn fine job on my surgery. Having suffered and recovered from a knee injury in no way makes me qualified to diagnose and treat another individual’s knee pain.

This logical fallacy is actually quite common when people defend their favorite methods. If only you would give their approach a try for just a little longer it will eventually start to work. When a student fails to succeed after practicing their exercises the blame is usually placed on the student for practicing them incorrectly. Their lack of self-correction makes is unscientific in nature and makes for bad pedagogy.

Conspiracy theory thinking

Pseudoscientific thinking often takes the form of a real truth that “they” don’t want you to know about. This usually takes the form of some sort of “academic establishment” that is locked away in their ivory tower, too far removed from actually making music themselves.

The academic/orchestral/industrial complex orthodoxy prescribes one setting for all ranges. But the exigencies of a practical professional life preclude that for all but the most perfectly physically gifted of us. When confronted with this idea, the orthodox tend to get a little…upset.

Exaggerated Claims

The late Carl Sagan noted that good scientists are always considering that they could be wrong. Good scientists don’t exaggerate the strength of their evidence. Good brass teachers should do similarly. The bold emphasis in the quote below is mine.

A dynamic development system that’s easy to learn and works for every trumpet player.

It’s OK for a teacher to say, “I don’t know.” Obviously no single approach will work for everyone. There are just too many variables. Unfortunately, it’s human nature to not only gain confidence with experience, but it’s also easy to slip into overconfidence. A healthy dose of humility goes a long way.

The noted traits of pseudoscience above shouldn’t be taken as proof that those ideas are wrong, per se, but they do raise red flags. Particularly when those ideas are contradicted by other evidence, we need to question what brass pedagogy says more often.

With that said, I want to encourage you to begin reading my site with these characteristics of pseudoscience in mind. Off the top of my head I can think of examples I’ve written here that fit the above criteria and I’m sure there are plenty more that I’ve not considered yet. When you find those inconsistencies, I would like to ask that you call me out on them and let me know in a comment or email. If I can’t logically defend those ideas, then they need to be revised, updated, and corrected.

Further Evidence Against Learning Styles

I’ve written about “learning styles” a couple of times before, here and here. If you haven’t read them or it’s been too long ago, the gist of my argument is that music teachers and students need to abandon this idea of learning styles. The evidence doesn’t support that it’s actually true.

Dr. Steven Novella recently blogged about this topic on Neurologica. He summarizes “learning styles” as:

The idea is that individual people learn better if the material is presented in a style, format, or context that fits best with their preferences. The idea is appealing because, first, everyone likes to think about themselves and have something to identify with. But also it gives educators the feeling that they can get an edge by applying a simple scheme to their teaching. I also frequently find it is a convenient excuse for lack of engagement with material.

Novella’s blog post also mentions and links to the Yale Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning’s article, Learning Styles as a Myth. The article is short, but well cited and doesn’t just discuss evidence against learning styles but also provides helpful evidence-based suggestions for improving pedagogy.

Lastly, it’s fun to play around with this online test to supposedly tell “What’s Your Learning Style?” Like Novella, I found it to be pretty silly. As a professional musician you’d expect my results to be skewed towards “aural,” but there’s so much subjectivity and missed context here. For example, one of the question asked what I would prefer to do for fun, and it included “listen to music” as one of the options. I actually answered “read” instead, because often I’m engaged in music and sounds so much throughout the day that for fun I prefer quiet to relax.

As I have argued before, what these test are telling you, at best, is what your learning “preference” is, not your learning style. There’s a difference between how a student wants to learn and whether or not the materials are being absorbed. It’s long past time for teachers to leave the learning styles myth behind.

Lip Vibration of Trombone Embouchures

I had previously posted Lloyd Leno’s film, “Lip Vibration of Trombone Embouchures” on YouTube and wrote about it here, but at the time YouTube was restricting the length of videos. I broke up the film into three parts in order to get it onto YouTube in its entirety.

I’ve finally gotten around to uploading the entire film in one part. Here it is.

Tooth Structure and Brass Embouchure, Part 2

I’ve blogged about this topic before, but it has been almost 8 years. One of the individuals I mentioned in there was Matty Shiner, a trombonist and teacher who had some strong ideas on tooth structure and what he considered ideal for brass playing. Matty Shiner’s brother, Eddie, was a trumpet teacher who shared Matty’s views. In an interview with one of Shiner’s former students, Jim Pugh, Matty was asked about tooth structure and embouchure.

JP: Explain your views on the teeth and how they relate to playing.

MS: If you notice your better players, nobody seems to have teeth like this (demonstrating, he shows an inverted point with his hands) or laterals sticking out like this. The teeth are like a bridge on a violin. There’s a certain curvature and the height has to be right. When a violinist takes an instrument for a new bridge, they measure it down to the thousandths of an inch. It has to be just right. And you have a notch for each string. Now suppose I took a knife and made the bridge a little shorter, that would be like somebody with a closed bite. If I made that bridge a half or quarter of an inch too high, it would be like somebody who has an overbite. There would be a lot of distance between the teeth, then all of the pressure is on the upper lip. It has to be pretty close. I did a clinic at the international trombone conference in Nashville on teeth alignment. After the seminar, I received bags of mail from all over the world.

JP: Do you see this as the way for the mouthpiece to sit in the proper place, using a high point as the center or is it more a means of shaping the air stream as it enters the mouthpiece?

MS: A little of both. You have to have a decent alignment of those teeth. We have a couple of boys here whose teeth are very flat. They get a good sound but their flexibility isn’t what it should be. After they have been playing a while, with their teeth being so flat, it cuts off the circulation and they have some problems. That needs to be corrected. There is a new system now called bonding. Before that, the only way you could make a change was by putting braces on the person’s teeth. It’s a long procedure and it takes a lot of time to align the teeth properly. But now with this bonding technique, if the dentist is shown where to put the bonding and understand the problem, within a short period of time, you can hear an improvement. Nobody can ever tell me that the teeth don’t mean anything.

