Summer Practice Time!

I have always enjoyed practicing (Yes, I know that I’m weird), but I’m not always able to find time during the school year to practice everything on a consistent basis. Fortunately, since I’m a teacher, I can continue the practice tradition that I began when I was preparing for grad school.

I have always had an affinity for etude books. I even wrote my doctoral dissertation about horn etude books. For some reason, I just enjoy locking myself in a room and playing through as many etudes as possible. To this end, I started a tradition of reading through lots of different etudes during my summer practice. It began with playing through 8-10 etudes a day from a stack of maybe 4-5 books. Since then, my etude collection has grown substantially, and I now probably read from 8-10 different books a day, which means that I’m playing through approximately 15-20 different etudes on a daily basis. To me, it’s not only fun, but it also helps to keep me in shape. Before I went to grad school, this was how I improved my reading skills and endurance. During my rehabilitation from Embouchure Overuse Syndrome and severe performance anxiety, this has been a valuable way to not only regain my endurance, but to also challenge myself and recover a lot of the technical facility that I lost.

I don’t always play through the same stuff, but I will revisit etude books that I’ve worked on in the past. When playing through etudes during my practice session, I try to alternate between books that are enjoyable or that I’ve mastered and those that are new or more challenging. Here is a list of all the different etude books that I have played through over the years:

Bach – Cello Suites; Basler – Legato Interval Studies; Belloli – 12 Progressive Etudes; Brahms – Ten Horn Studies; Chaynes – Quinze Etudes; Clark (ed.) – Studies in Lyricism; Concone – 32 Lyrical Studies (Wagner); Cugnot – Thirty Etudes; Denniss – Studies for Low Horn; Faust – Interval Studies; Gallay – 12 Etudes for Second Horn12 Grand Caprices22 Studies40 PreludesUnmeasured Preludes; Getchell – Second Book of Practical Studies; Grabois – Twenty Difficult Etudes; Hackleman – 21 Characteristic Etudes for High Horn; Kling – 40 Characteristic Etudes; Kopprasch – Sixty Selected Studies; Lewy – Ten Progressive Etudes; Matosinhos – 12 Jazzy Etudes15 Low Horn Etudes; Maxime-Alphonse – Books 1-6; Miersch – Melodious Studies; Mueller – 34 Studies; Pottag – Preparatory Melodies; Randall – Twenty Etudes for the Advanced Horn Student; Reynolds – 48 Etudes; Rochut – 120 Melodious Etudes (Trombone); Schmoll – 14 Modern Studies; Shoemaker – Legato Etudes; F. Strauss – Seventeen Concert Studies; Thevet – 60 Etudes; Uber – Solo Etudes for Horn; Wagner – Kopprasch Down Under

It’s a long list, and this definitely isn’t even all of it. While at WVU, I had access to Dr. T’s vast collection of etude books, and I basically had free reign over all of the music in her office, which literally took up a whole wall. I know that I have played through others, but this is what is currently in my library. Some of these books are definitely a little too advanced for some students, but I feel that this list has a lot of the major etudes that students and professionals should know.

As I mentioned above, my dissertation discusses most of the aforementioned books and rates them based on difficulty level. I would be more than happy to share my dissertation with anyone that is interested, but there is also another resource available on-line. by Ricardo Matosinhos

Matosinhos and I were actually working on the same dissertation topic at the same time. I was hoping to publish my dissertation as a resource book, but Matosinhos’ website is so thorough that I decided against it. Either way, it is a wonderful resource that everyone should know about and use.

I don’t do this “etude routine” every day, but whenever I play through these etudes, I am definitely getting a full workout, and I feel that it sufficiently replaces the rigors one would go through when facing a full rehearsal schedule. Some days, I will come back to the horn after doing this routine and play through other stuff: solo lit, chamber, or orchestral excerpts. During my grad school days, I would warm-up for an hour in the morning, play through the etudes for an hour during the middle of the day, and then do another hour session later in the evening. Like I said, it was a great workout, and I always felt improved as a player and well-prepared for anything after the summer months.

I’m sure that everyone has their own practice regimens, but it’s always helpful to hear new ideas and to try out new things. Just don’t forget that there are lots of etude books out there waiting to be used. I hope to have one of my own out there soon.

