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