Thursday, December 31, 2009

Horn Player with Unusual Embouchure
The interesting video linked above, was posted on the Yahoo horn list by Susan McKeever. (If the link doesn't work, you can find it by searching Yahoo Music for "Peanut Vendor by Liberace.") The horn player is Susan's uncle, John Graas. Notice his very unusual embouchure: rolled in with air pockets, relaxed lip corners and gently bunched chin. Wow! He looks like the kids on the cover of the BE book! I've seen a few trumpeters play like that, but never a horn player. To learn more about this remarkable musician, John Graas, follow this link:
When I first started BE, I couldn't do RI exercises with air pockets. I was naive enough to believe it couldn't be done on horn. I've since learned I was wrong because two years into BE, I finally learned to do RI's with air pockets. This video not only proves it can be done, but it also proves that a horn player can develop an efficient, flexible embouchure with a rolled in set up, relaxed lip corners, and a bunched chin. Who knew?
Please don't misunderstand, I'm not promoting John Graas's embouchure as the "ideal" or "correct" BE embouchure. There's no such thing as the "correct" BE embouchure. I'm only trying to open eyes to possibilities. This video shows that the hard & fast embouchure rules of the past -- tight lip corners, no air pockets, flat chin, etc. -- aren't necessarily the best thing for everyone. Can you imagine the results if John Graas had had a horn instructor who insisted he follow the rules and change his embouchure?
Valerie Wells

Monday, December 14, 2009

BE and Extreme High Wire Playing

This came to me in a private email from Dave Stoller who along with Andrew Joy have graciously given me permission to post it here.

"Hey Buddy, I can attest to the benefit of the RI when you have two solid hours of high A's, B's, C's, and D's. I am doing the trumpet parts along with the high G horn transposition in the big final set of choruses. It just keeps going over and over the tune and the horn part is unrelenting. Most people would do this on a descant, but the Holton works as well, if not better. Holton horns "have a high range" and it is so well in tune. Also the sound is full all over that register.
"Without the knowledge of BE and using a very well defined RI, I would not be able to do this sort of cantata/oratorio playing anymore. They have me doing some of the trumpet parts on the choruses and this makes it really tough. Again, the BE is essential to this sort of high wire act. I tongue on my lower lip for the super soft high entrances. This concept I picked up from Andrew Joy on an email discussion with him. Also tonguing between the teeth works so effectively in this high register work. Now I could never go back to some of the old ways I was doing things.
"Today was a great triumph for me because I have not done this much continual high playing in many years. Not even Beethoven's 7th is this strenuous. The Brandenburg and the Concerstuck are more strenuous and I would need Herculean chops for these tunes. But I can build up when needed. The program is not any big production here like other horn players are doing. But I would bet none of them are having to work this hard on their Frosty the Snow Man or the Messiah! Andy ... has given me some very precise pointers on extreme soft high entrances. He is the champ on all this stuff. Dave"
For those who don't know, Dave Stoller is a semi retired principal horn player who had decided over a year ago that he could no longer play horn due to multiple health problems. Dave credits BE for enabling him to develop the efficiency to continue playing even with his physical limitations.
Andrew Joy is the principal of the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra.
Both Dave and Andrew have testimonials on Jeff Smiley's website.
For the sake of clarity: Tonguing on the lips, "between the teeth" as Dave refers to it, is a technique taught in BE for improving efficiency. In the usual context of BE, RI refers to a specific set of BE exercises played with a rolled in set up. BE does not prescribe playing with a rolled in setting or any other particular setting. When Dave refers to RI in the context of his comments above, he is referring to a personal embouchure setting he has developed through practicing BE.

Valerie Wells

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Practicing BE

I just received an enthusiastic response and a great question from Ron Chao who started BE the last week of October. With his permission I'll share it below:

"hey valerie! just wanted to update you on my progress. The BE book is amazing and I am already seeing great improvements in my playing. Just a quick question about practicing. Even though Jeff has specific lesson plans outlined at the end of his book, is there any harm in playing through all the exercises in the book in one day or would I risk hurting my lips? thanks again for everything and have a merry christmas and happy new year too! ron"

RON! Thank you very much for the positive feedback. I'm very happy to hear you're doing well. If you feel ready to play through all the Roll-out/Roll-In exercises in a row, go for it. You'll soon figure out if it's too much for you! ;o) Plan to try this at a time when you don't have critical rehearsals or performances soon after.
When you have the skill to play all the Roll-Out and Roll-In exercises, you may lack the endurance and efficiency to tolerate them all every day. If this is the case, you can rotate or abbreviate them to accommodate your needs. For example: you might try 2 repetitions (valve combinations) of each one every day. Or you may do Roll-Out's one day, and Roll-In's the next. The Advanced Lip Slurs can be approached in the same manner; just a few every day or as many as you can, all in a row once or twice a week.

