The Doctrine of Intent

By Lawrence Borden • March 01, 1998 • 17 min read

When students ask questions about playing trombone they first ask about mechanics and hardware. I can answer most of the questions, but when I can't, I point them in the direction of someone more expert than I who can answer their question. It is relatively easy to answer these questions of mechanics and hardware because they are questions of "what?." What I find disturbing is how rarely students ask questions of a philosophical nature. After all, this is a consuming profession and the quality of their future growth will not only depend on the number of hours spent in the practice room, but also upon the reasons why they practice. It is not often that I hear "why?" questions and it distresses me. I'm of the opinion that "why?" questions need to be pondered and even struggled with for any player to carve out a viable "raison d'ê tre" as a musician. Questions of philosophy may seem to be territory best left to philosophers, but when I am presented by a student with that teachable moment, I feel compelled to grab it and slip in the content I can. I have often felt that the best content in those moments is that which lays the groundwork for a living, breathing personal philosophy and provides the solid basis upon which all the hours of practice build to ultimately make a finished player. The philosophical basis, that strong foundation that I believe in, I call the "Doctrine of Intent."

I am well aware that many teachers and performers utilize forms of this idea and refer to it in different ways, but it has helped me as a teacher and as a performer to give it a name and a definition. It makes this conceptual anchor convenient to talk about having a definition that can be the subject of thoughtful discussion and development. Ultimately, my hope is that the "Doctrine of Intent" will help performers to develop as musicians.

Doctrine of Intent

The goal of performance is for the audience to perceive the pure Intent of the performer.

This should be the driving force of all performance. All too often the driving forces are futile attempts at perfection: not to miss too many notes, not to play too out of tune, not to be too embarrassed or nervous. All of these are important, all of them are negatives, and all of them miss the point of performance. The point of performance is what you have to and want to say to an audience. Communication is what the "Doctrine of Intent" trains the player to focus on.

For most players the "Doctrine of Intent" is too overwhelming a responsibility until it is broken down into components. If we spend some time analyzing this doctrine as stated, it quickly becomes evident that the ancillary ideas implied by the "Doctrine of Intent" are almost as important as the doctrine itself.

It is the responsibility of performers to transmit the notated, implied, or requested ideas of the composer to the best of their ability.

In the first place, it is the clear understanding on the part of performers that they should first attempt to play the music as the composer intended it to be played. Using the notation as the primary guide the player should strive to gather as much information about the work as possible including statements by the composer about the work and the wisdom of other performers who have performed the work. It is often helpful to consider that there is an order of precedence to a performance. First, we must be true to the composer, then to the ensemble, then to ourselves and our own ideas. This does not mean that our ideas are less important--rather it means that the creative performer will find ways to be true to the composer and ensemble while still finding unique ways of expressing themselves within this context. I think that these very strictures force us to be more creative, just as Pablo Picasso forced himself to develop the structural underpinnings of his painting by limiting himself to a single color on a canvas and as Ansel Adams chose to illustrate the beauty of the desert using only black and white negatives and prints.

Intent itself implies that performers have a specific idea that they wish to transmit and that those ideas have been created and crafted at some interval of time before they are presented.

Understanding of this corollary forms a basis for many of the tasks that players are given on the principle of it "being good for them" or "helpful for development." These practices might include mouthpiece buzzing, use of a rim, cutaway, or breathing tool. If the player has no specific goal in mind then the efficacy of these exercises is severely undermined. Many teachers suggest that a player imitate the sound or style of a player they admire. Arnold Jacobs says that this is the most efficient way to build your own sound, but it is also possible to imagine "the best trombone sound in the world" and work toward that. In either case a goal or ideal has been chosen first and all subsequent effort is motivated by the desire to reach that ideal, even if only by successive approximation. It is the job of the teacher to shorten the path as much as possible, but that is difficult if not impossible if the student does not have an ideal in mind. Application of this concept extends then from pure tone all the way to the shape and purpose of each phrase and movement of a musical work. This effort to achieve an appropriate musical thought happens before the performance and is the result of much craft in the practice room. The player should use every tool available to them to explore the nearly infinite number of ways a phrase might be played, including ways they would never choose to play. The final musical choice simply should not be made from a narrow range of possibilities. Performers might try exploring these possibilities by singing as if in an opera or on Broadway or at a lounge, playing on a rim or cutaway, whistling, buzzing the mouthpiece or mouthpipe as well as playing on the instrument itself. Having fun is mandatory and this step will save countless hours of practice time in the end.

Performers need an audience with which to communicate.

