Kristian Steenstrup: On Singing, Solfège, and Cultivating a More Efficient Approach to Learning New Music.

I have to confess that when I was in school, ear training classes were always a bit of a mystery to me. Something I grudgingly tolerated (or tried to get out of!), rather than embraced.

I mean, sure, I got that the sight-singing, dictation, and rhythm exercises we did were all intended to help develop my musicianship in some way. But I wasn’t really sure what “musicianship” meant exactly. And I didn’t quite see how any of this was going to help me produce a better sound in my Beethoven sonata or take my Paganini Caprice to the next level either.

So why is it that completing a sequence of ear training classes is a pretty standard requirement in most music schools? Does any of this have a tangible, measurable impact on our playing?

A study!

A recent study out of Denmark might help to shed some light on this question (Steenstrup et al., 2021), as it compared the effect of regular physical practice, mental imagery, and singing/solfège on learning new music among 50 college-level music students.

The findings were intriguing, so I thought it might be fun to talk to the lead author and spend a little time digging into the details to find out what they learned.

Meet Kristian Steenstrup

Trumpet player Kristian Steenstrip has been a professor at The Royal Academy of Music in Aarhus, Denmark since 2000, and is the author of two books on brass playing – Teaching Brass (2007) and Blow Your Mind (2016) – where he combines the principles of “song and wind” that he learned from legendary brass pedagogue Arnold Jacobs with recent research from the field of motor learning.

In this episode we’ll explore…

  • 2:26 – What was the gist of Arnold Jacobs’ approach to brass playing? And how did this change Kristian’s playing?
  • 6:52 – A short discussion of internal vs. external focuses of attention, how this ought to be different in practice vs. performance, and how Gabriele Wulf’s research in this area may apply to musicians.
  • 11:43 – Kristian explains why playing by feel can be more challenging for wind players than other instrumentalists.
  • 14:51 – How Jacobs’ pedagogy ties into the Inner Game of Tennis.
  • 16:44 – What sort of sound should we audiate internally? A vocal sound? Instrumental sound?
  • 19:06 – How can we cultivate a clearer concept of sound?
  • 22:19 – Kristian provides an overview of his recent study of 50 trumpet players, and describes some of the key findings.
  • 26:09 – I pick out the three things that I found most interesting about the study.
  • 31:08 – We chat about the interesting difference between the participants who regularly engaged in random practice and those who didn’t.
  • 34:10 – Kristian describes his four-step process for learning music more efficiently that combines many of the strategies used in the study.

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Noa
I think we’ve all studied with teachers who at one point or another asked us to sing during a lesson. I don’t remember personally, if anyone ever explained to me exactly why they wanted me to do that, but you were recently the lead author of a study that explored why this really might be a valid and worthwhile exercise to do and how it could benefit one’s learning, and translate that into audibly detectable changes in one’s playing. And so I wanted to definitely explore that and get into those details. But I thought first, it might be useful to take a couple steps backwards, because you studied with Arnold Jacobs for a time. And he was someone who took this idea much further, I think the most especially for that time, and really integrated it into a core part of his teaching and pedagogy. And so I wondered if maybe a good place to start would be, if you could just tell us a little more about Jacobs’ teaching and the role that singing played in his ideas about how to play a brass instrument more effectively.

Kristian
Yes, for the previous century we were in, I think Arnold Jacobs was one of the greatest pedagogues. And I was so lucky to study with him in the late 80’s, and until he died in ’98. And one of the things that make him special, I think, was his fantastic knowledge about human physiology, but also, how does the brain communicate to this physiology? And how do you think as a musician in order to control this complex machine that the human body is, and one of his ideas was to always to keep it simple, so you always communicate without getting into a lot of analysis about how the body works, even though that he knew a lot about how the body works, but you communicate in a simple way. And his analogy was that when you’re singing, you’re basically from the brain, from the auditory cortex in the brain, where we experience sounds, we are sending a signal to the vocal cords to give them the right tension for each note, so that they basically buzz the right pitch, which is being amplified through the mouth cavity, and becomes a singing voice. And his idea was that we have to do a similar thing when we play a brass instrument, so that instead of sending the signal to the vocal cords, the brain is using the facial nerve, and is providing different kinds of muscle contractions to the lips so that they will buzz whatever note it is that we are trying to have. For me, that made a huge difference. Because as a brass player in those days there were people who were talking about singing, and so on, but it was a little bit esoteric, a little bit too spiritual. And this gave me an understanding that that’s actually probably very close to what we are doing physiologically, when we play that when we are functioning well, we are hearing, we are conceiving the note we want to play and then lower levels of the brain, or you might say other levels of the brain at least, is making that happen without our thinking so much about why.