Happy practicing!


An Efficient Embouchure, Confidence, and Air Support/Control

These three qualities/aspects of playing may not seem to have anything in common, but in actuality, they are very similar and all equally as important. In order to be a good musician, one must master each of these concepts. When we are learning to become a musician, we always seem to tackle these issues individually and hardly ever tend to see the association between them. Since suffering my injury and going through the subsequent rehabilitation, I have noticed a striking similarity between these three ideas. From my perspective, I have come to realize that these three qualities CANNOT exist without the other.

Once I began suffering from Embouchure Overuse Syndrome, I began to notice a drastic decline in both my confidence and the ability to use my air efficiently while performing. This was primarily due to the fact that I was utilizing an inefficient embouchure. I know that there were a multitude of problems created by my inefficient embouchure, but these are two areas in my playing that I struggled with the most during my rehab. I actually began to regain my technical facility and flexibility first after fixing my embouchure, and I believe that this helped me to begin to feel more confident in my playing, which in turn, continued to elevate my playing ability in general.

My loss of air support seemed to be directly derived from both maladies, my loss of embouchure and confidence. It didn’t happen at once, but over a period of 6 months, I began to notice a drastic decline in my ability to play long phrases, and my sound went from being very colorful to just mediocre. Personally, I know that these side effects were mostly due to my lack of confidence. Normally, when an anxious person suffers from an anxiety attack, you sweat, shake, lose the ability to concentrate, and suffer from shortness of breath. I didn’t realize this at the time, but I had been scarred so badly that I began to suffer an anxiety attack every time I picked up the horn. I was so afraid of playing and messing up that I was unable to take in enough air to produce a quality sound, and sometimes, I was unable to produce a sound at all. Initially, I thought that something else was wrong. I began to wonder if I had lost my air control and support due to my weight gain and lack of exercise (Thanks, Depression!). Maybe it was due to the fact that I wasn’t practicing enough. Yes, I’m sure these things had an affect, but my anxiety was the root of the problem. Once my condition began to improve, my air support and control came back. I still need to exercise and lose weight, but my anxiety had to be conquered first.

The funny thing is that even though my embouchure was back to normal, and I was beginning to regain some confidence, I still suffered from issues with my air when performing in front of others. My anxiety was so advanced that even though I knew that I was improving, I was still scared to play for others. Nonetheless, I still put myself out there and subsequently gained more confidence through these experiences. I’ve noticed that as I become more confident, my anxiety is more controllable, and I don’t have to think so much while I’m playing. This means that I’ve also been able to utilize my air more efficiently, which solidifies the fact that my air support not only depends upon an efficient embouchure, but also relies heavily upon my confidence level.

I have always suffered from anxiety, so it comes as no surprise that I would need to face my nemesis once again to regain control of my life. This whole ordeal affected pretty much every aspect of my life in a negative way, so I’m glad that it’s over, but I can honestly say that it has made me stronger. I think it has also forced me to re-evaluate my teaching, and I do feel that I have become a better teacher throughout this process as well.

Some more thoughts about air. I wish that I could give everyone some magical tip that will fix all of your problems, but I can’t. However, I will say that most, if not all, problems can be solved through hard work and determination, which is what it took for me to overcome my issues. One thing that I have noticed is the fact that as I have become more efficient with my air, I am thinking less and less about the process and more about the result. I’m not thinking about how to create the sound. I have a clear concept of the sound that I want, and then I just do it, no extraneous thoughts involved. When I’m teaching younger students, I do give them specific instructions, “Use more air,” “Faster air,” “Energize the air,” etc., but I also explain that I’m trying to teach them how to intuitively use their air in order to become more efficient. I constantly point things out in the music, especially whenever slurred leaps are involved. I try to remind them that every time they see a leap, they should begin to “energize” or “churn” the air more quickly on the bottom note to prepare and support the shift to the upper note. If you take worrying about air out of the equation, then you can just focus on the note, which ultimately gives you a better chance to be accurate.

