If it feels right, it's a habit

If it feels right, that means it’s your habit.  And that’s all it means.

This is more important and pervasive than I can possibly communicate.  It comes up everywhere.

It explains why some people get so into working out even though it’s so hard.  Once I’ve exhausted myself in the same way enough times, I don’t feel right unless I do it again.  Because it’s my habit.  Habits feel right.

It explains how some (not all) people get so overweight, even though they hate it. They’ve practiced doing it, and unpleasant as it is, things just wouldn’t feel right any other way.

It also explains how some musicians can keep up six-hour-per-day practice schedules. No matter how grueling it gets, if I’ve done it enough, I won’t feel right unless I continue to do it. Sure, it’s exhausting as hell, but it feels right.

Most of us are wrong about this.  We think that if something feels right, it is right.  This is completely, totally, absolutely, positively wrong.  It’s simply not true.  Few misunderstanding cripple skill development more than this one.  Anything that feels right is a habit.  It might be good for you, it might be bad for you, but once you’ve done it enough, it feels right to do it again.

I’m going to suggest a radical theory that I’m not even sure I believe.  But I want you to play with the idea just the same.  Here’s the bogus theory: habits are not hard to break.  At all.  We just use the wrong measuring stick.

If I have a bad habit and I want to break it, there’s a bunch of things I might do, depending on what it is.  But the main way that I know when I’ve succeeded is when it feels right--regardless of what it is.  Think about it--for any habit, even ones that have nothing to do with each other and require totally different methods to solve, I’m using the same measuring stick.  “Does it feel right?”, and if it does, I think I’ve succeeded. With this setup, the more I “succeed” at breaking my habit, the more I reinforce it. Oops.  

I don't think any of us do this consciously, but I absolutely think we do it.  So are any of us even qualified to know if breaking a habit is hard?

It’s worth mentioning that improvement is a kind of change.  And change means doing things differently than I normally do.  So if I’m improving, will it feel right or wrong?  

What’s going to happen if I try to improve, and then judge my success by how it feels?

Your feelings are a compass, that, instead of pointing towards magnetic north, points towards your house.  If, like most of us, I think it points north and start navigating, I’m going to get lost and wonder what the hell went wrong.  All I really need to do is understand the information the compass is giving me.

The more right it feels, the closer it is to what I normally do.  Feeling right is not a sign of correctness, goodness, badness, or anything else.  Just frequency.

Focus, Attention, and Persistent Problems

People use the words “focus” and “attention” interchangeably, and maybe that’s fine for everyday use.  When it comes to learning a skill, though, the difference between them is monumentally important.

Attention is exactly what it sounds like.  Paying attention.  Being able to notice something.

Focus is different.  Focus is narrowing your attention.  I think of it as the opposite of “diffuse”. Something that’s diffuse is like the soft glow of a light bulb, or a cone of light that spreads out 180 degrees in front of you. By contrast, something that’s focused is like the tight, narrow beam of a laser.

To put it plainly, focus is tunnel vision.  One sounds good and one sounds bad, but they're the exact same thing.

I think it’s much more useful to use “focus” interchangeably with “tunnel vision” than with “attention”.  You can pay attention while being focused, and you can pay attention while being unfocused.  Being unfocused doesn’t mean you aren’t paying attention, it means you aren’t ignoring everything in the universe except your favorite thing.

Focus is helpful sometimes, which also means it’s unhelpful other times.  When focus doesn’t help, being unfocused does.

Which brings us to the heart of the matter--persistent problems.  Problems that you have now, have had for awhile, that just will not go away no matter what you do. Every solution to every persistent problem has one thing in common: you find them by being unfocused.  Why?

If what you’ve been doing was going to fix the problem, it wouldn’t be a persistent problem. You would have solved it before it reached “persistent” status.  The primary problem is that you’re focused.  You have tunnel vision, and the answer is outside the tunnel.

