Saturday, October 12, 2013

Interview with Sam Minnich

Sam Minnich playing Bach Cantata 79 "Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild" mvt 1
Go, Sam!

Valerie:  Tell us a little about your music background, Sam.

Sam:  I grew up in a very musical house. My father is a huge fan of classical music, and has an enormous self-recorded collection of radio broadcast live performances. I grew up listening to the sounds of the great symphony orchestras, primarily the Boston Symphony Orchestra. My mother is a fan of folk and blues music, and taught me to play guitar at the age of 6. At age 10 I started playing the horn, after a brief unsuccessful attempt at piano lessons. A couple of years later I started playing trumpet in the school jazz band. I picked up the harmonica somewhere in my teenage years as well, starting with blues, and recently branching out into jazz. After high school I went on to study horn at the Boston conservatory, and later at New England Conservatory with Gus Sebring, associate principle horn of the Boston Symphony. I played with a lot of the second tier orchestras in the New England area before moving to Germany, where I currently live. I've built a new career consisting of a good balance of performance and teaching over the past years. The fact that I've always had diversity in my musical life has been of great benefit to me.

Valerie:  What prompted you to investigate The Balanced Embouchure?

Sam:  In October of 2012 I played one of the most physically taxing pieces of my career, Bach Cantata no. 79. The piece has over 20 high D's in it, and the 3rd movement is 62 bars of stratospheric Bach madness! Having barely scraped by in the red zone in the concert had already made me start thinking about ways to make my playing more efficient. A couple weeks later I met Andrew Joy, due to some questions I had about the Joy Key (which by the way is a brilliant invention!). We hit it off instantly, and spent the next several hours exchanging ideas and experimenting with different concepts. That day he showed me several books for horn I had never seen. One of those books was The Balanced Embouchure.  I ordered it the next day.

Valerie:  Andrew is one of BE's greatest ambassadors! What were your initial impressions after reading the book?

Sam:  After reading through the book, I thought there were a lot of things in it that were very unconventional. A lot of things made sense, and I agreed with Jeff Smiley on his assessment of many aspects of playing. I tend to be very open for new ideas anyway, so it was a nice breath of fresh air for my approach to horn. One of the main things that stuck out to me was his insistence that the Balanced Embouchure method is not an embouchure change, but a system designed to develop efficiency with your already existing embouchure. I was lucky that one of my teachers early on helped me to find an embouchure that worked for me, and I haven't had to go through the horror of a major embouchure change like so many of my colleagues. Embouchure is also something that is always developing, and to be honest, I have no idea how my embouchure will look in 10 years. BE seems to be guiding me in my lifelong quest for the ultimate in efficiency, absolutely effortless playing which enables me to directly transfer my exact musical intent. It's an   unacheivable ideal, but that's what we're all striving for, isn't it?

Valerie:  What improvements have you noticed as a result of studying BE for the past year?

Sam:  Definitely more ease and endurance when playing. I had a few heavy multiple rehearsal days a couple of months into studying BE, and was really surprised how little lasting fatigue I experienced. At the end of the day, I felt almost as fresh as at the beginning. I feel like my playing is also gaining consistency due to BE. I don't have quite as much variation from day to day as before, and I know how it's going to feel and sound when I pick up the horn. It's like flipping a switch, and it's there. Warming up is becoming less and less necessary. My high register is stretching itself out as well. E above high C is a really solid note now. F is getting there. I can feel the potential to take it much higher. I can actually get squeaks up into the double C range. They're not yet so controllable, and the strength of sound isn't yet there, but it's something that was unthinkable for me before BE. Another thing I've noticed is how quickly I recover my conditioning when taking extended time away from the horn. I recently took 16 days off from playing while on vacation, only using the Warburton P.E.T.E. training device once daily and doing the occasional lip clamp squeak during that time. I came back feeling stronger than when I left! It only took me about a day or 2 to find my accuracy, but I was really shocked by how quickly everything was there again. BE just makes it all focus.

Valerie:  Wonderful, Sam! How do you feel about introducing BE to your students and other horn players?

