Thursday, December 3, 2009

"Conditioned Reflex"


“Paralysis by Analysis”

Most people are familiar with the “conditioned reflex” experiment of behavioral psychologist Ivan Pavlov. He associated the ringing of a bell with a dog’s feeding. In time, the bell alone stimulated the dog to salivate in preparation for food when none was present.

Musicians have a strong emotional commitment to creating music with an instrument in their hands. We invest years of our lives in a relationship that has positive and inevitably, negative moments. The first question I ask students at a clinic or masterclass is, “How many of you at have ever wanted to throw your instrument at a brick wall?” The response is always the same no matter where I ask the question. Everyone puts their hand in the air!


“Don’t test your notes. Make an emphatic commitment to every note.”

Since an instrument is a “lie detector”, every note coming from the bell is exposed to the world the moment it is heard. It is also honest because the instrument has no intelligence or music of its own. It can only reflect the mind of the musician. When we play an instrument, there are no opportunities to test our results. The proof is the sound coming from the bell.

A mathematician or computer programmer can test their work before they present it to the world. As brass players, we must have the courage to commit to the sound that we expect to come out the bell. However, without a high expectation of success we will not be able to make a commitment.


“I expect the notes to be there.”

We must live with our efforts whether we are happy about it or not. Unfortunately on a brass instrument, the resulting sound can make the player unhappy more often than it gives them satisfaction. Whatever our emotional response is to the quality of our notes, the response is not ignored by our subconscious (reactive) brain. Like Pavlov’s dog conditioned to salivate at the sound of a bell, we become conditioned to the emotions associated with the instrument we are holding for hours on end.


“The emotional and physical experience of playing your instrument can be like having someone point a double barreled shotgun at your head. There is a great expectation of emotional and physical discomfort.”

Any musician experiences emotional pain when they fail but they don’t necessarily experience physical discomfort. If a pianist plays the wrong note or a violinist plays out of tune, they might experience emotional pain but it doesn’t hurt their fingers.

The subconscious brain responds in a protective manner to avoid both emotional and physical pain. The protective reaction of the brain will create paralysis as it tries to avoid a negative experience. However, the resulting paralysis will cause even greater failure and pain.

If the cycle of failure and pain is not broken, the player will eventually become completely paralyzed. This condition is commonly referred to as “focal dystonia”, a neurological condition. However, FD is the involuntary flexing of muscle tissue. Referring to paralysis as FD is an incorrect application of the term. It’s a misuse that I have been guilty of on occasion.


“Paralysis associated with playing an instrument is not an incurable medical condition. It is a manageable psychological condition.”

Far too many professional musicians have been told by the medical community that their careers are finished. In many instances, they are forced to retire. Others have tried to cure their paralyzed chops with the injection of cortisone or other substances in their lips. The medical profession does not have a real solution because they are trying to treat the symptoms of paralysis rather than the cause.

The cause is the negative conditioning associated with a history of failure. With highly accomplished players, the history is recent. With less accomplished players, the history may be life long.

I have found that accomplished players start to alter their "state of mind" with self analysis. The less accomplished players have never achieved the "state of mind" necessary to become accomplished musicians.


“There’s nothing wrong with your chops. Your mind is messing them up.”

I have helped many professional wind players, including myself, overcome paralysis. The negative conditioning that is stored in the brain can never be erased. It must be replaced with new conditioning based on creating a history and expectation of success.


"We cannot erase bad habits. They must be replaced with something new."

When the air column of a brass instrument, or any wind instrument, rejects the sound created in the mouthpiece, the rejection causes embouchure malfunction and breath resistance.

Traditional brass pedagogy wants to treat the symptoms of rejection. This never works because the problem exists in the brain, not external or internal body parts.

Rejection of the air column is uncomfortable physically as well as emotionally. A friend (professional trumpet player, John Cvejanovich) colorfully describes the unfortunate experience of having your sound rejected by the air column.

“It feels like I’m trying to push a piano up the stairs.”

If a brass player experiences too much failure over a long period of time, the experiences add up like depositing money in a bank. Inevitably, the emotional and physical pain becomes associated with their instrument Playing eventually is like the experience of touching a hot stove.


The Pianist

When she was a child, a friend, PHD in psychology, aspired to become a concert pianist. She came from a very musical family. Her father, who was also her piano teacher, was a very fine professional pianist. Three of her relatives were string players in the Chicago Symphony.

When visitors came to her home, she was frequently asked to perform a short recital for the guests. However, she was dismissed if she made a single mistake. Eventually the emotional pain associated with playing the piano completely paralyzed her. She could not even bring herself to sit on the bench.

Later in life, she decided make clinical psychology her profession in order to understand what had happened to her. We have spent many hours together comparing what I was seeing in the world of instrumental music performance and what she knew in psychology. She was able to affirm in the literature what I already knew from my experiences with students and myself.

