Weekend Picks

Here are a handful of random music-related links for your browsing this weekend.

Can you shatter a wine glass with your voice?

A human voice can shatter a glass. Every object has a resonant frequency – the natural frequency at which something vibrates. Wine glasses, because of their hollow shape, are particularly resonant. If you run a damp finger along the rim of a glass, you might hear a faint, ghostly hum – the resonant frequency of the glass. Or you can simply tap the glass and hear the same frequency. To shatter the glass, a singer’s voice has to match that frequency, or pitch, and the glass must have microscopic defects.

Mirror DuetThe Mirror Duet is usually attributed to Mozart, although there is some question about that. If you’re not familiar, it’s a duet where the two players stand facing each other, reading the same page of sheet music. And it works.

 

CsárdásI have no idea who Helen Amvroseva and George Shakhnin are/were, and no way to embed this video of them performing Csárdás on trumpet, trombone, and piano. It’s both impressive and funny.

 

Reinhardt Forum Restrictions

The Trumpet Herald sub-forum dedicated to discussing Donald Reinhardt has gotten more restrictive recently. This appears to be a response from a post from former Reinhardt student, Doug Elliott, who stated that he feels Reinhardt’s tongue-types are largely unnecessary. Forum moderator, Rich Willey, deleted the ensuing discussion and apparently Doug is now banned from posting there. Rich posted Our stated purpose on the Reinhardt Forum.

This is not an open forum where you can just post anything you please.

If it’s not a question about what Reinhardt taught, or if it’s not a direct statement of something that Reinhardt wrote or taught you, or maybe a short report how something Reinhardt taught made a big difference in your playing, then it serves no useful purpose here if we’re sticking to the mission of our stated purpose.

I understand Rich’s basic concern here. He wants the forum to be on topic, and it’s his prerogative to run the forum this way. It is, however, a very narrow restriction. This is a good way to design a library site or FAQ, but not very encouraging for vibrant discussion.

Reinhardt’s writings and opinions did, in fact, change, but we are left with a large body of work exactly the way Reinhardt left it, not as we interpret it all these years later.

Rich acknowledges that Reinhardt was open to changing his ideas, and from what I’ve heard from other former students he continued to do so as long as he was teaching. I prefer to honor Reinhardt’s legacy by following his model, rather than pin down what he said into something static.

I have had many requests through the years to keep on doing the job of “keeping this forum pure Reinhardt,” and some people have gone away with their feelings hurt. Some of the most notable posters on this forum have called (or PM’ed) and thanked me for doing the dirty work of cleaning out the “riff raff” or those who are not interested in the stated purpose of this forum.

The disgruntled few who are no longer with us are usually not missed, and those who continue to look to this forum for real answers that Reinhardt discovered all those years ago ought to be greeted with answers à la Reinhardt, not the way we think his teaching might have evolved all these years later.

I do believe that there are some who feel similarly to Rich about how to restrict discussion there. My guess is that there are some others who tolerate it because they are genuinely interested in learning about Reinhardt. I’m not certain that the “disgruntled few” are so few and aren’t missed, but maybe I’m projecting my own bias here.

Thank you for understanding and helping to keep this forum “Pure” Reinhardt.

I don’t have the time or inclination to create and moderate a public forum these days, but Facebook makes it easy to start a discussion group. If folks want a another place to discuss Donald Reinhardt’s pedagogy and how we can better teach it ourselves go here and send me a request to join.

Christian Lindberg On Mouthpiece Buzzing

This excerpt from a Christian Lindberg video master class where he discusses why he doesn’t practice mouthpiece buzzing. It’s caused quit a “buzz” online, since he goes against what is traditionally taught.

The gist of Lindberg’s argument is that getting a resonant buzz on the mouthpiece and a resonant tone on the trombone really require different things and when you practice a good mouthpiece buzz you’re actually practicing a poor trombone sound. Now I’m skeptical of Lindberg’s demonstration, since how we think we are playing doesn’t always reflect what we’re actually doing. That said, I think the point he makes is valid.

