Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks (or How to Break old Habits)

2480_620x290First of all, this article has nothing to do with teaching an actual old dog new tricks, but I hear the saying often enough when an adult student says that they cannot learn something new.  They (and students of all ages)   complain that their old habits are too deeply engrained for them to make any lasting, positive changes in their playing. The focus of this post will be on the root causes of the difficulties in transitioning to a new, improved way of playing the horn, how to avoid them, and what techniques can be used to keep your progress more consistent and rewarding.

I have sung the praises on this blog for Roy Stevens’ embouchure “blueprint” (see the four part “Landing” series’  links below), and how players who initially form a few of its components can often see an immediate, predictable improvement in their upper range, sound quality, and ease of playing.   Also predictable though, can be problems with low notes, note attacks, and the ability to hold the new formation in the context of playing music.  The initial thrill of the first, positive results can be replaced by frustration and discouragement.  This is the point when I usually hear from the student that they just can’t break their old habits.

My reply though, is to ask how those bad habits were originally formed.  Although players usually cannot correctly answer that question with certainty, learning about the origins of their bad habits can prove to be not only enlightening, but can also show them a way out of their current dilemma.  It’s important that you know this:  Most often what starts a bad habit is the very thing that sustains it (and what makes it hard to break).

The way I began playing trumpet was pretty much the way we all have started…we put the mouthpiece (with or without the trumpet) up to our lips and tried to make a sound, followed soon after by attempting to play the notes in our beginning band method book. The introduction of that book, or any basic instruction we received at the time, gave us either a very small part of the big picture, or total misinformation.  Either way, with that kind of a start, we were ill equipped to have the kind of control to not only make a sound efficiently, but to do so in a way that lay the foundation for many years of successful playing.

music-trumpet_1878272cBut make music we did, and without the proper elements in place and in balance, we left our body’s knee jerk reactions in charge of figuring out how to achieve some level of control.   We could have had varying levels of success with this way of playing the horn, but as the music gradually became more challenging, our limitations became more and more obvious.  More practice time increased certain aspects of our technique, familiarity with keys, and reading skills, but in the end, any apparent progress with our most basic fundamental skills of sound production were at best, an illusion, since they were being built upon the foundation we laid during those earliest, initial times.

Enter our trumpet teachers, with their own ideas about how to solve our problems.  But how well did those ideas work?  Success or failure with any teacher (or going it alone), are related to these three major factors:

  • The knowledge of the subject material.  In the case of the teacher, it is also extremely important how well that knowledge is presented.
  • The amount of awareness the student has, which directly influences how successfully they can utilize their knowledge, or follow the instruction.  Awareness is also important for the teacher, for without it, they could have the student playing a level of music they are fundamentally ill-equipped for too soon, which can only compound the problems.
  • The amount of time the student invests in careful, awareness based practice

If you come up short in any of these areas, there will be trouble.  Here are some different ways of looking at the fundamental principles (again, the knowledge), and some of the most common mistakes that are made (in awareness), in order to help get everyone on the track to success.

Toyota Trumpet RobotThe metal trumpet and mouthpiece we hold in our hands are not the complete instrument. At the most basic level, the player’s own body parts provide the missing components of reed, facing, a gasket (to help seal the reed and facing with the mouthpiece), a passage for the airstream (which includes four resonant chambers), and a pump to produce a flow of air through this passageway, and then past the reed and facing.  There is also a mechanism for moving the valves, and a computer loaded with the software needed to coordinate all of these parts into a performing system.  Many of you know about Toyota’s trumpet playing robot, which has all of these parts…although I’m not sure about its resonant chambers, which for us humans are the upper chest, the throat, the oral cavity, and the volume of the mouthpiece cup (as determined by how much or how little the player’s lips protrude into that cup).

For optimum results, both the metal and human parts of the instrument need to be made and assembled with the same degree of precision, so I think it’s helpful to briefly look at some of the master trumpet builder’s construction process.  If we can understand and appreciate their craft, then we will have a good role model to follow during our own work with our human components.  As you read this, ask yourself if you are as informed, thorough and conscientious with your own work.  I’m not going into too great a detail here…just enough to help make my point.

Master trumpet builders (and mouthpiece manufacturers) have studied their subject in great detail, and understand the impact of variables like metal and alloy types, their thickness, and the exact dimensions of every part of the instrument from the mouthpiece to the end of the bell.  Trumpet Tuning SlidesThis even includes the shape of the instrument’s components (like the different tuning slides seen on the right), and the type, number and placement of the bracings that hold the instrument together. Then there is the way those variables can be combined into a system.  For example, different metal alloys can be used for different parts of the instrument, or a reverse tuning slide might be used with a more square shape, or a traditional tuning slide with a more ovate shape.  The builder (who is often the designer as well) must consider all of these possibilities, and know the musical context they are best suited for…whether it be delicate chamber music, screaming lead trumpet in a big band, etc.

Their base of knowledge was arrived at through a lot of study and experimentation, often changing one variable at a time, in true scientific fashion.  This research led them to the point where they could successfully predict the performance characteristics of most any combination of components.  But that is still not the end of this brief overview, for how well the instrument is assembled must be considered as well.   Anyone who has played a few trumpets that are the exact make and model from even the most respected trumpet maker, knows that they do not all play exactly the same.  There are even greater differences in performance due to build quality between manufacturers.  How many hammer strokes were needed to shape the trumpet’s bell?…and was it annealed or not? How well were the joints soldered, and was the excess solder completely filed off?  How well do the valve ports align with the internal ports of the valve cluster?  No matter how good the design, it can be defeated by careless assembly.

trumpet bellsEvery player who is dissatisfied with their playing should ask if they have considered all of the parameters of their own human part of the instrument.  Do they know the best shapes and dimensions of their embouchure, jaw position (and the relationship between the two), lip aperture, the tongue, throat, chest etc., and are they aware enough to know to what degree of precision they have followed in their making?  It is not enough that you have two lips, for they are only the raw materials to work with (just like the raw brass on the left, which is far from the final shape of a brass instument’s bell).   If you can tell the difference in performance between two different mouthpieces from the same manufacturer (like a Bach 7C and 5C, with rim diameters of 16.25 mm and 16.20 mm, respectively), then you know the impact of a small dimensional change in a critical part of equipment design.  Please understand that even small changes in key parts of your fundamental setup can produce large changes in your performance.

There is some overlap here, but here are some of the most common problems in making the transition to a better way of playing:

  • The player does fully assemble the proper position.  I often get questions about mouthpieces, mouthpiece placement, etc., when further investigation reveals that the player has not even made the basic “M” position.  Or the player has not observed in the mirror how well they hold that position when they begin blowing (with or without the the horn).
  • The mouthpiece is placed before the embouchure is even set, often landing on the top lip first, or being too heavy in general…enough so that the lips begin adjusting (even in anticipation) to that contact pressure by “kissing” the mouthpiece, or pulling away from the mouthpiece with actions like smiling, sneering or lip eruption.  By the way, the term “kissing” seems to have both positive and negative usage in our trumpet community.  I feel the word could have positive value as far as contributing to a free, center, but a negative usage when done to the degree that destroys the contact and alignment between the lips, which is achieved with the “M” position.
  • The player immediately begins playing notes…even a basic long tone, slur, scale, tonguing, music, etc., with little regard to how they set up, or how they are actually making the sound.  Remember that there are a lot of ways to play the instrument, but not all of them offer the potential we need.  If the sound is bad, there is an instinct we all have to immediately make it sound better (most likely with the old habits), rather than making the corrections in form and air that will improve the sound.
  • Too much tension, and in the wrong places…like the upper body, throat, tongue and embouchure’s center (and even the mind, which may be too distracted to relax).
  • There is not a relaxed, steady flow of air, with an uninterrupted momentum. Oftentimes players attempt to achieve this by excessively opening the center of the embouchure, or by overblowing, either of which can spawn several new problems.

