Saturday, December 11, 2010


The first time I can remember associating the word "natural" with making music was back in the 80's when I heard a radio interview with Tony La Russa and he used the word responding to the question of why he thought he was such a successful baseball team manager. He said that he'd never been a natural player, so in order to improve enough to make it in the big leagues, he had to analyze all the facets of the game so that he could figure out how to do things like hit and run bases. That meant he was in a good position to help others play to the best of their ability. 

I immediately had the realization that I was in the same position making music. With the possible exception of rhythm guitar/banjo, I am in no way a "natural" musician. And all the work I've done to improve my skills helps me help others.

The next time I consciously thought about "natural" music makers was reading Jeff Smiley's The Balanced Embouchure. I can't remember if he expressly says so, but I came away with the feeling that his method for trumpet/horn players is a rigorous set of exercises embedded in a well thought out philosophy that helps students find their way to playing as if they were a "natural" player.

All of this has come to mind because of this post by Bruce Hembd, where he makes the point that there's nothing "natural" about playing the horn:

Until animals start buzzing their lips in the jungle, I don’t buy the ‘natural’ approach that some teachers tout as a selling point – along with its abstract, pop-psychology terminology. . . 

. . . Playing a brass instrument requires technical knowledge, and mental and physical skill. For some that requires breaking things down and analyzing it to see how it works and all fits together. 

This slightly different usage of "natural" tripped me up the first few times I read the post. I agree with the point being made, but also feel trying to figure out how to get the body to work in the most natural manner possible is the way to go. (Valerie Wells, the horn rep for Jeff's BE method comments approvingly to Bruce's post.)

All of these ideas about "natural" players and how to learn from them raises the issue of our consciousness when playing. Stan Musial didn't go to the plate turning over in his mind all the details needed to hit well, he just hit the ball. Once the rest of us learn from observing naturals, we need to work with what we've learned enough so that we don't need to think about it either - that's what practice is all about. What starts out as conscious thought should over time slip down into more automatic behavior. If we do all that well, an observer should have a difficult time picking out who was originally a "natural" and who wasn't.

Update: I was remiss in not mentioning this post by James Boldin, which I'd read and commented on before making my own post here. Dave Wilken also posted on the subject 
(and included links to some great posts of his touching on the subject), and Julia Rose has a very interesting post responding to Bruce here.

This discussion is one of the reasons I find blogging so beneficial - all these people who really know their subject spending time sharing their knowledge and insights.

Update 2: Want to paste in Julia Rose's response to a comment I left on her post:

I don’t think I’ve changed approaches, but rather I’ve gone back to an approach I used before. Every single success I’ve had in my career (making finals in auditions, competitions, etc.) I attribute to my thinking musically instead of technically when I played. However, when I started running into problems a couple years ago (as everyone eventually does, I think) I began to focus on what I thought was physically going wrong. But there is just too much going on physically for one to think about, at least while playing. I know now that when one runs into problems, one must continue to think musically in order to solve the problem.


  1. "Natural" is a word which can be defined and redefined almost at will, and so I don't find it a particularly useful word.

    Some people happen to acquire a good working embouchure without thinking too hard about it. Others need more help and analysis. It seems to me that both are ultimately achieving the same thing but one has had to do less in the way of conscious thinking about it.

    But hopefully once the habit of a good embouchure has been instilled (by whatever method), further conscious thought isn't needed. Is that natural? Or merely habitual? Is the person who achieved a good embouchure without analysis more natural?

    And is that a good thing even if he is more natural? If he then goes through a sticky patch in his playing, he might not be in a position to work out what is wrong and fix it. We tend to equate what we think of as "natural" as also being "good". But it ain't necessarily so.

    There is the different case of trying to do things in the easiest, and most efficient and effective way possible. In the case of producing sound from a horn, that generally means not having muscles working against each other. I have many times seen a player more or less strangling his sound by putting so much tension into trying to get high notes that he was almost choking off the airway altogether.

    The cure is to find ways of having muscles work together towards an end rather than against each other - it makes the task easier to do. We call this "natural" as well sometimes, but "effective" is probably a better description for this.

    And once you get used to doing it right, it becomes habitual or familiar. Buut we also call that "natural" (or sometimes "instinctive"). It is a common mistake to confuse instinct with habit, because neither requiures conscious thought. But they can and should be distinguished. Breathing is instinctive. Blowing down a horn the right way is habitual.

    All these different uses of the word "natural" are relatively common, but are unhelpful because they so easily get mixed up.

  2. Thanks, Jonathan - I agree with everything you say, especially the bit about a "natural" getting into trouble and not being able to figure it out. Had thought of that, but it's already a long post. Your overall take seems much the same as Bruce's.

    The instinctual vs. habitual is a great distinction to make.

    The small point I wanted to make (beyond the language one) is that for non-naturals such as myself, understanding that what naturals have is achievable is important. As a therapist I often encounter, "I'm not good enough to play a musical instrument", an attitude educators are often happy to encourage if they feel the student doesn't have what it takes for their particular program.

    It's also another connection to the embodied cognition idea and the non-duality of body and mind. That accessing how one can achieve a natural (or whatever you want to call it playing style) is not simply a mental exercise applied to physical mechanics. It all goes back to the right/left brain discussion we had way long ago. There's a lot going on under the hood of true musicality.

  3. I agree entirely about "non-naturals" being able to achieve what naturals do. It is just a bit harder.

    I've come across that particularly in the context of sight-reading. Many amateur musicians think that sight-reading is a black art, only given to professionals to master and forever inaccessible to ordinary amateur musicans like themselves.

    Phooey! Sight-reading is a technique that can be learned, practiced and improved just like anything else in music. It is just that many professionals are talented at sightreading, and so have never really made the effort at unpacking how they do it so that they can teach it. And so those who aren't so talented don't actually get help in working out how it is done.

  4. I eagerly await your unpacking of sight reading! From what I've seen, most educators just say to do a lot of it to learn how. In band I'm getting a bit better as I've built up a knowledge of the clich├ęs the arrangers think in when thinking about the horn - and the weird little rhythmic patterns that make no sense on their own.

    You also use the word "talent" and as that's on my list of words to talk about, would love to hear you definition.

  5. I've already written about sightreading.

    The art of sightreading

    As for talented, I would regard somebody as being talented if they display a significant degree of aptitude for something without a huge amount of apparent effort. So talent is distinguishable from attainment, in terms of the work needed to reach that level of attainment.

    In school reports I used to get given a grade in the range A to E for achievement, and also a grade in the range 1 to 5 for effort. Somebody talented is somebody who can get an A3 or B4 - more achievement than apparent effort put in.

  6. Jonathan - Sorry! I remember that post now - just in too much of a hurry today. Thanks for the "talent" comment - very helpful.

    (Just found that follow-up comment of yours on "Back Issues" in my spam folder today - no clue as to where it was in the Googleverse all that time since you made it.)