Noa
I guess I’m curious, and it’s been many years, I’m assuming, but do you remember how your playing changed when you started learning about this or approaching playing this way? Maybe even things from changes to how you prepared and practiced or what you thought about in the practice room or the way that your thought process may have even shifted during performance on stage?

Kristian
Yes. It was very much before that I tended to play a lot by feel. Always asking a question to the muscles – how are the lips feeling? Is this okay? Is this support, is that the right embouchure I’m using and so on. And there was a lot of inward communication, you might even say internal focus of attention. And once I started to think about issuing the statement, which is thinking what Jacobs called the song in the head, that’s an outgoing message where you are telling basically the lips what you want to do, not how they feel. And by doing that, as a trumpet player, or any brass player where you are playing with the partials, so the same fingering can basically give you many different notes. That’s why we are missing notes sometimes. And this is very different for a clarinet or for piano of course, where you have a different finger configuration for every note. So we have these many notes we can choose among if we try to just go by what the fingers are doing. So we need to be able to have a fine control of the lips ability to buzz the correct pitch when we are playing because the trumpet just amplifies what we put into it. So immediately when I started to get more involved in thinking about singing when I played I recognized that I was missing fewer notes And also this feeling of being more connected with the music.

Noa
Can you say more about that feeling more connected to the music? What do you mean by that?

Kristian
That when I’m playing, I’m actually involved in conceiving hearing the music that I’m going to play, and not so much the mechanical configuration you need to make in in order to play

Noa
Sounds like you’re maybe more present more in the moment, maybe more focused on what you want, as opposed to kind of critiquing or analyzing what’s coming out. I wonder if some of this is. I mean, one, the first thing I remember, hearing, when I started talking to brass players is that one of the challenges, of course, is unlike a pianist or a string player, a lot of the moving parts of playing an instrument are s visible, or anybody else for that matter. Yeah, I mean, it’s that, partly maybe where Jacobs started coming to this realization?

Kristian
Yeah, that’s absolutely one of the important factors in this, that we cannot see what the student is doing. And when we are playing ourselves, and so on a lot of it, even if we look in the mirror, most of what is happening, we cannot really see. And then we tend to get into the feeling, trying to feel what are the muscles doing and so on. And even that is a bit superficial or quite unpredictable, we don’t get the full picture of what’s going on. So it’s hard to go by, it’s hard to trust.

Noa
I’m assuming there would probably be some variation from person to person too, perhaps?

Kristian
Yes. And there’s also variation from people at different times in their lives, which sometimes we tend to be more sensory, sometimes we tend to be very sensitive to the feel. And other times we don’t think so much about that. But we allow to think more about the music and so on. So it’s something that fluctuates a lot.

Noa
I’m curious, again, some of these questions might be super obvious for brass player. Does feel play some role at some point? Because I guess what I’m wondering about is, and of course, you’re very familiar with Gabriele Wulf’s research on distal versus internal and so forth – focus of attention when learning and performing. And one of the questions that I often get or kind of think of myself sometimes is, you know, how this intersects with students at different levels of learning, and familiarity with their instrument and ability to play and so forth. And so, I wonder if you could speak a little bit to a) I mean, are there times we’re focusing on feel really is kind of an important factor, and b) I mean, you mentioned that Arnold Jacobs, obviously did know a huge amount about the mechanics of playing a brass instrument. And so like, where does that come into the equation? Like, when is it useful or important to focus on really understanding intricate mechanics of the craft of playing or instrument? And when is it not so important, or counterproductive and so forth?

Kristian
Yeah, you were just mentioned Gabriele Wulf and her research into internal and external focus of attention. And after having gone through, I think she did a meta study also, where she analyzed a lot of other studies in this particular aspect, and always come, almost always comes out that the external focus of attention, which is thinking about the effect of what we’re doing for us, it will be the sound in the room, the music in the hall, for brass player, wind player could even be where’s the wind that we sent out? Where’s that landing in the room, and trying to get away from the internal focus of attention where we, where we think about our body, or you could also say where we think about ourselves. And her research shows that the external focus of attention seems to be the one that is producing the best results, not even technically, but also musically. So I have been wondering, as you ask others, some places where internal focus of attention is good. And I think when we are changing technique, you might say the teacher would say you need to change something, some aspects of what you are playing, you might have a short time, as I would say, where you might observe what are you doing in order to be able to change it, but I think the task as a teacher is to quickly try to change that to be more and more external and be more and more focused on the music and less about the technique or how the muscles feel and so on.

