Sports Psychology 4: Overcoming Self Defeating Habits
Since I’ve been working on a cruise ship, I’ve heard many stories from our guest entertainers. Some are good and many bad, but the one common theme is that of the ‘single event’. The ‘single event’ is the defining moment in one’s artistic career that has had a massive impact on the trajectory of their life. To be completely honest, I usually check out when I hear an entertainer going in this direction. I don’t disagree that single events can be influential, I’ve just never been one to put all my proverbial eggs in that basket.
Too much emphasis on these ‘singular moments’ detracts and devalues the formative experiences that actually allowed these dramatic events to happen in the first place. For the sake of story telling, though, ‘singular moments’ are easier to latch on to than an entire narrative of how someone came to play the violin or why they’re a singer. Do I sounded jaded? I feel jaded…
All of that being said, I’m now at a point in my life where I have greater perspective on certain influential experiences from my teenage years and early 20s. Specifically, I’m talking about college. The more I think about myself in college to where I am now, the more I come to believe that I might actually have a ‘single event’ that has had a ‘massive impact on the trajectory of my life’ type story. I’m not entirely sold myself, but you can be the judge.
While in college, I can comfortably say I worked hard on the craft of playing trumpet. No one ever told me I had to get in the practice room, though some homework grades may have suffered due to my trumpet…. and social habits. Generally, I was self driven about things I wanted to get done, even if my reasons weren’t always pure. Regardless of motivations, the more time I spent in the practice room, the more my playing improved. Funny how that works! I soon received better ensemble placements, offers to play with more experienced musicians, and even a few gigs. Despite this relative success, there was always something I was never satisfied with in my trumpet endeavors: playing high notes.
I can’t explain why high notes were my musical kryptonite, but playing in the upper register has always eluded me. I didn’t think about it too much my freshman year, but as I got into my sophomore year, I developed a serious interest in solving this problem. By serious interest I mean obsession. And by obsession I mean reallllly big obsession. The fact I couldn’t do something so many others could do, combined with my natural impatience and insecurities at the time, created an ugly concoction I drank with exponentially increasing fervor. The more I couldn’t play high notes, the harder I tried, and the harder I tried, the more I couldn’t play high notes.
From my 2nd through 4th years of school, I think I tried just about everything. I read different books about trumpet pedagogy, tried various styles of breathing, times of day, mental states, instruments, mouthpieces, exercises, whatever. If you name it I probably gave it a whirl. I was so desperately frustrated that before my junior year, I seriously considered going to Texas to get a thermal resonance scan of me playing to determine... something. I don’t really know what.
The more I tried and failed, the more I began to believe there was something wrong with me. I blamed my bigger lips, posture, jaw structure, neck build, etc. In reality there was no physical problem whatsoever. The problem was that I began to believe I couldn’t play these notes at all! Playing trumpet is actually a very simple (albeit not easy) process. You put air into the instrument and sound comes out. Scientifically, higher notes require faster air, not a special body construction, school of thought, or type of exercise. The not so subtle difference between understanding these concepts intellectually and actually being able to apply them is something I repeatedly failed to recognize.
My natural impatience didn’t make this process any easier. Like a hummingbird with too many options for nectar, I flitted from idea to idea and exercise to exercise in hopes that finally I would cure myself of this ailment. When something didn’t work after approximately 37 minutes, I would move on to the next best thing, doing away with the previous concept. If something did 'work', it only did for a certain time. After this, things would ‘stop working’ and I believed I needed to go onto the the next thing to ‘fix’ myself again. I got to the point where I actually expected things to stop working. Of course, it was this belief that actually led to things ‘not working’ anymore. I was trapped in a vicious, self defeating cycle.
I was so obsessed with this idea of playing high notes that I didn’t even heed the words of my professor, a seasoned teacher, performer, and pedagogue. I thought I knew the depths of my problems deeper than him. In a sense, I became attached to and personalized this problem to the point where I shut out other people, regardless of knowledge. Eventually, all of these issues led to massive inconsistencies in my playing. My personal Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde was which version of my trumpet playing would show up that day. When things worked I was on Cloud 9. But when they didn’t, there was no silver lining in the world that could console my wounded ego. Unsurprisingly, when I had a good day, I would try so hard to keep them ‘working' I would make things stop ‘working’. Woof.
For 3 years in a row this frustration culminated at the beginning of each spring semester. It started at the end of fall semester when I suddenly experienced one of my prolonged dropoffs in playing. Feeling frustrated, I took each of those winter breaks to really focus in on my trumpet playing and get back to where I know I could be. After school started though, things inevitably went south. At school, I felt the pressure to continue to play well and I tried harder and harder to do so. As I did this, all the progress I made during the winter faded away bit by bit. It was a maddening process.
