Focusing on the Sound When It Doesn’t Feel Right

This idea is huge in the music world:

While playing your instrument, keep your mind focused on what you want to sound like and the mechanics will take care of themselves.

In other words, it’s best to focus on making music and let our brains figure out the most efficient way to execute what we hear in our heads. Thinking about physical maneuvers and mechanics is just getting in your own way.

This is a principle espoused by many great brass players and teachers: Arnold Jacobs, Bill Adam, Vincent Chicowicz, and many others. There’s no doubt that it’s a legitimate playing philosophy. As they say, you can’t argue with success.

Much of my own playing success has come from following this principle, but I’ve also run into a problem:

Each time I got hurt, this is exactly what I was doing.

And I wasn’t ignoring blinding pain or anything, just “playing while tired,” which is something we all have to deal with. Many other injured players have told me similar stories.

Paradoxically, this idea has also led me back to playing health. My personal “recovery notes” are littered with ideas like:

“Don’t worry about minor discomfort.”

“If you retreat every time you feel a twinge, you’ll never make any progress." When I forget about whether my chops feel right, decide to ignore minor discomfort and forge ahead on an embouchure that’s clearly not working quite right, I have to admit that I seem to make progress despite flawed mechanics. But I’m also worried I’m trying to build on a shaky foundation.

I’m currently recovering from another injury, and I’m thinking a lot about this. I’m actually very happy with how I sound right now, but I can tell my mechanics aren’t quite right due to some muscle weakness in my lower lip. I’m torn between trying to sort out my mechanics first and focusing on the music.

Fellow musicians, where do you draw the line in your own playing? When do you take your mind off the music and listen to discomfort (or even pain) instead of trying to ignore it?

If you have thoughts about this, please leave a comment. I’d love to get your opinions as I figure out the way through this.