Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Ladder of Awareness

At the end of a lesson one of my students commented, “Mr. Rocco, my trumpet is lie detector!” Wow! I almost fell off my chair! Yes, the instrument is a lie detector!


“You must be an honest musician because you have a lie detector in your hands!

“The instrument has no intelligence or music of its own. The music can only come from you.”

“The music does not come from your lungs, or lips. It can only come from your brain.”

The subconscious mind is not intellectual. It is reactive. Removing your hand from a hot stove is not an intellectual decision. The subconscious mind immediately responds to remove your hand. It is very difficult to consciously override this reaction.

Most of the time, the subconscious mind responds to the will of the conscious level of thought. Based on conditioning, it may react on its own when the conscious will is too vague to illicit a response. When this occurs, the brass player can get into big trouble! There will be much more discussion about this topic in future posts.

When someone has an instrument in their hands, their primary focus must be on creating sound, not their instrument or how they feel.

(founder, Vandercook College of Music)

“The first teaching point is tone (sound)”

The sound coming from the bell of the instrument is completely honest. It precisely reflects the level of musical awareness that the player is thinking.


“The Think System”
from “The Music Man”
Marion the librarian – “Harold, is it true that you have developed a revolutionary new system of teaching music called, THE THINK SYSTEM?
Harold Hill – “Yes, it’s very simple. Nobody has to teach you how to whistle. You only have to think the tune to have it come out perfectly clear.”

H.A. Vandercook

“Keep it simple.”

“If you can sing it, you can play it.”

Several years ago, I was able to trace Meredith Willson’s, “Think System” to H.A. Vandercook. In 1941, his cousin, Stanley Willson from Mason City, Iowa, was a horn student at Vandercook College of Music. “The Think System” is a paraphrase of his well known mantras.


“The key to playing a brass can be found in speech.”

(Nurtured by Love, Warner Bros.)

“We can teach a child to play an instrument the same way they learned how to speak.”

We label some sounds speech and some music. The mind doesn’t process spoken language and making music differently. They both originate in the same area of the brain. The musical message can be sent to almost any part of the body, such as vocal chords, lips, or hands. Jake talked about the transmission of the musical message from the brain to the lips, “through the seventh cranial nerve.”

I once observed a program on PBS where a violinist’s brain was scanned (MRI) while they were playing. The area that was active while playing was the same area that is active when speaking.


“If we want to produce vivid sounds on our instrument, we must have a vivid awareness of the sounds.”

The Two Vs, Vague or Vivid

“A vague awareness of sound will elicit a vague sound from the instrument.”

“A vivid awareness of sound will elicit a vivid sound from the instrument.”



“When encountering problems technically or musically, first sing (vocally), then buzz (mouthpiece). Transfer the singing and buzzing to the instrument.”


To help illustrate a vivid awareness of the music for my students, I asked them to imagine a tall ladder. I tell them that the top of the ladder is “Emerald City” from “The Wizard of Oz”. Their musical awareness must be at the highest step to reach “Emerald City”, the point when they can execute their notes successfully. Later one of my students, made two “Ladders of Awareness” for me. One was a miniature size so that it could fit it into a briefcase when I travel. When I give a master class outside Chicago, I request the tallest ladder available for my presentation. Over the years, there have been several 25-30 ft. ladders.

The steps of the ladder are painted with a “Yellow Brick Road”, the path to “Emerald City”. Along the sides of the ladder the words “Sing” and “Buzz” are painted. At the top In “Emerald City”, it says “Play”

Sing, Buzz, Play (SBP) is a powerful formula for brass players to elevate their musical awareness. I ask my students to sing and buzz in sets of three repetitions. They can sing and buzz in any combination, such as sing once, buzz twice or sing twice, buzz once. They can also sing three times or buzz three times.

Some teachers have told me that their students don’t like to sing. That’s acceptable since singing and buzzing originates in the same area of the brain. If the brass player has weak chops and fatigue has become a distraction, I have them sing only. I also ask woodwind players to sing and finger their instrument. String and percussion players can sing while they play. Elevating awareness of sound achieves the same positive results no matter what instrument.

I recall a time when I was teaching at horn class for non-brass players at Vandercook. A bassoon player excitedly asked me, “How can I apply these concepts to my bassoon playing?” I replied, “Where is your bassoon?”

I first asked him to play something on his bassoon. He struggled with the notes, sounding almost like a beginner. Then I told him to remove the reed from the bocal and buzz the notes just on the reed. He was perplexed. He replied, “Can I do that?” I said, “Just do it”

He found that he could play the notes on the reed, although the sound was somewhat crude at first. His reed playing improved after several repetitions. Then I asked him to place the reed on the bocal but to continue playing the reed as he fingered the bassoon. The results were so dramatic that he almost fell of his chair.

The sets of three may be repeated until there is a significant elevation of musical awareness. If they have moved up the ladder but have not quite reached the top, only a single repetition of singing or buzzing may be necessary.

