What you do with your brain is ten times more important than what you do with your instrument

I had the pleasure this week of speaking via Zoom to the brass students and professors at Arizona State University. Thank you to Brad Edwards for thinking a little outside the box by inviting me and for setting it all up.

In his invitation to everyone, Brad highlighted the book I wrote with Dr. Rodney Brim, The Brain-Friendly Method for Musical Excellence. In fact, Dr. Brim came up with the title of this article a while back.

Because of Brad’s remarks about the book, I took that as the lead for my talk and spent the hour talking about the brain.

I spent that entire time on the one topic because the real instrument we all play is between our ears. Did you know that?

Consider the mechanical contraption called a piano, sax, bass, trumpet, trombone or whatever you play. It is simply the translator and amplifier of your real instrument.

Do you think Trane was great simply because he had quick fingers? Miles because he had good lungs? Bird because he had the best alto?

Too many musicians lead their improvisation, or any type of playing for that matter, with their mechanical instrument. Their horn. By the word, “lead”, I mean that their actual production of notes is primary. They draw from their catalog of scales, patterns, or licks to make that the engine of their music-making.

In my talk this week, I mentioned a subscriber – an aspiring jazz player – who wrote me stating that he’s learned the vocabulary but he can’t tell interesting stories. He was self-aware enough to hear the problem but was seeking a solution.

If that sounds oddly familiar to you, I have a big part of the solution for him and for you.

In your quiet moments when you’re feeling somewhat creative, imagine playing your instrument as you would if you could. If fresh engaging melodies could flow through your fingers or mouth throughout the entire range of the instrument. Try to imagine that now. If technique were no longer an issue and if you could play anything you fantasized, how would you sound?

If you were rid of all the self-doubt about talent or physical prowess, what music might come out of hiding? Imagine the rhythm section playing a blues right now. What is your mind performing with that imaginary rhythm section that hears every nuance in your playing and follows you flawlessly?

“That’s all very nice Mike, but how does that help me play trumpet better?”

Well, the most important first step is to prove to you that there is wonderful music inside you. If you’ve been thinking that your music starts and ends with your trumpet, you haven’t been listening. You’ve only superficially tapped into your musical reservoir. And you wonder why you don’t tell interesting stories when you stand up to improvise!

Your must better connect your musical mind to your instrument. Think of it as a massive tank of water with a hose laying on the ground nearby. You pick up the hose and whirl it around trying to get whatever water is inside it to come out, but without much success. What you should do is connect it to the water tank and open the spigot.

The analogy is to better connect your musical mind to your mechanical instrument so that the music you imagined earlier will flow out of your tenor sax.

That was a long way to go in order to get to this point, but you first have to be convinced that you even have a reservoir of music inside you and then to realize that the central obstacle is that your mechanical instrument is not connected to that reservoir. Not nearly well enough.

It wasn’t Trane’s fingers. His tenor was an extension of his imagination. Miles’ trumpet was an extension of his abundantly creative mind. The hose was connected, the spigot was wide open, and gravity took care of the rest.

So how do you make or strengthen that connection? Try this right now. Grab your instrument or sit at the piano. Go ahead… I’ll wait here.

Sing a pitch out loud. Get over being self-conscious about your voice quality. Sing a pitch. Now without thinking about it, play it on your instrument. How many notes did it take to find it?

This is not a test, and your clear realization of that is much more important than you realize. There is no good or bad here – just what is. It took you five notes to land on the pitch you sang. Good for you. Try it again and see if you can do it in four. This may not come easily to you simply because you’ve never done it before.

Next, sing Happy Birthday in whatever key feels comfortable. Get the tune fresh in your mind. Now play it on your instrument in any comfortable key. Was that easy? If not, play it again but this time, stop thinking about it. I know you are. There’s a very loud and busy dialog going on your head, isn’t there?

Your musical mind is probably much better connected that you realize, but your thinking and self-talk is getting in the way of flow. Sing another note. This time honestly don’t care whether you find the note right away or not. Truly do not give a damn. Just play it.

Click the image below and download this important tool for connecting your musical mind to your instrument

Play Happy Birthday again and this time don’t care about right notes, just play it. Was that better? Now play it one whole step below where you just played it. Is that more difficult? Sing Happy Birthday starting on that note. Now play it again on that note.

Developing this skill or any skill requires that you get good at being your own teacher – in coming up with exercises and ways of practicing that go to the core of the skills you need to improve. Yes, go get a teacher but they will not be a substitute for your full-time work of teaching yourself – exercising mind and instrument based on ideas like this article or from your teacher. We give you the ideas and guidance but you do the work to internalize those ideas and guidance. To make them automatic.

If these thoughts and exercises resonate with you, go to the home page here at altobone.com, scroll a bit until the orange pop-up emerges from the bottom right. Enter your instrument and then answer the next question honestly about your biggest struggle musically. Once you submit that answer, you’ll immediately receive your first email with an ebook generated by the challenge you identified. Then a few days later, another related tool arrives in your inbox.

Unsubscribe if you don’t want them, but if you do want to take the ideas within this article much further, play along for a while.

You just might discover that your hose was connected all along, but you were too busy frantically whirling that poor hose everywhere to simply notice that the spigot was closed.

2 Comments

  1. Klaus Werner Pusch on April 19, 2020 at 12:32 am

    Dear Michael,

    In order to achieve all that what you are stating, a good daily exercise is to regularity meditate, which is something else what the great Arnold stated…concentrate on your breathing and stop this consistent flow of thinking…a good execute to calm down and get rid of negative memorising of the past and questioning the future, which both refrain you from enjoying the very moment…and making beautiful music.

    Thanks for this valuable lecture and proposal.

  2. Roberto on April 19, 2020 at 2:32 am

    Grand idea

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