The Quest for a Lesson with Yoda

by | May 4, 2022

Quest for a Lesson with Yoda

Long ago in a galaxy far, far away…. I was in a theater in New Orleans back in 1977, watching the original Star Wars movie. In a beautiful twist of time and space adventures, my daughter, Jubilee, was able to experience new Star Wars movies as a kid as well. In 2017 “The Last Jedi” was soon to come out. Jubilee and I were playing in that galaxy far, far away often, using “the force” and saving the universe. I had a lesson with Thomas Jostlein, associate principal of the St. Louis Symphony, and soon had a lesson with his teacher Roger Rocco, former tubist with the Chicago Symphony. As I explained these lessons to Jubilee, she noticed they sounded like Yoda. Wrong, she was not. 

It was then decreed that Thomas Jostlein and Roger Rocco used “the force” to play music. They would henceforth be known as Obi-Wan and Yoda, respectively. I was ok with this role-playing. I got to be Luke Skywalker, and Jubilee was always one of the Princesses, Amidala, or Leia, my mother or twin sister. Obi-Wan and Yoda introduced my conscious mind to the power of the inner musician or subconscious mind. Showing me how to access this power to perform at the highest level.  The following is the story of my quest for a lesson with Yoda and what I learned from Roger Rocco before ever playing a note for him.

A Promise to Arnold Jacobs

From our first coffee, Thomas spoke of his former teachers, Arnold Jacobs and Roger Rocco, with great reverence. Yoda and Obi-Wan had both studied with Arnold Jacobs as teenagers. Arnold Jacobs had a great understanding of what goes on when we play music. This understanding led him to focus on the mind’s part in the equation. He forced the students to be aware of their thinking while playing their instruments. His research into what is going on when we play was extensive. This brief excerpt from will help show the extent of his study.

Arnold Jacobs: A Doctor of Music Making

“Jacobs was hired as the Chicago Symphony tubist in 1944. Soon after, he began his life-long study of human biology and psychology. During the early-1950s, he began conducting experiments at the Univ. of Chicago Medical School and Mayo Clinic. Among his many experiments was measuring intra-oral air pressures and airflow rates. During the late-1940s and early-1950s, Jacobs began teaching from a position of neuroplasticity, even though neuroscientists taught the exact opposite. During the 1990s, with the advent of MRI, fMRI, and CT scan diagnostic capabilities, brain science caught up to Jacobs. Now we see neuroplasticity as an accepted fact, being discussed and written about often.”

“It was in this neuroplasticity milieu that Jacobs’s popularity as a teacher of all instruments, voice types, and, in some cases, string players, took off. He achieved results with his students that became legendary. Jacobs often worked with the student’s minds. He knew that to have lasting change in the player, the instrument in mind was the most important area on which to focus, not the instrument in the hands. Jacobs often said, “The instrument in the hands should be a mirror image of the instrument in mind.”

Since he died in 1998, it has been the mission of Roger Rocco and other students who have been touched by his teachings to explain what the master had found and to develop methods with these principles in mind. Thomas encouraged me to set up a lesson with Roger Rocco shortly after we started our lessons together, so I contacted him.

Readers are Leaders

Obi-Wan had me reading all I could find on Arnold Jacobs, and when I emailed Yoda, he sent me to read his, Roger Rocco’s, blog as well. As I continued Obi-Wan’s weekly lessons, these blogs were excellent cement to make the concrete ideas I used to teach the over fifty students coming to me each week for lessons.

I had students in piano, voice, trumpet, trombone, and horn. I was doing my experiments in my laboratory, developing storytellers of sound. This method worked wonders for these musicians. My tone-deaf brass players were on the way to being cured and would soon be singing in Italian. Young and old, these students were learning to sing in their imaginations. The results were astounding to me, and we were just getting started.

Required Reading for Roger Rocco

Roger Rocco teaches most of his lessons on skype. Yoda was doing that long before we were forced to zoom all our lessons due to Covid protocols. After a few lessons with Obi-Wan, I knew what to focus on while playing. The sound I was making was coming from my inner hearing. My physical actions were responses to the thoughts of sound. I played with more consistent phrases and enjoyed playing the horn much more. Obi-Wan had shifted my goals from building muscles in the embouchure to focusing my mind on singing without distraction. The focus was to be on the music that I was playing and not the instrument or the body I was using to play it with.

It was a challenge to keep from having thoughts about my body. Or the horn, the big game, the laundry, or whatever I’d have for dinner that night. Now that I had a direction for improvement, I believed my mental focus was the game. My subsequent request for a lesson with Yoda was met with three books to read. I asked him if he meant to give them to me in any specific order, and he said no. I know that they were given in perfect order for me. To say I am given a small taste of these books here is an extreme exaggeration. Read them for yourselves; they’re worth it! I’ll just tease them a little to whet your appetite and save deeper explorations for future blogs.