This is conceptually straightforward, but actually doing it can take years of therapy and decades of wisdom, although it doesn't have to.  I’ve been ignoring the fact that our persistent problems are very good at pulling us in, convincing us they’re the most important thing in the world, and locking us into tunnel vision because THIS IS IMPORTANT DON’T YOU UNDERSTAND?!!

The solution to your problem doesn’t magically move inside the tunnel just because your problem is important.  

It’s critical that you understand this, because you’re going to be constantly tempted to get sucked back in to focusing on your problem, instead of keeping the diffuse, unfiltered, unfocused perspective you need to figure out what to do next.

I’ve developed a little mantra that I tell myself whenever I bump up against a problem I’ve had just a bit too long.  I tell myself: “If I have a persistent problem, I will ignore it completely and pay attention to anything else”.  The point isn't to actually ignore the problem, but simply to include additional information in your awareness.  But when you're stuck and bothered by a problem, doing that very often feels like "completely ignoring" it, which is why I phrase my little mantra that way.  It reminds me it's ok if it feels that way.

It's worth mentioning--this is hard.  This is a much bigger reason why our problems persist than we give it credit for.  It turns out that frowning and blinding yourself to the information you need to solve a problem doesn't work very well.

Additionally, pride can lock our focus into place.  Part of the reason we focus on our problem is that we think we have things basically figured out.  We think we know what’s important, what’s unimportant, and what’s in the middle.  We know that we should focus on this, whereas that is peripheral, and the other thing is merely a distraction.

Abandoning our focus implies that we don’t have a working understanding of what’s most important and most deserving of our attention.  In an area where you consider yourself an expert, that's pretty hard to do.

But if increased skill is important to you, you will do it.  Whatever gets us past our persistent problem will be one of the things we’ve decided we’re supposed to ignore. It will feel peripheral, even unrelated to your problem.  It isn’t on the map you’ve been using, which is why you never tried it.

And things that you don't try don't work.

Think about what you want, not what you don't want

On one level, it’s advice that speaks for itself.  But on another level, I think understanding it in more detail creates natural motivation to actually do it, and makes it easier to do.

The part of your brain that thinks is the conscious, and the part that doesn’t is the subconscious (not the unconscious--that’s what happens when you get punched too hard).  The only real difference between them is ‘direct control’.  You can directly control your conscious, but not your subconscious.  

Here’s the rub--getting good at an instrument requires being good at a subconscious level.  If you have to think really hard to do something, your training isn’t done yet.  It needs to happen automatically.  So you have to develop control over a part of your brain you don’t have direct control over.

It isn’t a paradox.  You develop in-direct control.  It’s possible, it’s just a different process.

It so happens that we were born with brains that work a certain way: if you think (that's the conscious) about a thing you want frequently enough, you tattoo a blueprint of it onto your subconscious.  The subconscious, in turn, says “Ok, boss!”, and starts doing what it can to make it happen.

It's good to remember that "the subconscious" is still you, just the parts of you you're not paying attention to.

Terrible books like The Secret (*shudder*) will tell you that “The Universe”, or some mystical outside force will magically make your wishes come true if you think about them a lot and really believe.  If you think that's dumb, then I think you're smart.

But it's based on a really insightful point that isn't dumb.

What’s really happening is that your subconscious does whatever was in your blueprint--that is, you start doing the thing you were thinking about without realizing it. Since it’s your subconscious doing it, you are, by definition, not aware of it when it happens. If you were aware of it, you would be doing it consciously.  So to be fair to The Secret, it can really feel like “The Universe” is achieving your goals, almost on your behalf.  

But that’s just what it’s like when you do something without realizing you’re doing it.

To be even more fair to The Secret, it is incommunicably easy to get distracted from thinking about what you want, and what to do to get it.  So if you can whip up a cultish fervor in someone to such an extent that they start thinking about what they want all the time, they might well start acting differently and getting some great results.