If those pitfalls can be avoided, the player has taken the first positive steps towards breaking their old habits.  However, even after following the basic guidelines, some of the key elements can still be missing, or may not be refined enough.  Players may find that they cannot make a sound, or that they cannot control their sound enough in a musical context (starts, sound quality, pitch, duration, low register, etc.), enough to give them confidence that they are on the right track.  For example, a lot of times players have trouble when they first try to give up tension based control (like excessive mouthpiece pressure), and haven’t yet figured out how to efficiently establish the gentle contact between the lips in a way that creates the focus of the lip aperture and seal with the mouthpiece.  Obviously, what’s important for anyone who is at this stage is to discover which of the parts are not in place.  During your practice time, if things are not working, it is extremely important that you do not force a note to play.  It’s far easier to find any errors from a state of relaxed awareness, rather than by trying to perform even an easy exercise or musical passage unconsciously.  With the old habits driving the bus, you will then only be further from making effective changes, since the needed corrections are not only harder to spot, but will also be harder to implement.

Think about making a paper airplane.  How do you test the soundness of its design and construction?  You have to throw it into the air and observe its flight.  You do not run around, still clutching the little airplane, giving it the pseudo-appearance of flying.  The plane will never soar that way, nor will you ever learn if it was made properly.  You cannot gather enough data through observance until you launch it with the swing of your arm. boythrowingplaneTaking this analogy further, there is a minimum takeoff speed for the plane to successfully launch and glide. The best paper airplane will not fly without the momentum of air under its wings.  Also, if you have a blueprint for a proven design, it is far easier to carefully follow that during the construction process, than to start from scratch, with no understanding of the laws of flight.  Going back to embouchure construction, carefully make the position (diligently checking it with the blueprint), place the mouthpiece properly, and then blow a relaxed, steady stream of air while holding the position.  Don’t force, or try to make a sound, but instead, just see what happens. Observe…through the look, the feel and the sound (or the absence of sound) and adjust…then blow again and observe, always comparing your work to the blueprint.

Often players can begin making a sound with this new setup, but cannot hold it for very long as they begin moving through the range of the instrument, or while tonguing.  If we go back to thinking about the trumpet maker, the best parts need to be carefully assembled, and then patiently soldered together.  small_piccloetenHowever, the better the parts are made and then aligned, the less stress will be on the solder joints.  Those joints will then not only be more durable, but will also allow the horn to be more open sounding, and more responsive.  But what is it that makes the ideal embouchure, and then holds it in place?  Some say the facial muscles, which is true, but those muscles must be programmed to do their job both accurately and consistently.  There needs to be a mental solder (what I call a “clear mental image“), and it must oversee that the correct muscles are involved in not only making this ideal position, but also in applying tension in just the right places (with any excesses carefully removed), in order to hold the embouchure in place.  If you want to play consistently, then you must begin by consistently making a correct embouchure, then by consistently interfacing it with the proper placement and weight distribution of the mouthpiece, and then by consistently providing this setup with a relaxed, and consistent flow of air.  The better you make and align the parts of the embouchure, the less stress involved, which will also make the embouchure more stable, and therefore easier to hold.  This also impacts the sound quality and response in the same positive ways as the well assembled trumpet just described above.  The more carefully you make your embouchure, the clearer your mental image will be, and if done correctly, you will use that same mental image, plus the same combination and coordination of muscles, to hold the position as you play.  Players that rush through this construction process do not have an accurate and clear enough mental image, so it is no wonder that the human part of their instrument does not function properly or hold together consistently, especially if the playing is also done unconsciously.  Their second mistake is then to blame the blueprint, rather than their own lack of knowledge, awareness and time invested.

You may have noticed how often the words “consistent” and “consistently” were used.  Fair warning here…human beings tend to be impatient, and to lose mental focus if things become boring (no surprise).  Repetition is extremely boring, and only heightens our impatience, so in the midst of tedious practice, our tendency is to gradually begin to skip steps, or to just go through the motions…giving the brain a vacation.  If you become caught up in that bad habit, you will soon become discouraged with your results, and even more impatient.  Sometimes success can be even more distracting, for that often breeds the kind of confidence that leads to carelessness…which brings you right back to where you were before.  The only way around this vicious circle is to replace repetition with refinement.  What I mean by that, is that every time you take a breath, not only reset your embouchure and mouthpiece, but add a refinement to that setup…make it even better than it was the time before.  progressive_refinementThis approach asks you to pay attention to what you had just previously done, and to determine at least one aspect of that system that could have been done better.  I say “system” because I’m not only including the embouchure, but also the placement, amount and distribution of the mouthpiece weight, the tongue, throat and upper body…and the airflow.  It’s not enough to just say that you will do it better each time…you have to have very specific improvements in mind.  If you want to improve, your mental image must be constantly refined (just like the series of pictures above, which gradually exhibit more detail).  That might seem like a tall order to some, but this process will increase your awareness…the most important tool for learning and growing.  By following that plan, you will then naturally begin to notice more things that need attention.  There is truth to the old adage, “the more you know, the more you know what you don’t know.”

FacesSome folks say that the “M” position only works for high notes, and that they can’t hold it when they try to play lower.  The fault is not with the “M,” but with tension that was used in making and holding it.  Try a different approach.  As you’re reading this, your lips are most likely already touching from corner to corner, and without any tension in your face, right?…just like the people you see in the picture on the left.  And like them, you’re not thinking like a trumpet player at all…you are just a relaxed human being with your face in it’s state of rest position.  The reds of your lips are probably showing as well, which is fine for now.  The important thing to observe is that the gentle contact you feel between the lips is on the inside…where the air will hit first, and that there are no gaps in that contact.  You already have a formation much closer to the ideal than many players form when they are actually trying to make an embouchure!

Now, in front of a mirror, and without the horn, refine this natural “M” position by bringing the lower jaw slightly forward, with the teeth 1/4″ apart, and the lips meeting at the exact vertical center of that gap (1/8″ below the top teeth edges, 1/8th” above the bottom teeth edges).  Make sure that you have retained that gentle, corner to corner contact that is felt on the inside of the lips, and that same sense of relaxation, but now carefully begin to reduce any excess tension or contact at the center of the embouchure.   To do this, some need to slightly engage the embouchure muscles (the “scissor action” described in “The Landing: the Final Focus and Seal“)**, to insure that only a very small, single point of least resistance is at the embouchure’s horizontal center, and that the gentle contact is still retained…but the more this can be accomplished by the localized relaxation, the better.

(** Some comments about the link just mentioned above…while it may explain the scissor action, it does not begin with the lips gently touching.  The advantage of that approach is that it helps to set the jaw and lip line more accurately, plus it does describe [and illustrate with the arrows in the accompanying diagram] how and where the embouchure’s muscular energy should be directed.  However, when first following these guidelines, some players end up using far too much tension during this process, which can work against the advantages that are to be gained from a position of this design.  After watching a couple of students struggle with the side effects of that tension, I came up with the slightly different approach listed above, which helped not only those students, but everyone else who has tried the ideas.  The muscular action of the “scissors” is still used, but now only as the way of maintaining the structure of the embouchure…when helping to preserve the gentle contact between the lips while the player is releasing tension in a way that will establish the embouchure’s small, single, central point of least resistance, to help make the seal with the mouthpiece and improving the distribution of its weight, and while the air is supporting the demands of the music.  A lot of unnecessary tension is more easily avoided by starting this way, thanks to the natural contact of the two lips that already exists while they are in their state of rest position.)

To aid in this process (and still without the instrument), blow ever so gently (which will greatly increase your awareness and control), with the mental image of aiming the air up…just enough for only a very small amount of air to pass through the embouchure’s center (I imagine a lip aperture so small that only one air molecule can pass through the center at a time).  You do not need to take a deep breath to do this, for then you will have to hold back its natural release, which would only add tension to this system.  Don’t try to buzz your lips…that action will most likely add unneeded tension, or cause the lips to erupt outwards.  Always know the exact size, shape and location of your lip aperture.  Maintain the original contact, and the sense of relaxation.  Remember that this contact is felt more on the inside of the embouchure, and so that is where you will first feel this smallest amount of air passing through.  AikidoYou are still establishing that point of least resistance, by mainly releasing more tension (a subtractive action, done without losing your gentle contact), rather than by gripping, clamping, squeezing, etc., in an effort to focus the lips into small aperture (for sure, an additive action).  You are allowing a path for the air to freely flow, before the mouthpiece, tongue, receding jaw, or “kissing,” “smiling,” “stretching,” “erupting,” etc., actions (old habits), react to the additive actions in a far less controlled manner.  With this air passage now established (even as small as it is), the position has been made and held with a minimum amount of tension, and because the air has a path to freely flow, the position becomes more stable, and easier to hold.  We don’t have to resist the air….we merely shape and focus it.  This is much like the martial art of Aikido, where the energy of the opponent is not confronted head on, but is instead side stepped, and then used for an entirely different action.

