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 (firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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!