Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Terror & Thrill of Horn Playing

I think every horn player can identify with the sentiments my friend, Doug, recently shared with me in a spontaneous and unsolicited email.

Our Castle Rock Orchestra had a Christmas concert today. . . The concert was great fun, and if you recall, I was principal. What made that remarkable was that I stewed about it for several weeks. I practiced everything that mattered. I practiced fingerings, I thought about phrasing, dynamics, articulation, and intonation. And I psyched myself up, so determined to play as well as I could.

Today arrived, concert day. Yikes! I tried to avoid thinking about what it meant not to do this well, and I stayed just this side of being really nervous. I turned that wonderful corner where nerves turn into determination and concentration, and adrenalin is your friend. Of all the things I thought about, there was one thing I never thought about. The one thing that it most depends. I never gave a single thought to my chops.

After a year of BE, and weeks of practicing those parts, I never questioned whether or not I could slur up to a high A and hit it cleanly. I'm not saying I didn't chip any notes, but I hit all those high A's as clean as a whistle!

I had several thoughts occur to me as the concert went on. The first was, "What a fool I was to quit playing for all those years." The second was, "This is where I really belong, it doesn't get better than this." The third was about what a stretch it is for me to be playing these first part solos and that I had to bring everything I knew. And finally it cocurred to me that if you're lucky enough to be a horn player, then you're lucky enough.

I'm close to a year past discovering BE, corresponding with Jeff, and exchanging the first email with you. What a year of discovery it's been! I've never been bungee jumping, but I don't believe it could hold a candle to playing the horn, either for the terror or the thrill. I wouldn't trade any experience on earth for the thrill of playing the horn this afternoon. I don't think I have the words to describe it. It's that feeling deep down inside that something came into your life and made such a huge impact, that you wonder how you could have accomplished something so personally meaningful if you hadn't been touched in that way. . . I couldn't have risen to the challenge today without it.

Joyful Christmas to you and your family, and God bless you and yours for all that you do.

Doug's testimonial

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Unconscious Control

Here's a new comment to an older post. Thanks, Kenny.

A lot of playing the trumpet is controlled by the subconscious. Think about it for a moment - if we had to have an aperture setting of .015 of an inch high by .015 of an inch in width with 4.7 psi of air pressure and lip compression of .0025 pounds to achieve note X - how could we possibly do this? We could not. It would be physically impossible. We do not posses the conscious control over our bodies in this extreme. Only the subconscious mind can control things on this level. It's like picking up a glass of water. You don't think about how much grip the fingers must exert or how much lift your arm must provide - it just happens because we let it happen. It is learned through feel as there was a time when you were a toddler that picking up a glass of water (or tying your shoes) was quite a challenge; yet we now perform these task on a subconscious level. Thus the reasoning behind Jeff's method - the exaggerated extremes of RO and RI kind of sets where the stops are. Once your mind conceives these stops it then tries to refine the whole range of motion to find ones particular balance point. Some people may have a natural balance that falls in the motion exerted in the RO, some will have it to fall within the RI, some it will be somewhere between. The old saying - get out of the way of the horn and let it play - has merit. Our body wants to achieve the sound concept that we have in our mind if only we will let it.

Kenny Clawson
By clawsonk on I don't get it. on 11/29/10

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Music Therapist's Perspective

From Lyle Sans, Music Therapist

Hi, Valerie - Since leaving that comment over on Horn Matters, it's dawned on me why Jeff's method is so appealing to me as a music therapist. All the neuroscience that's coming out points to how there's all kinds of things going on simultaneously when we make music, and Jeff's book does a way better job of addressing all the different things going on than any other method I've ever encountered. Plus, he respects the student enough to lay out the tools and approaches and let the student find their particular way. Here's a post I did when I first realized all this.

Also, was delighted to see the note down below talking about the F horn. I spent most of the summer (when community band was on hiatus) just on the F horn, just trying to get the best tone I could on the octaves on either side of middle C. It's made all the difference in my playing. Sort of going back and making sure I was walking really well and naturally before returning to the leaping and running involved in 1st horn parts. And I discovered I prefer the tone of the F horn to that of the Bb, maybe because
somehow I think it resonates more in my upper body. So that note down below
was validating.

By Lyle Sanford, RMT on "Horn Matters" Linked My Blog - Wow!


Tuesday, November 9, 2010

One Year on BE, a Cheery Update

I love getting emails like this:


Just wanted to give you a one year update on my progress. BE has truly changed my playing for the better and while I was also one of those "freaks" that saw immediate improvement, my playing continued to improve throughout the past year of doing the BE exercises. Even though I was able to perform at a relatively high level prior to BE, I always struggled with endurance issues and good and bad days and had to use separate embouchures for regular playing vs extreme upper register work. Now my playing is much more consistent and my balanced embouchure allows me to play low to high to extreme without changing my embouchure. My endurance is so much better that it almost feels like I'm cheating sometimes! haha.

I can just imagine if I had started BE earlier and think it's almost a crime that BE isn't taught to more beginners and students to maximize their potential faster. There would certainly be alot less brass players quitting out of frustration if they had only tried BE from the start!


In a few years, Ron will be even more pleased with his progress. The improvements will continue. BE is dynamic system that keeps on giving for years to come.

Friday, October 22, 2010

"Horn Matters" Linked My Blog - Wow!