Next bring the horn up to the formed embouchure, and lightly touch the mouthpiece to the lips.  Be careful not to disrupt the embouchure’s shape, and recognize that the arms are so much stronger than the embouchure muscles, they can unconsciously cause problems…like a bull in a china shop.  You should know the exact skin cell (maybe an exaggeration!) below the center of the embouchure that feels the first contact of the mouthpiece.  bull-chinaThis may seem like overkill here, but this is where many players drop the ball with the weight distribution.  It is important to increase your awareness and control, especially during a step where the old habits could be the strongest.  Again, see the “Landing” series (links below) for more details on the mouthpiece placement and weight distribution.  Calmly breathe in and out through your nose and just observe.  Are you still relaxed, maintaining the gentle contact between your lips, and with the small, central point of least resistance felt on the inside of the embouchure?  Even without full contact, the proximity of the mouthpiece to the lips is not only a great reference for the next round of refinements, but it may also trigger old habits, so be vigilant.  Continue to monitor your state of relaxation, the gentle contact between the lips, and your central point of least resistance, and begin to blow just that very small mount of air again…still aiming it up towards your nose.

Be aware, and be honest with yourself.  If you are allowing compromise at this stage, you have not found the proper coordination for your balance.  Without that base, you are only inviting the body to try find the solution, in an overly reactive, knee jerk way…and how well has it done that in the past?  Don’t worry if you can’t do this right away, for you are learning something new, and are probably influenced by the urge of your old habits, which could now be on full display.  If so, be grateful that you can see them in action…thanks to the mirror, the absence of mouthpiece pressure, and of the need to make sound or music.  However, by slowing down the process…taking the time to set up carefully, blowing first with the very close proximity of the horn (not the actual full contact of the mouthpiece), not forcing a note to play, etc., you have given yourself the time to develop new skills, and not only catch some of the body’s knee jerk reactions of tension or release, but to even see and feel any possible signs of incompleteness and imbalance that invited their presence.  The embouchure will react entirely differently to an airstream alone, than to excessive or misplaced mouthpiece weight, and this allows it to learn these new skills much more easily.  Through vigilance and patience, you are also improving your mental image…the solder that will hold all of the parts together.  This is very dynamic practicing…in the very best way.

weightlessConsider the woman above, who is nearly weightless…completely relaxed, save for very minor adjustments to keep her balance.  She is in a relaxed state of awareness, and has found the physical position that allows her to easily maintain it.  If she wanted to begin doing the backstroke, she would have a great model of balance and efficiency in place, which would help her to recognize and perpetuate this state as she adds the complexity of motion.  This would make it easier for her to delegate muscular energy towards propelling herself through the water in an effortless way, rather than having to compensate for a body that had never experienced this state of relaxation and balance.  It is easier to maintain balance than to achieve or regain it.  Give yourself the time to discover a more relaxed and balanced way of playing.

Missy+Franklin+Swimming+National+Championships+93Ttz8t8S-jlIdeally, when you play there should be no wasted motion (for a swimmer, this efficiency is often seen as less disturbance in the water).  All of the action occurs within a form designed for optimum results, where every movement occurs around a center of calm, and is balanced with another action (Ex.: alternating left arm stroke, then the right arm’s stroke, etc.).  Swimmers and coaches constantly study form, and the swimmer’s ability to conform to it.  They also do exercises that, while not exactly like swimming a race, target and develop a certain aspect of form.  Years ago I remember working with a pull buoy, which is held between the legs in a way that will not allow the legs to kick, but still keeps their position elevated in the water.  This device helps a swimmer learn the proper alignment and balance of the body, and therefore a more efficient stroke.  During my first time with the pull buoy (actually with the very first stroke), I immediately  flipped over in the water…a victim of my own imbalance and poor form.  The experience revealed a lot of wasted motion, and how much it was throwing me out of balance.  As I began to train using the buoy, these problems were corrected by giving me a new mental image of good swimming form, that also developed balance, and the strength in my upper body that could help sustain that form, and increase my speed and efficiency through the water.

Can you see how this analogy relates to trumpet playing?  Blowing air past the calm center of the embouchure formation (still with the close proximity of the mouthpiece, which is not yet contacting the lips), gives you a chance to observe your embouchure and airflow in action together much more clearly.  In this state, undisturbed by the negative, unconscious use of mouthpiece weight, or the urge to make a sound at any cost, you can witness how your body and unconscious mind have been operating (much like I discovered what my swimming form was like, with the first stroke of my work with the pull buoy).  Often revealed during this process (which I call “No Weight Blowing“) are actions like the bottom lip squeezing up, erupting out, or flattening, the head dropping down, the corners pulling back or up into a smile, and the lower jaw receding (all of which can destroy the position).  Other common problems that could be noticed at this time are poor breathing, issues with posture, throat and upper body tension, or the arms being unable to hold the mouthpiece precisely at the correct location and angle.

Even the sound of the air passing through the formation is packed with clues.  “Chugging” (my term)…is where the air stops and starts or is very inconsistent, as it struggles to get through a tight lip aperture that is being squeezed.  More than one sound (whistles, pops, buzzes, etc.) means that there is more than one lip aperture, which again is a product of too much tension in the lips (the mouthpiece weight often begins creeping in here, and could also be the culprit).  Be sure that your your throat is not tight and closing…it must be completely relaxed, as though you are singing with a rich, resonant voice (try it!).  In most cases, if the sounds you hear do not correspondingly change in pitch by a whole step when you change from open to 1st valve and back, or respond pitch wise with changes in the airspeed (higher pitches with faster air, lower pitches with slower air), the lip aperture(s) and approach you are using will not be useful to you.  It would be best to start all over again from the beginning, without the horn, and with the lips in their most basic, state of rest position.  The tongue position, throat, and the embouchure shape and tension all contribute to very distinctive sounds in the airflow.  Try experimenting by changing those variables, in order for you to recognize how they change the sound of the airstream, and then which airstream sound is related to the ideal form.

Remember that you are not trying to make a trumpet sound at this point, instead you are learning how to maintain the most basic attributes of relaxation, balance and form, all while you blow air, and with the very close proximity of the mouthpiece.  Tightrope walkerIf you cannot do these things at this stage, your form will not miraculously improve when you begin to play.  The old habits will most assuredly kick in with their attempts to make things work, and you will most likely be back to where you started.  I should mention that if you do become impatient and force a note to play, you may at first notice some improvements (even somewhat dramatic), but know that they most likely stem more from what careful improvements you may have made up to this point, not from the “cheating” in form or impatience you have shown.  Although playing with a good sound is one of our goals, even relative improvements can be achieved with the combination of good form and compromise, so you must be vigilant, and know how you are playing.  When you are no longer influenced by the knee jerk reactions of using misplaced tension and excessive mouthpiece weight (any amount that destroys the position or inhibits the top lip from vibrating freely), in attempts to apply control, it then becomes much easier for you to make any remaining, needed adjustments, and to improve your mental image of playing.  The entire system can then develop in much more balanced way, which then can become a part of your way of playing.  The old habits are more easily discarded, and because the body has found a more relaxed way of doing the job, the likelihood of the old habits returning is greatly diminished.  Note:  a few years ago I was thrilled to see physical therapists use a way of retraining the body that had a lot in common with No Weight Blowing (Support from the Sports Medicine and Physical Therapy Fields).

One more point…just like the paper airplane needing the constant flow of air under its wings to fly, a swimmer’s momentum through the water is a part of their system of balance.  The same is true with trumpet playing.  As important as embouchure form and weight distribution are, the momentum of a relaxed, consistent flow of air is also a vital part of maintaining an equilibrium when playing.  This momentum begins with the inhale (air taken in a relaxed way, with a sense of expansion all around the belt line), then turning into an exhale, without any hesitation between when the air is coming in or going out.  Remember that for this initial work with a greatly reduced airspeed, we do not have to completely fill up, for then we would be essentially holding our breath (and tension).  Stay relaxed, only take in the air that you will need…but let it flow.

at31022_xtrSo how do you then begin the transition to making sound, and without force?  For this step I model the simple toy trumpet.  Even a child can make a sound with this little device, only having to blow air through the hole at the “mouthpiece” end.  No squeezing or forcing is needed, because the toy’s reed is consistently held in the path of the air by the shape of the plastic molding.  For the trumpet player, the “scissor action” of the surrounding embouchure muscles fulfills the same function as this housing (again, see The Landing: the Final Focus and Seal), and also aids in maintaining the proper alignment and shape of the lips, and the weight distribution of the mouthpiece.  What is important to remember is that as energy is directed past the center of the embouchure in this way (where the top lip serves as the reed), it should be done without destroying the original position that you began with…either by squeezing it shut or stiffening it at its center, or causing the contact points to release.   If you maintain the gentle contact between the lips, and a singular point of least resistance at the center, the sound will begin when you add the air.  Again, don’t try to make a sound…instead, make the position that makes the sound, with a relaxed, steady airflow.