My most frustrating moment of undergrad started in my 4th year during the break between Fall 2016 and Spring 2017. I was scheduled to give a recital in late March, a week or 2 after spring break. I remember having my music picked in early December and practicing diligently throughout the break. In the later parts of December and early January, things just felt right! Playing the music was easy and I was confident I would be able to give an excellent performance in March. However, when I got back to school in middle January, things began to fall apart. In what was essentially a 2 month downward spiral, I again watched my winter progress evaporate before my eyes. Soon it was late March and I was playing my recital music worse than I had 3 months previous. With my tail between my legs, I cancelled the recital and rescheduled for the following September. There is something infinitely humbling about giving your junior recital as a 5th year senior.
This brings us to the summer of 2017 and closer to my ‘singular event’. For the previous few months, my good friend Andrew Suiter and I had been kicking around the idea of road tripping out East to visit some friends. I thought this trip would also be a good opportunity to book some trumpet lessons and meet some professors on the East Coast. I was confident they could offer some golden wisdoms for my ailing upper register. Surely, as esteemed professors on the east coast, they had the answers I were so desperately searching for. I emailed 2 professors with Iowa roots and was fortunate enough to lock down times with both teachers. Andrew and I pulled the trigger in late July and lazily departed Cedar Falls, Iowa for New Haven, Connecticut and New York City.
If I’m being completely honest, part of the reason I booked these lessons was to test the waters for graduate school. Given my degree program and trajectory at the time, graduate studies in trumpet performance seemed like a logical next step. In the jazz/classical world, the northeast is the place. The Northeast United States has the one of the highest concentrations of top caliber musicians the world and scores of excellent schools, each with their own claim to fame. At the time, I had romanticized the East Coast and it’s academic prowess; I believed the idea that if you’re good, you’re out east. Therefore, I thought in order to be good, I needed to go east.
The trip itself was a blast; We saw new places, meet new people, reconnected with old friends, all while drinking our fair share of beer. As enjoyable as the trip was, the closer I got to my lessons the more nervous I became. I desperately wanted to impress these professors, which manifested in my trumpet playing. I was trying so hard to play well that again, my progress was slipping away. My anxiety about playing well and being thought of as good was an inconsolable rain cloud over my head the duration of the trip.
About 6 days into Andrew and me’s journey east, it was time for my first lesson. This lesson was with Alan Dean from Yale. I had spent weeks ruminating over what questions I would ask Mr. Dean; As an experienced professor at a top caliber university and a resume of of wildly successful students, I was positive Mr. Dean could fix my playing and set me down the path to success.
The day of my lesson had all the markings that something special was going to happen. At the time, Andrew and I were camping in Upstate New York and consequently enjoyed a quiet, meditative morning drive south. Mr. Dean lives in the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts, which I thought was oddly far away from his university in New Haven, Connecticut. When we finally made it down to his part of Massachusetts, I understood why he lived so far away. It was one of the most beautiful areas I had ever seen! Soft mountains were covered to the tip with pine forests and colonial buildings became a regular sight. This was a very different image of the East Coast than I had conjured in my head.
Mr. Dean’s home was nestled back in the mountainous woods, far away from the hustle bustle of the cities. And cell phone service. When Google Maps thought we were 10 minutes away from his home, Andrew and I must’ve spent another 45 looping around endless gravel roads before I was confident enough to walk up and ring someone’s doorbell. The excitement of the day was heightened further by our search for the master up in the mountains, removed from civilization.
Eventually we found the correct house and I waved goodbye to my comrade. I spent a few awkward moments wandering around the front of Mr. Dean’s property until I saw a sprite, older man walking towards me from the tennis courts. He introduced himself as Alan Dean and I was relieved I found him. We exchanged pleasantries and made our way up to his studio on the top floor of his home. The studio was one of those spaces that just felt right. The organized messes of paper, wall of novelty trumpets, soft sunlight, and aura of it’s keeper, all created a scene too authentic for any movie.
I took out my trumpet and Mr. Dean and I alternated warm up exercises and conversation. He was a genuine and modest man, eager to share his stories and knowledge. After about 30 minutes of this back and forth, we dove into the concerto I had prepared. I got through about a page and half and then we discussed some different intricacies of this particular composer, Eric Ewazen. By this point, I’m not so much thinking about Eric Ewazen, but moreso my questions about playing high notes. Eventually we get to some higher, more uncomfortable, notes in the piece and I drop a question like, “I generally struggle with the upper register. Do you think we could talk about that?”
We worked on another exercise to help with range and I kept pestering him with specific questions related to his high notes. Eventually, he just looked at me and with a sense of finality said, “Ryan, you’re going to have to figure it out yourself”.
Uhhhhh…. That’s it? That’s my sweet, sweet answer I had been looking for? I drove from ***** Iowa to Massachusetts and to get “Ryan, you’re going to have to figure this out yourself”?! Yup. That was my glorious answer I had been searching for so long.
