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.


  • 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:

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

For most of my life, I assumed that it was because I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, if I performed enough, the nerves would just go away and everything would take care of itself.

But in the same way that “practice, practice, practice” wasn’t the answer, “perform, perform, perform” wasn’t the answer either. In fact, simply performing more, without the tools to facilitate more positive performance experiences, just led to more negative performance experiences!

Eventually, I discovered that elite athletes are successful in shrinking this gap between practice and performance, because their training looks fundamentally different. In that it includes specialized mental and physical practice strategies that are oriented around the retrieval of skills under pressure.

It was a very different approach to practice, that not only made performing a more positive experience, but practicing a more enjoyable experience too (which I certainly didn’t expect!).

If you’ve been wanting to perform more consistently and get more out of your daily practice, I’d love to share these research-based skills and strategies that can help you beat nerves and play more like yourself when it counts.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing, and start enjoying more satisfying practice days that also transfer to the stage.

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