Pretty much every teacher I've ever had has (rightly) spent a significant amount of time emphasizing the importance of a good sound. A good sound is the basis of your musical personality, the first thing people notice when they listen to you, and the foundation of developing further virtuosic technical skill and musical expression.
However, all too often, corporal sensation is ignored in the quest for a good sound. I'm not saying sound should be ignored and we should all take drugs and "just feel the music in your body, mannn..." But many of us tend to focus so much on our perception of sound, that we ignore our many other valuable senses, including touch, pressure, proprioception (where your body parts are in space), muscle tension, and equilibrioception (balance). Our obsessive quest to sound good gives us tunnel-vision that blocks out all the other information our bodies are giving us, which backfires in the long run.
Tension creeps in. We work against ourselves without realizing it. Sometimes it's just a single problem. But often, we tense one part of the body, and then compensate for that by tensing even more in another. In trumpet players, the most common tension problem is simultaneously overblowing and trying to compensate by over-pinching the lips using our biceps to add more mouthpiece pressure. But if we just release only as much air as is needed, the mouthpiece pressure and lip tension become unnecessary. Other, more manual instruments, often have complaints of both spine and wrist pain, for example.
This is why we hear of so many musicians, professionals or promising young students, develop physical problems that temporarily or permanently stop them from playing, such back and neck injuries, tendonitis, and "chop issues" for brass players (usually, torn or bruised muscle or connective tissues in the face). The tension that caused the problem was probably there all along. It was subtle enough to go unnoticed by the teacher and unknowingly ignored by the student. Over time, however, and with enough repetitive motion, the body breaks under the strain. Frequently, it seems to me, listening to your sound isn't a clear enough indicator of tension.
For example, on trumpet, you can get a decent sound in the middle two octaves for up to a couple hours a day even with lots of extra tension. This is great news for a beginner trying to get through a strenuous holiday band concert; but really, it's a disservice to the player in the long run because damaging tension can go unresolved. It often leads to a discouraged player quitting or injuring him/herself. String players, percussionists, pianists, and to some extent, woodwinds, might have an advantage in this area -- much of their sound production is external, and so they can see some of their extraneous tension (a raised shoulder or cocked head, for example). For brass players, though, 99% of our sound production, and therefore our tension, is hidden in our thoracic (chest) cavity, oral cavity, and mouthpiece. So paying attention to the sensation of playing is even more crucial for us. Thinking of the sound and notes is not enough.
Great players "make it look easy" not because they are stronger than you or have some special talent. They've just found a way to play with deep relaxation in the body. It looks and sounds easy for them, because it is. Of course, they've spent thousands of hours developing their musicianship and learning repertoire, and they also put immeasurable mental energy into developing refinement and precision -- but when it comes to their raw sound production, they do it with minimal physical effort.
Duke Ellington once said, "If it sounds good, it is good." I would add that, at least when discussing sound production, that if it feels easy, it sounds easy, and if it sounds easy, it sounds good. Or, in short, if it's easy, it's good.
Awareness is the starting point for eliminating tension. Yoga, Pilates and Alexander Technique are popular and effective at resolving tension, too (and a topic for another blog post). But the very first step is just observing the sensations while playing your instrument. Yoga won't help if you don't take your bodily awareness from the mat back to the practice room. So the next time you teach a music lesson, encourage your students to pay attention to how it feels to play. They might be able to identify problems you couldn't hear. Everyone can develop corporal mindfulness, but, like everything else, it takes regular practice. The next time you pick up your instrument (or whatever you are doing -- sitting at a desk, cooking, playing soccer, etc.), allow your mind to become fully aware of your entire physical body -- it's trying to tell you something.
Jacob A. Dalager is a freelance trumpet player, composer, and educator in the Washington DC metro area.
This is a blog about skill development, music, and the trumpet. While sometimes it may be specific to the trumpet, most of it will apply other areas of music and non-musical subjects as well. Everything stated here is my personal opinion, and it may or may not work for you. A lot of what I write is to help me develop my own understanding, but I hope you might find some of the ideas worth trying, too.