Mr. Dean and I abandoned the topic of high and continued on alternating between playing trumpet and conversation. I learned Mr. Dean is originally from Mason City, Iowa, and I believe he studied at the University of Iowa. He even had a John Deere cornet which I managed to snag a picture of. Towards the end of our time together, Mr. Dean said one more thing that really stuck with me. As our conversation inevitably rolled around to graduate school, as I’m sure he could tell I was curious, he told me that after he finished his master’s degree he never took another trumpet lesson in his life.
At the time I thought it was rather silly, but the more I think about it the more remarkable I think it is. So here is a man, teaching trumpet at one of the best music schools on the east coast, who hadn’t taken a trumpet lesson since his 20s. What?! Also, Mr. Dean doesn’t have a doctorate, which is unusual for top tier professors on the East Coast. To me, all of this means that Mr. Dean figured it out. He didn’t place responsibility for his trumpet playing, or life for that matter, in anyone but himself. His self confidence and efficacy was so high that he didn’t need more degrees or teachers to tell him how to play! Alan Dean ‘figured it out himself’ and reaped the rewards.
I left Mr. Dean’s house that day not really knowing what to think - It was a strange feeling. What I hoped to find and what I actually got were 2 completely different things and it took me awhile to understand the difference. It is only now, with the gift of hindsight, can I really begin to appreciate the gift Mr. Dean gave me that day.
The deeper I’ve gone into meditation, journaling, and sports psychology, the more I realized I habitually placed responsibility and blame for my trumpet woes not on myself, but anything but myself. In my mind, there was nothing that could be done to fix my problems; I honestly believed it was out of my control. What I’ve come to understand, however, and what I think Mr. Dean was trying to help me figure out 2 years ago, was that I am the only one that has the real power to make changes in my playing or life. No one or anything else can do it for me.
In reality, my trumpet woes were not because of physical limitations, but were very much the manifestation of insecurities about my own playing. That manifestation process looked something like this:
-I thought in order to be a good trumpet player I needed to play high notes
-Because I struggled with playing high notes, I thought I was a bad trumpet player
-My ego didn’t like being thought of as a bad trumpet player because it might’ve meant I was a bad person or a failure
-I tried hard in all the wrong ways to not be a bad trumpet player/person/failure
-Because I was wanted results immediately, I never stuck with an idea long enough for it to work, i.e hummingbirdI then refracted blame onto other things besides myself, i.e teachers, physical build, gear, wrong exercises
-Drive across the country for answers and get told figure it out yourself
So what has changed from 2 years ago to now? As I completed my 5th year of college, I became more intellectually aware about the mental Gordian Knot I had constructed for myself. While awareness was helpful I was too busy actually finishing school to do anything about it. I didn’t find the necessary space until 1 year ago on my first cruise ship contract with the Norwegian Jade. Through consistent meditation and journaling, it was here that I began to understand my insecurities about trumpet and how they manifested in my playing. This awareness developed further 6 months later when I stumbled upon The Art of Mental Training by DC Gonzales, my first formal foray into sports psychology.
Ever since I discovered The Art of Mental Training, reading, discussing, and writing about sports psychology has helped me understand the source of my frustrations (me) and provided me with ideas on how to overcome them. Perhaps most importantly, reading these books has shown me that I am not alone in such mental strife.
The journey to understanding ourselves not only begins to liberate us from self sabotage, but also from rigid institutional thinking. There will always be dogma about what one needs to do be a good trumpet player, musician, or person. However, our fullest self actualization exists beyond the influence of the institutions we participate in and moreso in understanding and acting upon what we ourselves determine to be true. My lesson with Mr. Dean was a ’singular moment’ that pushed me in this direction. I will be forever thankful.
I don’t think anyone should ever have to feel bad about playing music. For me, the joy in music exists not in being able to hit a certain note or play a certain passage, but in the literal act of creation. I could have saved myself years of mental torment if I had just learned to focus on the pure elation of music, rather than my anxieties and fears. Learning to love the trumpet, music, and the simple act of playing is something I had never thought about until recently. I’m coming to believe nothing is more important. Before this lesson I was too focused on myself - Looking good, being good, not being bad, being thought of as successful, being cool, and other selfish desires all took precedence over the most important thing: Music.
This concludes my series on sports psychology and music. I’ve said everything I set out to say! Of course there is more to be written on relationship between the 2 subjects, but that is for a later day and perhaps a different author. I didn’t write out this story to self aggrandize, but so other musicians who struggle with self defeating habits might realize that they are not alone and that it’s possible to understand and overcome our current barriers.
Keep an eye for some upcoming blog posts on simplicity in our approach to music as well a few album review from jazz around the state of Iowa. I hope you found this series beneficial and thought provoking. If you have any questions, comments, or general thoughts, you can leave a comment below, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or message me directly on Facebook. Thanks for reading!