It all really boils down to efficiency and confidence. If you’re efficient, you’ll be more confident, and with confidence, you can achieve a great deal. Efficiency is the key factor, but for someone that suffers from sever anxiety, confidence plays a major role in how I perform and how I sound. Even if I’m playing efficiently, I will not sound good unless I am confident in my abilities. Confidence takes to time to develop, but I promise that it is worth it. I’ve felt the difference twice (lack of confidence vs highly confident), and it is really a life altering experience. Remember that everyone will progress at a different rate. For me, it took longer due to my anxiety, and I also had to surround myself with the right people. Just don’t give up, because like I mentioned earlier, if you put in the work, it will happen.

I Played a Recital Recently

I can’t believe that I didn’t write about this earlier, but I actually performed a recital back on April 9th. It wasn’t a very long recital compared to what I’ve done in the past, but it was great to get back on stage. This was my first solo recital since my injury, so there was a lot of pressure. Over the past few years, I’ve had some horrible experiences, and it was important to me to finally create a positive experience from which to build and grow. Thankfully, it went pretty well. Granted, I could have played better on some things, but I played well, and I also enjoyed myself. I mean, of course, I was nervous, but I did actually enjoy myself and fought through the nerves, which was a big step for me. I’ve been crippled by my own mind for so long that it was liberating to finally have a real break through. I already feel more confident, and I finally feel like I’m close to getting my swagger back. I’m also starting to plan my next recital, which is even more exciting.

I was talking with my wife after the recital, and I asked her if she thought I was getting close to playing like I did back in Grad school. Her response was great. She said that I’m playing pretty well, but that my sound lacks the cockiness that I had before my injury. I definitely had to laugh at this, but I understood what she meant. I don’t fully trust myself yet, so I’m not laying it all on the line when I play. I’m holding back a little, which is also holding me back from taking the next step in my career. I hope to work on this issue over the summer break.

Back to the recital, I was really excited to play some pretty cool pieces. I performed three movements from Paul Basler’s Songs and Dances, which were “Tanguito,” “Soaring,” and “Moonlight.” I wanted to perform all of the movements, but I was worried about my endurance, so I programmed lightly. The next piece was my favorite, Reveries by James Naigus, which is for two horns and piano. It is a wonderfully crafted piece that I was able to perform with a good friend, which made it even more fun. After that came an unaccompanied piece by James Black titled Soliloquy. It’s written in the style of Mahler, so I was obviously drawn to it. The last piece was a transcription of a Mozart Divertimento written for three horns. Very well written, available through The Hornist’s Nest, and I would highly recommend it. Lots of fun to play!

Again, I wasn’t completely happy with my playing, but I was very proud of myself for putting in the work and making it happen. Sure, I made some stupid mistakes that I never made during rehearsal, but I got through it. A year ago, I would have cancelled the recital, so I’m just happy that I’m feeling comfortable again, and I’m also excited that I can start to think about all of the wonderful pieces that I have yet to perform. I feel like I need to schedule a recital every month just get through all of the pieces that I want to play. Oh well, after what I’ve been through, this is definitely a good problem to have.

More Thoughts on Dealing with Playing Injuries and the Stigma of Talking About It

We (musicians) have a lot more people coming out and talking about their injuries and issues these days, which is a good thing. Unfortunately, there is still a stigma that keeps many musicians from talking. I totally understand it. I lied and kept gigging until I just physically couldn’t play anymore. It was tough, because I didn’t have a full-time job, and these gigs comprised most of my income. I didn’t want to lose the gigs, so I just kept taking them. After each gig, my playing got worse, because I wasn’t focusing on good habits. I was just trying to figure out a quick fix to get me through the performance. I’d work on fixing the real problem later….except that the real problem ended up being too big to fix, because I kept putting it off.

I really wonder if things would be different if our society of musicians were more open about injuries (and dealing with illness). Would orchestras have a “Disabled List” and allow musicians the proper time to heal without worrying about pay? I don’t think it’s fair that athletes are allowed to go on the DL and receive high-quality medical attention, while musicians just have to figure it out on our own. We perform at a high level, get less time off, and we have to be way more accurate. Could you imagine a principal horn player of a major symphony only hitting 60% of the notes on the concert? Or having an accuracy rate of .250 out of 1.000? Our batting average has to be in the .900 range or we might lose our job. Some conductors won’t accept less than .999. It’s unreasonable, yet this is part of the reason why the orchestral profession is consistently ranked as one of the most stressful jobs. It also makes sense that a lot of orchestral musicians suffer from anxiety and health-related issues that stem from work. So many principal horn players have suffered heart attacks that it makes me never want to play principal in a professional orchestra.

