Going Mental

“The mind is a terrible thing to waste,” the old adage goes. I think it especially goes when playing an instrument. It is a terrible thing to waste when we practice and just put in the time and settle for the same old sound and musicianship we are used to getting. I can’t tell you how many times I have told people to think a certain way and play the same, but with that mental image in their mind, and what a dramatic difference it makes.

Take for instance a rapid passage in a staccato style that doesn’t have the right sound. Telling someone to think longer but play the same way, almost always results in a better sound and more resonance in those short notes. By the way, no matter how short a note is it can ALWAYS have a good sound, and we achieve that by producing a ringing sound. By ringing sound I am referring to is a sound that still rings after the note is finished. This is accomplished by a sound that is energetic, pure in fundamental and produced with a fast moving air stream that starts the note speaking instantly. If you want to know what your basic sound should sound like, take your middle finger (the one you use to flip off rude people) and flick the rim of your bell with your nail. You hear that ring? That’s the ring you want in your sound. Thinking of that mental image when playing is a powerful stimulus and can change the way we sound. Now take the fleshy part of your finger and drag it across the rim of the bell. That’s what you don’t want. But I digress.

Putting your attention on what happens between notes in legato will give you a better sound and be far more reliable in tense situations. Thinking soft when you play loud and loud when you play soft will give you a much better sound. Thinking short when playing long and long when playing short will also give you a better result. The power of the mind is an awesome tool if we choose to use it. One of the most powerful mental images I have come across is the idea that when playing a legato phrase the slide doesn’t stop moving. Just the act of mentally imagining the slide is always in motion, (even though it stops in every position) causes something magical to happen. Not only does the slide flow, but the air starts to flow like it never has before. The result is a sound that is fuller, rounder and more resonant. This has worked every time I have ever had someone try it. Instead of jumping from note to note, we stride through every note, which makes a world of difference in the quality of the sound, and this with only the mind imaging it. Talk about mind over matter. Just as powerful a mental image is the one where you imagine when playing a descending natural slur on the slide, that you are dragging the air stream out with the slide. Conversely when playing an ascending natural slur with the slide, imagining that the slide is a basket which collects all of the sound and smoothly brings it up to the arrival position and note, will give you a sound and slur that is surpassed by no one.

I was thinking the other day about equipment and concepts, which are always changing and probably should be changing in order to keep progressing throughout our careers. It occurred to me, at least in my own case that I’ve come to the conclusion that the concept of using the biggest equipment you can manage and then using everything in your power to make it sound small, clear and vibrant, is the best way to approach the decision of what type of equipment to use. I guess the opposite would apply if you play very small equipment, the object would be to play as big as possible. I have told people many times, “you’ll never get a small sound out of that horn, but you can sure get a dead sound.” I’ve also said that trombonist’s should make themselves sound very big and the instrument very small and not vice-versa. All great artists have had this feature in their playing or singing, and never give the impression the instrument is too much for them. I guess you could put it this way: “carry a big stick and walk nimbly.”