Knowing Your Line: Planning for Success & Improvement

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A key element in improvement on a musical instrument is to know your line. This concept boils down to becoming familiar with how hard or regularly one can push before becoming unduly stressed – or in a worst case scenario, breaking down.

Having played and taught music for over 25 years now, this process for myself more-or-less operates on an instinctual level. Unless focused on a new task (such as an embouchure change or in teaching), I rarely think about things in such detail while performing.

However there is a time and place for everything, and for adapting to unfamiliar change it can be helpful to understand this concept in order to get started and move forward.

Charting it out

The horizontal progression from left to right represents time. The progression from bottom to top represents improvement.

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This model and its scope would be different in each and every situation. The blue, curvy line can represent practice intensity or the learning curve, or just improvement or success (you decide).

In reality its contour might resemble any number of things – from a straight, diagonal line to a jagged zig-zag with peaks and valleys like the stock market.

Know your limits, stay the line

The first step in exercising control over destructive habits is to simply be aware of them. Being very honest and familiar with limitations can go a long way towards overall improvement.

In fleshing out limitations, asking simple questions is always a good, baseline approach. This discovery process might generate itself through a variety of avenues, including: field experience, in private lessons and consultations, during technical research or even just through through lots of time and diligence in a practice room.


Looking at just the facial muscles for example:

  • Are my lips tingling?
  • Are my chops burning?
  • Do they feel swollen?
  • Does my face feel tired?
  • Do I feel pain?
  • Is it a sharp or dull pain?

It should be emphasized that these are basic questions not to obsess upon, but merely to be aware or conscious of. Pain and stress is something absolutely not to be ignored.

Above and beyond thinking about the chops:

  • Am I stressed out?
  • Do I feel aware, relaxed and focused?
  • Should I take a break?
  • Did I get enough sleep and food today?

Again these are just basic questions, but they can be very pertinent while charting out unfamiliar territory.

The main point of knowing your line is that playing an instrument while in a stressed or unfocused state is less-than-optimal. It wastes precious time and in extremes can be counter-productive and even lead towards injury.

A new pathway becomes old

In a very broad sense, we learn things in order to forget them.

As time progresses a method like the one suggested here gets refined, condensed and processed into a bare essential – something that might hold great meaning and worth to its users. Eventually it may even pass into deep memory and become a pathway upon which greater things are built.

As implied by the graph chart above, I am suggesting that different learning pathways can exist on the same continuum – in a range from deep-thoughts out to no-thoughts.

Since I assert that learning pathways are dependent on context, I would also suggest that there is ample room for multiple paradigms.

A random list of phrases

Along this line of thought, over the past week I have been collecting various axioms and catch phrases into a list. This list ultimately means nothing, but it is interesting to ponder and compare the concepts behind the phrases.

  • tow the line
  • ride the line
  • know your limits
  • hold the course
  • push the limit
  • break the rules
  • rock the boat
  • damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead
  • put your back into it
  • put your nose to the grindstone
  • break down barriers
  • the straw that breaks the camel’s back
  • paralysis by analysis
  • the unexamined life is not worth living
  • a stitch in time saves nine
  • a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush
  • an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure
  • a teaspoon can cure while a tablespoon can kill
  • give one hundred and ten percent
  • go for the gold
  • ride the wave
  • try harder
  • try softer
  • don’t try, let it happen
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