But this doesn’t necessarily mean that mouthpiece buzzing, done a certain way and with appropriate moderation, doesn’t help. I generally don’t practice mouthpiece buzzing a whole lot anymore myself, but find myself going to it while teaching lessons frequently. I will usually have my student play a passage on the instrument, then take out the mouthpiece and buzz the same passage. When buzzing, I instruct the student to only tongue the initial attacks after a breath and let the air and embouchure change all other pitches. Repeated notes, say four quarter notes of the same pitch, will be buzzed as one long note, one whole note in my example. Following the mouthpiece buzzing I ask the student to immediately put the mouthpiece back into the instrument and play again.

The results are usually instantaneous. It seems to help players move more air and also focus the embouchure more precisely on pitch. It also doesn’t usually last for very long, so I tend to use this more as a quick “pick up” technique to get the student focused on more positive results. There are, in my opinion, other things which are more beneficial in the long term to practice, but are harder to describe because they depend on each individual student’s embouchure and stage of development.

What do you think? Does Lindberg have a point or is he off base? Please leave your thoughts in the comments below.

pBone as a Practice Tool

IMG_5009A couple of weeks ago I finally broke down and picked up a pBone. If you’re not familiar with what a pBone is, it is a plastic trombone available in different colors (I got a red one). They play surprisingly well, noticeably better if you put a metal mouthpiece in rather than the plastic one that comes with the instrument.

I picked up a pBone because I wanted a super-cheap instrument I could carry around very easily and not worry too much about it getting knocked around. Since I picked it up, I’ve noticed a couple of unexpected benefits from practicing on it that I hadn’t anticipated.

First, while the instrument does play pretty well it is stuffy in the low and upper register for me. This has been forcing me to really focus my chops and air on playing the correct pitch, rather than on allowing the instrument to slot the pitches for me. In some ways this is similar to mouthpiece buzzing practice in that if I play something low or high on the pBone and then immediately switch over to my real instrument it feels easier than usual and sounds better.

The other benefit I’ve noticed is when I practice Donald Reinhardt’s “Endurance Routine.” If you’re not familiar with this routine, you will play for an entire hour without taking the instrument off the lips for the entire time. While this is certainly tiring on the chops, I find that my left arm gets very tired from holding my trombone up the whole time. I generally won’t play this routine with my symphonic horn, which weighs more than my jazz instrument, specifically because my left arm gets so tired after about 20 minutes or so into the routine. Since the pBone is very light, I find that my arm deals with holding up the instrument for so long much easier and I can concentrate on keeping my chops set for the whole time without having to hold the instrument with my right had between exercises just to let my left arm down for a moment. It makes it much easier to get through the whole routine for me.

There are a lot of plastic instruments becoming available these days. I’ve seen plastic trumpets, flutes, and clarinets and I think there are others available too. While these instruments aren’t great, they are good enough to suit many purposes, including making instruments available for students who might not otherwise be able to afford to purchase an instrument to learn to play. At MusicWorks! Asheville, an elementary music program I teach at, we have some plastic flutes and clarinets that our woodwind students are learning. Eventually they will need to move on to real instruments, but the plastic instruments fit our needs perfectly at this stage.

Weekend Picks

It’s Friday. Here are some random music-related links for you to peruse this weekend.

Did you know that there is a brass band in New Zealand that since 1895 performs on bicycles?

 How about a bicycle brass band from Holland?

When directing an ensemble in rehearsal I often use an analogy that isolating individual musicians playing, as if we were recording everyone, would sound different than when you hear the same part played in the context with the whole ensemble. For example, a single big band trumpet part isolated might sound too short, but when the whole brass section plays that way together it comes out just right. Here’s a similar idea, listen to the vocal tracks from the Beatles isolated out of context from the rest of the parts.

An older discussion about teacher tenure and why it’s not the firing itself that is the issue, it’s how the threat of firing teachers allows other people (often not qualified or informed enough about the teacher’s job and situation) to control the teacher’s day to day work.

And lastly, something a little lighter. Here are 27 jokes only classical music nerds will understand.