Dr. John Ericson has posted an article, "Joy on The Balanced Embouchure," featuring Andrew Joy. He's also linked my humble blog. And please note Lyle's excellent comments.

It's thrilling to know that I'm part of a movement that's helping hornplayers get more satisfaction from playing their instruments. It is also thrilling to see BE recognized by a respected horn professor with a very popular blog. (Wow!)

Back in March of 2007, when I made my first awkward attempts to introduce BE to the horn world, I was met by a surprizing amount of opposition. I'm glad to see hornists from all over the globe embracing BE in spite of my awkward publicity efforts.

Congratulations to all of you who bravely went where few hornplayers had gone before! (I'm hearing the Star Trek them in my mind!) Thanks to Dr. John Ericson, Andrew Joy, Lyle Sanford, and Steve Park and all my BE friends for your contributions and continued support to the BE movement. But, most of all, my heart felt gratitude goes to Jeff Smiley for developing and publishing The Balanced Embouchure.

The progress of The Balanced Embouchure in the horn community demonstrates the power of the BE message.

Warm regards, Valerie Wells

Thursday, October 21, 2010

BE for French horn Poster Child!

I just received this email from Keren in Sydney. Keren's experience in her first two weeks with BE is as close as can be to being text book perfect. Keren could be the BE for French horn poster child! Here is her testimonial:

Hi Valerie

Just thought you might like an update on how things are progressing.

It's been just over two weeks since I received the BE book - I've been practising pedal notes & lip clamps/squeaks every day and all of a sudden just now I've noticed some progress - When I picked up my horn today I suddenly found I could hit a high c - not just one - but over and over and without all the mouthpiece pressure. So I am thrilled! I just hope that it works tomorrow too!

I could already play the pedal notes quite easily - but the roll in embouchure was a
challenge - For two weeks I've been making primitive airy erratic squeaks (Goodness knows what the neighbours think) Very occasionally, out of the blue, I would hit a high note which felt good - but I could never repeat it. I kept re reading the book and the BE info on the internet was very helpful too. Anyway the persistence seems to be paying off. I've noticed that air pockets seem to make the big difference for me - it was helpful to see the youtube videos on the trumpet teacher website of players with big air pockets.

So now that I can hit the high notes I need to try and tame them - also my head has to get used to all of this - I get very lightheaded and headachey when I play the high
notes. Lip clamps are a good exercise to do while driving - but lip squeaks make me too giddy - so I thought I better be careful with those!

Anyway - now that I can play high notes with the roll in embouchure I'm looking forward to working on the exercises properly.

I'm so glad I stumbled across BE on the internet. I'm very impressed with how well the book is written - How precisely it describes the mechanics of working out your own effective personalised embouchure - I'll certainly be recommending it to any brass players I know.

Thanks for your help - I'm enjoying the feeling that high notes don't have to be a no go zone anymore!

Kind regards


Thursday, October 14, 2010

Love Stories

Most of the comments I post on this blog are related to honists' success in overcoming the technical aspects of horn playing. The following two messages are little different. These unsolicited comments were sent me in emails expressing tender feelings of why the writers study the horn.

The first is from Doug Wagner who has a professional background in low brass, but now pursues the illusive horn tone with passion.
I think it was Barry Tuckwell that wrote that the F side is very inefficient in terms of the way the instrument is built. Somehow the physics of the instrument make it more difficult to create a centered tone that can be played without danger of splitting and chipping, BUT --- that's what gives the instrument its great sound. I'm working more and more on the F side because the sound is so much better in the low and middle ranges. In some cases, I play on the F side even into the higher register, because there is a subtle but very real difference in the tone quality. For many years, I wrote arrangements that featured the horn because I loved the sound so much. As a player, I'm constantly striving for that great horn sound. When I make it, it is such a thrill!

The horn is the greatest instrument ever. It stands to reason that it would be more difficult than all the others, otherwise anyone could play it. And even though I know I'll never be the master of it, the joy is in the pursuit. And every once in a while, it's just pure magic. When I create that gorgeous sound, even for a moment, it's what keeps me going.

Last Sunday [my two children] and I played an arrangement I wrote at a recital. What a great time we had! The piece was well received and we had fun. It was such a thrill to play with my kids! What fine young persons they are. My proud Poppa buttons were bursting! It was worth every agonizing minute I have spent wrestling with the horn, all the times of self doubt and discouragement just to be able to play competently along with my kids. There is a tremendous thrill at seeing my children grow into young adults and excel at something I have loved so much.

I let music go for a long time because I burned out. Now that I've re-kindled, it's even more fun. I'm listening to music again and finding more enjoyment than ever. What a marvelous thing to experience. I loved [my daughter's]answer when I asked her if she wanted to major in music. Her reply was, "What else would I do?"



The second quotation is from Larry Jellison, a retired engineer who returned to his childhood sweetheart, the horn, a little over 10 years ago.

Hi Val,

Just checking horn playing on Youtube, came across this performance. ... I could guess the shape of the horn bell by listening. It is a medium belled horn. The recording is enhanced with some reverb. He is able to play high without becoming shrill. I admire this recording, because it focuses on what horn playing should be-- total beauty of the sound of the horn. I'm encouraged that one thing musicians like us can do is achieve an incredibly beautiful horn tone. I had just finished listening to Mason Jones on the Internet play Chabrier, using a large belled horn. Much
different sound, yet still total beauty. I think Mason played an 8D.
Articulation becomes different with a large belled horn, more difficult, but the
challenge is to find an articulation that stays true to the characteristics of the horn without sounding sluggish.