Sam: I've been using bits and pieces with a lot of my students, getting them to practice the RO pedals, and RI high notes. I've introduced a couple of my more advanced students to the whole system, and it's had a big influence on their playing. I've also found that introducing young beginner students to RI as a means of playing high notes makes it a lot easier for many of them to play high. Some of my 8 year old students can already hit a top staff F. I think that learning these concepts at an early age will help them greatly in the future. It gets me excited to think about a new generation of students who know from the start how to get their embouchures balanced. I'm not sure how many other BE teachers use elements of it on beginner students.

I'm a little bit careful when mentioning BE to my colleagues. It's important to read the signals someone is sending to see if they are receptive to such unconventional ideas. I have a few fellow horn players that have responded with interest, and I've been very open with them about my progress due to BE. It's definitely a long term goal of mine to spread the word about BE in my circles. A lot of my colleagues also do a lot of teaching, and I think BE could be a great help for them, seeing as how they don't have large amounts of time to devote to daily practice. The efficiency of practice time that BE offers is really one of it's greatest values.

Valerie:  Thank you, Sam, for your splendid example.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Colin Ng, Still Discovering with BE

First, a little disclaimer!  What you see demonstrated in this video is NOT a requirement of the BE method.  This is Colin having fun extending a specific BE exercise beyond the norm. 

  • Colin Ng has taken Lip Clamp Squeak to a whole new level!  Colin recently shared this on FaceBook:  

  •  Colin Ng

    Dear fellows,just to share a little "discovery". I have been experimenting for a long time (4-5 years) various chop building devices like Warburton PETE, BERP, pencil trick, "chop sticks" concept, the new brio device, narrow straws and short of some bizarre versions of lip/facial flex spring loaded toys.
    I decided to conclude this wild goose chase finally. The best way to develop the Orbicularis Oris muscle (circular band around the top and bottom lips especially at the corners.) is device free, and happens to be the unsuspecting and innocent BE initiation before the RI exercises called the Lip Clamp Squeak or LCS....

    In short, Once you manage to get air through the clamp setup, followed by some seemingly embarrassing and pathetic squeaks, and eventually a few workable notes in high buzz, you can observe in the mirror how much more flexed and pronounced the OO muscles have become. For the chops to maintain the clamp against the out going air, they really have to work to narrow in. and for the air to even make it through the clamp, our abdominals have to really work to get the wind support up against the resistance. chop strength and air support/speed for great sound/high notes all addressed in one exercise.

    We get to have one lean mean machine there; no toys no expenses. High notes and great stamina can happen even before achieving the RI-#1 properly.

    I "forced" myself to clock in 10-15 minutes of nursery rhymes (5 notes melody) on LCS. Like a body builder torturing himself because he can't wait to flex his muscles in front of a gym mirror. It looks firm and 'chiseled' in the mirror and when I play normal repertoire it really feels easy and great.  

Newbie Preparing for the BE Journey

Here I've cut and pasted various posts from the Balanced Embouchure for Horn group on FaceBook.!/groups/101746176633232/
  •  Rhodri Spearing:  The journey begins *today*!  Wish me luck...
    The journey begins *today*! Wish me luck...

    • Rhodri, a wise investment.

    •  Rhodri Spearing:
      I'm praying with every ounce of my being that you're right. I'm approaching 3 years now of endless frustration, and I've tried *everything* to get my chops to work, with only temporary and limited success...I really feel like this is all that's left now. "Help me BE you're my only hope"...
    • .. do best to forget all concepts, conventions and imagination until you are done reading for its simple literal meanings and practicing like you are ignorant and under supervision of an esteemed master. Then FORGET BE totally when doing 'normal' stuffs like etudes, excepts or repertoire. Do not expect miracles but enjoy things getting surprisingly easier little by little, day by day.

    •  Colin Ng: 
      Colin Ng there is no end; no 100%. You just keep discovering things getting easier each day... for me, its been like that since 2011. Just when you thought you know something, you go even further the next day... Then you start to wonder, did we actually know anything at all? That is the genius of Jeff Smiley. Just as Beatrice put it, "BE is not an embouchure"

    •  Well said, Colin and Beatrice. BE is definitely NOT an embouchure. It will help you discover awareness and understanding where there was previously frustration and confusion. I swear that rarely a day goes by without me feeling like some small thing is intuitively, unconsciously being tweaked. But know that you cannot force it to happen. Doing BE exercises for hours a day is NOT what it's about. He gives such GREAT advice in the book. Heed it well and things will start happening. And when you have that first "Aha" moment, you'll feel an enormous weight lifted off of your shoulders. Good luck and enjoy new beginnings.

