To Embouchure Hell and Back: One Trumpeter’s Experience with Pops McLaughlin’s 10-Week Pencil Exercise eBook, “Chops Builder.”

If you are interested in trying Pops’ pencil exercise program for yourself, be sure to read the full article. As I progressed, along with tracking the specifics of what and when I did each “workout,” I also logged and vented mainly the negative consequences of adding the exercise to my normal playing schedule. Skimming this article may give you the wrong idea. 

What you spend your time on is up to you. When it comes to the pencil exercise; not all people need to do it, not all people want to do it, and some people think it’s complete and total bullshit. That’s fine. My experience with isometrics is that while there can be a definite, initial downside, in the long-term, supplemental isometrics continue to be have a positive effect on my embouchure and trumpet playing.

One more thing. This article is really long. Too long. Way too long. So If you’re not seriously curious about some dude’s rationale, training experience and the horrible, horrible mistakes he made working the muscles of his mouth with a pencil, just move along.

Along with the whys, whats and future plans, I’ve also included some suggestions at the end of the article for how you might work isometrics into your routine if you feel like.

Why Try Embouchure Isometrics?

After a year of daily isometric training for the muscles of the embouchure using mouthpiece buzzing, free buzzing, the facial flex, and my own take on the pencil exercise, I quit cold-turkey.

While I did notice practical benefit and learned a lot about trumpet playing from daily isometric training, I was also tired. Double buzzing (extreme video example below) had become a regular part of my day and I was sick of wearing my chops out without actually improving my playing technique. In that spirit I decided to take a few weeks off from embouchure isometrics with the intention of diving into a more comprehensive look at the pencil exercise once I was feeling fresh.

The idea to double down on a single isometric was based on my experience practicing the horse stance. The horse stance is a wide, isometric squat practiced in Kung Fu. You practice the horse stance with the intention of lengthening the time you can comfortably remain in that position. Doing this is not always comfortable. Although I do not practice Kung Fu, I have noticed huge cross-over benefits from focusing on a small number of isometric positions and figured the concept could relate to the embouchure considering it’s just a bunch of muscles.

(2014. My form has since improved)

I selected the pencil exercise as the isometric to focus on for a few reasons:

When I first starting using the Facial Flex, I noticed my bottom lip was not supporting, or pressing toward the mouthpiece. This led to an uneven distribution of pressure between the rim of the mouthpiece and the embouchure. For me this meant more pressure on the top lip which not only feels like playing “on your teeth’ when you get tired, it also makes it a bit more difficult to get a full, “round” sound.

Once I noticed the lack of support from the bottom lip, I started doing a short isometric hold (the pencil exercise) using a crayon. I don’t remember why exactly I thought that would work, but within a month I was able to transfer the awareness of the bottom lip from holding the crayon into gripping that lip toward the mouthpiece as I played.

That helped some, but not quite enough when I got tired. As my embouchure begins to fatigue, the first thing to go is the muscles at the back of the jaw. This allows the jaw to slightly recess which puts my horn at more of a downward angle and lessens mouthpiece support from the bottom teeth and lower lip. Once this happens, the progress made from holding the crayon a bit each day wasn’t enough to maintain a more balanced, uniform pressure. I figured increasing the time I could hold the pencil was bound to do something, as a daily ten-second hold had made noticeable improvement.

The pencil exercise also seemed like a useful tool in learning to better control the aperture. As far as I can tell, we want to keep the top and bottom lip inside the rim of the mouthpiece as close as possible. This means touching when there is no air passing through the aperture, and as close as we can manage while air passes through the lips. Think of the top and bottom lips like two heavy doors resting upon one another, only to slightly open when air passes through them.

Some folks won’t like this, and I can only speak for myself, but when I am playing at my best; when the sound is most interesting, when it feels the easiest to play lead, and when I’m able to change the sound by adding in things like pitch bends and different “colors,” it feels like the top and bottom lip are closer together. As they spread, there comes a loss of control, and everything just sort of sounds the same and loud. Some people like this, and it can be useful in certain contexts, so maybe it all just boils down to personal preference.

The idea of keeping the top and bottom lip together, or touching inside the rim of the mouthpiece is something Doc Reinhardt brought up again and again in his “Encyclopedia of the Pivot System,” and many of the exercises he outlined were aimed at improving your ability to keep the chops together. “Air balling,” difficulty keeping a steady sound in the staff, controlling the pitch, and developing a musically-controlled upper register (playing in the upper register with the same basic technical ability as the middle) gets sloppier as the aperture becomes too spread.