The Secret of The Ages

This book was initially published in 1925 as “The Book of Life.” Robert Collier’s The Secret of the Ages begins by pointing out evidence of the life force. This is perfect, I thought; Yoda wants me to read about the force. It is easy to see the life force at work in the world. In my yard, the deer eat the trees and flowers and digest their food. Then they eliminate the waste to enrich the soil for more trees to grow to feed more deer—one of the many circles of life.

In the world, that is the body; we can see it too. When we work out, our muscles grow. If we need to run a mile in a certain amount of time, the body will change to meet the challenge. Animals have evolved to fit their needs as well. Fish have gills to breathe underwater. The birds have feathers for flight. And the Alaskan Wood Frog freezes, stopping the breathing and the heart to survive the harsh winter. They thaw out in the spring and hop along, unphased by the -80 degree winter they’ve just survived. The human-animal has something extra, it seems. The mind, and the secret of the ages, is the power of the subconscious mind.

The Mind

The conscious mind is the inner monologue. The thoughts about the past or present and our ideas about our surroundings. Our labels and judgments about anything from safety in our environment to the color or smell we experience from our senses. “Our conscious awareness is the gateway leading to the subconscious mind.” Roger Rocco

The subconscious mind is the actual worker. It beats our hearts and keeps us breathing all night while asleep. And It has excellent power when appropriately directed. The book aims to bring you to the realization of your inner power. To teach direct methods of drawing upon this power. The force is inside of you, the subconscious mind. And it’s waiting for you to tap into it. I loved this idea.

The Power of Now

The second book on the Rocco Reading list was The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. This book begins with enlightenment and the idea that you are not the mind. This sounds like Yoda’s kind of book, I thought. With my mind focused on singing without distraction, if a voice started asking questions in my head while I was playing, I’d make it sing. This led me to sing my thoughts that arose as I played music. With the end goal of having no thoughts bothering me. Don’t think; just play. The power of now explores methods of observing the mind, thus gaining an ability to disidentify with the mind. When you disidentify with the mind, your inner musician or subconscious is freed to perform without any middleman trying to control things. You are no longer the person but the action you’re performing, and you are free to sing from the heart.

Another tool for my mental focus was right in the title. The power of now means staying in the present moment instead of thinking about the past or the future. The power of now in music is the power of the note you are currently playing. With no ideas of the past or future, I have no thoughts about the music that has already happened or the notes yet to come, and I am present and always in the action that I am currently performing. You can’t do anything about past missed notes or future ones, for that matter. Think of the sound of the note you are playing till it is time for the following note.

Fear and Worry

If I worry about missing an upcoming note, I’ll likely miss it. Staying present leaves my focus on what I am doing. There’s no space for anything but the singing, and the true musician or the subconscious mind is free to play.

Most of the things I’ve worried about happening have never happened, and if they do happen, I’ve suffered twice with my worrying. Being fearful can also get out of hand. A missed note has rarely caused any injury to the audience or even the horn player. It is ok to miss notes fearlessly. It is best to let go and not even care about the results. You play more right notes because you’ve relieved so much tension by not thinking. You’re too busy playing the following note if you’re truly in the now. This idea leads nicely into the final book.

Trading in the Zone

The last book on Roger Rocco’s Reading list was Trading in the Zone: Master the Market with Confidence, Discipline and a Winning Attitude by Mark Douglas. At the sight of this title, I wondered whether Yoda was telling me musicians should always have a backup plan. It didn’t take long to see the master’s point and recognize his teaching in these pages. It shows us the market as a world of uncertainty and chaos that can change without logic or pattern but has overall tendencies that are predictable. How to set up and stick to principles that can give us the best overall chance for success without worry or fear of failure bothering our next best move. With a firm grip on how things work, the discipline to keep to what we know works, and a right-winning attitude, the path to eventual success is ensured.

Once you have done the work and learned the piece, and prepared for whatever you are about to play. You stay in the moment and put it out there without considering how it is going. This book made me aware of the habits and tendencies I had picked up from early childhood, mostly from being told no or don’t. The fear of playing a wrong note, coming in during the rest, or embarrassing myself on stage was not derived from the experiences I’d had playing. Though some were, and even those experiences added to the subconscious fear of being wrong that hampered my musical output.

Playing in the Zone

When athletes talk about being in the zone, they say things like, “It was like it wasn’t me,” or they thank God as they point to the sky. It was them; we all saw them as they went higher or further or faster than the rest for the gold medal. It was them, but maybe they were not fully conscious.

