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


  1. Great looking blog! Know exactly what you mean about some educators being a little touchy and defensive about anything that seems non-traditional. Looking forward to keeping up with you here. One suggestion for comments would be your offering to let people just e-mail you and you posting the comment for them. For people that don't have a blog of their own, there's sort of a rigamarole of choosing an identity that can be confusing.

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  3. This comment came through private email from one of my dearest BE friends, Dave.

    Val, When you start citing examples of BE success etc., please feel free to mention my dilemma(and my NAME if you want) and what BE did to keep me going on the horn. If it was not for BE, I would be out of hornplaying right now. It is so hard to maintain and/or build chops with age and health issues. I suppose I could be called the BE-lite guy or whatever because I use it more gently then others. But it is the single biggest factor in keeping me in the game. When I play and/or perform with the various venues, I think about the RI/RO all the time. It gives instant results and I can do things on the horn that I never could quite so well in the past. But of course my days of unlimited stamina and effortless technique are gone forever. Now I have to mine real deep for the gold. BE could bring other senior players back from the brink, but unfortunately some are bull headed and their egos get in the way. I, for one, cannot rest on past laurels and jaw bone about being a former hog dawg player. For me to continue at the pace and level I have embraced, is nigh onto miraculous for me because of BE.

    Dave, your devoted amigo of the BE

  4. Valerie,
    Great blog, great story and a terrific reward for perseverance! Well done! I wish you and all the horn players out there great fun and satisfaction with horn playing enhanced with BE. I haven't played a French horn in many years (in fact I never played very well), but I still thrill to the beautiful sound of a horn in a symphony. Keep going and all the best, cuz! You were always the best I ever knew! I plan to tell my nieces and nephews about your discovery - some play trumpet, some horn.

  5. X,

    I like your Blog, very encouraging and motivating!

    You're very clever and very keen - and very pretty.

    I couldn't find a way to write this on the Blog.

    Well done Wells!


  6. This comment came from David Rogers:


    I expect you will enjoy this. Been "BE-ing" for a year with modest results. Do the RO/RI exercises regularly.
    I was at my horn lesson on Friday and my horn teacher said it was odd I could lip buzz a high C but not on mouthpiece.

    So she had me put the mouthpiece on lips while buzzing and out popped a high C. And boy, does it take a different lip and embouchure
    position (or feel) than I'd been using.
    Hmm, this is how one is supposed to approach the Roll-in exercise and I'd been doing that, but apparently not quite right.
    So today I played RI #1 as written for the first time, starting on C
    instead of F.
    What a laugh!



  7. Guillaume said:
    "Dear Valerie,
    Thanks for introducing BE to the horn community. I am just glad I found someone as curious and open minded as you. Your energy to promote BE over Internet forum convinced me to try it, and I do not regret it any single day.
    Moreover, you are always here to answer our requests and keep us on the right track.
    Many thanks and happy horn playing."