The Importance of a Clear Mental Image

We all remember our first attempts at drawing the human form…for most it was the timeless stick figure. That image is clearly not a dog or a house, but it is so crude that basic human attributes like age, gender and mood are not depicted at all.  As we grew older both our awareness and motor skills increased, and so our stick figure gradually became more refined and could express many more of the facets of being human.  For some, this developing aptitude culminates into the artist’s eye for detail and superior execution, which is mankind’s highest achievement in this act of creativity.  It is said that every creation of man (besides his random acts) existed in his mind first. Even with a model in front of the artist and his canvas, his mind’s eye still directs the motion of the brush and judges the accuracy of each stroke. To be a great trumpet player, the human part of the instrument…the embouchure and breathing system must be great as well, and that instrument is rarely created through random acts.  Instead, a clear mental image in the mind of the player (constructed from a thorough, concise blueprint) is needed.

Building a trumpet is not a random act. Every detail in it’s design is a product of years of man’s research, trial and error, and the natural selection of the trumpet’s evolution (what works best for trumpet players).  To the layman, all trumpets look pretty much the same, but closer inspection reveals differences in plating or lacquer, sizes and shapes of the bell, leadpipe, and tuning slide, location of the bracing, bore sizes, metal types and gauges…not to mention all of the parameters of the mouthpiece…the list goes on.  These were all conscious choices of the builder, and even more variety can be had by the way all of these elements are combined.  However, even “identical” instruments from the same manufacturer will play differently, with comparative inconsistencies in sound, intonation and response…suggesting that the way the parts are made and assembled will also impact the performance of the instrument.

The trumpet player must first be a sculptor, working with the raw materials of muscle and bone in three dimensions in order to create the human part of the instrument before a note is even played.  The better he knows and understands all of the details of the blueprint and can monitor the quality of his work, the more performance he can expect from his creation.  Most of us (including myself) began with the equivalent of the human stick figure drawing…we put the mouthpiece and horn to our lips and blew, meeting with various degrees of success. In my case, the first days were a qualified success, for I could immediately sustain a tone, play relatively high and low, and (thanks to the boy on the next street who gave me the fingerings) begin playing music from the family songbook.  I was heralded as a natural talent and enjoyed all of the accompanying perks through high school and the first three years in college.  My trumpet lessons were mostly about what I was playing…gradually graduating to more challenging technique exercises and music.  Progress occurred due to the number of hours invested in practice and playing.  Upgrades came in the form of better instruments and mouthpieces, or moving the placement of the mouthpiece.

“The Wall”

Most players who begin their careers with such a random, fuzzy image of how to make a sound on the instrument eventually run into what I call “the Wall.”  This is when the musical demands in their playing life (primarily range, endurance, sound quality and tonguing) have risen to the point where it is quite obvious that the fundamental way they are playing the instrument is not really working.  For me it was near the middle of my junior year in college.  Although I could play up to the G above high C, I noticed my top teeth would be loose at the end of the gig (due to the amount of mouthpiece pressure being used), and that my sound quality was not as good as the players I was trying to emulate.  I also noticed that many of my trumpet playing colleagues were encountering the same problems, and heard rumors of top professional players who had fallen from grace during the rigors of touring, or the heavy schedule a freelance player encounters when he needs to take every gig that comes his way.  Many of us eventually got the message that something had to change, and that we needed help to do so.

I first tried to make the change on my own, and by eliminating some of that mouthpiece pressure promptly lost an octave off my range.  It was a humbling experience.  Soon after that I met my first great trumpet teacher, Bill Pfund…who addressed my breathing problems.  It was an enlightening experience to have my attention turn from thinking about what I was playing to how I was playing.  I had more “gas” in my tank, and had a better idea of how to keep it flowing, but it still felt like I was only getting better at driving an old jalopy with some serious issues, and merely applying a new coat of paint to the car.  I also discovered some progressive methods for developing range and endurance that seemed much like a weight lifter in the gym gradually adding more weight to each exercise.  However, even though that method book gradually progressed higher and higher, I did not.  The “Wall” was still there…and I could not move on without reverting back to my old, non-productive habits.

At that time a friend of mine came back to school after playing for nine months on the road with a big band.  What was remarkable was that he had improved more in those nine months than in the four years we had gone to school together.  Although he had always been one of the top players at the university, the change in his playing was striking.  His range had increased and seemed almost effortless, his sound quality was much freer, and he seemed to no longer have any problems with endurance.  I noticed that his lower jaw was no longer receded, and that his horn angle was higher.  When I asked him what had happened…what he had done to make such a drastic change in his playing, he told me that he had been on the verge of being fired from the band until another friend of ours who was playing lead trumpet intervened on his behalf.  This friend had convinced the band’s leader to wait a week until they swung through New York City, where Roy Stevens taught.  Studying with Roy was the turning point for him, and as it turned out, for me as well.

I was able to read Roy’s book in advance of my studies with him, and from its introduction knew that I had found someone who truly understood my problems.  It not only described my frustrations and personal history with the horn, but also a way out of my predicaments beyond the approaches I had been taking. There were also detailed descriptions of the embouchure, discussing components like jaw position, teeth aperture, lip line, lip inversion, mouthpiece placement, mouthpiece weight distribution, etc., plus an explanation of why these parameters were ideal.  His blueprint for an embouchure seemed as concise as a trumpet’s blueprint…the mental image was becoming clearer!  (An interesting side note…during the writing of this blog post I had a visit from Bill Pfund, who brought along a few of the horns he designed that are just now coming to market. Knowing his high standards, and hearing his description of the painstaking process and attention to detail that went into the instruments’ manufacture served to underscore the analogous points being discussing here.  Look for more information on these wonderful horns in a future post.)

