Wednesday, April 14, 2010

"The Think System"


“Nobody has to teach you how to whistle. It’s really very simple. You just have to think the tune to have it come out perfectly clear.“


“Keep it simple.”

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

On several occasions, graduate students at Vandercook College of Music said, “Mr. Rocco, you are teaching “The Think System” from “The Music Man!” I was very familiar with the music, but I knew nothing about the plot.

Eventually, I had an opportunity to conduct “The Music Man” so naturally, I studied the libretto. When I discovered “The Think System”, I almost fell off my chair! Yes, I had been teaching “The Think System” for years. Also, it was nothing more than the two most important mantras of H. A. Vandercook that I had known and encouraged with my students for many years.

I immediately knew that there must have been a link between Meredith Willson and H.A. Vandercook. I asked the school historian to do some research. An hour later, he very excitedly showed me a student registration form for Stanley Willson (horn, 1941), Mason City, Iowa. Bingo!

I also knew that eventually I needed to link Stanley to Meredith. However, I was positive “The Think System” was influenced by Vandercook.

As time passed, I repeated the story to many of my graduate brass pedagogy classes. One year, a student asked, “Mr. Rocco, Why don’t we make the link between Stanley and Meredith a class research project?” I replied, “Great idea!” The next day, the same student reported that Stanley and Meredith were cousins. Bingo again!

Later, two of my students, now colleagues, presented me with an original program from the first production of “The Music Man”. It is autographed by the entire cast, and Meredith Willson. WOW!

Recently, one of those students, who has won positions with two major American orchestras, sent me the following email.

In my years of playing and teaching horn, I have learned a few truths about auditions. Many are culled from personal experience and feedback from committee members, but others are learned from Arnold Jacobs and Roger Rocco. None of these maxims are especially original, but they seem to be profound keys to success.

Audition truths

#1) Make it sound easy. Let them wonder what you can't do, so don't show them.

#2) Treat the audition like a performance. Be expressive and tell a story.

#3) Let insistence on great pulse frame your singing.

#4) Live in the moment, from your first waking moment that day
till your last note played. Don't look ahead or behind.

#5) Be a singer, not a horn player.

#6) It is vastly more essential to be mentally committed than
physically prepared.

#7) Overcome distractions!

All of these proved themselves at the semis and finals of a
recent major orchestra audition. Adversity and distractions
came in the form of equipment failure. In short, I was forced
to use three strange instruments, as my own horn had a sudden
de-soldering of the thumb key early in the day.

I borrowed two horns from fellow hornists, and even one horn
from a committee member as I walked onstage. I was able to
perform at a high level due entirely to my state of mind.
Roger had emailed me a day earlier with a mantra: "It's
just the singing!" This phrase rang through my head as I
walked onstage: "It's just the singing!" I picked up the
strange horn, and right before I committed to the first
E-flat of the Strauss First Concerto: "It's just the
singing!" How the horn responded was entirely meaningless
to me, as I was in what Jake called "storyteller" mode.

"It's just the singing!"

I didn't have the time to test the horn to know if it
were a larger bore size, more or less resistant to mine,
or even how loudly I could play without the sound edging
out. These facts are always irrelevant, and more so on
this day. I controlled what I could: my state of mind.

I am reminded of the story Roger tells of the man
drowning in a pool. His friend holds two items: one a
brick, the other a life preserver. He tells you the life
preserver will save you, but you have never seen one.
You have however seen bricks, as your house is made of
them, and feel comfortable with them.

Which one would you choose? The bricks (history of feel)
or the life preserver (singing)?

I had no choice, and in hindsight the horn breakdown
was a blessing, as it forced me to focus and showed the
committee I could deal with extreme adversity.

Made for a memorable day, one that ended in success
that I can now draw on for future use. I must say,
in hindsight, though, the distractions presented by
foreign horns is nothing compared to the distractions
of our history of playing by feel.

"It's just the singing!"


Harold Hill, the main character, is a crook. He decides to swindle the people in a small town (Mason City, Iowa) by telling them that he’s a famous professor of music. If they purchase instruments and uniforms, he promises to develop a band program. He has no intention of doing anything other than skipping town with their money.

