January 14, 2011

Lack-of-sunrise #10...and My Embouchure Tweak

I enjoyed seeing the clouds reflected in the lake this morning. With the departure of the floating mass of pancake ice I am very much looking forward to the first time the sun rises above this pristinely-frozen mirror-like surface.

This has been a HARD week for me. I have to admit--yesterday morning I was not sure how I would be able to continue. Every choice seemed a dead end and every ounce of life seemed absent from my soul.

The main challenge has been figuring out a "slight" embouchure adjustment Charlie suggested might help my high range, which according to him is "the one thing missing from my tool box". Though Prof. Geyer has continued to insist that this alteration is very tiny and shouldn't interfere too much with my regular set up, he only explained the change verbally (without personal physical coaching) and I've been struggling for hours every day in the practice room trying to figure out how to accomplish this...minor tweak.

After a day of beating my head against the wall, I emailed Charlie and told him my frustrations. He agreed to meet with me at his home for an extra coaching session. Long story short: both he and Barbara were attentive and generous in their advice and explanation, but again I left without direct step-by-step physical coaching. Barbara said she felt I was creative and independent enough to work it out on my own.

For another week I struggled with the ideas and how to proceed. No matter what I tried (I can't tell you how many hours I spend hashing through the simplest of exercises) my tone was horrible and my range had lost an entire octave...and it was a minor 3rd short to begin with. Wednesday's solo class was fast approaching and I knew I would be expected to play something from the lists I'd been "preparing" for summer festival auditions ("preparing" is in quotes because I had hardly been able to touch any real rep since my lesson). "Ok," I thought, "I've always been decent at Petrouchka...and even the Ravel Piano Concerto...maybe I can get those ready. I could just go back to my old embouchure and make it work. I guess I should play a bit of the Haydn Concerto as well."

I started in on the Haydn and things were going...ok...so far so good. At the end of the first theme there is a rising scale that climaxes on a high C and...well, I went for it with everything in me...and squawked it...terribly! I heard laughter outside my practice room...then a voice saying, "Well she's the only other girl trumpeter...besides Nina."

I was paralyzed. I know I'm one of the weaker players here, and it has always been a little tough for me to put on a smiley face after I'd played less-than-my-best in solo class, but hearing that laughing did me in. I could barely practice further. None of the rooms are sound proofed and everyone can hear everyone else practicing. Every time I tried to pick up and start again, I imagined people were listening and thinking "She's a grad student?...how did she even make it in sounding like that?" I felt that failure had become my identity here--that I am only the trumpeter "who can't play high". And especially with the new embouchure stuff I'd been trying, I'd agree with anyone that I sounded like a beginner. I wondered myself why I was even here if I couldn't figure out how to play through the normal expected range of the trumpet.

I couldn't bring myself to play in solo class. I bowed out without giving a reason and sat in the back while others played their lists. Because I had no choice, I struggled through wind ensemble rehearsal (my heart breaking wide open that I couldn't play better for Mallory Thompson--who is as ROCKIN' a conductor as you can imagine) and practiced again that evening doing my best to make something...anything happen.

Another dead end.

Somewhere I'd heard it was possible for an otherwise healthy heart to quit on its own due to extreme sadness. I wished that would happen to me. It was clear I could no longer play the trumpet. I haven't drawn in many months. I'd proven again and again my inability to work successfully with other people. My magic was gone. I felt I no longer existed as a meaningful entity on the planet. I might as well just sit down in the snow and wait till the cold stole my life away.

I went to bed without my usual call to Rob and woke up the next morning in a daze.

In my lesson Charlie asked me what was wrong and why I didn't play in solo class the day before. I told him about my struggles--barely holding back tears. He was patient and consoling and (though he still didn't offer any specific physical coaching) after our hour together, I felt I could go back out and try again. He had reassured me that the reason I am here is because both he and Barbara believe in my talent and see in me the will to pursue a difficult dream. He told me stories of many past students who'd had similarly dark times and who all found ways to pull through and eventually achieve success in their lives.

Yesterday evening I met up with Riccardo--an older student of Charlie's who is on the audition circuit--for a duet session. We played together for a good hour and 1/2, and though I still had to cut out on a lot of the higher notes, playing MUSIC with another person (as opposed to scales...and scales...and arpeggios...and MORE scales) seemed to break me out of some of my rut and I was actually even having a little fun.

Rob called me as I was getting ready for bed and we talked a good long time. I offered him a well-deserved congratulations when he informed me that the paper he'd recently submitted had been accepted for publication, and we fantasized together about our next meeting (which hasn't been planned just yet).

Today I woke up feeling a bit more optimistic. When I got to a practice room after "sunrise" I even felt like I may have made some progress with my embouchure. I think I've found an acceptable set up that may eventually allow me to play higher with more facility and make my chops more stable over all.

Basically, my problem has been that I use almost none of my bottom lip. In fact, when I take my usual embouchure up to a high note, hold it steady, and remove my trumpet, this is what it looks like:

As you can see, my lower lip is sucked way in--it's almost completely absent. That leaves my top lip to do all the work. In a better scenario, both lips participate more fully: the top lip serving as a sort of anchor while the bottom lip supports some of the pressure and moves freely throughout the registers--facilitating good flexibility and even leveling out the horn a bit Anyone who's seen me play knows what a "down stream" player I am--along with a little natural overbite, the dominant use of my upper lip is a big reason for that.

When I perform the same exercise of playing a high note, holding it steady, and removing the trumpet, the new (and eventually better) embouchure I think I've settled on looks like this:

As I've been carefully using this slightly different set up, I'm able to hold my horn more evenly, I pivot less from low to high, and my bottom lip has mediated a bit of the mouthpiece pressure (for which my upper lip is quite grateful!) Today I was even able to get up to a high A with a decent sound--major progress! I do think that the notes I'm able to reach so far feel quite secure (maybe more than previously) and I'm optimistic that as I continue to exercise my lower lip, it will get stronger and more flexible and eventually allow me to take my playing to previously unreachable heights.

By the way...I get EXTRA points today because I worked through all this:

*early in the morning,
**in the middle of a cold, gray, Chicago winter,
***on the worst sickeningly-cramping day of my period,
****even though there was a trumpeter in an adjacent practice room playing with amazing technical prowess.

Beat that!


  1. I'm in absolute AWE of you!!! You have, in one blog, taken me from tears of impossible-to-empathize-with-you-sadness to tears of unspeakable joy. How did you do it? I am so proud of you I could just sing!!!!! I love you so much!!!!!!

  2. You get EXTRA EXTRA points. The best I can usually do on days like that is lay in bed and watch movies with a box of my favorite licorice. Don't give up Kelly! You are a great example of perseverance.