Even when armed with this knowledge, and after moving to the east coast to begin my studies with Roy there were still some problems.  The temptation to emulate what Roy or one of his advanced students were playing (all students were invited to observe other lessons) would be distracting to the point I would again be thinking more about what I was playing rather than how I was playing.*  Hearing them slur up into the upper register while doing the palming exercise (shown at left) created a strong image in my mind that kept me from first concentrating more on carefully assembling my embouchure.  None the less, my mental image now included the important details of a slightly forward jaw position and matching, inverted lips, and so my playing had improved to the point that the upper register returned and more (minus the loose teeth) and I was able to successfully enter the world of freelancing in Denver.  I was very happy with the results.

Is a musician ever fully satisfied with the way they play?  Eventually the thrill of performing with my new improvements wore off, and I began to notice other things that were in need of refinement, like sound quality and tonguing.  And so four years after moving back to Denver I returned to New York for a week’s worth of lessons with Roy.  It was at this time that I experienced one of those “a ha” moments…when I noticed that everything he was telling me sounded exactly (sometimes word for word) like what I was telling my students during their lessons!  I realized that my knowledge base of the facts was OK, but that I was not paying close enough attention to those details.  My mental image was still quite fuzzy, proving that it was my awareness that needed to be addressed.

I struggled with this for a number of years until at last another break came my way when a friend loaned me his copy of pianist Kenny Werner‘s “Effortless Mastery.”  Here was another book that seemed to be written just for me (!), for it described in detail how dysfunctional my practicing (and even my teaching*) had become.  Among other ideas presented in Kenny’s book,  slowing down and turning my attention to the most basic acts (in this case assembling an embouchure, placing the mouthpiece and adding the air) revealed so many of the details I had been overlooking.  I was privately embarrassed for not having done so before.  Making even minute changes at the critical areas of the position produced marked changes in sound and performance.  Taking my students through this tedious process produced the same impressive results, so much so that no one seemed to mind taking the extra time.  In fact, many students marveled at not only their progress, but also that they were beginning to naturally apply that same kind of patient focus and eye for detail to other aspects of their lives (for one example, see the older link:  “Better Golf from Disciplined Trumpet Practice”).

These improvements came about mainly because of a refinement in the construction of the human part of the instrument, not through the imitation of a great player or practicing an exercise without clarity of thought (although modeling one’s sound after a great player or practicing exercises and music with this enhanced awareness will be more productive).  Students who did not have a clear concept of a mature sound and ease of playing could none the less still produce very predictable and positive results in these areas when guided through the proper steps.  Although the jump in performance could be immediate and impressive, another challenge became evident:  to create consistency, this relaxed, careful set up with accompanying airflow had to be done consistently (which is no news to any good musician).  Once again a clear mental image was of paramount importance, for the greater number of details plus the distraction of success would often derail the required patience, thoroughness and consistency.  Also, the constant and consistent repetition necessary to develop new habits tends to provoke our “Human Nature” into complacency.  However, if we are not not merely repeating the steps but instead are instead continually refining them, practicing remains focused because it becomes much more interesting and productive.  A mental image that is constantly becoming clearer makes that entire process of refinement possible because it is easier to see what the next step should be.  The knowledge base, along with a deeper understanding are also increased through first hand experience.  A detailed, clear mental image is also what keeps the mind from free associating with old habits when one is progressing to the next step during practice.  That focused mental picture is the proverbial “thousand words” of mental software code that directs our physical actions, and is therefore worth all of your time and attention!

*A teacher should be very careful about deciding when to play for or along with a student. As mentioned above, the student is more likely to try and duplicate what the teacher is playing rather than how the teacher is playing.  Even when they try to match something more basic like sound quality, if they have a poor starting position and/or airflow they will probably be using some form of tension for control when they imitate their teacher. This tension will only be magnified when more complexity is introduced, and bad habits are enforced rather than eliminated (even if the student can play the notes and rhythms). It is a teacher’s responsibility to not only share knowledge, but to also make sure their student is given time to execute the proper fundamentals needed to play the musical passage correctly.  Their lesson may at first be the only time they will take the time to focus and be successful to that degree, so that opportunity should not be squandered.  Playing along with a student can often be distracting for them if they have too many things to think about…to listen for, to see or hear.  They can be more preoccupied with producing immediate results, rather than building the foundation that will not only play that particular piece of music, but future pieces as well.  When the student plays alone, both the student and the teacher can hear the sound more clearly and judge how well the fundamentals are working (and the student can better make the connection between the sound and the feel).  It is easier to spot problems when they first occur, to understand their root cause, and then to fix them.  There is a time to demonstrate or play along, but with these ideas in mind the opportune time will be chosen wisely.

A final note:  although Roy’s students came from many fields of music, the most visible proponents of his methods were lead trumpet players…not necessarily the sound I was looking for in my own music.  Over time though I realized that following his guidelines more carefully produced a greater refinement in my sound, attacks, response, etc., proving to me once again that his blueprint had universal applications.

This entry was posted in Observations on Our Human Nature and Self Improvement, Trumpet Lessons. Bookmark the permalink.

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