Mindful Music Making: Roger Rocco’s Wisdom in Wildwood

by | Jul 5, 2024

Roger Rocco's Wisdom

The Return of The Jedi

Last month, I had the profound privilege and pleasure of welcoming Roger Rocco, the legendary brass pedagogue, my Yoda, and my friend, to share his wisdom and experiences with my little studio of budding musicians in Wildwood, MO. A huge thank you goes out to Lafayette High School for providing their band room and the “Ladder of Musical Awareness” for Roger Rocco’s masterclass. It was a magical meeting of “Mindful Music Making” that I’ll always cherish. I’ve heard the students who were present to listen to this message play, and they’ve instantly shown more presence in their sound and phrasing. They’re singing in the brain. From the responses I’ve received from the educators who were present, I know Roger Rocco’s visit was a revelation that reshaped many musicians’ understanding of music and its execution.

This month’s blog is my chance to share the essence of Roger Rocco’s teachings. These teachings have left an indelible mark on me and so many others. With a soft, caring manner, Roger eloquently articulates that our true musical expression stems from the musician’s inner awareness and imagination and that the essence of authentic musical performance comes from our minds. Embracing this philosophy allows musicians to transcend technical limitations and connect deeply with the music, sending this connection out to the audience and creating an unforgettable musical experience. When we commit to “Mindful Music Making,” our subconscious performs physical actions while consciously, we are singing in the brain.

The Music’s Powerful Flow

The Music to The Sea


In musical performance, there is a profound philosophy championed by Roger Rocco that the genuine source of music lies within the musician’s mind and not in the instrument. Your conscious mind is the natural source of music, and the essence of musical expression lies in transferring your inner musical awareness to the audience. The analogy of music flowing like a river from the mountains of the mind to the audience of the sea captures the essence of music as an organic and powerful expression that originates deep within the musician’s consciousness. This imagery beautifully conveys that music is a natural, almost elemental force that moves through the musician to reach the audience.

Roger Rocco’s philosophy invites us to view musical performance as an intricate dance between the mind and the instrument. The music flows from the mountains of the conscious mind, or the source of musical imagination and awareness, to the mouthpiece, which functions like vocal cords to translate the musician’s mental awareness into sound through the instrument that receives and resonates with the vibrations initiated by the mouthpiece through the bell, projecting the sound outward to the audience. The audience receives and experiences the final musical output, reflecting the musician’s mind. It is a powerful reminder that true musical expression originates from within and that the physical instrument serves merely as a vehicle for conveying the musician’s inner musical narrative.

Your Dual Worlds

“Every breath is an opportunity to learn but nobody has to learn how to breathe.” – Roger Rocco.

Roger began his talk by explaining the concept of living in two worlds—the external universe outside our bodies and the internal universe within. Our sensory awareness (sight, sound, feel, smell, taste, and thinking) connects us to the external world. At the same time, our subconscious brain governs the internal world, managing complex functions without conscious interference. We navigate through the outer sensory world and the inner human world in our everyday lives. Though interconnected, these worlds possess distinct qualities that profoundly shape our experiences.

The concept of living in these two external and internal worlds sets the stage for understanding the complex interplay between sensory awareness and subconscious brain function. The external world is perceived through the six senses, while the internal world, which includes bodily functions and motor skills, is primarily governed by the subconscious brain. This duality underscores the importance of a harmonious relationship between conscious intellect and subconscious processes.

The Outer Sensory World

Imagine walking through a bustling city street. The sensory information bombards you from every direction. The sight of towering buildings, the sound of honking cars, the smell of street food, the touch of sunlight on your face, the taste of your morning coffee, and the thoughts dealing with these experiences make up our sensory awareness. These six senses—sight, hearing, taste, touch, smell, and thinking—serve as the gateways to the outer world, converting external stimuli into neural signals that our brain can interpret. If you believe I have miscounted our senses, let’s walk like an Ancient Egyptian. They thought we had six, and the sixth sense was thinking. You can send neural signals from three organs in your body: the gut, the heart, and the one in your head, thinking about what you read. But when you’re thinking about what you’re reading, you stop reading. Remember this experience for later in the blog. There may be a test.