If there is no sound when you blow a relaxed, steady airstream, or the sound is unacceptable, you have not yet completed the position, or balanced it with the rest of the system.  Don’t just assume that you have done everything correctly, and therefore this approach just doesn’t work for you.  You are working with predictable, physical laws, which will serve you well if you align yourself with them.  4983407Problems that occur at this time are similar to the frustration of continually typing in the wrong email address or password into your computer.  Although you may have been sure that you did everything correctly, being off by even one character is enough to cause trouble.  Stay relaxed (physically and mentally) as you blow, and observe the look, the feel, and the sound.  Listen to every type of sound you hear (coming out the bell, out the sides of the embouchure, in the throat, etc.), and if and how it changes over the duration of your breath, for that process will provide you with invaluable clues.   There is a direct connection between the sound and the feel.  If you hear the sound change (for better or worse), you should be able to notice a corresponding change of feeling in the body at the same time…the amount of contact between the lips, the aperture size, shape and location (and how they are affected by mouthpiece pressure and weight distribution), the jaw position, throat, tongue, chest, airspeed, etc.  Most problems at this stage are due to not having the complete, gentle contact between the lips, either because they were not set up properly to begin with, because the position was released, or because that gentle contact had been destroyed with too much tension in the in the center of the embouchure itself (either with excessive and/or poorly distributed mouthpiece pressure, or by closing the center with an incorrect action of the embouchure).  Also remember that this is a system, so you must also consider the flow and shape of the airstream (with an open throat, and the tongue down in the “Oh” or “Ah” position), and the general state and posture of the body.

Understanding and controlling sound production at this most basic level is at the heart of your work here.  Because it is so easy to make a sound without regard to form, it is very easy to skip right over this most fundamental step, which is what most players do to varying degrees, and which sets their course for everything else that follows.  This “Genesis of Sound” is what you are building your entire system of playing on, so you must know how you are starting the note.  Sharpen your awareness, and then use your awareness to expand your knowledge.  Cultivate your patience.  You will be rewarded.

Most of us come from an entirely different way of practicing, one where we were taught to play exercises in a book…the What to Play.  The approach outlined here is based on How you Play, so you have to rewire your brain for it Brain Waves(it has been shown that brain wave patterns are distinctly different when you are learning [and practicing], than when you are making music!).  At this stage you are still the builder of the instrument, not the player, and when you first do play, you are the tester of your work.   If I imagined what my warmup and much of my fundamental work today would look like on a musical staff, a lot of it (especially at the beginning) could not be notated, would be pretty boring looking, and should not be anything for anyone to emulate, since that would be still be practicing the What, not the How.  Also, those written notes would not reveal my mental process…what I am observing in regards to how I am playing, and the kind of corrections I am making.

The more time you take to observe, the more aware you become, which means you will begin to judge your work more effectively.  Don’t just assume that an improvement in some way means you are doing better, or that a bad sound means that you are doing worse.  An improvement in the upper register might be because of incorporating new techniques into your playing, but you may still be using too much mouthpiece pressure or tension, even if it feels relatively lighter than before (which for some is then one reason why the low notes won’t easily play).  An improved sound could signal progress, but you may still be releasing too much of the position when eliminating any excess tension (and then most likely will continue to have problems with the upper register).  Compare your results more to the blueprint, and the highest standards you can imagine, rather than how you used to play.  You must know how you achieved your results, good or bad.

My first improvements after studying with Roy Stevens were judged in comparison to my previous levels of performance, rather than by an honest assessment of my ability to follow every aspect of his blueprint.  This common mistake was revealed once the thrill of those improvements had passed, and then after realizing that I had not been progressing beyond that point.  Further investigation revealed that I had also inherited a different set of problems.  The solution was to return to the How I was playing…increasing my awareness, being honest with myself and focusing on the changes that needed to be made, while not being distracted by either my failures or successes.  Things began to improve again at first, until I noticed that I was repeating the same mistake again…judging myself more on the latest results, and then again assuming that my work was done.  Once I became bored with this new level of playing, I had to return to more responsible practicing, and then things began to improve again.  This cycle was repeated a few more times until I finally realized the pattern…that I had been wasting time by not constantly upgrading the system.  Deep-Well1Comedian-filmmaker Woody Allen had a joke, saying that a relationship (in his case, between a man and a woman) is like a shark, in that it must keeping moving forward in order to survive.  Nothing in our known universe remains the same (outside of the physical laws) …there is either growth or atrophy.  The same goes for our playing, and so we need a method that will continually give us a way of overcoming the next level of challenges…a deep well, that can be returned to over and over again for what we need.

Although the body does not know about trumpet physics, it does intuitively recognize imbalance, and will react in predictable ways to that imbalance with actions that will provide you with invaluable clues as to the origin of any problem.  By catching yourself in the act of losing your balance (or discovering why you had not achieved balance to begin with), it is much easier to distinguish the root cause of these reactions (which often became the bad habits we are trying to break).  domino-1500x350Those bad habits are usually symptoms of a greater underlying cause.  Know that once the initial reaction occurs, there can quickly be a chain reaction (like the domino effect), where several things happen so quickly, it might be hard to know what event occurred first (especially if you are only observing the last “domino” to fall).  However, symptoms can always give us clues that can be traced back to their source cause.  I always play the “Game of Why” with my students…”Why did this happen?”  And when they answer why, I ask again, “Then why did that happen?”  After they give me their next answer, I ask again, “And so why did that happen?”  Eventually we find not only the root cause of the problem, but also reveal the actual sequence of reactions that occurred after the original misstep.

The_Usual_Suspects_027These root causes usually turn out to be what I call the “Usual Suspects”…the same cast of characters that are known culprits and troublemakers (see the five listed earlier in this post, right below the raw brass to be used for trumpet bells).  Trying to find the root cause of a problem is just like the police putting known perpetrators into a line up during the process of solving a crime.  If the authorities have no suspects, they begin with the criminals in the area most known for being involved in that particular type of crime, seeing if the witness can identify them, and then asking the suspect, “How were you playing that Low C?”  If you are having trouble solving a fundamental problem, take a good hard look at the Usual Suspects.

You have heard of Newton’s Third Law, “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”  Can  you see this at work in the picture below?   This law can help you with your problem solving, for any reaction that you see or feel your body making, will point the finger at the previous action that caused it.  DOWO_flying_0867_rsz2_mcFor example, if you are starting with too much mouthpiece pressure, have poorly distributed its weight, are squeezing the bottom lip up (all of which close up the center of the lips), or are even just anticipating those actions, the body can react in several different and predictable ways (and sometimes in a combination of these ways) to free up the center of the embouchure.  In this case, here are some of the most common reactions or anticipations:  rocking the head to get “comfortable” (what I call the “bobble head”),  licking your lips (which is more due to the tension at the center than to dryness…the water vapor in your breath is enough to moisturize the lips for playing), tonguing between the lips to get the note started, “kissing” the mouthpiece, pulling the corners back into a “smile,” “pancaking” (flattening) the bottom lip, receding or opening the jaw…all actions, that while they may reopen up the center, usually do so by going too far in the other direction.

To take this example a little further, once any of those reactions take you past the balance point, the lip aperture is then too big, and so the body will react again in an attempt to focus the embouchure.  Again, this reaction is usually overdone, and in an improper, less efficient way…actions like bringing in more mouthpiece pressure (especially on the top lip), tightening the throat and upper body, squeezing the bottom lip up at the center, unconsciously arching the tongue, etc.  vicious-cycleOf course, all of these “solutions” only make matters worse, since they will trigger reactions like those first mentioned in the previous paragraph, which only cause more loss of focus at the embouchure’s center, which then invite the same predictable reactions that attempt to refocus the lip aperture again.  It’s a vicious circle.  The only thing than may be achieved at first is some semblance of control…but there is no real balance in the system, and certainly no relaxation.  It’s only a matter of time before a loss of control and sound quality begin to surface (symptoms like loss of endurance, cracked, airy notes, etc.).  Oftentimes this is when the player begins looking for a new mouthpiece…either something smaller to compensate for the unfocused lip aperture or to improve endurance, or something bigger, to compensate for the bright sound (due to the excess tension in the body and embouchure), and the diminished mouthpiece cup size (due to the lips erupting into the mouthpiece). These are obviously attempts at balancing the system, but only address the symptoms, not the cause.

