One thing that makes our performance and practice unnecessarily difficult is the weight of our Western culture that we carry. You can see visible signs of it in yourself and others in a number of places. Cultural expectations show up in tense muscles, all competing to take over performance, wresting it from the nonverbal part of the body who has been in fact practicing everything all along, and in the face, notably the eyes and eyebrows. A clam in performance is enough to twist eyebrows into knots. Or eyes wince. Or the head shakes. The culture’s attitude is, Be Perfect All the Time. Or: If at first you don’t succeed (brilliantly), quit. The culture demands perfection, and this is a great impediment to learning. Perfection is a goal. It’s not just distant – the supposed last level on the quest of mastery – it’s imaginary. It provides direction, but culture demands that we feel not just directed or motivated, but dissatisfied because we’re not there. After all, there are examples everywhere! Listen to any CD – it’s all perfect! (OK, so there were three hundred takes). Your face/body isn’t perfect? Feel bad! Just look at all the perfect specimens on magazine covers (OK, so even the most gorgeous have been Photoshopped to a fair-thee-well). You’re really, really good? Feel bad (screams The Culture)! There are still people better than you! There are always people better than you!
Everyone is at a different place along this path of development. We learn from the “imperfections” we produce on the way, and we should be deriving a sense of satisfaction (though not complacency) if we are paying attention to our mistakes (a natural part of the process), learning from them, adjusting, trying again, achieving, repeating, and moving on to new mistakes, but a little closer to the goal this time. Our ego should have been parked at the door, but like the various images of possessions, hair styles, body shapes, and so on that our culture is trying to sell us as must-have-or-feel-bad material, we get sucked into the game and mix our egos up in it and feel bad/frustrated/disappointed/anxious etc etc if we are not yet perfect this week once again. And this, besides feeling bad, retards learning even more.
I gave a lesson yesterday to a new student who was very earnest, trying very hard. When they got an “unexpected result”, the eyebrows immediately tensed and twisted. They were unaware of the editorial commentary of their eyebrows, but we did a little playing in the mirror and the truth came out. Before you can effectively work on a passage, you need to set the stage for practice. The basis for effective practice (of anything) is being alert, focused, and free of tension, and – the most difficult – keeping your ego out of it. Ego interference is characterized by the identification of your self-worth with the results of your efforts, e.g. No Mistakes = Good Person, Some Mistakes = Bad Person. Neither is correct. A mistake is information (and valuable information at that) that something needs to be changed to achieve success. Getting the right note is not a sign of personal virtue. In the practice room it is an indication that you have found the right combination of air and aperture to get the job done that time; but your job is not complete until you can repeat that action many times and get the same success, i.e. achieve consistency. You also have to double check that you got the desired result through the right process. It’s possible and even easy to force the result (e.g. use too much mouthpiece pressure to get up to a high note) – but in that case you’re much worse off than if you had use the most effective process (air/aperture) and ended up a little too high or too low. If you have the process correct, the fine calibration of tweaking the too high/low is relatively easy to accomplish. But if you got lucky and got the “right note” by mashing the mouthpiece, you will have a very difficult task of achieving consistency that way, because biceps pressure is very approximate.
So we have to fight the siren song of contemporary culture that whispers “Product! Product! Product!” in our mind’s ear and seduces into looking for shortcuts. Product will emerge from the process. You can always force product, but at a high cost. Development is a continuum; it’s vastly preferable to get the “wrong” result with the right process than vice-versa. If you have a wide slur, it’s more important that you get there in the right way, than force it. Once you’re on the right track, you can tweak the result through small successive adjustments. Getting a “correct” result through forcing only reinforces forcing and pays no dividends in consistency.
I check eyebrows right away. Scrunched brows may indicate ego involvement, which 1) indicates unnecessary tension and 2) predisposes the player to forcing (more unnecessary tension). Eyebrows announce that product, not process is the most important thing, and thus the player may be missing the valuable information that comes with “unexpected results.” Every note, every phrases comes loaded with useful technical information. Stay relaxed and focussed and you will be able to use it, and you will learn relatively quickly. Recoil from the unexpected result and hurry to stab out another effort (and another) without reflection – this is the “Hope System” – and progress will be inconsistent and slow, and the likelihood of bad habits elevated.
Give your eyebrows the day off. The week, the year off. Make horn life simple and enjoyable. Simply watch what happens with a keen eye, ear, and kinesthetic awareness, but without tension, judgment, or emotion (either disappointment or pride or any cousins of these two). The is the Zone you want to be in. If you can get past the teachings and gatekeepers of contemporary culture, it is a very nice place to be.