One BE student, a busy mom with young children, is very limited in the time she has to practice. She has progressed very nicely focusing specifically on one Roll-Out and one Roll-In exercise a day. As your efficiency improves, you'll be able to develop a BE routine that best suits your needs. Personally, I do the basic eight BE exercises every day plus several selected Advanced Lip Slurs. When time permits, I like to do the Roll-Out/Roll-In plus the Advanced Lip Slurs all in a row. It's a handy and effective assessment tool to evaluate my progress.
Below are a couple questions about practicing BE I've addressed in the past that may be helpful:
Q: How much time should I be spending on BE each day?
A: For the very beginner one Lip Clamp and a few Lip Clamp Squeaks a day is plenty. After that, as one becomes more comfortable, 2 or 3 minutes on Roll-Out and 2 or 3 minutes on Roll-In may be best. Plan to gradually build up, but don't over do. Michael Camilleiri, a long time BE trumpeter, frequently reminds BE students that "BE is not boot camp!" Take it easy, build & grow gradually, and "BE patient."
Q: How long does BE take to improve my embouchure?
A: Unseen "internal" improvements will begin the moment you start working on your first Lip Clamp. But most BE students report obvious "external" improvements in their regular playing after 8 to 12 weeks, for others it may take longer.
Valerie Wells
The BE book and BE exercises adapted for French horn are available directly from me. Email me for information: Wells123456 at (If you live outside North and South America, I can connect you with a BE representative in your corner of the globe. My adapted exercises for horn are available free of charge to all horn players studying BE regardless of location.)

Saturday, December 5, 2009

To Be Perfectly Honest . . .

BE is not for beginners. I often get inquiries from enthusiastic horn players who are newly coming back to horn. In the past I've sold the book to a few horn players who had only been playing for a few weeks. It's worked well for most, but not everyone.

In my opinion BE works best if the horn player already has a stable, not necessarily fabulous, but stable embouchure. I now tell any brand new come back players to hold off on starting BE until they've been playing long enough to first get well acquainted with what their natural embouchure is.

BE has to have a starting point, something to work with, something to build upon. If a player is unduly insecure in their regular set up, BE can cause confusion.

BE works by challenging the embouchure to function in two extreme set ups -- the rolled-in and the rolled-out. Over time, the bits and pieces of technique learned in the challenging exercises eventually influence the player's regular embouchure. If the player doesn't have an established regular embouchure to rely upon, they can easily become confused in their approach to every day, regular playing.

So to be perfectly honest, I'd get a little more spending money for Christmas if I sold the book to everyone who asks, but for best results, I want brand new, fresh come back players to wait a while.

How long? Well . . . if you've been playing for a year or more, I believe you're ready. If you've been playing for less than six months, are still fooling around with different embouchure settings, horns, mouthpieces, etc., you should probably wait a few more months before starting BE. First, get yourself acquainted with how you play your instrument, then order the BE book. (But don't wait forever or you'll miss out on the opportunity to nip bad habits in the bud!)

I was successful starting BE after about six months coming back because I had been practicing 2 to 3 hours a day for about five months. (Yes, I'm very compulsive!)  I had a very consistent, although range & endurance limiting embouchure before I started BE.  

Warm regards,

Friday, November 27, 2009

BE is Not Boot Camp!

If you’ve ever done any conventional embouchure development exercises, you’re likely to associate embouchure development with painful, grueling exercises that are often like strength training at the local gym or a military boot camp. The Balanced Embouchure (BE for short) uses a different approach.

The major focus of BE is technique, not strength. When the lips learn the techniques or “how to” of moving the lips into various shapes, the player quickly learns which movements and shapes most efficiently produce the desired results. Embouchure technique, rather than strength, enables the musician to comfortably play the upper register without having to develop super human strength.

Jeff Smiley refers to efficient embouchure technique as “leverage” in this interesting article: I particularly enjoyed reading this article because it reminded me of my junior high school science teacher demonstrating how the smallest girl in class could lift the heaviest boy in class with one finger by using the right tools. It’s the same with the embouchure. Using the right embouchure tools can make lifting the range to the upper register a one finger task.

The few repetitions of well designed, properly executed BE exercises will more effectively develop the embouchure than hundreds of repetitions of poorly designed exercises. BE exercises are surprisingly short and simple. Once learned, the basic Roll-Out and Roll-In exercises can be executed in about 15 minutes a day and yield substantial results.

