Embouchure Change Blues

This is a tough one. I first noticed it two summers ago, that I was playing trumpet way off-center. I could tell by the impression the mouthpiece made after a few minutes’ playing. It wasn’t the end of the world, though it did cause a few problems; One was that because of the longer distance between the mouthpiece and the corner of my mouth, I couldn’t maintain a tight seal on the left side of my mouth when I got tired and air leaked out.

If you’re not used to looking at this kind of thing, the problem is subtle. Especially with facial hair. But it was at least this far over to the right — accounting for taking this “selfie,” your left.

But where it ought to be, ideally, is over here.

My practice log over the last few weeks had been a cry for help. Some time in the last few months a lower tooth had shifted, and when I played more than a couple of minutes it would bite into my lower lip, hurt, cause swelling which blocked the airway making it harder to play, and so on.

My last diary entry before the change said, “something has to give.” It was either an embouchure change, or braces. And since I know from experience that braces are an embouchure change, I decided to go for a change.

Risky Business

Doing this kind of thing yourself can be dangerous. But I’m assuming that since I’m a grownup with a certain amount of discipline I can make it happen.

The first week was spent playing long tones in front of a mirror. A couple of Facebook friends had good advice. Daniel Levine wrote

Not sure there’s a “right” answer for this, but here’s what I did to make my buzzing technique and my playing technique one and the same (this solved all of my problems): Daily routine: Buzz a third space C, bring horn/mp to lips, hold a soft long tone for 8 counts. Repeat. Put horn away. Do only this for a week. Following week, same exercise only now do the six notes from C to E. Add lip bends to the long tones. Gradually extend that so it’s six notes from C to E, down to G back up to C, and so on. (all setting exercise Style). Begin to add slurs and soft scales. I’d do a clark #2 on 2nd space g, then follow the same scale pattern up an octave, clark #2 then back down (one breath). Always beginning the session with the buzz to mp, maintaining that embouchure, putting the horn away for the day (this is like a 20 minute high focus practice sesh). Then little by little you begin add playing and other exercises. It takes the body a week and a half to two weeks to form muscle memory about this stuff. The buzz becomes your baseline. While doing this I was constantly reading the Inner Game of Tennis. AND most importantly, once you get through the first few weeks and back to playing music, take a more or less Wind & Song approach. Don’t think about the technique anymore. Hope this helps — but it probably doesn’t since every player is so different!!

I did not take the advice of only playing two notes a day for the first week. But I incorporated the buzzing, adding the mouthpiece, playing long tones only, then adding on.

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Tim Hutto added

Daniel’s routine sounds great. The only thing I would add, is after the first few weeks add some melodic work that stays below third space C (or thereabouts) so you are incorporating some non-technical work in your routines. In players I’ve taught who made this change, I have found that if they try to go right back to their full range, the mouthpiece placement creeps over to the off-center position every time just to get the high notes out.

I still had some organized playing I had to do, even after quitting my quintet gig in order to straighten this stuff out. Fortunately, I was able to grab the low 3rd part in the Prokofiev Fifth, which kept me out of trouble.

And after a week and a half, what kind of progress?

I’m not sure I’ll get to the perfect dead-center setup. I continue to do the idea, but just a hair off to the right feels more right, and sounds a lot better.

Lip slurs are very difficult, even simple ones. It takes a lot more air to produce a sound. My usual 30-35 second long tone exercises are in the low 20s now. My theory is that the center lip tissue isn’t used to vibrating. It’s stiff because its job has been to maintain a tight seal. But little by little I sense it loosening up.

After a week the muscle memory Daniel reports started to kick in, and I could reliably find the right spot without a mirror.

Over the weekend I incorporated some of the “pencil” exercises. These have always helped strengthen me in the past, and since almost by definition you’re working on the true center of your embouchure, I’m banking on them being helpful.

As I said to my section-mate AW when he asked how it was going, “half the notes I play sound like shit, but that’s an improvement over a week ago when they all did.”

Stay tuned.

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