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Playing as a Question Mark?


The fabulous Michael Gast, who plays Principal Horn with the Minnesota Orchestra, once told me in a lesson, “You're playing your horn with a question mark. You have to play with an exclamation point!”

I repeat this advice often. I find that many of us – not just horn players but all musicians – practice and perform carefully. We do this because we want to practice and perform well. And that's a good impulse.

But that impulse can manifest itself in very bad ways – holding back on our air, trying to play quietly until we feel something is “good enough,” avoiding situations or music that might make us sound “bad,” sidestepping challenges, even moving our posture so the bell faces into our body so we can hear ourselves but others can't. It's amazing the ways – giant and subtle – that we try to “hide” while we're striving for perfection.

Here's the problem with it: we never reach perfection.

So we always have to hide.

I consider myself a recovering perfectionist – I say that with all seriousness. I consider perfectionism a disease – like a disease, it robs us of our health (mental and physical). And like a disease, it needs to be treated – and the earlier, the better.

The treatment is letting go of getting it the first and every time; letting go of the idea of waiting until it's perfect. Let yourself just play – improvement only comes as you try and fail.

This is the heart of Michael Gast's advice – stop playing like you're asking for permission, and start playing knowing you have permission. You have permission to make mistakes, sound bad, experiment with new ideas and sounds, and question information. You have permission to play louder, use more air, try that challenging piece of music, take that audition, and go for that high note. If you screw up, that's okay – because making mistakes gives you information.

If you're going to miss something, miss it by being brave, going for it, and attempting to make the best music you can. You will usually surprise yourself and get it. Because when we let go of perfection and give ourselves permission to try, we use our AIR well, we correct our posture, we adjust our embouchure as we need to, and we learn. Above all, we learn.

That's when things start getting fun.

So, take a deep breath, pick up your horn, and play as an exclamation point!

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