Embouchure Dystonia Treatment – Some Questions and Criticisms

Unless you are one of my regular readers chances are that you’ve come to this post looking for advice about some severe embouchure dysfunction. While I hope the following can provide some helpful avenues to explore, my target audience here are more the music teachers out there who promote themselves as “chop docs” or purport to diagnose and/or treat what often gets called “embouchure dystonia.” For the purposes of this essay, I will be using the terms “embouchure dystonia” and “embouchure dysfunction” at times interchangeably. I will try to be specific with my language when possible, but keep in mind that what some folks call “embouchure dystonia” may not be a neurological disorder, but an issue of embouchure mechanics.

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke define “dystonia” as:

…a disorder characterized by involuntary muscle contractions that cause slow repetitive movements or abnormal postures. The movements may be painful, and some individuals with dystonia may have a tremor or other neurologic features. There are several different forms of dystonia that may affect only one muscle, groups of muscles, or muscles throughout the body. Some forms of dystonia are genetic but the cause for the majority of cases is not known.

More specifically relevant for brass players’ embouchures, the variety of dystonia that we need to understand is known as a “focal task specific dystonia.” Again, from the NINDS:

Task-specific dystonias are focal dystonias that tend to occur only when undertaking a particular repetitive activity.  Examples include writer’s cramp that affects the muscles of the hand and sometimes the forearm, and only occurs during handwriting.  Similar focal dystonias have also been called typist’s cramp, pianist’s cramp, and musician’s cramp. Musician’s dystonia is a term used to classify focal dystonias affecting musicians, specifically their ability to play an instrument or to perform. It can involve the hand in keyboard or string players, the mouth and lips in wind players, or the voice in singers.

Before I go further I need to clarify my background and thoughts on embouchure dystonia. As I always try to point out when discussing anything medical, I am not a medical professional and in no way am I qualified to diagnose or treat a neurological disorder. While I will attempt to describe some possible causes, or at least correlations, with severe embouchure dysfunction below, my thoughts and advice should in no way be considered valid medical advice. Always consult with a medical professional if you suspect a medical condition.

The Difference Between Music and Medicine

This leads me to my first criticism, music teachers who purport to diagnose and treat medical disorders. Stop it. While your intentions may be good and you may very well be helping folks suffering from embouchure dysfunction recover, there is potential to cause great harm. Call what you do what it is, embouchure troubleshooting. Unless you have had the medical training and licensing to legally treat and/or diagnose medical conditions you are skirting the line of practicing therapy or medicine without a license.

I mentioned potential harm. I will shortly argue that there are non-medical reasons why some brass players’ embouchures break down and cause symptoms consistent with focal task specific dystonia. Unless you have the qualifications to diagnose a medical condition your proclamation that a student coming to you for help with embouchure dysfunction has “embouchure dystonia” may cause that person to delay or avoid necessary medical treatment. If the student has Bell’s palsy or a mild stroke, for example, delaying a correct diagnosis and proper medical attention can ruin the student’s chance at making a complete recovery. Or it can lead to more serious complications beyond playing a brass instrument. Medical conditions like focal task specific dystonia do exist and should be treated under the supervision of a qualified professional.

Leave the medicine to the medical professionals and you should advise your students to seek medical attention, when appropriate.

Do Your Homework/Ignorance Is Not Bliss

It sometimes surprises me how ignorant the field of brass pedagogy as a whole is of embouchure form and function. There is definitely a culture of ignorance here that discourages brass musicians from learning to truly understand how their embouchure functions and put it into a larger context of how different brass players play differently. One of the most influential voices in encouraging players and teachers to remain blissfully unaware was Arnold Jacobs. Jacobs encouraged his students to, “Think product, not methodology” (Also Sprach Arnold Jacobs: A Developmental Guide for Brass Wind Musicians). Whether or not he actually intended this idea to be taken as such, many brass teachers have interpreted this to mean that one should never analyze brass technique.

Roger Rocco, a former student of Jacobs, has written on his blog that embouchure dystonia is caused in part by:

Focus on self awareness, self analysis, or the instrument.

He doesn’t cite any medical literature supporting this statement, nor does it align with what any reputable sources state about focal task specific dystonia. As the bulk of Rocco’s discussion on his blog related to embouchure dystonia is ideological and philosophical, I would question his statement here.

