The Music Lesson


The Music Lesson by Victor Wooten sat on my books-to-read shelf for a number of years, in part because I was not confident that a jazz bass player had much to teach me, a classical trumpeter. Turns out he has quite a lot to teach me and I have been kicking myself for not reading the book and implementing its lessons sooner. Hopefully the excerpts below will convince you to start reading today.

From The Music Lesson:

I play Music, not instruments. . .you are just a bass player. That means you play bass guitar. A true musician. . .plays Music and uses particular instruments as tools to do so. I know that Music is inside me not inside the instrument. This understanding allows me to use any instrument, or no instrument at all, to play my Music.

A true writer can write using a typewriter, a pen, a pencil or anything else that he chooses. You wouldn’t call him a pencil writer would you? Your understanding that the writing utensil is just a tool allows you to see past it and into the truth of what he is--a writer. The story is in the writer, is it not? Or is it in the pencil? Your problem is this: you have been trying to tell your story with a bass guitar instead of through it.
Page 19

You should find the groove before you start playing. It doesn’t matter whether you know the song or not. If you need to, let a few measures go by while you figure out what the groove is saying. Once you find the groove, it doesn’t matter what note comes out; it will ‘feel’ right to the listener. People generally feel Music before they listen to it anyway. Page 31

Never loose the groove in order to find a note. Page 33

If you listen closely, you can find a whole world living inside each note. Notes are alive, and like you and me, they need to breathe. Page 59

Beauty is something you experience, not something you prove. Can you tell me what beauty is, or can you only give me your perspective on it? Can science define beauty? Can you see or touch it, or can you just see and touch something that possesses its quality? Beauty is invisible, individual, and intangible. Interesting isn’t it? It is something you know, yet technically, it is not there. How can this be? Like Music, it lives inside you, and you impress its qualities on whatever you choose. Page 73

Your technique should be at such a high level that you can forget about it. Eventually you will even forget about your bass. Only then can you remember how to play Music. Think about talking. When you talk, the words are your notes. Your tongue, diaphragm, mouth, teeth, lips and so on are you instruments. How you use them to push air across your vocal cords and through your lips to form works is your technique, but you rarely think about that. When you were a baby your technique was not adequate enough to allow you to speak like everyone else. You would babble on and on trying to work it our and be understood. Not having the proper control of your instrument caused you to cry. After many months you finally developed the control allowing you to say the things you wanted to say. That made you happy. The feeling of joy encouraged you to learn more. Page 78-79

I have been warming up my whole Life for this gig. . . All the previous gigs were just rehearsals for tonight. It all leads to now. Page 133

Music is played from the mind, not the body. So do whatever you can to exercise your mind. Page 158

There is only one reason that you ever fail at anything, and that is because you eventually change your mind. Anything and everything you have ever decided to do, you have succeeded, or will succeed, at doing. It may take you a day, a year, or twelve lifetimes, but if you hold your mind affixed on the idea, it will come forth. Page 183-184

Your life is made up of a string of many different phrases. Most of these phrases were put together unconsciously. Now that you realize you only have a matter of days on this planet, it may be wise for you to start living consciously. The choice is always yours. Page 184-185

Most people work with their minds, when playing with them can be so much more effective. Page 233

All experiences as well as all Music are ordinary. It is up to you to add the ‘extra’ quality that makes something ‘extraordinary.’ But like most humans, you risk missing much of the present by putting part of yourself in future or past experiences. Page 242

My new found listening skill was one most other musicians neglected. It wasn’t that they couldn’t listen as well as I could; they just didn’t. I noticed that most musicians seemed to reserve their ears for themselves rather than open up their ears to the rest of the band. I found that when I listened to the other musicians more than I listened to myself, I played better. I realize that listening is a choice. The same is true in conversation. When I listen to other people more that to myself, I know how to respond and support them in a a better way. It also helps me know when to remain quiet. Page 244-245

The MusicLesson

I like to mark passages with important concepts so that I can refer to them quickly. I have never before marked so many passages in one book.

