Find the Focus, Let Go, and Flow

by | Sep 5, 2022

What do you play?

One of the first things I ask music students is what they play or do other than music. Here in Saint Louis, baseball, hockey, and soccer are popular answers. I also meet swimmers, golfers, bowlers, tennis, basketball, football, lacrosse, pool players, some students of martial arts like Judo and Jiu-Jitsu, many types of dancers, and gamers, quite a few chess players, and even a powerlifting trumpet player. Each activity has a product or something we can focus on mentally besides the body we use to perform it. With relaxed concentration and focus on the product, we let the body go, and the physical actions flow without interruption or second-guessing.

Music is a physical activity, and like any physical activity, we are more efficient if we focus our attention on the product we produce. We are doing physical actions to produce sound, whether we are pushing piano keys, strumming a guitar, buzzing our lips, or stretching our vocal cords to make music. Singing with our voices or playing a horn we are using are small and subtle muscles. If our focus drifts from the music, our body gets mixed signals from the brain, and tension associated with these thoughts kills the music. Focusing solely on the music, we free the body to find the most efficient way to play or sing. Music has a flow that can carry the body to incredible feats. Staying connected to this flow is the game I play when I’m playing an instrument or singing.

Tuesday Tennis With Thomas

Finding the Flow

My teacher and friend Thomas Jostlein is not only the associate principal horn of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra and a swell guy, but he is also an excellent tennis player. Sometimes, we skip playing the horn and play something else. We’ve tried golf, foosball, ping pong, and blitz chess, but we love playing tennis together. We are both familiar with the physical actions required. The game we are playing is an inner game. It is a game of concentrated focus on the goal and staying in the moment, just like when playing the horn. With a laser focus on the desired outcome and not the body performing it, we play the game of letting the body go to perform. Thinking is replaced with a relaxed focus, allowing the body to perform the actions needed smoothly. We don’t make the body perform; we let it.

We let go of more than just our need to control the body. We let go of any care or expectations about the results. We let go of our egos and pride. We do not need to feel like we are doing something extraordinary when it happens, nor do we need to feel down when it doesn’t happen as we imagined. We have no judgments, only actions. We become the thing we are doing and not the person doing it. We don’t ask questions. We make statements, and our physical actions will be uninterrupted and unfiltered by any mental interference or second-guessing. This is the game we play when we are playing anything.

Thomas, a Switch Hitting Golfer

Learning new physical skills teaches us how we learn. This helps us understand how to teach. The body feels awkward while learning something new. Like a toddler walking for the first time, we stumble till the body knows how to reach the goal. That awkward feeling is new connections being formed in the brain. A common instinct is to run from these feelings, but not Thomas; he courageously dives into these feelings. He is fearless and jumps into new experiences with full attention and reckless abandon. On his first attempt at hitting golf balls, he tried right and left-handed with great success from both sides. With no expectations, Thomas’s swing was free and easy. He made solid contact, and the balls flew down the range. He was ecstatic with his success. Seeing a golf ball you’ve hit sail out into the distance is very satisfying.

With his success, curiosity set in, and he wanted to know more about what he was doing. After hearing a general explanation about how the golf swing works, his mind grabbed onto this information and forgot to focus on the product. His physical actions seemed forced as he tried to make them happen and stopped letting them happen. He wasn’t focused on the ball he was trying to hit or where he wanted the ball to go. It got more challenging for him to hit the ball, and his swing was clumsy and awkward with the confusing signals coming from his brain. Once he remembered to focus on the ball he was trying to hit and let the body figure it out, the magic returned, and the balls sailed out again. Thomas had won the inner game.

The Inner Game

I was first introduced to an inner game when my mother made me read The Inner Game of Tennis by Timothy Gallwey. I loved to read, but this was a book about how to play tennis, and 9-year-old me thought books were for journeys into the imagination. Growing up, I played golf, tennis, baseball, basketball, and soccer and swam year-round—the idea of what I was thinking while playing was new. Suddenly, I was aware of the many mental conversations I always had during my tennis matches. I may have picked up these habits while watching the pros yelling at themselves on TV. “Toss it higher, keep your racket back, and watch the ball.” “What’s wrong with you?” I seemed to be fighting with myself. Who was I talking to anyway?

In the Inner Game of Tennis, the two in the conversation are labeled “self-one” and “self-two.” Self-one is the talker, and self-two is the doer. When we let go of the body to perform a physical act, it is self-one, letting go of control and allowing self-two to do its thing. Self-two is breathing all night long while we sleep. Self-two is beating your heart as you read this, and it’s a good thing. If self one were in charge of these functions, we wouldn’t be alive to hit a tennis ball or play music. Self-two is amazing; self-one learns and performs best when self-one lets things happen and plays the same game—focused on the moment at hand.