I question the student by asking, “Where are you on the ladder of awareness?” They are always very honest because they have a “lie detector” in their hands. They also know I am going to ask them to prove their awareness level by playing. Frequently, they will tell me they need one more repetition.

When I ask a student where they are on the ladder, frequently they reply, “in the middle or near the bottom”. I follow up by asking, “What is your confidence level right now?” If they didn’t tell me they were in “Emerald City” when I first asked them, I know their confidence level is low. Occasionally, they will tell me they don’t have a chance to execute the notes because their confidence level is zero.

I never allow them play when their confidence level is low or zero because they will fail. This will only reinforce the negative conditioning associated with failure and playing their instrument.

I’ll ask them if their confidence level would be different if they are allowed play the passage on their mouthpiece. They almost always affirmatively say yes!
When I am working with a student who is preparing for an audition, I’ll ask them what their confidence level would be if it was just a “mouthpiece audition?” They always affirmative reply, “great” or “fine”.

I reply, “Guess what? It is a mouthpiece audition!”

Very few students develop negative conditioning associated with mouthpiece playing. The reason is the mouthpiece does not require very specific pitches in order to produce a resonant sound. Because it will accept any frequency, unlike the air column of the instrument, it is very forgiving of inaccuracies.

There isn’t a single air column that must be vibrated by a specific catalysis frequency in order to resonate. I describe playing on the mouthpiece alone as having an infinite number of air columns. Since it is very forgiving, accepting all frequencies, the player is mostly successful at producing a good resonant sound. They don’t develop a history of failure and have a high expectation of success. Their expectations eventually become reality.

When a student’s expectation of success is low or zero, I apply the Sing, Buzz, Play (SBP) formula in repetitions of three. After they execute a set or two, I ask if they are ready to play their instrument. Again, the students are always very honest. Sometimes they will tell me that they need to buzz the passage one or two more times.

If I hear a positive affirmation that they are ready, I allow them to play the passage with their instrument. Ninety percent of the time, they are successful on the first attempt. The ten percent who fail were not quite ready. I usually ask them to do an additional single repetition or a complete set of singing and buzzing.

I always bring them to “Emerald City”. I have never failed to bring a student or myself to success applying the SBP formula no matter the age or developmental level of the student. The number of repetitions of the SBP formula will vary. Eventually, a successful outcome is the end result.

It is very important for the student to develop confidence in the formula. Confidence can only come from creating a history of personal success.


“There are three truths in life; death, taxes, and SING, BUZZ, PLAY!”

“The student may fail the SBP formula, but the formula will never fail the student.”


Since there is no amplification of the mouthpiece buzz, I recommend that all external playing should be at a fairly loud dynamic level to encourage tone production. Playing softly on the mouthpiece will discourage tone production by causing the player to subconsciously reduced air flow. It doesn’t matter that they may ultimately want to play a passage softly with their instrument.


“Always play loudly on the mouthpiece.”

“Practice entire sessions just on the mouthpiece to avoid having problems creep into your playing.”

As a young player, I did an extensive amount of mouthpiece playing away from my instrument. I remember frequently taking long walks in Grant Park or along Chicago’s lake front. I played the mouthpiece as I strolled along. Another technique was to play along with my favorite orchestral recordings. I would buzz everything I heard coming from the speakers. I typically played the mouthpiece for 45-60 minutes before placing it inside the instrument.

For amplification, I recently began buzzing my mouthpiece into a small megaphone. I refer to this instrument as a “tubaphone”. I also refer to my tuba, “a megaphone”. The opening of the megaphone is the same diameter as my tuba mouthpiece so I sometimes buzz into it without using a mouthpiece. The amplification helps produce a more resonant buzz which makes it easier to play. And it is closer to playing the mouthpiece inside the instrument which is an important goal. My suggestion to the other brasses is to find a funnel that will accept their mouthpiece.


“Play the mouthpiece, not the instrument.”

“The instrument is just an extended mouthpiece with valves or a slide.”

“I gave up tuba playing years ago. Now, I’m an 18 ft. mouthpiece player!”

“Since I’m no longer a tuba player, the mindless collection of brass tubing has no negative influence on me. I’m free of the shackles that enslaved me for so long.”

Jake once told me that I had two different mouthpiece playing techniques. At the time I didn’t understand what he meant. It was only after I got in trouble that I understood his comment.

When I played the mouthpiece outside the instrument, I was singing the notes in my head as I played them. There was no other way to play the mouthpiece, so mentally singing became a forced issue. However, when I placed the mouthpiece inside the instrument, I stopped singing. I was “feeling” for the notes. Singing was sending music to the instrument. Feeling was trying to detect music within the instrument.

It’s a mindless collection of brass tubing. It has no music!


Since the nervous system is a “one way street”, the brain can only function to send or receive information at a given time. It is not possible to send messages with sensory systems, and it is not possible to receive message with motor systems. It is very important to keep the brain in the sending mode in order to create motor function.


“Tell a (musical) story. Don’t ask questions of your tissues.”