The degree to which we believe we are the conscious mind and nothing else is the degree to which we feel unconscious in these moments. We can observe our thoughts, and this tells us that someone is doing the observing. That someone is not the thinker, it is the real you. If we can learn to still our minds while we are performing, then we are on the right track to freeing our subconscious to take over the actions without distraction. With a still mind, the inner musician sings, giving clear signals to the body for efficient sound production.

The Inner Musician Takes Over

At this point, everything had changed. I no longer played the horn. I just played the music and finally understood what it meant to read music. I’d hear the music in my head as I followed the notes on the page. Any instrument I held, I had the same experience. I’d let the music sound in my mind, and the body did the rest as if it wasn’t me. But it was me, and I was aware I was playing, just focused on the singing.

Like any good scientist from the old movies, I decided to do experiments on myself. I played trumpet with my trumpet students and trombone with my trombone students. Previously I would play horn with them all. This cross-over idea has caught on in the studio, and many students here play multiple instruments.

Maybe A Tuba Lesson?

After months of reading and emails with Yoda and weekly lessons with Obi-Wan,  I felt strong with “the force.” I was playing each of the instruments with the students now. I practiced the singing method by learning new instruments. The music was my guide for activating my physical activity to play whatever I had in my hands. My body knew what I was holding, and I didn’t have to think about positions or fingerings much on these new instruments. Suddenly in one week, I had two new tuba students. I took it as a sign, and I bought a tuba.

Now I played the trumpet, trombone, and tuba with the students, plus my horn as I prepared for my lesson with Thomas. I found playing the tuba such a joy. I started playing the Vaccai on all my new instruments, singing in Italian as my body figured out how to make good sounds on the different instruments. As I started to get good at the tuba, I asked Roger Rocco if he would give me a lesson on the tuba. He said he didn’t want to hear me play tuba he wanted to hear me play the horn. 

Finally A Lesson

When Yoda pick the day of the star wars premiere for our lesson, I felt the force flowing through us. My wonderful wife, Becky, had gotten us tickets to a dine-in theater a month earlier for the premiere. I had two hours for the lesson, and I had faith that the lesson with Yoda would be over before we needed to leave for the theater to see Yoda. Jubilee and I were so excited that we’d spent the previous week watching the old Star Wars movies in preparation for the newest chapter in the saga.

Meanwhile, back in the studio, I was preparing to audition and had plenty of orchestral horn excerpts prepared to play for Roger Rocco. I was feeling as excited as if it were the actual audition. I remembered my training and stilled my mind, and opened up Skype.

You’re the Instrument

When we finally connected, I had an image on my screen of Roger Rocco from above. He held some tubing with a funnel on one end and a tuba mouthpiece on the other and jumped right into a Mozart horn concerto, playing the melody on his tube and funnel tuba while laughing and smiling. “Look how easy this is, I sing, buzz, and play, and that’s it,” then he’d toot away at more Mozart. “What you hold in your hand is a mindless tube,” he said. “You are the instrument.”

“Your subconscious mind will respond faithfully and powerfully to your imaginative, conscious will if you don’t interfere with the intellectual self-analysis.” He was such a jolly presence, and with the camera looking down on him, he looked and acted like Yoda. I couldn’t wait to tell Jubilee! 

It’s Just the Singing

“The brass player’s conscious awareness must focus only on the sound they want to create with their instrument. Their conscious commitment to sound will motivate the subconscious mind to do whatever is necessary mechanically to realize it with an instrument. The most vivid awareness is achieved by mentally singing the music as it’s being played. The music tells us everything we need to know. We must have the courage to receive its powerful message.” 

“Only the conscious mind can be the master of the music. Only the subconscious mind can be the master of realizing it.” He told me, “If you’re having trouble, then you’ve drifted away from a dominant awareness of the music to a paralyzing self-awareness.”

The Easy Button

Lesson with Yoda

Maybe you remember the staples ads with the “The Easy Button”? When you push it, you hear,” That was easy.” Yoda had one and loved playing with it. If I expressed any difficulties, he’d laugh and smile as he pushed the easy button, “That was easy,” “That was easy,” it’s just singing. Sing, buzz, play. He said that things would be as easy or as hard as I decided to make them. If I decided things were easy, I’d have more success. You can choose the narrative, so make things simple and easy.

Our subconscious doesn’t understand sarcasm or jokes. It takes what we say seriously and is always awake, getting the impressions we send. Feed it positivity and ideas of success. Attitude is everything. If you have a narrative that things are difficult or scary, you will start the body into a fight or flight mode. Fear of a missed note or fear of a tiger eating you will both cause the subconscious to react with many physical symptoms that can hinder music-making. If you’ve ever seen anyone crippled with fear, you know this power. This leads me to the next part of my lesson. Of course, Yoda had much to say about fear and doubt.