Friday, October 8, 2010

Looks can Deceive

Here's a splendid example of why we should not try to look like someone else when we play the horn:

Hi Valerie,

When I play I have a RI (rolled in) feel and when I look in a mirror at my embouchure it is still significantly RO (rolled out) . . . and that is up to high F with a
strong sound up to high E! That is weird, but h--- it works ;-)


Comment from Jonathan West:

I've had discussions with Lyle Sanford that touch on this issue. In orchestra rehearsals, conductors talk about what they want from the strings in terms of tone. They describe the techniques to be used - heel or tip of the bow, pressure vs bow speed, start on or off the string. Likewise percussionists have a well-established vocabulary for their techniques - stick speed and weight, whereabouts on the surface to strike the drum, hardness of stick etc. But for wind players, there isn't that same vocabulary of techniques. The vocabulary is more about effects than techniques. This is because what goes on for a wind player is internal (air support, tonguing etc) or consists of minute outwardly imperceptible changes around the lips. And I rather suspect that everybody visualises what is going on internally and with the lips a bit differently - and almost all the visualisations are wrong to some degree. This is probably why, if BE works for you, you can't quite tell why or how. What you See more... think is going on is probably different from what is really going on. But that doesn't matter all that much. What matters is whether the visualisation involved works for you!
By Jonathan West on Looks can Deceive on 10/14/10

Friday, September 24, 2010

BE can Revolutionize Teaching

Steve Park began studying BE 7 months ago. He related that Andrew Joy originally recommended he investigate it. Steve said he was intrigued by Jeff Smiley's website because it described the way he had been playing for years. Steve hoped to use BE to improve his students' embouchures. Below is a letter Steve recently wrote to a horn colleague about BE.

Just in case anyone reading this has never seen or heard Steve Park play, here are links to two of his outstanding youtube videos.

Hey M---, Last Monday I taught my first lessons of the new year at Utah State University. I have a new student who is a music major. She is on scholarship and plays really well. Her embouchure is set up a lot like yours. She sets the rim of the mouthpiece into her lower lip a little bit. Her high range tops out at around a G or A on a good day she said. I showed her the rolled in exercises and yesterday at her 2nd lesson she played several easy high C's. I was amazed that she figured it out so quickly and she was delighted. She said "this is fun!" She took lessons all through high school and no one ever showed her this stuff. I have another new student who also took lessons all through high school from Bruce Woodward, who is a good teacher. His low range was aweful. He could barely get the C below middle C and it was weak and
unstable. I showed him the rolled out exercises for low playing and at his lesson yesterday he played a pedal F. He said that he had never gotten anywhere near that note before. I think I said to you last Sunday that these strategies and exercises have revolutionized my teaching. I look forward to the lessons because I know how to help the students and every one of them is making great progress. I have 25 students and only one of them can't yet play a high C and a pedal F or lower. (I just started her on the exercises last week as well. I'm sure that she will be there in a few weeks or sooner.) Contact Valerie Wells and order the book and exercises. Then we can get together and I will show you what I have been doing with my students. You are about to become a high horn playing maniac!!!

Friday, June 25, 2010

Flat Chin: Andrew Joy Sets the Record Straight!

Andrew wishes to set the record straight about his chin:

Hi Valerie, I was working in the orchestra this week and only now got around to reading your blog. I was surprised to read that I play with a flat chin. I don't know where that opinion comes from. It is definitely not mine. My former teacher in Cologne, Erich Penzel is really big on the flat chin (or was in my time with him). My limit, using his method, was a high B flat and on a good day, like when I won the Cologne audition, I could squeeze out a passable high C.

A couple of years later whilst preparing Daphnes and Chloe for a German tour with the orchestra, I stumbled on the roll in technique when ascending. Subsequent investigation revealed Barry Tuckwell (in the Farkas book) doing the same. Since I was a great fan of Barry's playing, I assumed I was onto something important.

Those days I didn't make the further connection of the tongue touching (and supporting) the bottom lip. I then got completely off track preparing and recording the Ligeti Trio and actually hurt my bottom lip. An injury thereafter, a blister in the middle of my bottom lip with a tiny hole in the middle of it, led me to talking with a trumpet colleague who introduced me to Jerome Callet. Which led to Jeff Smiley and BE.

Looks can be deceiving. I am acutely aware of the "FEELING" difference between a flat and a bunched chin. My "FEELING" when playing these days is definitely bunched.

Best wishes,
Andrew Joy

Thank you, my dear friend Andrew, and my sincerest apologies for misrepresenting your agile chin! Your point is well made and well taken.

Here are links to a couple interesting interviews with Andrew.

Valerie Wells

Thursday, June 17, 2010

I Don't Get It

I'm my previous article, Jonathan describes what he calls a “huge breakthrough” from doing the Roll-Out exercises (RO). He believes he was prompted or guided to change his embouchure set-up in the right direction by something he experienced while practicing RO. Jonathan's experience is consistent with stories Jeff Smiley has shared about trumpet players whose embouchures were transformed through practicing only the RO.

I understand that RO can and does improve embouchures, often in dramatic ways. What I don't get is HOW it is done. The mechanics of this process escape my reasoning ability. I can only postulate that the trumpet players Jeff talks about, like Jonathan, were missing some weighty element on one end of the range of motion spectrum. Adding RO provided the needed weight that brought “balance” to their chops. It's a nice & tidy sounding theorem, but what does this mean in a mechanical nuts & bolts way inside the mouthpiece? I don't know.