Sensory input helps us understand and navigate the physical world, providing a shared reality we can all agree upon. A red traffic light means stop to everyone who sees it, making it a part of our objective reality. Your environment influences this objective reality. The sensory experiences in a serene natural setting vastly differ from those in a crowded urban landscape, and your surroundings in the outside world shape your perception.

Your Inner Human World

Parallel to our sensory experiences, an intricate inner world thrives within us. This world comprises our unique interpretations of sensory information, influenced by memories, emotions, and thoughts. Imagine that thoughts and thinking are not the same thing. Sometimes, thoughts happen subconsciously, and thinking can be consciously directed. Thinking is an action we can direct. If you’re not thinking of these words, thoughts may be distracting you. The conscious thinking brain is one of our six senses and part of our inner world.

While two people may witness the same event, their inner worlds might shape their experiences differently. One person might find a thunderstorm exhilarating, while another sees it terrifying depending on past experiences, recent events, or even movies we may have seen. Our subconscious never forgets what it learns, so the more experiences you have, the more you have settled in your subconscious mind to spark unnecessary thoughts. Our emotions play a crucial role in this inner world. Thoughts can spark feelings, and feelings can initiate thoughts. In both cases, they can color our perception of the outer world, making a sunny day feel brighter when we’re happy or a familiar room seem gloomy when we’re sad. Psychological states and mental health significantly impact these perceptions, highlighting the intimate connection between mind and body. For musicians, when we sing in the brain, both worlds can dance to the same tune.

The Dance Between Perception and Reality

The interaction between the outer sensory world and the inner human world is a dynamic dance. Our inner world can distort or enhance sensory experiences, as seen in phenomena like optical illusions or emotional responses to music. Our inner world adapts and learns from sensory experiences. Repeated exposure to certain stimuli can change our perceptions. Someone might initially dislike the taste of coffee but grow to appreciate its complexity over time. This adaptability is due to neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections. The fact that we can change the way we think should give hope to anyone tired of feeling the way they do. Change your thoughts, and you can change your brain.

The outer sensory and inner human worlds are inextricably linked, continuously shaping our experiences and perceptions. Understanding the interaction between these realms offers valuable insights into how we perceive reality and navigate our lives. Appreciating these worlds’ distinct yet interconnected nature helps us better understand ourselves and the world around us. Our reality is not just about what our senses detect but also how our minds interpret and respond to these sensations. This intricate interplay between the outer and inner worlds makes each person’s experience of reality uniquely their own.

The Role of the Subconscious

“The subconscious brain will respond faithfully and powerfully to the conscious awareness if the analytical mind does not interfere by reflecting self-awareness and mechanics instead of sound. Sound motivates function. Function never motivates sound.” – Roger Rocco.

Next, Roger highlights the critical role of the subconscious mind in musical performance. He emphasizes that the subconscious responds to the conscious mind’s musical awareness as long as the analytical mind does not interfere. Overthinking mechanics and self-awareness can detract from the purity of the musical expression. The subconscious brain’s ability to control complex functions without conscious interference is critical.

This highlights a common struggle among musicians at all levels. When the analytical mind is activated, it hinders the natural flow of music. Musicians must trust their subconscious inner musician’s instincts and allow the music to activate the body into action. Trust your subconscious brain to manage the technical execution, and keep your conscious mind focused on the musical idea. Music is a simple walk in the park for your subconscious when you consciously sing with all your heart, mind, and gut. This idea resonates with Arnold Jacobs’ assertion that playing an instrument is like speech, where sound motivates function rather than vice versa.

Mind and Brain: A Symbiotic Relationship

A central theme in Rocco’s teaching is the symbiotic relationship between the conscious mind and the subconscious brain. The mind visualizes goals and accomplishments, but the brain executes these through complex motor skills. Reversing these roles leads to dysfunction and paralysis. The mind sets the direction, and the brain carries out the actions. This applies to music as much to everyday activities like walking and talking.

Musical mastery comes from a harmonious relationship between the conscious and subconscious brains. By focusing on inner musical awareness and allowing the subconscious to handle execution, musicians can achieve more natural, expressive, and technically proficient performances. This philosophy encourages musicians to cultivate a deep internal connection to their music, trusting their subconscious brain to bring their musical visions to life.