Noa
I reread your (2004) book recently, trying to prepare for the opportunity to chat with you. And one of the takeaways that I think I got from the book, if I understood it correctly, is that when we’re attuned to how things feel in our body, we might think something is happening that actually isn’t happening. And I wondered if I understood that correctly, and if you could maybe speak to a little bit of that because I understand that breathing is something that you’re very familiar with and teach a lot and focus on and maybe how that relates to this as well in terms of maybe misunderstanding what we think is happening and our focus being in a not so helpful place. 

Kristian
Yeah, so that’s a bit old, it was about 20 years ago, I wrote this. And one of the things that I was doing there was going from Arnold Jacobs’ teaching a lot, because at that time, there was not too much research as we have today. And it’s correct that when we are, as a wind player, and we need to, at some point, work with breathing, and that of course, involves a lot of breathing muscles, and so on. But the sensory feedback from the breathing muscles is very low. So if you take, let’s say, if we think of all the breathing muscles in the upper torso, and what feedback they give to sensory levels of the brain, it would be something equivalent to half of a thumb or half of a finger or something. So as a violin player you are, you get a tremendous precise feedback from your fingers that you can relate to. But for wind players, that’s much harder simply because we don’t have much sensory feedback. So that’s where when we work with breathing, we try to get a bit more sensitivity into it, by the result of what we’re doing with the breathing. So we try to think about the wind, wind in movement, and not so much which muscles are going to do that. So they will be basically breathing out muscles that are compression, the lungs and because of that is moving the air out of the lungs. But they’re quite hard to control since we can feel them so well. But if we think of wind and movement, basically, we need faster air for higher notes and slower air for low notes and so on. And we are sending that air into the room, which would be external focus of attention, that is a better way to control than trying to control the muscles.

Noa
So even in the earlier stages of learning how to do this, is there more of a tendency to focus on the external or the movement of air as opposed to what am I exactly doing that produces that result?

Kristian
So most, if you’re teaching children, for instance, you can always get them to blow on a piece of paper or they they can experience if you blow on their hands, they can experience what are you doing with the air, and then they try to imitate that. And they try to focus on that. And immediately a lot of natural things start to happen. Whereas if I try to say, okay, you must blow from, you must do this with the diaphragm or you must do this with abdominal muscles, lots of times people don’t even know where those muscles are. And they’re hard to relate to. Because diaphragm, for instance, is a muscle that we can’t really feel and and we have very little conscious control over it. So it’s again, we think about the effect of what we want, we want the air to move with a certain velocity, and as we are doing that, a lot of these things happen physiologically automatically.

Noa
I think you and I have probably at some point chatted about the inner game of tennis book. Do you know if Arnold Jacobs ever read that?

Kristian
I think he did, yes, I think he did because as far as I remember, is written in the 70s or something like that, where he talked about self one and self two. And it’s interesting because our self one wants to be in control of a lot of things but self two the body or you might say that procedural learning, the automatic learning knows already how to do those things. And what self one just needs to do basically is issue simple statements. And that’s where Jacob said, Arnold Jacobs, talked about two things you need to think about when playing the brass instrument is one, the song as we talked about before, that you mentally are hearing the music that you’re going to play which he would call a song in your head and then the wind which is air movement that is going into the hall. And while you are concentrating on those two simple things, a lot of the underlying mechanisms or you might say the under the hood of the car will happen automatically.

Noa
You know those two things sound a lot like something that Debbie Crews at Arizona State found in some research that she did a number of years ago when the more effective golfers or putters in her particular study said that they were focused really just on two things when putting. One was kind of a visual target of exactly where they wanted the ball to go. And the second thing being a general feel not what are my wrists doing? What are my shoulders doing? What are my knees doing, but just a general physical feel of a smooth easy successful putt whereas the less successful putters were much more focused on a lot of micromanaging of technical details and self coaching. The best putters tended to keep it simple, like you said, basically, in those two same exact ways. Yeah. I would love to ask you a little bit more about the song part. In terms of what exactly like if we were psychic, and could read Arnold Jacobs’s mind when he was performing, and just kind of hear or see what’s happening in there. And maybe it doesn’t matter, but I’m curious, is it a vocal sound? Is it an actual instrumental sound? Is it hearing the orchestral part around you or a combination of those things? Does it depend maybe on the excerpt or stage of learning?

