This is a repost of something that got lost in my recent server issue. The issues I discuss in this open letter go beyond the specifics of my discussion with Lucinda Lewis (another post on this topic can be viewed here), so I cross posted it here. Rather than simply repost it this time, I wanted to take a moment and offer some thoughts that may help readers put this letter into the broader context, which I feel is ultimately the more important issue.
During the course of conducting my research on brass embouchures, I’ve come across several cases of serious embouchure dysfunction and become interested in learning more about what is causing those problems and how they can be best treated. Sifting through the wide variety of resources I happened to come across (ranging from medical, academic, musical, and just random stuff you can find on the internet), I’ve discovered that not only are recommendations for serious embouchure issues all over the map, but many of the experts seem to be completely unaware of each other.
I feel the scientific method provides us with the best model to follow here. Not only does it require us to make an effort to falsify our hypotheses about embouchure dysfunction (only if it withstands this process can our research be accepted), but it also places a high emphasis on peer review and collaboration. In all three areas, brass pedagogy has tended to drop the ball. More importantly, the handful of individuals who are devoted to helping players with serious embouchure dysfunction are frequently basing their advice on philosophical, illogical, or on poorly understood or biased research methods. In this particular area we can and should do better.
Although the following open letter is addressed to a specific person, I hope that others who do embouchure troubleshooting will take note and engage in a more collaborative and scientific approach. In my humble opinion, when offering a form of therapy we have an ethical obligation to at least become familiar with what else is out there in order to put it into the proper context, not just for our students but also for our colleagues in the field.
Here then is my reposted open letter to Lucinda Lewis, author of Broken Embouchures and Embouchure Rehabilitation.
Dear Ms. Lewis,
I’ve spent a little time rereading both this conversation and our email conversation from a couple years ago and think that perhaps we’re both getting off on the wrong foot by talking past each other, rather than finding our common ground. I apologize if I’ve offended you and if you feel personally attacked. Please understand it’s not my intention to demean you as an individual, musician, or teacher. Our differences of opinions are only about details. We are obviously both devoted to making a topic that is too often ignored more accessible and understandable to a larger audience. I hope you’ll forgive the tone of my previous messages.
I’d like to start by pointing out a couple of things about my own research. First, it isn’t all that unique. I’ve based it on things I was taught or read that others have done first. The experimental study I wrote about in my dissertation ended up with results that were generally inconclusive, something I had been told would probably happen but now we know for sure. Furthermore, there were some flaws in my methodology which makes it harder to generalize the already largely inconclusive results to all players. I view that whole process as the beginning of my understanding and am still trying to learn more. My current projects aren’t experimental, they are concerned with outreach to brass teachers and players. I hope that you can see my intentions here are to help you become more aware of some potentially helpful information, not necessarily mine.
Having read your books and many of your articles, I find an awful lot that I think is sound, safe, and accurate advice (and obviously some disagreements). The amount of time you have spent developing and testing your ideas brings experiences worth learning more about. I recognize the insights you gained from your side of things are different from mine and therefore valuable.
Regarding your statistics, I don’t doubt you have had over 5000 individuals contacting you for help. I’m not certain that your sample population can be generally applied to the majority of brass players though. Maybe they can, but unless we apply certain controls and apply an appropriate statistical method we really don’t know for sure. I imagine that many people asking for your help after an embouchure injury are specifically seeking your expertise because they know you study embouchure injuries of the particular type they have. As a sample population, they are self-selecting because they already fit your criteria for “embouchure overuse syndrome.” That may be one reason why your 98% figure is so high, only people with “embouchure overuse syndrome” are contacting you. If we sampled some brass players without embouchure difficulties and asked them the same interview questions we might get the exact same numbers or wildly different ones. Many working professionals and music students regularly have demanding playing engagements and it’s only those times when we injure ourselves that we notice that we’re overplaying or doing something wrong. Rather than only looking at the heavy playing as an underlying cause, perhaps we should also be looking at their embouchure form to see what characteristics are more prone to injuries than others and why.
I also wonder if you have a common misunderstanding about a correlation and a causation. As a non-musical example, we might note that there is a correlation between teen smoking and poor grades, but that doesn’t mean that smoking is the cause of the poor grades. Likewise, I don’t know that we should be so certain that 98% of embouchure problems are caused by “embouchure overuse syndrome.” I do agree that there’s probably a relationship between embouchure injury and overplaying, though.
Lastly, I feel that your term “embouchure overuse syndrome” can be potentially misleading and is too broadly defined. In my opinion, it would be better to simply call the injury or symptom what it happens to be, whether that’s a pinched nerve, bruised lip, lip abrasions, etc. The “overuse” term implies that the real reason was the musician overplayed. A more accurate depiction might be to say that when fatigue sets in the musician has a tendency to allow his or her embouchure form to suffer in a particular way that makes it more prone to injury or otherwise break down. Like lifting with your back, you can get away with it for a while, but you risk injury if you do it even just once while tired.
I hope you understand that none of this means you aren’t helping a lot of players. I might quibble about the details of your suggestions and observations, but I feel it has some good advice for players coming back from embouchure injuries. I also don’t want to come across as suggesting you give up everything you’ve already learned. Rather, I want to suggest some other viewpoints may offer another tool for the toolbox. If the only tool we have is a hammer, every problem begins to look like a nail.