Who would have thought that hernia surgery would have given me new insights into playing the trumpet more efficiently? Although I had not experienced pain when playing the horn before the procedure, the post surgery experience was an entirely different story. Blowing the air itself was not a problem, until my airstream encountered the slightest amount of resistance, and my reactions that followed were almost identical to what many trumpet players do when their own playing is out of balance.
The first instinct was to stop blowing altogether, or at best, not blow as fast. Another of the body’s initial reactions to the pain of that resistance was to release the focus of the embouchure. Both actions are great at stopping the pain, but how well can one expect to play with poor air support and an unfocused embouchure?
Part of me thought it would be best to let things heal up a little more, but I’d already gone over a week without playing (a record for me), and was anxious to get back to it. In order to do so, I had to see if any of the resistance I was encountering was necessary, and that search required more awareness than I had been using during my previous practice sessions. It didn’t really take long to spot where the problem was…the usual suspects are always the first ones to check out because they are usually the guilty parties. In this case there was a slight imbalance in the weight distribution of the mouthpiece, brought about by my overlooking the way I was completing the final seal of the embouchure with the mouthpiece.
This important step has been discussed in this blog’s earlier posts (the four part “Landing” series, links shown below), but (pre-surgery) I had made up for the imbalance with more air, which at the time seemed to be quite efficient, especially in comparison to the way I had been playing even six months earlier. But now pain was showing me that I had not been paying close enough attention to those important steps…the very ones I have emphasized in both the blog and during my work with students. Ironic.
By backing off the weight of the mouthpiece even more, I had to use more of the scissor action of the embouchure (also described in the aforementioned “Landing” series) to create the seal between the corners and sides of the mouthpiece, and to help fill in the irregularities of the teeth. This in turn also had me look more critically at the lower jaw position, how it aligned with the top teeth, and how the vertical plane of the teeth interfaced with the vertical plane of the mouthpiece rim.
I thought I had already done a pretty good job of this in my recent past, but “pretty good” was not good enough, or so said my tender abdomen. Sure enough, as my awareness increased, my attention began to notice those smaller details… helping me to increase both the seal and focus without adding tension to the center of the lip aperture. The pain subsided because my airstream was now encountering less resistance, and yet the better sealed, more focused, and more relaxed embouchure center cleared and darkened up the sound, and increased the efficiency and response.
Working at this level of detail is tedious, to say the least. But one shouldn’t see it as burdensome, or a distraction to one’s music making. There’s beauty to be discovered in the smallest details, and in how things work. One develops a wonder and appreciation for the small worlds that support the bigger picture, and your heightened awareness will serve you well in every aspect of your life. And you will become a better player! So the lesson here is, no matter how well you think you are doing with your fundamentals, if you still would like to improve, you must become even more aware of the smallest details of these important steps. The hernia surgery is optional.
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