Kristian
I think that’s very individual, what people tend to like to use. For some players, they are very clear about hearing your particular instrument, your own instrument playing the music optimally. So that could either be imitating somebody who plays fantastic, and you hear that sound in your head. For others, it’s more like their own voice. So they imagine they are singing, they might even sing the part first. And then when they play afterwards, they’re still mentally hearing their own voice while actively playing the instrument. So I think it’s individual what triggers for each person, I just think it’s important that we have some kind of aural picture, some kind of idea about how we want to sound or being involved mentally about the music and not so much the mechanics.

Noa
Have you run into people who struggle to create that concept of sound internally and seem to have like a fuzzy or vague notion? They have trouble staying there?

Kristian
Yeah. All the time myself. Many times students, of course, because it’s again a mental thing, it’s seems a little bit flaky, something that I thought you can be thinking about something, the next moment, you can be thinking about something else. So how can you keep that focus on just hearing what you want to sound like. So it’s a challenge, and it’s something comes and goes and so on. But I think again, the more we can get the students involved in focusing on that, I think the better they usually play.

Noa
Is this where we just simply sit and, and practice conceptualizing a sound or, or does listening to recordings of other people come into the picture, or, you know, how does one develop that internal concept?

Kristian
Yeah, I think a great way of learning how we want to sound, of course, is listening to a lot of great music and great players. Singers, I like to listen to and imitate them when I play. And I know, my teacher, Jacobs, was always talking about that. Try to imitate a soprano, and so on. So I think it’s very important. And I often get surprised how little music the young generation knows! Where it’s like, don’t you listen – it’s never been easier to listen to a lot of recordings on YouTube, and so on. And so basically, the more we know about music, the more great performances we have heard, and can imitate that that’s a start. And then when we play, try to sound like something that’s going on in our head, whether it’s imitating somebody or imagining that we play great ourselves or something like that.

Noa
So it sounds like it doesn’t even have to be other brass players or trumpet players, it could be anything. The other thing I’m kind of curious, and I might be overthinking this at this point. But obviously, the concept of sound that you’re going to be able to get from a live performance, versus a YouTube recording or an older recording with the microphone technology just wasn’t where it is today. It’s going to be different. So I’m assuming that it’s not just the quality of the sound itself that you’re listening for, but other ingredients as well, perhaps that you’re trying to internalize?

Kristian
Yes. I mean, when we think of, of music, there’s a lot of things but one thing is pitch and rhythm very important. Often we find that if I ask a student to sing some things that we are playing, especially if it’s complicated French music or whatever, it can be hard just to have the pitch and the rhythm right. So that’s where I’d start. And then you need to have a certain timbre or sound. And there are so many ways you can sound so many players with different ideas of what a beautiful sound is. And you can talk about vibrato you can you have the whole thing about dynamics and so there are many layers of what great music is and I don’t think it’s a problem that we analyze a bit and say what’s going on here, why are we getting moved by this singer? At this particular point in the music? Is that the vibrato? Or is it something they do with the timbre? Or is it because of the ritardando? Or is it all of it? And there’s so much information to get from great musicians who have performed all kinds of music. And I think that’s it’s so fascinating how we can get involved with that.

Noa
That might unintentionally be a really nice transition into the study that you did. Because you did look at multiple aspects of musicmaking and how different practice strategies or approaches might affect those things. I wonder if you could give us kind of, like an overview of what the study was what you were looking for…

Kristian
Yeah, it actually goes back to when I met you the first time in 2014. And you were exposing me to all of this great research that had surfaced about practicing and how we can get more efficient practicing. So I started to read a lot of those studies. And one thing I realized was when it comes to behavioral studies, there was very few with musicians. And after having done the study, I realized why because it’s very complex, it’s very, it’s difficult to make those studies with real people. But I found there was a need for maybe exploring this further. So we got a grant. And we, we did this study where we had 50, Academy-level trumpet players, from some of the, you might say, the most elite schools, in Germany, in Switzerland, and so on. And we try to see what happened when they were sight-reading something, and practicing with different strategies. So we would record them when they’re sight-reading, and then we’ll practice different strategies, and then we will record them again. And then we had an expert jury, who would analyze the pre and post recordings without knowing who it was, was it pre or post, and what strategies had they practiced. And the strategies we did was physical practice. So you practice it about three minutes from actually playing it through three times. And the other one was auditory, or you might have mental practice where you imagine playing it, both motor imagery, but also auditory imagery. And then there was one strategy that was singing it. And then there was a strategy that was combination of physical practice, mental imagery, and singing. And the last one was a control condition where they were just reading an unrelated article for the same amount of time. And then when we got all this data put together with expert jury that was listening to 500 audio files, and analyzing how many right notes did they play, and rhythms, intonation, sound quality, and musical expression. So there’s a lot of data that came out of that. And the general idea was that physical practice is good, works really well. But we saw that the combination of singing, physical practice and imagery was as good in terms of getting the right notes as physical practice. So that’s basically 1/3rd of physical practice, when you do the combination was as good at getting the right notes. And then which was a surprise for us, when we had gotten the estimate of all the measurements of the musical expression, where the jury felt that this was more expressive musically, actually, the combined strategy came out better than physical practice. That was exceeding our expectation that it would be like that. And then we also had a questionnaire where we asked them about musical upbringing and how much they practiced every day and so on, had they learned solfege, did they do random practice as opposed to blocked practice. And what came out of that was that the students who had learned solfege – Do re mi fa sol la si do – they got more out of the practice time, then the ones who didn’t. And the ones who were used and familiar with random practice strategies they were also more efficient in learning than the other students. Quite interesting. And when people were starting to play, that means whether early starters like five years or seven years or 10, that didn’t seem to make that much difference. There was no significant results there. Also, we couldn’t see any advantage in how much people practiced, how much they practiced when they were young, or how much they practice now and so on. It didn’t make any significant differences, both in terms of how they evolved in the study itself, but also the level that had when they were involved, which was based on of course, all their lives and so on. So it’s interesting, that is not the amount of practice that seems to make the difference.