But you don't need to develop really weird beliefs to think helpful thoughts consistently.

"How" is the lazy man's "what"

"It's not what you do, it's how you do it"
-pretty much everybody


That’s probably the least controversial thing you could ever say.  I don’t know anyone who disagrees with it.

Except for me in this post, because I'm trying to be all controversial to get your attention.

Now, I agree with the spirit of it.  I know what it’s getting at, I just think it’s a convoluted way to think about it. If you look at something closely enough, “how” disappears completely, and turns into a bunch of tiny “what”s.  

I’m a trombone player, so a Bb major scale is about the most familiar thing on the planet to me.  I can play one with a bad sound, and then play it again with a good sound.  This makes people say, “See? It’s not what you do (Bb scale), it’s how you do it (good/bad sound)”.

How do I play with a bad sound?  I pinch my lips too much.  I’m flexing muscles in my face that have nothing to do with playing, which gets in the way of a good sound.  Once I stop that, my sound is immediately better.

Knowing that takes “how” out of the picture completely.  It’s not about “the manner in which I play a Bb scale”.  In one instance, I’m using extra muscles.  In the other, I’m not.  

That’s “what”, not “how”.  I’m not doing the same thing differently, I’m doing a completely different thing.

This brings us to my problem with “it isn’t what you do, it’s how you do it”. It keeps things mysterious.  It makes it hard to see precisely what you need to change.  I don’t like mystery in my teaching, and I don’t like it in my learning. It’s a cop-out.  It means you don’t clearly see and understand something yet. Some of that is to be expected, but you shouldn’t aim for it.

If you settle for “it’s how you do it”, how do you teach a student (or yourself) to play with a good sound?  If you’re stuck thinking of it that way, you can’t. There’s no place to start.  Once you get microscopic, you can see that the good sound doesn’t use any unnecessary lip muscles, and the bad sound does.  Knowing that doesn’t automatically give you a good sound, but it does turn you facing your goal, with a clear map of where you’re going--the opposite of mystery.

“How” is the lazy man’s “what”.  Always seek to turn “how” into multiple, tiny “what”s.  It turns mysterious things into concrete, teachable, practiceable things.  That's how skill happens.

Better than slave labor

I was in a brass masterclass being taught by a world class brass player.  He made a comment that was spot on.  

“Brass instruments really are slave instruments.  You gotta put in endless amounts of labor.”

He’s right.  No matter how good you are on a brass instrument, if you stop doing the things that make you good, even for a few days, you stop being good.  Think of weightlifting.  The world’s best weightlifter, if he takes a certain amount of time off, is no longer the world’s best weightlifter.  

Slave labor isn’t a good metaphor, though.  Not because it’s inaccurate, but because, to the degree that any metaphor is going to affect your behavior (it will), this one will make you want to practice less, not more.  Who wants to feel like a slave?

This might seem awfully nitpicky, since we all know not to take metaphors literally like that.  But things like this are worth thinking about and fixing.  Any smart person isn’t going to consciously take the metaphor literally and think themselves a slave. But every person, no matter how smart, will do exactly that, subconsciously.

If you buy into the “slave” metaphor in any way, then it’s operating in an “always on” state, without you thinking about it.  Just because you don’t notice it affecting you doesn’t mean it isn’t affecting you.

An accurate but unhelpful metaphor like “slave labor” will decrease your motivation and practice results by a little bit, all the time.  That's why it deserves our attention.  If we replace it with a more helpful metaphor, then your motivation and results will receive a tiny boost--all of the time.  

Have you ever driven through a rich neighborhood?  I don’t mean upscale--I mean RICH.  With mansions, gates, driveways bigger than your house, thousands of feet of road between houses, and probably at least a mile between the neighborhood and civilization.

Let's say you live in one of those houses, so every time you leave, you have to drive back all that way just to get to your home again.  You have this unbelievable wealth, and it’s yours to enjoy, right this second if you want, if you would but travel the small distance to go to it.  