Speaking of causes, we should back up to where I referred to Newton’s Third Law.  Shouldn’t we have asked why there was a need to start with too much mouthpiece pressure, or poor weight distribution in the first place, or why the bottom lip was squeezing up?  Those are all misguided attempts at focusing the aperture, meaning the embouchure was not set properly to begin with (it’s good to know that mouthpiece pressure can also be used to unconsciously open a closed embouchure).  And if we back up a little further, we will most likely find that the embouchure wasn’t set correctly because the knowledge of how do to this step was lacking, or that enough awareness was not utilized during the process, or the time was not taken to do the job properly.  Now we are really getting to the root cause!  These three cornerstones for success were mentioned near the top of this article, where it stated that if any of these are missing, there will be problems.  Without these three necessities for effective practicing, bad habits are both made and maintained.

And remember that a relaxed, steady airstream is an integral part of this balance.  A finely tuned sports car with problems in its fuel line cannot perform in the way it was designed.  You also have to make sure that you are not adding any form of destructive tension, or losing embouchure focus as the airspeed changes to suit the musical demands.  There is a delicate balance between the Focus and the Flow…and both these aspects of your playing need to exist in harmony, without one diminishing the other.

Even the best players can compromise to some degree…some lower lip eruption, a little bit of cheek puffing, receding the jaw, a small amount of smiling at the corners, etc.  These actions can be signs of a slight amount of imbalance (all helping in some way to keep the center free), but it is slight, and usually not to the degree that adversely effects their playing.  Their compromises are usually much smaller, without causing too much of an adverse reaction, plus there are a lot of other elements that are working extremely well for them.  If you can play as well as they do, or are satisfied with your playing, then don’t worry about these things if they are present in your own playing.  But if you want to improve (or if you are a teacher, and want to help your students to improve), then you have to address every facet of good form when you practice (and be careful about which aspects of your hero’s playing that you emulate).  In retrospect, some of our heroes or heroines have admitted to shortcomings in their approach to playing that required some major changes, or that these problems ended up getting the best of them.  Always check your work with the “blueprint” that aligns you with the physical laws.  By continuing to focus on that ideal, you will be less distracted by your successes and failures, and will always have a clear path to more progress.

Balance ScaleBecause you are working on a system of playing, every component of that system needs to be in balance with the others.  Even if you make an improvement, that impacts everything else in the playing system.  Other components may then need to be tweaked, otherwise the body once again will automatically try to make its own knee jerk adjustments in an attempt to achieve some semblance of balance.  For example, years ago when I first moved my jaw to the slightly forward position, I then discovered that it began opening up past the 1/4″ spacing while I was playing… something it had never done before.  I eventually realized that I was still using too much mouthpiece pressure.  The smaller aperture created by the jaw coming forward and aligning the lips (a big step towards focusing the lip aperture), was not balanced by decreasing the excess mouthpiece pressure (which was no longer needed to that degree).  The combination of the old pressure and the improved jaw position had then created even more of an imbalance in the system, negatively affecting both the airflow and the lip vibration with even more resistance in the center of the embouchure, and so the body’s involuntary reaction was again to try and free up the center of the embouchure.  Since at that point I was only concentrating on keeping the lower jaw forward, the body had found another way to react to that imbalance, and I was still stuck with a lip aperture that was too big, even though I thought I had done something positive, by bringing the lower jaw forward.

You should also realize that your mind often runs on the powers of association (my term for the phenomenon).  The mere act of making an embouchure, or blowing air, or bringing the mouthpiece up to your lips, or making a sound, or playing a scale or slur, or making music, etc., can trigger responses from the undisciplined mind…the equivalent of a computer running on an older version of software, causing the old habits to resurface.  Closing eyes while swingingEven with our best intentions, when trying something new (like forming a different embouchure and playing a note), we often “blink.”  All it takes is that split second for  the old habit(s) to come back and ruin your work.  You have to remain vigilant.   These powers of association are strongest when we take any common step we have done thousands of times before during our routine practice (like putting the mouthpiece up to play).  This lack of concentration is the equivalent of a little kid closing their eyes at the last second while swinging at a ball… merely doing an approximation of a swing and hoping to get lucky.  The only way to keep this from happening is to have the new “software” installed before you take that next step…which is holding in mind what I’ve been referring to here as a clear mental image.  The more detailed this image is (remember that this picture truly is worth a thousand words), the more easily you can override the mind’s force of association and begin developing a new habit.  It’s best to start with the most basic, fundamental steps…which gradually allow you to bring more of the new ideas into play, and to be an astute observer, as to how well you are adhering to form.  If something goes awry, you should be able to tell exactly when it happened, and what the cause of the slip up was.  The batter here only knows that she missed the ball, and has no idea if her swing was too high, too low, too soon or too late.  How can she make the necessary adjustments for the next pitch?  Keep your eye on the ball.

Also worth mentioning is a study done by researchers in sports performance (where most of the money on the subject is spent these days, but something musicians can still benefit from).  The studies revealed that it takes 10,000 repetitions to learn a new skill, but if you are trying to relearn that skill by implementing new techniques, it takes 20,000 repetitions to develop the new habit.  Although that number can seem staggering, it can be arrived at with a consistent, dedicated practice routine.  More importantly though, is that those repetitions must be performed using the correct form.  Practice does indeed make permanent, so we must be aware of what we are doing at all times, and choose the level of performance where we have the most control, before moving on to something more challenging.

Here’s a brief example of a warmup and practice session, which gradually and methodically adds complexity (more details are in some of  the related articles listed below, along with their links).  It’s a good idea to do this without any music in front of you, for staring at notes on a page is a distraction from your deeper work with your body and the horn.  Long Range ShootingDo not rush through these steps, for if an earlier step is not done correctly, the error will be magnified as the complexity increases (just like the smallest position change of the rifle barrel becomes more critical the greater the distance it is from the target).  But for that very reason, if you’re unsure if you have done a step correctly, any problems will be easier to spot in subsequent steps.  However, a problem’s solution is best addressed at the moment it first occurs.  Return to an easier step and make your fixes there.  When it doubt, simplify, or…go slower, arrive sooner.  The steps listed here are in one possible order of gradually increasing complexity, but that is not to say that order needs to be rigidly adhered to, especially with little regard to your ability to play in form…that starts to become more about what you are playing.  For example, it should be easy to imagine a type of slur that is more complex than a scale (even though slurs are listed before scales), so the fact that you are practicing slurs before scales does not guarantee that you are warming up properly.  What is more important is that you begin with relaxation, good form and balance, and retain these virtues as you progress, thinking more about how you are playing than what you are playing.  As you refine your human instrument, your sound and abilities will become more refined, so stay focused on the true work at hand.  A popular word these days is mindfulness.  With any good endeavor, you must be fully present when you practice, and have a purpose in mind.  Do you know why you are playing a long tone, a slur or a scale?