Noa
Yeah. So there were three things about this study that stood out to me that I thought were really intriguing. And, and you mentioned all of them, you know, but one of them was in the same exact amount of practice that they were allotted for these etudes, the group that only practiced it once physically, but then had a repetition of singing it and a repetition of mental imagery of it, they were just as effective in playing the right notes as the group that did three repetitions of practice. But the added benefit is sort of above and beyond the notes, they also just played more expressively from a much earlier point in their practice well, because because like you said, I mean, they’re just sight reading at once. And then they have three minutes of practice, and then they’re running it again, it’s not a huge amount of time to really get this into muscle memory and be familiar with it. But already, very early stages, the earliest stages of practicing that they’ve done, they’re already playing more expressively. I can kind of guess at it. But I’m wondering if there might be some unique benefits of inflection or expression being embedded into one’s playing that much earlier in the process of learning something?

Kristian
Yes, absolutely. I agree with that. And I think one of the theories we had was in, in the discussion in the paper is when you early on start to vocalize, you not just get maybe better control over the playing technically, as we talked about before, important for brass players, to hear the notes that we’re going to play because we have to tell the lips what to do. But also, we might get more expressive when we are singing. And then there was another study we were referring to where they had singers in an fMRI scanner, while they were imagining singing an Italian aria. And when they were actually singing in the scanner, and they could see the difference was that when they were imagining they actually had more emotional centers of the brain involved. So it seems like when we are not physically playing and have to check out, does this feel right? Does this sound good? And analyze and all this, but just imagining the best result, we tend to get more emotional. And I kind of feel like that when I do mental practice, if I have a little section of a beautiful piece, and I just sit and hear it or auditorily and get so involved in how beautiful that music could be. And it’s just in my head, nothing is happening. There’s not a sound in the room or anything. I tend to often to get more involved in the music and feel it somehow more feeling more expressive, basically. And it’s interesting how that fMRI study with the singers showed that. And that might be one of the reasons why it comes out as being more expressive when we have gone through the combined strategy. Having said that, we had that one condition where they were just singing. And we also had one where they’re just imagining, and they didn’t come out so successful. We couldn’t see significant results from that. So it seems to be something of combination that works very well. And I just want to see that actually corroborates earlier studies of mental practice, and so on that combination of physical and mental practice seems to be the most efficient.

Noa
We can’t get away from the instrument entirely…

Kristian
Yeah, really, yeah. Unfortunately!

Noa
Again, maybe thinking too much about some of this. But I have to imagine that the order in which you arranged the combined practice was deliberate. Where if I understood the study correctly, they sight read first. It’s like a 50-second, on average chunk of music, I think the paper said. And then the next thing that they do in the combined condition is they sing it, whether they’re singing, or solfege-ing, they’re vocalizing it, and then they have another physical practice in between, and then they have the mental practice, and then they play it again for the test to see if there’s been improvement. Am I correct in assuming that there’s a reason why the physical repetition was in between?

Kristian
That was to make sure that muscle fatigue wouldn’t be involved. So much. So. So if we had two times the sight reading and the first run through in practice, if those were both physical practice, it might have an influence on how tired they would get. So that was one thing we considered.