The Flutist

Several years ago, I received a call from a professional flutist who I knew as a very fine high school player. Fifteen years had passed since the last time I saw her. She told me that the fingers of her right hand would no longer allow her to play without pain and paralysis. The pain was so great that she could no longer finger the instrument with her right hand. She had been to numerous medical doctors and flute teachers throughout the world.

No one was able help her. She was told that she had focal dystonia and that it was incurable. However, she was not experiencing the involuntary flexing of the muscles of her right hand. She was experiencing pain and paralysis. FD was a misdiagnosis of her problem.

I asked if her hand functioned normally when she wasn’t playing the flute. She affirmed that her hand worked fine when she did other things. I understood that her problem was not physical, it was psychological.

I wanted to know when she first noticed the symptoms of her pain and paralysis. She replied, “Fifteen years ago.” My next question was, “What happened in your life fifteen years ago?” She said, “I started giving eighty flute lessons a week to make a living.”


"After a day of private teaching, I sound more and more like my students."

Endlessly listening to elementary level flute sound began to have a negative influence on her own playing. Her symptoms of failure were very similar to mine. She noticed deterioration in her tone quality and it was becoming harder for her to play technically.

Because she is a committed musician, she naturally had an emotional response to what was happening. As she analyzed her playing, the situation became worse and she became even more anxious. In time, her anxiety became associated with the flute. Her subconscious protective instinct tried to prevent her from playing the instrument by causing pain and paralysis in her hand.

Over the years, I have noticed that the paralysis and discomfort manifests itself most often with the hands of woodwind players and the “chops” of brass players.


“We cannot use a physical solution to solve a psychological problem. Otherwise, we will attempt to treat symptoms of failure rather than the cause. Treating only symptoms will result in more failure.”

Since the problem is psychological, the solution must also be psychological. The flutist was no longer thinking about music when she brought the instrument to playing position. She was only thinking about her pain as she desperately tried to make her hand function. I knew I had to alter her “state of mind” by bringing it back to the music.

It is common practice to have beginning flutists play their first notes on the head joint alone. A flutist can simultaneously sing vocally and finger the instrument.

I asked her to sing the notes (neutral syllable la) while the instrument was in resting position rather than playing position. I wanted to reduce the paralyzing influence the instrument had when she brought it to playing position.

It was important that the music be very familiar so she would have a high level of awareness. She found that she could finger the instrument normally as long as it was not brought to playing position.

I asked her to sing and finger short phrases in sets of three. With each repeated set, she brought the instrument closer to playing position until the mouthpiece was at her embouchure.

Then, I asked her if she thought she could play normally. She responded, “yes!” She was able to finger the instrument without pain for the first time in years. This was the opening she had been searching for. It required continued repetition of the singing and fingering over several months to create a new history of success and a new expectation of success.

There is no cure for playing paralysis. The conditions that motivated the paralysis are stored in memory forever. As long as the player substitutes new playing conditions, there will be a different response from the subconscious mind.

I continuously remind my students and myself that we must “Follow the Yellow Brick Road”. If we don’t, we will end up back in the “Witches’ Castle” rather than “Emerald City”.

The Trombonist

One summer, I received an email from one of my former Vandercook College graduate students. When he studied trombone with me in the 1980s, he was a very fine brass player. He mentioned that he was currently teaching applied low brass instruments and brass methods courses for music education students, at a small college in Tennessee. However, he lost all ability to play and was in danger of losing his job.

I was beginning a new week-long brass pedagogy course at Vandercook. I invited him to audit the class, which met for eight hours daily. I promised to work with him privately during breaks, lunch, and in the evening after class ended for the day. His was the worst case of paralysis that I had ever experienced in my forty years of teaching.

Although he had taken similar course work with me at Vandercook, he decided to refer back to the doctoral thesis of his undergraduate trombone teacher in his new duty of teaching brass pedagogy. The subject of the thesis was the analysis of facial muscles involved in a trombone embouchure. As he began to study and teach the subject, he slowly analyzed himself into a state of total paralysis.


"To teach is to learn twice."

When I first asked him to play his mouthpiece, I was astonished that he could not make a sound. I had never encountered total paralysis playing on the mouthpiece alone. I knew I was going to be challenged by this level of paralysis, which was 100%.

Since he could not buzz anything, I asked him sing in sets of three repetitions. However, when I instructed him to play the mouthpiece on the fourth repetition, he was unable to make a sound. He made several attempts to sing and buzz the mouthpiece without success.

I asked him to sing and buzz his lips without the mouthpiece, but he could not function. After experiencing an endless amount of frustrating failure, I sent him home for the evening. I told him we would continue the next day and that I was confident we would eventually find an opening.

