Ask a bunch of brass teachers how to make changes in instrumental technique and you’ll get a lot of contrasting advice, but if there is a consensus of sorts it seems to favor developing a good sound concept and allowing the body to figure itself out. I’ve written many times about why I feel this approach is not ideal, including looking at research that investigates how we learn and develop motor skills. The trouble with utilizing that research to design teaching and practice strategies for musicians is that a large part of that research is tested using skills that are new to the test subjects. What is the best way to make changes or refine a skill that is already developed? I recently came across an article published in 2016 in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology that takes a close look at that question and offers a five part model for making corrections to a skill already learned.
We do need to keep in mind that this article is specifically looking at athletics and not music performance and pedagogy, but I think that the psychology between instrumental technique and athletic skills is similar enough that we can use the same strategies. With that caveat in mind, here’s a look at the five part process for refining technique.
Step 1 – Analysis
Yes, the first step is to analyze the musician’s technique. Right off the bat some brass teachers are going to flinch when they read this. For many, analysis is seen as a bad thing and it leads to “paralysis by analysis.” I find this attitude silly, to be honest. If you or a student is freezing up when playing mechanics are getting a close look for how efficient it’s working then you’re doing the analysis wrong in the first place.
The analysis step is vital for a couple of reasons. First, we need to be able to assess if playing difficulties are due to a mechanical issue in the first place. Furthermore, the analysis process should identify the precise cause of a technique flaw in an objective manner. Too many brass teachers are too quick to assume that the issue is being caused by incorrect breath control or maybe a poor sound concept. Those things can result in inefficient technique, but there are other areas in brass mechanics that also need to be analyzed and addressed.
One point the article mentions that I think is important here is that the athlete’s (or musician’s) technique should be analyzed separately from an attempt at correction. In other words, the musician’s attention should not be on the playing mechanics being addressed while analyzing the technique. It’s best is the coach (teacher) is the one doing the analysis. It’s notoriously difficult to analyze your own issues, so if that’s necessary it’s probably best done by recording your playing and doing your analysis away from the act of playing your instrument.
Also addressed in the article in this stage is getting the athlete (musician) to buy into the process here and recognize that there is a technique flaw that needs to be dealt with. Since there is typically a drop off in performance that happens during the next stage due to the technical refinement being new it’s important that the musician understand why the change is necessary, what specifically to change, and how to make that change.
Step 2 – Awareness
The goal in this step is to deautomate the instinctive inefficient technique. When the habitual way of playing the instrument isn’t working properly it needs to be replaced by the correct technique and that requires the musician (or athlete) to be aware of the technique in the first place.
To deautomate the aspect of technique requiring refinement (hereafter termed the target variable), athletes are required to consciously apply a narrow and internal focus of attention (cf. Wulf, 2013), which enables access to the relevant movement component within the memory trace (Christina & Corcos, 1988). If control over the target variable remained largely subconscious, as is thought ideal for performance (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990; Swann, Crust, Keegan, Piggott, & Hemmings, 2015), it would be difficult to see how any long-term changes could be initiated. Indeed, Rendell, Farrow, Masters, and Plummer (2011) have demonstrated the limitations of implicit strategies in this particular context. More specifically, athletes counting the number of tones overlaid on music soundtracks (i.e., an effort not to think about the movement) during netball shooting practice to a higher than regulation ring led to an eventual lower ball flight trajectory instead of an intended higher trajectory, despite athletes not being aware of any change taking place. In short, a conscious focus seems to be an essential precursor of effective motoric change.Implementing the Five-A Model of Technical Refinement: Key Roles of the Sport Psychologist – Howie J. Carson & Dave Collins
The bold emphasis in the above quote is mine in order to highlight the difference between this evidence based strategy compared to the approach many brass teachers take where they intentionally keep their students awareness off the specific mechanical skill. Traditional brass pedagogy skips this step.
One reason why I think many teachers intentionally avoid the process of helping a student become aware of their playing mechanics is that there is almost always a drop in performance when a change in motor skills is made. Where many brass pedagogues assume this decline is an indication that the awareness is making the problem worse, sports psychologists see this as a necessary step in the process. Music students need to be aware of what the purpose of this stage is and be realistic in their expectations.
