Training Musicians
Implementing Research into Practice


This presentation discusses an artistic research project about training musicians and its effects on the researcher and her environment.

The research topic concerns a question familiar to all musicians during practice and during performance: “What should I be focusing on?” Clues to the answer to this question are sourced from training practices in the 18th century as well as new findings from modern science. An intervention testing the effects of a form of external focus is currently being carried out on expert musicians.

Findings from this type of research are of interest and use to musicians, teachers and conservatoires as well as to researchers in the field of performance science.

This research project and its process is continually effecting the researcher’s own artistic practice, as well her teaching, courses in practice methods and performance preparation, ensemble coaching and masters research coaching. In addition it has been included in conferences designed to reach musicians and teachers within a conservatoire. A description of the research and examples of its effects and repercussions will be discussed.


Bandura, A. (1997) Self-efficacy: The Exercise of Control. New York: Freeman.

Gordon, E. (1999). All About Audiation and Music Aptitudes. Music Educators Journal September 1999

Gordon, E. (2001). Preparatory Audiation, Audiation, and Music Learning Theory. Chicago, USA: GIA Publications

Harnoncourt, N. (1988). Baroque Music Today: Music as Speech. Portland Oregon: Amadeus Press

Keller, P. (2012). Mental imagery in music performance: underlying mechanisms and potential benefits. Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. ISSN 0077-8923

Mornell ,A.(Ed.) (2012). Art in Motion II: Motor Skills, Motivation, and Musical Practice. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang

Nelson, B. (2006). Also sprach Arnold Jacobs. Mindelheim, Germany: Polymnia Press
Trusheim, W. (1991). Audiation and Mental Imagery: Implications for Artistic Performance. The Quarterly, 2 (1-2), pp. 138-147

Wulf, G. (2013). Attentional focus and motor learning: a review of 15 years. International review of Sport Psychology, 2013 Vol. 6., No. 1, 77-104

Wulf, G. and Mornell, A. (2008). Insights about practice from the perspective of motor learning: a review. Music Performance Research Vol 2:1-25

Proceedings text

Introduction: The field problem and a possible solution

The theme of my present research emerged from many years of performing and teaching natural trumpet. This instrument has provided both the problem and a possible solution to a question crucial for (not only) natural trumpeters: “What can I focus on in order to provide security in playing and performing?” Playing a natural trumpet in the 21st century is a great challenge. Without the aid of valves and precision engine turned instruments and mouthpieces, a player needs to be able to produce the exact speed and form of air in order to play the desired note from the overtone series of a natural brass instrument.

Most of the players’ energy is spent on hitting the right note. A slight inaccuracy will result in an audible mistake; a wrong note. This is especially true for the higher register, where the notes are closer together, or for fast passages and large intervals. Poor technique or nervousness can have dramatic consequences. A logical approach for a modern instrumentalist would be to try to consciously understand and control the body’s mechanism for producing sound as much as possible. A key to technical and musical skill, which I researcher have discovered through participation in the early music revival in the last 25 years, is to apply a more rhetorical approach to playing and performing music; one which requires the development of rich auditory imagery.

What should I focus on?

It has been pointed out during this seminar that knowing and doing are two different things; that knowledge, or even a degree in music does not entitle a performer to a playing career (a candidate is not asked to produce his/her degree at an orchestral audition). This research is an attempt to shed more light on the unconscious ‘knowing’, which determines motor skill. Today’s approach to instrumental learning and teaching since the implementation of the conservatoire system and of specialization is based more and more on the conscious, cognitive understanding and control of what our body is doing in order to produce sound and music.

In psychology this is called internal focus: focus on body movements (in order to learn a motor skill). In the case of a musician, this would be the conscious focus on/ direction and control of a part or parts of the body – for example the embouchure, breathing, posture, position and movements of various parts of the body. Most brass players today would be familiar with using this (internal focus) approach in order to have a reliable technique (resulting in facility, endurance, flexibility and range). What I have come to realize over the years, however, both in my own practice and as a teacher that this is not the most effective approach to develop technical skills or performance ability.

My investigation is exploring the effects of using external focus both during practice and during performance: this means focusing on the desired result of the body’s movements, rather than on how one is achieving it. Although the effects of attentional focus has been researched in the fields of sports, there is very little empirical evidence to show that, and why, we need to be more actively working with external focus in the training of musicians. (Wulf, 2013, Wulf & Mornell, 2008)

A convincing musician

To be a convincing professional musician, one needs 1) playing skills, 2) performance skills and 3) something to say. There is a tendency to focus mostly on 1) and perhaps on 2) with the assumption that this will generate or support 3). Often a student imitates others for years before he/she is allowed or feels he has the right to his/her own version. This research proposes to approach training in the opposite way; by focusing on audiation, and seeing how this effects playing and performance skills.