Musically Mindful

Mindfulness is the ability to be aware of your thinking mind and the habits that guide its behavior. With higher awareness, we see the processes slowing physical actions. This understanding is vital to letting analytical thoughts go and trusting the singing. Once you see why “it’s just the singing,” your entire idea of how to practice and play evolves.

Engaging in mindfulness practices sharpens your focus and diminishes performance anxiety. You strive to enter a flow state while playing and performing, becoming fully immersed in the music. Time seems to disappear in these moments, and you connect deeply with your creative essence.

Mindful Music Making

“Mindful Music Making” is the ability to sing with your musical mind uninterrupted by your analytical mind. Mindfulness is the tool for recognizing our habits. Once we become aware of our habits, their power over us decreases, and with mindful practice and neuroplasticity, they will eventually leave us alone.

The mind must be clear and committed to the musical idea, which the brain and body execute seamlessly. This works because the subconscious brain can control complex functions without conscious interference. The sound (musical idea) motivates the function (mechanics of playing), not vice versa. This principle is crucial for achieving a high level of musical execution.

Sound Motivates Function

“It’s just the singing in the brain.” – Roger Rocco.

The principle that “sound motivates function” suggests that the musician’s mental conception of music should drive their physical actions, not the other way around. This idea encourages musicians to focus on the sound they want to create rather than getting bogged down in the mechanics of playing. This approach can lead to more expressive and fluid performances.

Musical mastery comes from a deep connection between the musician’s inner awareness and ability to translate that into sound. Bypassing overanalysis and mechanical distractions are the mental habits we need to cultivate. The actual instrument is the musician’s mind. Your horn is a “mindless brass tube” that serves merely as a conduit for the music. The trustworthy source of music is the musician’s conscious mind. The physical instrument is simply a tool for projecting inner musical ideas to the audience.

The Rocco Formula for Musical Success

Our Vivid Musical Awareness + Our Courageous Mental Commitment = Powerful Physical Execution – Roger Rocco

Roger Rocco’s simple yet profound formula encapsulates his teaching, outlining the components of music production and the flow from the conscious mind to the mouthpiece, tube, bell, and finally to the audience’s ears. This framework explains how music travels from the musician’s mind to the listener’s ear. The equation “Musical Awareness (Mind) + Mental Commitment (Mind) = Physical Execution (Brain and Body)” captures the essence of effective musical performance. Each component plays a crucial role, starting with the conscious musical mind. The mouthpiece, functioning like vocal cords, translates the musician’s inner musical thoughts into vibrations that the instrument amplifies and projects to the audience. Notice that the musician’s ears or sense of hearing are not part of this equation because you cannot simultaneously be on stage and in the audience. There was also no mention of the chops or how to breathe. We’ll let the subconscious figure it out.

“The subconscious mind faithfully and powerfully responds to conscious musical awareness, provided the analytical mind doesn’t interfere.” Overthinking mechanics and self-awareness can detract from the purity of musical expression. The subconscious brain’s ability to control complex functions without conscious interference is critical. Speaking is primarily a subconscious activity, as is the execution of music. This approach allows for fluid and natural performance, free from paralysis by analysis. Trust your subconscious brain to manage the technical execution, and keep your conscious mind focused on the musical idea.

Climbing the Ladder of Musical Awareness

“Climbing the ‘Ladder of Awareness’ of sound will bring you to the notes you want to play.” – Roger Rocco.

When you first learn a piece of music, you don’t know what it sounds like, and you stand firmly on the ground at the bottom of the ladder of musical awareness. As you sing the melody and learn the harmony, you climb up the ladder until you know the tune you want to play. When you’re at the top, you’ve reached Emerald City, and the next step is to transfer your inner musical awareness to the outside reality through the instrument.

The metaphor of a ladder of awareness resonates as a guide to how much we know about what we are trying to produce. I watched Roger show many musicians who played for him how unaware they were while playing. Their honest answers and vast improvement, as he strengthened their understanding of the music, showed me the difference when you know what you are trying to play. Roger is a music teacher, and he teaches you the music. Once you hear the music in your head, the chances you can transfer this knowledge to the instrument improve. Once you know the secret, you sing in your brain, and your musical awareness tells you when you have more steps to climb to reach the top of the ladder. Buzzing the mouthpiece alone is the best way to ensure you think of the note you are trying to play, but I’m getting ahead. First is our journey to Emerald City.

