10 Proven Ways to Improve Your Breathing Collected By Will Kimball

I’ve posted before about Will Kimball’s excellent blog. Kimball teaches trombone at Brigham Young University and usually posts on historical topics. Here is a great essay he wrote concerning breathing for brass players. He searched through scientific literature to get at the truth behind breathing and came up with 10 Ways To Improve your breathing based on what we know scientifically.

  1. Practice taking deep breaths
  2. Eat fruit and vegetables
  3. Don’t smoke
  4. Stay physically fit
  5. Allow full expansion
  6. Don’t wear tight clothes
  7. Avoid eating a lot before performing
  8. Relax
  9. Maintain good posture
  10. Take big breaths, even when you don’t think you need them

Much of the above list he compiled is common sense, but some of it goes against the grain of our brass playing urban legends. For example, Kimball mentions the belief (among some brass players) that carrying some extra weight improves lung function or lung capacity, scientific studies actually show the reverse to be true. Time to hit the gym a little more.

The last point, taking big breaths even when it doesn’t seem necessary for the phrase, has at least one caveat. Citing Arend Bouhuys, a specialist in respiration who has studied musicians, Kimball points out that with a larger breath less effort is required to exhale air, helping the musician to maintain relaxed effort in playing. Essentially the internal pressure of having a full breath means the musician simply relaxes to begin exhalation, rather than having to engage the muscles of expiration. However, Kimball also notes that in soft playing that this practice could potentially work against the player as he or she will need to work against the natural tendency for exhalation with the full breath or risk moving too much air.

Although Kimball doesn’t refer to it, I think that the same can apply to extreme upper register playing as well. Playing in the upper register requires a much smaller aperture and moves less air, much like playing soft. Often times I find that taking a very large breath to attack a pitch in the upper register results in too much air pressure and taking in a bit less air makes it easier to get a clean attack.

At any rate, the whole article is worth a read and Kimball supplies links to all the scientific studies he cites there. Go check it out here.

The Thirty Five Basic Points of the Pivot System

In the Donald S. Reinhardt Facebook discussion page the 35 Basic Points of the Pivot System came up. While much of this will not make sense without the rest of the book, I wanted to post these points here so I could more easily refer to them. This come from the “Encyclopedia of the Pivot System,” by Donald S. Reinhardt, p. 229-237.

1. Be ever mindful of the SENSATION THEORY (question and answer twelve in chapter one), and make certain that its principles are constantly utilized throughout your playing. The primary purpose of the warm-up routines is to reestablish yesterday’s playing sensations, or to adjust and align your pre-playing and playing sensations until they merge into the all-essential unified sensation. Remaining alert to the sensations involved during your playing makes it possible to master any new mechanical (physical) point in the shortest time. During the early stages of any warm-up remain conscious of the blowing sensation rather than the pitch and sound factors. Commence your warm-up with a HOOO (no tongue) attack as this utilizes only the breath and the lip-vibrations. Think of the breath and the lips as the basic factors and the tongue as the refining factor (not a crutch) to both. Never warm up so loudly that you experience strain or so softly that you feel a pinching or a holding back. It is obvious, therefore, that your warm-up dynamic level will vary from day to day in order to cater to vast physical differences.

2. Saturate your lips with saliva. This is intended to include the corners of your mouth. It is recommended that you wet your lips several times before the initial playing of the day. This should be done because the saliva to the lips often acts like ink to a blotter, especially for the first few wettings. The idea of wetting the corners of your mouth is to facilitate the inhalation and to prevent embouchure distortion from excessive mouthcorner stretching. Certain present-day squeak artists do adhere to the dry vibrating point principle; however, other than their ability to produce the high ones — their over-all tongue manipulation and control is not worth mentioning. Because tonguing tends to dampen their vibrating points with saliva, their embouchures (with the dry vibrating points) fall apart and become useless under such conditions. With few exceptions, a wet embouchure should be the first choice of any modern brass instrument performer.

3. Your lips must be formed in such a manner that they are just touching—throughout preparation for placement—throughout your placement—throughout your inhalation—and at the completion of your blowing. Your lip aperture (the space blown open -not tongued open) must occur only during your actual blowing.

4. Form your lips as if to buzz so that the membrane of your lower lip is drawn slightly in and over your lower teeth, while the tip of your upper lip reaches down and contacts your lower lip (while slightly overlapping it) at the vibrating points. This is often termed a buzzing embouchure.

5. Always approach your lips for placement with your mouthpiece and instrument in the exact playing angle. This is very important because it sets your jaw as well as your embouchure and both are a must. If the angle jumps up during the attack, then your jaw was set with its position entirely too receding; whereas, if the instrument angle jumps down—then your jaw was protruding to excess during the placement of the mouthpiece. Check on this important point by diligent mirror observation and make the necessary corrections.

6. At the very moment that your mouthpiece placement is being enacted, sufficient grip pressure must be employed against your lips to make your outer and inner embouchures merge and feel as one solidified unit. Too little mouthpiece pressure may cause your placement to drift or float and completely upset your essential playing
sensations. This is especially true while your embouchure is in its formative stages. The mouthpiece pressure is applied toward you while you are executing your placement and during your inhalation from the corners of your mouth. The forward pressure (puckered resistance)—the backward pressure (mouthpiece pressure)—and the neutralization of the opposing forces occurs during your actual attack and throughout your blowing. When the forward pressure equalizes the backward pressure—the two pressures used during the playing reach a point of neutrality or freezing point. In the PIVOT SYSTEM, therefore, we press to neutralize—not to press! The forward pressure employed during the playing is the basis for the all- essential lip pucker. This works hand-in-hand with your PIVOT for your particular physical type.

