What to do when your mechanics get messed up

Included here are some things that have helped me when I have gone through that inevitable stage of having my chops not feel quite right. Maybe my sound isn't clear, or it seems harder than usual to play high or low, or my legato seems bumpy. Several of these ideas may be exactly the opposite of what you have been taught, particularly those who come from the bigger, darker school of playing, but I have found them to be very helpful in solving some of my own problems. I hope you do too.

A lot of what I work with in my own playing is keeping my sound focused. To me, that means not dropping my tongue when I play, especially in the high register. It's rather difficult to describe in words, but each of these 5 thoughts is a way for me to remember the same thing. For example, the French "tu" vowel - when you actually pronounce it, is a cross between an "oo" sound and an "ee" sound, and causes your tongue to arch like it does when you begin to say the sound "ya." There is a school of playing which teaches playing with a vowel sound of "haw," (what I call "big mouth") but I find that to be much too big of an oral cavity to play efficiently. Players who are approaching the horn with that vowel are usually trying to make too wide and dark of a sound for my taste, and will often have trouble playing high and softly. As I say in my page in the WarmUp part of this site, "One very important concept that I have learned over the years is that you must train yourself to accept a sound from your bell that is brighter than you think you ought to play."

Dave Krehbiel introduced me to the concept of the half-whistle - it's another way to think about having your oral cavity be small enough and to focus your air. If you try and whistle in a sotto-voce kind of way (not behind your teeth), you'll get the idea. Or whistle normally, then slightly defocus it and combine it with shaping your lips like an embouchure, and you'll see what I mean. Notice how you have to arch your tongue in order to whistle at all in the same register as the high register of the horn. I've had good luck practicing things by whistling them, because it forces me to change my tongue and oral cavity in a similar way to actually playing.

Now, this arching of the tongue changes with different registers - a marvelous explanation of how to do this is in Daniel Borgue's Techni-Cor Series, Vol. 1 (Flexibilities) pg. 19, where he talks about assigning different vowels to different registers: the vowels in"hat" to around middle C, "eight" in the middle of the treble clef, and "eat" as you reach the top of the staff and beyond. This seems like such simple stuff, but no one mentioned this ever to me as a student, and I am astonished at how few players are aware of this essential mechanism for focusing their sound.

In fact, many aspects of playing are enhanced when these mechanics work well, chief among them quality of legato. Often I will have a student come to me who has bumpy slurs, particularly around third space C on the Bb horn, and what I always find is that they are dropping their tongue to make a big, wide sound, but in that process they lose their ability to focus the sound. When I have them think about arching their tongue and moving their tone production forward so their tongue is not dropped, it's amazing how much better they slur. Another thing that is improved is lip trills - it is extremely hard to drop your tongue and have a good lip trill.

And tonguing in general is greatly enhanced - if you have your tongue arched mostly, it doesn't have to move as far when to attack a note - you can effectively and efficiently just use the tip of your tongue to attack, without having to retract it way back after the note begins. This makes the player able to tongue faster and greatly reduces unnecessary motion in the jaw.

Recently I've thought a lot about what teachers really mean when they say "use more air." I think the answer defines which school of playing you belong to, the large belled, dark 8D style or the smaller belled clearer Geyer style. Back when I was playing in that darker style, when asked to "use more air," I would always try and use a more of a wide, slow "warm" stream of air. Now, I try to use a narrower, faster, "cold" column of air. (Now, so we don't get into a big argument over "warm" vs. "cold" - all I mean is, when you blow on your hand, one way feels warm and the other, cold). What this cold, fast air stream does for me is gives me a clearer sound, an easier time of playing high and soft, better slurs and legato and increases my endurance. Notice how this all dovetails with having a small oral cavity as described above. When you arch your tongue, your air speed increases. So, when I want a student to increase their airspeed, I remind them to not drop their tongue, and tell them to use "faster air" not "more air."

There is also an improvement to the efficiency of playing - the better your use of air, the less your chops have to work. Dave Krehbiel said something else that has stuck with me: you can't make something sound easier by working harder. It'll sound easier when it is.

This is something that I have to work on a lot, and I credit Cindy Lewis from the NJ Symphony for being very helpful in this regard. (She has a great site: Embouchures.com that has much information). In her site, she talks about chin flexing, which can have very bad effects on a players mechanics. I'll let her site speak for itself, but one of the things that I've noticed is that when I arch my tongue and use my air well, I have much less tendency to roll my lower lip under and bunch my chin. If my tongue drops, it's real easy for my old habits to creep in.

This is related to the chin issues above - after you have a long session of playing, you should be tired in your corners, not where the mouthpiece sits. The foundation for good playing begins with the corners of your embouchure (see Cindy's site again), so if you are tired in the center, you have a pressure habit beginning.

Dale once showed me a good exercise that has been helpful. Often, players develop habits of stretching their lips before putting the mouthpiece on their face - this isolates a stretched piece of lip inside the mouthpiece. What happens is that the player's tone, flexibility and endurance suffer as a result. Look at yourself in a mirror. When you are breathing and setting to begin a phrase, do you stretch your lip, then stick the mouthpiece on? If so, try this: while watching in a mirror, totally relax your face. Then breathe through your nose till you have a full tank - without moving your lips, place the mouthpiece on your still relaxed lips, then (and only then) form your embouchure and play. This gets more lip inside the mouthpiece and helps prevent that feeling of mashing your lip.

It's always good now and then to check in with a mirror and see how much motion you have. By focusing your air forward and blowing through phrases, you can cut down on that excess motion which just impedes your flexibility and consistency.

In the same vein, take a look every once in a while at what your embouchure looks like in a mirror. Are you way off to the side? Are you using more pressure on one side than the other? Top to bottom feel equal? Good to be aware of that stuff...


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