You can experiment with the feeling of a more closed aperture by making sure that the top and bottom lip are touching while you set the mouthpiece to your chops and during the breath, breathing through the corners of the mouth. During this experiment the lips should remain touching until you are physically blowing air through them by the act of playing. If you’re used to spreading the chops before you play, this might feel a little weird. It’s nothing to be concerned with or become neurotically obsessed about. You may lose a bit of range, and it might feel especially weird attacking notes in the upper register with all that extra “meat” in the way. Just check it out and take note of what you hear/feel.

While the aperture tends to spread as a result of fatigue, if you think about it, anytime you use air, or rather anytime you make a trumpet-sound with a trumpet, the air-stream is forcing the aperture open. This is necessary, but if the aperture gets too open, you’ve got yourself a spread aperture and that’s where you run into the points listed above. Because of this, you can think of the embouchure’s gig as having to keep the aperture reigned in at a point of control. That point of control, or place of comfort is going to be different for each of us, and generally speaking, the ability of the embouchure to keep the aperture where you want it is basically learned by playing for a long-ass time, practicing a lot and paying attention while you do so.

However, at a certain point, you may decide that regular playing isn’t enough and a little cross-training might be in order. Considering what we’re trying to do is keep the top and bottom lip close enough together to give us musical control in the face of all the crap we have to do as trumpet players on a daily basis (high notes, low notes, changing dynamics, playing poorly written charts, etc), developing a greater capacity of the top and bottom lip to “pinch” toward one another (or at least resist spreading) might not be a terrible idea.

As far as I can tell, one might raise two issues with that:

First, there is this general idea floating around that the aperture has to remain as loose and supple as possible, and that generating additional tension in that area is “bad.” If you’re of this mentality, that’s cool, just don’t forget to consider the “as possible” part of the phrase, “as loose and supple as possible.” This eliminates the notion that you can have an aperture that’s free of tension.

In trumpet playing, the lips basically act like the vocal cords in singing. Vibrations are created by a balance between the air passing through the vocal cords and the tension in the cords (or in this case, the lips). Without tension in the cords there will not be a vibration, and since sound is our experience of vibration, without vibration there is no sound.

For the sake of working with the idea that the goal may be to keep the aperture as loose as possible while playing, let’s look at how you might do that. Well, one way you can do this is by listening to your sound when you practice. An aperture that is more free will vibrate more freely and produce a more sonorous tone. So you keep practicing, you keep listening and one day, voila! You eventually move toward a more-free, more easily produced sound, in part, by the aperture learning a zone where it can remain as relaxed as possible while still maintaining the needed amount of tension to create the pitch.

If you consider the embouchure and aperture from a strictly physical standpoint, or as a collection of muscles, another method of achieving freedom is by strengthening the muscles. The idea of a relaxed muscle being the product of building strength might seem a little counter-intuitive, but it actually makes a lot of sense. Sticking with the horse stance analogy from above, and the Van Damme sign, let’s consider the great Jean-Claude himself.

(It’s a beautiful thing)

The reason the “Muscles from Brussels” is able to get his legs that far apart is because through training, he has learned to relax the muscles of his legs. The ability to relax muscles at “extreme” ranges of motion is developed, again in part, by learning to generate tension, or flex the muscles in that range of motion. Think of relaxation and contraction as the yin and yang of what a muscle can do, and both sides must be developed in balance to achieve the greatest result. If the muscles are not accustomed to, or strong enough in those ranges of motion, they tighten up through a neurological response called the stretch reflex. The stretch reflex is the reason you cannot touch your toes. Or wash your own back. Or whatever it is you can’t do or reach.

The point here is that the relaxation of a muscle group can be thought of as a byproduct of strength, or at least that the two must be developed in tandem to have the most profound effect. A strong, flexible muscle is cool, calm, collected, and knows it can kick ass at any moment. Therefore, it allows itself to let go. Viewed from this perspective, the pencil exercise, and learning how to generate more embouchure tension than is needed for any given note makes sense.

The next call against isometric training of the embouchure is that if you’re not specifically practicing the trumpet, you’re just wasting your time. Put another way, the best way to make all aspects of trumpet playing easier is to just practice more trumpet. Or, “do the thing and you will have the power,” is the only way to go. Or…

You get the idea. And it’s partially true. If you want to become a better trumpet player, the greatest strides toward that goal will come from practicing the trumpet. Taking it back to the idea of generating more tension than is needed, so the muscles may vibrate more freely, you can also achieve this by practicing higher notes than you need to perform. If you can sustain a double C with a good embouchure, not too much mouthpiece pressure, and maybe even toss in an articulation or two, your high C is going to be massive, as that pitch will feel generally more “relaxed” than the higher octave.

Eventually, we’re all going to get where we want to be by using a combination of the available tactics and strategies that fit our personalities and thinking. Even though it’s a horrible phrase, the meaning behind, “there’s more than one way to skin a cat,” definitely applies. But don’t tell my cats that.

