You See What You Look For

The above video by magician, author, and blogger Richard Wiseman demonstrates a principle of human nature that I try to keep in mind when teaching and practicing.  Our expectations have a profound effect on our perceptions.  We tend to see or hear what we expect (whether or not they are there) and often miss what should be obvious.

Many of you already know of my personal interest in brass embouchures.  My experience studying brass embouchures gives me an insight that many other brass teachers don’t have, and often I spot things in players that other teachers completely miss.  This is a double edged sword, however.  My interest in embouchures sometimes leads me to look for an embouchure problem with a student and miss the problem with the student’s tonguing or breathing.  I have to constantly remind myself to look at the whole picture and make sure I don’t miss the proverbial forest for the trees.

I see this principle at work in similar ways all the time with other teachers.  One of the most influential brass teachers of all time was Arnold Jacobs.  Jacobs was very interested in breathing and became quite an expert not just in the application of breathing to playing a musical instrument, but also in the anatomical and medical areas of breathing.  He also was convinced that there was really no such thing as an embouchure problem, only breathing problems.  Jacobs was a very observant and insightful teacher, but his interest in breathing led him to miss some factors related to the embouchure that are separate from breathing issues.

It’s important for music teachers to learn and understand how our backgrounds and interests bias our expectations and perceptions.  As Wiseman demonstrates, inattentional blindness and change blindness are part of being human.  It allows us to focus on what’s important while ignoring superfluous distractions, but it also can result in us missing what might literally be just under our nose.

Paul T.


Just saw this post, linked from a more recent one.

This is extremely thought-provoking! Thanks for drawing the connection between a curious trick and what we do with our students.

You mention experiencing this while teaching; have you ever experienced this in your practice or performance (thinking specifically of technical analysis, here)?


Sure. For example, shortly after my first lesson with Doug Elliott I changed to a Low Placement embouchure and I noticed that my legato slurs were “popping” on each note. I assumed this was an issue with the new embouchure. About a year later, I think it was, I had another lesson with Doug and asked him about it. He had me work on keeping my breathing consistent while slurring and that fixed the problem. In retrospect, the “puffing” as I slurred to each note is easy to spot (and I see this all the time with students).

In that particular case I should have been examining my breathing, but since I was so fixated on working out this new embouchure type I missed the real problem. Attentional blindness.

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