The Talent Code

The Talent Code
The oft repeated phrase "practice makes perfect" has recently been adapted by those in the know to "practice makes permanent." The brain will reinforce any repeated action (whether it is a desired activity or not), so practicing accurately is a key to success. Recent research, however, has shown that the 'how' of practicing is also important: practicing near the edge of ability causes much quicker improvement than does practicing in the center of the competence zone. In his book The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle examines how the brain learns, and he exposes the best practices for learning. The efficiency gained by understanding how the brain learns is truly a game changer.

Coyle identifies three key elements to learning:
  • Chunk it
  • Repeat it
  • Feel it (concentrate)

The first technique described is 'chunking'--yes, that is the actual name coined by psychologists--and it is simply the idea of taking a small piece of a larger task, mastering that piece, then moving on to the next part of the task.

The brain learns through repetition, with each repetition adding a layer of myelin to a set of synapses, thereby making them more efficient the next time that activityis repeated. The myelin will layer on undesireable activity just as easily as a preferred activity, so it is important to be accurate. The sweet spot is 'deep practice,' where one is struggling at the edge of one's abilities, thus fully engaging one's concentration; in these circumstances, synapses fire more quickly, creating more myelin.

The third technique, concentration, is perhaps the most important--it is the gateway to deep practice. If you simply 'play though' your piece, you are training yourself not to pay attention. Remember, deep concertration layers on more myelin.

The Talent Code is written to be applicable to any field, and yet Coyle draws enough examples from music that one can come away with specific practice techniques. Coyle went to the string camp Meadowmount and describes a few chunking techniques used there:

  • Changing running eighth notes into a dotted rhythm--micro chunking--forcing your brain to master two notes above tempo, then allowing a small 'rest' before tackling the next two notes.
  • Cutting a score into one-stave strips, then randomly pulling those strips out of an envelope forcing a more macro chunking. (In this instance setting a limited, specific, immediately attainable goal, thereby forcing concentration on a limited task, may be as important as the 'chunking.')

Coyle goes on to examine the techniques of great coaches and teachers and finds four fundamental elements:

  • The coach/teacher needs a thorough understanding of the material (what Coyle calls the "matrix").
  • Perceptiveness: the teacher must not simply observe errors, but understand their causes so they may be pulled put by the roots (hence the need for the matrix of knowledge).
  • The teacher must provide hyper-direct and immediate feed back that is specific, praises the good, and identifies the bad.
  • The teacher must exhibit a theatrical honesty: criticism must be honest, though not necessarily fair. They must praise their worst student for an acheivement that they would criticize in their best, meaning, and push each individual to their next step.

Finally Coyle tells us to explain the brain to our students:

"Tell [your students] how myelin works. Carol Dweck split seven hundred low-achieving middle schoolers into two groups. The first were given an eight-week workshop of study skills; the second were given the identical workshop along with something extra: a fifty-minute session that described how the brain grows when it is challenged. Within a semester the second group had significantly improved their grades and study habits. The experimenters didn't tell the teachers which group the kids were in, but the teachers could tell anyway. " --page 217

The Art of Learning

Josh Waitzkin and his effort to become a chess champion--he first won a national title at age nine--is depicted in the movie, Searching for Bobby Fisher. After mastering the game of chess, he went on to win national and international championships in Tai Chi Chuan, a form of martial arts. Mastering two disparate disciplines--one entirely cerebral, the other partially cerbral and partially physical--and winning international competitions in both suggests that Josh Waitzkin has figured out how to learn.

His book, The Art of Learning, offers solid advice on the fundamentals of efficient learning illustrated with entertaining personal anecdotes. The strength of the book is this combination of advice and illustration. I am sure that while living through the events depicted the path was not always as clear as he makes it sound, yet he has laid out an approach one can imagine following.