  1. Start with a completely relaxed body and mind.  This will increase your awareness, create the best environment for creative practicing, and set the base for the way you will play the horn.
  2. Visually (in front of a mirror) and by feel, make sure that you have the natural, gentle contact of the lips in their state of rest position, touching from corner to corner, with minimum tension.  You may already have it if you took Step One to heart.
  3. Set the 1/4″ teeth aperture, and bring the lower jaw forward so it is at least vertically aligned with the top teeth (see links to the “Landing” series below).
  4. Establish a small, centered lip aperture (arrived at mostly by a localized release of tension, and without losing the gentle contact), which is felt on the inside of the embouchure, where the air will hit first.  Some players need to engage a very small amount of the scissor action at this point (which puts only the minimum, required amount of tension at the corners, and keeps the center free).  It helps to imagine an aperture small enough for only one air molecule to freely pass through at a time.
  5. Using only the minimum tension of the scissor action to hold this position, gently begin to blow the air, aiming it up (you are still observing in front of mirror).  Make sure you can hold the position without squeezing it, and that you can remain relaxed without losing it.
  6. Next, while just normally breathing in and out through your nose, bring in your horn until the moment when the mouthpiece first touches the embouchure (which should be just below the bottom lip), being aware of that first contact point (imagine down to which skin cell, in order to help increase your awareness), adjusting mouthpiece placement (2/3 on the bottom lip), and the horn angle (so the mouthpiece weight will slightly favor the bottom lip, and be evenly distributed between left and right sides).  Use the close proximity of the mouthpiece to help determine if you need to adjust the placement and angle of the mouthpiece (the goal being to get as much even contact with the mouthpiece rim this way first), if you need to relax more, and where you may then need to use the scissor action for any remaining refinements with seal and proper weight distribution (again, refer to the “Landing” series for more info).  Make your adjustments.
  7. Slightly back off the contact of the weight and then blow, maintaining the position, contact points, lip aperture, and a constant, relaxed airflow.  This is the “No Weight Blowing” discussed earlier, which can also be combined later with tonguing and fingering…and you should alternate with this during steps 9-13 listed below.  Do not attempt to make a sound yet…just observe through the look, the sound and the feel that you still have the position, and that you are completely relaxed.  For most people, if you are making sounds without mouthpiece contact, it means you are either squeezing the position or letting it go.  If this is what is happening, you must know which of those two actions you are doing, so you can make the proper adjustments.  Sometimes it’s a good idea to inhale through the nose before blowing, just so you can better retain the position you have carefully made (this could also apply to steps 9-13).  Once you can remember the feel of the new set in the context of airflow, you will be able to return to the position more easily as you resume normal mouth breathing (keeping the throat open and the tongue down), within the natural uninterrupted rhythm of inhale and exhale.
  8. Bring back the gentle contact of the mouthpiece.
  9. Long Tones– Keeping the head and horn up, and being careful to gently keep the contact points, and a small, central point of least resistance, begin aiming the air up (no tonguing yet, which often separates the lips) and wait for a note to play.  Remember that you have been playing notes all of your musical life, and by that association, you can easily slip into auto pilot and undo your new setup.  Use your entire breath, maintaining a relaxed, constant momentum with your air, whether a note plays or not.  The longer your exhale, the more you can observe the system in action, and understand what is going on.  Absolutely no forcing at this critical point in time, for it sets the stage for everything that will follow.  Just blow and observe.  Start with whatever note wants to play, and when it wants to play…and be aware of how it began.  A note can begin with releasing the position or squeezing it (both to be avoided).  We are looking for the position that just plays when the air passes through it.  After setting everything up so carefully, you may be surprised at what comes out.  If there is no sound, or it is airy, then there is not enough gentle contact between the lips, or they are too tight to allow for vibration.  “Buzzy” sounds, or more than one sound at a time, means you are squeezing the position or letting it go.  More contact, less tension should become your mantra.  If you’re actually set for one note and try to play another pitch, you’re forcing the body to adjust, which could cause you to lose the formation you have so carefully made, so to avoid that, just let any note play.  Playing soft here helps to keep the lip aperture small, and the system relaxed and efficient.  The better things are working, the more you will notice an improvement in your sound…clearer and thicker (because of the improved contact between the lips), darker (not duller, because there is less tension in the position), richer and more resonant (because of the relaxation in the body, the shape of the air column, and the lips not protruding into the mouthpiece).  Contrary to some opinions, sound quality should be refined by tweaking the physical elements more than by merely imagining a good sound, at least until you can make the connection as to how those physical components influence the sound.  Remember that there a lot of ways to make sound, and some have more potential than others.  If stable notes are beginning to play consistently, try gradual crescendos and decrescendos, checking to make sure that you are maintaining a good, consistent sound, balance of form, and that state of relaxation.  Always use your entire breath, making sure the chest does not drop at the end.  If long tones are boring, then you’re not doing them with the proper amount of awareness.  There are a lot of things to keep track of, and remember, you should be constantly looking for ways to improve both your form and your sound, and learning more about how the two are related.  If you are successful here, you can gradually expand the pitch range (both higher and lower), with the actual pitches being determined by the range in which you can maintain your form, sound, state of relaxation and balance.  Carefully reset after every breath, and if necessary, improve your starting position before every new long tone.  You can alternate with “No Weight Blowing,” which might reveal some areas in which you are beginning to lose form, and help you to get back on track.  Remember to refine, not repeat.
  10. Slurs– Once the range of your long tones is large enough to include two or three slots in the overtone series, begin to slur between those slots, without changing any valves during the slurs (although you can use any valve combination).  Always work in both directions, meaning when you slur up or down, return back in the direction you started.  Gradually expand your range higher and lower, but only if you can remain relaxed, flowing, in form, and can play with a beautiful sound.  As you continue to improve, you will notice that the approach to the upper, middle and lower ranges becomes more and more the same, and that the differences between the registers become smaller and smaller.  Keep up the momentum of the air through your entire breath, properly supporting every note (listening carefully to your sound for clues at all times), and making that a priority over the number of notes you play in the slur.  Once again, the How is more important than the What.  Also think less about the rhythm of your pitch changes at first, letting the move to the new slot (up or down) be determined by the air and matching resistance of the embouchure, not by carelessly letting actions like erupting or squeezing the lips, tightening the throat, suddenly adding mouthpiece pressure, etc. become your method of control.  Once you can understand, coordinate  and control the proper techniques, then you can add the rhythm.  Learning how to correctly move up and down the overtone series is one of the most important, fundamental skills a trumpet player must master, and so you must know exactly what you are doing at all times (refer to the two links below about practicing scales and arpeggios for more information).  Your warmup and practice routine are two places where you can form your habits…old or new…good or bad, so be vigilant, even in the range of the horn that is easy for you (see the link below on the “No Respect Range”).  It is a good idea to alternate with “No Weight Blowing” here, just to check how well you are retaining your relaxation, form and balance as the pitches change.  And always remember, How you are playing is more important than What you are playing.
  11. Scales and Arpeggios– these can be only fragments at first, plus you do not have to start on the root or go up to begin with.  Instead, stay in the range you have control, prioritize form, balance, sound quality and relaxation, coordinate these things with the valve changes, and be aware of the sound and feel for clues about How you are playing.  Choose the direction, up or down, that you feel will allow the most control, going slow at first from pitch to pitch, but keep the valve motion quick, deliberate, and complete.  Your speed through the scale is the last thing you work on.  As with your slurs, always work in both directions, gradually expanding your range.  Again, alternating with “No Weight Blowing” will be useful here too.
  12. Tonguing– (may also be introduced during Steps #7 , 9, 10 and 11) This is a great test for your setup and balance.  For the clearest attack, tonguing requires a good seal with the mouthpiece, and a small, focused lip aperture (along with a relaxed, resonant, steady airstream).  Think more about these things than how you are tonguing (after all, you have been saying words beginning with the letters T and D all of your life), as long as you’re not ending a note with the tongue (like “Tut”) or tonguing between the lips and teeth (which is usually the body’s reaction to too much mouthpiece pressure).  Keep the sound full, clear and connected…just like your long tones.  No matter how fast you tongue, the tongue should spend the majority of its time low in the mouth (the “ah” or “oh” vowel).  If you catch it up high in the mouth (or especially arched in the back, which is often accompanied by nose noises), it could be the body’s way of compensating for a lack of focus at the lip aperture).  As mentioned several times before, if you do not have all of the system’s parts in place, the body will begin searching for its own solutions, and so tonguing can often quickly raise a red flag about bad form.  Another example..if the jaw begins “chewing,” it is trying to free up the center, which is pinned with too much mouthpiece pressure.  Start by slowly tonguing on a single pitch, to give your self the time to observe, judge and correct any deficiencies in the process.  Only when things are working properly, can you increase the speed, and then the range in either direction.  Alternating with “No Weight Blowing” works here as well.
  13. Music– Make sure you are still thinking of your fundamentals here, which will help your transition to a better way of playing all the more.  If you have warmed up properly, then you should be hearing the sound and displaying the control you want, so listen and feel intently.  As dry as all of this meticulousness may seem, if utilized properly, you should really begin to notice a payoff for all of your hard work.  Once again, alternating with “No Weight Blowing” (using valves and tonguing according to the music) will not only reveal what is happening with your system, but it also allows the embouchure to continue and develop with the air, rather than adversely react to weight.  Alternating with this step during your practice will also help solidify that “mental solder.”

