As some of you know, BTB ‘s humble beginnings were as a forum to get some ideas about playing out on paper, during, and after, a self-prescribed embouchure change.
I recently received questions about said embouchure change, and decided to write a deeply personal and moving account of the general process, why I chose specific directions in my playing, and what I currently commit to.
If you have any additional questions on this topic, please e-mail me and I will address them.
A decent explanation as to why I changed my embouchure in the first place was that I intuitively felt I could be playing better, on a healthier, more stable set-up.
To see what I mean, let’s start at a beginning.
As a freshman in high school I had a very good, positive-reinforcement-type teacher, who basically taught me for free under the stipulation that we would not work on the Texas Region/Area/All-State Band audition music. I suppose he was tired of destroying his soul day-after-day listening to the same god damned etudes not being practiced by his students.
Fine by me.
At this point I had no real technical foundation to speak of, and more or less just played in band class and jazz band for the previous 5 years. I had a talent for body awareness, and “felt” my way to getting a sound pretty quickly, but I didn’t really know jack shit about music or trumpet playing.
At some point during my freshman year, aforementioned instructor gave me a lip slur routine that if I were to practice every day, within the year I’d have a high G. Upon achieving this, “women would want me, and men would want to be me.”…
I got the G.
Not much else though, which was cool, because I kinda, sorta knew how it felt to laser-beam the shit out of high F’s and G’s, and people started to notice. The problem was that because of my seemingly natural ability to, “grip it and rip it,” people also started making the incorrect assumption that I had some kind of perfect embouchure.
In reality, my embouchure was so severely underdeveloped I probably couldn’t have made it through, “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” without sounding like a total asshole.
At the time, I was getting into the lead register through a combination of playing very low on the top lip, opening up the bottom lip, and compressing the air stream with the muscles around the rib cage; workable for laser-beams, but playing in the staff with a decent tone, pitch, and articulation…not so much.
I kept this up through grad school since I wanted to continue my ventures as a young lead player, but eventually admitted to myself the painful truth that if I didn’t get my shit together, I was never going to get my shit together.
So, the first day after grad school, I walked into one of the practice rooms and wrote “Day 1” on the first page of a spiral bound notebook.
And the rest is history.
Historically speaking, the first year-and-a-half sucked ass.
My initial self-administered change was deciding to put my mouthpiece higher on my upper lip, while aiming to keep my lips more together as I played. At the time, I really had two embouchures; the “laser” one, and a “low note” one. The low-note embouchure was basically a traditional embouchure with very little mileage, and I adopted the “low-note” embouchure (low C to about G in staff) as my new setup, because it was the most comfortable on my teeth.
Ultimately, this turned out to be an excellent idea, as playing feels much more comfortable than it ever did back then, plus, with the cushion-y, more-together approach, I was able to warm up my sound quite a lot while developing a much greater amount of tonal control.
My initial goal was to “complete” the embouchure change in three months, and be able to play a high G on it. It took about 18 months before I had a glimpse of playing lead on my new set, so as you can imagine, I learned just a skosh of humility during that time, plus a real salty personality on the bandstand.
It was, at times (most times), a tough road. And if I didn’t so arrogantly believe that I knew better than everyone else, I would have been totally fucked.
From there many of my changes were either intuitive or gathered from listening to and watching videos of players I like. I decided to adopt more of a closed, “rolled-in” set because my favorite lead trumpet player Andy Haderer appeared to be pretty tucked-in to me. I also gathered some good trumpet spank-bank visualizations by watching videos of Derek Watkins plaster MacArthur Park over and over again with the James Last Orchestra.
Of course, I took some private lessons along the way as well, and at some point learned the tremendous benefit of hanging with pedagogues while maintaining as open a mind as muster-able. Putting lots of different information into the brain-hole continues to help in the form of raw material for sporadic insight along the way.
Since then, what helped build my chops? A great warm-up/chop-builder might be nice to cite, but again and again I failed at adopting practice routines that were not my own design. Looking back, I can credit no popular system, but rather a handful of concepts, simple exercises, and habits successfully applied at various points in my development.
I also merit time, open-minded listening, mentors, testing theories of practice in practice, experience, and keeping faith in the long-haul for teaching me enough about the process of learning to feel more confident playing the horn, moving toward my goals, and telling strangers what to do on the internet.
Speaking of which, I tell everyone who asks, and plenty of folks who don’t, this:
The #1 thing…
THE #1 THING
…that held back the physical development of my embouchure during this time was playing too much, too hard, too soon.
Yes, playing too much took its physical toll (pain and swelling of the jaw, lip bruises, pulled/chronically tight muscles of back and neck, headaches, decimated ego), but the biggest drag was the psychological pain. I experienced a lot of fear, stress, negativity and other internal bullshit during this time just because I was not ready to play hard, and I did not understand THE SKILL OF CHILL.
This experience led me to the belief that your relationship with practice (I include performance as practice, but I guess it goes both ways) affects the whole of your life. If you hate practicing, or the playing you are doing, you are literally making your life worse. However, the good news is, if you like it, you’re making your life better!
Besides, the reason we bang ourselves up in the first place is because we are eager for results. Well, in my experience (and I put the “B” in BTB, after all), I’ve found that in many ways, learning to play the trumpet differently than you already do is an exploration, not a workout.
So practice just ’cause. And sit with the idea of giving up on trying to figure the shit out.
We are never going to know how to play the trumpet anyway. Given the time, space, and a halfway nurturing environment, our brains can do a nice job of figuring it out for us, but beating yourself up is not exactly the tastiest recipe for staying open, flexible, and learning new things.
Put another way:
If you don’t want greater freedom in your embouchure,
Beat the hell out of it.
If I ever need to start anew, “knowing what I know now,” what would I do differently?
Besides play something easy like the trombone, you mean?
I’d double-down on my commitment to THE SKILL OF CHILL. I’m probably saying the same things over and over again, but there is no perfect way to play the trumpet. And you will not “know” what is going to happen before you do it. Yes, you can follow others’ advice. Yes, you can go with your gut, logic, intuition, genitals, whatever. But getting there takes walking the path. You don’t have to run, you don’t have to do it without breaks, but you gotta do it.
And it’s a lot easier when it isn’t a total pain in the ass.
In that spirit, I’d commit to practicing something fundamental, in an insanely easy way, every day. This is my DAILY. The DAILY is a flexible habit-chain that, by design, is easily maintained for as long as you’d like to maintain it, open to any changes you feel like making along the way, and your tether to your future self (with great chops, of course).
I’d also practice more fully appreciating, and nurturing the tiny bursts of joy in each small change. Often, it seems that’s all there is to this whole thing anyway. Tiny changes here and there.
Tiny changes every day, and you’re doing it.
Keep doing it, find your style, and you’re all set.
THE SKILL OF CHILL
Check out BTB’s one week, FreeTB e-mail series, Making Progress: The Easy Way. Topics include; learning to let go of the outcome, discovering your greatest points of leverage, improving when you’re busy, active listening habits, and dealing with the ups and downs of learning.
It’s free, it’s fun, you’ll like it.