Do you know about The Oatmeal? It’s enormously popular. Its creator, Matthew Inman, has been publishing his quirky web comics since 2009. His comics touch on a variety of subjects, including science, history, grammar, technology, and animals. He also has wonderful comic series on creativity that has a lot of great advice for anyone who is working in a creative field or who wants to be more creative in their hobbies.
But as you’ll see, creativity is not a horse. It cannot be trained or ridden. You cannot tell creativity “I would like ten of those, please.” Because creativity is not a horse. It is a mountain lion.
I can’t do justice to Inman’s style trying to summarize his thoughts, and it would also deprive you of the humor and insights he brings to the topic of creativity. Go check it out and see if it helps you be more creative too.
In my last post I discussed horn angle changes that brass players will make while changing registers. If you haven’t read that post yet, I recommend you do so first so that you will better understand why these exercises are helpful and how to alter them to fit your own embouchure technique or those of your students.
Briefly, all brass players will push and pull their lips up and down with the mouthpiece rim along the teeth and gums while changing registers. The general direction of this “embouchure motion” is up and down, but the direction that the musician pushes or pulls to ascend can be different from player to player. Some brass musicians push up towards the nose to ascend and others pull down. But even within these two basic variations, most players have at least a little side to side motion that happens as well, although it should probably always function in a straight line. In the hypothetical example to the side the musician pushes up and to the right to ascend and pulls down and towards the left to descend.
Because teeth and gums are not a flat plane the horn angle will need to adjust while making this motion in order to maintain the stability of the teeth and gums underneath the mouthpiece rim and lips. The horn angle change, in combination with the above mentioned embouchure motion, helps the musician play a particular pitch with less effort and more in tune. See my post on Horn Angle Changes For Brass for details on what is going on and how to test individual players.
Once you’ve worked out the proper embouchure motion and horn angle changes for a particular student there are exercises that can be done to help the brass musician internalize those changes and make them part of their subconscious technique. With students more prone to freezing up or otherwise having difficulty concentrating on “how” to play can be advised to more their focus to as external a focus as possible. In other words, instead of concentrating on keeping the embouchure “legs” stable by putting more weight on one side of the mouthpiece rim, get the student to aim the bell of the instrument at a point along the wall across from them.
I usually don’t bother writing out the specific octave slurs, since it can depend on the current abilities of the student, but you can see some basic examples in the image to the left. I usually also have each set (between the “railroad tracks,” which indicate to stop for a moment and rest) repeated, but starting on a different pitch for each repeat. For example, play the first two measures as written (C in the staff to C below the staff) and then repeat it, but slur from the low C to the middle C. When you get to the sets that span two or more octaves repeat starting on each pitch (e.g., C in the staff, C below the staff, and C above the staff).
I will often use octave slurs as my warmup and have them be my first notes of the day. For each pitch there is a particular spot on the embouchure motion “track” and the accompanying horn angle change where the note sounds best and feels easiest. While practicing octave slurs you can watch yourself in a mirror or aim the bell or slide at spots along the wall to help you visualize where each octave sounds best. Work on keeping the amount of change the same between octaves, just moving in a different direction to ascend and descend. Play them slowly enough that you can make the small adjustments you might need at first to get every note in its correct spot. Over time you’ll find it easier to move to the correct angle change right away.
The Spiderweb Routine is one of Donald Reinhardt’s exercises. Again, it’s not really necessary to write this all out and the particular pitch you use as the center of the “web” will be different, according to the individual student’s particular needs and goals. In the example to the right the center of the exercises is the Bb on top of the bass clef staff. It starts by slurring up a half step (repeated) and then slurs down a half step. Then up a whole step and down a whole step. It continues with a minor 3rd and so on until each slur is an octave.
Use the center of the “web” as home base for horn angles and embouchure motion. At first, when the intervals are small, there will be very little change to the horn angle. When the interval starts to get to be a perfect 4th and larger you should start to notice the appropriate angle changes. On the first time through each set the student can make small adjustments to the horn angle to make sure that it’s in the most efficient spot for that particular note. On the repeat strive to make the horn angle go to its correct position right away. Pay close attention to the amount of change by watching in a mirror or noting where the bell is pointing. Make the amount of change be the same to ascend an interval as it is to descend the same interval, just in the opposite direction.
As I mentioned above, the center note of this exercise can change according to the student. For players who have the anatomy suited for a Very High Placement or a Low Placement embouchure types I generally recommend a higher starting pitch. For me, I usually practice this exercise starting on the F above the bass clef staff and often use this as my first notes of the day.
I also tend to not practice this exercise just by itself in its entirety, depending on what my goals of the practice session are. The Spiderweb Exercise is part of a larger routine that Reinhardt used that he called Warmup #57 (he probably had a reason for that number, but I don’t know exactly why). In that routine you would play through four sets of the Spiderweb exercise (e.g., up and down a half step, then up and down a whole step), then play through one overtone flexibility study in 4 or more positions/fingerings, then play some ascending chromatic exercises before resting a few minutes. Then when you come back you repeat that patter, but now the Spiderweb Exercise is up and down a minor 3rd and then up and down a major 3rd before switching to the other exercises, rest, and continue. In other words, the whole routine is sort of like circuit training in that you’re touching on three different types of exercises, resting, then repeating each of those exercise types but expanding them in range.
The Spiderweb Routine can be a pretty strenuous exercise to play in its entirety, so it can be a good one to use if your practice time is limited and you want a good workout for your chops. But if you have even less time or want to spend more time on other materials you can skip certain sets in it so that you’re slurring first in minor 3rds, then augmented 4ths, major 6ths, and then octaves (these notes would end up creating a fully diminished 7 chord, by the way), or any similar sort of combination. I would recommend, however, that whatever interval you slur up to that you also practice the same descending interval. Use that as a chance to check and see if your horn angles are consistent between the intervals as mentioned earlier.
Embouchure Motion Stabilizer
This exercise is a variation on another one of Donald Reinhardt’s. You can read more about Reinhardt’s original exercise here. My variation starts on a higher note (one octave higher) and ascends first, rather than descending. Remove the mouthpiece and rest a moment at the “V.” Similar to the other exercises above, play the slurs slowly enough to give yourself time to make those small adjustments to your horn angle and observe the angle with a mirror or by sighting along your bell. On the repeats strive to go directly to the most efficient angle right away.
Ultimately, it’s not as much what you practice, but how you practice that is important. What these three exercises have, however, is they incorporate large enough intervals that the horn angle changes should be noticeable to both the teacher and player and they are simple enough so that the student can play them and keep the attention on making the horn angle changes (or, for that matter, the attention can be brought instead to tongue position, breathing, embouchure motion, or whatever fits the needs and goals at the time). The point here isn’t to teach yourself how to focus on horn angle, it’s to internalize the correct horn angles so that attention can be on something else, like music. I wouldn’t practice an etude or solo repertoire with horn angle changes in mind, but if it’s helpful you could also address horn angle changes then too. If, for example, there’s a large interval leap in a solo you’re working on you might draw an arrow over the note after the leap in the direction you want to move your horn angle to remind yourself to bring that horn angle to its correct spot. But generally speaking you want to use something simple and unmusical for this sort of technique practice, then forget all about it when you’re done with it for the session and work on other things, including sounding good.