After the meltdown and the Balanced Embouchure

How to recover from a day like my meltdown day? I tried to analyze what went wrong and went through the usual litany of horn problems – wrong mouthpiece, bad embouchure, bad warm-ups, bad posture, too much practice the day before, too much high register work, etc. I zeroed in on my recent work on my embouchure. (Amazing that I didn’t blame the mouthpiece, but of course I had to blame something.)

In my never ending quest to fix playing problems that can and will be fixed by practice, (If only I would listen to myself) I had been trying a new technique called the Balanced Embouchure (BE). It was originally developed for trumpet by Jeff Smiley and then adapted for horn as a collaboration between Jeff Smiley and Valerie Wells (valleriewells@msn.com.)

I’d been dutifully practicing BE  – I believe correctly – for a few weeks before the lesson meltdown. The specific targeted exercises for the embouchure use rolling in and rolling out techniques that are, to quote Jeff Smiley on his website, “a specific and practical method for developing a more efficient and successful trumpet embouchure.” He goes on to say in a separate interview, “I developed exercises designed to exaggerate the normal lips range of motion, thereby increasing the lip’s ability to form more complex combinations of opposing motions (shapes) which more effectively promote a continuous state of balance within the context of dynamic activity. In other words, through the repetition of relatively simple exercise targets, the lips become more intelligent, more able to move far enough and morph into more complex shapes to match the task at hand.” For more information please see Jeff’s website http://www.trumpetteacher.net.

Valerie Wells adds in a post on the Yahoo Horn Group, “If BE is used as designed, there are no ‘set backs’ or ‘trade offs’ but a solid and fairly rapid improvement in tone, range, and endurance.”  Hooked yet? Is this the magic elixir for horn players? At this point I have to say it’s not for me. I also have to add that although I don’t think this method is right for me at this point in time, this is not a pan of the technique. I believe that some hornists have greatly benefited from it. If you read the posts on the Yahoo Horn Group you will find very positive reviews about BE from some of the members of the forum.

At the time of my meltdown I felt very confused about BE. I wondered if BE wasn’t for me or if I started it too soon. Did working on it just finally culminate in the lesson disaster? I thought that it was a method where working on it wouldn’t hurt existing playing. It is promoted as such. Maybe the meltdown had nothing to do with BE and I was just having a really bad day. Maybe I’m jumping to a “BE isn’t for me” conclusion too quickly. But the ability to play double pedal notes and high C’s isn’t worth a darn if I can’t play in a normal range.

Here is a link to a demonstration of one part of the BE exercises for trumpet. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T7za4dPMk7U&feature=related. I think Jeff or Valerie should post a video demonstrating BE for horn especially since it is pretty impossible to find a teacher that will teach it at a private lesson.  Although I believed that I was practicing BE correctly, maybe I wasn’t. Is it possible that damage can be done to the chops if BE is practiced incorrectly or too frequently? I ran into lots of chop trouble very quickly after I started BE. I think some (most?) people will want to use BE as a panacea for embouchure problems instead of using it as a method to improve upon already mostly correct playing. Again this is my opinion based only on my experience.

I understand about over practicing and I know that there is a fine line between doing enough to get tired and doing too much and I’m sure there are days that I do too much. I am only questioning working with BE because that is the only significant change I have made to my practice routine in a long time.  Of course new horn, new mouthpiece, plus BE all in the same time frame was more likely the impetus to the meltdown. Kind of like the perfect storm.

My immediate problem was to fix what was wrong. I backed off BE and went back to my basic warm-up – low long tones, slurs, arpeggios, scales. Although I didn’t have another meltdown day I certainly wasn’t playing as well as I had been a few weeks before and I was very frustrated.

I decided to take a lesson with Scott Bacon (Siegfried’s Call), the fellow I bought my Hoyer from. When I bought my horn he spent a considerable amount of time on revamping the beginning of my warm-up – the first horn to face time of the day – and I felt very comfortable turning to him for help. (This is not to say that my teacher I see every week wasn’t helping. I was looking for a fresh opinion.)