      Everything I have learned and am continuing to learn from BE thus far, has done more to help me understand "traditionalist" approaches than any of the language that they tend to use. But we're preaching to the choir here! :-) BE is like a "key" to understanding some previously unintelligible language. Use it the way he (Smiley) suggests, play and forget about it, read it again, think some more, play some more, etc., etc., and little by little, over time, as your playing improves and changes in ways that you truly cannot comprehend just yet, you'll experience just how grateful you are to have discovered that "key."

      Rhodri, just enjoy the ride for a while. You will not likely have daily revelations, and you may not have any for a while. But something will happen at some point and you'll realize that the only reason you even recognize that it did is because you have the "key." 

      Valerie Wells: 
    • I found the most appropriate sentence one time on the BE forum of Trumpet Herald: "BE is not boot camp!" I never have been able to find who said it. It sums it up so well. BE isn't boot camp or a severe gymnasium workout. It's more like a university for your embouchure.

       Rhodri Speearing: 
    • Day 1 over and my perception of playing is already beginning to change. Looking forward to what tomorrow might bring!

    •  Beatrice Latherings: 
      Just remember it is not a quick fix; it's a journey.

    •  Valerie Wells: 
       BE is intended to be a friendly influence on the embouchure, not a hostile takeover!

       Colin Ng: 
    • To BE is not to BE.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

One Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

If one picture is worth a thousand words, one video is worth one-hundred thousand words. Steve Park made a video recording of me demonstrating a few of the basic BE techniques. I distribute a link to this private youtube video to all who buy the BE book.  I'm always and tickled when I receive feedback like this!  I'm grateful for Steve's support and, of course, for Jeff Smiley's BE method.  After studying it for 8 years, I'm still mesmerized by what it helps horn players achieve!     

Dear Valerie,
I started BE tonight and wanted to let you know that your youtube video was a great help! I tried for 30 minutes to get a pedal F out. No luck. I can see where young players have the advantage here. Finally I found it, and was actually able to hold it out for some time.

I can't wait to move on to the other exercises. It is great to actually see you play these and hear them too, of course!
Thank you,

Friday, May 10, 2013

BE Help for Full Lips

The following is a fun little email exchange I had with a "cute chemistry teacher."

Hi Valerie,  It's Ron Drucker in Berkeley--I'm doing basic BE several times a week and really finding results in tone, endurance, so I can't thank you enough.
We're going to Turkey for 3 weeks, and I'm thinking of packing a mouthpiece to keep on buzzing. Do BE exercises work without the rest of the horn?
Thanks, Ronald Drucker
RON! I'm so happy to hear from you. YES! I know quite a few horn players who report good results from buzzing BE exercises on their mouthpieces.  One horn player, Lou Denaro, in New York buzzes BE exercises on his mouthpiece while he's walking to his office.  
I'd love to put your spontaneous little testimony above on my blog.  May I? Also, if you have a picture of yourself to share, that would be great, too.
Thanks for contacting me.

Sure, happy to share. I haven't got a picture handy, sadly, nor means to get one without great fumbling. But you can assure them I'm really cute for a chemistry teacher.
(part of my cuteness may have to do with the full-style lip shape that Jeff id's in his trumpet students as making it hard to sustain tension; at any rate, it's been hard to extend my range upward, but BE really seems to be helping)
Thanks for your support!

When I asked Lou Denaro if he still buzzes on his way to work, he shared a few details:  
  • Absolutely and I still scare people when doing so. At work they google my name, find your blog and ask "what's BE?" and I tell them "remember those noises I made behind you in the corridor out of Grand Central and you hastened away to avoid further harassment until you found the guts to turn around and face off your tormentor only to find out it was me? That's "BE." 

Friday, April 12, 2013

Micah Cooper Recommends BE for Range Development

A horn player recently asked tips to improve the upper register on Facebook.  Micah Cooper's answer was short, sweet & to the point!  