I mean, if you’re a tenured member of a full-time orchestra and a member of the union, then you probably do get some benefits and paid-leave, but the majority of us do not have one of those full-time gigs. Most of us piece together a “full-time” salary by playing in several different regional orchestras and teaching. These jobs, unfortunately, do not offer paid-leave nor benefits, which leads to the big question: how would most of us afford to get help if something happened?

Sure, you probably qualify for Obamacare, but the insurance available through the Marketplace isn’t what it was when the program began, especially if you make a “livable wage.” The deductibles and premiums are so high that it’s almost not worth having insurance. Even the insurance that I have through my public school teaching job is awful. Each individual on my plan (me and my two kids) has to meet a $500 deductible on “sick” visits before the insurance even starts paying anything, and when it does start paying, it only covers 80%. This is why we’re switching back to my wife’s plan, even though it costs more, it’s better insurance.

Even if you could get help, where would you go? Are there doctors that specialize in helping musicians? Are there treatment options for focal dystonia? Is treatment available for those musicians that suffer from work-related anxiety and depression? Does each professional orchestra provide a medical staff to treat work-related injuries or illnesses? Does the orchestra pay the bill for any medical procedure required by its members? Does the orchestra employ massage therapists and chiropractors specialized in treating musicians?

Again, if we were professional athletes, the answer would be yes to all of these questions, but we’re just musicians. There’s all of this interest and money being thrown at sports medicine programs, but we don’t have a need for arts medicine. There isn’t a realistic need for people to help musicians with injuries, because there’s no money to be made in that venture. Musicians only bring sound to life, and aid in the effort to keep our culture alive. Music only makes people smarter and more equipped to handle all types of situations. Work ethic, problem solving, teamwork, listening skills, etc.

It just doesn’t make sense.

Although, even if we had help, would musicians talk and take advantage of it? Everyone is just so afraid to admit that something is wrong. We don’t want to fall further down the “call list,” because we have an injury or suffer from an illness, whether it be mental or physical. I finally started talking about my issues, because things really couldn’t get much worse. I had to hit rock-bottom…so, is that what it takes? Do musicians have to lose all hope before they will start talking about things? It shouldn’t be that way, and I hope that we can change it. We need to be more open and talk, because how are we going to find people that can help us? How are we going to warn and/or help younger musicians struggling with some of the same issues? We need open dialogue and a safe environment in which to express our needs and concerns.

I’m glad that people like Dr. Peter Iltis are working to understand more about focal task-specific dystonia. Dystonia in general seems to be more prevalent nowadays, not just with musicians, and if we have the technology and resources to solve the problem, then it needs to happen. Another society that I just discovered today is the Performing Arts Medicine Association. It was formed in 1989, and holds a yearly symposium in Colorado every summer. Obviously, there are people out there working to make things better for musicians, but it definitely isn’t common knowledge. I think we really need to make a lot of this information more readily available, and we also need to help musicians feel more comfortable about coming forward. We need to get rid of the stigma and start helping people, because we’re all in this together.

I definitely don’t have the answers, but I do have lots of questions. Hopefully, some of these questions will lead to answers…I’ll let you know if that happens.

Breath Attacks

As a younger horn player, I struggled with attacking first notes. I felt so much anxiety over missing the note that I would be unable to make a sound for a few seconds, then it would finally come out. Sometimes it would sputter, kind of like when you try to crank your car on a cold morning, and other times I would need to consciously relax myself and allow the air to move freely in order to produce a sound. I would blow, but my upper body was so tense that I wasn’t blowing enough air to make a sound. Unfortunately, this “hesitation” in my attacks resurfaced after my injury.

