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Harrisonburg, Virginia, United States
Professor of Saxophone, James Madison University

Friday, May 6, 2011

Reprogram yourself with the "exaggerated opposite" approach

It is very difficult to simply "stop" poor technique.  When, despite our best efforts, we realize that we are still engaged in a negative habit, Practice Monster has a temper tantrum.  A far more effective method is to replace a bad habit with a good one.  I use this technique in my own practice, and in my teaching.  Here's an example of how it works.

Problem:  As the student plays into the high register of the saxophone, she stretches her body upward.  Even her eyebrows ascend, and the resulting tension makes the sound pinched and unpleasant.

Solution:  Begin by practicing ascending scales.  As the student ascends, she bends her knees and slightly squats downward.  She moves the eyebrows downward, relaxes the forehead, and focusses on doing exactly the opposite of what she did before.

In time, the student shifts towards thinking about the exaggerated opposite, without actually doing it.  After extensive practice, the student might be able to accomplish the desired result just by slightly bending the knees, or softening the muscles around the eyes.

This technique works because not doing something is abstract, but focussing attention on the exaggerated opposite gives a tangible target.  The undesirable habit is methodically replaced with a desirable one.


  1. How could this be applied to a person who is very static when they play? If the person doesn't supply you with any noticeable/visual bad habit, how do you use this technique to improve their playing? Can this technique be applied to other aspects of musical development, such as the basics like rhythm and intonation, and extended techniques like altissimo, double and triple tonguing, and multiphonics?

  2. Anthony: Instead of viewing the problem as "stasis," or "nothing happening," try to identify specifically what is missing. Then, introduce this in extreme. For example, if the student plays with no vibrato, introduce a wide, metered vibrato. Although this will sound unnatural at first (and probably pretty awful), it gives a starting point. You can then work backwards.

    Another good example - there is a lack of expressive shape and rubato. Have the student play with a ridiculously over-the-top, even cheesy amount of sappy expression. Once that is achieved, then you start paring it back to more reasonable amounts. Frequently, what the student thinks is too much turns out to be pretty close to the right amount anyway.

    Remember, a solution should be simply stated, but implementing that solution is usually a long process.