I’ve recently got a couple of email inquiries about my thoughts on Jeff Smiley’s text and trumpet method, The Balanced Embouchure. I’ve gotten questions about it in the past, so I thought I’d reread this book and compile some of my thoughts here while they’re still fresh.
Published in 2001, Smiley’s book is 149 pages (5 1/2 inches by 8.5 inches). He divides his text into two basic sections, an overview followed by his specific exercises. The book is physically put together very well. It’s spiral bound, contains several photographs and charts, and is accompanied by a CD of some of Smiley’s students performing many of the exercises contained in this text. Smiley charges $45 plus $5 shipping. Additionally, Smiley has made much of the text from his book available on his web site, including excerpts from his Introduction and chapters on Mechanics, Performance, and even some of his exercises.
I could have done without Smiley’s chapter “Mind/Body.” While it contains some common sense health advice (healthy diet, get plenty of sleep, keep your horn clean), a lot of it is highly questionable. I showed this chapter to a friend who is a licensed S.T. (speech therapist). She found several misleading or false statements just skimming through a couple of pages. This book would be much stronger if he simply removed this chapter entirely, as Smiley is clearly not qualified to give medical advice (neither am I, for that matter, consult with your doctor).
Smiley’s trumpet exercises are based around his philosophy of a “balanced embouchure,” detailed in his chapter on Mechanics. However, the bulk of this chapter covers Smiley’s personal impressions and speculations based on playing sensations and don’t accurately depict what actually happens with a functioning embouchure. My main complaint with his description of proper embouchure mechanics is his revolutionary hypothesis that tight corners create a flat chin and that this is only useful for 3 in 10 players. First of all, I’m skeptical whenever anyone starts to throw around statical data based purely on their personal impressions. If Smiley used a properly controlled methodology to collect his data and a valid statistical analysis to come up with this figure he’s silent about it. Since my embouchure research (and that of most others) suggest completely opposite, Smiley has the burden of proof here. I imagine that most other brass teachers will want to see more than a summary of someone’s personal impressions before altering our instruction to something that is seen as doing more harm than good. Particularly if you claim that your system “works for every trumpet player.” If it’s so effective I’d expect to see at least a few really fine players around that have those embouchure characteristics, but I don’t. Even among jazz brass players, who are much more likely to be self-taught and use what works, not what’s taught as “correct.”
Other elements from the Mechanics chapter are also questionable, although some of it may be related to a lack of accurate and common terminology to describe embouchure characteristics. For example, what appears to be a “flat” chin on one player may not be the same look for someone else. Glancing at the four photos of trumpet players on the cover of Smiley’s book shows one player whose chin looks OK to me (although her corners appear to be pulled back into a smile position, which correlates with range and endurance issues), but the other three examples have the muscles below their lower lip disengaged and moving separately from the bones of the chin (they have the characteristic “peach pit” look of a bunched chin). This correlates with embouchure problems too, by the way.
Much of Smiley’s discussion about the use of the tongue are acknowledged to be greatly influenced by the teachings of Jerome Callet (who I’ll get around to discussing in more detail eventually). Briefly, Smiley feels that positioning the tongue at times so that it touches the lips can provide valuable feedback and help position the embouchure appropriately. Again, since there are playing issues associated with doing this (more than just the split attacks that Smiley recognizes), I feel there may be better ways of getting the desired results that don’t risk the distortion of the embouchure formation when the tongue is regularly held in contact with the lips.
The exercises Smiley gives in his book are mostly variations of typical brass technique exercises, including lip slurs and tonguing exercises. Some of his instructions and details for these exercises are unique to Smiley’s approach, such as his recommendation to “snap” the top note of an ascending to descending lip slur or tonguing on the lips. The more unique exercises rely heavily on playing pedal notes. His instructions with this regard I find particularly troubling.
Smiley’s instructions for this “roll out” lip position is to pucker your lips, place the mouthpiece almost all on the top lip, roll the bottom lip out under the mouthpiece,and tilt the horn up. Why this embouchure formation is valuable for practice I don’t understand. I don’t feel that it has any benefit that outweighs the risks associated with using more than one embouchure in the player’s normal range.