I enjoy my practice. It is the cheapest sort of therapy I can think of and I always come away with improved self-esteem and a better attitude. But the reason we perform is to let an audience hear that ultimate meld of ideas, the composer's and our own. For this we need people to listen to us: an audience. Performers who fear the audience don't understand that the relationship is symbiotic. You give your best to them, but you also get something in return. Part of the response the audience gives is to the composition, but most audiences come to hear performers as well as works. This is your chance to "talk" to the audience with your instrument about the composer and about yourself. This is your chance to sing out from the center of your being and reveal as much or as little of yourself as you can. But beware of thinking you can fool the audience! The amount of information you transmit to an audience is astounding. From your tone, pacing, tempi, facial and musical expressions, vibrato, body language, and playing, the audience knows a great deal about you. You simply cannot hide your essence from an audience for very long.

The vast majority of what performers wish to communicate is communicated via the sound itself.

Too much 'acting' on-stage damages the product instead of supporting it. What you want to say should not depend largely on your body language unless you are doing a theater piece which involves acting. I have often coached players who, when asked for more 'expression' of one kind or another, will insist that they already did exactly what I asked for. Often what they did was substituted movement for content. It is common for performers to be convinced of their expression on the internal level to such an extent that they simply cannot believe that it was not externalized as sound. My contention is that if the audience can't hear it then it didn't really happen. It simply does not matter how you feel you played, it only matters if it was heard. Physical motion, which is an echo of the musical content, can add a great deal to a performance, but not if the creative ideas of the player aren't present. If the content isn't contained primarily in the sound, then all the bobbing, and weaving and movement in the world will not create it. It does not matter how much you emote with your body or how you sway and move and grimace. It matters first that the intended emotional content is actually in the sound! When you can do that, then you should start to worry about your choreography and the effect your on stage movements have on what the audience perceives. I don't want to go to performances of statues on-stage either. I want to see and hear performances where movement is visually satisfying because it is a by-product of the content.

By the 'perception' of the performer's musical thought the audience has participated in a fundamentally different way than they would by simple 'reception.'

Sometimes it is real work to listen to a concert. The music can be difficult and convoluted. Attending a concert means that you are there to listen actively and try to grasp the intimate details of the composer-performer alliance that is being presented to you. This type of listening very rewarding. Our lives are filled with music and sound at every turn and in every style. Music is presented in lobbies, bathrooms, elevators, cars, and even Christmas cards. We grow lazy and tend to hear, but not listen. It is simply is not enough to 'hear' the music. The listener must absorb it, feel it, sense its texture and power, hear its wit and cunning, and even get the sarcasm and jokes. The listener must be the other half of the loop which feeds the process of performance. Music is so powerful a force that it is actually threatening to "actively be" at a concert rather than just to "passively attend." Ideally the listener should be as prepared to listen as the performers to perform. Music should demand much of us and we need to promote an attitude which supports the idea of active listening.

Ideas perceived by the audience are indeed exactly the same ideas as those intended by the performer.

In countless recitals and auditions I have heard players come away saying, "I didn't miss a note. How could they possibly cut me!" or "Well, how was it?," or "What did they want?." In each of these cases the "Doctrine of Intent" is not functioning as it should as the constant basis for performance. In the first case the player is seemingly unaware of the multiplicity of factors that go into judging a player's performance. A note-perfect performance is, in itself, almost meaningless without self-consistent musical values (Intent) as well as excellent rhythm, intonation, and excellent tone quality.

Although I have been a professional player for many years, I had this point brought home to me yet again recently. One of the Blair School's visiting composers last year was Leslie Bassett. I was asked to perform his "Concerto Lirico" for Trombone with the University Orchestra. I gladly accepted the challenge and worked on the piece for some time. When I was familiar with it I called Mr. Bassett. He most graciously offered that the whole concerto was essentially written in homage to Tommy Dorsey and that his style was to be imitated in much of the work. I listened to my recordings of Dorsey and added much more slide vibrato to my performance. I felt I was sounding pretty much like him in key ways and was ready to play for Mr. Bassett when he arrived. At the dress rehearsal, the only one which Mr. Bassett could hear, I was shocked to hear him tell me that I wasn't using enough vibrato. I amplified my slide vibrato even more. It still wasn't enough! He asked for more and I began to think that he was way off the mark. I felt that I was playing in a style more fitting of the Three Stooges instead of Dorsey until several of my older colleagues (a.k.a. those of a certain generation!) came up to me and told me just how wonderful it sounded and how much they were reminded of Dorsey. I realized immediately that in my generally vibrato-less orchestral universe I had become so accustomed to one type of sound that I was not a good judge of this other style. A bit of practice with a tape recorder, an open mind, and functioning imagination gave me a sound and style I liked and was sure was the same as what was being heard by the audience! I was quite comfortable with this style change by the concert the next day. Mr. Basset was happy and I'd like to think that Mr. Dorsey might have also been pleased with the tribute to him. It was a good lesson to learn and all the better to have learned it before the concert.

