I’m not meant to be musician

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ISSN: 2254-8521


I’m not meant to be musician


In this article, professor Jordi Albert talks about the difficulties that arise with teaching that we may face as musicians, as well as emotions and the question of the general idea of what talent is or isn't.

Jordi Albert

Professor of Trumpet at Jordi Albert Studio Motor Rehabilitation Center for Musicians (Spain)

» Jordi Albert in the Encyclopedia of Trumpet Players

WARNING! Everything mentioned here may be applicable to other instruments, but the text is originally intended for trumpet players. Although research has been done on other groups of instruments, the main objective of our investigation is that of trumpet players

It is very difficult to learn to play a musical instrument that, when speaking in regards to any learning difficulties, it is almost 'pedagogically incorrect' and, in a sense, redundant in nature.

The vast majority of musicians have dealt with a tone "that doesn’t speak" or some aspect of technique (perhaps several aspects) that have become very difficult to obtain. And, of course, we immediately think that we have little talent.

As for the interpretation, needless to say, you either “have it” or you don’t “have it”. You hear phrases like "you don’t study enough", "you better dedicate yourself to something else", "you started too late", "this isn’t for you", and "it takes too much effort for you", etc. These are phrases we often hear, or even worse, we ourselves have passed on to others. Every time we have said "I can’t do it", we have said it to punish ourselves, because we have assumed that punishment is good and it will lead us to success. And if we say "yes, I can do it", then we will not progress because we think it could always be better another way. We believe that by being self-demanding, it is good for us and will help us.

If we want to put our best foot forward, our method is normally to use repetition, hoping that during one of these repetitions our talent will sprout and give flight. One book after another, a new idea every day. "Hey, John, what mouthpiece do you play on? What books are you studying out of? Which conservatory do you attend?”. We try to find parallels between others and what they do in order to find the winning 'talent lottery ticket'. We believe that the more hours we practice, the more likely we will succeed — because if we have eight mouthpieces, five teachers and 20 books, then we have it all covered, right?

At other times, we decide to think that we do not have talent and that is an excellent excuse to eventually stop trying: "I can’t do it, the trumpet is not for me", "we have to be born a certain way to play the trumpet well". We even compare ourselves with other trumpet players and we console ourselves with phrases such as "well, they were born with great chops”. We do not look at the hours a person invests and how those hours are invested, or the passion that person has and the way they act. This doesn’t seem to matter to us. We simply think that when this person plays, it simply 'comes out', that it’s just that easy. But it’s not easy for every one of us — we believe that it doesn’t work for us because we don’t have any talent, so we better just watch TV for a while or do something else for our enjoyment.

No one person is 'born with great chops'. How fortunate is it that our children do not enter the world with trumpets, telescopes, painting palettes, encyclopedias, etc.? Humans have bodies and minds that can potentially be developed to fulfill all kinds of tasks, and in that process of development is the center of educational research of the twenty-first century. Now, we understand our potential capacity for learning and how we can develop it. All children learn to count, learn to read, learn complex operations, and solve problems, right? And, as all can do, all must do; and as all must do, then the government should provide the education. But... that's another issue altogether.

However, all these above statements were not so clear 150 years ago. Not all could do, therefore not all should do. The children of the 'laborers' (the poor, the indentured) perhaps only learned the very basics. And so, the caste system was perpetrated generation after generation. And why? Because we did not see our potential as equal amongst all of mankind.

“Look, ma'am”, a schoolteacher tells a mother, “your 8-year-old son is having a lot of trouble with his arithmetic. The truth is, Michael is not very good at math. It’s better that he dedicates his time to doing something else. He began his studies at a late age, and see the difficulty he’s having with these figures? Now, when he has to play his instrument and play these rhythmic figures made up of three notes, he’s having a lot of difficulty. And he’s also having difficulty with his register and his articulations fall apart, and the pieces he’s working on simply “don’t speak”. Ma'am, your son Michael doesn’t have a shred of talent and it might be better to find something else he may be talented at. You either have what it takes or you don’t, so why waste his time? Look, ma'am, I’ve repeatedly told your child this very thing. I point out the places in the music where the problems are occurring and I have him repeat it over and over again. He always makes the same mistakes and doesn’t correct them. He’s not improving at all”.

