Tuesday, December 14, 2010

What if it Ain't Broke?

Your embouchure - if it's not broken, why worry? One need not worry, but with only one square inch of valuable flesh serving as the foundation of your career, one ought to be careful. With so much focus on breathing, support and all the good mechanics required for solid playing, we can easily neglect proper care for that exact point where the music meets the horn.

Suggested reading on the subject of embouchure care is a book entitled Broken Embouchures by Lucinda Lewis. That title makes any brass player cringe, but better for you to cringe now than for your chops to cringe later. It comes in two volumes full of spot-on advice about lip injury prevention and rehab. Should be a must-have for all brass players with lips.

Just as young orchestra players are rarely too concerned about the pension provisions in the master contract, so too the young and mighty tend to dis any advice on embouchure care and maintenance until the unthinkable happens. "Hey, I always just pick up the horn and blow. Got the killer instinct, man! I'm no wimp!" Sound familiar?

Beating the lips into submission is one of the mindsets I was raised with unfortunately. Mind-over-lips has its place but also has its consequences. Denial of our limitations is not the strategy for improvement. When your lips scream at you, you need to listen. A wise approach to playing is not a warrior approach nor is it a wuss approach. Finding your balance is critical for long term lip life. Chop-protection is as valuable as chop-building.

Speaking of building, why not research some exercises that strengthen the lips? Your goal is to bulk up the chops and to increase the distance between the mouthpiece and the teeth. The Lewis book has some excellent exercises for this. They can be done apart from the horn. You can work on your firmer embouchure while driving, walking and even talking.

One teacher recommended his students walk between classes with corners anchored, lips tensed tightly as if holding a straw, while saying "I AM a trumpet player, I AM a trumpet player." Pucker and point the lips, freeze, relax and repeat. You could start with a straw, then a pencil, and for serious weight-lifters, a screw driver! More is better, right?

Another exercise to strengthen the "smile muscles": hold a straw (or pencil) only with the teeth while smiling widely for as long as those around you can stand it.

Remember that your lips must be at least as strong as your left hand. Remind your hands to lighten up. Give your chops a break and allow them do their work. At the end of the day, your chops should still be in tact. Don't squelch your lips, strengthen them.

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