This problem seems to always prey on me when I have lost all confidence in myself and my abilities as a horn player. When the hesitations first started to occur, it was because I hadn’t built up enough confidence through positive experiences. I was also very afraid of putting myself out there (Remember that I am an introvert and that drawing attention to myself isn’t something that excites me). After the injury, I didn’t think that I would be able to play anymore, and my my embouchure setup felt foreign, which didn’t help my confidence. I didn’t know what note would come out, so I was afraid to play. I was also afraid, because I was really embarrassed of how I sounded. I knew how well I could play, and I didn’t want anyone else to know how bad things were, because I didn’t want anyone to think less of me. Again, I was linking my self worth to my current abilities as a player, which was not a healthy situation.

The way that I overcame both situations was a combination of diligent practice and the fortification/reparation of my mental state. I have already talked about how I’ve been working to change my mental fortitude, and I will continue to do so, but this particular post is meant to focus on a particular type of exercise that helped me along the way to overcome the hesitation, and anxiety, I felt before attacking a note. This particular exercise, or group of exercises, involved the use of breath attacks on a daily basis.

Breath attacks were a daily part of my routine during undergrad and grad school. I was introduced to the Caruso Method while struggling to become a horn player, and I used many of the exercises to help build my strength and endurance. I guess that I should credit these exercises for turning me into a “high” horn player, even though there isn’t such a thing any more. When I practiced the Caruso exercises regularly, I was able to comfortably play above a written c”’. I never really went through the whole book, because I just felt that the first two exercises achieved the goal, and everything else felt like overkill. Here are the Caruso exercises:

Breath Attacks - Caruso Style

Breath Attacks - Caruso Style - High

The catch is that you have to keep the mouthpiece on the face the whole time. Caruso gives you breaks to breath, but you breathe through the nose, either in or out. Don’t loosen the corners of your embouchure to let out air, because even that small change will lessen the benefits of the exercises. The first exercise should be done twice, I forgot to add the repeat sign. The second one, which obviously focuses on the high range, start at your own pace. Go as high as you can, until you either can’t play the note or have trouble with the slur. At this point, take the mouthpiece off of the face, rest a minute, and then try again. If you still falter on the second attempt, then it’s time to stop. If you’re successful, then keep going. At my best, I was able to play up to a written f”’. It wasn’t the prettiest sounding note, but it helped my confidence, and made play a written c”’ feel a lot easier to play.

Another breath attack exercise that I used to improve both accuracy and stability in the high range, is a short exercise that I received from Bob Pruzin. Pruzin was the Professor of Horn at The University of South Carolina for many years. I studied with him for a time, and he had a very specific way of doing things. Some things were great, and others were a little on the gimmicky side. This particular exercise really helped, and I’ve used it off and on ever since:

Breath Attacks - Pruzin Style

Play with a metronome and take the mouthpiece off of the face between each note, because you want each breath attack to simulate a first attack. I love doing breath attacks in the high range, because there is no room for mistakes. Your embouchure has to be set correctly for each note, which really helps one to feel the note. We can sometimes get away with not being perfect with the help of the tongue through articulations, but that’s not so with breath attacks. They help with accuracy, because, like I just mentioned, you really feel the note and get a better understanding of what needs to take place to perfectly and efficiently play each note throughout the range.

During my undergrad, when I was first afflicted by hesitation attacks, I worked on breath attacks using the Singer – Tone and Control Studies – Ex. 1. I would breath attack the first note, and then attack the following two. I would use a metronome, set anywhere from quarter = 60-72, and I would also take the mouthpiece off of the face between each attack, simulating a first attack each time. Here is a portion of the exercise:

Breath Attacks - Singer Style

You would follow the same chromatic pattern up to a written f” or g”. Then, do the same with the mid-low range, starting on e’ and working down chromatically to a written c. This helped a lot, but I also developed a similar exercise that challenges your ear and accuracy a little bit more:

Breath Attacks - Singer Style - Johnson Version

This is only a portion of the exercise. I start it on a written g’, and then the exercise works chromatically, alternating up and down, from this note, ending on a written g and g” respectively. It’s a great way to work on accuracy, and it will hopefully rid one of hesitation attacks as well.