Here’s the thing.  Over time, that small distance between your mansion and the rest of the world is going to stop feeling so small. After awhile, it’s going to feel like a full-on pain in the ass. Imagine if it took you ten minutes just to get to the main road so you could start driving to your destination??  Ugh.

But it’s ok!  You have an amazing house--your wildest dreams come true--at the other end.  Whenever it becomes a drag, you remember that part of having such a magnificent house is that’s it’s a little out of the way.  In order to fully experience your wealth, you indulge in a bit of inconvenience.

That’s how I view long tones, tonguing exercises, and slurs.

If I really do my long tones, tonguing drills, and slurs every day, things go great.  It becomes fun to play my instrument, because it’s fun being good at stuff.  Once I’ve done them, I’m back in my mansion, actually enjoying all of my wealth.

If I try and get away with skipping them, I’m the rich man who lives in the rich house, who’s decided that the rich house is a little too far away, and that I’d rather throw a sleeping bag on the side of the road and hang out there all day instead.  I’m still wealthy, but I’ve made myself effectively homeless.

Yes, I might not feel like driving that road for the millionth time, but WHY WOULD I NOT TAKE THE TIME TO GO BE IN MY MANSION???

Having wealth is one thing.  Being in a place where you can enjoy it is another.  The greater the treasure you’ve built on your horn, the more fun it is to go to where the treasure is.

Drive the ten or fifteen minutes it takes to actually be in your mansion.

Uncomfortable, or just unfamiliar?

Maybe you're already doing everything right.  But if you're not, then becoming a great player involves doing things in new ways.  It sounds simple, and it is.  But the experience of actually doing something in a genuinely new way can be really, really, really, really, really (really really really) uncomfortable. 

Some of the discomfort will always be there, but in this post we’ll talk about how to not make it worse.  We might even make it better!

Consider these two words:

  • Unfamiliar
  • Uncomfortable

I know you know what these words mean--I'm not interested in that.  Take ten seconds or so to experience each one, and notice how they're alike.

Now notice how they’re different.

If you picture them like a Venn Diagram, there’s a lot of overlap, but they aren’t exactly the same.  What’s it like to have something be uncomfortable, but not unfamiliar?

Now the really important question--[trumpet fanfare]--what’s it like to have something be unfamiliar, but not uncomfortable?

Really stop and answer that question by experiencing it before reading on.  Go ahead, invest the twenty seconds.

If you don’t bother to parse these two experiences, they can get mixed up.  If that happens too much, you can start to become uncomfortable every time you encounter something unfamiliar

This is bad news for musicians.  This is how you end up never practicing anything new, completely unaware that you’re spinning your wheels in a practice session, training yourself only to be what you already are.

Whenever you feel that little bit of resistance to practicing something you don’t normally practice, or doing a familiar thing in a new way, ask yourself, “is this uncomfortable, or just unfamiliar?”.  Yes, you still have to get out of your comfort zone on a regular basis.  Separating the uncomfortable from the unfamiliar is just a way to make sure your comfort zone isn't artificially small.


A man walks in to a doctor's office, punching himself in the face every three seconds.

"Doc," he says, "my face hurts.  It's been this way for a few weeks.  Can you help me?"

The doctor, caring deeply about his patient's health, immediately subjects the man to a series of rigorous medical examinations.  "We'll get to the bottom of this", he assures the man.

A few days later, the man goes back to visit his doctor to discuss his test results.

"It's as I feared, sir.  There's no easy way to say this...you have an acute case of Facepunch.  You have a couple treatment options, but unfortunately, there is no cure for Facepunch.  We'll put you on some painkillers, give you some boxing gloves for the days when it really gets out of hand, and we can discuss possible drugs that could reduce your symptoms.  Other than that, there isn't much we can do for you.  On your way out you can pick up a pamphlet about support groups for people diagnosed with Chronic Idiopathic Facepunch."


