Playing a brass instrument is like shooting free throws…

Steve Nash is the second-best free-throw shooter of all time at 90.43%… just behind Steph Curry, depending on the week!

Nash shot 90% on his first free throw and 91% on his second free throw. That one percentage point difference is smaller than the other players in the top five who were all 3-5% worse on their first free throw. The first free throw is harder because the player needs to access long-term muscle memory. Once they have shot their first, the muscle memory is pulled from their short-term memory which lends the higher percentage to the second shot.

Why was Steve Nash’s first-shot percentage better than the other top shooters of all time?

He practiced his motion three times before EVERY free throw, so he was accessing his muscle memory from his short term memory (see photo).

What does any of this have to do with music??

Think about how many times we put up our instruments and don’t imagine hitting the first note – we focus on any number of other things our excellent teachers have asked us to think about:

  • Breathing
  • Clear Articulation
  • Pitch
  • Character
  • Dynamics
  • The list could go on, and on, and on…

We just performed Frau Ohne Schatten and in the middle there is one of those Straussian head scratching entrances in the second trumpet. Totally calm moment with soft trumpet octaves, then a sudden tempo change, introduced by the 2nd trumpet with an exposed solo entrance (full disclosure: I had it with clarinet, but as he said, “I’ll just ghost you”. – gee thanks!). Yet another one of those trumpet moments where you either feel like a hero or a dog with its tail between its legs. Here’s what it looks like (I can’t share the sound clip per BSO rules…):

Some notes on the trumpet are squirrely like rock climbing – you need just the right foot hold to safely keep climbing. I’d say A-flat is definitely one of those notes for me. It has a narrow slot and is easy to miss it high or low! In this case, instead of stepping or reaching calmly up to its little notch on the trumpet, you are leaping there! After an initial clam or two, due mostly to not understanding the tempo change, I settled into my routine on and off stage. The first thing I did was ask Mike Martin to play the last couple of bars of the soft thing so I could focus on the A-flat. Then, in the preceding section, I imagined what it feels like to nail an A-flat… over and over, and over. Accessing that muscle memory is the key. All the while I was breathing slowly to try to slow down my heart and calm the nerves. Off Stage, when I was warming up or practicing, I would randomly come in (in character, and in the new tempo) and play the lick. I got more consistent and nailed all the performances, I’m happy to say. Since we are playing it on an upcoming tour, I am glad to have figured out how to dial this one in!

  • Playing any instrument is a mini-athletic event.
  • Carmine Caruso said it takes nearly 200 muscles to play one note on a brass instrument – that’s nearly a third of the muscles in the body.
  • Playing music requires tremendous coordination and timing.
  • With brass instruments, many of these actions occur internally so we cannot see them, BUT THEY ARE THERE!!

What if there was a way for us, while we are sitting in an audition or performance to do the same thing as Nash’s practice free throws? I actually started doing this a few years ago before touchy entrances in the orchestra and my percentage of ideal attacks went up dramatically. This leads to more confidence, less stress etc. I try to do it all the time now when I am practicing.

For your next challenging entrance try this:

  • Raise the trumpet up nearly to the lips
  • Feel the time – maybe even tap your toes.
  • Hear the pitch – imagine what it feels like to play that pitch
  • Take the breath that matches the entrance
  • Articulate with the energy that matches the character
  • Repeat several times before the entrance
  • Practice it this way on and off stage
  • In the performance, DO WHAT YOU HAVE PRACTICED!
  • For the love of Rodney, don’t try anything new at that moment!
  • Watch and listen as your percentages go up!

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