Another exercise that I have used recently to build and maintain consistency in the pedal range is a version of the Pruzin breath attacks. It takes the same concept, but shifts the focus to the extreme low range. The goal is to get a really good, loud blast for each pedal note. If you can play the notes really loud, then you’re doing the right thing. I never worked on breath attacks in the pedal range until working with Bill Caballero. He suggested it, and it helped, so I’ve used it myself and in my teaching.

Breath Attacks - Low Horn Blast

I wish I could say that breath attacks will fix all of your problems, but they won’t. These exercises will help you through the process, but perfecting your attacks takes time. Work with a metronome, record and/or video yourself, play in front of people as much as possible, and believe in yourself. A lack of confidence is normally the prime suspect when dealing with hesitation attacks. It’s also a good idea to observe the amount of tension present when trying to start notes. Any amount of excess tension in the upper body will negatively affect one’s ability to play with ease. I know from experience. I would feel a lot of tension in my shoulders and neck, and my throat would tighten when trying to start notes. This would also affect my breathing. When starting a phrase, I would always take shallower breaths and be unable to to play through long phrases.

Stay positive and trust the process.

The Standley Routine

The unexpected passing of Gene Standley, dealt the community of Columbus, OH and the horn community in general, a huge blow. He served as Principal Horn of the Columbus Symphony for many years and was an all-around great horn player. I never met him or knew him personally, but his reputation was stellar. Thankfully, he (along with Stephen H. Hager) was able to leave us with a valuable piece of horn history, the practice routine developed by his father, Forrest Standley.

Forrest was Principal Horn of both the Dallas and Pittsburgh Symphonies, and he taught at Carnegie Mellon University for many years, teaching the likes of Dale Clevenger, Philip Myers, Howard Wall, Brice Andrus, and William Purvis. A pretty impressive resume. He developed his routine, known as the “Standley Routine,” after leaving the Pittsburgh Symphony due to “lip issues.” The Standley Routine is long, encompassing all twelve major and minor keys through different scale and lip slur exercises. If done from start to finish, it would take a player over one hour and thirty minutes to complete, per Forrest. The only other practice routine that even comes close to this one is the fabled “Heavy Routine” by Joseph Singer. Both routines require and develop an insane amount of endurance and traverse the full range of the horn.

Now, you might be wondering, “why is he talking about this practice routine on a blog dedicated to performance anxiety?” Well, I have been incorporating parts of the Standley routine into my warm-up lately, and it has helped me to regain some of the endurance that disappeared after my injury.

FS (Forrest Standley) recommends that one should start by playing only “some of the exercises every day” and gradually increase the number of exercises performed until one is able to play through the whole routine. As an alternative, he does mention that one could divide the routine into several different fifteen minute sessions done throughout the day.

The routine begins with an “attack exercise” similar to the “Tone and Control Studies” presented at the beginning of Joseph Singer’s Embouchure Building for Horn. The exercises that follow are divided into six different sections, with each consisting of two major and two minor scale patterns, two major scale arpeggios, each presented in three and four note lip slur patterns, an endurance exercise, and two major scale overtone series slurs. The only exception is that the sixth section does not contain an endurance exercise, but contains more of the overtone slurs.

In the past, I have played through this routine, front to back, in one sitting, and it is not an easy thing to do. The routine focuses on building endurance and flexibility, giving the player the confidence that he/she needs to play anything, in any range, and for as long as possible. For now, I have been incorporating a section of the Standley Routine into my normal warm-up each day. I’ll start by playing a couple of noodling patterns, do some harmonic lip slurs, several different lip trill/flexibility exercises, chromatic exercises in different octaves, play major scales two octaves, do one or two of the Basler lip slur exercises from his book, and then a section of the Standley Routine. It takes me over an hour, but I have felt an almost immediate difference in my endurance in the high register since starting this regimen.

There are plenty of wonderful warm-up routine books out there, and everyone tends to have their personal preference, but I do try to keep an open mind. I will always try something different, especially if it helps. If anyone out there is struggling with endurance issues, trying to come back from an injury like me, or hasn’t played in a long time, you might want to grab a copy of the Standley Routine. It will get you back into shape quickly, even if you’re modifying the routine a little, like me.

Disclaimer: Please be careful when first starting the Standley Routine. It is tough and doesn’t back away from the high range. It will help you get back into shape, but don’t hurt yourself trying to play too high or by trying to play through the whole thing during the first sitting. Be smart!