   

(They couldn’t handle it)

Another thing to keep in mind is that just playing the trumpet can lead to developing habits that eventually hold back your progress. While it’s true that a novice will get the greatest benefit from just sitting their butt down to work on the hardcore fundamentals of trumpet playing, after you’ve acquired a solid foundation of experience, it can take something new to unravel less-than-desirable habits and stimulate new growth and possibility. In my own experience, the pencil exercise was able to make positive changes to my embouchure that “just playing” was unable to do after 20-some years of regular playing. It’s also way less annoying than trying to whack out quadruple C’s all day.

And finally (yes finally), the reason I specifically purchased Pops’ eBook “Chops Builder,” was for two reasons. First, I met a fellow (and fantastic) trumpet player named Chris. His hilarious anecdotes about practicing the pencil exercise, and specifically mentioning Pops’ program was fresh in my mind; and secondly, following someone else’s laid-out program seemed like vacation. Up to that point I had been making up my own routines and was feeling cranky about all the decisions. I was a grump. A big, fat grumpopotamus. So I gave it a go, and here’s how it went down.

(Grumpopotamus’ Trumpet Basics)

—–

How I Applied “Chops Builder”

I began Pops’ program on May 15, 2017. The reason for this is because my at the time fiancé and I left town that week to get married on the east coast. After the wedding we split for Europe for another 2 weeks and so had three weeks away from gigging. This seemed like a good time to start.

As I progressed, I tracked how I was able to work through the program in practice trackers that I include in my journals. This helped me find a decent balance between the pencil exercise, technical practice and professional engagements. It’s also just my idea of a good time.

(Nerd alert)

I probably should have mentioned this way earlier, but in this case, the “pencil exercise” refers to holding a pencil between your lips, in front of the teeth. By squeezing the shit out of the eraser end, the aim is to hold the pencil parallel to the floor, or slightly elevated. This is to be accomplished without bunching the chin “up,” toward the pencil, or using the jaw/teeth to assist. When done properly, the pencil exercise really burns and looks something like this:

(Nice)

Rather than this:

(Bunching chin. Not nice)

In, “Chops Builder,” Pops recommends pushing (or pouting) out the lower lip to keep the pencil elevated. This was weird for me and I never really got it. I didn’t think too much of it though considering he also makes a point of saying the challenge of increasing the hold time to four minutes coerces the body into finding the most efficient method of compression for your setup (teeth, jaw and musculature).

(Front cover of, “Chops Builder.” Note the protruding lower lip)

Personally, I was able to get much more compression, or pinching power at the aperture, by pressing the top lip down, toward the bottom lip. I suspect this is likely to evolve as I keep up the pencil exercise and become stronger and more efficient. Since beginning the program, I have developed a visually noticeable amount of muscle on the lower lip, so it makes sense that this “weak link” will continue to strengthen, and as it does, the way that I compress the pencil will change.

Another of Pops’ guidelines is to keep your teeth closed while performing the exercise. The idea is that if you are moving your jaw to help position the pencil parallel to the ground, you are lessening the workload for certain muscles of the embouchure, which defeats the purpose for doing the exercise.

This is contradictory to what I originally suggested in the FreeTB “Aperture Control” series, as during my initial experimentation with the pencil exercise, I was paranoid I was going to smash my teeth out while performing the drill. I did and do find the pencil exercise to be brutally intense, and when I first started out I was worried about clenching my jaw and grinding my teeth. When I close my jaw the only teeth that touch one another are about four of the front ones. The molars don’t even come close. It’s fucked up. So in an attempt to prevent turning my front teeth to dust, I decided to keep the teeth apart.

This did lead me to using the jaw as an aid to position the pencil. At the time I was totally cool with that and considered it a “two birds with one stone” scenario. In my mind, I was getting some of the good from the pencil exercise in conjunction with Reinhardt’s, “Jaw Retention Drill.” However, in the spirit of sticking to Pops’ plan and making it work, I fashioned a little “bit” for myself by folding a tiny piece of paper up and sticking it in between my top and bottom teeth each time I performed the pencil exercise.

You begin Pops’ program performing the exercises on a “short” pencil (think golf pencil) for the first four weeks. I bodged a short pencil by busting a normal sized one in half. Then, after four weeks of progressively increasing the time you can hold the short pencil for, you start the program over and build for another six weeks with a full-length pencil. The goal is a four-minute hold by the end of the tenth week. After completing the program, you perform the exercise once per week (with an additional day per week of supplemental training) to maintain the strength you’ve built.

Here’s my short pencil.