7. Your mouthpiece should be placed upon an embouchure of almost buzzing firmness.This prevents any twisting or winding up during the mouthpiece placement. It is safe to say, therefore, that this essential firmness must be arrested with sufficient grip pressure during your placement and inhalation. The actual lip pucker occurs from the moment of the attack to the conclusion of the blowing. If this is carried out in the proper manner, your grip pressure will prevent too much flesh from rushing in and under the rim and into the cup of the mouthpiece. You can see that the lip pucker being the opposite of the smile is intended to neutralize both the forward and the backward pressures and assist in the formation of the hermetic seal of the mouthpiece rim and the flesh of the outer embouchure.

8. Always—place, inhale, play; never—inhale, place, play! A reverse order of these points means that you are seriously impeding the synchronization of your basic playing factors. This is a vital point; do not take it lightly!

9. During your formative stages, the mouthpiece pressure upon your lips during your inhalation should be the same as or more than when playing. This hard and fast correctional requirement may be modified according to your particular physical specifications when sufficient development permits; however, in the meantime, carryout this “must” to the letter. Forget your traditional ifs and buts and master this logic.

10. Inhale the high-pitched, whispered inhalation IM (not OM or UM) through the corners of your mouth (never the center of your mouth). Generally speaking, always execute this slower than you think!

11. During the IM inhalation, your tongue must recede about a sixteenth of an inch away from your teeth. This permits great quantities of air to pass freely around your tongue, without resorting to any abnormal stretch in the corners of your mouth to obtain it. The stretch in the corners of your mouth for the inhalation must be minimized.

12. The tongue during the IM inhalation must be very relaxed while receding. The tongue thus far should have two duties: one, it must contact your lower teeth or lower gums during the mouthpiece placement; and two, it must recede during the IM inhalation. The tongue will have additional duties later in the playing; however, it must be understood that no tongue stiffness must ever be tolerated.

13. Whenever time permits—always inhale slowly! This prevents all kinds of unnecessary nervous and muscular tension from entering into your playing. An over-rapid inhalation is often the cause of a quiver or tremolo—the unwanted tonal annoyances which frequently occur during sustained pianissimo playing.

14. During your inhalation, the position of your head and the angle of your instrument must not be altered in any way, because these faults permit changes to occur in both your jaw position and embouchure formation. You must learn to inhale with as little embouchure and jaw distortion as possible. Do not regard your inhalation maneuver as an opportunity to shift gears with the positions of the embouchure and jaw.

15. During your inhalation, especially after playing a number of lower tones, always retrieve your lower lip. This means that your lower lip must be returned to its starting point. In short, your lips during your interphrase inhalation must be identical in position to your initial inhalation. Do not take this important point lightly.

16. If your mouthpiece is placed slightly more to one side of your mouth than the other, then more air should be inhaled from the opposite corner of your mouth. This is vital to keep your embouchure in line. Check on this point by diligent mirror observation.

17. In the PIVOT SYSTEM, the start of the lower tone and the higher tone must be identical in that they are both produced at the outset with the just touching embouchure and they are blown (not tongued) apart. The principal difference must be in the amount of lip compression (pinching power) employed.

18. At the outset of any standard or normal mouthcorner inhalation, your diaphragm and abdominal regions must protrude with firmness. As this inhalation continues a slight expansion will be felt in your chest and an open, free feeling will be noticed in your throat. Make certain that you use this type of inhalation whenever and wherever possible. This is the same principle as air being blown into a large paper bag—the bottom fills first and then the top.

19. Whenever time does not permit, then use the quarter breath—the sniff breath—the gasp breath—the chest heave—etc. It must be thoroughly comprehended that this form of rapid inhalation must be used only to augment but never to replace the standard or normal mouthcorner inhalation. In short, they are intended to serve as a means to an end rather than the standard mode of playing. This habit has become so strong with certain Latin-American performers (because of short, choppy phrases) that they find it impossible to play any type of slow ballad or any sustained passages.

20. Positively never tolerate any lifting of your shoulders during any inhalation because this fault is a positive guarantee that you will be short- winded. Test this fault and notice how it restricts your inhalation.

21. During your inhalation think of the corners of your mouth, your inhaled air, and your tongue all moving backward together as one solidified unit.

22. DO NOT ALTER THE POSITION OF YOUR HEAD OR THE ANGLE OF YOUR INSTRUMENT DURING YOUR INHALATIONS! This point has been repeated because of its significance.

23. At the peak of any inhalation, positively never delay your attack. The exhalation or the blowing must gain momentum from the inhalation, and all work in one coordinated movement, rather than a delay during the so-called bridge between the two factors. You do not delay when you speak; therefore, do not delay when you execute an attack to play. The idea of bottling up the air for a so-called crisp, explosive attack is utterly preposterous. The desired result must be procured from nervous and muscular synchronization—not from any form of physical delay.

24. With each and every initial attack, the diaphragm and abdominal regions must lift (not protrude) in a firm synchronized manner. The higher the note played, the more pronounced this lift must become. Positively never protrude your diaphragm and abdominal regions for any form of playing, especially while ascending, because this old-time playing fallacy has caused more ruptures, hernias, hemmorhoids, etc., among trumpet players than all other playing faults combined. If you possess this fault—lose it! Remember, a clean musical delivery must be the result of correct muscular timing—not nervous delay.

25. POSITIVELY NEVER SMILE TO ASCEND; LEARN TO PIVOT AND THEN TO PUCKER!

26. The tongue is now BLOWN FORWARD in a very relaxed manner from its IM (slightly receded) position so that it strikes the back of the upper teeth, the upper gums, or higher depending upon the range being played. This is sometimes called the first stage of the attack. The proper tongue-arch level may be assisted by using the vowel AAA (DAAA or TAAA) for the lower register—OOO (DOOO or TOOO) for the middle register—and EEE (DEEE or TEEE) for the upper register. Since there are eight distinctly different tongue types, the matter of tongue obstruction, etc., must be discussed during one of your early lessons in the PIVOT SYSTEM.

