Benjamin Coy


Sounding bad

May 21, 2013 at 9:07 am

Few things annoy me more than when I play poorly. Whether it’s a performance or just a daily practice session, I really don’t like sounding bad. When I do, I get very frustrated and depressed overall, and it can affect not only the next time I play, but everything else I do in the meantime as well. Yesterday I played a mock audition for a friend, and I just could not find the center of my sound. Everything was thin, bright, and forced, and I simply could do nothing to fix it. I lost confidence in my playing, lost hope that I might have a chance in the audition, and the rest of my day was a mess. I suspect I’m not alone in this: a friend recently posted on Facebook, “that practice session where you just put the horn away and look at a bottle of whiskey!” Our field requires such a high degree of execution that anything short of perfection is highly disappointing, and learning to deal with that disappointment is as important as any other skill we develop.

The first response should be to analyze why things aren’t going well. Maybe you forgot to put your tuning slides in the right place, so nothing’s sitting in the center of the partial the way you expect. Maybe the humidity is very low, and there’s just no resonance to be found in your embouchure. If you can identify what the problem is, you can either fix it or realize that it’s out of your control. After all, if the reason you can’t get a focused sound is that there’s a leak in your spit valve, you can’t really be too hard on yourself about that, but you can go get a new cork.

Sometimes, though, there’s no discernible reason. Your chops feel like concrete, and nothing you do can produce the flexibility you rely on. This is most often when we end up giving up for the day and hoping things will be better tomorrow. This is rarely the best option, though. While things may indeed be better tomorrow, they might not be better when you find yourself onstage. By practicing through the problem, you teach your body to adapt as best as it can. Over time, you raise the bar for what your worst possible performance level can be, which is probably even more important than improving your best playing. Let’s face it: we rarely do our best playing in the situations that count the most. When nerves and stage fright kick in, we perform far closer to our worst than our best. Most performance anxiety remedies focus on decreasing your reaction to the stress: that is, moving the quality of your performance closer to your best than your worst. That’s a great thing to do, but in my experience it’s unreliable and difficult. If you raise the level of your worst to something more acceptable, the consequences of playing your worst are largely ameliorated.

Michael Mulcahy says practice is like making a bank deposit. There may not be enough in your account to buy a new instrument right now, and the $20 in your pocket isn’t going to fix that. But, over time, if you keep adding your $20, the account will grow, the interest will accumulate, and you will be financially healthy. Psychological research suggests that ten thousand hours is a rough estimate for how much practice is required to master a skill, particularly a musical instrument. Your one or two hours right now won’t reach that goal, but if you don’t allocate them now, you’re setting yourself back and will have to allocate them later. As Mulcahy says, don’t worry so much about how you sound today; your current account balance is not the point. Make sure you do your work today, and when it comes time to make your withdrawal, you will have sufficient funds.

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