(He’s just a lil’ guy)

While some people can supposedly stick a full-length pencil between their lips and hold it there no problem, I am not one of those people. Even in the beginning, and even on the short pencil, holding that little bastard for a solid minute hurt. Bad. And it royally fucked with my playing. Before we jump into that tough, I would like to address the unsubstantiated claims that if one cannot hold the pencil in position for a certain length of time, that is an indicator one cannot play strongly in the upper register for extended periods (or at all). That is not true. For me, holding a full-length pencil for one minute sets my whole face on fire. Despite my difficulties with this, I fare pretty OK on the lead trumpet battlefield. So don’t sweat it.

Pops’ recommends practicing the pencil exercise anywhere from three to six days per week, depending on how it’s affecting your playing. Apparently, some people can do this kind of thing every day without much downside. To give you a small taste of how I was doing after the first week of training (using the short pencil), here’s the entry from my practice journal on May 25th, 2017.

“Pencil exercise REALLY affecting chops. Playing very high on pitch. Embouchure starts to QUIVER when lipping down. TIRED! ON ALL FRONTS!

Seriously, my chops are (beep)ing WHACKED-OUT! This (beep) is the OPPOSITE of REST!”

[Originally I thought vacation would be a nice rest. HAHAHAHAHA!]

“My low register is almost a half-step SHARP. (Beep), man!”

As you can imagine I did not actually write “beep.” Also, the half-step sharp thing is not an exaggeration. At the worst of the embouchure fatigue (while out of town) my low C was nearly a C#. It was really disorienting to pick up my horn one day, and out of the blue, low C was suddenly a low C#. Think about that for a second. Could you do that if you tried?

This doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll go sharp, as the opposite is also possible. I have done a bit of reading lately on the effects of varying degrees of “back pressure” from the trumpet and mouthpiece, and how that affects the role of the player. Equipment that is very tight (or perhaps too tight) creates an increased need for the player to “open up,” or “blow the pitch down,” in the lower register. This is certainly true for me, and one of the reasons I need so much slow practice in the lower range is to keep that part of the horn open and in-tune, especially as I get tired. Supposedly, the opposite is true of equipment that is very “open,” or free-blowing.

Also on this front, I found that keeping the pitch down on tired chops is much easier for me to do in a lead setting where I can rely more heavily on torso compression, and to some degree, blasting a little more air. It seems as I get tired I run into the most trouble at softer dynamics in the lower part of the horn. Again, the particular effects of fatigue could be part physiology and part equipment so don’t take these points as some truth. Just acknowledge that it’ll have an effect.

Here’s a clip from the second week of practicing the pencil exercise. This is an extreme example of what might happen when your chops get really tired. The interesting part about this particular day is that my chops didn’t feel tired and as far as I could tell I was about to play the horn just like it was any other day. I played off and on for about an hour and a half and just couldn’t play myself out of the double-buzzing funk. It just was what it was, and after a few days everything felt fine.

You may have also noticed that I was clearly hearing and attempting to play a low C# with the first and third valve. It seems I was confused and mishearing things on this day as well. I mention this because I’ve noticed a correlation between mental focus, my ability to audiate pitch (hear it in head with no reference), and extreme embouchure fatigue. I’m not really sure what’s up with that but it seems like when I burn out, it all goes.

After showing this video to a non-trumpet playing friend of mine, he reacted as though I must have been terrified. The only reason I wasn’t scared was because I have been through worse, and rest, either in the form of no playing at all, or a couple of “light” days will return your capacities back to normal.  This is a really good point and a common concern for players even after many years of experience. Sometimes we get freaked out that something’s been “lost,” but more often than not it’s simply an embouchure that has been overworked. Even though we are playing music and working artistically, the muscles of the embouchure are just that – muscles – and we’re wise to treat them as such.

As I continued through Pops’ method, learning how to balance the pencil exercise with regular trumpet playing was a process of working with the pencil less and less until finding a decent balance where I felt I was getting stronger while keeping the worst of the fatigue at bay. After six weeks of trial-and-error I eventually settled on doing each week’s programming three times total and then moving on. I fit the days in where I could and tried to stay true to getting in three sessions per week.

The most difficult part of following Pops’ program was, for me, learning to balance the pencil exercise with lead trumpet playing. Both the pencil exercise and lead playing tire me out to the point of (at least) noticing response issues at the start of the following day. With the two combined, there came a time when I was legitimately worried I was going to injure myself, either by busting my lip open or by pressing the mouthpiece too hard into my face as I was having difficulty forming any sort of a “cushion” for the mouthpiece to rest on.

Here’s a calendar of when I completed each workout as well as which days I played lead trumpet. A “W” stands for “week,” where week one = W1, week two = W2, etc. Obviously, “Lead,” shows which days I played lead trumpet, mostly in a big band setting, either a rehearsal or gig. I also included horn section work and demanding recording sessions here as well. Where it says Leadx2 that signifies two separate big bands, and Leadx3 was a big band double session followed by a big band gig (if you knew about some of the things I do for money, you will not take any of this as bragging). The worst of the embouchure fatigue, where I thought I could hurt myself (later referred to as “Embouchure Hell”), peaked during week 6. At that point I decided to take seven full days off the pencil exercise. I also did normal practicing on all days expect for maybe one day off the horn completely due to travel arrangements.