When I started BE, I experienced a "huge breakthrough" directly from the RI exercises. It was easy for me to see, feel and understand the connection: roll in, play higher, clearer & stronger on a firmer part of the lips! Tadah! But for me, exactly HOW Roll Out exercises can produce similar and dramatic improvements remains the mysterious part of BE. Seeing results such as JP and others have had with RO proves to me that BE is more than just rolling in for high and out for low. The opposing forces of RO and RI as well as other maneuvers in BE merge to produce something greater than these do when used singularly.

I’m glad I don’t have to understand the inner workings of the embouchure to help myself and other horn players improve. It’s satisfying enough to know I can help others by simply encouraging them to do the exercises. That's easy. Like Doug Wagner writes: "Spend the time, do the exercises. It works."

Below are responses and insights to what I've written above:

I don't get it.--oh, yes you do!

This does make sense. I agree with your postulate. I would take it even farther by speculating that BE allows one to search for one's best embouchure in ways that mysteriously could involve more than just RI and RO adjustments: for examples, it could allow one to feel for one's best inner-cup embouchure that Farkas writes about; it could allow one to adjust the vertical alignment of the lips; it could allow one to discover that embouchure position could be more dynamic and changeable than we usually think of it as being-- I know that I don't always play with the exact same embouchure, that through BE practice, my lip positions are more versatile to move around a bit similar to an experienced baseball pitcher being able to change his body and arm positions in throwing pitches (I love the comparison of a horn player hitting a note to a baseball pitcher throwing a strike!). Why would I move my lip positions around? Well, for us older folks and those on medications, I find that my lips aren't the same everyday; indeed, my lips change during a single playing session, and I need to make slight embouchure adjustments to accommodate lip swelling and other idiosyncratic lip changes. As a youth I never seemed to need to deal with changeable lips, or, at least, I wasn't aware of it at the time.

If we aren't crazy to decide to play the horn, we eventually become crazy as we learn to play the horn.

Understanding how RO exercises can make an embouchure work better, even on high register, can be a challenge. I got myself the most benefits from RO practicing, but I am not sure I really understand how it works. I have clues but may not get the whole picture. Three months after starting on BE, I was able to play up to high F when practicing RO#4. I had a big week of rehearsal and concert, very tiring, after which I lost this ability to play higher than High C. After a few months of patience, it is back, but with a slightly bigger proportion of RI, and a much better connection with the rest of my range. It is hard to catch for our analytical minds, but even my high F on the horn and even my high F on the trumpet show some elements of RO.
I think it is hard to understand mainly because the perfect RO set up is not that easy to find, and the RO feel is harder to get on the horn with our narrow rim mouthpieces. I really feel RO much better on the trumpet with a more cushioned rim. Also, on the horn, we tend to associate RO with soft lips, and relaxed muscles, whereas I believe RO relies more on firm lips than we would believe.
This seems to directly contradict the understanding you showed when pointing out that RI is not just for high notes, and RO is not just for low notes. sounds remarkably contradictory to the strongly-worded essay you posted on why RI does not equal high notes. Maybe its just me, but I have a difficult time getting that contradiction out of my mind.

The actual shape of the lips dictate how much RI or RO is required. For some players, with a particular lip architecture, both lips rolled out could actually facilitate high notes, as they have a double fold of inner lip tissue which acts as the vibrating surface. Other players actually use the tongue in place of the lower lip with great success. Both conditions are rare, however.

Jeff Smiley
Hi Valerie - one of the great things about BE is that it does not purport to be a one size fits all thing. It's ok to roll out more than roll in...if that works for you...and vice versa. One of the problems some folks have with previous attempts at technical codification is that their successes were sometimes devalued because they were 'doing it wrong'.
It's kind of like what Duke Ellington said about music - 'there are two kinds of music...good music and bad music.'
We could go on for a LOOOOONG time about how today's success can often be breeding tomorrow's failure - short cuts and dead ends and all that. But in the end, our audience does not care 'how' we do what we do...they simply prefer excellence over over technical display.
The horn and brass in general are difficult...but we often make it more difficult than it is by our desire to know - to the nth degree - every why, where, and how.
Sandra Clark, Toledo Symphony Orchestra
Back to home.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

"Huge Breakthrough" with Roll-Out Exercises

This made my day! Read what Jonathan just wrote to me.....

So here is the latest in my saga...I have recently changed my embouchure setting to put more top lip in the mouthpiece and setting the rim on the bottom lip; it is completely different than my old setting which was apparently all wrong, because I have seen an almost overnight improvement in endurance, accuracy, mobility and slurs. It has also allowed me to play fff in the mid and low registers and add some edge when needed. I cannot play the high register with this setting (yet). I believe that this new setting is a result of the RO exercises, and it is probably what most other players are using, but since it is hard for them to describe what they are doing, and you can't see inside the mouthpiece while they're playing, I never realized that I was using a setting that was inefficient and holding back my progress. I feel like this is a huge breakthrough for me!

I keep forgetting that BE does not prescribe an "ideal" setting, just what works, and BE helps you find that.... apparently BE has done that for me; I NEVER would have even thought of playing with this new setting. So, this new setting is like riding a stallion; it has raw power and grace, I just have harness it. My practice now is aimed at getting the "feel" of each note with the new setting...