Return to a more fundamental step (like No Weight Blowing) anytime you feel tired (even mentally), have lost the position, or are having problems with control, or just put the horn down for awhile and rest.  Fatigue is more due to carrying too much tension in the system (including excessive mouthpiece pressure and poor breathing), and the accompanying loss of balance, rather than the lack of conditioning in your embouchure muscles.  There is nothing wrong with improving your strength and conditioning, but they must be developed using good form, without adding unneeded tension…in other words, in the context of finesse.  watchyourform_mainThis is not a bench press contest.  In fact, the man here is not really developing strength in his upper body in the best possible way, for he has taken some of the load off of those muscles, and has transferred it to his legs and butt…putting his lower back at risk.  If I were to equate the bench press to good trumpet playing, the legs would be off the floor (closer to a fetal position), which would mean the balance would have to be impeccable, plus some of the unnecessary muscles would be taken out of the equation entirely.  The bar would always be in motion, from when it first lowered (the inhale), during its change in direction (without it bouncing off the chest), to when it returned to the top of that cycle, and the ascending speed would be able to vary in a very controlled manner.  During the lift, you would sing “Ah” or “Oh” with a relaxed, resonant voice (no grunting), and very precise pitch.  Get the idea?   Strength is only a part of the process, with balance, coordination, breath control, and localized relaxation playing just as important roles.  Stay “in the zone” of good form, relaxation and balance as much as you can.  Play the odds, for the more time you spend practicing this way, the sooner you will replace your bad habits with a better way of playing, and the more you will see those improvements when you perform.

I usually see the greatest strides are taken when the first steps are done flawlessly.  The better I refine my human instrument, the easier the subsequent steps become…almost like someone had practiced them for me.   Holding Cub in MouthAgain, your daily fundamental practice should always be more about How you are playing, rather than What you are playing.  Slurring, scales and arpeggios, and tonguing routines are great as a methodical way of testing the design, assembly and execution of your system through varying levels of complexity, but there is no magic in playing the notes themselves unless you bring a high level of awareness into the process, and are playing these exercises with good form, sound, balance and relaxation.  This is also where you strengthen your mental solder.  Remember, you must start as balanced and relaxed as you can, and then maintain those attributes as the complexity of what you are playing increases.  Like the mother tiger seen here……using just enough tension to hold her little cub, but not enough to injure it.  She maintains that delicate balance no matter where she carries her baby…up or down, left or right, fast or slow.  A player must establish the same kind of balance…making and holding the shape and contact points of the embouchure (and its singular point of least resistance) with a minimum amount of tension, using the scissor action…all the while staying relaxed, and releasing all unnecessary tension without losing the position…whether going up or down, tonguing or slurring, playing loud or soft, etc.

A Few More Tips and Reminders

  • Like a chess master, think several moves ahead before you act.shutterstock_73070908
  • Increase your awareness by calming and focusing your mind.
  • More contact (between the lips), but using less tension.
  • Fix the cause of the problem, not the symptom.
  • Discouragement can be a natural part of the learning process, but don’t dwell upon it, for there are better uses of your time.  When something is not working, the problem is on full display for you to observe, analyze and understand.  What an opportunity!
  • When in doubt, simplify!
  • Go slower, arrive sooner.
  • Know when to be your biggest critic…or your biggest fan.
  • Any changes you make should be be small, and done very slowly.  If you go too quickly or make too big of an adjustment, you could end up going right past the “sweet spot,” or moving other elements that could already be in place…or both.
  • Take videos of yourself during practice, especially from the angles (like the side) that you cannot observe as well.
  • You have to know what you are doing for control.

This has turned into quite a lengthy post, but I wanted the players who have been stuck or frustrated with their progress to have some clear ideas about the cause of their dilemma, and to know a way out…some way of putting themselves in more control of their progress.  Mastering any instrument takes thousands of hours, and quality hours at that, so you want your investment of time to count.  But this need not be drudgery.  Focusing your mind, solving problems, developing your talents, discovering that you have abilities you didn’t have before, learning more about yourself…these are all some of the highest endeavors of living…and of being human.  Music can provide you with interesting challenges for the rest of your life…so learn to embrace them, like old friends.

Albert-Einstein-geniusAlbert Einstein may not have been a trumpet player, but he was a clear thinker, and so I’ll let him have the final words.

  • “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”
  • “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
  • It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.

Related Posts:

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6 Responses to Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks (or How to Break old Habits)

  1. Roger says:

    I don’t think I understand the procedure:

    So, you put your lips together, separate your front teeth a 1/4 inch, push your jaw forward a bit then “form an aperture”? I.e. a small hole at the front of the mouth?

    Ok, I get that far, but how do I create and aperture “without losing the gentle contact”? An aperture (or hole) requires a gap, an opening. So how can “gentle contact” still be felt??

    Also, is this procedure supposed to be done on an embouchure setting completely different to the one you use for your general playing? An embouchure setting that is, practically speaking, has none of the characteristic muscular flex typically associated with the definition of an embouchure?

    Following your steps as best I can, I pretty much have no muscular flex. My lips are simply together with a bit of a hole at the front like they would be if for example I was relaxing reading a book or watching TV.

    I have big lips, a wide mouth, and my bite is even (no underbite or overbite). so creating a 1/4 gap between my front teeth and moving my jaw forward slightly creates virtually no change in my mouth formation.

    Also, with my lips being big and naturally pouty (not at all a flat surface), the mouthpiece rim sits on the red and no seal can be created in this relaxed state.

  2. bobgillis says:

    Hi Roger,

    You bring up some very good points. After starting with the natural gentle contact of the lips in their natural, state of rest position, some players can get the aperture with what I called “localized relaxation.” You’re right in describing the true definition of an aperture, but in our case here, an aperture is the place where the air can pass most easily…the single “point of least resistance”…a term which I admit I’m freely using in place of the word aperture. The air will pass through, but we will still feel the gentle contact, partly because the hole is so small. I think of it like a violin bow moving across a string…always in contact, but the part of the horsehair touching the string is constantly changing. Ideally for us trumpet players, the part of the top lip where the air passes (under) is constantly in motion too…there is the slightest amount of “give” at the point of least resistance (thanks to both a steady airstream and the gentle contact of the lips), and yet the resilient reaction of the “scissor action” to the airstream continually brings the lip back to position. We feel the contact and the point of least resistance almost simultaneously.

    It’s a feeling most of us are not used to…we either have opened up where the aperture truly is a hole (and one that is too big at that), or we have blocked things at the center (by squeezing it, or with excessive mouthpiece pressure) to the point nothing can get through…until the body reacts in some way, and then the hole usually again is too big.

    The Scissor Action I often refer to in the article (specifically here, in the two paragraphs following the picture of all of the faces) would be the “muscular flex” you referred to, but it is a very refined action.

    …To do this, some need to slightly engage the embouchure muscles (the “scissor action” described in “The Landing: the Final Focus and Seal“)**, to insure that only a very small, single point of least resistance is at the embouchure’s horizontal center, and that the gentle contact is still retained…but the more this can be accomplished by the localized relaxation, the better.

    The muscular action of the “scissors” is still used, but now only as the way of maintaining the structure of the embouchure…

    -when helping to preserve the gentle contact between the lips while the player is releasing tension in a way that will establish the embouchure’s small, single, central point of least resistance
    -to help make the seal with the mouthpiece
    -improving the distribution of its weight
    -while the air is supporting the demands of the music  

    A lot of unnecessary tension is more easily avoided by starting this way, thanks to the natural contact of the two lips that already exists while they are in their state of rest position…

    The same Scissor Action (the “”Hugging Action”) will help the lips assume the shape needed for a good interface with the mouthpiece.

    We start with the very relaxed position to show how easy it is to have a small, focused aperture. As we apply any needed Scissor Action in preparation for playing, we will also know what we are trying to preserve in the process.

    I hope that helps, Roger!

    • Roger says:

      That’s very helpful, thank you for the detailed reply, Bob.

      Would you recommend not placing in the red for this? As mentioned, I have thick lips so find it impossible without first rolling my lips in to avoid the red. But rolling in would seem to defeat the object of the exercise which requires the lips to remain in a relaxed state.

