Let Your Ears Guide Your Practice

by Jason on October 6, 2009 · 6 comments

in Thoughts

My trusty Selmer Concept TT

My trusty Selmer Concept TT

Recently I took two weeks off from my trumpet. I know, it sounds crazy! But I was on my honeymoon and there was so much to do and see (including a whole lot of nothing!) that I just didn’t feel compelled to pick up the horn. I was quite nervous about the effect it would have on my chops and my playing, but the days passed and my trusty Selmer Concept TT sat in it’s case. I did break it out to play one tune at a jam session (see my account of that here), but other than that the metal never touched my lips for two solid weeks.

Since coming back to the horn 9 years ago I haven’t been away from it more than a couple days in a row. I always subscribed to the old adage:

If I miss one day’s practice, I notice.
If I miss two days practice, the critics notice.
If I miss three days practice, the audience notices it.
– (I have seen this attributed to Louis Armstrong, Andre Segovia, Arthur Rubenstein and Jan Paderewski)

When I got home I was excited to play, but still nervous about what would happen. And I have to say, the first day was pretty miserable. I was happy to be back in my studio and playing, but everything felt and sounded pretty rough.

On day two, however, something quite amazing happened. I decided to follow the advice of one of my great mentors, Ingrid Jensen, and just play. She said one sentence to me in a lesson that has had the greatest impact on me of anything in all my years on the horn. She told me “You have to find was to distract yourself from your own neuroses.” By this she meant that I was over-thinking things. I remembered this, blocked out all of my thoughts about what I was doing, and just blew some air through the horn. After about 5 minutes of long tones I realized that the sound had completely changed. The whole room was reverberating with the sound of each note, and playing felt effortless.

I put the horn down and sat for a minute, taking it all in, and had quite an epiphany. I realized that by blocking out all of my thoughts about process and outcome, all that was left to do was listen. I was completely focused on the sound coming out of the bell, not how or why it was coming out. And focusing on the sound allowed my ears to take over from my brain.

It hit me like a ton of bricks: my brain is constantly lying to me, but my ears never will. This is one of the main concepts of the great trumpet guru Bill Adam, who incidentally has had a profound effect on Jensen. I’ve read his thoughts and been brow-beat by Jensen and Laurie Frink, another modern trumpet guru, but it took stepping away from the horn and coming at it with fresh perspective to show me the wisdom of this teaching. When we let our brain get in the way, with all it’s neuroses and abilities to trick us, we’re not actually listening to what we’re playing. And how can we play beautifully if we’re not listening to ourselves??

Since then my practice sessions have been a complete and total joy. I can’t wait to get down to the studio in the morning to play through my routine. And each day I’ve been able to focus a little deeper on the sound coming out of my bell and block out all the other extraneous noise.

I’m still a little flabbergasted that it took laying off the horn for what seemed like a ridiculous amount of time to come to this epiphany. But that’s rather irrelevant at this point. The fact is that I’ve finally absorb the lesson Ingrid and others have been trying to teach me, and I can’t wait to see where this takes my playing.

There’s a life lesson in here too (as there so often is), but I’m still processing that…

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Art Brown October 6, 2009 at 11:21 am

Inspiring post man, thanks!

Cory Huff October 6, 2009 at 2:44 pm

Jason, thanks for sharing this. It was inspiring to read your post on practice epiphanies. I love moments like that.

Dave Anderson October 6, 2009 at 4:10 pm

or maybe it’s that honeymoons make the lips stronger…

Keith Beesley October 6, 2009 at 10:10 pm

It’s true; I don’t know why but a few days away from the instrument actually helps one’s playing. Maybe a fresh perspective, as you said? Hearing the “big picture” rather than focusing on minutiae?

Todd Reid October 7, 2009 at 6:57 am

Great post JP! You are an inspiration my man and Colbey and I are very happy for you and Darrah. This post really helped me last night at my weekly jazz ensemble. I’m a few years behind you in terms of focusing seriously on my playing but for the past 4 or 5 years I’ve been practicing and playing pretty diligently and I’ve been a bit hamstrung lately by all the thoughts running through my head while I’m playing–“Watch your hand technique!” “Uh-oh, drum break coming up!” “Trade 4’s? Oh sh*t!” So, last night I just let go and focused on what I was hearing, the sounds I was making and the sounds of the people I was playing with. Sure, I didn’t exactly nail the form of “Yesterdays” but it FELT a lot better than it ever had.

Keep it up bud! Looking fwd to your next posts.

Todd

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