Noa
Got it. Because that to me sort of links to the the other perhaps surprise finding in the study, which is that when you surveyed the participants and asked to what degree is random practice, a normal feature in your everyday preparation, relative to blocked practice and so forth. I think you found that the folks who did more random practice in their everyday practicing improved more than the folks who hadn’t done that sort of practice, typically, in a typical practice day. And so that seems very cool to me as well. And the way in which the combined condition was organized was essentially a very small form of random or interleaved practice.

Kristian
Exactly, we also mentioned this in the article, like we I didn’t think of that in the beginning. But when we were starting to analyze the results, and so it dawned on me that it actually is a little form of random practice. And it might be one of the reasons why it’s so efficient.

Noa
Probably this is a good place to say a little bit about what random versus blocked practice was – do you want to say a little bit about?

Kristian
Well, it’s something I initially learned from you, but completely changed the way I approached practice, and because I think the time when we met, I had done 35 years of blocked practice, which seemed right and which I think a lot of people were doing in my generation you do, you want to have structured practice, so you do half an hour scales, then you do half an hour, triple tonguing. And then you might do half an hour of Haydn trumpet concerto, and so on. So it’s like structure to do one thing, and you really get into that, and then you change to something else. And then you taught me about random practice, where you do five minutes of scales, maybe, and then five minutes of triple tonguing, then five minutes of Haydn trumpet concerto, then you go back and you do another five minutes of scales, another five minutes of triple tonguing, another five minutes of Haydn concerto. So basically, in terms of how much time you get into practice, and the different things that could be exactly the same, but you just distribute in a very different way. And as you mentioned, back then, all research, whether it’s in academics, or sports, or music is pointing very strongly towards random practice as being the most efficient in learning.

Noa
I wonder if I can actually ask you some more about how that changed things for you. Because given that I don’t practice anymore. Like my kind of understanding of some of these things stops, yeah, at a certain point, because I don’t have the day to day application of it. And so I need to pick other musicians’ brains to find out how they then apply this, because obviously, it’s not this rigid thing where it has to be five minute increments, and it has to be certain number of sets, and it’s quite flexible. And it depends on what stage of learning you are with something and how close you are maybe to performance. And if you’re changing technical things that underlie I mean, I wonder if you could share a little bit about how this has been something that you’ve integrated into your own practicing, or how your students have maybe taken it and run with it in different ways.

Kristian
I think one of the most important things with it is that the brain doesn’t get bored, because we’re changing all the time. And I think the right word for it is high contextual interference. So when we are changing often, we have to involve more mental resources in order to digest in order to do what it is we’re supposed to do. And apparently that is making us learn more efficiently than if we are just doing the same thing over and over a certain amount of time. So that changed a lot that would change a lot, and also the mental practice. And what I thought at a certain point was that, how can we get all of these things in good ordered manner when we practice so it’s not too messy? So I actually came up with a strategy. I think it’s very efficient, where we cover many of these aspects, both singing, the mental imagery, solfege, and so on. I think it’s very efficient;  it’s one of the most efficient ways of practice that I know of, I call it the four-step process. So in the four-step process, we take a chunk of music, let’s say it could be two lines, it depends on how difficult it is and so on, but a little chunk of music and then first, I would sing it and preferrable sing it with solfege, with the names do re mi fa sol la si do, there are some reasons for that, we can come back to that. And while I’m singing at the same time, I’m pressing down my left hand, valves with my left hand. And that’s a little bit more complicated than doing with the right hand, which is the normal for a trumpet player. I can touch a little bit why it’s important, it seems like in our working memory, a part called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex of the brain; this has very much to do with working memory and attention and so on, gets much more involved when we are doing unfamiliar left-hand practice. The contralateral hand. Pianists can do it also. I know they do it also. And the same thing happens when we do solfege, they have scanning studies showing that when people are singing do re mi fa sol la si do they get also more of this dorsolateral prefrontal cortex involved as opposed to when they just sing la la la, or something like that. So when I’m singing, solfege, and the same time pressing down the valves with my left hand, it’s very strong programming of this particular music. Then the next step would be the same music and now mental imagery. So I will imagine very strongly, how it should sound, the auditory imagery. And also at the same time, the motor imagery, I will imagine how my lips are feeling, when they do this; can I feel the wind; can I feel the fingers pressing down, and all aspects of playing the instrument. The third step would be what we call dynamic motor imagery, which is mixing some of the mental things with the physical practice. And that is, I’m taking up the instrument, and I am blowing into it wind patterns of the music, the rhythm of the music, and blowing into the instrument at the same time, I’m pressing down the valves now with the correct hand, my right hand. And while I’m doing it, I’m hearing the intended music very clearly in my brain with the best sound, either my own voice or imagining myself playing the best or some performer that I like playing the instrument and so on. So that are the three first steps and then the fourth step is actually physically playing it. Then I often get the question, but that’s only 25% of the time where you’re actually playing – is that enough for building endurance? And I have a little story about that I had, I had a student who was doing a bachelor thesis on mental practice. And she was a Swiss student and she was interested in what athletes were doing. So she wrote a letter to Roger Federer, the tennis champion, and asked if she could have an interview with him. And he agreed to do that, and had a meeting with him. And in his preparation for the big tournament he’s doing 25% physical practice and 75% mental practice. Of course, they are concerned with not getting injuries, because then you might miss US Open or the Olympics, or whatever. And I think there’s a lot of to learn from that for musicians. There has been other studies, a finger study, one of the earlier motor imagery studies, Ranganathan, I think his name is it’s mentioned in the paper, where they had people sitting around for 12 weeks, either imagining moving the little finger, or actually training doing it. And then they had a little device that measured the strength they were doing that with. And after the 12 weeks, they could see that the ones who had done the physical practice of moving the finger, they had gained in strength and the little finger of, I think it was 53% or something like that. And the ones who had been imagining it not actually move, they had a gain in strength of 40%. So they got almost as good when just sitting thinking about it. And then the funny thing was then they started to measure the hypertrophy in the finger, that is the building up of muscles, basically how much muscle fibers had been changing. And the physical group had an increase of 8% more muscle mass in the little finger of the muscles moving it where the mental group didn’t have any. But still they were able to perform with 40% increased strength. So that says something about the brain that the electronic action potential with its electronic signal going from the brain out to the muscles can change strength with myelination, this substance that is making everything go stronger and moving more precise, and so on. So it’s been such an eye opener for me and how we function. Most of what we do is happening in the brain and the muscles are just more or less responding to the message that I get from from the brain. Of course there is strength involved. And that’s probably why we see the combined practice come out as being more efficient than just mental practice.