My first comment as I walked in the door was “My embouchure is shot.” I played a bit for him and he said, “No it’s not.” He did acknowledge that I was having some significant problems since I couldn’t produce a note below the G below middle C. We worked on re-establishing my low range and after about half an hour it was getting better. My marching orders when I left were to spend at least fifteen minutes doing only low range work followed by slurs from low C. He gave me a lot more to work on which I will get to in another post. The really good news is that it took less than a week for me to make significant improvements. At the moment, BE is off the table. This doesn’t mean I won’t try it again sometime in the future.

All this meltdown stuff occured back in January. Today the best way to describe my progress is to relate what my regular teacher has said to me over the past few months. I started working on Mozart 3 in December 2008. She said, “I played this in 7th grade.” Translation – I play like a 7th grader. Hmm. Sometime in February she was talking about one of her other students in 10th grade. She said, “You and she are at about the same level.” Well you know what the translation is. Last week we were working on Strauss 1 and she said I was playing like a good college student! YES!

YouTube Symphony –>

8 thoughts on “After the meltdown and the Balanced Embouchure

  1. Hi. Just clicked over from Horndog. Just turning 60, picked up the horn 5 years ago having never played a brass instrument. No teachers, self taught using Farkas and Tuckwell books. Got the BE book back in January because I’d developed a lip callus, and the book really helped me better understand what embouchure is all about, callus now gone, and range and endurance better. Still waiting to see where tone will end up.

    But I really understand your “meltdown”, because when I was between the old embouchure and the new, the bottom fell out of of my playing. I’d been asking some muscles to do too much, and others not enough. Reorganizing them using mostly the RO and TOL tools made things a little chaotic until a new equilibrium set in.

    I’d decided if the callus didn’t go away I was giving up the horn. Took a month off completely and then very slowly started all over again, never forcing and always trying to be as aware as possible of just embouchure, not worrying about learning music that challenged it. As of now, feel I’ve come through the worst and looking forward to continuing the horn.

    Horns (and mouthpieces) and horn players’ embouchures seem more idiosyncratic than most instruments and techniques. My thoroughly off the wall intuition is that if your initial embouchure is way different than the one BE will lead you to, some sort of meltdown during the change is inevitable. If your initial embouchure is something like the one BE will lead you to, then your sailing will be smoother.

    Apologies for going on and on, but I’ve spent a LOT of time on this issue. Very happy to have found your blog.

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    • Hi Lyle – No worries about going on and on. The more the merrier. Your theory about BE and different embouchure types is very interesting. I think you are on to something. It makes sense that the farther apart one’s existing embouchure is from the one that BE eventually develops the more likely the transition may be difficult. Thanks so much for your comments. (And I’m glad you found my blog too!)
      Sincerely,
      Tina

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  2. Hi! Last August, I found a good brass Kruspe-style double Olds horn from 1954 at Sam Ash for $199 and bought it. With an MDC mouthpiece, some soap, and some oils, it’s ready to go and I play on it some every day. So far, I do lip slurs up and down plus some low long tones plus I try the three octave slurs down and up from top F to bottom F and find these seem to help. A life long serious woodwind musician, I played a little bad tuba in high school. Now, at 80, I am kind of entranced by the sound of the horn and work on the various Rubank books. There are no goals in mind to play in any organized group, but I may write some music with horn parts.

    Would it be good to get a chemical clean and/or laquer removal of this horn? And is there a book on the balanced embouchure for the horn? I believe the horn was assembled by Kanstul with valve assemblies from Marston, who made the Geyer valves.
    Many thanks for reading this!

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    • Hi Wes,
      Thanks for your comment! I can’t imagine that it would be a bad idea to get your horn cleaned. I would recommend getting an ultrasonic cleaning. From what I understand, and I’m not a repair tech, ultrasonic cleaning is a new method and is less harsh than a chemical cleaning. I’ve had my horns ultrasonically cleaned by Scott Bacon of Siegfried’s Call, http://www.siegfriedscall.com, and I know Ken Pope, http://www.poperepair.com, also uses ultrasonic cleaning. I’m sure there are others. Whichever method you decide on, make sure the shop you use has a good reputation amongst the horn community.