A Journey from Mind to Audience

Imagine you’re at the start of a long, winding Yellow Brick Road. Your destination? The Emerald City, where complete musical awareness awaits. Climbing this ladder transforms your inner musical awareness into a beautiful external performance. It’s a path every musician must tread to bring the music within them to life. At its journey’s outset, a new piece of music is like spotting the Yellow Brick Road for the first time. You listen, captivated by its melody and rhythm. Though the path is unclear, you sense the magic ahead. This stage is about soaking in the music’s essence, even if its complexities remain a mystery.

Determined, you take your first steps up the ladder, moving from exposure to basic understanding. You start absorbing the music and learning the sounds, rhythms, and dynamics by listening to great players play. Part of your practice is listening profoundly and absorbing the essential phrasing and emotions of the music you want to play. When I listen at night, following the page, it feels like my parents are reading to me before bed. As you hear the music more clearly and step further on your journey, you climb higher and reach a richer comprehension. The music starts to embed itself in your subconscious musical memory, and you recall parts of the piece even when it isn’t playing as a song in your head. You’re not crazy; your aural imagination is starting to work for you. If a song is playing in your head, your subconscious is having a little rehearsal. It’s just singing in your brain.

Emerald City

Higher still, your awareness transforms into expressive interpretation. The music becomes more than just notes and rhythms; it becomes a story you tell. You experiment with phrasing, dynamics, and tempo, infusing the piece with your emotions and style. Each note resonates more deeply, creating a profound connection with your audience. The Emerald City feels within reach, its brilliance guiding your way.

Finally, you arrive at the Emerald City. Here, you achieve complete musical awareness. The music is fully ingrained in your mind, ready to flow effortlessly to your instrument. You play with ease, confidence, and emotional depth. This stage is crucial because the instrument has no intelligence—it relies entirely on you, the musician, to know and convey what to play. Your mental musical awareness seamlessly transfers to your instrument, allowing you to focus entirely on expression. The journey culminates as the music, born in your mind, resonates through your instrument to touch the hearts of your audience.

Ignore the Feeling, Use Your Emotions

“FEEL and FAIL are four-letter words to a brass player.” – Roger Rocco.

Musical success starts with a clear and committed mental image of the music, and now that you’ve reached the top of the ladder, you’re ready to transfer the music in your mind to the instrument. The brain and body execute seamlessly the song in your head as long as you continue to sing it.

This perspective shifts the focus from the physical instrument to the musician’s cognitive and emotional processes. The instrument is merely a conduit already filled with air. A mindless and passive receiver of the vibrations initiated by the musician’s mind and lips. The mouthpiece is a physical tool and a mirror reflecting the musician’s inner musical awareness.

Be A Mouthpiece Player

“I gave up tuba playing a long time ago. Now, I’m a mouthpiece player!” – Roger Rocco.

The mouthpiece is where the musician’s lips vibrate, like vocal cords, to produce sound. In Roger’s masterclass, a pivotal moment occurred while he coached a skilled trumpet player. After having him buzz the tune on his mouthpiece, Roger advised him to reinsert it into the horn and ‘think like a mouthpiece player.’ The resulting sound was transformative, eliciting a profound reaction from the audience.

During his presentation, Roger mentioned that Adolph Herseth dedicated 50% of his practice time to buzzing the music. That night, I adjusted my horn practice accordingly, revealing I was farther from ‘Emerald City’ than I had realized. This was a shared experience among everyone he worked with. Every time a player became musically aware enough to buzz the tune on the mouthpiece and truly believed they were playing the mouthpiece, even after placing it back into the horn, they instantly sounded like a different and much better player.

Sing, Buzz, Play – Roger Rocco

Buzzing and vocalizing music are invaluable tools for ascending the ladder of musical awareness. To harness the full potential of the mouthpiece, one must engage one’s inner musical awareness. By embodying the mindset of a mouthpiece player, one transcends the brass instrument held in hand, elevating it with the musical clarity cultivated in the mind.

Buzzing ensures that the concept of sound remains steadfast, which is crucial for maintaining pitch stability. Transforming abstract musical thoughts into tangible vibrations is easy when I’m a mouthpiece player. Playing the instrument like I did buzzing the mouthpiece, the music is so present in my head that it has to come out of my horn.

