Embouchure Questions: Playing Didgeridoo and the Sensation Theory

I’ve got a lot of embouchure questions piling up and want to try to get more of them answered here for folks. Here are a couple from way back (and sorry for the long delay in getting back to you folks!).

Krešo asks:

Hello Dave. I am curious, I bought a didgeridoo and started to mix my trumpet playing and didgeridoo playing. I play didgeridoo mostly as a warmup before trumpet. It seems to get blood flow to lips quicker then else. What do you think about that and can I damage my lips with it?

I have a couple of didgeridoos myself and enjoy playing them once in a while. Personally, I’ve never found them to be detrimental to my brass playing, but you have to realize that a didgeridoo does generally use different techniques and that if you get too used to it and aren’t aware of what you’re doing you might bring some of the didgeridoo technique back into your trumpet playing.

One thing that a number of brass players have experienced is that a bit of playing on a brass instrument with a significantly larger mouthpiece can work great as a warm down. For example, trumpet players might play a little trombone to warm down or trombonists might play a little tuba. The difference between this and what Krešo mentions is that this is as a warm down, not so much a warm up.

I’m not certain that I would use didgeridoo as a warm up, but without being able to watch you play it’s hard to say if what you’re doing could cause some potential risk to your playing or not. One way it could be detrimental is because a didgeridoo feels very different from trumpet and if you try to make your trumpet playing match your feeling of playing didgeridoo you could create some inefficient habits.

John sent the following, not really a question, but some good insights and related in part to Krešo’s question:

Here is James Morrison talking about his warm up or lack of warm up.  

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jgzLg5wOgWI  

I had heard that he takes the horn out of the case and starts the gig.  When he appeared at the U. of Montana Jazz Festival he said that he hadn’t played any trumpet for the previous two weeks.  I saw him take the horn out and start the rehearsal.  He sounded great from the first note on.  I believe he does what Reinhardt calls the “Sensation Theory”.  I talked to Doug Elliott about this and he agrees.  Doug said that he also never warms up anymore.  The main point is that a player really only needs a couple of minutes of warm up at most.  Anything after that is practicing.

My most influential teacher regarding brass embouchures is Doug Elliott and I recall him saying the same thing to me about his lack of warmups. One of Doug’s teachers was Donald Reinhardt, who wrote a bit about a concept he called the “sensation theory.” In the Encyclopedia of the Pivot System Reinhardt wrote:

The SENSATION THEORY is the approach to the instrument whereby the player relies primarily on feeling rather than on sound to produce his notes. Generally speaking, the more completely the dependence on feeling the player can achieve, the more accuracy he will acquire. As dependency on sound is lessoned, the player arrives at how a note will feel rather than how it will sound. His accuracy and assurance will grow commensurately. . .

Your pre-playing sensation is the feel that you experience in your embouchure formation and anatomy a split-second before you execute your attack for the particular tone to be played.

Your playing sensation is the feel that you experience in your embouchure formation and anatomy during the actual blowing of your instrument.

Your unified sensation, the “must in all consistent brass playing, is the merging of your pre-playing and playing sensation into one solidified feel.

Some folks will confuse this concept with ignoring the sound altogether. Nothing could be further from the truth, but what Reinhardt was advocating was consistency in making your embouchure formation and anatomy matching as closely as possible to what you do when you play before you even start blowing. Brass players who get braces, for example, know first hand how strange it can feel when the braces get put on and taken off and it takes some time to adjust and get comfortable with the feel because of the changing support of the teeth and gums behind the lips and mouthpiece rim.

Or as another example, I remember when my braces came off and I wore a retainer (which I took off to play) I spent a few days talking a little funny because the retainer covering on the roof of my mouth meant that where I was used to putting my tongue to speak consonants had radically changed. Even though I knew exactly what the sound of the words I was speaking should have been, it took me some time to get used to the different feel.

Most brass players will go after this feel of playing unconsciously. Reinhardt was an advocate of specifically going after this unified sensation, which involved some specific playing and practicing techniques that are somewhat unique to his teaching (such as the mouth corner inhalations).

How many of you play didgeridoo? Do you ever feel that practicing didgeridoo is detrimental to your main brass instrument or have you only found positive or neutral effects? How do you think playing didgeridoo affects the playing sensations on your main brass instrument? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below and let us know what you think.

John Wilson

When I studied with Reinhardt I learned to apply the Sensation Theory to other things. When I was young and played basketball I could shoot between 85 and 90% of my free throws. I wasn’t fast, couldn’t jump but I could shoot. Before starting to play I would relax, close my eyes and vividly recall how I felt when everything works right . Tennis players and golfers also use this technique to get their mechanics going. In your mind try to recall as vividly as possible everything you can. Visualize the setting, people around you, exactly how you feel when at your best. I’m almost 70 years old and can still play strong Gs and As. Double Cs and Ds are there and only play them a couple of times here and there just to satisfy my ego. Imagine! A trumpet player with an ego…at my age…lol.

John

Anon

I find that didgeridoo uses a much different air column than a trumpet, much in the way that a trumpet and a piccolo trumpet have a different air column. It’s good to gain experience with the requirements of each, but if one is not mindful of the changes it can be detrimental to their progress.

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