To Really Hear Your Sound, You First Have To Accept It

The other day when I arrived at the studio where I practice saxophone, I was told that I had to use a different room than the one I usually practice in. No big deal. The room I typically use is somewhat dead acoustically. I like practicing in it because it gives me brutally honest feedback about the center of my sound, my articulation and my technical fluency. But mostly I like it because I’m used to it.

Truth be told, I don’t actually enjoy the sound of my instrument in that room (as I said, dead and dry), but I’m familiar with it, and play comfortably in it. I’ve grown to accept the sound of me playing saxophone in this room.

The room I switched to was considerably brighter acoustically, and actually much nicer sounding than the other room. My sound came pouring out powerfully, resonating the room and my entire body. You’d think I’d be delighted.

Yet strangely enough, at first I couldn’t play very well in this room. It’s as if I didn’t even recognize my sound (although it sounded rich and beautiful).

I was surprised by my reaction. I mean, after all, when I go to rehearse or play a gig, I rather easily adjust to the room I’m playing in. Sure, there are some acoustic environments that I prefer over others. But since I have no real expectations it doesn’t create any kind of problem. In short, I accept my sound in the room I’m playing in. That’s my rehearsal and performance habit.

Why should it be difficult for me to play in this new practice room?

For the same reason I can be more flexible and adaptive with my sound at gigs and rehearsals: Habit. I practice everyday in that room. I do come there with expectations (conscious and unconscious) about my sound.

When these expectations weren’t met that day, I was thrown off a bit. I actually started working harder to try to “find” my sound, which is completely counter-intutive if you think about it.

Typically (for me and many instrumentalists), playing in a dead room tempts me to push harder to produce my sound. Through my work in the  Alexander Technique , I’ve learned to easily resist this temptation. But the point is that the more resonant the room (up to a reasonable point, of course), the less physical effort it should take to make a sound.

So what I learned in those strange first few moments  in that unfamiliar practice room was this: I’m not accepting my sound. I’m not even hearing it. What I’m doing is reacting to my sound without taking the time to accept it, to realize it. That reaction was based upon habituated expectations, and was manifesting itself in me as mal-coordinated movement.

So what I did was stop, and redirect my thinking.

I had to shift my aim, my intention. Rather than jumping into my intended practice routine (hoping to awkwardly, yet gradually adjust to the sound), I made it my sole purpose to take in and really hear my sound in that room. I wanted to hear it, not as I though I knew it, but as if it were a welcome stranger that held me in rapt fascination. I shifted from having predetermined expectations to having an almost childlike curiosity.

And of course, practically the very instant I made that shift in my intention, my playing became better…more integrated, expressive, facile, clean…easy again. I ended up having a marvelous practice session, full of surprise and delight.

I find quite often when I teach musicians who struggle with producing sound, that there is this disconnect between what they imagine and what they actually hear. Often this leads to excessive strain, dissatisfaction with the entire music making process, and even injury. All because of a gap between what they imagine (expect) and what they hear.

Part of my job is to help bridge that gap. And as you can see from what I’ve related about myself above, I need to help myself in the same way from time to time.

In fact when I first started playing music, it was on an alto saxophone. I was told to play alto because it was easier to handle than the tenor (even though that’s what I really wanted to play). The first three or four years of study, I could never play more than about 15 minutes at a single practice session without my chops getting totally exhausted. Finally on a lark, I switched to tenor. Playing was immediately easy. I could play hours a day.

In hindsight, I think I was struggling so much on alto because I wasn’t really hearing and accepting the sound of the instrument. I was imagining the sound of a tenor, and in doing so, was fighting the sound of the alto every step of the way. (Nowadays it’s easy for me to get a good sound on alto. I just had to learn how to hear it.)

I’d like to leave you with an excerpt from the book, Integrated Practice by Pedro de Alcantara:

The traditional approach to sound says, “First imagine a sound, then find the physical means to produce it.” The problem is that the search for sound is often predetermined by taste and habit. You like or dislike that which you know already, and the unknown is often unimaginable. Each gesture you make produces its own sound. By simply exploring gesture, you may well be surprised by new, unplanned and unimagined sounds. 

Ah…unplanned and unimagined sounds…the possibility of surprise and delight.  So see if you can approach your sound with curiosity instead of expectations. Accept so that you can hear and explore. It can make quite a difference.



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