Playing a note is like hitting a tennis ball

In tennis, good players made a good sound when they hit the ball. If you’ve played tennis you’ll be familiar with that sound – when you hit the ball correctly, it springs powerfully off the racquet, and the racquet sings. When you hit it wrong, it’s weak, and the racquet whimpers. Tennis coaches teach their students to listen to the sound. As well as the quality of the connection, you can hear if you are early or late in your contact with the ball.

At the sweet spot every component of the racquet can contribute the most to the stroke. You hear the sound of a perfect connection. The aim of practice is to learn how to hit the sweet spot every tine.

Similar things apply to making a note on an instrument.

Having a concept If you’ve never watched tennis you are unlikely to have an idea of just how hard the top players can hit the ball. Similarly, if you’ve never listened to master musicians play, you are unlikely to have an idea of the possibilities of your instrument. That’s not to say that you should limit yourself to things you’ve heard other people do, but it’s a good place to start.

Listen to live performances in small spaces. Recordings (of tennis or music) lose a proportion of what’s going on. [For me this applies particularly to saxophone, trumpet, and guitar which for some reason are also the instruments that are hardest to synthesise.]

Starting the note In tennis you start your stroke way before you hit the ball. In music you start playing a note way before the note emerges. If you ask a group of people to clap a rhythm, you’ll see that the people making a good sound open their hands in advance of the clap, and their movements are smooth, relaxed. People who don’t know the rhythm may lunge at it, trying to grab the beat out of the air. They are not thinking far enough ahead, and their note sounds tense, thin, and poorly placed.

If you find yourself grabbing at notes, consider slowing the thing down. Practice with relaxation, practice preparing for the note. Then speed the thing up gradually. If you practice tension, you’ll play tension. If you practice relaxation, you’ll play relaxation. [Zoot Sims was asked by a fan how he could play so well when he was loaded. He said, “I practice when I’m loaded.”]

Making the correct contact [I don’t play brass or wind, but there must be an equivalent of this.] A piano player has to drop her fingers onto the keys with the correct velocity, the correct tension in the fingers, the correct angle of attack. Get this wrong and the energy is wasted. Get it right and the note sings.

A guitar player will impact the string at a perfect angle and speed to get that full sound. When practising, vary the parameters of the stroke and observe the effect of the changes that you make. If the note is full, powerful, fat, if it sings, if it matches your concept, then you’ve got it right. Repeat whatever you did. If it’s thin, weak, whiny, then change something and try it again. If you have a concept it will come.

Explore your instrument. Look for round sounds, look for bright sounds, look for harsh sounds, look for soothing sounds.

[Guitarists: if you play with a pick, try fingers, or a thumb. If you play with fingers, try a pick. And importantly, practice your sound clean. Effects will mask the things you are looking for.]

For another viewpoint on this see There is nothing natural about playing guitar!