So . . . if you are slaving away on "killer" embouchure exercises and only getting minimal results, it may be time to stop working so hard on strength and start working to learn the effective techniques of BE.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Why BE Works

Recently, a young horn player asked for help with his upper register on a public horn forum. He received several suggestions including: put more upper lip into the mouthpiece, roll your lip in a little towards the mouthpiece as you ascend into the high register, practice low notes to play high, use more air, etc.
I was happy to see that rolling in is becoming a more accepted practice for developing the upper register. And while I agree with the general idea, this idea alone begs clarification and direction: How does one “put more upper lip” into the mouthpiece? What about the lower lip? How, when and where does one roll the lips in? How does one incorporate rolling-in into regular playing? How does one smoothly transition between the rolled-in setting for high notes and low notes?
BE provides clear guidelines to address all these questions. But . . . while The Balanced Embouchure teaches the mechanics of rolling in and out, BE is much more than that. BE is often misunderstood as being a prescribed "rolled in" embouchure or a playing method that means rolling in and out. Neither are accurate descriptions of BE.
BE is actually an embouchure development system based upon universal principles of embouchure mechanics, cognition and “muscle memory.” When practiced consistently, the BE exercises challenge the embouchure to function in every configuration possible enabling the player to find, consciously and unconsciously, exactly what works most efficiently for them as an individual. It sounds complex, but it's so easy to learn, even children master it. In fact, children often learn it more easily than adults because they have less pedagogical baggage to interfere with the process!
When I started BE in 2006, I didn't understand what it actually is. I simply did the exercises and enjoyed the accelerated improvements. Since then, I've begun to understand why BE works through using it and helping other horn players do the same. Because BE is comprehensive for overall embouchure development, it often fills in the embouchure "gaps" that many horn players have. I’ve worked with beginners and even advanced horn players who have highly developed skills, yet still struggle with “gaps” such as: poor tone or instability on certain notes, weak or non-existent upper register, inability to play pianissimo in the upper register, weak low register, inability to smoothly transition between high and low range, poor endurance, etc. BE has helped them bridge the gaps and develop more consistent performance in all registers.
Horn players who already have a well developed high range, often report that BE improves their stability and overall tone, "beefs up" their low register and helps them transition from high to low with greater fluidity. Players who are challenged in the upper register often report improvements in the upper register within weeks or months.
Because BE helps the player find the most efficient way to use their embouchure, it also enhances endurance and breath control. Some have reported that BE enables them to make soft delicate entrances in the high register like never before. [All these descriptions are taken from responses I’ve personally received from my fellow BE horn students.]
Some horn players have great teachers and practice hard for years to develop excellent embouchures that function well in all registers. They are the fortunate ones. On the other hand, some players have great teachers, practice hard for years, yet end up with poorly functioning embouchures with troubling "gaps." BE can be a godsend for those in the second category.

~~Valerie Wells
Wells123456 at

Thursday, October 22, 2009

"How I Came to BE"

When I was in high school, I played pretty well for a kid, so I decided to study horn in college. During my audition for the university brass faculty, the trumpet professor commented, “Nice tone, but you look like you’ve been playing trumpet.” When studies in the music school began, the horn professor immediately set me to work to transform my embouchure into the Philip Farkas ideal. At the end of my sophomore year, I hadn’t added a single note to my upper range, had poor endurance, felt frustrated and dropped out of music school. Later I married, became a registered nurse, reared a family, etc. Although I didn’t own or play horn for over three decades, I never stopped thinking of myself as a horn player.

In 2005 I attended a Northwest Sinfonietta performance and heard Kathleen Vaught Farner perform. “Wow!” I thought to myself, “I should be doing that.” (She made it look so easy. HAH!) Some months later I bought a horn, hired a private instructor and gradually worked up to practicing three hours a day. Thinking that I must have done something wrong in my college days, I redoubled my efforts to emulate Philip Farkas. After about 6 months, I was very pleased that I’d regained much of my previous playing abilities, yet disappointed that I had also regained my limited range and endurance. After one particularly frustrating horn lesson, I realized that if I didn’t soon find a remedy for my embouchure problem, I would not progress as desired.

I went home from that lesson feeling very discouraged and wondering if I would again give up on the horn. I might have, had it not been for a certain thought seizing my mind: “Since trumpet players know how to play high, a trumpet teacher could show me how.” I went to the internet and Googled “trumpet + embouchure.” As I’d found in my searches for horn embouchure development, most of the discussion about trumpet embouchure development seemed a rehash of the conventional methods that had already failed to help me. I continued to search, not knowing exactly what I was searching for.