“You must transfer the same successful mouthpiece playing technique you use when it’s outside the instrument to the instrument.” – Arnold Jacobs.

Building a History of Success

Failure is not something you have to enjoy but you must accept it. Everything is life begins with failure except the first breath.” – Roger Rocco.

Embarking on a journey of musical mastery, you quickly realize that success isn’t just about talent. It’s about mindset, consistency, and building a rich history of achievements that bolster your subconscious confidence. When you build a rich history of success that deeply ingrains confidence and skill into your subconscious mind, this foundation enhances your musical journey. It ensures that your achievements are deeply rooted, propelling you toward greater heights in your musical endeavors.

“Failure is permanent only if the brass player doesn’t understand how to create success.” – Roger Rocco.

I vividly visualize myself playing flawlessly and feeling the joy and satisfaction of creating beautiful music. As I bow and engage with the audience, I hear an appreciative audience’s applause and the smell of perfume from the string section. Mental imagery sets a robust foundation upon which to build, and doing this right before sleep or as the mind starts to stir gives me a mental activity to practice doing. It’s like cross-training to imagine the beautiful horn sound I want to create the next time I play.

“You must celebrate your moments of success and accept your moments of failure so that you are joyful when you play rather than in despair.” – Roger Rocco.

Freedom from Failure

“Your determined pursuit of perfection will lead to greater imperfection if you cannot accept the inevitable reality that an element of failure is a necessary component of creating success.” – Roger Rocco.

A root cause of failure lies in history and expectations of failure, which form a paralyzing protective mechanism in the subconscious mind. This expectation of failure becomes a conditioned reflex associated with the instrument, akin to Pavlov’s dogs. Roger Rocco emphasizes the importance of developing technical skills systematically, creating a history of success rather than failure. He suggests a success-oriented practice strategy.

Failure is a great opportunity to learn! I call myself…“The Master of Failure!” -Roger Rocco

Setting small, manageable goals to celebrate each achievement, no matter how minor reminds us of the long path to mastery. These incremental successes accumulate, creating a powerful sense of progress and accomplishment. Soon, positive statements replace doubts or negative thoughts, creating a supportive inner dialogue that propels you forward. Consistency hones your skills in building muscle memory and embedding confidence and abilities into your subconscious.

Wisdom from The Masters

“Students practice, Professionals perform.” – Roger Rocco.

Roger Rocco’s masterclass was punctuated with inspirational quotes from musicians and thinkers that reinforced his points. These quotes fill his blog, too. The Music Man by Meredith Wilson and The Secret of The Ages by Robert Collier, with quotes from the Chicago Symphony brass players Adolph Herseth, Arnold Jacobs, and many others, reinforce the central idea that musical expression is rooted in the musician’s inner conception of sound. These renowned musicians emphasize the importance of internal hearing and musical performance’s natural, speech-like quality. Their insights underline the importance of mental and emotional engagement in music-making and the importance of our state of mind for success.

Roger ended his presentation by playing a recording of his teachers in the brass section of the Chicago Symphony. Though their words are profound, their sound says more. Let your subconscious inner musician absorb the sound concepts in this 1986 recording of Mahler’s 5th Symphony as you read some quotes from the gentlemen playing.

Arnold Jacobs

We are all here talking about Roger Rocco because of his teacher, Arnold Jacobs. Roger is on a mission to share his teacher’s wisdom, but he has expanded the wonderfully insightful teachings of his mentor. This link takes you to Arnold Jacobs’ own deeply resonating words.

“The seventh cranial nerve transmits my musical thoughts to my lips, but I don’t know a thing about how it happens.”

“I sing the notes in my head (regardless of range, speed, or dynamic) as I play them. It doesn’t matter how my lip feels or how I feel.”

“We must give dominance to the music, not the means to produce it.”

“Sing the notes in your head, disregarding physical sensations.”

“You can be as intellectual about your understanding and awareness of the music as you want. But you must not be intellectual about how to produce it. I want you to have the mind of a child.

“I sing the notes in my head as I play them. It doesn’t matter how my lip feels or how I feel.”

