Not long ago I was reading an article in Stereophile magazine that referred to something called “Weber’s Law,” which states that “the least amount of change in a stimulus that is detectable is a constant proportion of the original intensity of the stimulus. Thus, if the original stimulus is weak (eg, a dim light), then a fairly small increase in the intensity of the stimulus will be perceived as different; whereas if the original stimulus has a much higher intensity, then it will require a correspondingly greater increase in stimulus intensity for it to be perceived as different.” The example given in the article was in the context of buying speakers for a home stereo, citing that you would be much more sensitive to a price increase of $200 if you were buying $500 speakers, rather than if you were buying $5,000 speakers.
This caught my attention immediately, for I had already been trying to increase the sensitivity and awareness of both myself and my students…specifically in the area of focusing (decreasing) the size of the lip aperture (see the earlier post,”Using Pain to Increase Awareness“). I already knew that in spite of the wealth of nerve endings in the lips, too much mouthpiece pressure made it harder to feel what was going on inside of the mouthpiece, and now I could see that my observation went hand in hand with Weber’s Law.
Here’s an over the top example: How sensitive do you think the gentleman on the right is, at the moment this picture was shot, to the gentle touch of a feather on his lips? Then imagine if that feather was stroking your lips…first rather roughly, then gradually lighter and lighter…until its touch could hardly be perceived. Could you feel how your sensitivity to touch would become increasingly greater in direct proportion to the decrease in contact? Conversely, we know that as touch increases to the point of pain, the body actually can shut down it’s sensitivity to pain…even to the point of going into shock (like an animal might do in the jaws of a lion). We have already known that too much mouthpiece pressure can stifle both the flow of air and the vibration of the top lip, but now we have support coming from the mainstream scientific community that confirms that we can also lose awareness of the finer aspects of embouchure formation as the mouthpiece pressure increases.
In further pursuit of this goal of sensitivity, during clinical practice I have been gradually decreasing the airspeed (the exact opposite of the common trumpet player’s “More Air” mantra)…both in my own practice, and during a student’s lesson (and here I am only talking about decreasing the air’s speed, not it’s unstoppable momentum). If the sound did not begin with the completion of the embouchure set and the addition of air, the airspeed was reduced even more. It was amazing to see how this action increased the sensitivity of the lips, and the awareness of what was going on inside of the mouthpiece, which then served as a more accurate guide to the kind of adjustments that needed to be made. I also found that this process helped the air and embouchure become a much better team…more equal partners in creating the necessary compression of air, so that as the airspeed began to accelerate, the lip aperture would remain much more consistent. Efficiency and control increased, sound quality improved, and so did the general feeling of satisfaction!
Achieving success in this way demanded a very relaxed, yet very focused aperture center, with a complete, uniform seal all the way around the mouthpiece. The mouthpiece’s weight distribution was light, but by favoring the bottom and sides, it allowed the center of the top lip to vibrate more freely, even with a minimal amount of airflow. All of this work was not done in the context of music at first, but with simple long tones, which allowed everyone to concentrate more on how they were playing, rather than on what they were playing. Any improvement in this area of the human part of our instrument can produce marked changes in our playing, so it’s nice to have a proven method we can use for such predictable results.
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