The authors recommend contrast drills as providing good benefits in this stage of the process. Practicing this way involves spending some time alternating between the old and incorrect way of playing and the new and more efficient way.
Contrast drills challenge athletes for two main reasons. First, a movement component that has been under largely subconscious control must return to consciousness (i.e., executing an already existing technique under a different type of control); second, athletes must consciously manipulate their movement to achieve a new technique. As such, executions are performed with an imbalance of control and require a high degree of concentration and motivation. Using paradoxical training interventions (i.e., asking an athlete to purposefully make an error; see Bar-Eli, 1991) as one way to explain the intended outcome (see also Carson, Collins, & Richards, 2016), contrasts between techniques enable the coach to “reframe” the situation and the athlete to realize what is required to make the change, that is, to fully notice the difference.Implementing the Five-A Model of Technical Refinement: Key Roles of the Sport Psychologist – Howie J. Carson & Dave Collins
Again, we can compare the emphasis on conscious manipulation of the technique recommended above to the more popular idea in brass pedagogy of discouraging any conscious manipulation of playing mechanics.
Step 3 – Adjustment
In this stage the goal is to make the specific change in technique. The musician (or athlete) becomes familiar with the new technique and how it feels and works when correct. The authors recommend feedback be provided to the student in the form of both recorded trials with the new technique as well as through questions, primes, and verbal instructions that guide the preferred technique.
Contrast training is adjusted in this stage so that the old versions of the playing technique are phased out in favor of the new and correct way of playing.
It has yet to be investigated, but we feel that attempts to unconsciously shape the new behavior, through solely implicit, constraints-based coaching, for example, are less likely to generate effective outcomes such as long-term permanency and robustness under stressful conditions. This may well necessitate a change of behavior by the coach if they are devoutly convinced by this approach, and the psychologist can help greatly by supporting the necessary approach.Implementing the Five-A Model of Technical Refinement: Key Roles of the Sport Psychologist – Howie J. Carson & Dave Collins
The above quote notes that there are many athletes and coaches who favor an unconscious approach at this stage, but the author’s feel that this approach is less effective in the long term. I agree with their assessments here, but will reiterate their point that further research is needed in this area.
Step 4 – (Re)Automation
Only after the conscious adjustment is made to playing technique do the authors recommend working on making this change automatic. At this stage continuing to break up the playing technique or motor skill into individual steps becomes detrimental in situations of stress (i.e., a performance or audition). Instead, in this stage we finally begin to make the new way of playing internalized.
Music teachers frequently coach their students through mental imagery and analogy. I’ve often pointed out that this is a double edged sword. It’s not helpful in the earlier stages, but at this point it is a necessary step. It’s at this point where the teacher helps the student to perform the technique without conscious effort on playing correctly. This is the stage where the implicit approach takes over.
Step 5 – Assurance
In this final stage the goal is to generate complete confidence in the athlete (or musician) in the unconscious execution of the corrected technique. The student gets regular reassurance from the coach or teacher that new change is working correctly. Assessing the new technique through challenges involving physical fatigue or otherwise “pressure testing” the student is valuable in this stage. This is the point where the musician or athlete just concentrates on the end goal of making good music or putting the ball into the basket.
The authors note a specific pet peeve of mine in the typical strategy employed by most brass teachers, separation of the psychology of performing with an accurate understanding of motor skills.
First, there is a distinct need for sport psychology and motor control knowledge to be reconsidered in unison. Unfortunately, in our view, this separation has been driven by too narrow a focus in each case—emotion and cognition in the former and co-ordination dynamics in the latter. Bridging this gap, recent efforts have been made to examine the effects cognition over elements of the movement execution. Carson and Collins (2014, 2015) recently termed this study “psychomechanics” and have explored relative states of automaticity through use of intraindividual movement variability as an indicator of such control (e.g., when executing golf shots with a ball or as intentional practice swings; Carson, Collins, & Richards, 2014b). In short, planned training designs must address not only the development of task-specific cognitive strategies but also how the execution may be embedded with relative permanence and pressure resistance (cf. Carson & Collins, 2016).Implementing the Five-A Model of Technical Refinement: Key Roles of the Sport Psychologist – Howie J. Carson & Dave Collins
Tip of the hat to Noa Kageyama of the Bulletproof Musician podcast and blog for posting about this article.