Noa
I love processes, right? And so I love that there’s a very structured and clear and well-reasoned process for going through things in this sort of way. I’m curious, like what comes next? I mean, do you then look at the next two lines and the next two lines at some point to combine them or chunk them together?

Kristian
Yeah, that would be normally the way it would be that if I go very random practice after those couple of lines, I’ll practice there I would go to something completely different. And maybe a different piece, maybe a different etude, or go to a different technical skill that I want to practice on. But basically of just layering, taking these chunks of music and going through this four-step practice, basically all of those in terms of the brain learning this particular music and the motor systems that are involved in that, that’s basically having done it four times. And I think that’s often enough for that day for that particular passage. And then you go to something different then you get this experience as you’re done that for a while, that you start to know the music the first time you play through.

Noa
And in each of those steps, I’m assuming it’s not just where you sing it through once or imagine through once or play once, but maybe slow things down or you speed things up, or do rhythms or troubleshoot specific notes, or moments or intervals or something like that. Okay, yeah. But it’s just the kind of general order of the modality maybe of the way in which you’re rehearsing or practicing or learning. That bit of music shifts from one to another.

Kristian
Yeah. Yeah. So sometimes with the four-step process, when I sing it solfege left hand, it would be one rhythm, then when I’d imagine it’s a different rhythm. When I’m blowing air through the trumpet and pressing down the valves, it’s a third rhythm or third, something else that I change. It could even be transposition I play different key or something. And then when the target one, the fourth one is the one, how it’s supposed to be the final result. But the three steps before could be very different. So we apply varied practice also.

Noa
is this mostly for learning new music or is there a degree of this even with music that you’ve learned quite well already? And you’re preparing for performance?

Kristian
Yeah, that’s a good question. I think it’s mainly for learning new music. But, of course, we all know that you have certain pieces, like some excerpts and concertos that you have learned maybe pretty early. So you already have some knowledge of it. But often as we evolve as students evolve, they get better, and so on. And when they revisit an old piece, I think there’s a lot of learning that piece again, to get good new habits, of course, that is some transfer effect from having done all kinds of other playing and etudes and stuff that makes different technical aspects easier and so on. But I think there’s a lot of relearning a piece and trying to apply the hopefully better playing that we have accomplished over the years into an old piece. So I even there would do the the four-step practice, yes.

Noa
And as you get closer to performance, or an audition, or something along those lines, how do things shift like, like, what is the process of becoming increasingly prepared for those unique demands of an audition, or peformance.