Another common, but misguided, approach to treating embouchure dysfunction is to assume that it is purely a result of overuse. Lucinda Lewis’s web site and books make this mistake. According to Lewis:

For the purpose of discussion here, embouchure overuse syndrome refers to any chronic embouchure-related playing problems which last for more than two weeks and includes any or all of the following:  lip pain, chronic lip swelling or bruising, numb, rubbery, or cardboard lips, recurring pressure-point abrasions, air-induced abrasions, lack of endurance, unfocused sound, lack of playing control, and chronic high-range problems.

 – Broken Embouchures, by Lucinda Lewis

What she has done here is taken virtually every embouchure issue and placed them under the umbrella as “embouchure overuse.” The problem is this not only oversimplifies the issue, but also prescribes a general treatment program that may not be relevant for the situation. Chronic high range problems can come from a variety of mechanical issues, many not related to overplaying. Abrasions on the lips can be exacerbated by twisting the lips up with the mouthpiece. Lip swelling and bruising can occur because the mouthpiece placement isn’t balanced correctly between the upper and lower lip. A particularly demanding playing period may be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back, but incorrect mechanics are possibly behind the issues to start with.

It’s easy to find similar ideas throughout the musical literature, but sources that discourage embouchure analysis typically lack an accurate and complete discussion of brass embouchure mechanics. You can’t analyze something you don’t understand. What they miss is that if you are analyzing something incorrectly you’re going to have trouble making the needed corrections. Combine this with the pithy phrase that embouchure “analysis leads to paralysis” and you’re going to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Do your homework first.

As a general field, brass pedagogy is largely ignorant of brass embouchure form and function. Some folks are willingly so and proud of it. Other folks are misguided. I like to think that most brass players and teachers simply have been ill-advised and with access to good information will be able to make more informed decisions about how to practice and teach embouchure development. Either way, actively discouraging people to avoid learning about reality is doing our brass students a serious disservice and you need to stop it.

The basic brass embouchure types as a topic is not all that difficult to comprehend. If you feel that having a general understanding of music theory is helpful for performing music (and I hope you don’t need to be convinced of that), then surely making a similar effort to understand brass embouchures better is well within your capabilities. Yes, there is a time and place for forgetting about brass technique, but don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. You must make an effort to fully understand a topic before you dismiss it as unnecessary or wrong.

What You Need To Know About Brass Embouchures

In order to treat embouchure dysfunction you need to first understand embouchure form and function. Since there are many contrary ideas out there you will need to have the tools to place them into a proper context. I’ve written fairly extensively about this topic on this site, but I will go over some basic information in this post in order to better make my points. A good introduction to this topic, however, can be found here and a more complete one here.

If you look closely at brass players’ embouchures you will soon notice that every embouchure is different. This makes sense, since every player has different anatomical features. That said, you will also begin to notice that there are specific patterns in brass embouchures. Using two observable features of a functioning brass embouchure you can begin to categorize all brass embouchures into different types. These embouchure types are not practice methods or instructions, but rather describe observable characteristics that all brass embouchures have, whether or not the player is aware of them.

The first category to note is that of air stream direction. While many players are convinced that they blow the air straight down the shank of the mouthpiece, observation with a transparent mouthpiece shows otherwise. Virtually every successful brass player will place the mouthpiece so that one lip or another predominates inside the mouthpiece. When more upper lip is placed inside the mouthpiece the air stream passes the lips and gets blown in a downward direction. The reverse is true when more lower lip is placed inside, the air stream passes the lips and strikes the mouthpiece cup above the shank. Horn angle, while important to an individual’s embouchure, does not determine air stream direction, mouthpiece placement does.

These days brass embouchure air stream direction should be common knowledge, but it isn’t. This characteristic has been independently discovered and confirmed by a variety of sources and the literature is available in academic libraries and much of it is now freely accessible online. More importantly, it’s not that hard to see for yourself. The link I posted in the previous paragraph shows some photographs and videos and transparent brass mouthpieces are available and relatively cheap. If you’re helping players with severe embouchure dysfunction you need to be aware of air stream direction and whether or not your student’s embouchure is upstream, downstream, or switching between both. You will want to understand that not everyone plays with a mouthpiece placement that fit’s his or her anatomy and be aware that changing mouthpiece placement and air stream direction can help or hurt some players, sometimes in a dramatic fashion.