While working through the program I didn’t take too many notes on what I was experiencing until week six (with the exception of playing super sharp during the first week). This was because the results of practicing the pencil exercise didn’t become really obvious until I got back to LA and started working again.

The following are some basic notes jotted down during the 12 weeks it took me to complete Pops’ program. Since I was having to balance the pencil exercise with professional playing commitments, I abandoned the idea of a Sunday-Saturday “week”schedule and eventually considered a “week” to be however long it took me to perform each workout three times. I also planned when I would complete each workout a few days in advance to try and keep my chops together on gigs.

The main thing to take away from these notes is that integrating the pencil exercise was a series of ups and downs, so if you have a couple of rough days that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s time to throw in the towel.

Week 1: May 15 – May 21

Performed the pencil exercise six times this week and made no additional notes about it. I was also practicing a minimum these days as we were out of town.

Week 2: May 22 – May 28

May 25 is where I made the journal entry about how “(beep)ing WHACKED-OUT!” my chops were. It appears I’m starting to put the pieces together with the fatigue from the pencil exercise and playing so goddamn sharp. Looking back this seems blatantly obvious, of course, but my notes seem almost questioning. Here’s the entry on May 26, the day after I was practically playing a low C# with open valves.

It’s possible I’m so sharp from [the] pencil but [it’s] not nearly as bad after [a] rest day. We’ll see how it feels going forward.

Possible? Hilarious. Immediately after this entry I made a vow to “switch to three times per week,” but did not do this until after another four weeks of serious ups and downs. At the time, I was worried that I wouldn’t get the maximum benefit from the program if I didn’t push myself. This mentality, by and large, really fucks with my chops and continues to come back and haunt me.

Week 3: May 29 – June 4

On May 29th I made a note about how “weird” playing feels and that every note feels as if I’m bending the pitch down a half-step. That’s really how it felt. Play a G in the staff, bend it down to an F#, and that’s how it felt to play. Every note. This went away after a day or two and has not returned since.

This week also marks the first day (May 30) I noticed positive change and jotted down that my lip slurs were “clicking” especially nicely. Probably to make myself feel better, I noted that the pencil exercise was ultimately going to have a “positive long-term effect.”

Week 4: June 5 – June 11

While this may not be a direct result of the pencil exercise, it seems related. As some of you know, I’m working through David Lucas Burge’s, “Perfect Pitch Ear Training Supercourse.” The exercises in this course led me to a greater awareness of what the fundamental of a pitch sounds like. On June 6th I made a note that I was clearly recognizing the fundamental in my own sound for the first time.

At this point a subtle shift in my practice took place as the purpose of slow, deliberate repetition became aimed at hearing and connecting the fundamental from note to note. I don’t always remember to do this, but it’s happening more and more.

These days, getting a clear fundamental seems related to how the embouchure forms and uniformly “grips” to the rim of the mouthpiece. As I’m playing, I often “manually” create that sensation which strengthens the fundamental, and the pencil exercise has at least helped me to do this more skillfully and effectively.

June 11 I made a note that I was feeling “strong” on a lead gig and also noticed my articulation above the staff feeling freer. Articulation has always been kind of a drag for me and it’s no secret that above the staff the tongue can sloooow waaaaaay doooowwwn.

The ability to keep the “grip” while articulating more freely signals an increase in strength and efficiency. Being able to contract one, or a set of muscles (the embouchure), while relaxing another in close proximity (the tongue), signals stronger neurological control.

Week 5: June 12 – June 18

All throughout week 5 I could not hold the pencil elevated horizontally at all. In Pops’ eBook he says to stop training in this state as you’re not getting much benefit. I trained anyways. Why? Because how the hell was I ever going to be able to do it if I didn’t try?

This brings up some conflicting information between “Chops Builder,” and the ad copy on Pops’ website.

“Chops Builder” states:

If your pencil ever hangs at this angle (drooping down) then it is time to STOP. You are not getting much if any benefit from this.

Pops’ site states:

When done in a well thought out way, the intense training of isometrics, negatives (of holding past the ability to hold and controlling the fall of the pencil) … can be involved in the pencil exercise.

I can see how each of those statements is slightly different, and I only mention this so you can make your own judgement. In physical training, “negatives” are a well-known and practiced method for developing strength. Say you can’t do a pull-up. To get your first one, stand on a stool, hang on to the bar starting with your chin above the bar (the “top” of a pull-up), then hop off the stool trying to slow your fall back to the bottom of the pull-up position with all your might. That’s called a negative. After awhile, negatives help you build up enough strength to start practicing the full movement.