I KNEW that there was something fundamental that I was doing wrong, the symptoms told me that... unfortunately no one but you and BE steered me in the right direction. I got the classic list of solutions from teachers, friends and pros, none of which (important as they each are) got to the heart of the problem.... you need more air, you're too tight, too loose, too puckered, too smiley, too much pressure, not enough pressure, too much practice, not enough practice, not enough support, wrong mouthpiece, wrong horn, it's mental.... believe me it was MAKING me mental!!! Not any more.... I'm loving my practices.... thanks Val, you're the best!

Thanks, but Jeff Smiley deserves the credit! All I did was provide the book and a little encouragement to stick with the program.


Back home.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Forget the Chin!

“I don’t think BE will work for me, I play with a flat chin.”
“Andrew Joy plays with a flat chin, so that's not really BE.”

I've read statements like this. They are based upon a misconception that BE is an embouchure method that forbids a flat chin and requires a bunched chin. BE is not a particular embouchure (and thus there is no "BE embouchure") but rather a set of exercises that guides the individual horn player to develop an efficient embouchure regardless of how it visually appears.

Some BE'ers, including Andrew Joy* and Sandra Clark, play with flat chins. Some BE'ers, like myself, played with flat chins when they began studying BE and have seen gradual changes in chin shape. Some BE'ers have never played with a flat chin. However, anyone who regularly practices one or more of the BE exercises is legitimately developing their own personal BE embouchure regardless of their chin appearance.

The flat chin is neither a requirement nor a taboo in BE. A bunched chin embouchure is not the goal of the BE development system, however it is sometimes the result. The goal of BE is an efficient embouchure, not a specific chin shape.

Many believe Jeff Smiley is "against” the flat chin. He is not. Jeff Smiley is against requiring a flat chin. Here’s a related experience Guillaume, recently shared:

Yesterday was high F day! I went to my favorite horn shop in Paris after work and tried a couple of mouthpieces, mainly for fun... I ended up playing high F after high F on one of my regular mouthpieces (Holton Farkas MC). Even the Farkas SC gave lesser results. I just started higher (i.e. in the staff) than I usually do when I try to play above high C (usually start on pedal notes). I just hope I can have this back in the next days and weeks... And as strange as it can be, my lips were not fully RI [rolled in] ... I still had a significant bit of RO [rolled out] and almost no bunching chin... I am a bit puzzled by this I have to say...Those are my last experiments… And after one year on BE, I guess I can be proud of the way I already travelled... thank you for your advice and Jeff for writing the book.
A few days later Guillaume followed up with this:

It's still there. It is just another embouchure set up I can use for extreme high wire range or heavy 1st horn parts, I can more or less make it work from middle C. My regular RO [rolled out] set up gives me a fuller tone, but "only" up to high D (E flat when lucky). I started to see how I can transition between both... it seems doable. The real fun is to see how my chin can move freely, even on high F, up, down... whatever.
Guillaume summarizes the BE chin issue with one word: “whatever."
*Since this posting, I've learned that Andrew's flat chin days are long over. Please see the posting on June 25, 2010 to read Andrew's response.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Doug Wagner's Testimonial: It works!

I am filled with admiration of Jeff Smiley for taking on the whole academic establishment with his assertion of BE. What a great statement of certitude! Here - Do this. It works. No apology, no hedging. It works. Spend the time, do the exercises. It works. So I bought the book, taking on faith his certainty. Guess what? It works.

Doug Wagner

Thanks for sharing, Doug.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Transition Period: The Darkness Before Dawn


BE is going very well for me; I can't exactly describe it, but there is a more positive "feel" to my embouchure, the tone is more substantial.... particular notes that were always thin, stuffy, or unresponsive are sounding much better; arpeggios, both slurred and tongued are much improved, and the endurance and range is improving.
Jonathan has corresponded with me regularly since he began studying BE five months ago. He was so frustrated with his lack of progress a couple months ago, he put his horn down for a few weeks to take a break from the intensity of the situation. He was discouraged having failed with various other embouchure methods in the past and seemed tempted to stop studying BE.

I call a few BE students "fast responders" because improvements come so quickly it seems almost instant. But for the vast majority, it takes months to a year or more consistently practicing the exercises before they realize significant improvements.

The BE path is usually one of gradual and steady improvement, but for some it's not. I've gotten feedback from a few who have experienced a significant period of difficulty as their embouchures began to change.

One particular BE student after three months of seeing few visible signs of progress labeled herself as a "slow learner." While her overall tone continually improved from the very beginning of her BE study, she was frustrated that her endurance and range seemed "stuck" in the same spots they were prior to BE. She never-the-less persisted her BE studies and at the end of month five joyfully reported a breakthrough in both endurance and range.

The transition period challenges the BE student's will to continue. Those who weather the storm and persist find the dawning of a brighter day.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Decisions, Decisions....

Several great questions came from a Doug, a three month BE’er:

"Is there some point in time or development where you're supposed to start moving from RO to RI as you ascend?"
Yes, as soon as you learn the RO and RI exercises you should begin practicing the Advanced Slip slurs to start the process of bridging the gap. The goal is a "continuous flex" as we ascend with no breaks. However, this goal comes from a trumpet player. Trumpet players strive for a no break, no reset embouchure and I believe they can achieve it more readily than a horn player. After all, when compared to horn players, trumpet players only have a mid and high range, no low register. Many horn players have a break, or a place where they must switch or shift their embouchure setting to accommodate the requirements of the range. Doug continues,
"I've been working on bringing the playable notes in RO up as high as I can. I think this is an area where I could use some face to face instruction."
I'd love to work with Doug face to face, but I'm not sure I have the answers he seeks.

