Friday, December 20, 2019

Healthy Embouchure Matters

Back in the golden age of famous cornet soloists, the great Herbert Clarke revealed his secret for developing and maintaining a healthy embouchure. Although pretty much neglected by everyone under the age of 25 (and often beyond), his book contains the remedy for much of what ails today's trumpet players. Actually it is not a secret, for the answer is right there on every page of his Technical Studies.

Clarke's little book still stands today as a primary go-to resource. Although many have the book, few use it as intended. His prescription for a pummeled and unresponsive embouchure is staring at us on every page of his Technical Studies. Whether building technique or restoring after abuse, it still works. So what's the answer?

The remedy is pianissimo. By insisting on a soft dynamic, impurities of sound and deficiencies of technique quickly manifest themselves, making obvious the needed corrections. Fortissimo playing tends to obscure a multitude of problems, but quiet smooth playing quickly reveals weaknesses.

I remember Mel Broiles being asked what single skill defines a great trumpet player. His answer was surprising. Knowing his powerful and distinctive playing style, we expected him to tout a superhuman endurance, the most powerful and penetrating sound, or an amazing ability to transpose accurately on sight, or a dazzling high range, or a high degree of drama, or even the most ravishing trumpet sound on the planet. But no. Mel simply said, "Great players can play soft." He gave us a memorable lesson in only five words!

If you arrived at Music Hall early enough when he soloed with the Pops, you could hear Doc Severinsen warming up softly back stage in his dressing room. It was quiet and unimpressive at first, but everyone knew that the fireworks would erupt in due time. Great playing begins each day with a soft and secure foundation. Doc's patient low decibel warmup was as important a lesson for us as was his spectacular explosive trumpet playing to follow. A soft patient warmup matters.