A Rebuttal to my Balanced Embouchure Review

I’ve posted a number of resources for brass players and teachers online about brass embouchures and it’s common for people to contact me asking for my opinion about different practice methods. Almost a year ago I decided to post a skeptical review of one method that I’d gotten a number of different queries about, Jeff Smiley’s book, The Balanced Embouchure.

One of the reasons why I started this blog is to get more information out there and hopefully start a public dialogue about some subjects that are not well understood, even by experts in the field of brass pedagogy. It’s important to me that this dialogue be open and that my own ideas are questioned too. Recently a commenter, Alistair, took me up on this challenge and posted a rebuttal to my review of The Balanced Embouchure. Since Alistair raised many points that are worth another look, I thought I’d devote a new post to the topic of The Balanced Embouchure. In the process of responding to some of Alistair’s comment I hope to clarify my position and acknowledge a few points that he made. Since I’m going to respond to his comments out of the order in which he wrote and gloss over or skip some of them, I would recommend that you read his entire comment in context here.

First, let me concede some points, because Alistair caught me in some errors. For example, in my review I wrote about Smiley’s bunched chin/loose mouth corners recommendation, “If it’s so effective I’d expect to see at least a few really fine players around that have those embouchure characteristics, but I don’t.” Alistair commented:

Have a look at Smiley’s website (which you linked to in this article) you will find some videos there. Once you start being open to it, you start to see those characteristics everywhere.

I usually try to be careful to qualify statements I make, and here I dropped the ball. You can indeed find examples of good brass players who appear to have a bunched chin and/or loose mouth corners. I should have written my statement to say, “If it’s so effective I’d expect to see many really fine players around that have those embouchure characteristics, but the majority do not.”

Alistair caught me again.  I wrote, “I feel there may be better ways of getting the desired results that don’t risk the distortion of the embouchure formation when the tongue is regularly held in contact with the lips.”

The tongue is not regular held in contact with the lips like a TCE setting may be, but rather only the tip of the tongue strikes the inside of the top lip to articulate. Rather than “distortion of the embouchure formation” it really is the most underrated technique of the method allowing the tongue to monitor and maintain optimum lip position.

Yep. I knew this when I wrote it too, but for some reason it ended up wrong anyway. Smiley does not recommend that you hold your tongue against the lips at all times, but rather to do so only at certain points during certain exercises.  You will have to decide for yourself if the risk of an unstable embouchure formation is worth the tactile feedback of putting your tongue against your lips.  Personally, I feel it’s better for almost all players to keep the tongue off the lips at all times (there are probably exceptions to this, but I suspect that they are pretty uncommon).

I commented in my review about the YouTube video of Uwe Zaiser demonstrating one of Smiley’s exercises. I mentioned that he was taking a breath at the same point every time, allowing himself to reset the mouthpiece across a possible embouchure break. Alistair made a clarification.

Yeah, good call. That’s why if you check the book it has the breath marks in strategic places moving higher in the range on each repetition. The CD demo follows these breath marks, this video does not.

Roll Out Lip Position

He’s got me there too.  In the book the specific exercise instructs the player to breath sometimes at C in the staff, sometimes at the E above it, and sometimes at the G on the top of the staff.  That said, I think my point is still valid.  I don’t feel bringing the embouchure formation pictured to the right into the normal playing range has any benefit and potentially some risk, depending on the player’s actual embouchure type.  There are other things trumpet players can practice that work better in the long term, I think.

While I understand that Balanced Embouchure exercises aren’t intended to be the way you perform, I’m skeptical that practicing the extreme rolled out lip positions like above, and the extreme rolled in positions also advised, are worth practicing over the long term.  I actually do find value in embouchure experimentation and finding the extreme ends of different ways to make your embouchure work (including horn angles, mouthpiece placement, embouchure motion).  My goal is to move closer and closer to that one unique embouchure formation that works for the specific individual over the entire range.  Practicing the roll in and roll out exercises more than a little bit, once in a while, would seem to only encourage playing on different embouchures over different ranges.

I mentioned in my review that I was skeptical of Smiley’s statistics. It seems to be based largely on his personal impressions. Alistair raised a common misconception in response.

How else would one create statics? Smiley has often said his passion is teaching not playing. His statistics come from teaching thousands of trumpet lessons over many, many years. Seems like a good way to get statical data over a large group.

