The Think System

by Kirk Lundbeck

In Meredith Wilson’s musical “The Music Man” Professor Harold Hill taught River City’s children the “Think System.” “Think the notes and just play the notes,” according to the story. Though in The Music Man the main character had no interest in teaching music and was just trying to scam the town of River City of its money, the thought of visual imaging in music has its validity. Just as a professional golfer uses this technique to “see” his shot before playing the shot, a musician can “hear” and even “see” the notes to be played prior to making any audible sound. The “Think System,” in this context, isn’t a scam at all.

I’m a professional trombonist disguised as a golf professional and being in both of these professions I have found a myriad of correlations between the two. Both playing golf and playing trombone takes determination and diligence, as anything worthwhile does, however neither are as difficult as most of us make it. Both need rhythm and timing to be performed well and both use less effort than most of us think. Most, who play golf, swing too hard; use too much body motion in creating a swing and work too hard during the motion itself. Trombonists try to move the slide to fast so it beats the air to the note, use too much body motion while playing and work too hard, by tightening up to try to produce a good quality sound. Playing trombone, like playing golf is relaxed concentration. As an example; the medium to high handicap golfer standing on the first tee of his local course during his yearly attempt at the club championship will tighten up and hit his ball way off line or top it off the tee. I’ve seen it time and time again. He worries about that shot for a longtime before he ever gets to the tee and has thought every possible negative shot he can. The result is then, just as expected, horrible. The same thing happens to the average or better trombonist waiting for his or her first entrance in Ravel’s Bolero. The worrying and doubt begins long before the sax solo. The player says, “Don’t miss the B-flat, and if you’re lucky to hit the B-flat don’t miss the D-flat. Trombone playing and golf both will fail with negative thoughts, almost every time. Conversely, using positive mental imaging can make the ball soar and the horn sing.

Positive mental imaging begins as soon as the horn comes out of the case. When I prepare for my daily practice sessions I make sure my equipment, in this case my horn and all other practice components like a metronome, tuner, etc, are ready for use. The horn is clean, the slide and valve are well lubricated and my music is in the order I wish to practice. There is no randomization of my practice sessions, they are all planned and controlled. The same holds true for me in golf. My clubs are clean, my glove, balls, shoes, etc are ready for use. I have everything in order to optimize each practice session. This process, done regularly only takes a very short period of time and gives you the opportunity to perform well, in either golf or the trombone. The image created in the minds eye is “I have the proper equipment, now I can perform.” Each practice session, whether on the links, at the range, in the practice room or in rehearsal is always a concert performance or a tournament atmosphere for me. I always try to make the very best sound or take the very best swing I can, period.

Once I’m prepared to play then I can begin. Before I play the very first note of the day I visualize it. I “see” the note in my minds eye. I see its shape. For example I start each trombone practice session with long tones and slow lip slurs between partials. I visualize a block of sound, a definite beginning and a long rectangular shape with a definite end. Again, a block of pure sound. Then in my minds ear, I “hear” the sound: Its warmth, its fullness and its purity. Once I “see” and “hear” the note in my head I begin to play just what my mind has already heard. Some of the first notes I’ve played have been the most wonderful sounds I’ve ever produced. I do the same technique when I begin my lip slurs. I “see” in my minds eye the hills and valleys of the full slurs and “hear” the slurs in my head as perfect voice slurs with no breaks, or what I call “clicks” between partials. Once I’ve heard and seen the slurs I begin to play. The whole time I’m playing I’m thinking fundamentals, playing my horn while seated properly, with a good posture and proper air support. I never get lazy on the proper fundamentals of playing. The same thing holds true with golf. I start with the visualization of a good swing, the proper motion and the proper fundamentals. Once I “see” in my minds eye the swing and shot I want to make I proceed with hitting my shorter clubs, with a smooth and relaxed swing, creating the shot I have already seen. More often than not, the shot is beautiful, the ball flight is perfect and the shot feels pure. This structure of practice continues throughout my practice sessions, with the trombone or with my clubs.

The relationships between golf and the trombone continue. Playing a legato slur between partials is like hitting a ball off the tee with a driver. In the slur, your column of air has to beat the slide to the note, as if the slide is being pushed to the note by the air stream. Not the opposite. In hitting a driver your hands and arms have to lead the clubhead to the impact zone, the clubhead has to be lead, it’s not the leader. Just as the slide isn’t the leader in the legato slur. The visual image of a column of air leading the slide to the note makes the slur pure. The visual image of the hands and arms leading the clubhead through the impact zone makes the ball jump off the face of the club. Playing staccato is like hitting a 1 or 2 iron stinger. In staccato the importance lies in the beginning of the note. Preparation of the attack, position of the tongue and the use of the air makes this staccato attack complete, just as the position of the club and the attack of the ball with the club through the impact area to make that 240 yard stinger work. Both visual images relate with one another simply and completely.

Playing a solo performance in front of audience or hitting a shot into the 18th green in a golf tournament in front of a gallery are very much the same thing. In both cases you use visual imaging to “see” and “hear” in your minds eye what you are creating, whether it be the perfect slur, the perfect attack or the perfect 8 iron. What it all comes down to is sound fundamentals, dedication, diligence, proper preparation and developing your minds eye to “see” and “hear” and finally transferring that to the task at hand. Learning to visualize or hear in your mind what you want your sound to be before you actually play your horn will allow you the opportunity to create that sound. You and your teacher can help you find your sound. Once that has been found never try to play without making that sound. There is a finite number of times we are allowed to play our instruments, never play your horn without conviction and make the most of every opportunity you have.


Kirk Lundbeck “Bached” into a corner with a few of his Bach horns. A New York Model 6vii, a LT8, a LT36GC, a LT42G with Greenhoe valve, a LT42TG with Thayer and a LT45B with a traditional rotor.