      Also, I have issues with my lower lip being crushed and shredded by my bottom teeth. For this reason i tend to play with my teeth almost closed and also tend to slide my lower lip down off the tooth edge into a position more in front of the lower teeth. If I play with the lips as you suggest, do you have any thoughts on how this issue might be avoided?

  3. bobgillis says:

    Hi Roger,

    It is possible to invert the lips by using only a minimum amount of tension, especially when you start with and become more familiarized with that feeling of relaxation. Even if you happen to use too much tension while inverting the lips, with practice you can learn how to release it while still maintaining the small, single, and central point of least resistance, and the gentle contact points of the inverted lips.  However, it is best to learn how to incorporate the Scissor Action without adding any unnecessary tension, since that is the same kind of coordination you will use when you play.  By design, the Scissor Action keeps any needed tension at the corners, while allowing the center to be focused and free, and its inverting (or “hugging”) component keeps the lip formation resilient while the air flows past. Go slow, increase your awareness, and be patient.     

    There is no reason to use the amount of mouthpiece pressure that can crush and shred the bottom lip.  One of the best ways to break a bad habit is too take away what provoked it to begin with. Excessive mouthpiece pressure is the body’s way of attempting to do things like make and hold the position, seal it with the mouthpiece, and compress air, so once we can learn how to do those things without the instrument, the weight of the mouthpiece can be naturally reduced. “No Weight Blowing” is a great way of retraining the muscles, and helping one to observe the air-embouchure system in action. As things come together, the need for excessive pressure is eliminated, and there is a nice cushion for the mouthpiece to rest on.

    Your other issues (which are reactive) can be more easily resolved once the mouthpiece pressure is reduced.
    I would recommend reading the related posts at the bottom of the article, especially the four part “Landing” series, and “Support from the Sports Medicine and Physical Therapy Field.”  

    Good Luck!

  4. Sergio Valdes says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your insights with us! I do have a few questions regarding your method:

    The natural formation of my lips is such that when resting completely in the “m” position, not all portions of my lip are touching with equal force. The very center of my lips is fleshier, and touches more easily than directly to the left or right of center ( I have a Cupids Bow in my lips). There is a sort of natural arch in my lips in this less fleshly part of the top lip. That is not to say that my lips don’t touch completely, there is just less lip mass coming in contact with my lower lip just to either side of center.

    When I blow, with no tension other than placing the jaw slightly forward and teeth 1/4″ apart, the aperture has a tendency to form off from center in the less fleshy location I mentioned earlier. To combat this, I can use very slight tension (the “scissor” action) to get a very tiny pinhole aperture in the center of my lips. I suppose I’m adding the tension that you mentioned may be necessary for some.

    (I will also mention this before I go any further: I’m am on a quest to find the best place for the mouthpiece. I have struggled with range and endurance for quite sometime. I was always the 4th trumpeter who could improvise and played all the solos but had trouble with section parts. I play off center, but not too much. About 4 years ago, I noticed that my corners were not balanced. One side of my face was doing most of the heavy lifting, while the other side remained overly relaxed (I played off center, closer to the “weak” corner”). I especially noticed this when going in the the upper register, staccato tonging, slurring, etc. The strong side always engaged much more when the playing demands increased. Not only that, the stronger side seems to have more finesse. I’ts like the stronger side belonged to a pro, and the weaker side to someone who’s only been playing a couple of years. I would say it was a 20/80 imbalance. You can see why I might want to correct this! I wasn’t sure how to correct this problem, and neither did my trumpet professors. I tried placing the mouthpiece more toward center, but my corners were still behaving the same way. My “appeture” would want to slide back over to the side when acceding into the upper register. Now in the present, I have no playing responsibilities so I can really experiment. When I go back to the old setup, my sound is best. If I move it even further to the side, the side it wants to go to, the sound opens up even more. If I place the mouthpiece on the other side of center, a place I’ve never played, also the place where the aperture sometimes occurs like I mentioned in the first paragraph, the sound is thin and scratchy but range is much less of a problem. )

    My question or concern is this: When using your method to “setup”, should I be doing all I can with the least amount of tension to form the aperture in the center, or should I let it come out the side? (the side in which range seems to be less a problem). I’m worried that If I play off the side I will continue to have corner imbalance, but I don’t want to force playing in the center if it’s not my natural setup. (whats more confusing is that so many great players from orchestral, to high note, to jazz guys have played off center with great success.) also, i dont have jagged or weird teeth.

    Sorry for the long post, and thanks again for all your help!

    • bobgillis says:

      Hi Sergio,

      Thanks for taking the time to describe your situation.  Believe it or not, it is actually more common than you think.  In spite of the shape of your lips as you described them, the lips are very malleable, and can be made into many forms, irregardless of what Nature has given us.  I have students with lips like yours that have learned how to successfully reshape them for trumpet playing using the Scissor Action, and the trumpet world is full of successful players with a Cupid’s Bow.

      In spite of what our lips look like from the front view, what is more important to a trumpet player is the contact we feel between them on the inside, where the air first hits.  Here we are all more the same, where that contact can feel much more even, and where any problems with the center can be first discovered.

      When players talk about their “natural position,” I always wonder what caused them to gravitate towards it.  Although the body is not schooled in the art of trumpet playing, it does know balance, and will first seek the fastest (not always the best) solution to imbalance most of the time.  The airstream is like water…it too will look for the path of least resistance.  If you have found your lip aperture wants to migrate to one side, I suspect that the center is too closed.  It is natural to blame the shape of your lips, but in your case, I don’t think that was the problem.

      Without having seen you play, but based on everything you have described, my guess it that you had placed the playing weight of the mouthpiece on the embouchure before you set up, and had not defined the center of the embouchure as point of least resistance. In fact, the center had become the point of greatest resistance, and was actually doing most of the heavy hitting as the new “corner” of your embouchure. Of course your “strong” side looked like a pro, since most of its work was being done at the center.

      The “weak” side was not really weak (at least not at the 20/80 comparison level you mentioned). That side is merely where the imbalance tipped…at which time that side became the body’s “volunteer” in its attempt to achieve balance, and to allow for the passage of air (the only way you can make sound on the horn). As long as the air is inhibited in passing through the center, there will be a shift, or tipping to one side or the other.

      The fact that you were recently able to establish the center of the embouchure as the point of least resistance is a good start. When you said that the hole migrated back to the weak side when you blew, did you have the mouthpiece on the lips at that time? Where you trying to make a sound, or where you just practicing No Weight Blowing? If you haven’t first exercised and strengthened your new setup with No Weight Blowing first, you were rushing the steps. Even better than No Weight Blowing at first is to practice what I call Focusing Air…no horn at all…just watching the lips in the mirror as you blow, and learning how to maintain the balance of the centered lip aperture.

      If the weight is carelessly placed (before the embouchure is correctly formed), or by using too much weight in general, or if the weight favors the top lip, the center can easily begin to close, or for the top lip to activate the vibration in the horn’s air column…or at the very least, it becomes too hard for the air to past through the center without releasing any kind of formation. The body will try to make things easier…something more “natural,” and you could be right back where you started.

      Poor air support, or proper air support arriving too late (where the lips begin reacting to weight rather than air), over blowing, the embouchure and/or body reacting incorrectly to air (with tension in the wrong places…like the embouchure’s center, or even a good embouchure formation held too tightly), can also cause the body to react in ways to try and balance the System. These attempts are usually overdone, which will cause only more problems.

      If you are starting with a good position (and without the weight of the horn at first), until you can catch yourself in the act of re-closing the center, you will not understand the sequence of events that caused that action, nor be able to make the needed corrections. You have to simplify things at first, and increase your awareness. You can’t just go through the motions.

      Like I said in the article, practicing No Weight Blowing is a good way to observe the System in action, to more easily make any needed corrections (since we are not putting the body in a situation where it will make its knee jerk reactions), and is a great way to retrain and strengthen the new embouchure’s muscular formation.  If while doing No Weight Blowing, you find the aperture wanting to slip to the weak side, first make sure you are not closing the center, or tightening the lips too much, and then carefully engage just enough of the Scissor Action to stabilize the new position.  Read the post “Support from the Sports Medicine and Physical Therapy Fields” to get another view of this proven method.

      I hope this helps, Sergio. Much of this information was in the articles, but it takes awhile to absorb it all. There is a strong logic to all of this though, and the underlying physics makes the forces we deal with predictable.

      I wish you all the best,


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