I always communicate a confident attitude to my students. They must believe that I can help them! However, that evening, I had some doubt. I recall telling my wife that this might be the first teaching failure of my career. Later, I thought of an important book I read several years before.

(M. Scott Peck, M.D., pub. Touchstone)

For many years, I had been encouraging my students to read a self help book,
The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck, M.D.

Peck says that life is a series of problems that we must learn to solve. Failure to solve them, because of avoidance or ignorance, usually leads to some form of mental illness. He gives us a beautiful three part formula for problem solving.


Dr. Peck tells us that we must first have a powerful need in order to solve problem. If our need is not powerful, we won’t have the discipline to take the time necessary to find the solution.


Solutions to problems require time to discover them. Since the solution will come at some point, we must be willing to “delay gratification”. We must have the discipline necessary to take the time.


If our need and discipline are powerful enough, we will take whatever amount of time is necessary to find the solution to our problem if one exists.

I knew there certainly was need and discipline. Would I have enough time?

The next day was even more frustrating for the student and myself because the opening had not come. We worked for two days without success. He seemed willing to keep trying but I knew my time was running out. I thought he might not come back a third day.

On the third day, he wasn’t present for the start of the 8 AM class. I was quite dismayed because I knew I had failed him and that his career in jeopardy. However, at 9:30 he walked into the room and apologized for being late because there was a major accident on the expressway.

During the day we continued to work but again, with no success. I knew he was going home the next day if something positive didn’t happen. Before end of the day, something wonderful did happen!


At the last possible moment, I remembered a wonderful and amusing experience I had sitting next to Jake in the CSO. It’s a true story that is worth telling here.

Erich Leinsdorf was conducting a rehearsal of Deserts by Edgar Varese. It is scored for a huge compliment of wind and percussion instruments, including two tubas. The first tuba part has a very difficult solo note (Gb above middle C) that is played very softly. It is very treacherous because it’s quite exposed and at the top of the range for CC tuba! Jake rarely used smaller horns for any reason. As usual, he used his 5/4 York CC tuba for this piece.

There are many horror stories about tuba players having trouble with the note. I was curious to see how Jake would handle it. I was also glad it was in his part, not mine!

As the moment to play the note approached, I noticed that Jake began to quietly sing the Gb into his mouthpiece. He repeated the note vocally several times. However, he sang the note very softly so I was the only one who could hear it. When it came time to play the note, he sang it louder into the instrument without actually playing it.
He fingered the tuba correctly as if he had played the note. What happened next was astonishing!

Leinsdorf stopped the rehearsal and shouted, “Bravo Mr. Jacobs!” The rest of the orchestra shuffled their feet, a CSO tradition, signaling their approval.

I was the only person in the room who knew he never played the note. He leaned over with a patented “twinkle in his eye” and said, “My personal integrity won’t allow me to do that at the performances.”

We played six performances of Deserts. The note was flawless every time. However, he continued to do the preparatory singing each time. He just transferred the note from his vocal chords to his lips in order to execute it perfectly.

Thanks again Jake!

I noticed that he sang the note directly into playing without pause. There was no break between the singing and buzzing. This was the opening I was searching for!

Just as Jake had demonstrated, I asked the student to sing into buzzing without a break in the sound. Bingo! He immediately buzzed a sound with his mouthpiece for the first time in years. I’ll never forget his first word, “Marvelous!”

Without a pause between singing and buzzing, there was no time for his subconscious brain to set up paralysis. I distracted him from himself with the sound. This is an important technique that I use to alleviate paralysis when the student is in a straight jacket. I distract them from themselves with music.

From that moment of success, he was able begin his recovery. It was just a matter of reapplying the SBP formula. He was able to perform publicly in about six months.

Not only was he able to keep his college teaching job in Tennessee but he later found another in Oregon where he also began playing with a local orchestra.


The first symptom of paralysis that I noticed in my own playing was my difficulty starting the first note of a phrase. I remember a rehearsal Prokofiev’s ballet, Romeo and Juliet with the Seattle Symphony. I had trouble starting a very simple passage of soft quarter notes in one of the slow movements.

Later, I learned that this symptom was quite common among all the brasses. Many teachers suggest breath attacks to their students to prevent the tongue from blocking the air. This is treating the symptom rather than the disease. We must understand why the subconscious brain is creating this condition.

The subconscious brain will frequently use the tongue (front or back) to block the air in order to prevent playing as it tries to protect the player from emotional and physical pain. This is the same protective reaction that prevents us from touching a hot stove or standing too close to a cliff.

However, the paralysis only makes matters worse. Because the subconscious is reactive not intellectual, it will override the conscious will in order to protect us from harm. When this happens, the result is disastrous!

The subject of the brain’s protective response is discussed further in Trading in the Zone (Mark Douglas, New York Institute of Finance). “Zone” refers to the “State of Mind” necessary to achieve any goal.

