Proprioception and mental models

Touch your nose with your finger–with your eyes closed. The reason you can do that is because you have an awareness of your body in space. It’s a kind of body map in our brain, and the name of this sixth sense is “proprioception” or “kinesthesia.” Without a functioning proprioception, you would not be able to do the most basic functions. When we first learn how to do some physical act, we are mostly consciously aware of our body (e.g., when we first learn to ride a bike or drive a car), but later, when we get better, most of our body awareness is relegated to our subconscious, which is a good thing. Have you ever tried to over-think how to ride a bike? It can make the experience difficult!

This is relevant to trumpet playing. As students, we have gotten used to the notion that if we try to improve through practice and better concepts, we will get better. Nevertheless, we have all experienced “paralysis of analysis.” This is when we try too hard to make something happen on the trumpet, whether it is better articulation, better tone or higher range. So, what are we to do, if “trying” doesn’t lead to results?

I would suggest, first of all, not trying too hard. One of the most important things to remember is that trumpet playing is a long-term effort. We should enjoy the process. The process should always be our main focus. Of course we do have to be results-minded, too, as long as we are enjoying the “process” of getting better results.

Secondly, I would suggest using “mental models” to capture the essence of what it is we are trying to do. I wrote about one mental model idea not too long ago in my blog about slurring–where I suggested that you could imagine a squishy ball between the top of your tongue and the roof of your mouth. Of course, there is no squishy ball there when we play, but if we imagine it, we can positively affect the way we slur.

When we latch on to mental models, we release the conscious mind from the arduous duty of trying to control our automatic reflexes–our kinesthesia. And, let’s face it, the conscious mind is not equipped to do this. It is too slow. It inserts erroneous notions into the process. And then it tries to shift the blame on our poor body!

Here’s another example of how we can use a mental mode to improve our head and neck posture. If we have our head too far forward, we often can suffer in our playing, because this creates tension. It can be heard in our playing and can make the experience of playing unpleasant. Instead of directly controlling our muscles, forcing the “correct” posture, try a mental model that will gently encourage the correct posture, but without all of the brute force. Here’s a video I made to explain this:

When we allow our proprioception to work without interference from our conscious mind, but instead with a gentle mental model, we can get better results.


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