Monday, January 20, 2014

Air vs Embouchure and Other Things

Recently, John, a trombone player with some BE experience, told me that he has observed brass players obsessing too much over embouchure when they should be spending more time on air.  This was my reply:  
"I played French horn in college, but stopped for 33 years.  I came back to horn about 8 years ago and have observed just the opposite -- at least in the French horn world.  Embouchure talk seemed totally taboo in 2006, yet some French horn players seemed to obsess over air as if lips weren't even necessary for horn playing.  I listened intently and tried so hard to make it happen with air the way so many said it was supposed to work.  I was huffing & puffing blowing huge volumes of air through my horn to the point of hyperventilation but still couldn't come near the upper register.  And low notes were equally frustrating.  I couldn't hold a low register note for more than a few seconds before running out of air.  I thought I'd never be successful on horn because I assumed I just didn't have the lung capacity for it and my college experience had nearly convinced me that I didn't have the embouchure either.  When I finally found BE and was taught to manipulate my lips this way or that way, I suddenly could play notes in the upper range for the first time ever and could sustain low notes for much, much longer.

"When I informally introduced BE to the French horn community, huge efforts were made to correct the error of my ways.  I was ridiculed for using a trumpet method, especially one that blatantly taught the idea of rolling the lips in and out.  Shameful! Someone even scolded me for discussing the intimate subject of the embouchure in public, as if I were talking about bladder control! HA!  
"So.... My observation has been that only lately has it become "okay" to talk about chops again in the French horn world.

"I think the advancement of BE into the horn world has added a healthy weight and emphasis towards balancing air w/ embouchure.  Hundreds of horn players are now using BE and it's also being taught in private studios, high schools, middle schools and universities around the world.  Maybe the demands of the horn embouchure are more stringent than that of trombone, I don't know, but I see BE making a very positive improvement in horn pedagogy."   
I'm not certain my observations are accurate for the entire horn world.  What I observed may have simply been the dominant theme in the on-line discussion groups of the time (Memphis list and Yahoo Horn). But I believe it is most productive to emphasize both air and embouchure working in tandem as The Balanced Embouchure system does.

John responded,  
"Wow! That’s different from my experience but I surely believe you.  My take on BE is that, after a while, you’re not really rolling in and out so much anymore. Things stabilize and strengthen but the rolling in and out is natural while you’re building up.
"When I saw Claude Gordon and was rolling in and out for range changes he said go ahead, let the lips do whatever they want to do….and do the routine everyday! Sure enough, the lip motion started to become less and less. More efficient I would say.  I think it’s completely natural to do this. Who starts outs from day one with a strong, balanced embouchure?
"I'm really glad to hear that BE has been well received and is being used to success by so many players.  I think it has changed people’s lives for the better. So stressful to want to play well and not be able to get a handle on it. And some people make it look so easy!
"I’m sure horn is a lot tougher than trombone, chop wise. But every instrument has it’s own devil."   
I love John's observations.  BE uses exaggerated lip motions ("roll in" and "roll out") and breathing techniques ("snaps" and "zips") to awaken the student to movement and breathing possibilities they may not be aware of.  This awakening gives the student options for more productive, satisfying development. Here's an experience shared recently in an email:

"Hi Valerie,
"Well I've been pretty busy over Christmas with the band and two orchestras.  Like you I've followed the Farkas method religiously for 30 years. This will be my difficulty. To get out of pulling down the bottom lip. The Farkas method has failed me to an extent as I have a fairly fleshy top lip. As I said. The roll outs are no problem whatsoever. I can get the pedal E in Shostakovich 5 last movement no problem. Some of my students in band have said my lip was all over the place when I show them how to blow pedals. I said so be it if it aids in getting the extreme low notes. I can now reinforce my method to them when I show them Jeff's book. So I was right all along sort of thing. The roll ins will be more difficult after 30 years of puckering my lips. I have however started roll in exercises. I have to continually remind myself to roll in especially in the high register but it will be worth it. A small victory. We took out 633 Squadron at band the other night. Notable for it's many long unison top A's. It used to be about 7 out of 10 on the worry scale for pitching and endurance. I made myself use the roll in position and as the piece went on the worry scale became 2 out of 10. You and Jeff deserve top praise for helping all us trumpet and horn players throughout the globe.
          "Many thanks, Vincent McArdle."

I love what I do!

So why the picture of Steve Park playing a pedal tone?  Steve is the one who helped me see what BE really is when boiled down to it's simplest terms:
                                       Balancing air with embouchure.

For more about Steve Park, see these links:

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