Friday, March 5, 2010

Master of Failure


“I have personally experienced your worst moment of failure. I hope you never have an opportunity to experience mine.”

“Failure is an opportunity to learn.”

“We must accept a certain amount of failure as an element of creating success. However, we don’t have to like it!”

“Although I never enjoyed what was happening to me during my worst moments of failure, I’m grateful they occurred. I now have a unique opportunity to help others.”

When a student comes to my studio, they are completely transparent. There is nothing going on, either positive or negative, that I have not personally experienced. On many occasions, I have worked with brass players, who possess impressive academic credentials, but are unable to play their instrument.

For many years, Jake did not allow a doctoral degree program on tuba at Northwestern University.


“If you can play, you don’t need an advanced degree. If you can’t play, I refuse to allow a piece of paper as a substitute.”

I frequently asked, highly credentialed but struggling students, what their former teachers said about their failure. I recall one particular response.

“He didn’t understand why I couldn’t play and he also didn’t understand why he could.”

In every instance, their former teachers were excellent brass players themselves, but they didn’t understand the failure of their students.


Here is a question I commonly ask students of all ages and stages of development after we have created some success in a lesson.

“Has anyone ever said anything to you about air or embouchure?”

The reply is usually, “Yes!!!”

My response is always, “Have I said anything about those words to you?”

The replies vary from, “NO” to “I’m not sure.” Sometimes they think I did, so they respond by explaining what someone else said to them. I quickly remind them that I said nothing about air or embouchure. I follow up with the question,” Was it necessary for me to discuss those words for your success?” The obvious response is always, “No!”




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

“Paralysis by Analysis.”


“Take in a large breath every time you breathe.”

“Breath can only be motivated by the player’s concept of sound,

“Sound motivates function.”

“While playing, we can only have a vague awareness of air at the conscious level. However, we can have a vivid awareness of sound.”

“When you treat only the symptoms of failure rather than the cause, you will create more failure.”

“Embouchure malfunction and breath resistance are only symptoms of a problem with the brass player’s state of mind.”

“There are many fine brass players in the world, but great teachers are rare.”

“Too often, applied brass teachers are hired solely for their performance ability.

It is wrongfully assumed that if someone can play an instrument well, they will also be successful teachers. Teachers should be evaluated on the success of their students as well as their own playing ability.”


The Double Barreled Shotgun

When the air column of a brass instrument rejects the vibrations that are being created in the mouthpiece, the player experiences emotional pain and physical discomfort. Rejection occurs when the air column cannot accept a non-sympathetic frequency.

The unpleasant physical symptoms of rejection are embouchure malfunction and breath resistance. Most often, brass players and their teachers attempt to correct their embouchure and air.


“There is plenty of air creating the bad sounds coming from your instrument. If your problem was the lack of air, there would be no sounds.”

“In all my years of teaching, I have never encountered any brass player with an embouchure problem. However, I have met many who think they have a problem.”

I recall the time in 1973 when I found myself working daily with some very insecure brass players in the Honolulu Symphony. It was an unfamiliar experience because I was accustomed to playing with some of the finest brass players in the world in Chicago.

Gradually, I began to notice a deterioration of my tone, it was becoming more difficult to play, and I was losing accuracy. I also noticed that my chops didn’t
“feel right”, tonguing was difficult, and I was no longer taking in large breaths.

My playing felt uncomfortable and insecure so I was not a “happy camper”. Jake was five thousand miles away so I was on my own. Incidentally, the very same thing happened to my successor in the orchestra. Later, I was able to help him recover also.

Over the years, I noticed a problem that occurred with some of Jake’s students, including myself. When we went off on our own, we tried to bring him with us! That would have been wonderful if we brought the “musical” Jake. But too often, it was “analytical” Jake. He always told his students not to analyze themselves when they played. However, we all new we were being analyzed by him.

As I began to analyze why my chops, tongue, and air were not functioning, everything began to work less and less until I could not play at all. I was not strolling down the “Yellow Brick Road” to Emerald City. I headed directly for the “Witches’’ Castle”.