At this time I was still noticing some double buzzing which has persisted to this day in mild form as I get tired. I also made a note on June 15, during a three-horn recording session, that my control, sound, pitch and articulation were “WAY BETTER.”

I also wrote this:

Got very cool bend going with some serious forward momentum of at least [lower] lip, maybe jaw. PENCIL EXERCISE.

That sounds good, right?

Week 6: June 19 – 23

At the beginning of week 6 I was struggling, big time. This lead to, for the first time, feeling a strong contraction and “burn” in the cheek muscles. At this intensity much more of the face was getting involved. By the end of the week I was still unable to hold the full-length pencil but the new engagement seemed promising.

I was also noticing pain and burning in the muscles at the back of the jaw. When I spoke with Chris about his experience doing the pencil exercise, he mentioned waking up in the middle of the night with a sharp pain in one of his ears. I can relate to this, and do notice changes in the way my ears feel as a result of taxing the embouchure.

While I never experienced sharp pain in my ears, I do occasionally get spasms (wa-wa-wa) and “stuffiness.” I don’t worry too much about this as it seems normal for a muscle to twitch or swell when getting over-worked. Since the muscles affecting the jaw are so close to the ear canals it seems reasonable that any swelling and movement would have an effect on hearing.

Another important point is that at this time my embouchure was still getting very tired, but in a new, better position for controlling the sound. This is a good thing to remember because as the muscles of your embouchure strengthen, they are able to experiment more freely with different positioning. As this happens, you won’t necessarily just be able to play harder, longer, and higher, especially if you’re focused on how you sound. Any new position will need time and repetition to develop to the point of being able to handle the workload of regular playing.

All-in-all week six was a difficult time. While there were some good moments, my chops were getting really tired. At the end of week six, and going into the following week, I was looking at four heavy lead gigs back to back. Considering I was already getting really tired, I decided to take seven full days off the pencil exercise. This turned out to be a good idea as the weekend came to be my personal version of “Embouchure Hell.”

Week OFF Pencil: June 24 – June 30

There isn’t too much to say about this week except that my chops were seriously beat to shit. As mentioned toward the beginning, I was starting to stress that I might injure myself either by busting my chops open or pushing my teeth through the back of my head.

I was also getting paranoid and sort of obsessed with this idea that I was moving my teeth. If they were in fact moving, it wasn’t permanent, as they feel normal now, but at the time my mouthpiece and embouchure were moving to the left and it was wigging me out. This kind of up/down, or side to side embouchure movement happens to me in phases where I’ll be playing to the right for awhile, then the left for awhile, back to the right, etc. To be clear, I am still setting the mouthpiece on the same chunk of meat, it’s that the embouchure and mouthpiece are moving as a single unit across the teeth as dictated by fatigue.

The reason I get bugged when the mouthpiece moves to the left is because the teeth set a little further back over there and it creates this illusion that the mouthpiece is pushing my teeth farther back. It’s also a more uneven mouthpiece set. I’ve found favoring the right to be more comfortable, it sounds better, and provides a more stable feeling “base.” However, it’s just not up to par when the going gets tough.

One other thing that stuck out to me is on the last day of “Embouchure Hell,” I performed with a local big band and had a couple of weird moments. First off, my chops were really banged up, which turns me into kind of a one-trick blasting machine. And secondly, I was so mentally fried and in my head about the embouchure that I made two huge note mistakes on last chords. One high C# I absolutely could not tell what the hell it was supposed to sound like, and on another tune I managed to play a High D with second and third valve (I was going for Eb). This is just another example of how stress, burnout and fatigue seems to mess with everything. It reminded me of high school.

Week 7: July 1 – July 8

After surviving “Embouchure Hell,” and taking some time off the pencil exercise, I played a big band recording session on July 11. I sat lead trumpet and ended up playing somewhere between 1/3 to 1/2 of the lead parts. The music was in the style of Frank Sinatra/Nat King Cole and the big band writing was true to the idiom. All in all I felt quite good during the entire session and then resumed my pencil exercise program that evening.

The following day I noted that while I did not feel tired (again), I was unable to play a low A and low G below the staff during a part of my regular articulation routine. This happened a number of times throughout the remaining weeks, not being able to control pitches at and below low A.

A few days later, on July 4 I finally arrived at the conclusion that the pencil exercise and lead trumpet playing lead to “HUGE” fatigue. This brilliant realization was intuited after having practiced the pencil exercise consistently for 10 months (remember, I started with a crayon in 2016) and 23 years of trumpet playing. Did someone say slow learner?

Yesterday was feelin’ banged up. Today feels good! …So…it’s mostly the lead playing that’s bangin’ me up COMBINED W/ PENCIL.