27. NEVER PERMIT THE TIP OF YOUR TONGUE TO PENETRATE BETWEEN YOUR TEETH AND LIPS IN ANY REGISTER, AT ANY TIME. This is a hard and fast rule but strive to live up to it at all times. TONGUE PENETRATION IS ONE OF THE CHIEF CAUSES OF INADEQUATE RANGE, ENDURANCE, FLEXIBILITY, ETC.

28. After striking, the tongue immediately snaps back (and down in some cases) into the mouth to permit the cone-like air column to strike the back of the compressed embouchure formation, where the least resistance is presented for the blowing. This is often referred to as the second stage of the attack.

29. The duties of the tongue up to this point are as follows:

  1. It must contact the lower teeth or lower gums while the mouthpiece placement is being enacted.
  2. It must recede a trifle during the IM inhalation.
  3. It must strike the back of the upper teeth, the upper gums, or higher depending upon the particular register being played. Remember, the vowels (already suggested) will assist you in achieving the essential tongue-arch level.
  4. It must never be permitted to penetrate between your teeth and lips in any register, at any time.
  5. It must snap back (and down in some cases) into your mouth to permit the cone-like air column to move forward to create the essential lip-vibrations for the particular range being played.
  6. Its arch-level is used to control all types of slurring and flexibility in general.

30. The length of the tongue backstroke is one of the controlling factors for both volume and speed; whereas, the level of the tongue-arch is one of the governing factors for range. Keep these facts in mind while analyzing any tongue problem.

31. All prescribed mechanical (physical) procedures must be carried to extremes during your daily practice periods; however, while you are playing your engagements give your entire attention to music. This is both necessary and proper.

32. Remember, the only time that any sensation is new is the first time; therefore, when you strive to master any new mechanical point make certain that you do not expect the new sensation to be as vivid in later attempts, or you will be carrying the point to extremes. Failure to observe this important fact has caused many performers to experience extended playing frustration.

33. Remember, there are no playing secrets—just logic and common sense. Intelligent, consistent daily practice and study invariably wins out over this word talent.

34. The primary purpose of the PIVOT is to make it possible for you to retain constantly the all-essential line-up between your lips and teeth, so that the lip-vibrations will not be impeded or obliterated in any particular part of your range. It is for this reason that you must study this ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE PIVOT SYSTEM and the PIVOT SYSTEM MANUAL thoroughly and completely. In the PIVOT SYSTEM four standard embouchure and jaw types and five subtypes (nine in all) are utilized and you are directed to fall into one type or the other. This is the only method whereby your individual differences are given scientific consideration. In this manner Mother Nature is satisfied.

35. If you are really serious about your study, I suggest from an hour and a half to five hours of study and practice daily. You must learn to rest exactly as long as you practice. Five minutes of playing means five minutes of resting, etc. In this way you are constantly building up your playing reserve and endurance and never permitting a thoughtless, illogical practice period to tear it down and destroy it. May I suggest a daily review of these thirty-five basic points of the PIVOT SYSTEM.

The Encyclopedia of the Pivot System is out of print now and hard to find. If you do find a copy, it’s a bit difficult to read through it and get a firm grasp on what Reinhardt wanted unless you get some help from a former Reinhardt student or someone else who is well versed in Reinhardt’s pedagogy. It is written in a FAQ style and isn’t written in a way that is designed to help you grasp basic concepts first before moving on to more advanced ones. Stick with it, though, and it is one of the most comprehensive and complete discussions of brass technique that I’ve found.

On Learning the “Classics”

I recently came across an interesting blog post Ronan on his Mostly Music blog. This post, entitled 21st Century Bebop, asks some good questions that jazz educators might want to consider.

In a musical world which has moved away from traditional jazz repertoire, at least as far as the vast majority of the general public is concerned, what is the relevance or otherwise of these skills – playing standards, playing changes, playing common repertoire, the swing idiom etc. etc. ? Why, the question is often asked, should we spend so much time teaching a type of music that hasn’t been popular for over 60 years? What is the relevance of standard repertoire in the 21st-century, and are we holding onto this type of teaching out of some misguided sense of loyalty to the past?

Years ago, when I was still teaching in academia, I was sitting in on a juried recital for a drummer jazz studies major. He was accompanied by a couple musicians that he played around town frequently with and they seemed to draw the music primarily from the tunes they play on their gigs. The performance was excellent, but I was concerned about the lack of variety I heard. Afterwards, I commented to the student’s studio instructor that I wanted to hear something in the swing style and was confused when he insisted that there was. It took me a moment to realize that while I was talking about a jazz style and repertoire from the 30s and 40s, his instructor was thinking of something that had swing 8th notes.

It still seems strange to me that an undergraduate student completing a bachelors degree in jazz studies would go through 4 years of higher education and not be required to demonstrate a familiarity with performing in jazz styles developed prior to the 1950s or 60s. Perhaps it’s my professional bias as a trombonist to find myself performing traditional jazz and swing styles more than a drummer might, but I see a familiarity with the history of the style to be more than simply being professionally ready to play a gig where you need to play in a non-contemporary jazz style. Ronan addresses this too.

So – technique, aural training, harmonic knowledge, rhythmic skills, reading skills, musical memory, deep listening, understanding of form and the ability to instantly create melodies over moving harmony. All of these are necessary in order to able to be able to play standard jazz material. This is a serious set of skills for any musician venturing into the professional music world, and some or all of them are transferable into any kind of musical situation you may be find yourself in.

I would take this a step further. I may be misremembering who exactly said this (and I may even be making this up entirely, but the point is still valid), but I think it was Wynton Marsalis who said it’s equally important for jazz students to get experience learning to play “classical” music as well. First, the pedagogy and practice on development of instrumental technique has been refined already with classical studies to a point that I still don’t see with jazz methods. The skill set you will learn from performing a classical recital or performing in an orchestra or concert band is going to benefit in a way that playing in a jazz combo just can’t provide. For example, if you’re performing a solo concerto you are going to have to have the chops to make it through all the movements and play what’s on the page, whereas when we improvise we unconsciously make choices that we already have the technique to play. Classical music challenges jazz musicians to improve their skills and become familiar with phrasing, articulations, and other nuances that you just won’t get playing contemporary jazz.