The only other primary reference I can find about Shiner’s ideas comes from a 1972 dissertation by Charles Isley, A Theory of Brasswind Embouchure Based Upon Facial Anatomy, Electromyographic Kinesiology, and Brasswind Embouchure Pedagogy. While conducting research, Isley interviewed Shiner (but didn’t transcribe the interview for his paper). According to Isley, Shiner was actually recommending dental reconstruction for his students who didn’t have what Shiner considered “ideal.”

Shiner . . . recommend that the upper two central incisors form a slight outward V, or wedge shape, so that the greater amount of mouthpiece weight will ben in the center of the upper lip. According to this theory, the player would be able to avoid pinning the lips at the lateral points of mouthpiece contact, creating better muscular control of the lips inside the mouthpiece. Students whose natural front teeth arch depart from this wedge shape are advised to undergo orthodontic treatment. Results in such cases have been dramatic, offering strong support for the V shape in the upper central incisors. As to the lower teeth, a slightly rounded arch is considered desirable.

Charles Isely, p. 124

The bold emphasis is mine. If you didn’t have the tooth structure that Shiner felt was ideal he actually recommended an orthodontic procedure. This is highly problematic for a number of reasons, but most importantly – MUSIC TEACHERS DO NOT HAVE THE QUALIFICATIONS OR TRAINING TO RECOMMEND ANY MEDICAL PROCEDURE.

I also want to make note that I didn’t remove any citation for the final two sentences in the above quote about Shiner’s hypothesis and there should be one there. As far as I can tell, Shiner never published any papers or articles that discussed his methodology or statistical results. While it’s possible that one of the Shiner brothers actually did so, I suspect that I would have found it when conducting research on my own dissertation (which also happens to be on the topic of how anatomy influences trombone embouchures). The lack of publications on Shiner’s ideas doesn’t mean that he didn’t apply solid methodology and undergo some informal peer review, but it is a red flag to take the hypothesis with a grain of salt.

Another (major) red flag is that I highly doubt that any university Internal Review Board would grant approval to use human test subjects in such a way as to advise someone get dental reconstruction to test the hypothesis that there is an ideal tooth structure for brass embouchure. If you’re conducting research involving medical interventions you’d better believe that they will require you to make your methodology publicly available. If Shiner was conducting research without IRB approval this would be getting into both ethical and legal issues (at least today, maybe IRB protocols were looser back when the Shiner brothers were actively teaching). This means we should supplement with quite a few more grains of salt.

The most charitable conclusion I can draw from the above concerns is that Shiner was using a working hypothesis in his studio and informally conducting “research” to test his ideas. They appear to be based on “armchair speculation” about how brass embouchures supposedly function rather than objective data. Any results obtained from such an informal process is really suspect. Any data is anecdotal at best and researcher bias is almost certainly influencing Shiner’s conclusions. There really isn’t any solid evidence published on this topic in the literature to start with and also conflicting ideas with equal or more validity. Pass the salt.

Based on the above, my assumption is that Shiner was recommending an expensive and not completely risk free dental procedure based on dubious evidence. While the Shiner brothers may have had a lot going for their teaching and playing, I think we can safely ignore their advice. In fact, I think it’s fair to call it out as outright flawed.

Don’t get your medical/dental advice from me, Shiner, or any other music teacher. If you want to adjust your teeth, consult with your dentist or orthodontist and get a second opinion if you feel it’s appropriate.

Tartellog – Thoughts on Trumpet Pedagogy

I recently came across Tartellog, the trumpet blog of Joey Tartell. I forget how I happened across this post by him, but I really enjoyed reading his discussion of brass pedagogy that emphasizes critical thinking about how we teach.

With so many resources available today, it can be difficult to separate what may help you from what is just garbage from what could actually harm you.  To aid you in your search for good pedagogy, I’ve put together a list of five warning signs.  If you encounter any of these, think hard before proceeding.

His list of five warning signs are:

  • Shortcuts
  • Guarantees
  • Secrets
  • Gadgets and Equipment
  • “Schools”

His last warning sign, teachers who identify as belonging to a particular “school” of trumpet playing is one of the few I’ve come across that mirrors my own concerns about this trend. Like Tartell clarifies in his post, many teachers and students get wrapped up in self-identifying with a particularly influential pedagogue to the exclusion of any other approach or method. This stifles improving our teaching and doesn’t often serve the student well either.

What I mean by “schools” is the rigidity of basing all pedagogy from the mouth of one person. 

. . .

My problem comes from thinking that any one of them was the only person who could teach.  This leads to thinking that your “school” holds the secret, and no one else really understands.

And like Tartell, I’ve also found that when I’ve pointed this out as a problem, it often gets interpreted as me attacking a famous teacher.

If you studied with one of these teachers and are thinking:
“Hey, wait a minute, my teacher was great.  Why is Joey attacking my teacher?”‘
I’m not.  It is likely that I really like your teacher.  The point I’m trying to make is that just because your teacher was great doesn’t mean others weren’t.
If you think that only one person could teach, and that person is now dead, that means that your pedagogy is now dead too.  This is unacceptable.
Pedagogy should be an ever-evolving process, growing as needed with each generation.  We take what our teachers gave to us and, combined with our experiences, pass on what we know to our students.

I’m going to have to look through more of Joey Tartell’s Tartellog. Scanning through his other posts it looks like he has a lot of interesting things to say about brass playing and teaching there. Go check it out!