However, he meets and falls in love with the town librarian, Marion. He decides that he wants to stay after all. As a result, he must order instruments and uniforms and teach the band how to play their new instruments. Since his educational credentials are false, he doesn’t really know what to do. After the instruments and uniforms arrive, he comes up with a “revolutionary new method of teaching music called, ‘The Think System’.”

At the first band rehearsal, and all subsequent rehearsals, Harold only asks the band to vocally sing the familiar Minuet in G by Beethoven. The band members are never asked to play their instruments because he doesn’t know how to instruct them.

In time, the parents become suspicious and investigate his educational credentials. They eventually learn that there is no Music Conservatory in Gary, Indiana and that he must be a criminal. Just as the townspeople are about to have him arrested, the band marches into the scene.

Harold instructs the band to “Think” as they play the same music they have been singing endlessly. What is heard the first time they play their instruments, is crude but the melody is recognizable. It proves that Harold is not a phony after all. Yes, “The Think System” works!


“The mechanisms of success and failure are the same.”


Maxwell Maltz was a plastic surgeon who discovered the self image by accident. He noticed that as he surgically altered the appearance of his patients, their reaction to the cosmetic changes could be categorized into one of three groups.

1. Some of the patients experienced life altering changes. Many became more successful in their careers or they found love and married.

2. Others experienced no life changes whatsoever.

3. Although their appearance had been dramatically altered, the third group could not recognize any physical change when they viewed themselves in a mirror.

His observations eventually lead to our understanding of the mind’s ability to consciously create imagery or awareness of ourselves, any object, or sound. This imagery, commonly referred to as “Creative Visualization”, is a powerful force because it motivates a powerful response from the subconscious mind.

Maltz describes how the power of visualization can be used to create accomplishment. He tells the story of a famous golf teacher who said, “If I concentrate only on where I want the ball to go, it will go there even if I’m doing everything wrong mechanically.”


“I don’t care if everything you are doing is wrong if it sounds good.”

The obvious response to Jake’s statement is that if it sounds good, if can’t be wrong.

ROBERT CARTER (The Secret of the Ages)

“Our conscious awareness is the gateway leading to the subconscious mind.”

“The Secret of the Ages is in the power of the subconscious mind.”


“We can learn to play an instrument the same way we learned to speak language.”


“I sing the notes in my head as I play them.”

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


“Playing an instrument, or doing anything else, requires complex physical mechanics. However, we must use a simplistic approach to create accomplishment.”

BARRY GREEN (The Inner Game of Music)

“Wouldn’t you like to function on your instrument with the ease of a six year old child?”


We exist in two different worlds. There is the external world that we are partially aware of through our senses. I say partially aware because we can detect only a small portion of the spectrum of light with our eyes and a very limited range of frequency with our ears. There is a lot going on around us in the external world but we have little or no awareness of its presence.

There also is a unique and powerful internal universe within our bodies. This universe provides the opportunity for us to live and function in the external world. At the conscious level, we have very little awareness of this internal world unless something goes wrong. We usually experience pain or some other discomfort.

However, the internal universe is masterfully monitored and controlled at all times by our subconscious mind in order to maintain life. It also allows our conscious mind to create accomplishments other than for life support. Although it can be argued that everything we do in the external world such as maintain a job, exercise, or acquire food is also to provide for our life support.

The subconscious mind developed immense power because the complexities of life support are much more demanding than what even the most powerful computers can achieve. The subconscious mind also has complete awareness and control over all the muscles within the body.

For instance, we understand that at all times, our heart is pumping blood, food is moving through our bodies, and we are breathing without any conscious direction. However, these functions are continuously being directed by the subconscious mind. Life support cannot be sustained without specific direction from the brain.

If we decide to move an arm and hand to pick up a glass of water, the decision of how to manipulate the body parts takes place subconsciously in response to our conscious desire to pick up the glass. It is not necessary to have an intellectual understanding of the complex motor mechanics involved in manipulating body parts.


“When we attempt to bring a subconscious function to the conscious level of thought, we destroy our ability to function.”

“Our approach to playing an instrument should be no different than the approach we use to do anything else like walking or talking.”

“We must maintain a symbiotic relationship between the subconscious (reactive) mind and the conscious (intellectual) mind. If that relationship is corrupted by our conscious interference, we lose the ability to create any accomplishment.”


“Paralysis by Analysis.”

“Think sound not mechanics.”


