Overcoming Psychological, Technical and Musical Plateaus

(Originally posted 5/16/2017)

At some point in every musician's journey, he reaches a plateau in the never-ceasing pursuit of perfection. This may manifest itself as a technical, musical, or psychological hinderance and will become exceedingly frustrating until its removal. The most successful way to remedy this road block is to return to the basics of playing and thinking - identify what is important, and what is not. 

At the root of all music is the concept that it should be fulfilling to the listener. It is less important that the performer enjoys himself, and more so that the listeners capture the essence of the performed work. The notion that every time a musician plays he becomes enamored by the music is misleading. Yes, there are touching moments throughout the years of performing, but these are spontaneous and come at unassuming times. But in the professional world, work can often become tedious and repetitive, leading to a lack of motivation that may cause a mental road block. This is the most dangerous situation to encounter since it will inevitably cause the deterioration of technical and musical concepts. Entirely too often musicians only care about how they played during a concert, when that is secondary to the goal. Instead of focusing on themselves, musicians should work to please, or challenge, the audience. In this manner, music supersedes the individual desire to "play well" and allows the musician to focus on the important aspects of music. In time, this method will alleviate the psychological road block since it focuses the mind away from personal critique and onto making the music speak to the listener.

Stunts in musical growth come when there is much repetition in literature or style of playing. This problem will often plague students who enter audition or recital preparation, and also effects professionals who play in one ensemble for the majority of their career. The simplest solution is literature and style diversification. When not working, or preparing for an upcoming performance, pull out any and every piece in the library that contrasts stylistically with the "norm." This will keep your brain engaged musically and will allow you to approach the required music with a refreshed sense of purpose. 

When hitting a road block with technique, return to the simplest form(s) and rework everything in a systematic and detailed progression. Unless there is a glaring issue to address, diagnose your playing starting with air flow, asking these questions, "Is my air stream relaxed, but energetic?" "Am I blowing out consistently, or are there bumps in the stream?" "Is there unnecessary tension in my throat, jaw, abdomen, upper chest, tongue?" Once you answer these questions satisfactorily, then move on to these questions regarding embouchure, "Are my lips vibrating freely and without unnecessary tension?" "Do my lips respond immediately to the slightest stimulation of air in all registers?" "Am I rolling in/out or adding tension in any register?" "Can I play the same range/good sound without rolling in/out?" "Can I move quickly around the horn while keeping the same embouchure set and with significant ease?" "Am I pivoting to the point of deterioration in my embouchure?" "Does my horn angle align with my dental structure?" When those questions are resolved, troubleshoot articulation, "Can I articulate clearly and clean in all registers at pp, p, mp, mf, f, ff, fff?" "Can I double/triple tongue in all registers with ease and delicacy?" "Is there an airy sound before the articulation?" "Is there a pause before the articulation?" "Does the air stream remain constant through the articulation?"

By asking these simple questions, you will find areas that need work in your playing. That is a good starting point to overcoming the technical road block. However, SOUND should still be at the forefront of your mind while pursing these projects. While some of these questions will lead to better sound production and efficiency, always demand a great sound each time you play - especially when troubleshooting. 

hile road blocks are frustrating, a systematic approach will help shorten the duration of the problem. I hope these ideas will help alleviate the frustration caused by mental and technical plateaus. 

Philip Hembree