I thought that it might be a good idea to discuss and share some of the exercises that I tried while attempting to re-train my embouchure. Some exercises worked really well, and there were quite a few that did nothing. As a disclaimer, take the things that I will be saying at face value. I’m not here to discredit anyone either. What helped me may not work for you, and vice versa. Don’t just take my word, try it for yourself, and if it doesn’t work, reevaluate and move forward. One last thing before I begin, it would always be a good idea if you seek the help of a professional for guidance when dealing with these types of situations.
When my injury first occurred, there were two books that I read immediately: Broken Embouchures, by Lucinda Lewis, and The Balanced Embouchure, by Jeff Smiley. Both are great reads, and I would recommend them to any student or colleague. I have mentioned the Lewis book in a previous post, so I will discuss that one first.
Like I said, this is a good book to read for anyone that is going through an embouchure injury, or just a good text to have on hand in case you need it, for yourself or for a student. I enjoyed how Lewis included a lot of her own experience in the book, because I feel like the best tips will come from those who have experienced the same thing. The book contains information regarding any type of embouchure related injury, internal and external, and normally suggests a recommended treatment. It also shares words of encouragement, which is great, because this can be such a traumatizing experience. Lewis constantly reminds us that there will be good days and lots of bad days, but that vigilance and resisting the urge to panic will eventually lead to reward. I unfortunately kept panicking, and it took me way longer than it should have to get my correct embouchure back….more on that in a later post.
Lewis uses a technique called “Blocked Buzzing” to force the embouchure back into its natural setting. The companion manual, Embouchure Rehabilitation, contains step-by-step exercises that are supposed to help recreate the feeling and structure of one’s old/natural embouchure. This paragraph from the aforementioned manual should give a clear understanding of what “Blocked Buzzing” is and what it is supposed to accomplish:
Stand in front of a mirror. Plug the end of your mouthpiece completely with a finger. Put your mouthpiece up to your lips exactly as though you were going to buzz a midrange note. Begin blowing by tonguing the note. Blow with a constant mezzo forte stream of air. There should be absolutely no sound or air leakage from your lips or mouthpiece. Notice how firm and controlled your entire embouchure is and how your chin stretches down with considerable energy as you blow. Tongue a few notes with your mouthpiece blocked, and observe how still your face and throat are and how well your air works. Say hello to your old embouchure. (Embouchure Rehab, 10)
I was very hopeful when I first began using the exercises, and I believed that it would work. Unfortunately, it didn’t work for me. I could never do the “Blocked Buzzing” without having some form of air leakage. I attempted the exercises for a long period of time, several weeks, and I even would try them again periodically, but it just never really helped me regain my old embouchure. Now, this doesn’t mean that these exercises won’t work for someone else, so by all means, buy the book and try them out. The exercises did seem as if they would work, and they are well developed. Lewis has you trying to “Block Buzz” in different ranges and using different air speeds (dynamics) and continues the same type of formula with regular mouthpiece buzzing. The book and more about Lewis can be found on her website: www.embouchures.com.
Another embouchure technique that I tried was the Balanced Embouchure. I purchased the book, written by trumpet player Jeff Smiley, and I also got the horn-specific exercises put together by Valerie Wells. To try and put it simply, the Balanced Embouchure technique focuses mostly on full-range motion and allowing the embouchure to move freely if needed. It instructs one to not worry so much about keeping the chin flat or about maintaining an embouchure that looks uniform. If you play with a bunched chin, and it doesn’t affect your tone or ability to play in different registers, then don’t worry about it.
In order to gain full-range motion and unlock the capabilities of your embouchure, Smiley developed exercises that ask the player to use two very drastic and extreme types of embouchures: Roll-In (RI) and Roll-Out (RO). It sounds exactly like the words imply. The RI embouchure requires you to roll the lips all the way in and attempt to play, while the RO does the exact opposite. The RI exercises focus mostly on the extreme high range, while the RO focuses on the extreme low, pedal range. For example, there is an RI exercise that starts high and works its way down in the range, not allowing you to adjust your embouchure. It’s pretty tough to play with a good tone. Some exercises combine the two embouchures. One in particular jumps from a really high note to a low one, requiring the player to quickly adjust from an RI to setting to the RO, then back up again.
Smiley never suggests an embouchure change, you only use the RI and RO embouchures within the confines of the prescribed exercises. Once you finish the exercises, you play everything else with your normal embouchure setup. However, Smiley and others believe that one can enhance and strengthen an embouchure by using the RI/RO techniques on a daily basis. I know many people who have experienced great success through using this method. The most common side effects are better endurance, greater flexibility, and increased stability in the high range. For me, things felt good for about the first two weeks of working through the exercises. Then, my embouchure started to feel weird/unstable. I kept doing the exercises for a few more weeks, but stopped once my playing began to suffer.
For what it’s worth, I would be very cautious when attempting any type of exercise that requires you to manipulate your embouchure in a way that is not natural. I don’t know if BE hurt my embouchure, or if the damage had already been done and BE accelerated the process. I just know that my embouchure felt normal before starting BE. My endurance wasn’t as good as it once was, hence the reason for trying BE, but when I stopped doing the exercises, my embouchure felt completely different and didn’t feel normal again for quite some time. So, be careful and don’t just try something because it’s the hot new fad.
For the last section of this post, I will focus on the exercises and routines that did work and help me to regain my ability to play. First, I had to focus a lot on my breathing. I will probably write a longer post on the topic later, but I think that some of us might take our air capacity for granted when we are at the height of our playing abilities. I’m still working on using my air correctly, but I know that my sound and tone have improved tremendously since taking more time to focus on breathing.
One thing that I noticed right away was the fact that I was slouching a lot when playing. Before my injury, I was very much into the Alexander Technique and had great posture when I played, but when I was playing poorly, my posture mimicked how I sounded. That was step one, fix posture. Problem number two, and this was/is the bigger problem, was to address how my throat seemed to tighten/lock up when I attempted to play. This not only happened when I played in front of people, but also in practice, when I would be completely alone. To be honest, I’m not sure how I was able to overcome this issue, but when I changed my mindset, began to think more positively, and started playing in front of people again, I got better. Remember, I’ve been practicing a lot and working on specific exercises to get better, so this wasn’t some quick fix. Speaking of which, here are some of the particular exercises that I’ve worked on to get me back into shape:
For flexibility, I needed to work out the extremes of my range, high and low:
Basler – “Slurred Arpeggios”
Basler – “Tongued Arpeggios”
I also did a lot of work with lip trills, lip slurs, and different natural horn exercises to increase flexibility, endurance, and range, some of which are listed below:
Brophy – “Lip Slur Exercises 1-7”
Frøydis – “Harp Flexie”
Oscar Sala – “Natural Horn/Lip Slur Exercise”
Here are just a couple more exercises that I used to help with flexibility throughout the different ranges:
Caballero – “Slur Warm-Up”
“Low Horn Flexie”
These aren’t all of the exercises, but it at least gives you an idea of the things that I worked on. I still play through some of these exercises during my warm-up, but I have also graduated to different exercises that better meet my current needs. It was difficult to play through many of these drills at first, and some of them sounded rough, but I was definitely rewarded for my hard work. I wish that it hadn’t taken me so long to finally work through this stuff, but I think part of me was just afraid of sounding bad, especially around other people. Once I realized that this was the only way that I would get better and that my playing ability didn’t define me as a person, I felt relieved and free to do what needed to be done. I am very thankful that I can play well again, and I am excited for the future.