Embouchure Re-Training: Thoughts and Exercises

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:

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 - Slurred Arpeggio

Basler – “Tongued Arpeggios”

Basler - Tongued Arpeggio

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”

Brophy - Lip Slurs

Frøydis – “Harp Flexie”

Froydis - Harp Flexie

Oscar Sala – “Natural Horn/Lip Slur Exercise”

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”

Caballero - Lip Slur Warm-Up

“Low Horn Flexie”

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.

Embouchure Overuse Syndrome

“Because embouchure overuse syndrome most often appears at a time when a player is at the top of his form…” -Lucinda Lewis, “Broken Embouchures”

The beginning of this statement is very true for me. My experience with embouchure overuse syndrome began when I was at the height of my playing abilities, at a time when I felt bulletproof. Unfortunately, my vest had some flaws, but all kidding aside, it did occur because I was playing/practicing too much. I pushed myself too far, injured my top lip, and then I never gave it time to properly heal.

Before we get too far along, you may be wondering what it means to have embouchure overuse syndrome, or EOS. Well, according to the creator of the term, Lucinda Lewis, it refers to the following:

“An embouchure problem which follows a period of heavy or intense playing that does not improve with rest and is accompanied by lip pain, lip swelling, strange, numb, rubbery or cardboard sensations in the lips or face, lacking endurance, unfocused sound, loss of playing control, and difficulty playing in the high range is a unique performance injury called embouchure overuse syndrome.” -Broken Embouchures, p. 3

This is a very vague definition, and if you’re skeptical, try reading this blog post by Dave Wilken at Wilktone: A Skeptical Look at EOS. I don’t really like the term, and I do feel that the definition can be linked to just about any embouchure injury, but at the moment, a better classification system doesn’t exist. However, regardless of whether or not you agree with Lewis, she has a lot of great information concerning embouchure injuries in her book, Broken Embouchures, and on her website. I will discuss some of her findings and exercises in another post, but for now, I would like to discuss the symptoms that I felt during this period.

At first, my injury felt like a typical case. I practiced a little too much earlier in the day and showed up for my late night orchestra rehearsal already pretty tired. I pushed myself a little too hard and suddenly felt a sharp, shooting pain in my top lip. Thankfully this happened at the end of the rehearsal, so I basically stopped playing right after it happened. The next day, my embouchure felt weak and was a little sore, so I took it easy. Unfortunately, I couldn’t take too much time off, because I had a DMA recital to play a few days later, so I at least tried to limit myself as much as possible. Well, the recital was great, and my lip felt fine, which led me to believe that everything was back to normal.

All of you who have been in grad school as a performance major, know that you always have something to play or prepare for, whether it be a multitude of concerts or orchestral auditions. The same was true for me, so I was never really able to stop playing like I should have done. About a week after the first instance, I injured my top lip again, and this was the injury that lingered and never went away. I don’t really remember exactly how it happened, but I definitely remember the context.

It was a hot, muggy afternoon, and I was rehearsing a chamber piece that I would be performing with a Guest Artist at WVU, Dance of the Ocean Breeze, by Roger Kellaway. It was a Sunday, and we were rehearsing in the big rehearsal hall. This would have been fine, except for the fact that the A/C was not turned on and it was way too hot and humid in the room. The piano was out of tune, the tuba player couldn’t play in tune, and neither could I for that matter, but I was still doing my best to match pitch. Somewhere within this version of intonation purgatory, I hurt my top lip again…and it didn’t get better this time. (Helpful Hints: when you sustain an injury, REST! Also, don’t try to rehearse in a room that is too hot or cold.)

I felt most of the symptoms described above by Lewis continuously for a period of about six months: pain, constant discomfort, some swelling, loss of endurance and flexibility, etc. I didn’t lose ability in the high range, but my low range suffered, and my articulations started to get a little sloppy, which was odd, because I don’t think that I have ever had trouble with articulation. I also dealt with air issues, which Lewis also attributes as a side effect of EOS. Essentially, I became less efficient with the use of my air, and over time, I began to lose the ability to play long phrases with one breath. It wasn’t too bad at first, but it was enough for me to notice and worry about it.