It’s an unusual word.  If you're curious, it comes from the field of linguistics.  More importantly, it's a really slick way that we can imprison ourselves in a victim mentality. Learning not to use nominalizations--or to be aware when you do--opens up new ways to get around your problems you might not have found any other way.  We’ll start with a definition.

A nominalization is referring to a verb as a noun.  If that doesn't seem important, hang on.

Said another way, it’s talking about a process or event as though it were an object. 

Said yet another way, it’s taking something that is happening right now, and pretending it’s something that’s finished, frozen in time, and can’t be changed.  It’s like changing a movie into a still picture.

Here are some examples of nominalizations.  Ask yourself, are these nouns (people, places, things), or verbs (processes, events, things that happen)?  

Here’s a sample list: stress, fear, the economy, music, posture, love, creativity, anticipation, enjoyment, talent, state (as in “state of the union”), beliefs, attitudes, pitch, rhythm...there are lots of them.  

All those words are listed in the dictionary as nouns…but they aren’t really nouns.  A true noun is a person, place, or thing.  Look at those words again.  None of them are people, places, or things.  They’re verbs, they’re things that happen.  Events. Processes.  But when they’re listed in noun form, you don’t notice that.  You couldn’t fully capture them with a photo, you would need to capture them with a movie.

To take a big example--there’s no such thing as “the economy”.  It doesn't exist.  You can’t find it on a map, you can’t put it in your pocket, and nobody’s ever seen it.  It’s not there.  It’s not anywhere. “The economy” is shorthand for “all the buying, selling, investing, and trading that happened in some place, within some time frame”. 

By the way, this is why we have nominalizations. They save on words. Sometimes that's fine.  Other times, that shortcut comes at a nasty price.  It can make you fail to notice aspects of a problem which are within your power to change.  "Stress" is the perfect example.

Just like with the economy, there’s no "thing" called stress.  It's shorthand for “thinking about things I don’t like until I feel bad”, which is a process. The shorthand version is nice for keeping sentences short and snappy, but it sucks for not having stress.  The reason it sucks is that nominalizations delete information--often the very information you need to solve a problem.

For example, if I say “I have a lot of stress”, I’ve lost track of the fact that stress is really a behavior, an action word, something that I am doing.  There's no such thing as "stress" for me to have.  I don't have something, I'm doing something.  Saying that I have stress completely deletes the fact that my stress is the way I’m thinking--which I’m doing right now, and can therefore stop.

If I say “I have a lot of stress”, what does the solution appear to be?  Well, what do you do when you have too much of something? You get rid of it. So the solution seems to be “remove the stress”. 

This presents a problem.  The problem is that that solution is stupid.  

Why is it stupid?  There’s no such thing as stress.  Trying to get rid of "nothing" doesn't work.  You can’t purge it from your body, because there’s nothing to purge. Stress doesn’t dissolve in a spa, and it doesn’t fizzle and go away if steeped in alcohol.  We know this because it doesn’t exist--at least not in noun form.

By contrast, I can spell the nominalization ‘stress’ out longways: “I’ve been thinking about things I don't like for so long that now I feel bad, and I haven't stopped doing it”.  When I re-state the problem this way, what’s the new obvious solution?  To stop!

This is handy, because it is the only cure for stress.

I can pick something else to think about, or I can think about the unpleasant things in a way that doesn't bum me out.  Even if I keep getting distracted by the unpleasant thoughts, I’m still failing in the right direction.  Eventually I'll get better at it and it will work, and when it does, I won’t have any stress.  That's a claim alcohol and spas can’t make.  That's a claim that nothing else can make.

If you wanna get better at stuff, one thing you need to learn to do is state a problem in a way that makes the solution obvious.  Finding and undoing nominalizations is a power tool for that.  Once you can find them and spell them out longways, you can see the situation more clearly, which in turns lets you formulate intelligent solutions that have a good shot at working.