Once I resumed the pencil exercise at the start of week 7, I was able to hold a full-length pencil for about 1 minute. The rest of the required time the pencil would dangle flaccidly from my quivering bottom lip.

I performed the second workout of the week on the short pencil, just ’cause. With the short pencil the full length of time was no problem. This was another clear sign that the embouchure was indeed strengthening as when I first started even the short pencil for one minute burned like a motha’.

Week 8: July 9 – July 15

Not much going on here, just an occasional note about when I get a little too tired (surprise, surprise).

Week 9: July 16 – July 24

On July 24 the mouthpiece/embouchure is making its way back to the right. As already mentioned, things work better over there, and the fact that the mouthpiece heads that way when feeling more in control is a welcome sign.

During this time I played again with the big band where I was mishearing notes and made an entry saying I felt strong and flexible. I also decided that the next time I do some form of embouchure training aside from normal playing, I want it to be trumpet-specific, meaning I’ll actually be playing when I do it. I’m looking at the bending exercises in Laurie Frink and John McNeil’s book, “Flexus.” They seem cool.

Week 10: July 25 – August 4

I took my sweet ass time working through week 10 and spread the three workouts out over ten days. I didn’t want to take any chances ’cause we had a gig at the Hollywood Bowl with Setzer that week.

Maintenance Strategy: To Infinity, and Beyond!

After completing the ten-week program, my maintenance strategy is a bit less intensive than Pops’ recommendation. The goal in completing the course is to increase your full-length pencil hold time to four minutes, and then do that once per week to keep it going. Additionally, there is a light “plyometric” day where you bounce the pencil up and down using the lips.

Since I did not develop the ability to hold a full-length pencil for four minutes by the end of the ten weeks (I got to just over one minute on a good day), I have decided to perform the four minute isometric hold using the short pencil. This still burns like hell and will certainly maintain what I’ve built, and I suspect lead to slow, continued growth for at least awhile. I’m not concerned with lengthening the time, or even working up to the full-length pencil, as the benefits I’ve gained feel to be enough. For the plyometric day I’m using the full-length pencil as I find it much easier than the static hold.

I’ve also decided to keep working the pencil into the week by planning in advance when I will do each workout. To make this easy I’ve sectioned off each seven-day “week” in my practice tracker, and just make sure to get each of the two days in there somewhere. If there comes a time when I feel it will be best to stay away from the pencil, or I’m coming up on another “Embouchure Hell,” I’ll just take a couple of days off and resume after the work.

Big Picture Results:

At the end of the day, the pencil exercise has made my chops stronger. It’s given me the confidence to set my aperture with the top and bottom lip touching for more of my playing range, more often. In that regard it did improve my upper register, although that was not my initial intention for practicing the pencil exercise.

The pencil exercise has also helped me develop noticeably more “cushion” moving toward the mouthpiece. This is huge. Even though most of my professional playing is as a lead player (or perhaps because of it), I’ve shied away from practicing my upper register for many years. I felt most of my deficiencies were best addressed in the lower part of the horn, and practicing down there made the most sense to me in terms of expanding the foundation of my playing. Also, after bashing my chops multiple times per week, the idea of bashing them even more at home is a real turn-off. The pencil exercise has absolutely improved my embouchure in a way that I now look forward to increasing my daily practice range and see it as something comfortable and logical to do.

The strength from the pencil exercise has also improved my ability to get a more consistent sound, with a clear fundamental, and maintain that more easily while playing up and down the horn. This is probably the most profound thing I’ve noticed from the pencil exercise – the effect on my sound. Just today, my wife even told me that I sound different and my tone is “bolder,” and, “louder but softer.” I’ll take it. I also notice a greater control of pitch (while the fatigue of learning did the opposite) and my articulation above the staff feels easier.

Aside from what the pencil exercise gave me, some of the other positive effects have been more of an “undoing” of certain aspects of the embouchure. For as long as I can remember, I have had chronic tightness in the jaw, and a definite imbalance between the left and right side. It used to feel like my jaw was sitting cock-eyed, and maybe is/was, and that years of tension had locked it in place like that. The challenge of the pencil exercise forced the embouchure to develop in a more balanced, symmetrical way, which ultimately led to a greater sense of relaxation and freedom (think Jean-Claude).

A Few Recommendations:

If you are in school or playing professionally, I suggest doing the pencil exercise two to three times per week. From a strictly strength-development standpoint, that’s plenty to promote adaptation, and the limited days per week will prevent the worst of the negative side-effects.

The problem with exhausting the embouchure when you have other playing commitments is not only that you might sound like dog shit, but also that it makes it very tempting to quit before you’ve stuck with a program long enough to notice if there will be any practical benefit. I began Pops’ program with the intention of sharing the results here, and without that “social proof,” I may have thrown in the towel during “Embouchure Hell.”

