Solve Fearful Performance with Fearless Process

As brass players, it is easy to get caught up in the technicalities when it comes to playing. This mouthpiece will do this, embouchure shifts, air stream, etc. We endlessly discuss the inputs in order to get the desired outputs. In this never ending investigation to find the perfect mouthpiece placement, vowel shape, and air speed, we may run into even more problems by trying to control every aspect of the physical process. Arnold Jacobs described this as “paralysis by analysis”; the danger that in our good intentioned will to control and fix physical issues, we are actually setting ourselves up for failure. Jacobs was an exceptional teacher in the fact that he studied and understood all the physical phenomena of brass performance, but he never allowed his knowledge of the human anatomy to tell him or tell his students how the music should be played.

“Accuracy comes from the brain, not the chops.”

While all the physical aspects of brass performance can be explained through objective analysis, the performer will have no advantage in attempts of controlling them while performing. We can find examples of successful performance without over analysis inside and outside the field of music. For example, athletes cannot possibly control every muscle in their body in order to hit a ball or score a goal. A golfer does not think of every aspect of the golf swing; if they did, the swing would surely be stiff and not fluid.

Brass pedagogy has made leaps and bounds in the past century; many texts, etude, and methods books have been published and are an important part of a brass musician’s library. Many warm ups, routines, scale books, and the like have been written and rewritten for generations of brass players. But what if we have been using these resources all wrong? Why is it that we still find players separating their “routine” and “music practice”? Could this separation be a cause of many players’ problems? Paralysis by analysis?

There are many people who will swear by their technical studies, all of which are very important and beneficial to any brass musician. But if practiced in a non musical context, is there any real benefit from these exercises? Again Arnold Jacobs reminds us:

“Practicing is 85 percent making statements and 15 percent asking questions. When starting to practice, it is better to make a statement and practice what is right than ask questions and practice what is wrong.”

Essentially, Jacobs is saying practice how you perform and you will perform how you practice. If we are making statements, we can make mistakes! We must be in the mode of making a statement and happen to make a mistake, not asking questions and expect these failures to happen. A new name I learned for this voice in your head: “The Daunt”, the feeling that I must get this right the first time and I will do anything to make this happen! Many music students practice what their teacher asks them and hope to play it “well enough” to pass to the next etude (I myself being very guilty of this in my first years playing). If we can just be good enough, better than what we are expected to be, that will pass the test. “I am pretty good for being ___ (insert age or degree program).”

But does music operate in this checkbox existence? Do we ever really check off any learning process in life? We are constantly growing and learning everyday — a Kopprasch when you are 15 may sound completely different from a Kopprasch when you are 30. What if it’s a rainy day? What if you had a couple tacos for lunch?

The way we are taught in a pass/fail education system is that we cannot fail, and that we must stress out about this. If our music making is constantly influenced by this stress of not failing, the paralysis can easily set in. We want to control, we want to have a grip on our result.

Strength is your enemy; weakness is your friend.

Sound familiar? How can this stress and need to control the input help if we know for sure that it will cause a bad outcome? The more useful and easier route would be to just practice how we perform, and we should perform with no second thoughts, no little voice. Just the music!

Examples I look to for this type of performance are musicians who seem to make the instrument disappear. I enjoy listening to jazz almost everyday for this reason; musicians who, in spite of their different instruments’ limitations, play exactly what they imagine in real time. They do not have enough time to think about the air stream or lip placement to improvise, it would be impossible.

One of my major musical influences is bassist Jaco Pastorius. Jaco played his heart out in every recording and live show, you can hear it. His bass jumps right off the record. A quote of his I like:

“A chimpanzee could learn what I do physically, but it goes way beyond that. When you play, you play life.”

The point being that the physical aspect of the instrument can be learned and learned, perfected by anyone, but no one will sound like anyone else’s life experiences. Notes are being played, but you are playing the music, the story.

The story has no time or interest in the physical limitations of the instrument or the player, the story simply wants to be told. Yes, it is up to the player to master these physical aspects of the instrument before telling the story, but they have no place in the plot, characters, emotions, or message. Another Jaco quote:

“Music is in the air; it’s my job to pull it out.”

The story is there, we must find it.

All of that being said, what exactly is my point in all of this? Our methods must be goal oriented. It is easy to have a goal for a performance: we want to play a great concert that moves the audience with as few missed notes or mess ups as possible, executing exacting as we intended. Is this how we practice? If we practice to perform, and our performance goals are so very clear, then they should inform our practice goals. However, we must break down this very general goal and compartmentalize the route to get there.

Three Things from Jeff Nelsen:

Technician — How — Process

Musician — What — Product

Performer- Why — Purpose

The usual glance at these three things would be to order them exactly as they appear. I must first have the tools, then what I am making with these tools, and then understand why I am using these tools for. But if we insert any other task or process into this order, it no longer makes much sense. Was the automobile invented because we first had the tools and then we built the car, only to THEN figure out what we were going to do with it? No, humans wanted the ability to move from point A to point B faster than by horse, dreamed up the product, and then made the tools to create this dream. This is why when we listen to great musicians we hear the Performer first, not the Technician or Musician. When we see a computer, a house, or a car, we don’t think about the tools that were made to build it or how long someone needed to study their craft in order to use those tools, we only see the end result and how it serves us in the world. It is easy to take for granted the countless things that we use everyday that were created with Purpose. Our music should be the same way. Pastorius didn’t learn all his scales and how to play fast, and then decide to start making music. The technique serves the music. The Technician and Musician serve the Performer, and it is only the Performer that should be performing. The Performer has the goal to tell a story, a story through music.

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