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The psychology of brass playing (part 1 – why we only see the bad bits)

After a bit of a break, I thought we would start with a discussion on the psychology of brass playing, from technical matters to the performance issues that many players face. This will be a 3 part series covering “why we only see the bad bits”, “dealing with self-doubt” and “The imposter syndrome”.

One of the most interesting aspects of teaching, but not only in the music discipline, is the inability of human beings to give themselves credit for things they have done well. And yes, we have all come across those super confident people who think that everything they do is good, and they can’t do anything wrong, but in my experience, these are a small minority of people. Even some of the best players I come across don’t value or give themselves credit for things they achieve, so what is behind this lack of self-belief?

It is true that it appears to be more prevalent in adults, but children can also suffer from it. One of the key things I often ask after a performance is how well it went, and I will get a whole list of every little thing that went wrong, from wrong notes, incorrect rhythms, bad timing, no dynamics and a myriad of other things. Ask them to say what went right though and at worst there is a complete silence and at best a lot of “umming” and “aahing” about the notes being mostly ok or perhaps making a “not bad” sound.

Critical listening was always a big thing when I was studying for my degree and is a good way of improving performance by reflecting on what had happened and if appropriate why. One of the biggest things though was that critical listening is a bit of a misnomer as it implies that it only finds fault. This is one of the aspects of the technique, but it is also critically important that praise is also given for things that went right and this is what is sometimes difficult for students to understand.

Teachers are always looking for improvement and it is important that corrections are made and technical issues addressed, but it is impossible to come across a performance where nothing of value can be found in a piece. Most of the time there is more good than not, for example, if a child learning at school plays a piece and states that they played three or four wrong notes it is interesting to ask them how many notes are in the piece. This often amounts to hundreds or even thousands and if so, they are playing 99% of the notes correct and how would they feel if they got 99% in a Maths or English exam?

It is a phenomenon recognised by scientists known as “negativity bias” and accounts for the fact that newspapers sell more papers promoting negative or bad news. “Good news does not sell” we are told and it appears to be a correct assumption.

We will look at this in more detail next time but it is primarily a mindset which is looking for the bad things and focussing on them, even though there may be more positive things happening. The crucial thing is that a positive thought can easily be turned into a negative, but it is very difficult to turn a negative experience into a positive. There are things that can be done to try and turn things around but it does require work.

We will discuss that next time.

One thought on “The psychology of brass playing (part 1 – why we only see the bad bits)

  1. I think we start out with the hope (I won’t say expectation) that things will be perfect, so there is disappointment when reality kicks in and the playing isn’t as good as you want it to be. The trick, of course, is what to do about it.

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