The other embouchure characteristic that is even less known about in the field as a whole is what I prefer to call an “embouchure motion.” Virtually every successful brass player, whether or not they are aware of it, will push and pull their mouthpiece and lips together as a single unit in an upward and downward direction along their teeth and gums while changing registers. The general direction and specific angle that this embouchure motion takes varies between players, but it appears to be an essential part of a well functioning embouchure. Some players will generally push the mouthpiece and lips up towards the nose as they ascend, while others will pull down. These basic patterns also correlate with an individual’s air stream direction. Upstream players will almost always pull down to ascend, while downstream players may either do the same or the reverse. Again, this phenomenon has been discovered and independently verified by different resources, but is still not widely known about.

Using these two basic embouchure characteristics alone it’s possible to categorize at least three basic brass embouchure types. Using other features, such as jaw position and horn angle, it’s possible (but probably unnecessarily complicated) to define even more brass embouchure types. If you’re helping players recover from severe embouchure dysfunction you should become aware of these basic brass embouchure types and learn how to spot them. These are important variables you need to consider.

Type Switching

While I haven’t seen as many cases of embouchure dystonia or embouchure dysfunction as some, every single case that I have looked closely at (and documented, in some cases) exhibits some form of embouchure type switching. A handful of these are players who probably should be playing with an upstream embouchure but for some reason aren’t, often due to advice from well-intentioned but ignorant teachers. More commonly, however, I see type switching between the two basic downstream embouchure types. If you look for these players’ embouchure motion you will be hard pressed to see if they are pulling down to ascend or pushing up. Sometimes they reverse the direction at a particular point in their range or they go too far with the embouchure motion at a certain point. Here’s an example from YouTube recorded by Joaquín Fabra, who believes that embouchure dystonia is a “behavioral” problem and treats dystonia as a psychological issue. Watching the video of that particular horn player you can see his embouchure motion changing directions.

Here’s another video recorded by Fabra that shows a trumpet player. Note how this player’s embouchure motion during the earlier part of the video shows his mouthpiece and lips bobbing around for almost every attack. Every time he plays a note he is trying to hit a moving target. Later in the video, the trumpet player is largely symptom free and you will be able to spot how much more consistent the embouchure motion is, particularly on the initial attacks of notes.

To the best of my knowledge, Fabra doesn’t even consider the player’s type switching. In his interview with Dave Stragg Fabra is quite clear that he feels embouchure dystonia is caused by an emotional condition and he avoids discussion of embouchure mechanics, even going so far as to imply that the embouchure analysis is partially responsible for the condition in the first place. Considering his apparent lack of understanding of the basic embouchure types, but the correction of type switching in many of his documented examples, I argue that Fabra’s approach would benefit from not merely treating the psychological results of severe embouchure dysfunction but consciously correcting embouchure mechanics.

Returning to Lucinda Lewis’s thoughts, she feels that a treatment program for embouchure dysfunction requires the brass musician returning to their embouchure form prior to the breakdown. In Broken Embouchures she wrote, “Fixing your embouchure means rehabilitating your mechanics back to their pre injury integrity.” (2005, p. 40). What is missing from her text, however, is any consideration if the pre-injury embouchure was malfunctioning in the first place. My favorite analogy for this is lifting heavy objects with your back. You can get away playing wrong for a while, particularly if you’re naturally strong. Keep lifting with your back over time, however, and you’re going to be more prone to injury. If you suffer from severe embouchure dysfunction and get better by returning to your old way of playing you should consider that you might just be getting better at playing wrong. Teachers need to be aware of their students’ embouchure type and overall embouchure form in order to eliminate type switching as the culprit to embouchure dysfunction. It can also help players correct type switching before it causes the breakdown in the first place.