And, for that matter, I make the same argument for classical musicians learning to improvise and become familiar with jazz styles. I’ve listened to and played many pops concerts and noticed how uncomfortable the classical musicians sounded trying to phrase and articulate jazz and pop styles.

Of course we’re all going to have our personal preferences and strengths. There are some musical styles that I have little to no interest in learning to perform and others that I have made a conscious effort to become as good as I can playing. However, my experience has been that becoming a well rounded musician has been beneficial to performing in my preferred styles. Furthermore, my abilities as a “musical chameleon” have made it possible for me to work successfully as a professional musician and music educator in a wide variety of situations that many of my peers cannot.

Paralysis By Analysis “Godwin’s Law”

In 1990 Mike Godwin famously wrote about Usnet discussion groups, “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1.” The corollary is that once this comparison is made, the individual who made it automatically looses the argument. It’s become known as “Godwin’s Law.” I propose a similar adage for the expression, “paralysis by analysis.” As an online discussion about brass technique gets longer, the probability that someone will come along and reject a logical or factual argument with the term “paralysis by analysis” approaches 1. When that happens, that individual looses the debate.

I’ve blogged about my problems with this expression before, but it’s worth repeating.

The first issue I take with this expression is that it is almost always used to dismiss someone else’s points without actually addressing any of the logic or facts that were brought up. Someone can provide a well-documented and rational argument about some point of brass technique and rather than pointing out flaws with the argument, a contrarian will reject the entire argument without having to provide any evidence or logical explanation. If they don’t use the expression, “paralysis by analysis” they often say something like, “you’re thinking too much,” or “the body will figure itself out.” It’s intellectually lazy at best, and at its heart it’s bad advice.

analysis
noun, plural analyses

1. the separating of any material or abstract entity into its constituent elements (opposed to synthesis).
2. this process as a method of studying the nature of something or of determining its essential features and their relations.
3. a presentation, usually in writing, of the results of this process.

Analysis in musical pedagogy and practice is a good thing. It allows us to learn about the details of playing technique, put music into an historical and theoretical context, and help us to communicate the results of our study to other people. When people discourage analysis they are not just recommending against a valuable tool for teachers and students, they are actively encouraging students to NOT explore, question, and learn.

Do music students often freeze up when trying to play their instrument? Of course, but it’s worth looking deeper (dare I say, analyze) what’s actually happening to musicians when this happens. There are two scenarios. First, and I suspect most common, the musician is trying to multitask and rather than making for an improvement it leads to the musical equivalent of “athlete’s choke.”

Multitasking is really just task switching. It’s not really possible for people to think about more than one, maybe two, things at a time. Instead the focus changes from one thing to another. Because there are so many different physical skills that need to coordinate for playing a musical instrument it’s really impossible to keep them all in mind while playing, so we need to be selective on what we concentrate on while practicing and performing. Analysis should be done prior to picking up the instrument and the particular task to be practiced is selected based on what the player or teacher determines needs correction. Once the work on that particular point of focus is concluded, the musician should move on to another task. At no point is the analysis itself causing the freezing up, it’s the action of trying to analyze while coordinating all the physical tasks, and often trying to make corrections on the fly at the same time.

“Paralysis by multitasking” just doesn’t have the same ring to it, but it’s much more accurate.

The other scenario that happens when a musician struggles with analysis is that they aren’t drawing the correct conclusions from their analysis. This is why we have teachers, who presumably have more experience than the student and understands better what’s going on. Where I have a problem is when music teachers discourage their students to analyze because they want to always do that for their student. Those students are going to need to learn to do their own analysis, and so it’s better for the teacher to instruct the student in what correct playing mechanics are and how to spot check their own technique and make their own corrections. Furthermore, most serious music students end up doing some sort of teaching at some point in their careers, even if it’s just offering advice on the internet. When students consistently hear from their teacher, “paralysis by analysis” they take that mantra too seriously and it becomes an excuse. They use it to justify ignoring or dismissing information that is useful and it becomes a cover for teachers who simply don’t know what’s going on with their students.

“Paralysis by ignorance” doesn’t rhyme either.

So I herby declare that in the comments section in this blog, if you use the expression “paralysis by analysis” to dismiss a logical or specific point of view you don’t agree with you automatically loose the argument.

Learning Styles – How Can Teachers Best Help Students Learn

The idea of students having a “learning style” refers to a concept that that individuals differ on how the best learn, develop, and retain information. For example, someone who is considered to be a “visual” learner needs to see the information in some way, while an “aural” learner will want to hear it explained. On its surface this seems like a good thing, since we are all individuals and experienced teachers develop strategies to help students with different needs and backgrounds learn better. Unfortunately, the idea of catering lessons to a particular student’s learning style doesn’t show that it actually helps. In fact, it can even leave some students behind when proven methods of instruction are avoided in favor of what essentially amounts to a preference on the student’s part. Teachers end up working with a student’s strengths and not addressing the weaknesses.

In spite of the lack of evidence to back up the learning styles theory, this is a pervasive myth among educators, students, and the general public. Companies that want to sell lesson plans and other educational support materials to schools and teachers are, in part, to blame for the continued belief in this myth. Here’s one example that purports to tell you your learning style by asking you 20 questions. I tried it out and learned that I was an “auditory” learner.

Auditory

If you are an auditory learner, you learn by hearing and listening. You understand and remember things you have heard. You store information by the way it sounds, and you have an easier time understanding spoken instructions than written ones. You often learn by reading out loud because you have to hear it or speak it in order to know it.