      The best person to contact about the Balanced Embouchure for horn is Valerie Wells, wells123456@juno.com. She sells the BE book along with exercises specifically written for horn.

      Sincerely,
      Tina

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  3. I’m new to the blogosphere, and this is one of my first comments on a blog. I’ve felt really bad about Tina’s melt down since hearing about it. I do believe that Tina was going through too many changes, too fast to pin down one item as the singular cause. And, because she stopped practicing BE, we’ll never know how she would have progressed had she continued.

    When I have the opportunity now to start a new horn player on BE, I prefer them to have more experience and fewer recent changes than Tina did.

    I did well on BE because when I started BE, I had played on the same horn, the same mouthpiece, studied with the same teacher, etc. for five or six months. My embouchure was well established, consistently stable and flexible, albeit dysfunctional in terms of limited range and endurance. I practiced 3 hours a day (yes, I’m compulsive)and had completed Getchell’s book 2, most of Kopprash book 1 and studied two Mozart concertos(nos.3 and 1). So when I started BE, I added only one new element to my routine. My progress followed a steady and quite exciting upward curve. I was naive to assume everyone else would follow the same path. I offer my sincerest apologies to Tina if my actions in any way contributed to her big melt down.

    I’ve had opportunity to dialogue with other come back musicians. We come back players are subject to a unique fragility that long term players may not understand and will certainly never experience. We “come backers” often drive ourselves fiercely in an effort to “catch up” with everyone else that’s been playing all along. We’re extra self conscious and intimidated by other more skilled players. We often don’t allow ourselves to develop in a more natural step wise pattern like we did when we were children. Part of the problem is our musical maturity way exceeds our skills. We know what we should sound like, but don’t have the skill to measure up to our expectations. I believe this makes us especially vulnerable to adverse events.

    Just my 2 cents.

    Valerie Wells
    “The Balanced Embouchure” for French Horn

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  4. One more thing, if Tina will indulge me. There’s plenty of expert follow up technical support offered to all students of The Balanced Embouchure. It’s unfortunate that Tina did not access any of these valuable resources at the time of her “melt down.” But if Tina does decide to come back, the help is available through the following links:

    Jeff Smiley’s website:
    http://www.trumpetteacher.net/

    My blog:
    http://www.beforhorn.blogspot.com/

    Balanced Embouchure Forum (part of the Trumpet Herald forum)
    http://www.trumpetherald.com/

    Michael Camilleri’s website:
    http://users.actrix.co.nz/mcamilleri/BE/BE.htm

    Bert Loch’s website:
    http://www.bertlochs.com/Embouchure_engels.html

    Valerie Wells :o)

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  5. Hello,
    I began practicing the BE just a couple of months ago, and I feel really depressed cause my teacher told me: If it doesn’t work, you’re doing it wrong, but I followed the instructions.
    Now I sound great in low register but as I get to E5, my lips don’t support me.
    I’m affraid of what may happen with these changes, In three months I lose what I’ve been workin on for almost 15 years playing, studying. I don’t know yet how to resolve this, or am i out playing for ever?

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    • Does your teacher really understand how to teach BE? Most people who try BE do well with it if it’s taught correctly. I recommend that you contact Valerie Wells. Her blog is http://www.beforhorn.blogspot.com/. I did not do well with BE but I think that’s because I was very new to the horn and I shouldn’t have been working with it yet. Don’t get discouraged. If you’ve been playing for 15 years and want to discontinue BE you should be able to get back to where you were before you started BE relatively quickly. I’d talk to Valerie before giving it up though. I’ve been taught that air should be your main support system not your lips so ask yourself if your doing something differently with air when you are working with BE.

      Tina

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