At age twenty-six, I was young and motivated enough to find my way back from total devastation. My personal process of recovery gave me exceptional insights into what causes failure and what is necessary to create success. If I had known then what I know now, there never would have been a crash.


“It’s normal for us to want to treat the symptoms of failure if we don’t understand the cause.”

“If we truly understood the cause of our failure, there would be no failure.”

It’s also normal for us to want to eliminate or prevent physical discomfort or emotional pain. There is a protective reflex in the subconscious mind that wants to protect us from physical and emotional harm.

Unfortunately the reflex which prevents us from touching a hot stove can eventually have the same reaction to the instrument in our hands. The negative conditioning increases in time as the player creates a history of failure. In time, they may become partially of fully paralyzed.


“Once negative conditioning is established it cannot be undone. It must be replaced with positive conditioning.”

“Positive conditioning, associated with playing an instrument, can only take place if there is a history of success playing the instrument.”



“Self analysis motivates the sense of feel which stimulates very weak input to the brain. As a result, playing mechanics are inhibited rather than encouraged.”

To create successful note execution, we must encourage motor function which is the stimulation of output from the subconscious brain. Successful output can only come from the subconscious because the mechanics and awareness’s involved are much too numerous and complex for the limited intellect of the conscious mind. It is possible to have only one conscious thought at any given moment.

Unfortunately, traditional brass pedagogy encourages self analysis. It is not necessary to study lips in order to produce sound just as it isn’t necessary to study vocal chords to do the same. We don’t study the mechanics of breathing in order to breathe and we don’t study the tongue in order to speak or chew.

It is our desire for and awareness of accomplishment that motivates the mechanics necessary to achieve whatever we want.


“I order products but I don’t know a thing about how they are delivered.”

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

“I want you to have the mind of a child.”

(The Inner Game of Music)

"Would you like to play with the ease of a six year old child?"


“When we play an instrument, we must use the same simplistic approach to creating the complex physical maneuvers that allow us to successfully do all other functions in life, such as walking and talking.”


When we talk, it’s our conscious awareness of the sound of words that motivates the mechanics necessary to realize speech. We are not consciously thinking about air, vocal chords, or the tongue. As children, we didn’t learn to speak language by consciously studying mechanics. Given enough time, our subconscious mind figured out the mechanics based on the motivating awareness of sound.

We have all heard stories about very successful musicians and singers who never had a lesson in their lives. For example, I’m reminded of the great Cuban trumpeter and pianist, Arturo Sandoval.


“I was a very successful brass player until my first teacher came along.”

“We must give dominance to music, not an instrument.”


My personal recovery, and that of the many people I have encountered in the last forty years of my career, has been motivate by an altered state of mind.

That alteration was to become much less aware of how playing feels and the awareness of playing mechanics to becoming committed to the awareness of sound. That is how I created success in the past before I drifted into the abyss of mindlessly using the sense of feel as a motivator of playing mechanics.


“Feel and fail are four letter words to a brass player.”

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

When I finally realized that there was nothing wrong with my embouchure, lungs, tongue, or fingers, I became liberated to focus all my energy on the sound I wanted to produce.


“The brass player should focus 90% of their intellect on the sound they want to produce. If they do, there will be only be a peripheral (10%) awareness of how playing feels and what we are doing (mechanically).”

"It is best to be somewhat unconscious of our physical maneuvers and highly conscious of our musical goals."

“It’s not what you sound like that is important. What’s important is what you want to sound like.”

“I sing the notes in my head as I play them. It doesn’t matter how my lips feels or how I feel.”


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


“When encountering problems technically or musically, first sing, buzz, then transfer the singing and buzzing to the instrument.”

“Sound is the criteria for how you do this and that.”

"Think sound not mechanics."


"The first teaching point is tone."


For many years, I have prescribed a formula of vocally singing and buzzing in sets of three repetitions. The sets are repeated until the awareness of sound is powerful enough to transcend all distractions, including feel and the mindless collection of brass tubing in our hands.


“At times, my students have failed to apply the Sing, Buzz, Play formula, but the formula has never failed them when they did apply it.”

“We must create a history of success in order to create an expectation of success.”




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