At this point, to understand some of my criticisms it might be helpful to take a look at a video of a trumpet player performing one of Smiley’s exercises from The Balanced Embouchure.
He’s obviously a strong player with good range. First, note the player’s chin and mouth corners. With the exception during the pedal tones, they look perfectly fine to me. Not at all like Smiley’s recommendations. I don’t know if Smiley endorses this video or not. Perhaps this player is doing it wrong.
The next thing I would point out is how this player slides the mouthpiece to a lower placement every time he moves out of the pedal range. Playing with multiple embouchures like this definitely correlates with embouchure dysfunction, as I’ve shown here. It might be argued that using a different embouchure for a trumpet pedal note won’t hurt the rest of the range since that’s not where trumpet players spend their time performing. However, I question the value taking valuable practice time to work on playing in a way that risks causing problems. This sort of embouchure switch in the normal playing range almost always causes issues.
Notice also how this player always stops to take a breath at the same point in the range (between E and G on the top of the staff) and in doing so is allowing himself to reset his embouchure. Without getting a closer view it’s impossible for me to say how much this player actually is shifting his embouchure (in placement and/or lip position inside the cup), but many players get used to taking a breath at the same point in their range in order to play across an embouchure break that they may not even be aware they have. Practicing exercises in this way may actually lead to developing an embouchure break, if you’re not careful.
My final comment about this player is to make note of his apparent embouchure type, which I’m guessing to be what I usually call a Very High Placement type. Some characteristics of this common embouchure type happen fit Smiley’s recommendations for how to play pedal tones on trumpet, including a mouthpiece placement with almost all top lip and a horn angle that is close to straight out. I note that of the three basic embouchure types, Very High Placement trumpet players seem to derive the most benefit from practicing pedal tones with fewer of the associated problems. Trumpet players who have the anatomy that makes one of the other two embouchure types work best would probably find practicing these exercises even more likely to lead to problems than a Very High Placement type, including setting the mouthpiece higher on the lips than they should be for the particular player.
It’s been brought to my attention that The Balanced Embouchure isn’t about a single proper way to play a brass instrument, a sentiment I approve of. It is, rather, supposed to be a set of exercises that systematically bring about an efficient embouchure for all players. Aside from the obvious falsity of an embouchure method that works for everyone, I am always skeptical of a “one size fits all” approach, especially ones that presume to let the body figure itself out if you simply practice their exercises correctly (when it doesn’t work, often it is said the exercises aren’t being played “correctly”). Without having a good understanding of brass embouchure function, practicing the exercised contained in The Balanced Embouchure are going to be hit or miss at best. It might help some but others will find it counterproductive. Smiley doesn’t demonstrate that he has an accurate understanding of embouchure form, how different anatomical features make different embouchures function differently, and how to accordingly adjust his exercises to better fit different players. Since much of the information contained in his book is misleading or even false and many of his exercises will actively work against players of certain embouchure types, I don’t personally recommend this book.
My purpose here isn’t to drive away anyone curious about The Balanced Embouchure or stop anyone from checking it out. I simply wanted to put out my honest criticisms in the hope that someday Smiley or someone else can address them. I certainly don’t have all the answers and I feel everyone can contribute to broadening our understanding of how brass embouchures function and the best ways to practice. Before forming your own opinion about The Balanced Embouchure you should read what Smiley has made available on his web site. You can also visit some other internet resources that contain information about Smiley’s approach. The Trumpet Herald Forum has an entire section dedicated to The Balanced Embouchure (moderated by Smiley himself, so you should be able to find a more accurate depiction about it than I can offer), there are a couple of other YouTube videos here and here, and even a horn blog devoted to it.
If you have a different opinion, and there are many I know who do, then I’d like to hear about it. What misconceptions do I need to correct? What online resources have I missed? Please leave your comment below or contact me privately.