“So, Michael, what do you have to say for yourself?”, his mother asks.

“Mom, I don’t wanna play the trumpet anymore,” the kid replied. “It’s better if I just quit, because the trumpet is too difficult”.

Looking at the conversation above, I was trying to demonstrate what occasionally happens to private music students (fortunately it is happening with fewer instances) within conservatories of Latin America and around the world, and how rare it would be for this to occur in a 'regular' school (as in Social Studies, English, or Geometry).

In research conducted in 2011, which incorporated data from my master's project, many parents were asked about the learning processes of their children in middle school and high school, as well as in conservatories. Looking at the data, it is possible to observe how some attitudes were tolerable (or literally, tolerated) in a conservatory and what attitudes seemed intolerable within a system of compulsory education (Elementary/Middle School/HS). For example, parents would tolerate a music teacher shouting at their child when they would not allow it to happen when the child was in a middle school or HS school setting. Phrases, with the charge of psychological violence such as "you won’t go anywhere playing this way" or "you better find something else to do with your life", went unnoticed when we exposed them in the context of education in a conservatory setting. However, these same phrases were extremely noticeable when exposed in the environment of a regular school setting.

The primary reason the parents supported such tolerance was because they considered artistic activity to be something special — somewhat detached, an aspiration of their children (and sometimes their own desires) that deserved a special effort or, more importantly, a special sacrifice. In a nutshell, the parents also perceived the same ideas of talent, innate ability, effort, and methodologies we have previously discussed. Parents are representatives of the growth process of their children, but they are also representations from a society that perceives music as a special activity that may deviate from normal critiques, when put into a conservatory setting.

The process of education in the conservatory setting should be one of the discovering of a talent that lies hidden is a common and very dangerous idea. Thus, this method proposes obstacles that a student must jump through, usually in a logical order, and sometimes done with ritual examination (for example, we have all heard the phrase "it’s done this way because it has always been done this way"). The student who successfully jumps over a certain number of obstacles moves on to the next stage, and so on and so forth, year after perpetual year. Consequently, the learning style seems to fit the pattern — repeat and imitate with the hope of improvement (not with expectation, but with hope in the strictest sense of the word), that the second repetition is better than the first and that it contains something of quality. Whether we use studies, musical works, technical exercises or even lessons from a beginner’s book, we must jump through certain hoops and pass each step. Many of us even record our efforts and triumphs in our books, only to move on without any desire to go back over the material. “We passed the level”. Perhaps we don’t know how or why, because we generally do not self-evaluate. But we get to move on, which is what we think is important. We tell ourselves, "I will not have to play that difficult lesson again. I barely got through it... Ugh! But I passed and now I must be better!".

This idea is not usually found in the imagery of a trumpet master, but it is worrisome that it still remains within the collective imagination of others. It is a common idea, legitimized not only by the student, but also by their family members. It is difficult for the trumpet teacher to explain to a parent that their child does not need any method books right away — that the student will be taught with quality little by little; that they will first learn 'by ear'; that they should practice breathing exercises and posture at home, etc. When instead the phrase "buy such and such a book at this or that store", needs absolutely no explanation. It’s expected. So, the usual thing that happens is designing a curriculum for trumpet, in a conservatory, that favors an immobile learning style: that of repetition and imitation. And, more specifically, it favors repetition and imitation as a means to jump through 'perceived obstacles' (it does not matter if we put more effort into it or if the result has been aesthetic or not).

What if, during one of these various repetitions, we stumble on one of these obstacles? What happens now? We want to succeed, we studied as much as we could during the week and we want to continue down the path of success. But we don’t know how. Our teacher tries to give us the explanation using examples, metaphors, ideas, and drawings... We’ve changed books, mouthpieces, trumpets... We even changed our teacher, cities... the instrument... Sadly, in the end, we come to the grim conclusion: “I’m not meant be a musician”.