Where To Go From Here

The bulk of my above rant is largely concerned with the lack of awareness among brass teachers and players of embouchure mechanics and our inability to put them into a proper context when troubleshooting embouchure dysfunction. If the field of brass pedagogy is dropping the ball here we can’t expect the medical community to be any better, and players suffering from embouchure dysfunction are perhaps not going to be well served by doctors and therapists treating embouchure dystonia. But beyond this issue, which will be corrected over time when more players become better educated on this topic, we need to start asking better questions about embouchure dystonia. Some of these questions can (and should) be objectively researched, but again, this needs to start at the level of the musical community, who are not only going to have a higher stake in this issue but also should have the necessary background in brass technique to better study brass embouchures.

But in order to do this better music educators need to take research methodology more seriously. To a certain degree, our lack of awareness of how to conduct research and interpret academic articles and papers is understandable. We are first and foremost artists and our primary concern should be musical expression. That said, critical thinking is a skill that pays off in dividends both in and out of music. It behooves all brass teachers, not just ones who specialize in treating embouchure dysfunction, to learn about cognitive bias, how to conduct original research, and how to search for accurate and quality information on musical topics. Once we have changed our culture of ignorance for one of critical thinking and awareness we can begin asking (and researching) questions that potentially lead to more effective treatment of embouchure dysfunction. Here are a few that I personally feel we should be asking.

  1. Are certain embouchure types more prone to severe embouchure dysfunction than others?
  2. What embouchure characteristics (e.g. embouchure type switching) correlate to embouchure dysfunction?
  3. Is embouchure type switching a cause of a specific neurological disorder that can be mapped in the brain or does the neurological issue cause the type switching?
  4. How often is a diagnosis of focal task specific dystonia of the embouchure really a result of type switching?
  5. Does conscious correction of embouchure type switching lead to improvement in embouchure dysfunction?
  6. Do programs that are successful in treating severe embouchure dystonia lead to a player correcting embouchure type switching, even if type switching is not a consideration of that program? If so, would conscious corrective procedures that encourage a player to avoid type switching better serve?
  7. Do mechanical issues related to embouchure type switching lead to the psychological troubles that brass musicians suffer from? If so, can making mechanical corrections lead to a reduction or elimination of the psychological issues?
  8. How can brass teachers helping players who suffer from severe embouchure dysfunction balance a treatment program to address both the mechanical issues related to embouchure type switching and the psychological issues related to inability to perform?

Leading To Open and Honest Communication

I have criticized some folks by name in this essay and elsewhere online before. In the past some of these teachers have taken this criticism personally, even though that is not my intention. Please note that I do my best to address ideas, not people as individuals. I also am very careful to try and qualify my opinions as much as possible to clarify when one of my ideas is based on objective evidence or mere speculation. Furthermore, I have been wrong before and will continue to be wrong again. One of the reasons I post my thoughts about this topic publicly is so that experts can point out the flaws in my reasoning.

The scientific method has been so successful due to its self correcting nature. Brass teachers helping players suffering from severe embouchure dysfunction need to follow this model more. This involves questioning each others’ ideas, challenging our own assumptions, and engaging in an open and honest debate with each other. Too often we view this as being impolite and forget that this is how advances are made. No single individual treating embouchure dystonia has all the right answers, no matter how successful their treatment program seems to be. The lone genius leading the way for everyone to follow is really just a myth. We are collectively a lot smarter than we are individually.

Advice For Suffering Players

If you made it through all this and you are a player suffering from severe embouchure dysfunction I want to conclude with my advice for you. I have had some success helping some folks with chop problems myself and I also know a handful of folks around the U.S. that I recommend, but if you want help you’ll probably have to travel to someone unless you happen to live in their area. Video consultations, while having potential, generally don’t lend themselves to diagnosing embouchure problems and the solutions.

There are brass teachers who are successful at helping folks with embouchure dysfunction who don’t demonstrate an awareness of embouchure types and how to correct type switching, but I typically would encourage a student to seek the help from someone more knowledgable. Ask questions. Furthermore, when you are looking for help I think it’s good to remember the Dunning/Kruger Effect. The more black and white a discussion of embouchure dysfunction is and the more sure of themselves they can help, I find the more likely their approach is going to be based on philosophy or analogy than objective reality. Treatment programs that are based in the “Harold Hill Think System” may be more likely to be successful in spite of, rather than because of what you learn. A second opinion may be a good idea, even if it seems to be working for you.