To alleviate the paralysis associated with starting notes, I simply have the player sing directly into playing just as Mr. Jacobs demonstrated in Deserts. The technique requires a little practice but it works very well. Eventually, the player can get the same successful result by singing, but with a slight pause before playing. Finally, they only have to think the note at the moment they play it to be free of paralysis.

Sometimes the paralysis is confined to a few notes in a certain register. It doesn’t matter where in the range paralysis occurs. The simple solution is always the same.



The paralysis is the result of not having a powerful enough awareness at the moment the player wants to create the sound. Since the subconscious brain has no awareness to respond to, it searches for the awareness by trying to feel the note at the lips. The brain desperately tries to convert the lips into ears.


"Playing by feel is like trying to drain the water out of swimming pool with a straw."

It is very important that the thought of the note occur at the same moment the player wants to play the note. Thinking of the note ahead of playing will result in failure if the thought is lost at the moment of execution. The brain will instantly try to substitute feel for awareness.

If the brass player has difficulty thinking the note, it’s because their awareness level is not high enough to dominate other distractions. Thoughts, other than the note (This feels good or bad. I hope this works.), will dominate if their awareness is too weak or nonexistent.

If a student fails to execute their starting note, I ask them, “What were you thinking about at that moment?” They frequently respond, “I hope this works.” I always reply, “Well, did that thought work for you?”

After I help bring their awareness back to the note and they play it successfully, I ask them a series of “loaded” questions.

“Were you successful because you played on a different instrument?” “NO!”

“Were you successful because you used a different mouthpiece? “NO!”

“Why were you successful?” “I had a different State of Mind!” or "I thought the note."

Apply the SBP formula to raise the awareness level high enough to execute the sound with the instrument.

Since "feeling", rather than "singing", the note can never work. The resulting failure will cause the player to experience emotional pain and physical discomfort. The protective response of the subconscious brain will react by creating paralysis.

Paralysis causes increased emotional pain and physical discomfort, which results in even more severe paralysis and pain. The end of this vicious cycle may ultimately end in total paralysis. It will associated with and ultimately influenced by the instrument.



"Feeling good is a by-product of playing correctly. You cannot play correctly by trying to feel good first."

A philosophy exists among some brass teachers that, "You can't play until it feels right (good)." They spend endless hours,usually doing extensive warming up exercises, trying to create the right "feeling" in their chops when they play.

I'm reminded of another beautiful learning opportunity presented by Bud Herseth.

One summer morning, he was asked to give a clinic, on the stage at Ravinia, to 200 trumpet players who were attending a Northwestern camp.

We had a CSO concert the evening before. I'm sure he was very tired at 10:00 the next morning. I was also tired but I was not about to miss his clinic.

The stage had not been reset from the night before so there were chairs and music stands everywhere. Bud was quite irritated about this because everyone knew the stage hands made more money than the musicians. We were never allowed to move a chair or stand. A stage hand had to be called. We would usually just slide the stand or chair with our foot.

Since no stage hands were around at that early hour, Bud started tossing the chairs and stands around himself. I could see he was upset so I rushed to the stage to help.

When the clinic started,he looked out at the sea of trumpet players (I call them doo-dahs.) and replied in a very sarcastic voice, "I suppose you want to hear my warm-up!"

He reached into his five trumpet case and pulled out the piccolo. His first notes of the day were from the 2nd Brandenburg Concerto by J.S. Bach. He played flawlessly! The doo-dahs in the audience were stunned! There was no warm-up. Did it feel good to play that music on a piccolo trumpet for his first notes of the day? No!
Did it matter? No! No! No!


"I sing the notes in my head as I play them. It doesn't matter how my lip feels or how I feel."

Herseth played by sound, not feel!


“Keep It Simple”


Create a vivid conscious awareness of the sound. The subconscious brain will respond by executing the mechanics of playing rather than to search for the sound by trying to convert the lips into ears.


The SBP formula will elevate the player's awareness to a level (“Emerald City”) which will allow their subconscious brain to order the playing mechanics necessary to realize the sound. The application of this formula has never failed my students or myself!


“I’m constantly ordering products. I don’t care how I get them.”


“Playing an instrument requires highly complex physical maneuvers. However, we must motivate the complex mechanics with a simplistic approach. It’s same as walking and talking.”

“My students have and I have failed to apply the Sing, Buzz, Play formula, but the application of SBP has never failed us.”

“We must transcend the instrument by committing our volitional thoughts to only the music. Otherwise, the mindless piece of metal will lead us to failure. We will become insecure, uncomfortable, and dissatisfied brass players.”

"Sing in your head to liberate yourself from the shackles of the instrument. Don't try to eliminate the shackles in order to sing."

"There is no reason for your success or failure other than your 'state of mind'."


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