With any of these changes, it is possible the student could find a partial or total solution and continue to advance. Unfortunately, the story (in more than 70% of cases) is summarized in the last sentence of the previous paragraph. “I’m not meant be a musician”.

“Of course he had no talent”, some would say. Including his/her parents or the student themselves. “He/She doesn’t have what it takes”. “He/She did not study enough”. “He/She did not want to succeed”. So, the student leaves music/trumpet behind, and so the educational system never has to plant and grow any new ideas that may be better for learning.

Anyhow, even if the educational system does not believe in these types of ideas, many trumpet teachers have long established these terrible learning ideas, and they are set in stone. It could be said that it began long ago and has now reached a greater depth than with other groups of instruments. What is indeed fortunate, is the fact that we have many impressive references concerning learning the instrument and other professionals who, with few exceptions, are very interested in looking into new educational strategies (interested how we must generate our own method). Study consciously, work using your senses, make music, and you will receive your praise. Although we all may have had bad experiences in our musical lives, we have all had good teachers. It is clear that nobody is perfect, that any little thing can be better. But, at some point in time we have all received great feedback from someone who has told us that the way forward was not to jump through obstacles, it was to find our own path.

So why do we keep working the other way? What do we aspire to do?

First, I believe there are issues with the ways we teach — the way in which the objectives of teaching are designed, and the need to establish consistent goals (or, using a modern term, proficiencies, although this is in fact far from honoring the term) by courses, by levels, etc.  We cannot individualize the learning process in this manner. It puts all students in the same group or level of learning. This form of teaching causes more problems than it solves and, unfortunately, it degenerates a methodology (both from the point of view of the sequences and strategies that follow) of the adaptation of the student, rather than having the method that must adapt.

It is understandable that a musical piece is the same for everyone. But should we all run at the same speed? Or, more specifically, should we all jump the through the same obstacles in the same order?

Using an example of a triathlon: one athlete may be more inclined to be a better swimmer than a runner or bicyclist. Logic tells us that, in such a case, they should probably train more road work on the bike and running so the three skill sets balance each other. They become proficient in all areas. But what if the first year of our trumpet triathlon we only compete in the bicycle stage? Then the athlete that is an excellent swimmer would be excluded.

On the other hand, we tend to teach as we have learned. Although we may have new challenges, new visions, and new paradigms, it is all too common that the teacher continues to harass the student. At this point, the ideas discussed above interact to produce an imitative and repetitive style of learning; with low procedural control, and a longing for advancement by the student, rather than a concrete learning method. Learning difficulties are a breeding ground for such ideas. If we add the motor skills necessary to play the trumpet, the problem becomes even more obvious, because when the motor skills are produced on the basis of non-evaluated repetition, habits are gradually set and intervention at a later date becomes very difficult.

It turns out that most of the time, the difficulty of learning the trumpet is not a difficulty to learn a new thing, but to eliminate an old and inefficient habit that allows us to do something new. Of course, what we do on the next step may be more difficult than the first.

In addition, the trumpeter's motor skills are based on physiology, the neurological motor control system, and emotions.

We often hear the phrase “play naturally”. Of course, this is the intent — to play with as little effort as possible! But how do we control that, when the body has natural reactions to the tensions of the instrument (see the videolesson How we learn to play the trumpet (3/5)), or the body is not physically developed enough to support the weight of the instrument and, moreover, when the emotional stress is so high? It is normal for learning difficulties to occur under such situations.

Let's begin with a basic idea. Let’s remove the first stone from the great wall of the talent myth: the trumpet is an instrument created by humans to be played by humans. Aliens did not arrive with a trumpet, leave it on the face of the earth, have offspring with earthlings and only the mutated offspring are capable playing the instrument. Although we sometimes say "that seems out of this world" when we hear our favorite artists, we all know that this person is human, just like us. The trumpet is designed (through a process that took thousands of years!) to work with natural human abilities. This is where the idea of talent begins to falter.