Then again, I may be wrong. Take the time to follow some of the resources and links I’ve posted here about brass embouchure function and dysfunction and judge for yourself. My goal here is to make brass teachers and players aware of the information that is available in order to place advice into a proper context, not scare anyone away from an opposing viewpoint. I welcome questions and criticisms to my own ideas and encourage you to leave them in the comments section below.

Guess the Embouchure Type – Nagy Miklos

I was going through some bookmarked links from a while back and found this performance of the Antonio Rosetti Horn Concerto in Eb Major by Hungarian hornist Nagi Miklos. Not only was this piece new to me (at least I don’t recall having heard it before, in spite of it being part of the standard horn rep), but I wasn’t familiar with Miklos either. Check out Miklos’s playing and this piece on this YouTube video. While you’re at it, watch his chops and see if you can guess his embouchure type. My guess comes after the break.

Continue reading Guess the Embouchure Type – Nagy Miklos

Weekend Picks

It’s Friday and it has been a while since I’ve posted some random music-related links for you to surf this weekend.

Coping With Change As Brass Players Age is an essay written by trombonist and composer Brad Howland. Frankly, everything he mentions in there is good for brass players of any age.

An odd side effect of a mood-stabilization drug might actually be able to help adults develop absolute pitch. Read more about it on Want Perfect Pitch? You Might Be Able To Pop a Pill For That.

While this Music Timeline is short on classical music (meaning none) it is a neat interactive way to explore popular and jazz music styles.

Believe it or not, my own composing has been influenced by cartoon music. Here’s an old Warner Brothers cartoon that I love, featuring music written by the great Shorty Rogers, The Three Little Bops.

Stabilizing the Embouchure

Daniel shared a video of his embouchure with me and asked me about helping his range. After watching it, I wrote the following in response. Since the advice I gave Daniel is something that I continue to work on myself, I thought I’d share it here.

By the way, I still have a backlog of emails from players who are waiting for some embouchure help from me. I’m sorry about the delay, and please feel free to drop me a reminder email about it.


Hi, Daniel.

Your situation is one that is kind of tough for me to be specific based on what I can see on a video. In person there are some things we could try and they might provide better clues, but for now I think you should think about having a good overall embouchure formation. Once that’s working a little better it becomes easier to get more personalized.

Watch the video and see how your lips open for the breath and then have to come together quickly as you attack the pitch. This way of breathing is great for taking in large breaths very quickly, but it’s rough on the chops. First, every time you take a breath the mouthpiece has to lighten up on pressure when you open your lips, but then has to “crash” back against your lips for the attack. It’s not as stable and it’s rough on endurance. Secondly, when you go to attack the note it’s very tough to have both the lips firmed correctly for the note and the mouthpiece to be on the right place on the lips.

Just for practice, I’d suggest you take any warmup/routine exercises you do and as you go through a practice session, do a little bit of the following:

  1. Firm your lips as if you were going to buzz.
  2. Place the mouthpiece on the firmed lips and don’t allow yourself to change the position of the lips at all (you might want to wet your lips to set the mouthpiece so it can more easily slide to where it wants to go without twisting up your lips in any way).
  3. Breath in and play the exercise.

When it comes to inhaling for the first note of the exercise you should start out by leaving your chops set, ready to play. You can learn to do this in stages:

  1. Breathe through the nose (your lips firmed and the mouthpiece pressure as if you were already playing).
  2. Breathe through the mouth corners while keeping the lips inside the mouthpiece together. A little more mouthpiece pressure than you might use while playing can help you keep the lips center together while breathing through the mouth corners.

Eventually it can really help to go to breathing through the mouth corners like #2 just above all the time, not just for the first note after putting the instrument on your lips, and not just for exercises. But for now just spend 5-10 minutes a day at the beginning of your practice trying this out for the first notes you play when you put the horn to your lips.

If you find that as your practicing this that your mouthpiece placement wants to drift in any direction (up, down, left, right), allow that to happen. Your placement looks very close to half and half, which actually is not that common. If you find getting the high notes out is easier with a placement higher or lower on the lips, spend some practice time playing with that mouthpiece placement and see what happens.

