The Essential Role of Modeling for Mastery and Rafael Mendez

One of the most effective and time tested methods of getting better at something is modeling. I highly recommend the power of modeling for the development of any skill in any area of performance or life.

What is modeling exactly? It is a simple three step process:

1) First find someone (or something) who does well what you want to improve.

2) Study your model carefully, over and over. Notice, learn and internalize every detail you can.

3) Finally, do your best imitation of your model, compare the results, and then repeat the process of 2 and 3.

For musicians I highly recommend the listen-play-listen-play method of modeling. Listen to a short recorded passage played by a master, and then immediately play it back trying to imitate everything in sound, phrasing, articulation, etc. Repeat this process over and over again. This has great benefits as the great master’s playing is imprinted on your brain’s hard drive and literally becomes a part of who you are.

There persists a myth that the true geniuses somehow were born with a unique talent that somehow developed independently and totally originally of those who preceded them. In reality the truth is quite different. The great innovators first put forth thousands of hours studying and imitating the great masters that came before them before developing their own individual styles.

Long before he wrote The Rite of Spring, Igor Stravinsky began his career studying from and imitating the classic Russian style of Rimsky-Korsakov. Before Cubism and Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Pablo Picasso spent his youth copying the Spanish old masters Velázquez, Ribera, and El Greco . Before Kind of Blue and cool jazz, Miles first cut his teeth playing bebop in Saint Louis and New York playing in the style of Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Navarro and Clark Terry. It seems counter-intuitive. but in order to be truly creative you must begin by imitation. The way Clark Terry puts it is succinct and complete: “Imitate, assimilate, innovate.”

Modeling is an almost universally principle, and once you look for it you start to see it almost everywhere Chess students learn by replaying the masters’ classic matches. Young golfers copy the greats’ swings, young basketball players the legends’ jump shots. Humans developed the airplane by modeling the design of birds’ wings, and are now even using squirrel modeled technology to fly in new ways. Babies learn to speak by imitating their parents. In AI, computers are now being designed using the human brain as their model.

So who are your models? What exactly is it about them are you trying to model? If you do not have good answers to these questions I strongly recommend you look around for opportunities to model the skills or attributes that you are trying to develop. For musicians this means listening in imitating to great artists on your instrument and other masters with qualities you want to translate to your instrument.

Probably the most modeled performance of my student and young professional period was Phil Smith’s 1995 orchestral excerpt CD. When I was a young pro just starting to take auditions I obsessively listened to that CD over and over, every day for over a year. I knew every note of his playing on that recording, and when I took auditions I did my best Phil Smith impression. Despite being an inexperienced player, I modeled Phil Smith’s experience and was sometimes quite successful at those early auditions. Best congratulations to Phil for an inspiring career of musical and personal leadership at the New York Philharmonic from which he is retiring this summer.

The last few years I have taken on a new trumpet model: Rafael Méndez. The legendary Mexican trumpeter was rightly called “The Heifetz of the trumpet”. I am modeling many aspects of Méndez’s playing and personality, including his incredible breath control, the best articulation ever by a trumpeter, the wild abandon and total lack of fear with which he played virtuosic passages, and last but not least the soulful expressionism and generous phrasing which expresses deep emotional content in his playing.

There is so much to model from Rafael Méndez and the more I study his work the more I find to learn from him. Of everything however I have discovered, the attribute I most would like to emulate is Méndez’s work ethic and focus. He was a legendarily hard worker and the quality and quantity of his practice made him the great artist he was.

The top expert on Méndez’s career is David Hickman at Arizona State University. I asked David if he could share a story about this subject and he replied with this fantastic passage.

On a day off from touring, Mendez would get up in the morning and head straight to his home studio to practice. Still in his pajamas, he would begin playing an eight bar passage that he did not feel was 100% consistent. He often taped himself on a professional 15 inch per minute recorder. Many of these tapes are in the Rafael Mendez Library, and I have marveled at them.

He would play the passage, rest, play it again, rest, etc. for hours. After playing this passage hundreds of times, his wife, Amor, would come into his studio with his lunch. After gulping down the meal, he would immediately go back to the same practice, that would continue into the late afternoon.

By 4:00 pm or so, [his wife] Amor would be going crazy from hearing the same passage thousands of times. She once went into his studio, and rather upset asked him why he continued to play the same thing over and over when it sounded perfect every time. His response was, “Because I still have to think about it.” Mendez said that he didn’t feel a passage was consistent under all conditions until it was as easy as saying one, two, three. . . no conscious thought needed at all!

Most of the time, when Amor was going crazy from Ralph’s practice, she would call one of his good friends and ask the person to call the house to invite Ralph out for a few beers. This was the only way to get Ralph to stop practicing, get dressed, and give her some peace of mind.

I heard this story from both of Rafael’s sons, Robert and Ralph Jr., many times. I thought that it was probably exaggerated, but when I heard the tapes I knew it was true. I think all professional musicians practice the same way Mendez did, but most (like me), stop practicing a passage when it can be played perfectly maybe ten times in a row. Rafael took this to the extreme, which is probably why he played better and more consistently than everyone else. Rafael told his sons that people thought he was a musical genius, but he insisted that he merely practiced harder than others. Personally, I think it was both.

Many thanks to Dave for this insight. For a wealth of more Mendez resources please visit Hickman’s Mendez library at ASU

There are a lot of details to that story that jump out when I read that passage worth modeling.

1) Méndez began practicing first thing in the morning. This is very effective because our minds are the freshest and most clear in the morning. So if your playing is the most important thing you want to work on, do it first. For me that first thing every morning is yoga, but the second thing is the beginning of my trumpet day- some mouthpiece buzzing- and then I am off an practicing in my first hour of every morning.

2) Méndez frequently recorded himself. Recording oneself is absolutely essential for correct self diagnosis as it gives one a “third ear” to listen to oneself without being distracted by the act of having to play also.. I learned the benefit of this by recording myself every week for the Charlier Challenge. Self recording (especially video) hurts the ego a little, but is the best way of truly seeing what need the most work in order to organize and prioritize practice going forward.

3) Méndez used the play-rest-play-rest technique, with many short breaks. Rest is crucial for the mind and the body, and play-rest-play-rest is much more effective than a long block of playing.

4) Méndez worked towards unconscious mastery. If you have to use your conscious mind to remember what you want to do, there will be no way you can think about your pitch, rhythm, phrasing, articulation, dynamics, ensemble, etc all at the same time during a performance. Only by

5) Méndez insisted he wasn’t just a genius but that he simply practiced better harder than the others. Show me a great master and I will show you someone who will repeat this sentiment in one way or another. There is no shortcut to mastery, it’s hard work. But don’t take my word for it, here is Mendez himself to tell you.

This video is a great example of Méndez’s professional and thouroughly patient approach to practicing and excellence. My favorite line is, “All you have to do is practice scales, scales, and more scales.” I would definitely pay to watch him practice scales. Also note the famous breath control at the end of the video where he plays the Mexican Hat Dance on one breath.

I have a long way to go before I approach but the process of modeling him has been extremely rewarding, inspiring, and enjoyable. The current results include this video of his arrangement of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. It’s a fun and not very serious arrangement of the masterwork that bears as much of Méndez’s signature as Mendelssohn’s.

Try to put yourself in the shoes of a master and walk down the road they traveled for a few miles. Then their mastery will start to grow inside you and one day you may show the next generation the way forward.

Who are you modeling?

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