According to a previous example, we could say “I will never be capable of running at Usain Bolt's speed, so I better do something else”. While this may hold true, there are things to consider such as, permit me to use a scientific term here, biological predisposition. Bolt is built for speed. But we are discussing the trumpet and our physical states. So, by observing ten good trumpet players, we would probably have enough evidence to realize that these 10 trumpeters will not resemble one another in the physical way they play the instrument. No research has been able to find exact physical characteristics that demonstrate favorably the trumpet's ability to be played at a high level. Sure, there are limitations (deficient muscles for practicing, retracted jaws, and a long list of items), however there are excellent trumpet players with even these exact characteristics. 

Overall, the idea of biological predisposition is very debatable. Let’s not speak of the term innate abilities. That would be like to saying before birth we are pre-programmed for motor skills needed that relate to survival. To proclaim something like this is, at the very least, risky.

So, if trumpet playing is so natural and human, why do we have such difficulty doing it?

What is actually happening is quite simple… When we begin to learn the trumpet two basic aspects occur: 1. The natural reactions of the body to the instrument and 2. Chance or coincidences.

First of all, I must say that although the practice of the instrument entails using natural abilities to perform, some of the operations performed are inhibitive. For example, when trying to blow a large amount of air through closed lips, it produces an enormous amount of compression in the interior of our oropharyngeal cavity. The body interprets this as danger and coerces the respiratory system, all as a natural response. Therefore, if the student plays 'naturally', then the throat will close, because that is the natural reaction for our body.

Learning to stop or change any natural reaction can be met with a mixture of results. There is a motor intelligence acquired during psychomotor development — before the trumpet — and the conditions that arise at each moment (the relationship with the emotional state is especially interesting).

For example, if a student arrives to their private lesson the day after, say, a football game, their reflective reaction may be highly active, perhaps with agitated breathing — the same may prove true if a student had a long day at school or just went through something traumatic — they will most likely exhibit some sort of an emotional state. This would contribute to the conditioning of that inhibition of certain bodily reactions, as well as the activation of necessary natural abilities. If we add a particular obstacle in the class that day, then the results would be totally random. If the student develops tension in his throat, it may not be obvious at that moment in time, but within five to six years, he/she will most likely try to remove the tension in order to play at a higher level, let’s say, the Haydn Concerto. With the passage of time, the tension in the throat is now integrated into their motor skills, their natural reactions (it’s important to note that it will become even more solidified, since it is a natural reaction of the body, not a secondary reaction) and will be very difficult to correct with a simple "do not close your throat". If the issue thrives, it will continue to limit the motor skills and cause a great deal of effort exhibited by the student. You might however, have a random time when the student does well and learns. But if the student doesn’t have this moment, they may end up saying "I may be better at something else" or "I don’t have any talent for the trumpet”. Or even worse, because of this repetitive obsession, everything will end up with a motor reflex disorder that can go as far as being untouchable (as in the so-called focal dystonia syndrome, which is characterized by these symptoms. But in reality, most of the time it does not have a neurological picture similar to a dystonia).

In conclusion, I offer the following reflection: difficulties in re-learning motor skills are predictable. Most difficulties come to light in the middle or advanced stages of study, but were developed at the time of initiation of the instrument. The initiation process of trumpet playing needs a deeper understanding, if only to prevent these learning difficulties that have to do with inefficient playing skills and debilitating motor skill habits. When the difficulties of these motor skills are presented, an in-depth knowledge of the motor skill function and their reprogramming is necessary. This has been investigated in other areas — but in ours (trumpet), not as in-depth — and some of us will continue working in order to deepen our knowledge.

Finally, I want to make it clear that changing the way we see issue, the angle, usually changes our solution to the problem. Technical problems are not the same as learning difficulties of the motor skills, just as it is not the same to say "I don’t have any talent" or "the method is not adapted to me".

We must first work responsibly to change our way of learning and participate with a self-led model, but then be capable to process a large amount of truthful information that trumpet teachers already possess and are willing to offer us.

"Don’t do the same thing over and over again and expect the same result", as history has recorded the famous Einstein saying. If particular style of learning does not work for you, or if random repetition is not your thing, keep searching for something better and change your strategy. It’s likely that the people you admire and believe to have the most talent (those that play without too much effort) have already changed their strategy for one that works for them.