Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Tuning Slide: 3-8- Lifelong Learning

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music

Live as if you were to die tomorrow.
Learn as if you were to live forever.
-Mahatma Gandhi

Every year two things happen with education and learning. Every summer about this time we hear that “School’s Back.” Every spring we hear that “School’s Out.” And every spring I react the same way:
I hope not. I hope NEVER!

Education is learning what you didn't even know you didn't know.
-Daniel Boorstin

I had another good example of this recently. As many of you know, I have been playing trumpet for over 55 years. I have no memory of having learned how to play the trumpet. It happened in a different world to a person far different from the one writing this blog. In my mind I have always played trumpet even though I was in 8th grade when I started. Playing trumpet has been second nature. Or was until Shell Lake Trumpet Workshop in 2015 when in a few moments of instruction, Bob Baca, workshop director, taught me something I didn’t even know I needed to know. I started changing how I practiced and how I saw trumpet playing. An amazing transformation has been at work.

Fast forward two years to this year’s workshop. For a couple months I have been aware that perhaps my embouchure needed some fine-tuning. I seemed stuck on a couple things so maybe it was something about my embouchure. I had been working on that in my practicing. I need to point out that until then I didn’t know that it might be something I needed to do. I’ve “always” played like this. I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

I went to this year’s workshop with an openness to get some expert advice and instruction- to be “teachable” as I talked about last week. I signed up for a lesson with Bill Bergren whose opinions and approach to the trumpet have always impressed me as anyone who has read this blog before knows. So I went in for my lesson having previously told him what was going on.

We sat down and what did he do but start at the beginning. No, not the beginning of the lesson but the beginning of trumpet playing, just a few steps beyond “This is a trumpet.” I had watched Bill teaching a non-trumpet player how to play that morning. Here he was using THE SAME techniques on me, someone who has been playing for over 55 years. (Hear the arrogance? It was covering the lack of confidence I was feeling at that moment.)

At first I did everything but say “But, Bill, you don’t understand. My situation is different.” I started to get frustrated. “But Bill..”

“Just do it, Barry.”
“Breathe this way.”
“Blow like you’re cooling hot soup.”
“Sing it first.”

He wasn’t working directly on my embouchure, he was working on my breathing. He was working on how I put the trumpet to my lips. He was working on how I thought about playing this instrument that I thought I knew how to play. He was helping me set my embouchure.

Back to basics to learn what I didn’t know I didn’t know. It took a few minutes for me to relax and realize he was doing exactly what he knew I needed. I relaxed a little as I struggled with something I thought I knew how to do. I kept listening and attempting to do what he suggested. I worked on turning off Self One. That’s the part that wanted logical how-to instructions.

“But, Bill, how do I…?”

“Let Self Two just do it.”

We made a little progress, but time was up. I went back to the rehearsal room and tried some of Bill’s techniques. They sort of worked. I went back to my room and worked on it some more. The next morning as I started my daily routine I applied them some more. They began to happen- after some frustrated mumbling, of course.

They have a way to go yet, but now, a few weeks later, I am seeing the results.


We humans are not dogs! You can teach an old human new tricks. At one point I asked Bill, “How do you break a 55-year old habit?”

He quickly came back with the most common answer that has been around for the past 50 years. It comes from the book Psycho Cybernetics which says that it takes a minimum of 21 days! That’s how long the old mental images take to fade and to be replaced by something new. A lot of all this is changing how we see ourselves. If we believe we are too old to learn something new- we won’t learn anything new.

Whether you think you can or you think you can’t,
you are right.
-Henry Ford

More recent research emphasizes the “minimum” part of the 21-day rule. The more complex a habit, the longer it takes to replace it. It is meant to be more difficult to break a habit. It helps us run on autopilot when we need to. It is what Self Two runs on! In general, though, I know I have to be working on this for at least 21 days before it begins to become more habitual.

So far it’s been 14 days. And it is happening! Self Two is beginning to be in charge of how I set my lips to play- relaxed and ready to simply breathe out. I now believe I can do it differently. In fact I am at the point where I have to stop and think about how I used to do it. A sure sign that things are moving in a new direction.

It doesn’t matter what it is we are trying to do differently. Part of our success will be in our ability to visualize the new way. It may be getting the right note in our head before we play it; it might be in taking time to exercise or practice or eat healthier food. It isn’t willpower, it’s habit.

Learning is not a part-time experience nor is it simply what happens in schools. If that was the extent of learning, we would be a far poorer people and our individual lives would be quite dull. There are people who do stop trying to learn. They become satisfied with where they believe they are or that they have nothing new to learn. The past two years for me have shown that even in something as ingrained as my trumpet playing was, it can change and grow.

Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty.
Anyone who keeps learning stays young.
The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.
-Henry Ford

School’s Out?
No way. I have too much to learn.

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