As an auditory learner, you probably hum or talk to yourself or others if you become bored. People may think you are not paying attention, even though you may be hearing and understanding everything being said.

Here are some things that auditory learners like you can do to learn better.

  • Sit where you can hear.
  • Have your hearing checked on a regular basis.
  • Use flashcards to learn new words; read them out loud.
  • Read stories, assignments, or directions out loud.
  • Record yourself spelling words and then listen to the recording.
  • Have test questions read to you out loud.
  • Study new material by reading it out loud.

Remember that you need to hear things, not just see things, in order to learn well.

The problem with assessing a student’s learning style with questions like this survey is that it doesn’t actually address learning. Asking someone the “best way to study for a test” doesn’t offer information on how a student best learns because it doesn’t assess whether the student did well on the test! The only way to assess whether learning styles are helpful is how well they learned the material, not what someone prefers to do for fun or what strategies they want to try.

Another online “test” (I won’t link because it wants you to register before it gives you results) is a bit more thorough one that has some more nuance to the questions and asks more, but again, I find many of the questions odd (“You have a good sense of color” “You hear small things that others don’t” – can a so-called visual learner be color blind or can someone with some hearing loss still be a so-called aural learner?) and none of the questions assess learning.

A good summary of why learning styles is a myth can be found in this Wired article.

Convincing evidence for learning styles would show that people of one preferred learning style learned better when taught material in their favored way, whereas a different group with a different preference learned the same material better when taught in their favored fashion. Yet surprisingly few studies of this format have produced supporting evidence for learning styles; far more evidence (such as this study) runs counter to the myth. What often happens is that both groups perform better when taught by one particular style. This makes sense because although each of us is unique, usually the most effective way for us to learn is based not on our individual preferences but on the nature of the material we’re being taught – just try learning French grammar pictorially, or learning geometry purely verbally.

Here is another one.

Teaching children according to their individual “learning style” does not achieve better results and should be ditched by schools in favour of evidence-based practice, according to leading scientists.

Thirty eminent academics from the worlds of neuroscience, education and psychology have signed a letter to the Guardian voicing their concern about the popularity of the learning style approach among some teachers.

What about all that literature that supposedly supports learning styles? Harold Pashler, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer, and Robert Bjork wrote a review of the literature.

Our review of the literature disclosed ample evidence that children and adults will, if asked, express preferences about how they prefer information to be presented to them. There is also plentiful evidence arguing that people differ in the degree to which they have some fairly specific apti- tudes for different kinds of thinking and for processing different types of information. However, we found virtu- ally no evidence for the interaction pattern mentioned above, which was judged to be a precondition for vali- dating the educational applications of learning styles. Al- though the literature on learning styles is enormous, very few studies have even used an experimental methodology capable of testing the validity of learning styles applied to education. Moreover, of those that did use an appropriate method, several found results that flatly contradict the popular meshing hypothesis.

Searching online for evidence that both supports and refutes the theory of learning styles shows a general difference between those supporting and those debunking. Sites and “articles” that support learning styles tend to lack citations and when they do have them, the studies listed either are from companies that want to sell their materials to teachers, are poorly done, or even state the exact opposite of what that source is claiming. On the other hand, criticisms of learning styles tend to be well researched with peer reviewed articles from reputable authors and journals and provide a much more nuanced view of teaching and learning.

The bottom line for teachers is that while we can and should use every tool available when necessary, it’s important to look at the bigger picture – whether learning is taking place and whether the results we’re getting from our students is what they are truly capable of. By all means, reinforce the students’ strengths, but address their weaknesses too.

Firm, Place, Breathe, Blow

A thread on the Facebook Trombone Pedagogy group lately has been discussing different thoughts on coordinating breathing with setting the embouchure and placing the mouthpiece. I thought I’d take this opportunity to discuss my preferred way of teaching students to coordinate air and embouchure together, based on Donald Reinhardt’s instructions from his writings, including his Encyclopedia of the Pivot System.

While the jaw is in its playing position, form the saturated embouchure with ALMOST buzzing firmness, so that the lips are “just touching” at the vibrating points. When in doubt, form the lips as if to buzz. . .

Place the mouthpiece upon the embouchure formation as just prescribed and use sufficient “contact pressure” to locate and sustain its position in the playing groove of the embouchure. The actually placement must be executed in accordance with the [embouchure] type. . .

Inhale the high-pitched, whispered “IM” (not “OM” or “UM”) through both mouthcorners – NEVER THE MOUTHCENTER – simultaneously. . . In short, eliminate “gear shifting” and inhale with a minimum of embouchure distortion.

At it’s heart, Reinhardt’s advice is to work towards unifying the player’s pre-playing sensations with the playing sensations. In other words, he felt it was valuable to have as little change as possible in the position of the lips and mouthpiece upon the lips from inhaling to playing. In order to encourage this, he instructed his students to practice (during certain exercises – not during rehearsing and performance) to firm the lips as if buzzing first, place the mouthpiece on the firmed lips, inhale through the mouth corners while maintaining mouthpiece pressure and holding the lip center just touching, then commence blowing by coordinating the mouth corners snapping into their correct position. Taking breaths in the middle of phrases is to be simply a matter of continuing to breathe through the mouth corners while keeping everything under the mouthpiece rim and inside the mouthpiece should remain more or less in playing position.

Many players, including some excellent ones, either don’t consider their embouchure when breathing or are so focused on moving lots of air that they don’t feel that minimizing the embouchure “gear shift” between inhaling and blowing is valuable. Some players will open their mouth very wide to inhale and the mouthpiece placement shifts slightly every time they begin blowing. Some players will set the mouthpiece on relaxed lips and firm them only just as they begin blowing, which can result in twisting or winding the lips up under the rim or distortions and inconsistency in their overall embouchure formation from breath to breath. Consistency in a player’s embouchure formation should result in better playing consistency.

