Muscular Balance and Stability
As a trumpeter you are generally expected to be able to play certain things –and well – depending on the various musical situations you find yourself in. The technical challenges presented by particular styles of music test the stabilization of your embouchure to varying degrees. For you to gain the greatest results in muscular efficiency this stability needs to be intelligently practiced.
In his book, Musical Calisthenics for Brass, Carmine Caruso explains muscular control:
“Balance is exposing the muscles to a specific physical activity until they synchronize. The better the muscles are balanced, the freer they are to move. In music, the freer the muscles are to move, the freer they are to sound. And, if they’re free, they don’t tire. For example, when an acrobat balances properly on his hands, he is less tired than if he is fighting to hold that balance.”
Think of your embouchure as having grip strength. As you play through repertoire, tunes, and shout choruses your air stream is doing everything it can to blow the chops apart. However, your embouchure is working reflexively to hold things together. At first the movements of your embouchure are probably quite noticeable. As you continue to practice these movements become more and more refined. This muscular intelligence explains why some players look as though playing is effortless whereas others struggle to achieve the same musical results. By thinking about your practice as muscular conditioning you become more synchronized (thus more efficient) through thoughtful repetition.
There are a number of specific techniques that challenge the balance of your embouchure. These include (and again are probably not limited to); Range, sound, articulation, dynamics, intonation, flexibility, vibrato, and speed.
The fastest way to improve physical balance is to attack your greatest weakness. Say for instance you’re a lead trumpet player and all you do is play Basie Charts. Let’s also assume that your “K” tongue is so underdeveloped that even thinking about it makes your tongue hurt and ravages your chops.
Do you need a great “K” articulation to get through Whirly Bird? Nope. Do you think training your “K” tongue on a regular basis will help you achieve greater control of your instrument leading to sounding the best you can? You better believe it.
This is sometimes referred to as the “Swiss cheese model” because getting a more structurally sound piece of cheese in the simplest way is to fill in the biggest hole. Cute, right?
It’s ALL Good!
By practicing your greatest technical weakness on notes within your current playing range you further broaden your embouchure’s understanding of various levels of tension. This directly relates to other areas of playing – including the upper register.
For example; A half-step bend on a high C may require the same amount of tension coordination as say playing a high Eb as a long-tone (who knows but you get the idea). Refining your control over the range you’ve got makes accessing the upper register easier. If it’s in your ear the note is going to come out one way or another, therefore all coordination improvements help.
It is worth noting that if you want absolute musical control over a note you need to hit it from all angles. In other words, if you want the most burning double C EVER than you better be able to bend it, tongue it, and more or less play it any old way.
Pacing, Pacing, and…Pacing
When working on your embouchure’s weaknesses you need to be seriously considering pacing (This gets said a lot around here because it’s TRUTH). Your muscles are learning. Burning out your chops will only take you so far. If you want above average returns for your practice avoid fatigue. In the same way that you wouldn’t try to teach an infant Shakespeare before they know how to say “mommy” don’t expect your chops to respond favorably to a blitzkrieg practice session. Build one tiny, well-constructed piece (preferably every day) until you’ve achieved your goal.
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