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

“It is best to be somewhat unconscious of our physical maneuvers, but highly conscious of our musical goals.”


The subconscious mind is reactive not intellectual. It always responds honestly and precisely to the will of the conscious mind, which is intellectual. If the will of the conscious mind is powerful and vivid, the response of the subconscious will be precisely the same. The subconscious mind cannot react independently of the conscious will. We cannot consciously decide to lift our right hand and have the subconscious mind lift the left hand instead.

Problems arise if the subconscious vision of the conscious awareness is vague, confused, or non-existent. This motivates the subconscious mind to react by searching for sound rather than responding to a vivid awareness of sound. We must motivate the subconscious mind to respond through motor systems rather than search utilizing sensory systems.


“You cannot create accomplishments using sensory system. You must motivate motor (muscle) systems.”

“The nervous system is a one way street. You cannot create function motivating sensors and muscles at the same time.”


“If you don’t have a powerful conscious awareness of the sound you want to produce, your subconscious will react by searching for the awareness somewhere else. Since the mouthpiece is on your lips, it will attempt to create a feel awareness of sound by trying to convert your lips into ears.”

“The most powerful musical awareness is achieved when we mentally sing the notes as we play them.”

“Mentally singing as we play may seem like a complicated or difficult thing to do, but it’s easy if you are highly aware of the notes.”

If we ask a child to buzz the familiar tune, “Mary had a little Lamb” on a mouthpiece, they are singing the notes in their head as they play them. It requires no instruction or conscious understanding of how it’s achieved. They just do it! If we ask them to buzz an unfamiliar melody, they don’t do it. The most common question any music teacher ever hears is, “How does this go?”

Instinctively, young music students know that they can play the music if they know how it should sound. When I’m working with young inexperienced musicians, most of what I do to create accomplishment is to communicate what the music should sound like. Once that awareness is powerfully envisioned at the conscious level of thought, their subconscious reacts by doing what is necessary mechanically to realize their musical awareness.


It’s nothing more than creating and maintaining a high level of musical awareness in the conscious mind. The subconscious will react precisely to create the necessary playing mechanics rather than search for sound awareness by feel at the embouchure.


“Attempting to play by feel is like trying to drain the water from a swimming pool with a straw.”

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

“Your subconscious mind already knows how to play the notes. It only needs to know the sound of the notes you want to play.”


Some people naturally have analytic personalities. Unfortunately, some students have analytic teachers as well. Occasionally, I have also noticed that some analytic teachers are not analytic players themselves. And, some analytic players are not analytic teachers. The most paralyzing situation is the combination analytic player and teacher instructing an analytic student. Disastrous!

Often, analytic students are drawn to analytic teachers because they are searching for false comfort rather than an opportunity for success.


“When you have an instrument in your hands, trying to find a “The Comfort Zone” is ultimately very uncomfortable.”

“Feeling good when you play is a by-product of correct playing. You cannot motivate correct playing by trying to feel good first.”

I remember when I was teaching applied tuba and euphonium at a major mid-west university. Frequently, groups of other brass students (trumpet, horn, trombone) would camp outside my studio door to listen to what was going on in the lesson. Some of the analyzers did not credit “The Think System” for the success they were hearing through the closed door.

A typical comment was, “That’s baloney!” “They have figured out what’s wrong with their embouchure and air, and eventually I will too!” Tragically, I have also heard such comments from highly accomplished professional brass players who eventually lost their careers.


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

“Sound is the criterion for how we do this and that.”


I have also heard such critical commentary as, “Yes, you must hear the notes, but you must also have a perfect embouchure and air.”




“When you accept “The Think System”, you must also reject self analysis. Like oil and water, the two can never come together. If you try to combine them, self analysis will always dominate and you will fail.”

“It is possible to have only one conscious thought at a time.”


The path to achieving success in Emerald City is not green, blue, or red. When the true path to success is clearly understood, we only have to stay on that path. The process of searching for other paths always leads to “The Witches Castle!”


The SBP formula was develop in order to directly apply “The Think System” in a powerful way.


“At times, my students and I have failed to apply the SBP formula. But the formula has never failed anyone when it was applied.”

"If someone understands how to perform, they can play on any equipment. If they don't know how to perform, they can't play on anything."

"If you are not playing well, it's because you have stopped doing what you normally do when you do play well."


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


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