One of the biggest challenges to adopting this approach is that it’s difficult to take in as much air as quickly when you’re only breathing through the mouth corners. Trumpet and horn players may find the smaller mouthpiece size makes keeping the lip center just touching inside the mouthpiece while inhaling to be easier than low brass players with their larger mouthpieces. I think it’s important to keep in mind that this approach is meant to be practiced only at specific times in your routine and then forgotten about while you move on or are performing. We can think of this approach as an ideal goal, but that not every playing situation is going to make that ideal work at every moment. By aiming towards the ideal in your practice you are minimizing the potential for this to cause issues, both short term cracking notes from time to time or the longer term (and fortunately rarer) embouchure dysfunction that can result.

Use Eye Tracking to Study What a Pianist Sees While Playing

I love hearing about research like this done on musicians (and other artists). I wouldn’t be surprised if something similar hasn’t been done for athletics, so it’s nice to see that musicians are taking advantage of the technology too.

 

In this video they show the difference between an older, more experienced, pianist and a younger, less accomplished, pianist. They tracked both of their eye movements while playing a memorized piece and also sight reading. While playing the memorized pieces the experienced pianist visual range on the keyboard was much more stable and consistent than the inexperienced pianist.

The results of the experienced pianist sight reading is directly relevant to anyone sight reading. His eyes are scanning ahead of where he is playing. It also jumps between the treble clef and bass clef staves consistently. This skill of reading ahead is perhaps one of the most important things to develop for sight reading.

Golfing Focus Applied to Music

There’s seems to be a lot more research done on the development of motor skills with athletics compared to music, so often times musicians will look at athletics and sports training methods for ideas on improving musical practice and pedagogy. Recently I came across a podcast called Golf Science Lab and listened to their episode, What Every Golfer Ought to Know About FOCUS with Dr Gabriele Wulf.

Where should your focus be in during a shot? Or when you’re learning how should you think about a move to make a change in the most effective way.

Although the motor skills used in golf are pretty different than those used in playing the trombone, for example, it’s not too far of a leap to assume that what applies to golf might also be useful for musical practice. Wulf says,

Performance is often enhanced immediately when I focus externally as opposed to internally, but also the learning process is facilitated when learners adopt an external focus. So learning is sped up. You reach a higher skill level sooner than you would with an internal focus.

An internal focus refers to the coordination of body movements, where an external focus is on the intended effect. In golf the examples of things that a golfer could use as an external focus were the club, the ball, the hole, even the player’s belt buckle or buttons. One of the interesting points made in the podcast were the distance effect. In other words, the further away the point of focus, the better the results. So focusing attention on club face would be better than focusing on the handle of the club because it’s a bit further away. Focusing on the ball is a bit further than the club face, but focusing on the flag or the hole would do better. Here’s the rub, the optimal distance of the focus depends on the skill level. An expert golfer would focus on the trajectory of the ball or target, but a novice would do better focusing on the club face, because they still need to practice the technique.

The tricky thing is to try to teach and practice the necessary technique with external focus. Wulf offered a golf example. Rather than telling the novice golfer to transfer his or her weight to the left foot (an internal focus), teach them to push off of the ground on the left (external focus).

What does this mean for music practice? Off the top of my head, with brass embouchure practice try taking the attention off the lips and move them on to the mouthpiece rim. When practicing breathing instead of paying attention to the feeling of the stomach and chest moving, focus on the air as it passes the lips or even visualize the air blowing across the room.

What ideas can you think of to teach musical technique in such a way as to move the focus from internal to external? How can you take that idea and make the focus even further away the more expert the musician becomes?

Playing On the Red Is Fine (Redux)

One of the more popular posts I’ve written here is Brass Embouchures: Playing On the Red Is Fine (as long as it fits your anatomy). In this post I tried, somewhat unsuccessfully, to point out the flaws in the nearly universal belief among brass teachers that placing the mouthpiece so that the rim contacts the vermillion of the lips is a bad thing. I will try in this post to reiterate my points more clearly.

Before going too deep into this discussion, I’ve found that it’s important to point out that I’m not making a blanket recommendation that brass players should adopt a mouthpiece placement that sets the rim right on the upper or lower lip vermillion. I’m merely pointing out that the very pointed advice to avoid it is based on faulty logic and a misunderstanding of both the anatomy of the lips and embouchure form and function. Most folks aren’t going to have the anatomical features that make such a high or low mouthpiece placement work efficiently, but some do and for these players moving the mouthpiece placement off the red can be as detrimental to their embouchure as another player moving the placement to the red when it shouldn’t be. This is something that is unique to the individual player and needs to be taken on a case by case basis.

There are three basic arguments against placing the mouthpiece on the lips so that it contacts the vermillion along the top or bottom of the rim:

  1. A famous teacher or player advocated against it.
  2. The anatomy of the vermillion is such that it makes it more sensitive and prone to damage than the rest of the lip.
  3. It’s mechanically incorrect and won’t work as well as a placement with less rim contact on the vermillion.

Famous Players and Teachers

If you’re reading the post and questioning why I’m going against what appears to be conventional brass pedagogy, that’s a good thing. I always recommend that folks learn not just what we know about brass pedagogy and mechanics, but also take the time to understand how we know what we know. It’s very easy to find folks who actively discourage placing the mouthpiece on the red of the lips, but it’s not easy to understand why they recommend that. Many of these folks make their case using arguments 2 or 3 above, but an awful lot simply assert without evidence.

The bottom line here is that we can’t simply take a statement at face value based on how famous the person is who said it, we need to look past that and deal with the evidence. That which is stated without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.

Anatomy

There is an awful lot of misinformation and misunderstanding about the anatomy and histology of the lips in the brass literature. Here is one example:

To function properly, the inner edge of the mouthpiece must be placed on tissue that is supported by muscle, but the lips are composed of fatty tissue that by itself cannot support a normal embouchure.

