My good brother Isaac Wriston asked me a great question on Thursday night. What is our biggest challenge as brass players? Instagram has a new “Questions’ feature, and I decided to take it for a spin and answer that question and many others in the “Stories” section of my account @phillytrumpeter.
More than practicing daily drills or perfecting etudes, even more than learning recital pieces and excerpts, and still more than shedding standards and internalizing chord changes, the biggest challenge to us as brass musicians is our own egos.
BRASS PLAYERS ARE AFRAID
People confuse the term “ego.” To many, ego probably means cockiness or arrogance. However, to me, ego means pride. When our ego gets in the way, it means we are afraid to be wrong. As musicians, this usually means we sacrifice the physical means to produce optimal musicality. We are afraid of losing control - as if we are white-knuckling a steering wheel - because we don’t want to crack a note. Cracking equals death because the conductor will fire you, and you’ll never get another job again, and you’ll never be able to pay for food or heat again, and you’ll shrivel up and die, homeless on the street.
That’s fairly accurate, btw...the overreaction, I mean; not actually dying because we crack a note.
See that’s the thing, though. In most ensembles, if you crack a note you won’t get fired. If you miss a lot all the time, sure, maybe you’re not cut out for the gig. Baseball players are praised for hitting safely three out of ten times. Quarterbacks are heralded for their accuracy when they complete 60% of their passes, and you’re a boss if you hit 40% of your shots from 3 in basketball. Mistakes are part of the game, so why worry about them so much?
What we are really doing is working against ourselves. Not only are we losing energy because we are stressed about missing, but we are also not breathing deeply enough to take in the necessary air TO HIT THE NOTES WE’RE WORRIED ABOUT MISSING! It’s a frustrating cycle.
We can work on our embouchure strength, dexterity, multiple tonguing, scales, etc., but the bottom line is when it’s time to perform, if we don’t stay relaxed and just breathe, none of it matters.
Breathing is what fuels us. We are no different from anyone else that uses his or her body to perform. Runners, weightlifters, football players, gymnasts, swimmers, etc. all need to breathe well to perform well. I know that for a long time I was afraid of breathing too much air too quickly for fear of passing out. It wasn’t until I started meditating and focusing on breathing with intention that I became ok with deep breathing.
MEDITATION AND RELAXATION
Speaking of meditation, two things: 1) It has helped me calm down in MANY stressful situations and 2) It is not at all weird to just sit for a couple of minutes and concentrate on breathing. That is all it is. There is no voodoo. If it’s guided, there is a voice that is directing your thoughts to something other than the 346 things you have left to do that day.
Thoughts don’t go away, but you can use meditation to harness them and let them float somewhere else that is not so in front of you. I remember the first time it worked for me in a performance situation. It was Christmas 2016.
Long story short, I used to play Christmas and Easter services at a church 45 minutes north of Pittsburgh. Once I moved to the Philadelphia region in 2010, I had to drive back to Pittsburgh the day of the first services, and I noticed that gripping the steering wheel made my hands super shaky. That, of course, made it extremely difficult to keep the trumpet steady on my face. These services involved heavy playing, so the first time it happened, I freaked out big time. I eventually got used to it and tried tricks like only driving with one hand at a time or keeping my elbows down and using my fingers to steer (it was mostly straight interstate).
Nothing really worked until I realized that I could use meditation to calm myself down about the situation. My fear had always made things worse, so why not just meditate (i.e. concentrate on breathing) and see what happens? Well, it worked, and I calmed down enough to have a pretty good first service!
THE BOTTOM LINE
When we stop worrying about making mistakes and start appreciating the information we receive, aka what not to do, we give ourselves permission to take the risk of missing for the much bigger reward of doing a piece of music justice. However, what you’ll likely find is that your improvement is exponentially quicker because with your newfound process of elimination, you are learning what TO do instead.
Next time you play a difficult piece you’re struggling with, record yourself playing. Make the mistakes, and listen back to it. Were you tentative? Did you back off as the passage came up, as if you were about to hit the jump ramp but backed off the gas?
When you play it again, really go for it. Exaggerate dynamics, and then listen back one more time. Instead of listening for the misses, point out how much the phrase improved. If there is still a cracked note, take even more notes, but don’t sacrifice the music for the safety of a clean line.
Everyone makes mistakes, but not everyone makes music.
Let me know in the comments your worst performance horror story. We all have them, and once they’re out there, it’s like an exorcism - they can’t hurt you no more!