Thursday, June 19, 2008

Coaxing the Embouchure

The world tunes in for the Super Bowl, but few were there in July and August to witness those two-a-day workouts in the ninety-degree heat. Even before the first day of training camp, personal conditioning had been a priority. Millions will watch the World Series, but few see the rigors of daily batting and fielding practice. We have been conditioned to idolize the MVP for that game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer, but have not been shown his thousands of practice shots alone in the gym. Highlight clips show us only the perfect product, never the painstaking preparation. The tip of the iceberg is glamorized while the long road to the finals is forgotten.

Conditioning for a career in music is no different. Good prep is a daily and a life-long requirement. Each day it is like learning to play all over again. Picking it up exactly where we left off the night before never seems to work. The body requires gentle coaxing back to life, and the lips are not exempt.

I listened outside the door today as some high school brass players were warming up en mass in one room. Strains of concertos by Mozart, Strauss, and excerpts competed with each other. The battle was for quick control of the chops, the heroic trial-and-error approach. The mentality of beat-it-into-submission is not the best agenda for an 8:30 A.M. warm up. But then again, we've all been there. Maybe last night it was working, but something happens to chops over night, and we must begin carefully all over again the next day.

I admire Hakan Hardenberger's approach to playing. That amazing ease, endurance and control were not just planted there at birth. The talent and musicianship were, but like the rest of us, he is required to take the long tedious journey of training. The secret to musical greatness is enjoying the learning process. Anyone can enjoy playing well from time to time, but few like learning to do it. This older video of Mr. Hardenberger playing Telemann gives us quite a lesson on delicate training of the embouchure.

Many have addressed the warm up in detail. My observation is that the loudest and fastest warm-upper is rarely the best player when it comes time for the performance. The slow-and-soft approach seems to get it done for many great players when it comes to starting the day's playing. The non-stop-listen-to-me method never gives the lips time to recover and fatigue sets in quickly. The constant repetition of try-and-try-again is also tiring and annoying to colleagues. Don't waste notes. You have only a finite amount of them, so pace yourself. Easy does it. It's a long haul. Make sure your lips are ready to work for you, not against you.

Just think: you'll be getting paid for right notes that sound good, period. Prepare accordingly. Those first notes are preparing you for the ninth inning of Game Seven of the World Series. Your road to success begins right there in the practice room all by yourself.

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