Wouldn’t it be nice to tackle your problems without doing it blindly and in a completely random direction?

Finding nominalizations is an essential element of your bullshit detector kit.  A nominalization usually means there are holes in your thinking.  

Pretend that you've been accused of a crime.  You know you're innocent, and the cops are reviewing video footage to see if you're guilty or not.  But instead of a video, they only look at a still photo from the video, and that's all they're going to use to incriminate you. Wouldn't you rather have them watch the whole video before they made up their minds about whether to send you to prison?  

As silly as this sounds, to the degree that you have nominalizations in your thinking, you're doing this to yourself--a nominalization is a movie turned into a still photo that claims to represent the entire movie.

To turn the still photo back into a movie, you find a nominalization and spell it out the long way.  That's how you recover the information deleted by the nominalization and plug up the holes in your thinking.  Sometimes, once you’ve filled in the holes, your problem no longer exists.  Nothing more is required.  Other times it doesn’t solve your problem, but gives you the clarity you need to make up some intelligent solutions to try.

I stole (and applied in my own way) most of what you read here from a book I highly recommend, although it’s not light reading. The Structure of Magic, by John Grinder and Richard Bandler.  There are two volumes.  The stuff I stole comes from volume one.

Bandler and Grinder’s test for deciding if something is a nominalization is this--picture a magic wheelbarrow that can grow or shrink to any size you want.  Try and put the noun in question into the wheelbarrow.  If it doesn’t go in the wheelbarrow, it’s a nominalization.  For example, the internet wouldn’t, your computer would.  The wind wouldn’t, air would.  Stage fright wouldn’t, your audience would.

The point is, if you think it's a noun and it doesn't go in the wheelbarrow, you're missing something.

If you have a problem, write it out in a couple of sentences.  Look at what you wrote and scan for nouns.  Throw them in the wheelbarrow, and if they don't go in, you've found a nominalization.  Demand the full story.  Write it out the long way.  Fill in the blanks.  Sometimes the thing that un-sticks you is what’s in one of the blanks.

Sometimes the only thing that can un-stick you is in one of the blanks.

Blog Intro


What is this blog and why should I read it?

Here are the most important things you can do to be a better musician:

  • Practice
  • Listen
  • Take lessons

This isn’t news.  But this next one gets ignored to a pretty astonishing degree:

  • Read

Now, just to be clear, if you read, but don't practice, listen, and take lessons, it won’t do your playing a damn bit of good.  If, however, you are doing those, and then pick good stuff to read, it will drastically improve your results in the first three areas.

So, what do you read?  

Well, a lot of things.  One of them is this blog, because I've already sifted through a lot of very helpful information for you.

Any reading material on music is nice, but also obvious, and kind of goes without saying.  I’m more interested in stuff that will help you, that you might not have thought of:

I think you should read anything you can find on performance psychology. Biographies of people you want to emulate are wonderful.  And perhaps the two topics that have consistently provided critical insights I wasn’t getting anywhere else are the Alexander Technique and NLP.  Find any and every book you can on those subjects and absorb them.

One big, big problem with music education is that the mental side of music--universally acknowledged as important yet seldom discussed in any helpful way--is something we’re all more or less left to figure out for ourselves.  

Take a second and think about that.  

It’s perhaps the most important part of your musical life, and most people--even teachers--barely ever talk about it.  If they do, it’s usually in passing.  This is insane! Now compare this insanity with the fact that there’s this mysterious juice that some people are "just born with”, called “talent”, and you better hope you’re born with enough of it to make it as a musician, because if you’re not, well, then maybe you just weren’t meant to do music.

I call shenanigans.

To discover the ins and outs of the mental side of music is to decipher the structure of talent.  Once you have the structure, you can make a blueprint.  Add in some raw materials and get yourself some tools (preferably power tools), and you can build what others claim you have to be born with.

That’s exactly what I talk about in this blog, and it’s why you should read it.

Let's do this.