-Frank Campos, Trumpet Technique, 2005

Part of the difficulty in parsing comments like Campos’s is that while the medical literature has a very precise definition of the lips (which runs all the way up to the nose and down to the chin), many brass authors use the term “lips” to refer to just the vermillion. Regardless of the exact meaning in the statement above, it’s demonstrably incorrect. The entire lip, including under the vermillion, is internally made up of the orbicularis oris muscle group. There absolutely is muscle under the vermillion. Be careful when you look at diagrams that draw in the vermillion as a point of reference, they are misleading. Here is one diagram that leaves out the vermillion as a reference.

Another, less common, point I’ve recently come across is that because the epidermis at the vermillion is thinner than the normal epidermal layer there is less cushion from the skin:

Lips have around 3-5 cellular layers and above the vermillion border has as high as 16 cellular layers.

-“asdfghj,” 2017

Since “asdfghj” is both posting anonymously and also not citing his/her source, I can’t really comment on the legitimacy of this claim, however it does seem plausible. The reason the vermillion of the lips are red in people with fairer skin is that the color of the blood vessels underneath the vermillion come through. For the sake of argument, I’ll accept this as true. I still don’t find this a compelling argument and here’s why.

Without heading over to a university library and digging through the literature, a cursory internet search shows one apparently reputable source that states, “The thickness of the epidermis varies in different types of skin; it is only .05 mm thick on the eyelids, and is 1.5 mm thick on the palms and the soles of the feet.” How does this compare to the layer of skin of the lips, both the vermillion and elsewhere? It’s hard to say for certain using the internet, but Wikipedia (take it with a grain of salt) states, “The average human skin cell is about 30 micrometers in diameter, but there are variants. A skin cell usually ranges from 25-40 micrometers (squared), depending on a variety of factors.”

Let’s use the 30 micrometers average to calculate how thick the skin of the vermillion is compared to the normal epidermal layer on the lips. If the vermillion has 4 layers, that 120 micrometers. The 16 layers of skin in the rest of the lips would make for a layer 480 micrometers, a difference of 360 micrometers, or .36 millimeters. For comparison, human hair is said to range up to 181 micrometers in diameter, so the difference here is about two layers the size of the of a human hair.

I don’t find supposed cushion of two hairs to be a compelling difference, considering the mouthpiece forces involved. It’s not the layer of skin that provides the cushion and support of the embouchure, but the muscle underneath.

All the above shows, however, that there don’t appear to be plausible reasons why the vermillion would be more sensitive to pressure. That doesn’t mean that the vermillion actually isn’t. In order to get an idea, I spend some time back in 2012 going through both the medical and musical literature to see if there was any indication that injuries to the lip occurred at the vermillion more than the rest of the lip, or to see if any medical professionals happened to comment on this specific point.

While most brass players don’t “place on the red” in such a way that the rim contact the upper or lower vermillion a great deal, 100% of brass players place the mouthpiece with at least some rim contact on the vermillion. If the vermillion was more prone to injury than the rest of the lip, I would think that the medical literature discussing lip injuries due to brass playing would indicate this. In fact, it is rarely mentioned.

Injuries to the lips due to brass playing happens where the rim happens to be on the lips, irrespective of the vermillion. It appears that the upper lip (the entire lip, not just the vermillion) is more prone to injuries than the lower lip (hence the common advice to not “dig into” the upper lip with the mouthpiece or keep more mouthpiece “weight” on the lower lip compared to the upper). Injuries can and do happen under the vermillion, but perhaps more commonly outside the vermillion (which is unsurprising, if you consider that more players are going to have the rim contact on the upper lip above the vermillion. In fact, some lip injuries happen completely away from the rim contact.

-Papsin, B.C., Maaske, L.A., & McGrail, J.S. (1996). Orbicularis oris muscle injury in brass players. Laryngoscope 106, 757-760.

I was also able to find some literature that flat out stated that the vermillion area of the lips is not more prone to injury. H.L. Wilson, a medical doctor writing for The Clarinet, discussed the vermillion in the context of a clarinet embouchure.

In summary, the vermilion portion of lips tolerates pressure well. . .

-Wilson, H.L. (2000). Lips. The Clarinet, 27(4), 38-39.

Yes, the forces involved in a clarinet embouchure and brass embouchure are different, but combined with a more thorough understanding of the anatomy and histology of the lips along with a lack of evidence to the contrary, this leads me to believe that there is no anatomical reason to believe that it is risky to place the brass mouthpiece rim on the vermillion.

Mechanics

While the above discussion of anatomy is outside of my particular area of expertise, brass embouchure mechanics is right in my wheelhouse. I first became interested in brass embouchure mechanics sometime around 1996. I wrote my dissertation on original research investigating brass embouchure types and their correlation to easily observed physical characteristics. Since completing my doctorate in 2000 I’ve published and presented resources that deal with brass embouchures in a peer reviewed journal, academic papers, online, and at professional conferences. I’ve documented with photos and video around 100 brass players’ embouchures of beginning students, college students, professional performers, university brass teachers, and amateurs over five states at six different universities. I’ve been asked to consult with physical therapists and doctors treating embouchure injuries in the United States and Europe and some of my writing about brass embouchure have been translated into Japanese and Italian. Part of conducting my research involved thorough reviews of the literature, so at risk of blowing my own horn (pun intended), I’m fairly confident in the information and context I can provide here about brass mechanics.

First, there appears to be no relationship between the size and shape of an individual’s vermillion and the player’s embouchure technique. There doesn’t appear to be any relationship between how the lips vibrate at the vermillion and the rest of the lips. There is a wide range of vertical mouthpiece placement among brass players, with a minority that place the mouthpiece either high or low enough so that the rim of the mouthpiece contacts a great deal of the upper or lower lip vermillion. There is also a lot of variation on how wide an individual brass player’s vermillion is, as well as differences between rim sizes. Considering that the division between vermillion and normal skin on the lips is arbitrary and varies so much, I don’t think that it’s really useful to discuss mouthpiece placement as a factor of where it is placed in relation to the vermillion.