At this point he has several directions he might move towards:
(1) switching from RO to RI seamlessly somewhere along the way up and vice versa
(2) developing some sort of RO-RI hybride to play the full range
(3) developing a RO that plays the full range
(4) developing a RI that plays the whole range
(5) developing a RI and a RO that significantly overlap to avoid resetting within phrases
(6) doing something completely different that I can't even imagine!

The Advanced Lip Slurs are designed to extend the range upwards and downwards step by step so the player can use techniques learned in RO and RI exercises to discover movements to eliminate or minimize awkward "breaks." It's impossible to say where any one player will shift from RO to RI or if they will need to. It will depend on personal architecture as well as the embouchure they start with, playing needs, personal choices, practice habits, etc.

BE students are encouraged to experiment with the extremes of the exercises to help them discover lips shapes and movements to develop more efficient "chops." BE is not like other methods that prescribe mouthpiece placement and exactly what one must do with the lips, the tongue, the teeth, for regular playing. Because BE is based upon universal principles, BE exercises compliment other methods so the BE student is free to explore and investigate other methods. One never knows where an important piece of the embouchure puzzle will be found.

Below is an example of a bold move a fellow horn player on BE recently made to tackle a very challenging situation.

"I have been flirting with BE for over a year with few results--I still can't get a decent RI. When I work on BE, my regular playing suffers, particularly high and soft playing, though TOL has helped that. The problem with my accustomed embouchure is that it is "conditional," and I don't have good endurance. However, a week ago I was faced with a grueling concert last night preceded by a rehearsal. First horn on Gershwin's Cuban Overture, Rhapsody in Blue, and American in Paris, plus I'm rehearsing Tchaikovsky's fifth, which is a lot of high playing, and I'm trying out for the solo. So, a week ago I did what you shouldn't do: I switched to the smaller mouthpiece I use with BE and changed my embouchure to lips together and air pockets behind both lips. Result: I got through the rehearsal and concert with no endurance problems. I could have played another concert. I had more clams than usual--usually when the air pockets collapsed, but the high notes sailed out, as well as the low. Today my chops feel fine.

"This is not a 'BE embouchure,' if there is such a thing, but certainly was influenced by the BE practice.

"It looks like I'm committed. I would expect that BE practice will only help with this setup. Sometimes desperation helps."

I have to disagree that Henry did what he "shouldn't do." I also disagree with his conclusion that this isn't a "BE embouchure." If it worked, it’s correct. And if BE exercises influenced it, then it is a "BE embouchure," no matter what it looks like!

I’ve encouraged Henry to work on this set up & see what he can accomplish with it. If he can make it perform cleanly with a nice tone, why not use it? He can call it his personal BE embouchure! :o)

Through my experiences with BE, I’ve had the privilege of getting well acquainted with some super good horn players. Some use a rolled in setting for the high range and gradually transfer to a more rolled out setting for the low. A few use a rolled in setting for all of their playing, even the low register. Others use a hybride of both roll in and roll out in varying degrees depending on the range. It varies from player to player.

If anyone is dissatisfied with their embouchure, it is important to actively explore as many avenues as possible, even things that seem strange or radical, in our pursuit of one's personal "balanced embouchure."

Monday, April 12, 2010

Knowing, Understanding vs Feeling

I learn so much from my BE horn friends. Read this interesting comment from Gill [italics added].

Dear Val,

Yesterday evening, I went through a nice experience. I was trying a couple of BE things on my trumpet, without any real other aim but having some fun after my day at work, and I suddenly found a lip set up (I'd say, 90% of RO and 10% of RI) which allowed me to hit high Cs one after the other with absolutely no mpc pressure while doing RO#4. I knew from my previous experiments on the horn that I was more of a RO type of player, but up till now it was another kind of RO feeling... Yesterday I felt for the first time the foreward - inward motion of RO up to high C and the
repetition made me feel what happens on low C that I need to drag up so I can climb up there easily.

"Muscles moving toward the mpc while ascending." I surely knew and understood what it was about and I already had a kind of feeling before. But now it's a whole new feeling associated with it. There a huge difference between understanding the principals of embouchure development and feeling them.

You can understand the concepts, but it will be nothing until you feel them in practice, and the path is quite well hidden.

...the one solution: "practice", and the first rule: "BE patient!"

Take care.

If any of you have a trumpet or another brass instrument, it can be beneficial to experiment on it. Experimenting on an unfamiliar brass instrument removes the elements that are unique to the instrument and gives you the opportunity to isolate and explore the universal principals that BE is based upon. After I'd studied BE on horn for a year or more, I began to experiment with BE on trumpet. I discovered a whole new, extreme technique for double pedals with the lower lip fully outside the mouthpiece. I had read the book, knew & understood the logic behind it, but, like Gill, I hadn't felt it yet. Experiencing the new technique on trumpet introduced me to a whole new feeling that wasn't available to me on horn alone. I was able to transfer the techniques to horn and expand on my range of motion that is so beneficial to development.

Valerie Wells

Friday, March 5, 2010

Good News From Across the Pond

I always love hearing good news of BE from across the pond! This is from a horn playing friend in France.