The book presents an approach that could be applied to any field where excellence is a goal. This is, of course, why a book drawing examples from Tai Chi Chuan and chess is of value to a musician. One can't help but wish for a companion work book that applied these techniques in a concrete manner, however, there are books that can fill the gap, and, for trumpeters, I recommend diving into Daily Fundamentals for the Trumpet by Michael Sachs with the Waitzkin approach in mind.

Usually a book of fundamentals is a collection of exercises that expose basic techniques to scrutiny. There is some of that here, but Mr. Sachs focuses on extracting fundamental exercises from whatever music you are studying. As an example. he delves deeply into the opening of the Trumpet Concerto by Joseph Haydn exposing the fundemental structure of the passage in a manner one could imagine Mr. Waitzkin using.

From The Art of Learning

"The key to pursuing excellence is to embrace an organic, long-term learning process, and not to live in a state of static, safe mediocrity." --page 33

"While I learned with open pores--no ego in the way--it seemed that many other students were frozen in place, repeating their errors over and over, unable to improve because of a fear of releasing old habits." --page 107-108.

"I have long believed that if a student of virtually any discipline could avoid ever repeating the same mistake twice--both technical and psychological--he or she would skyrocket to the top of their field."
--page 108

". . .my vision of the road to mastery--you start with the fundamentals, get a solid foundation fueled by understanding the principles of your discipline, then you expand and refine your repertoire, guided by your individual predispositions, while keeping in touch, however abstractly, with what you feel to be the essential core of the art. What results is a deeply internalized, interconnected knowledge that expands from a central personal lucus point." --page 138-139

"I started practicing. First I worked on each step slowly, over and over, refining my timing and precision. Then I put the whole thing together, repeating the movements hundreds, eventually thousands of times." --page 145

"Too many of us live without fully engaging our minds, waiting for that moment when our real lives begin. Years pass in boredom, but that is okay because when our true love comes around , or we discover our real calling, we will begin. Of course the sad truth is that if we are not present to the moment, our true love could come and go and we wouldn't even notice." --page 187

Lip Slur World Headquarters


In the summer of 2012 lip slurs started appearing in my Facebook feed. Scott Belck was working on a book of flexibilities and was trying them out on his Facebook trumpet buddies. (I don't know Scott, but I have a few friends that do and it was their comments that invited Scott's lip slurs into my Facebook feed.) I was quite taken with the exercises at the time. Scott was mixing meters and changing valve combinatons within patterns to challange trumpeters' ears along with their faces in musically intriguing ways.

In June of 2013, Modern Lip Flexibilites for Brass was published by Meredith Music and, in January of 2015, I finally got around to ordering a copy. I confess that at first glance I was somewhat diassapointed: many of the most outrageous lip slurs that Scott had posted on Facebook were not in the book. As I spent a few days playing through the exercises I realized that rather than being ourtrageous these lip slurs were approachable by nearly the entire spectrum of trumpeters and consequently very useful. There are plenty of exercises in the book that will provide a work out for the established professional, but, perhaps more importantly, there are exercises to spark interest in the progressing trumpeter.

The few lip flexibilites to be found in the Arban's are unimaginative and tedious at best, and, perhaps worst of all, can promote a 'static' approach, i.e. because there is little sense of moving forward to a goal the student can fall into mediocre breath support. Scott has written exercises that are melodically intriguing with a light scent of jazz that create a feeling of forward motion thereby enouraging good breath support. Plenty of lip slurs with enough repetition built in to work the muscles well, but with enough variety to engage the musical imagination. I already look forward to playing these!

Belck  1A-1
For a many years the core of my teaching has rested upon the A Trumpeter's Daily Routine by Michael Chunn, Technical Studies by Herbert L Clarke and the Daily Drills and Lip Flexibilites by Max Schlossberg, but I believe that this fall my students will be buying an additional book.