Thursday, May 10, 2012

Lip Woes

Have you ever felt like calling for an ambulance after valiantly trying to survive multiple rounds with your trumpet all day? You hung in there heroically only to wind up badly bloodied and knocked out by the end of the night. Your next stop, the ER followed by IR. Hate when that happens!

A wailing ambulance rushed you to the nearest emergency room. "What's this one here for, they ask?  Oh, another one for the lip ward.  Put him in triage along with all of the other brass players."

Unfortunately it's going to happen.  From time to time chops will get puffed up, split open, banged in, and bent out of shape. Our ongoing responsibility is to minimize the damage of too much lip involvement, to transfer the workload elsewhere, and to avoid ever seeing the inside of that ambulance again!

The danger zone of course is the embouchure.  Even though every teacher preaches "IT'S THE AIR, DUMMY", we get too late smart. Our mind gets the memo, but our lips and lungs don't.  Consequently the lips smart.  In the heat of battle we default to our pressure zone, the embouchure.

To the rescue - our therapeutic reset reminder and model:
  •  Nice sounds are produced by vibrating lips directing the free flow of air into the horn.  
  •  Flute players are our example of seemingly pressure-free playing.  (Do flute players ever get sore chops?  Always wondered about that.  Always appeared not.)    
  • Is your air column a stream or a strain? Does it easily get bottled up before it even enters the lead pipe? Think of an hour glass with all of the sand flowing easily through in 5 seconds!  Think of whooshes of free-flowing air entering a tuba, rather than pinches of squeezed air compressed into a tiny squeaky oboe reed shrieking out a piercing high C. 
  •  If your audience could see your air stream as it proceeds through the trumpet and out of the bell, what would it look like? Would they gasp as a huge cloud of beautiful fragrant smoke permeates the entire hall, or would they see a shriveled thread of an air column shattering on the floor right in front of you? A flood of fragrance, or something else?
  • Think of Olympic swimmers. If they breathed like we often do, they would all drown, gurgling helplessly at the bottom of the pool.  Relax the release of your air. Practice breathing comfortably with every breath, not just the first one.

There must be a natural rhythm to your inhaling and exhaling. The control of the breath must be mastered to avoid injury.  Observe those who do it well.  Copying is OK. Consider the music that wants to come forth, and don't stifle it by tension and shallow prep. 

Remember, music isn't borne from brute force or shear muscle power.  It's not about the lips but rather the efficient use of unforced air. Strength is involved but it must be under control.

Transfer the lips' 80% work load down to 20%. Anything more isn't fair to the lips. Let relaxed, musically-driven air come to the rescue.  No more wailing sirens!

Wednesday, May 09, 2012


Audition day has arrived!  After having thoroughly prepared your solo and excerpts, you are finally out the door and on your way.  Fingerings are accurate and snappy.  Tongue is behaving nicely like a fine-tipped snare drum stick.  Transpositions are automatic.  Dynamics are awesome.  Now what's your strategy for the battles of the day?

Take a couple of key words along for your trip, words that focus your attention on delivering your best work.  If you're the lay back type who needs a good butt-boot, how about any of these:  VISCERAL, HEROIC, MONSTER, PIT-BULL, FIERY, or whatever motivates you to overcome the I'm-no-good mindset (which no committee is impressed with).

If you're already well equipped by nature with that proud matador attitude, fine, but you should add to your arsenal a few words like: SMOOTH, CALM, DEADPAN, COOL, SOFT, BEAUTIFUL, etc.  A dazzling Strauss is only half the ticket.  If you can consistently follow with a pristine Schumann, the job is yours!

For those who have good rhythm but can't seem to control it in auditions, then consider the best relief pitcher entering the game in the ninth inning with the based loaded!  Everyone knows he has skill and experience, but he must exhibit complete control under pressure.  He appears relaxed, takes full breaths, exhales, and takes enough time before delivering each pitch right on target.  He's not in a hurry, and he doesn't freeze either.  You need: DETERMINATION, FOCUS, CONFIDENCE, POISE.

Again, if you're the bull-in-the-china-shop type, then think SWANS, GLIDERS, SERENE, GORGEOUS, SWEETNESS, etc.  Wimps need whips, and jerks need reins.  No matter who you are or where you are, the good news is that you must consistently deliver quality with accuracy. Luck has nothing to do with it.  You're warmed up and on the mound.  Pitch!