Fearless and, Therefore, Powerful

A blurb from Roger Rocco’s blog says, “FEAR is a subconscious state of mind that seemingly protects us from an expectation of physical or emotional harm by motivating paralysis or action. We cannot consciously control fear, but we can control how we respond to it. If we respond by removing the conditions that are motivating it, the influence of fear will subside. ATTEMPTING TO ELIMINATE FEAR WITHOUT FIRST REMOVING THE MOTIVATION WILL ONLY INCREASE ITS PARALYZING INFLUENCE.” He said that courage is not the absence of fear. It is the will to function despite it. Discipline is the will to do whatever is necessary to accomplish a goal. Most people never realize their goals because they are paralyzed by their fear of failure.

I have had a long career so far with plenty of successes. Still, the failures tend to come to my mind more often than successes, paralyzing my playing. It was a very emotional lesson, and Roger’s kind and caring heart reached out to let me know that everything was ok now. I could see how I was in my own way and how to step aside and allow success. Then Roger hit that easy button again to remind me that even living with past failures or worrying about future ones can also end easily. If you are fully committed to the present moment, everything is easy. My time had run out, and my family was in the car, ready to go see “The Last Jedi.” I apologized and thanked Roger Rocco for the extended lesson, explaining that we were off to a galaxy far, far away.

Star Wars Premiere

I ran from my practice room and joined the girls in the car. My head was swimming as we rushed to the theater. We were late and sat and ordered in such a rush, and it seemed the second we were done, the movie started. I quieted my mind as best I could to enjoy the movie. The Last Jedi starts with the newest Jedi, Ray, asking Luke Skywalker to teach her. He had turned away from the force and refused. After some coaxing, he agrees to teach her. When she leaves before the teachings are done, as Luke had, Yoda shows up to give Luke some much-needed lessons.

Yoda begins by burning the sacred Jedi texts. “You must unlearn what you have learned.” I had many habits from years of playing without a proper mental focus. Some proper practice would cure these habits. Then Luke explains how he has failed and won’t make the same mistake again. Yoda explains that “The greatest teacher, failure is.” and conveniences Luke to “Pass on what you have learned.” Especially the failures. The idea of the Jedi horn player began to form as I imagined what the perfect musician might be like.

A Musical Jedi

I keep an image of the musical Jedi in my imagination as I strive to master the horn. One who has learned to quiet the mind and just play, no longer having to make the mind sing but singing from the heart. One who looks at a page of music and hears it vividly, from within, as if it were actually playing. A musician who has taken the time to eliminate any bad habits from the past and worries about any future challenges. One who is unattached to the results and sure they will be wonderful. A Jedi Musician that can get out of the way get over the self, and just play music.

At some point, you take all of what you know and realize these tales, or tails you’ve been chasing, are there for you to free your mind. When you realize that freedom from the mind isn’t just the key to playing music, but it is freedom from suffering, you are highly motivated to have the discipline it takes to achieve this stillness. Thoughts don’t stop, but they pass like clouds, unnoticed. You can use the mind when needed, but your higher intelligence comes from the heart. When you sing from your heart, there is no stopping the flow, and your sound will penetrate deeply into your audience. 

A Belated Birthday Present

Roger Rocco was born on March 17th, a few years back, and I know that passing along these teachings is the best present I can give him. I know of his promise to his teacher Arnold Jacobs that his message would not be lost. It hasn’t, and now the cork is out of the bottle, and so many players are seeing it work for themselves and spreading the word. I hope he sees this.

I’ve still not met Roger Rocco in person. It has been a strange few years for travelers. This, I’m sure, will happen soon. Then I can finally look him in the eye and thank him for taking the time to guide me. I’d still be doing lip push-ups and trying new equipment if it weren’t for Thomas Jostlien, Roger Rocco, my Obi-Wan, and Yoda.

May the Force Be with You

What at one time seemed a strange way of thinking is starting to seem logical as science catches up. Scientists know that thoughts have energy and even polarity. You can measure them as positive and negative. Thoughts are powerful, and we can choose to put our mental energy into the thinking that will be most advantageous to us and the world around us. 

The force is real, and we are all swimming in it. We are an ocean full of corked bottles half full of water, plugged up by our incessant thinking and wondering why we feel alone and disconnected. When the corks come out, and we are all in the same ocean, we see that we are just one big unit of humanity. I hope people will see this and treat each other like we are the same. May the force be with all of us as this is realized.

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