Adolph Herseth

The cornerstone of Roger Rocco’s philosophy is the subconscious mind’s role in musical performance. By focusing on musicality and allowing the subconscious to guide technical execution, musicians can achieve more natural and expressive performances. Adolph Herseth’s quotes hammer this point home.

“Whenever you have difficulty technically, think of the passage more musically.”

“It’s amazing what the lips can accomplish if you get your mind out of the way.”

“I want you to have the (simplistic) mind of a child.”

“Think sound, not mechanics.”

“Musical excellence is achieved by internalizing the music and letting the subconscious brain handle the execution. This approach produces more natural, expressive, and technically proficient performance.”

The Music Man by Meredith Willson

If you haven’t seen The Musical “The Music Man,” do yourself a favor. Roger’s research on the “think” method goes back to a link between Meredith Willson and H.A. Vandercook. This movie came on as I wrote this blog, and I had to laugh because when I say, “Don’t think, just play,” I mean the same thing as ” The Think Method.”

“Thinking the tune is enough to produce it.”

“You only have to think the tune to have it come out perfectly clear.”

“Nobody has to teach you how to whistle. It’s really very simple. You just have to think the tune to have it come out perfectly clear.“

Robert Collier from “The Secret of the Ages”

This was the first book Roger had me read, and he uses it to show you the power of the subconscious mind. You can read it for free here. “The Secret of the Ages” combines spirituality, psychology, and practical advice, encouraging readers to harness their mental and emotional resources to achieve their aspirations.

“You have a magnet in your subconscious mind that will draw you to anything right you may wish for.”

“The subconscious mind is a powerful magnet for achieving one’s desires.”

Roger Rocco’s Roccoisms

Roger’s “Roccoisms” offers profound insights into how musicians can navigate fostering skill and musicality to reach their highest potential.

“There is no cure for our bad habits. There is a treatment, which is to create new habits that dominate the old. However, if we discontinue treatment, without fail, the old habits will reemerge.”

“Poor sound can be transformed into quality sound. Silence cannot be transformed into quality sound.”

“There is no reason for your success or failure other than your State of Mind.

“Every breath is an opportunity to learn, but nobody has to learn how to breathe.”

“It is sound motivates function, not function motivates sound.”

“Our motors operate on DIRECT CURRENT only.”

“We must be musicians first and instrumentalists second.”

“Feeling good is a by-product of playing correctly. You cannot establish correct playing by trying to feel good first.”

“SUCCESS=SINGING. Playing by Sound Awareness to motivate physical execution.”

“FAILURE=FEEL, Playing by weak, ineffective sensory input that motivates paralysis.”

“FOCAL DYSTONIA is a treatable symptom, not an incurable disease.”

Follow The Yellow Brick Road

“It’s Just The Singing!” – Roger Rocco.

During his short time here, Roger led many musicians to understand that their inner musical awareness sparks their physical actions. Roger Rocco’s eloquently articulated concepts during his masterclass have inspired many breakthroughs in “Mindful Music Making” and AH-HA moments in this Wildwood studio.

His vivid description of music as a mighty, free-flowing river that originates in the mountains of the mind and reaches the audience, the sea, underscores the idea that the true essence of music is birthed within the musician’s imagination and consciousness. By focusing on musical awareness and trusting our subconscious brain to handle execution, we achieve a technically proficient and deeply expressive performance.

Roger Rocco's Hello


A Meditation in Mindful Music Making

Roger Rocco’s visit was a transformative experience for all in attendance. His teachings have shown us the benefits of “Mindful Music Making” and that the true power of music lies in the symbiotic relationship between our conscious and subconscious minds. Roger’s presentation was a profound meditation on the nature of musical expression and the relationship between the musician’s mind, brain, body, and the instrument that projects their inner musical awareness.

Through this symbolic relationship between mind, metal, and music, we transcend the instrument, releasing the shackles holding us to it. This frees us from technical issues by letting the physical actions flow from our subconscious, responding to our conscious singing in the brain. We are indeed “fortunate to have great music in our lives,” and we are fortunate to have mentors like Roger Rocco who guide us on our musical journey. I am so grateful to Roger for his visit and all he does to fix broken musicians worldwide. We all look forward to having his fearless attitude back in Wildwood soon.

Related Articles

Subscribe to get the latest updates from the studio!

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.