Audiation: a form of external focus for musicians

For a musician, external focus would translate to focusing on the sound and meaning of the music itself (rather than on how it is produced). For this, a musician needs to be audiating. The word ‘audiation’ was coined by the researcher in music education Edwin Gordon in the 1970s. He went on to develop his music learning theory: a research-based explanation of how humans learn music. Gordon likens audiation to speech, in that it comes from the desire to communicate and is the understanding of the language of music. Audiation is mot merely mimicry and in order to audiate Gordon states that musicians must be able to:

• Sing what they have played
• Play a variation of the melody
• Play it in a different key, tonality, or alternative fingerings
• Demonstrate with body movements the phrases of the melody
(Gordon, 1999, 2001)

In the 1990s, William Trusheim made an ethnographic study investigating audiation and mental imagery of elite brass players from major orchestras in the US. He found that these players had very high levels of audiation: “The responses of the brass artists suggest that their audiation processes go far beyond tonal and rhythm patterns. ...They hear a complete rendition of the passage in terms of tone colour, volume and nuance” (Trusheim, 1991). Findings such as these raise the question: “why aren’t we teaching audiation?”

My own career took a pivotal turn when I became part of the early music revival in the 1990s. I was struck by the nuance and complexity I was beginning to hear by some of the musicians. There was attention to gesture, to rhetoric, sound colours, articulation nuances – to music as a language and not just sound. Although no one was playing the trumpet in this way, I was convinced this was what artistic repertoire required. There is evidence to support this from the baroque era. Renowned virtuosi of the 17th and 18th century were sometimes likened to a voice or even a flute. The practices of musicians in the renaissance and baroque eras hold clues to how practicing and performing music can be approached today.

The research

My research is looking at the effects of an external focus on skill acquisition and on confidence. These two variables are crucial to the success of performing on the natural trumpet (as well as every other instrument). I have developed a practice tool based on audiation and am testing its impact on accuracy and on self-efficacy (the belief in one’s ability to learn and/or perform (Bandura 1997)) on natural trumpeters. This involves working with students as well as professional players. The preliminary results indicate that accuracy, self-efficacy and motivation are affected positively by focus on audiation whilst practicing. After the completion of this intervention, I will broaden the context of the research to explore working with audiation with a mixed vocal and instrumental ensemble in an artistic project. This project will explore in more depth how practices from the renaissance and baroque periods can help train musicians today.

Impacts of the research

This seminar is addressing the impacts of research on artistic skill development. The information, confidence and motivation, which this research is creating has enhanced all aspects of my playing, teaching and coaching. At this time I am performing regularly with several early music ensembles, teaching natural trumpet and coaching baroque ensembles in both The Royal Conservatorium in The Hague and University of the Arts, Bremen, as well as teaching classes in practice methods and performance preparation in both institutions, I am fortunate to have access to many colleagues and students from various departments and in different contexts. As a result ideas and findings can be readily exchanged and investigated together, and I have enjoyed much interest in my research topic.

Playing & teaching

My own playing has benefitted from practicing and performing using more external focus and the audiation practice tool. This is true also of my students. Practice time is both shorter and more efficient.


Sharing and discussing this theme (external focus during practice and performance) has resulted in positive feedback from colleagues who play other instruments.


The research process has contributed to a professionalization of my courses in practice methods & techniques and performance preparation as well as coaching of masters research students. I have recently developed a masters elective in performance science together with two colleagues at the Royal Conservatorium Den Haag.


Upcoming artistic projects which I am directing have a new focus: the meaning and gesture of the music.

Performance Science fellowship

In the last three years I have become a member of a fellowship of teacher musicians who teach performance science at their various institutions: Sibelius Academy (Finland), Cork School of Music (Ireland), Griffith University (Australia) and The Royal Conservatorium (Netherlands). After an initial meeting in Helsinki in 2013, I organized an international conference ‘From Potential to Performance’ which was attended by over 100 teachers and students in The Hague, and very much enjoyed. This was followed up by a similar conference last month in Cork, Ireland. The fellowship is presently working on a website which allows students, teachers and professionals access to many aspects of musicians’ training and health. This is being funded by the Sibelius Academy and supported by all the forenamed institutions. The publication from ‘From Potential to Performance’ is available online:

A last word

In his book Baroque Music Today: Music as Speech, Nicholas Harnoncourt was concerned that musicians and audiences were losing their literacy for music. They couldn’t really understand it anymore. He states: “… new methods – or methods similar to those used over two hundred years ago – must be used to train musicians. Rather than teaching music as a language, our academies drill only techniques of performance. This focus is, however, merely the lifeless skeleton of technocracy.”

He goes on to point out “We all need music; without it we cannot live”.

Susan Williams
Leiden University / Koninklijk Conservatorium Den Haag (The Netherlands)


Susan Williams is currently undergoing a doctoral study at Leiden University and in the docARTES program. She is researching the effects of a practice tool based on audiation on musicians’ skill acquisition and confidence.

Susan is a professional musician specializing in baroque trumpet and teaches at The Royal Conservatorium of The Hague (since 1989) and the University of the Arts in Bremen (since 2004). In addition to teaching natural trumpet and leading ensemble projects and workshops, she is giving courses in practicing and performance preparation in both institutions. In 2013 Susan organized an international conference ‘From Potential to Performance’ hosted by The Royal Conservatorium The Hague, which was enjoyed by many of its teachers and students.