Kristian
Everything I’ve talked about so far is practice practicing, learning stuff. But we also need to practice performance. So then when things have been learned, and you’ve been doing this, and you kind of start to know the piece, I think it’s important that we get into practice performing it. So we will put up the tape recorder, we’ll get some people into the room, listen, and then you play through the whole piece no matter what. So even if you’re not feeling particularly good, and your adrenaline is, is pumping, and you get maybe a little bit shaky and so on, you are still practicing that maybe you can even do simulation practice where you get the heart rate of I remember you and me that the wall sits, which was funny for me to get deliberately trying to raise the adrenaline. I never did that before. I always tried to fight adrenaline. And then I realized, actually we can we can play well when adrenaline is flowing, if we are getting used to it if it’s not so scary. And that’s part of practicing performance that you can play with. You can play through even when you’re nervous.

Noa
You know again, not having a brass mind in my head. I just wanted to ask, are there any things that you would have liked to have addressed or that I should have asked that I didn’t know or think to ask?

Kristian
I mean, we were talking about brass players and how it’s important they sing that they conceive the music and I’ve for many years I thought that was unique to brass players. Simply because we’re the only instrument beside vocalists with are making the initial vibration with part of our own anatomy. Everybody else is plucking a string or blowing a wooden reed that vibrates or pressing down a key or something like this but we actually vibrating lips very similar to what a vocalist is doing with their vocal cords. But going through the literature  seeing what different instrumentalists are doing, you see that also with pianists, string players when they put them in the scanner. And there’s a very strong aspect of having an auditory, what you might say, focus when you are playing. It’s not just the mechanics for those instruments either of course. And of course, listen to Glenn Gould you listen to Keith Jarrett, they’re actually actively singing while they’re playing. So I’m sure you have that when you play the violin that you really have a strong idea about how we want to sound when you play.

Noa
So at the end of the day, ear training teachers should feel happy about the work that they’re doing, even if sometimes students don’t maybe appreciate that class as much as they could.

Kristian
Yeah, and it seems to us in some schools is even on the way out, but what we could see here was the ones who had been doing solfege, they did better than the ones who didn’t, and singing with do re mi fa sol la si do, why is that so good, but it seems like the brain is putting up links between saying a particular syllable like do and the pitch of that so becomes a conditioned reflex and after a while when we when we start singing with using solfege syllables. It gets easier to get the right notes, and it’s so beneficial when we are playing a musical instrument.

Notes

  • 2:26 – We start off the episode talking about Arnold Jacobs. You can learn more about Jacobs at the site below, which includes links to video clips, books, and many other resources: Arnold Jacobs @WindSong Press
  • 8:37 – We mention Gabriele Wulf, and her research on the optimal focus of attention for learning and performance. You can learn more about her research here. Her work has come up in posts or podcast episodes here on the blog a number of times – for instance, here’s one study that was done specifically with musicians.

More Kristian

If you’d like to do a deeper dive, you can download the complete paper that Kristian and his colleagues authored here:

 

And if you’d like to check out Kristian’s books, both are now available in Kindle format here:

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Comments

5 Responses

  1. Noa! I believe we crossed paths electronically nearly 10 Yrs ago — I just listened to and read your podcast with Kristian the trumpet man. Marvelous stuff. It was the first time I took the time to digest one of your podcasts — and I’m so glad I did! I transitioned from “just golf” to Hypnotherapy & mental performance coaching — and work both with the athletic dept and the business school students at the college of Charleston. SC now. From now on, I’ll be paying far more attention to your weekly work and content…… you do a remarkable job. Perhaps we can have a conversation about the neuro-science at some point: I’ve been an “interactive Metronome clinician for 15 yrs, and I use the focusband since it’s inception 10 Yrs ago——as a result of your podcast –
    I’m going to introduce myself to the College of Charleston music department!

    All the best,

    Joe Bosco

    1. Hi Joe! Good to hear from you again. Very cool about the metronome – I’m sure you’ll find some enthusiastic golfers among the music faculty at the university with whom your background and expertise will resonate. =)

  2. Regarding Mr. Steenstrup’s strategy to play left hand on valves while singing in his first step of learning, this reminded me of Augustin Hadelich’s memorization strategy which is playing right hand on the piano to memorize.

  3. This is really interesting, even though I’m not a brass player. I REALLY like the 4 step learning approach, and amd going to try using it with my pre-college piano students. Most piano students seem to resist the idea of singing (and counting out loud), but it’s so helpful in “getting” the piece. Getting them to “hear” what they’re going to play before they actually start the piece has been a big hurdle, but if singing is part of their learning it might make it more accessible. Thanks so much for continuing to provide these wonderful ideas for practice and playing.

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