Dear Valerie,

I have not written you for a long time .... I had a big breakthrough finally connecting my lower register to my upper one. The mpc change helped a lot, giving my lips the needed space to MOVE! Now lip slurs on 3 octaves are just a fun game for me! My embouchure is more flexible than ever and shows a real continuity. There again, my mpc allows my lip to move freely and get the most efficient shape to hit the highest pitches. It's weird, but holy potato it works! I still have to refine my endurance... but with BE I know it's just possible... patience will be the secret for that one!
I can make my low register rattle like on a bass trombone (you should see the looks on my directors face when I do it), and when I slur up to a full high C, other horn players look puzzled (how come a guy who's been on the horn for only four years can do this...) even professional players. I discovered that very few can play on more than three and a half octave with a full sound! But the real thing is now I can take time to practice other stuff than BE (scales, lip trill, and repertoire)


Saturday, February 27, 2010

Playing Horn is Like Golf

From a come back player:


We were watching a movie about golf tonight during dinner. The theme of it was that everyone has their own swing, unlike anyone else’s which they have to find in order to play well. That led me to think about how I had been experimenting with thinking about Mozart One, 1st movement. How was I going to play each note: pitch, how to tongue it, what fingering to use, where was I coming from, where was I going? The piece represents a milestone for me for reasons I'll explain some other time.

It was an exhausting experiment. It took me forty minutes to get through the piece. Then I played it through with out stop, and found that I had decreased the number of errors, chipped notes, etc by at least half, and those errors were because I hadn't sufficiently internalized the decisions I had made during the earlier practice.

I am starting to think that the really great players do the same thing, but do it so quickly, as to make it seem that they are "naturals." Someone once told me that there is less difference between the results that amateurs can achieve versus professionals, than how long it takes them to achieve the same result. I always liked that, because it gave me hope that with sufficient effort, I could achieve the results I desire. Needless to say the horn is providing a daunting challenge to that aspiration.

Well, some aspirations take longer than others. I tried a trill in einsetzen tonight, and the best I can report is that I think it is possible. Lest you laugh, that is a huge leap for me. I never thought before BE that I could play above the pedals in einsetzen. BE is showing me that the operative part of the word "assume" is the first three letters. That's what you make of yourself if you don't ever challenge what you think you know. I love the quote you have about the person who thought the concept was stupid, and then found out who was really stupid. Been there done that.

I also learned today that I haven't spent nearly enough time earnestly working on lip slurs. Is it too late for New Year's resoulutions?


Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Notion of Unifying the Embouchure

The BE development system has exercises in two main categories: (1) the extreme roll-out which favors low notes, (2) the extreme roll-in which favors high notes. The exercises challenge the player to push the envelop of embouchure function by extending the range within the categories. The roll-out embouchure exercises start on double pedals and ascend as far as possible upwards with the roll-out set up. The roll-in exercises mirror image this by extending use of the roll-in embouchure into the lowest possible range.

The goal of BE is to use these and other exercises, plus specific tonguing and breathing techniques to give the brass player the technical skill to use a continuous flexing of the lips to navigate the full range of the instrument minimizing and ultimately eliminating awkward embouchure changes.

In the quote below, David G. aptly described this goal as "unifying the embouchure" in his memory of a past insight that embodies a key principle of the BE development system:

For some unknown reason . . . I remembered that years ago someone wrote to the horn list about having a break in embouchure somewhere in the midst of our tessitura - a point where he/she had to change embouchures. I wrote in to recommend practicing playing a simple scale from the bottom to see where the break occurred, then playing a scale from the top down to see where the break occurred, and assuming that there was overlap - there had to be - that it was worthwhile to extend those breakpoints as much as possible until it might happen that there would no longer be any break point. There was a bit of other advice, but the one that stood out in my mind was the one that pooh-poohed the notion of unifying the embouchure. Well, that's a chortle. I guess the idea was a very primitive first pass at BE.
Thanks for sharing, David.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Feedback from a 3rd year Horn Student of BE

Kyra is the second horn player I shared BE with over three years ago. When we met, she had been playing horn for about 7 years. At the time, Kyra and I had several things in common: limited range, limited endurance, rotten tone and a strong desire to improve! We used to kid around about being the gals in the band who "pretended to be horn players!" Kyra is a busy mom and music educator who is limited in the amount of time she can devote to practicing, but she has disciplined herself to include BE exercises into her daily routine. I've enjoyed watching tiny Kyra, maybe 100 pounds soaking wet, grow into an strong horn player with a nice big sound and formidable range. Below is a message I received from Kyra in response to a "BE for French Horn" email I recently distributed.


Thanks for the info! I am still practicing BE, and I still love it! My low register is 1000 times better!! I can hit a double pedal C any day, any time. Still working on my upper register, still can't hit a High D all the time, but High C is always there.


Sheesh, Kyra! Too bad about that unreliable High D, but I think you're doing just fine. I also think you're a real horn player now! Thanks for sharing your success with other horn players!


Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Horn Players, Beware!

Doug, a trombone player, decided to take up French horn 4+ years ago. New to BE, he's coming on strong, so horn players beware! With Doug's permission, I'm sharing an email I received from him yesterday.


