Your Equipment: Keeping Things In Perspective

Musicians and their gear. The topic itself brings up endless stories (not to mention debates), no matter what instrument you play.

As a saxophonist, I’m not immune to sometimes misunderstanding the role of my equipment with respect to my musical ability. (Many of us saxophonists love going on endlessly about instruments, neck pipes, mouthpieces, ligatures, reeds….)

But I always come back to this simple, truthful mantra (I’ve heard declared by some of the wiser saxophonists I’ve come to know here in Los Angeles):

“Your equipment either gets in your way, or gets out of your way. “

And it is as simple as that. You make the music. Your equipment doesn’t. It either interferes with your musical imagination and inspiration, or it doesn’t.

(To be clear, I’m not talking here about metronomes, apps, music stands, microphones, cases and such. I’m talking about the music making part of your gear, e.g., instrument, mouthpiece, strings, sticks, etc.)

Here are two extreme points of view about equipment that can lead to problems:

1. “My equipment is primarily responsible for my musical results (therefore, I’m not).” Musicians who think this way tend to always be looking for some new miracle piece of gear that will solve their problems. They’re always changing things (mouthpieces, instruments, etc.) in an eternal quest to find something (skill) that  can only be attained through intelligent, mindful and disciplined musical study.

They’re also quick to run to the repair tech the moment they’re having a bad day practicing. (It can’t be something I’m doing! It must be the horn.) The problem with this attitude is that it takes the responsibility for successful results off the shoulders of the player. By doing so it stifles the development of skills, and leads to endless frustration (not to mention expense!)

If you find you’re always looking for the “next best thing”, do yourself a favor and stay with one thing for a good while. Learn to really play on what you have before you venture off to find something new. Come to know exactly how this particular bit of gear is holding you back. Try to understand as clearly as possible the role of your equipment in relationship to your role as the player.

2. “If I’m having difficulty playing my instrument, it must be entirely my fault.” The other extreme is to blame yourself exclusively for everything that you don’t like about your playing. Sometimes it really is and equipment issue. Maybe the mouthpiece you’re using actually is unsuitable for your instrument (and/or your anatomical make up, and/or your musical conception).

People with this attitude don’t visit the repair tech enough. (I’ve been guilty of this myself sometimes.) If they’re struggling to play it must be them. As admirable as that attitude is (taking full responsibility for results), the truth of the matter is that sometimes you just need to get your instrument repaired. Not doing so leads to frustration, stunted development (not to mention what it does to your self confidence!)

Whether an ill-suited piece of gear, or an instrument in need of repair, in both cases the equipment is “getting in your way.” If you lean towards always blaming yourself, make it a habit to try different instruments, mouthpieces, etc., from time to time on a timely basis. And try to see a tech regularly, even if things seem fine. (I make it a point to visit mine every 2 months. I’m so glad that I do).

And if you are even reasonably sure that some bit of your equipment is defective, worn or has in some other way gone wrong, don’t take it personally. For example, if you know you’re playing on a dying saxophone reed, don’t morph that fact into the absurd notion that your sound has mysteriously changed for the worse because of something you’re doing wrong all of the sudden. Just find a better reed. Then get on with it.

As a final thought, regardless of your relationship to your equipment, the most important thing of all to remember is that you are the primary instrument. As I stated above, you make the music. So in this respect, take care that you are operating at an optimum level when playing.

As a teacher of the Alexander Technique, my job is to help musicians improve the quality of how they use themselves as they use their instruments to make music. If , when you play, your neck and shoulders are overly tense, your breathing forced and noisy, your legs are stiff and unyielding,  then you’re never going to get your best results.

Take responsibility for yourself first, find equipment that gets out of your way (and take care of it, too!), practice mindfully, and get on with the business of improving as a musician (and enjoy playing that much more!)

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