The enemy of your progress is homeostasis

Why do we get to a certain point in our playing ability only to reach a plateau? This plateau can be our physical ability, our motivation or the mental insight we need to play music. We might play our daily routine, but we do not improve. In fact, most of us get a little worse over time, even though we are playing the same routine every day. We cling to that routine as if it were responsible for our success, but it is our enemy, especially if we simply play through it without much thought.

Homeostasis is the tendency for any system, be it a body, a relationship, your mind or your musical ability, to stay the same. Systems want to stay the same, and they usually do not change with mere repetition. Systems change because different things–stressful things–happen to them, causing them to adapt.

If we are talking about muscles, they will stay the same size and strength until they are stressed. Then, when the muscle is required to work harder than normal, a chemical change occurs which causes it to adapt and grow stronger and/or bigger, but this change is very small if this stress only happened one time. If, however, the muscles are repeatedly stressed at the right frequency and at the right amount, then they will slowly adapt to the demands placed on them. They will become stronger and stronger, always trying to achieve a homeostasis at the higher level. It’s important to point out the muscular system of homeostasis and how it adapts to stressors like a sensible work out plan, because trumpet playing is quite physical. We can learn to become fitter–especially in our breathing, articulation and embouchure strength–by thinking like a body-builder.

But the trumpet is a musical instrument, and it requires more than muscle fitness to play well. We also need musical skills at the highest levels. Just like physical homeostasis, our mind has a certain default ability that it wants to maintain. This is the “I just want to play in band without practicing too much” tendency that keeps us from improving. To improve, we must first have excellent mental concepts of what we want to sound like. This comes from listening to good music, especially trumpet playing.

Then we have to know where we are, compared to our ideal concept. Usually we can tell if we “miss notes,” but we might not be able to recognize our tone-shortcomings. We might not be able to tell that we are not phrasing well. To understand how we are doing, we need to have a guide–usually a teacher.

Then we need a plan of how to get from where we are to where we want to be. Because trumpet playing is so complex, we really do need a teacher to help develop a plan. The plan needs to be achievable but not too difficult. And at every stage and level of detail in the plan to improve, the same process must happen: we need to know what we want to do with this improvement; we need a plan; and we need to know whether we achieved this small goal. Getting feedback from a trusted teacher (or by listening critically to recordings of ourselves) will help us improve.

This process, repeated over and over, at the right level of intensity and on a regular basis, nudges our musical brain out of its current homeostasis and forces it to adapt. It does not feel fun–rather, it feels uncomfortable and challenging. We must become vulnerable to criticism and embrace it: this critical input is our only ticket to real improvement and mastery.

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