I’m not talking about the classes you need to take in college before you can pass your upper level jury here. When I was touring with Synergy Brass, I would often get asked by young musicians how to be a better player—usually as that related to playing high notes or double tonguing. As much as I wanted to have some magical phrase or exercise to give them, my regular answer usually failed to please.
The answer? Play more.
I have seen this play out with a current private student of mine. She is in the sixth grade and began playing tuba this year. She has always been very motivated, having a professional musician for a mother, and has always practiced diligently. But the truth is, for a good long while, she sounded …well, not bad, but certainly not like a developed tuba player yet. And then it happened. Within the last couple weeks her playing has improved dramatically. She is developing a characteristic sound, can articulate more consistently, and can hold out a note for longer than a beat or two. (She is pretty tiny, admittedly.)
Watching this development, this idea came back to me—the idea that there is just a certain amount of time and practice that must take place before we can really begin to improve.
There is no substitute for this prerequisite time. No magic pill, no set of études, no words of wisdom that will overcome the necessity to just play the horn a lot. Most of us have witnessed this with students—that kid who just can’t get it (whatever it is) suddenly does – but sometimes we fail to see that as an overarching lesson. If you want to get better you have to put in the time.
This is the least exciting bit of news any musician wants to hear. Just like the rest of society, we are looking for the easy out, the get-rich-quick scheme that is going to make our playing suddenly better. And we see it happen in so many other areas of life that we can’t be faulted for thinking it will work in the musical realm as well. Unfortunately that is not the case.
This has at least partly to do with the mind-muscle connection we have to build to play our instruments. Forming an embouchure and articulating are not exactly natural activities that our bodies come pretrained to perform easily. New neural pathways must be built, strengthening the connection between our brain and the muscles involved in the action. This is true of both beginning and established players—until that mind-muscle connection is sufficiently strong we will always be weak at whatever skill we are talking about. As those neural pathways become more solid we can begin to practice specific elements of the activity to further increase the connection, but that is detail work that will not provide any meaningful gains until the hardest work is done.
Unfortunately, nature doesn’t deal us all a fair hand in this. Some people have the ability to build those neural pathways faster than others. Surely age is a factor, but the truth is, some people are just better at skill acquisition than others. But regardless of at what part of the spectrum you find yourself on, the fundamental idea remains that you must spend a certain amount of time practicing before your skills will improve. If you are lucky, then this won’t take too long. Those of us who take a little bit longer must simply accept our fate and get back to work!
This is where most musicians decide to get off. They see the long road of practice and struggle ahead of them and decide it may not be worth it. I sound good enough, right? They may look for the answer on YouTube or buy another method book. The get-rich-quick scheme isn’t as quick as they were hoping and now they’re looking for the shortcut. But the prerequisites exist for a reason. They are the price of admission to whatever success may await you on the other side. We look to our musical idols and see how easy they make it look to perform. But what we don’t see is all the time spent in relentless practice.
If you’re ready to do the work, you will get better.