Get BE and do the exercises. I went from 4 to 5 octaves in one month. 

Later, he shared this with me in a message:

I wish I had BE when I was in high school. Things would have been a whole lot easier. Also, I said 5 octaves for my range in my post. When I am practicing a lot my range pushes 5 1/2. And when I come off a multiple month layoff, I can get back my chops in a week or two with the program. Just Awesome.
BE works!

Sunday, April 7, 2013

I'm Back and Feeling Grateful!

Six years studying The Balanced Embouchure.  It just keeps giving me more & more.  The progress never stops unless I stop.  I'm not the greatest horn player in the world, of course.   I'm just a little old lady, come back horn playing grandma with a chronic neurological disease, who plays in community ensembles and gets the occasional paid gig.  But, there are so many things I can do now that I wouldn't have been able to had it not been for BE.  I'm thankful.

Once again, BE has come to the rescue.  I injured my upper lip in an accident December 2nd, driving my front tooth clear through the center of the under side of my upper lip.  Five days later a little blob of dead flesh sloughed off leaving a small hole, then a scar right where the aperture forms.  (It reminded me of the injury Adrew Joy described that prompted him to find help, and eventually BE.)  After taking few weeks off, I found myself with severely limited range and endurance, not to mention horrid tone.  It was definitely a déjà vu experience.  My embouchure function was eerily similar to what it had been 7 years ago before I started studying BE! 

I thought it would be a quick fix, but progress was slow because my lips would swell at the slightest provocation severely limiting practice time.  It took a full four months before I had recovered the range & endurance I had before the accident.  Thanks to BE, I'm back & enjoying playing again.  

Three cheers for Jeff Smiley!     

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Alex Shuhan: One Year on BE

Alex Shuhan recently posted this on FaceBook:  
Continuing now for slightly longer than one year, to encounter more and more significant change and greater understanding of how to play this instrument…and I can unequivocally say that it is ONLY because of having discovered and experimented with Balanced Embouchure concepts. If you want to learn and are willing to invest some thoughtful energy, you CAN and WILL make similar inroads. 
At no point along the way have I "lost" anything I could do before, experienced any "setbacks," nor been negatively impacted in any way. On the contrary, I have been challenged to address and answer new questions, with a COMPLETELY different perspective that has dramatically improved my playing, at least in my humble opinion. I have flexibility that I couldn't fathom before, range that I've never experienced... before, and, in particular, a smoothness in my playing that I didn't even know was previously lacking. And even though there are concepts in this book that appear to some to be in contradiction with other, more "mainstream" ideas about playing, I maintain that the information in Smiley's book COMBINED with the experience of actually living through the learning process that he prescribes, actually does more to help one UNDERSTAND those "mainstream" concepts than to contradict them. My ideas about endurance, strength, range (high and low), volume and articulation have been completely stood on end—and the future looks and sounds MUCH better from this new vantage point! 
Thank you to my former student, Dana Arbaugh, for introducing the BE book to me, to ValerieWells for all that you've done to further my enlightenment, and to AndrewJoy for his encouragement and support along the way. Onward! 
I've made some enormous stride forward this weekend—been doing more playing lately and then had a great combination of rehearsals and gigs this weekend that have just completely changed everything. Much less tension, outrageously more vibration and ease of production with my upper lip, complementary support from the lower lip making flexibility MUCH better, and the best part has been endurance based clearly on relaxation rather than "firmness" or any other terms that I've previously associated with strength. Amazing!

Bert Lochs commented:  
  • Bert Lochs Apart from the things that changed in my playing, the understanding of why all the things I tried before didn't work was very enlightening to say the least. I said it on the Trumpet Herald a few times, and I repeat it here. BE made me experiment proof. And it is important to be able to experiment to find your way. You can try all kinds of things, and even go very wrong, but BE is so simple and clear that it is very easy to track back where you left off. Since BE I never got into big trouble again and my playing is so much easier and more consistent than before. And yes, of course, there is still so much to work on, I am happy to say .