Let me offer a personal anecdote to illustrate what I mean about proper statistical analysis trumping personal impressions.  For my dissertation I conducted research looking closely at the embouchure types of a number of trombonists and investigated whether easily observed anatomical features would make accurate predictors of which type a player would play with best. I though it would make a powerful tool for music educators to be able to look at their students’ physical characteristics and be able to tell at a glance if their embouchure type wasn’t fitting their face. While collecting data I began to spot some features that convinced me I was on the right track. It got to the point where a test subject would come in and I was accurately guessing their embouchure type before I even watched them play.

Except I wasn’t. When I actually crunched the numbers my analysis showed that most of my predictors were not statistically significant. I was a victim of my own confirmation bias. I remembered the hits, but forgot about the misses. Starting with a premise and looking for evidence that supports your hypothesis isn’t an accurate method of conducting research. You must subject your hypothesis to examinations that are designed to falsify it.  If it withstands this process then you may be on to something, but it usually takes independent confirmation using similar (or better designed) methods by someone else before they can be considered legitimate.

Glancing through photographs I took of 34 trombone embouchures I was able to find 2 players with some chin bunching as the players went to the top of their range.  Keep in mind, however, that those photographs weren’t taken to control for chin bunching (for example, whether or not the 2 with chin bunching would play better or worse over the long term without it or if others would play better with), so I wouldn’t go so far to suggest a 17 flat to 1 bunched chin statistic.  This is pretty far off from Smiley’s claim that only 3 in 10 can make a flat chin work.  All it means is that better research is needed, but I don’t have the burden of proof.  For now, I’ll continue to suggest not bunching the chin while you play, even as an exercise that isn’t intended to be the way you normally play.

Regarding my criticisms of on Smiley’s questionable chapter on “Mind/Body” Alistair commented:

At first glance it would be easy to dismiss this chapter as having nothing to do with trumpet playing but when you get deeper into the process you realise this has to do with the method of symptoms and solutions for health and brass playing. He gives the example of a common cold, don’t treat the symptoms (of which there may be many) but work to raise the immune system to fight the cold. Same with trumpet (or trombone). It not about if you have problem X then you need solution Y but it’s if you have problem X or Y or Z it’s because things are out of balanced. The method which show how to develop or discover balanced solves all problems.

Smiley himself wrote, “I do not have – nor do I want to have – a medical degree.”  In other words, he is offering a disclaimer that he is not qualified to discuss health advice, yet chooses to offer it anyway.  The only health advice I’m qualified to offer is that you should ask your doctor.  At your next doctor’s visit bring your copy of the book and ask about the information in this chapter.  I’ll stick to my area of expertise and I think Smiley’s book and web site would be much better if he did as well.

There is a lot more I could write about this but I will finish with from my experiences this book has been life changing. It has not given me professional level chops (yet) but I now know that my progress on the trumpet is only limited by how much I practise. This stuff works for me and my students and other players I’ve talked to (in real life).

If you read some of the rest of the comments here or on other blogs and forums that cover The Balanced Embouchure you’ll see that Alistair is not alone.  Many people have found Smiley’s book to be helpful.  I’m happy that these players are enjoying their time practicing and getting some benefits from it.  As I learn more I will continue to revise my ideas and try to incorporate new understanding into my teaching and playing.  Thank you to Alistair and the others who have different points of view taking the time to comment and keep me honest.  I hope that you find at least some of my resources useful and that you’ll continue to come over and question me.  Please don’t take my word for any of the above, learn what you can and be skeptical of anyone who purports to have they best way for all players.  Especially me.

Tony

I wasted about two years on the balanced embouchure practising it diligently on a regular basis, posting videos online for analysis by ‘be’ experts and having video lessons with the same. However, I couldn’t correctly perform the ‘rolled in’ exercises, which form part of the core of the method. My detailed progress reports at the trumpet herald ‘be’ forum (replete with diagrams, videos and photos) were met with advice that didn’t work. Smiley recommended I pay for international flights to see a ‘be’ expert – so much for the claims made on the cover of the book that the method is ‘easy to learn’ for everyone! Alas, being unemployed at the time prevented any such excursion abroad. I persevered with the method and my reports nontheless and it was at this point that Smiley became frowny. He made light of my financial situation, made it clear I was not welcome at his forum and proved himself to be far from a gentleman. Needless to say no refund was offered for the book – or for two years of wasted practice. I know several others who have had a similar experience… Anyhow, that was some years ago and I am glad it is behind me now. You might be interested to know that I have since discovered Reinhardt and am having remarkable success with his approach.

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