If you’re hardcore and want to do the pencil exercise more often, try to at least avoid three days in a row. This was the kiss of death for me and a mistake I still make from time to time with other strength-building exploits. If you do end up in “Embouchure Hell” just take some time off to refocus.

Another alternative is to follow a much more gradual increase in time/intensity and practice the pencil exercise more frequently. A useful tool for gaining neurological strength (using the muscle you already more efficiently) is practicing the movement, in this case holding the pencil, five or six times per week, but at a very light intensity, say ten or twenty seconds once a day. From there you can kick up the hold time by ten seconds per month or less. Don’t think you need to do a lot to get some good from it.

And yet one more training alternative is to practice the pencil exercise using the same method as learning to extend your horse stance – counting exhalations. In stance training, an effective program is finding how many breaths you can comfortably “sit” in the stance, and from there, increase by one breath every three or four days (or in this case workouts). One breath increase per week or two is great. Some days you’ll breathe fast and some days you’ll breathe slow so the exact timing will not be systematic, but your endurance will improve in an organic way.

This can also help with anxiety. I noticed a bit of anxiety both before and during the workouts because I knew I couldn’t hold the damn pencil for as long as was prescribed. Taking a more causal approach by counting and increasing your breaths is a great way to work on “The Skill of Chill.”

Take a look at your calendar for one week out and plan in advance the days you will practice the pencil exercise. Fit it in on the days you think it will have the least negative effect on your playing. This will take some trial-and-error, and you won’t be able to eliminate all of the downside, but in time you’ll figure out a good strategy and be able to plan accordingly.

Try doing some playing right after practicing the pencil exercise. During the entire 12-week process, I would perform the pencil exercise at the end of my playing day with no additional playing afterwards. After performing the pencil exercise you might think there was no way in hell you’d be able to play the trumpet, and you’d be wrong! The embouchure fatigue is different, and these days I’ll do some light playing after the pencil exercise. This feels like a nice way to relax and I tell myself I’m “integrating” the strength from the pencil work into my playing this way.

Again, no one needs to do the pencil exercise. Some people might not even get a ton of benefit they won’t get from normal playing. My wife has about 5 minutes of trumpet playing experience and can hold a G in the staff for something like a minute straight with no problem. She has flat teeth and a fixed jaw and it’s just not a problem. However, if you’re a bit more “lop-sided” like me you might find some good in isometric training. Try any of the methods outlined above, or buy Clint “Pops” McLaughlin’s “Chops Builder.” I purchased the Kindle edition on Amazon and the ten bucks was well worth the value I received in both physical results and perspective on how to improve as a trumpet player.

Before signing off I’ll share one more entry from my practice journal:

[In relation to the pencil exercise and pitch fundamental/sound] I was not expecting this -> and it happened anyway. So there you go with those expectations…don’t bother.

Experiment, keep an open mind, and feel free to share your experience in the comments below.

Yours,

James Blackwell

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6 thoughts on “To Embouchure Hell and Back: One Trumpeter’s Experience with Pops McLaughlin’s 10-Week Pencil Exercise eBook, “Chops Builder.”

  1. Very interesting article. I have tried the pencil exercise before but never in such a systematic approach. You have a heavy playing schedule and it appears that the two didn’t mix well for a while at least. Good article, say hi to the cats for me.

    • Hey Jack,

      Thanks for the note! After taking about a month off I started to notice some of the benefits of the pencil sliding so I’ve recently reintegrated the short pencil every other day for just ten breaths. It’s been enough to get the benefits back without tiring the chops out too much. The cats say hi!
      Talk soon,
      James

  2. Lots of work bro and nicely done. I have always used the dime ISO especially driving. Has worked great for 50 years. d

    • Thanks, Deone. I’m not familiar with the dime iso. I’ll see if I can dig something up.
      Thanks for the comment!
      James

  3. Great article, I’ve tried this exercise and oftern its throw my chops into the toilet, including buzzing, However a year later, I’m really benefitting so I might take this up again, although more gentle. I have a question, have you tried a PETE? does this feel any different?

    • Hey Miles,

      I haven’t tried the PETE but am beginning to think that any of the isometrics (PETE, pencil, facial flex, mouthpiece buzzing, etc, etc) have similar effects so if you have one you like go for it.

      After all this I did the “maintenance” routine for a few weeks then decided to stop altogether. After about a month off I noticed some of the embouchure benefits starting to slide so recently I’ve added the short pencil back in every other day for ten breaths. Was enough to get the “grip” back without killing my chops.

      Funny thing – I buzzed every day for a year then stopped because my chops were totally fried. I was getting half-way decent at it too but these days I can’t buzz worth a sh*t.

      Amazing!

      Take care man and talk soon,
      James

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