Like I stated in my introductory post, my level of playing stayed the same, but the shooting pains and discomfort really bothered me. The discomfort is very difficult to describe, because it was just a very weird feeling. Every time I would set the mouthpiece on my embouchure, it just felt like something was there. I wouldn’t feel pain, but it’s kind of like when you have a small pebble or a little bit of sand in your shoe, it doesn’t hurt, but it’s definitely enough to annoy you and break your concentration. It worried me, and since the sensation lasted for so long, I began to change the placement of the mouthpiece on my embouchure almost on a daily basis. This was what really hurt my playing the most. If I had toughed it out and not changed anything, I don’t think I would be writing this post at present. The constant embouchure changes made playing feel foreign, and my abilities continued to deteriorate, because I kept trying to play using an inefficient/defective embouchure. This crushed my confidence and led to the debilitating performance anxiety that I feel today.

It’s cathartic to finally talk about what happened. I’ve used it as an excuse for so long, but now it’s time to put it in the past and move on. I have often wondered what my life would be like if this stuff hadn’t happened, but I don’t think I would ever go back and change anything. The events of the past five years have left scars, but I am definitely stronger because of them as well. In the coming months, I hope to use my recent failures as the fuel that I need to overcome my anxiety.

After this post, I really want to focus on the task at hand. That being said, if anyone needs advice or wants to share their own injury story, I would be glad to help. I can’t promise that I can fix anything, but I can at least lend a sympathetic ear and hopefully point you in the right direction. I will, however, probably discuss and share some techniques that helped me retrain my embouchure in a later post.



My Personal Experience with Embouchure Overuse Syndrome

As with any musician who has been in a similar situation, I never thought, never dreamed that this would happen to me. About five years ago, I suffered a playing injury that lingered for far too long. For roughly six months, I couldn’t play without feeling pain or a sense of mild discomfort in my upper lip. The injury happened during the second year of my DMA studies at West Virginia University, and I didn’t have time to wait around for it to heal. Now, I could still play at a very high level even though I was constantly feeling pain or discomfort. I performed principal on Mahler 1 and even won an orchestral audition while this was going on. Unfortunately, it lasted so long that I decided to start tinkering with my embouchure in order to attempt to relieve the discomfort. However, when the discomfort finally disappeared, the damage had already been done. My embouchure felt weak, and I didn’t have the same strength and endurance that I had enjoyed before, which led to even more tinkering. Thankfully, I was able to perform my final recital and finish my degree before my playing really started to deteriorate.

Due to my tinkering, I have endured a tumultuous relationship with the horn over the past few years. After finishing my DMA, I could still play pretty well, but I started having to work harder to keep things in check. My playing was no longer effortless, and this was due to my embouchure setup being completely wrong due to all of the changes that I had tried to make. I am one of those rare people that actually enjoys practicing, but for a while, I just didn’t even want to look at my horn. I began to practice less and my embouchure finally broke, which was not a fun experience. I even sold two of my previous instruments, because I just felt so depressed, and I didn’t believe that I would ever play again. It was rough, but for some reason, I couldn’t get away from it. I don’t think I ever had Focal Dystonia, but I do think that I changed my embouchure so frequently that I developed a severe case of Embouchure Overuse Syndrome. It was so bad that at one point I struggled to even produce a sound. I am pleased to say that my embouchure is currently back in its natural setting, but I’m still trying to gain back range and endurance.

This whole ordeal has created mental scars that have produced a level of performance anxiety that I have never felt before. I will admit that I struggled with anxiety for many years, even during my doctoral studies, but the level of anxiety that I have felt during performances over the last two years has truly left me handicapped. I think we all have dealt with the adverse effects of “dry mouth” and adrenaline, but this has been much worse. I don’t think I even suffer from dry mouth anymore. On the contrary, my body just completely shuts down. I’ll try to attack a note and nothing will happen. Loud stuff accompanied by other brass instruments is usually fine, but heaven forbid I have to play an exposed passage at piano.

These are issues that I will continue to work through, and I hope that I will be able to share thoughts and insights that might be of value to others along the way. I just have to keep practicing and remember that even the smallest steps forward equal progress.

Dr. J