An Inner Game for Everything

A few years after I read that tennis book, Timothy Gallwey wrote The Inner Game of Golf, and I got it right away. I was passionate about golf and nearly accepted a golf scholarship instead of music. Playing golf was always an individual game for me and was very different from the competition I felt playing tennis. In golf, I competed against myself and the course. Like swimming, the goals were more personal ones. The inner game changed that. Tennis was now an individual game as well. When I was a freshman in high school, the Inner Game of Music came out, and I was now playing the inner game with everything I did. This childlike attitude towards playing was soon forgotten as I began to be trained as a musician at the college level.

In college, I was forced into embouchure changes, focusing on proper playing posture and breathing from the diaphragm. All this physical instruction drew me away from the inner game and into thinking about the body while playing the horn. My teachers didn’t play the inner game, and I had forgotten the focus. Thomas reminded my “self one” (thinking mind) that there was a “self two” (inner musician) over our first cup of coffee together. These days, I imagine I’m singing while playing any instrument, and my body responds by making the sounds I want. Whichever instrument I’m holding, self-two knows what to do. If self-one sings it, self-two will play it. Simple and easy.

One Game, Multiple Instruments

Playing multiple instruments is a great way to explore your inner musician. The product is the same no matter what we are playing. If we imagine we are singing, self-two gets a great idea of what we want it to do and learns quickly. Imagine you are singing, and the music drives your body into action. Learning the fingerings on a new instrument with sound in your mind reminds the fingers what to do when focused on that sound. When you sing to your body, the instinct to push the correct valves down is powerful. You are speaking a language the body understands better than English. A language of rhythm and frequencies that can stir emotions and the imagination. The language of sound.

Self-one can learn to read this language, but self-two feels this language and sings with direction and purpose. The sound quality is better when self-one sings to self-two, sending clear signals from the brain, then gets out of the way and lets the music happen. Your inner musician knows what instrument you are about to play. You’re holding it. Self-two doesn’t need self-one to add any unnecessary narratives in English, like, “I play trumpet this way and trombone like this, and for piano, I do it like this.” That is just “self-one” looking for something to do. Self-one has one job. Just sing and let self-two do its thing. Sing with the reckless abandon of a switch-hitting golfer.

Musical Mind Games

As the teacher, I am cautious of how I speak to the student. Our golf outing taught us what too much instruction could do to distract the mind from its focus. When I want to tickle the mind to remember to focus on the sound, I sing along while the students are playing to remind them to sing mentally as they play. We sing new music, and then we play it on the instrument. Many of the instrumentalists here learn to sing in Italian. Learning to make good sounds with the body translates to good sound on the instrument.

Finding the Flow

Lyman is one of the best singing brass players I’ve heard in the studio. He had no problem singing with his voice or on the trumpet. He started singing at a young age, and we flew through the ten Italian songs I gave new brass players when he first started lessons. He’d move back and forth from trumpet to voice with ease. Lyman had the same effortless phrasing and confident tone either way. He understood how to think when he played the trumpet, and he used his voice with confidence. You could hear it in his smooth phrasing and round sounds.

A Double Major Dilemma

When the time came for college auditions, Lyman decided to double major and had to audition for voice and trumpet. He picked an Italian song and came in for his first “voice” lesson. I thought this would be easy. We already sang in Italian in his trumpet lessons. But when we started working on his audition piece, he sounded like he didn’t know how to sing. He was using his ears to play music. Listening to himself and judging what he was hearing, he could not sing. Without clear signals, his body was frozen. My teacher, Roger Rocco, would say, “You can’t be an audience member and a performer at the same time.”

I had Lyman pull out his trumpet and play what we were singing. He played it flawlessly while transposing. This guy is that good. Still, when he returned to the voice, it didn’t transfer. He was still too busy listening with his ears. We can’t hear a note until we’ve played it. Lyman was singing in the past, and he’d forgotten his focus. So I had him hold his trumpet and finger along while he sang with his voice. He imagined that he was playing trumpet while he was singing, and it worked great. Suddenly, he was singing the way I expected him to. He had gotten past the block his ears had put up and back into the musical flow. By the next lesson, he sang his audition piece like a rock star. He remembered the focus and let go.

A Method for Each Individual

I am always looking for a method that will reach the individual student in front of me. Ways to help the student experience that feeling of playing the song in their head as effortless music flows from their instrument. With our focus on sound, we let go and trust the body to remember what it has learned. The emotions of the music can move you to play the instrument out of your mind, and you’ll play things you’ve only dreamed you’d be able to tackle. I’ve seen this happen. The look is priceless, and so is the sound.

Part of my fun is unlocking the puzzle that each new student brings. The proper method for you will come as we go. I am not sure where it will come from, but my fellow focus finder, Thomas, and I will look for clues on tennis courts, golf courses, or anywhere physical activities are being performed. We will also look into musical experiences, our students, and our own. Each experience gives us new insights into finding the focus and letting the actions flow, and we are always learning. Maybe we’ll find the next method at a pool hall or a bowling alley. Who’s ready to play?

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