Performers seem to need to reach a certain level of musical maturity before they can grasp the idea that what they think they are playing is often not what is heard. The long hours in the commonly dead acoustic environment of the practice room teaches us to listen to the near-field sound of the trombone, but not to exercise any imagination about the sound in the far-field. The strong sensory input from the sensations which occur when we play combine with a significant amount of sound transmitted to the inner ear via bone conduction to produce an image of how we sound. This is exactly the same phenomena which causes us all to completely disbelieve the sound of our own voice on tape when we first hear it. It takes much listening to recording media for us to be convinced that we really "sound like that." It is extremely difficult for most players to clearly imagine what they sound like at the distance of the audience. In practical terms this usually means that we grossly underplay most musical expression. It is yet an order of magnitude more difficult for most players to imagine what real affect their musical expression has on the audience. That is a matter of desire, experience, training, healthy self-esteem, a functioning imagination, a working feedback loop, and a calibration of our perceptions.

This final calibration requires the comparison of your Intent with audience perception of your Intent. The player can use recording media for some of the calibration, but it is extremely difficult to be truly objective when hearing yourself play. I am often surprised at how quickly students can learn to play mental games with themselves. Listening to a recording alone allows too much unchallenged filtering and/or forgiving to occur. The best methods for calibration of the objective feedback loop involve both recording media and live audience feedback. This audience might be a coach, a panel writing their impressions, or perhaps a fellow player taking notes. It is important to use sources of feedback outside ourselves, use them often, in many forms, and in many acoustic environments if we are to learn to compare what produced with the performer's original idea. What is not often done is to have performers describe their Intent before they play and to describe how they felt they succeeded or failed after they play. When this statement is included in the recording and is then available to performers for comparison with written notes or statements, the effect is powerful and the time needed for the calibration shortened. Once the process of calibration is well underway then the progress of the individual toward expressive musicianship that reflects their unique character will accelerate greatly.

Living within the "Doctrine of Intent."

The best place to begin developing the habit of Intent is the practice room. Each moment of playing should have at its central core the commitment to not play a note without an idea being present first. Like so many other facets of our playing, the "Doctrine of Intent" must also be internalized. If you imagine the "Doctrine of Intent" as the sun of a musical solar system, then the orbiting planets might be the various techniques we use. Too much or too little emphasis on any one type of exercise will make the system unstable. There must be a fine balance between the technical 'planets' and the philosophical 'sun.' For many people the lack of a central 'sun' means that the 'planets' are dark, cold, and utterly unable to nurture the creative spark.

I am fond of telling my students that "You get what you ask for!." This is just another way of stating the "Doctrine of Intent." The statement implies that there is something specific asked for and the assumption is made that the 'getting' has no strings attached. How often we seem to forget that the 'asking for' is our real work and the 'getting' is most reasonably seen as the gift of an able and trained physiology and healthy psychology working to mirror our inner selves in sound. Clear, precise Intent can quickly establish almost any player at new and higher levels of performance for no more cost than throwing out the old idea that all progress comes at the price of brutal effort alone. New levels of awareness and one pointed consciousness and concentration are required, but to function at a higher level it is necessary to stay completely out of the process of playing itself. This appears paradoxical, but it is actually the most efficient way of producing tone and musical content. Nothing has damaged the quality of performance more than belief in the often repeated errors of the past . . . "No pain, no gain.," "All you have to do is try harder.," "Just try as hard as you can.," "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again." Effort is not the problem--effort is required, but it should be directed, not effort for effort's sake. Getting out of the way of the body's simple and natural functions is the skill most often missing in performers. Trusting conditioned reflexes and allowing playing to happen as a natural consequence of singing within the heart and head is what performance is all about. This is when performers are free and the most able to call out to each and every heart and mind in the audience. It is also in this moment that many players experience a profound fear that sometimes keeps them from wanting to play in this way. The fear is the fear of freedom, the fear that unless they are directing each and every muscle group and monitoring and managing each sensation related to playing that they are somehow 'out of control.' It takes a new vantage point and not inconsiderable courage to see this new way of playing as better and healthier in every aspect. With the "Doctrine of Intent" in mind performers begin to understand the absolutely fundamental importance of having a real reason for playing--a driving force of ideas behind the production of tone--the "Why?" behind their music.