After a couple of weeks of trying this out let me know how it feels to play now and even take another short video. Please take a look at the link I sent earlier. It will tell you the things to video record that help me figure out what’s going on.

Good luck!

Dave

The Pencil Trick Exercise Revisited

If you’re not familiar with the “Pencil Trick” exercise for brass players, it’s a type of embouchure exercise where the player holds a pencil between the lips and holds it straight out for as long as he or she can, just through pinching the lips together. There are a some different variations of it described in books and online, and lots of ways to interpret the basic instructions.

My first exposure to this exercise was second hand, a description of it from a trombonist who watched some trumpet players on a tour bus doing it. The first publication I’ve come across that discusses it is Donald Reinhardt’s Encyclopedia of the Pivot System. Here’s what Reinhardt recommended:

A standard, unsharpened wooden pencil is generally used for this routine. Form your saturated embouchure as if to buzz and place the tip of either end of the pencil between your compressed lips – NOT BETWEEN YOUR TEETH. While pointing the pencil in a forward, horizontal manner, strive to support it with only the “pinching power” of your lips. Do not become discouraged if the pencil falls to the floor. In practically all cases a great deal of perseverance is required. As soon as sufficient pinching power of the embouchure formation has been achieved, the prescribed drill will no longer present a problem. Initially, do not attempt the embouchure pencil support for more than a few seconds at a time – it is extremely strenuous. After each attempt has been completed, remove the pencil from between your lips, drop your jaw, open your mouth, exhale and relax. You will feel the results of your workout throughout the lower part of your facial area; this is correct. The amount of time consumed for each workout may be extended; however, it is vital that you accomplish this by degrees.

– Donald S. Reinhardt, Encyclopedia of the Pivot System, Appendix 4-5.

When I do practice this myself, or teach it to a student, this is my preferred method of practicing the pencil trick exercise. But it’s not the only way. Here’s a 10 minute video discussion by George Rawlin, who also came up with the “Bull Dog” exercise that I’ve discussed here. In Rawlin’s version, the pencil is held in contact with the teeth and it’s purpose is to get the teeth aligned.

As with his “Bull Dog” exercise, I feel compelled to mention that the aligned jaw that Rawlin recommends is not necessarily best for all players. I don’t have any formal stats to site, but I feel pretty confident that a majority of brass players do play with their jaw set so that the teeth are aligned. That said, not all should, and it’s a pretty sizable minority.

Unfortunately, I don’t think Rawlin’s system for getting the teeth aligned using the pencil as a guide is going to be accurate. One way to get the pencil to point straight is to close the teeth, for example. I just don’t see it as useful as simply aligning your teeth and using mirror feedback, if you need some.

While many players don’t want to play while aligning their teeth, Rawlin covers a situation that isn’t uncommon, players who should be aligning their teeth, but have trouble thrusting their jaw forward for long periods of time. I prefer a different exercise for this situation.

About 3:00 into the video Rawlin describes exactly one of the reasons why I’m careful about recommending this exercise if I can’t watch the student do it a bit to make sure he or she is doing it correctly. In Reinhardt’s version, the lip compression used to hold the pencil out comes from the mouth corners and shouldn’t be top/bottom squeeze.

And at about 4:50 into his video Rawlin describes one of my personal pet peeves. If you’re tempted to do this pencil exercise (or mouthpiece buzz) in the car, please reconsider. Not only is a distraction from driving, but if the air bag goes off because you get rear ended you’re going to end up sorry you had a stick in your mouth. If you must do something musical in the car, sing to yourself or listen to good music.

At any rate, there is an awful lot of disagreements about his exercise. Many players (some very fine ones) think that it’s a silly waste of time at best and at worse you’re messing up your chops. This certainly can be true, depending on the circumstance. There’s some value that players can get from doing it, but I’m not entirely convinced these days that the cost/benefit ratio from doing it is worth the effort. In my own playing, I find that free buzzing is a better use of my time than the pencil trick.  I also find that considering how easy it is do do the pencil trick exercise in an unproductive way, it’s better to focus my students toward free buzzing as well.