    • Alex added:  I have no documented proof of this claim, but I believe that many players, who accidentally stumble into the correct set-up and begin playing without the issues that many of the rest of us face, are already experiencing mechanics similar to those suggested by Smiley, but they may not use vocabulary similarly to describe it. For those successful players, all the power to them! But for struggling, aspiring players, in my humble opinion, Smiley's approach offers a real, simple option for opening the door to informed awareness, and by that I mean an awareness based on experiences that work cumulatively, progressively, patiently, over time. In the last week, something has changed dramatically in the way my Embouchure is able to receive and support the air I supply to it...and it happened as if out of nowhere! BUT, I KNOW and can feel that it has just now finally learned a new way of vibrating after a YEAR of gentle coaxing and coercion. And the BEST part is that I UNDERSTAND what is happening, what has changed and how/why it is working effectively. I'm hoping to be able to use language to describe it, BUT, even if I can't, I do know that I have BE to thank for opening that door to possibility. I'm also reminded that Arnold Jacobs admonished that if you introduce a change to your mechanics, it could take 12-18 months before you could expect to experience the fruits of that effort. In the case of BE, I feel like it's a continuous process, so I'm not surprised to have had some revelation now, but it also feels like it won't be unreasonable to assume that the learning will continue. I remember Andrew Joy told me that after his intro to BE, he has felt like his playing has been on a continuous positive, improving trajectory...and this from someone who's had a principal horn career in a major orchestra for 30+ years! That, in fact, was the thing that convinced me it was worth experimenting with BE. Incredibly glad I did! Cheers!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Four Months into BE

A lot of people ask how long before they see improvements from BE.  Here's an good example from someone who began studying The Balanced Embouchure in September 2012.  I received this in an email today:  

Valerie, I'm extremely pleased with the strap and the BE method. I have a larger upper lip and has taken some time developing the new technique particularly the roll in but my range and endurance is so much better and appears to do nothing but improve every time I practice.Thanks!
Dannie Smith,PT,ECS

I'm grateful for the feedback, Dannie!

The strap Dannie is referring to above is the Comfy Horn strap.  See this link:

Wednesday, January 2, 2013


It's fun and very satisfying to see a horn player who's lost his range for whatever the reason, find it again with the concepts Jeff Smiley presents in The Balanced Embouchure.  Andy's not only recovered lost ability, but has progressed beyond his previous abilities. I  received this email from Andy only yesterday.  (BTW, take the time to check out his concerto linked below.  It's darn cool.)  

Hi Valerie
Thanks for sending me all the BE stuff. I haven't followed the prescribed programme really but I read the text thoroughly and the 3D aspect of embouchure had never really been in my mind.   I wrote to you on October 8th...

...Struggling with an embouchure that goes from pedal D to F at the top of the stave with no problem whatsoever, but can't get above an A on a good day - even though a couple of years ago I could play top Ds on a good day!!

I have played my own exercises for roll out and in and spent much driving time looking like an old man or daffy duck!! No surprise really, but what I got from the BE book made the exercises I was given by Tony Halstead make sense. (He gave me a couple of lessons when I bought a second hand Paxman off him). I am now aware that there are muscles in my top lip that were completely unused!

I only do a bit of occasional amateur playing (I concentrate on conducting and composing these days when I'm not running a school music department) and have had no gigs since the end of November so was able to throw myself into it without fear of disrupted embouchure problems.

I have just played Mozart concerto No 2 and No 3 back to back (previously, the first movement of either would have finished me off.) After finishing I played a three octave Bb arpeggio and held the top Bb for a couple of bars. I am so grateful that for the first time in my life I am starting to be able to play in a way I'd only dreamed of. I'm sure I've still a long way to go and playing orchestrally will be the real test in a couple of weeks but at least now I have enough stamina to do enough practice to improve my playing. In the past it seemed that the more practice I did the worse I got! The top Ds have returned on a good day but I have even squeaked a couple of top Fs since reading the BE book. I can start a pedal C without slurring down to it and a couple of days ago I was able to start a pedal B on the F side and slur down to a Bb!!

I've pasted a link to the horn concerto 'Orion' that I wrote last year for Richard Watkins (ex-principal of Philharmonia now top UK session player and soloist).

Best Wishes
Andy Meyers