“The same area of the brain that imparts information through motor systems also receives information from the sensors.”

It is important to understand that the subconscious brain will be in the “sending mode” only if there is a musical message to send. When the musical message is vague or absent, the brain has no choice but to react by going into a “receiving mode”. It desperately tries to detect an awareness sound by feel. Since the mouthpiece is on the lips, the brain will attempt to convert the lips into ears.

Of course, that can never occur so there will be no musical message to respond to. When the brain goes into the receiving mode, all mechanics of playing shut down! The player usually reacts to their paralyzed body parts by consciously trying to restore function.

Focusing on lips or invisible air is not a “Yellow Brick Road” leading to “Emerald City”. It’s a path going directly to the “Witch’s Castle”!

Self analysis always leads to failure. When awareness of body parts becomes dominant over music, the player becomes increasingly paralyzed. Eventually, their ability to function may be completely lost. That is a horrible situation that very few players recover from. However, recovery is possible. I will discuss the recovery process in a future post.

When applying the SBP formula, it is not always necessary to sing or buzz in the same octave as the passage to be played with the instrument. Often, the notes are too high or low to be buzzed or sung vocally. Transposing octaves will still produce a desired elevation of musical awareness.

The brass player should elevate their musical awareness by applying repetitions of SBP. Once they can perform at a high level on the mouthpiece externally, they must transfer their mouthpiece playing to the instrument.

They must not stop playing the mouthpiece just because it is in the leadpipe.


“Transcend your instrument.”

“Transcend how it feels to play your instrument.”

I strongly encourage students to acquire buzzing devices such as a “Berp”. They allow the player to buzz and finger their instrument at the same time by holding the mouthpiece near the leadpipe. The instrument is less of a distraction when they place the mouthpiece inside the leadpipe.

Some teachers dismiss external mouthpiece playing because of the difference in feel when it’s inserted into the instrument. Brass players need to transcend the difference and focus only on the music.

Here are three brief stories about great players who transcended feel no matter the circumstance.

The first story is about Adolph Herseth early in his career with the CSO. Bud held the position of principal trumpet in the Chicago Symphony for 53 years! That achievement will probably never occur again. He is widely regarded as one of the finest brass players who ever lived. Jake always said he was the finest brass player he ever heard. He certainly was the best I ever heard. His greatness cannot be described. It had to be experienced! We only have a hint of that greatness on the Reiner-CSO recordings. I was very fortunate to have an opportunity to share a stage with him.

The CSO used to play a concert in Milwaukee once a month. We could take a train to Milwaukee but many orchestra members commuted by car. I don’t remember the specific circumstances, but I once had an opportunity to ride to Milwaukee with “Bud”.
It is not possible to buy five hours of his time for any purpose. What an opportunity! Naturally, we discussed brass playing. One of the stories he told me changed my life as a brass player and as a teacher.

Bud was injured in an auto accident early in his second year with the CSO. His mouth and teeth were badly damaged. He was told to, “leave the orchestra for a year to play golf.” Walking away from a challenge is not in the character of this great man from Minnesota! He chose to continue playing in spite of the severe pain he experienced when he brought the trumpet to his lips.

When warming-up in his studio before concerts, he was unable to produce good sounds. But somehow, he found the courage and determination to go the stage of Orchestra Hall to perform with the orchestra. Interestingly, while on the stage for performances, he could play well enough. Good notes came out the bell of his trumpet. His lips had not changed from the studio to the stage. He also played the same trumpet with the same mouthpiece.

What changed was his “state of mind”.

He transcended pain by making the music dominate his awareness. Everyone who was around Bud then, tells me that his playing became even greater after recovering from the accident.

I was once told a story by someone who attended a Maynard Ferguson concert where he split his lip during a performance. He injured himself so badly that blood stained the entire front of his shirt. He excused himself for only a few minutes to change his shirt. He returned to the stage to continue his performance as though nothing had happened to his lip.

I recall the time in 1973 when the CSO was on an East coast tour. Georg Solti was conducting Symphonie Fantastique at the Kennedy Center in DC. He basically wanted us to play as loud as possible most of the time.

Jake was very sick. He had a high fever and was coughing and wheezing from severe asthma. I had to carry his instrument (York) to the stage. While we were listening to the first three movements, I thought to myself, “You better be ready to play his part.” When the fourth movement started, he picked up his instrument to play. As they normally would, the notes exploded out the bell for the “March to the Scaffold”. Nothing was going to stop him from performing. His powerful mind transcended everything he was feeling. Only the music ever mattered to him!

I was stunned! I remember thinking to myself, “another great lesson from Mr. Jacobs.”

Thanks again Jake!

1 comment:

  1. Not that we are supposed to think about embochure but when I buzz on the mouthpiece (trumpet) I do something different then when I play (lower lip rolls out more) when I go to the trumpet my intonation, flexability and tone suffer. When I try to buzz mouthpiece with the embouchure the same as on trumpet there is virtually no buzz. Have you ever had a student with that and what was the solution.