Then, I opened a website that contained something different, specific, that boldly promised results. That something was Jeff Smiley’s discussion of The Balanced Embouchure. Jeff’s empathy for those who struggle with embouchure issues drew me in immediately. When I read his “mechanics” chapter where he wrote candidly of how rolling in or out helps the high or low notes speak, I was intrigued. This was a specific I had never heard before. Could this be what I was looking for? I immediately went to my practice room, picked up my horn, rolled in my lips and blew. To my surprise, I was suddenly playing and sustaining higher notes than I ever had with surprisingly little pressure and effort. The high notes I played that day were not beautiful, but I knew from this experiment that Jeff Smiley was onto something powerful and effective, and I wanted to know more, so I ordered the book.

I began working BE in June of 2006. Two weeks later at my next horn lesson, my tone, range and confidence already showed signs of improvement. My private instructor was favorably impressed and ordered the book for herself.

For the next 9 months I worked 15 to 30 minutes a day on the BE basics. My playing improved steadily.  I felt happy and confident that I’d found something that could benefit other amateur horn players. So in March of 2007, I decided to share my joyful success by introducing BE to “Horn,” an on-line discussion list for horn players. I entered my first posting entitled, “Stuck in RANGE LIMBO???” I wrote about my past embouchure failures and enthusiastically shared how I had recovered using a method developed by a trumpet teacher. I ended the post asking a rhetorical question: “What the heck’s wrong with horn pedagogy? Am I missing something out there or is horn instruction stuck somewhere the dark ages?!?”

Well ... that was the wrong approach for this group as I apparently offended several instructors on the list. I was shocked as a barrage of criticisms were hurled at Jeff Smiley, his method and me. I couldn’t understand how they could so quickly judge and dismiss a method they had never tried, especially a method I had found so helpful. While I remained secure in my personal convictions, defending my position seemed a losing battle as I debated with these more advanced players. But there was one prominent member of the list who kept an open mind, a cool head and encouraged the others to do the same. This was Wendell Rider, author of the excellent book, Real World Horn Playing. Instead of dismissing Smiley’s ideas, Wendell began to experiment with one of the techniques used in BE. After several months, Wendell reported to "Horn" that he found this single technique “valid and important” for horn players as it improved both range and tone in his students’ horn playing. Wendell then published an addendum to his book on his website dedicated to using this technique acknowledging Jeff Smiley and me for “inspiration.” I was very grateful for Wendell’s support. I felt as though I’d been exonerated to have a respected horn player/instructor embrace new ideas I had introduced to the horn community. That was a thrill for me, an obscure come-back amateur horn playing grandma!

Soon, a daring few other horn players from around the globe began confiding in me that they, too, began experiencing success using The Balanced Embouchure. By August of 2008, I knew about 15 horn players studying BE.  For fear of criticism, most were studying BE secretly. Some were asking how to adapt the BE exercises for horn. With Jeff Smiley’s permission, I wrote up my BE routine and began distributing it to horn players.

Also around this time, two professional horn players, Paul Sharp and Andrew Joy, shared that they also were very pleased with BE and gave me permission to mention their success on line. After posting about Paul Sharp and Andrew Joy on both horn lists, more horn players started ordering books from Jeff Smiley.

Jeff Smiley soon honored me with a request to sell his method with my horn adaptations. I began selling The Balanced Embouchure in October 2008. It’s been a joy ride to share BE with others and help them work through the program. Especially gratifying is getting feedback from horn players as BE removes stumbling blocks that had once kept them from achieving their goals. As of this writing in October 2009, I have a list of over 75 horn players working with BE.  (Update in January 2012:  230 horn players who have begun the program.)

BE has enabled me to confidently play the full range of the horn with a pretty darn decent tone. I am no longer afraid of high notes or running out of steam half way through a concert. I enjoy being able to play all horn parts within, of course, the limits of my technique and experience. I enjoy developing technique and acquiring experience unencumbered by my previous obstacles of poor range and endurance. Of course, I still have a long way to go to become the horn player of my dreams, but I believe hard work and BE will get me there.

Lest anyone get the wrong impression, I wish to reiterate the purpose of this blog is to share my enthusiasm for The Balanced Embouchure, not to brag about my horn playing. In most ways I'm like any other developing horn player; I have my weaknesses and challenges.  I'm not a stellar horn player, but I am definitely a happy horn player thanks to Jeff Smiley.

Valerie Wells, BE for Horn