On the other hand, we can consider whether it’s mechanically incorrect to place the mouthpiece very high or low. This feature also varies quite a bit from player to player, with most folks falling more towards the center than very high or very low. While there are many anatomical features that influence an individual brass player’s mouthpiece placement, such as the shape of the teeth and gums that provides the support structure for the embouchure, the most likely characteristics that influences the vertical placement of the mouthpiece include the length of the lips compared to the length of the teeth and gums and possibly the shape and angle of the lips to each other. The shorter the player’s upper lip, the more likely that player appears to need to place the mouthpiece lower on the lips.

As you can see in the photo to the left, my upper lip is very short in comparison to my upper teeth and gums. When I form my embouchure I have to stretch my upper lip down quite a bit in order to get it over the upper front teeth. There simply isn’t much lip mass in my upper lip that is free to vibrate inside the mouthpiece.

A vibrating brass embouchure works more like a clarinet reed than an oboe reed. One lip or another predominates inside the mouthpiece and is the primary vibrating area. The other lip does vibrate in tandem with the other, but it serves more like the clarinet mouthpiece to the other lip as the reed. This feature can be easily seen on Lloyd Leno’s films.

For me, and for a minority of other brass players, anything other than this extremely low placement doesn’t work well at all. Most folks find it too hard to play this way, but they don’t have the same extremely short upper lip. I tried for a long time to play with a more conventional looking mouthpiece placement. I was taught early to try to keep my mouthpiece centered on the lips and with more upper lip inside and so I played that way all the way into my mid-20s. My personal experience was that I played OK with the centered placement (well enough to get through two music degrees and be accepted into doctoral studies in trombone performance), but until I made the correction to my embouchure you see in the photo to the right that I did not have the range and endurance I needed to play at a high level. This embouchure type isn’t as common as more conventional looking brass embouchures, but it probably represents about 10% of brass players.

Summary

Despite the opinions of many other brass players and teachers who feel otherwise, there appears to be no anatomical or mechanical reasons why placing the mouthpiece so that the rim contacts a great deal of the vermillion is going to lead to greater risk of injury or mechanical difficulties, provided that the player’s anatomical features are best suited to that placement. Individual anatomy is so variable that even setting a “rule of thumb” is arbitrary at best and may even lead to a brass student playing in a way that is mechanically inefficient for his or her face – which does increase the risk of injury, regardless of how conventional the mouthpiece placement may look.

In my opinion, the whole idea of using the vermillion as a factor for diagnosing or troubleshooting a brass embouchure is misguided. It is much better for brass teachers and players to gain a more thorough understanding of the basic brass embouchure types and how they function, as well as how much brass embouchures vary from player to player, even between players belonging to the same embouchure type. We can probably safely ignore the advice from teachers who emphatically state that this is wrong unless and until they begin providing plausible evidence to the contrary.

Building Embouchure Stability In Low Range – Less Air, Not More!

A recent thread on the Trombone Pedagogy Facebook group has gotten me thinking about building embouchure stability in the low range. The specific topic there concerns a particular student who has a very unstable embouchure in general and on low Bb has an uncontrollable waver in her tone. I don’t have permission to share the video, but I do have some photos that illustrate the same situation.

25pedalbbfront-copyThe photo to the right is of a trombonist playing a pedal Bb. I chose this photo because the student trombonist had a similar looking embouchure formation on her low Bb. Note how the embouchure formation has collapsed and is very loose looking.

While it may be necessary at first for inexperienced players to get into the extreme low register like this, overplaying like this will very likely cause issues down the road if the player doesn’t make corrections (click here to read up and view some video footage I documented). Like all habits, it can be difficult to correct and the longer a player relies on collapsing the embouchure formation to play low the harder it will be. Unfortunately,  some of the default advice I was reading on Facebook also seemed to encourage practicing in the low register in a manner that makes it harder to make the necessary embouchure corrections.

Asking a student to “blow more air,” or even to simply “support” the note with the air is going to make it harder for the student to play in the low register with the same level of firmness in the embouchure formation as the rest of their range, but this is what some teachers recommend. Personally, I prefer to help a student with this issue by developing exercises or practicing musical passages that start in a higher range and descend to the problem area with a decrescendo. Playing softly in that low register makes it easier for the student to hold the mouth corners firm, maintain the overall embouchure formation, and use a bit more mouthpiece pressure for additional embouchure stability.

27highbbfront-copy27lowbbfront-copyFor comparison, here are a couple of photos of a different player. The photo to the left is a high Bb (Bb4/ledger lines above bass clef staff). The one to the right is the same player playing a low Bb (Bb2/in the bass clef staff). Note how similar they look from the outside (I happened to catch the vibrating lips on the low Bb when the embouchure aperture was close to closed, but at their peak opens you can see a bigger difference on the embouchure aperture between these pitches).

Playing softly and accepting a thinner tone will help a student to successfully experience what it feels like to play in the low register with a stable embouchure formation. As she gets more comfortable playing that way she can begin adding air and working to open up the sound, but if the embouchure formation collapses again she should stop, reset, and try again with just a little less air. Over time it will get better and easier to add more air. However, it’s important for her to stop encouraging this habit as quickly and completely as possible. Throwing more air at an embouchure formation that is too loose and unstable will not help her build the strength and control to stop collapsing.

That said, performances (and most rehearsals) are different. The above advice is for practice and private lessons. When you perform it’s more important to do whatever you have to in order to sound good. If that means collapsing to play low, that’s fine. Over time the student will be able to play correctly with enough comfort and volume that she won’t even think about making a change, it happens because it has replaced her old habit.