What I'm noticing is that everything feels better. This is how it used to feel when I was playing all the time, chops in great shape, and fearless about going for notes. Kamakazi horn if you will. I've been inspired by Bruno (what a great name for a horn player) and got out the Mozart Horn quintet. The last time I attempted it, it was pure struggle, today it was approachable. The thing that just made me set my horn down in awe, was that eight bars from the end there is a high C eighth note approached from a C an octave lower and followed by eighth note D a seventh lower. That sucker popped out like I'd been doing it all my life. It was so much fun I did it five more times.

I used to belong to a new age church that taught us to visualize and believe in what we wanted to do, before it manifested itself. So sometimes I'm a dreamer. My dream is to sit amongst four strings, in my tux, forty pounds lighter, and blow everyone away with my definitive rendition of the Mozart Horn quintet. What do you think? Well, OK. Like I said, I'm a dreamer.

OH. GOOD HEAVENS! You are going to laugh at me. I just realized that this piece is for Horn in Eb. I've been playing it in F! I'm going to have to turn in my IHS membership card as they paint a yellow stripe down my back and drum me out of the corps and confiscate my 8D! Later. I have to go try this again.


Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Embouchure and Cherry Picking

I liken the embouchure to a cherry orchard. You’ve got 300 trees, but only some make sweet cherries. Your job as a cherry picker is to find and pick only the sweetest cherries. It will take quite some time to sample the fruit of all 300 trees, so you need an easy-to-use system to enable you to quickly locate and remember the best cherry producing trees before the season is over. If you approach the orchard randomly you are sure to miss some trees, check others redundantly, and forget where the best fruit is found.

The embouchure is like a cherry orchard because there are hundreds of lip shapes (trees) possible, but not all will produce the desired notes (sweetest cherries). The Balanced Embouchure (BE) is a system that enables you to explore all possible lip shapes in a short period of time, with enough built-in repetition to store the memory of the most desirable note-producing shapes into both the mind and the muscle. It sounds complex, but BE is so simple, children master it.

The Balanced Embouchure systematically challenges the embouchure (or scans the orchard) in these important ways: (1) to play from as low as possible to as high as possible on an a “low note” embouchure, (2) to play from as high as possible to as low as possible on a “high note” embouchure, (3) tonguing with a rolled-out embouchure and (4) tonguing with the rolled-in embouchure, (5) an articulation/breathing challenge for accuracy and stability of attacks (snaps), (6) a breathing/articulation challenge to encourage tone support of individual notes, and (7) a breathing challenges to encourage support of the tone through phrases (specific crescendos). The basic Roll-Out and Roll-In exercises provide all this (and more) in a tidy, user friendly package that only takes about 12 to 20 minutes to execute.

The BE system is an organized plan for scanning all the possible shapes an embouchure can produce. The Roll-Out and Roll-In exercises are for locating and identifying the lip shapes that produce desirable notes. The Advanced Lip Slurs develop speed and efficiency to smoothly move from one desirable shape to the next.

To further abuse the cherry orchard analogy: BE is the plan that provides an organized method for checking every tree in the orchard. Roll-Out and Roll-In exercises are the part of the plan that provides a ladder to climb each tree to sample its fruit. The Advanced Lip Slurs are like providing a motorized cherry lift that makes quick work of gathering the sweetest cherries.

I hope this helps horn players better understand the purpose and value of each BE exercise as well as the entire BE development system. Understanding this should help the BE student appreciate that BE is greater than the sum of its parts. Practicing any one single exercise will provide benefits to the embouchure, but working the whole system is the surest way to achieve the maximum results of The Balanced Embouchure is designed to deliver.

Valerie Wells

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Fear and the Embouchure

"Fear is a great multiplier of embouchure problems," wrote Jeff Smiley on the Trumpet Herald Balanced Embouchure Forum.
Below is a private email I received from CM, one of our fellow BE students that plays horn. CM's experience perfectly demonstrates how fear can interfere with embouchure function and what can be done to alleviate it. I believe CM's insights and coping strategies can be a valuble example for us all, so with her permission I share them below. I'm grateful that CM is allowing us this treasured glimpse into the intimate side of her horn playing life. [Location details removed.]

"Hello Valerie, ... I just came back from [the city] shows last night. We had 4 shows, I did very well for two, not so great for two. I don't think it was due to my embouchure. My embouchure worked very well. I think for the last show I did not do well, it was due to my mental tension. Our top manager came our show last night. I was nervous for some reason, therefore, I felt my fingers and lips were a little "out of control" for a few moments. When I focused on the music only, I was back normal.
"During those days in [the city] (even on the day we had two shows) I kept practicing BE. I want to feel confident that my embouchure was strong enough. I got up very early in the morning to practice BE. And when everyone was practicing during the day, I meditated Falun Gong to rest myself. It worked very well. I see your point about RI#3 and #4 and RO#4. I also applied my horn teacher's method--singing the notes. I tried to sing the notes and forget about embouchure or lip change--let the lips to do the RI and RO by itself. It worked well when I was very focused on the music.
"Overall, I am happy with my tone and volume for the shows during the tour. I still need to work hard on RI/RO coordination and range. The other day I found Wagner's Long Call was a good exercise for "melting" RI/RO. I will keep working on it. Thanks again. Take care,CM"

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Hooray for the come-back player!

This came from Theodore Greaves:

"Thanks. I'm a comeback player of 3 years. With the help of BE I have gained lower range I never had at my best in the early 70's , and I have been playing well above high C like I did 35 years ago. Never thought it would happen. Ted"

Thanks, Ted. This makes me smile!

Valerie Wells