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Detached observation

Steve Eddins
Posted on Sunday, June 4, 2023

When I practice a repetitive drill or exercise, such as “play these arpeggios in all keys,” I’m trying to cultivate a sense of detached observation. I want to pay close attention to what I hear and what I feel, while suspending judgment and any immediate stop-and-fix reaction. The repetitive nature of the exercise gives me an opportunity to notice something of interest and then to pay more attention to that thing on the next iteration.

Here’s an example from Hilliard. I usually play some kind of gentle, mid-range harmonic series exercise early in my warm-up.

Hilliard, Lip Slurs for Horn. Play on F, E, E♭, D, and D♭ horns.

Hilliard, Lip Slurs for Horn. Play on F, E, E, D, and D horns.

Articulation and fingers are out of the picture here, and what’s left is moving through the range. When I play in each key, I’m trying to play close attention to:

When I started playing this exercise recently, I noticed first that the descending minor 6th intervals (C5 down to E4) in the pattern were “not good.”

That’s a bit vague, so I paid more attention specifically to those intervals on the next repetition, a half-step lower. Why did it not sound right, and what was I feeling at the time?

I found that it didn’t sound right because the beginning of the bottom note was unstable. Sometimes there was a blip at the beginning, or the pitch would take a moment to settle.

What I felt was a dip in the air stream on the way down, as well as sense that my face and mouth didn’t quite know where they were going to end up.

After noticing these additional details, I started trying small experiments on subsequent repetitions, changing one thing at a time. I intentionally let the intermediate harmonic sound on the way down, for example, or I used a breath accent on the lower note. I continued to notice what I heard and what I felt.

Generally, I’ve found these elements of the detached, self-observation idea to be particularly useful: