EMBOUCHURE AND RANGE
When I started playing the trumpet again, I had major range problems. Even after a few months of practice, I could barely play an E at the top of the staff. In my quest for a solution, I came across the Balanced Embouchure method. I bought the book, read it a couple of times, and started working on the various exercises. There were some initial improvements, but even after a year, my usable range (i.e. not just squeaks) was limited to notes in or below the staff.
To this day, I still include a few Balanced Embouchure exercises in my daily routine. Compared to where I was a year or two ago, my range is unquestionably stronger now. A year ago I mentioned that I'm most comfortable at or below an E at the top of the staff. Now, that same comfortable range extends up to a G. That's right: G is the new E!
From time to time visitors ask me about the Balanced Embouchure method, especially whether or not I'd recommend it. I would recommend reading the book, but I'd caution anyone from thinking it's a quick fix. It's taken me 2 years to be able to play comfortably with a (somewhat) rolled in embouchure. Even now I struggle to keep it up. But, it's an important shift that has improved both my endurance and range. For that, I'm grateful.
I'd be remiss if I didn't also give credit to the Caruso exercises I've been doing for a little over a year, and to the Flexus book. Both of those things have really strengthened my chops. Especially Flexus. Those "flexandos" are killers!
One of my earlier journal entries mentions advice given to me by teachers and other players, most of which failed to improve my range. I've come to appreciate the fact that pretty much nothing would have helped me back then, due to my reliance on excessive mouthpiece pressure.
Advice such as "Play more high notes. The more you play them, the better they get", and "Range will develop over time, just keep practicing" was and continues to be correct. In my case, the advice didn't help because I constantly played with excessive pressure. The higher I went, the more pressure I used, even during practice sessions. Consequently, I never gave my embouchure a chance to strengthen itself. Instead, I ended up weakening and damaging my chops more and more every day. Oops!
Even if I could have figured out a way to practice with less pressure, I would have inevitably done damage later in the day, while in concert band, big band, or in my funk band. All of these bands required that I play precisely every time. It didn't matter how high the note was, or how my chops were feeling -- I simply had to hit the notes.
Today, I don't have any performance obligations, so I never *have* to push myself with pressure. I still occasionally use excessive pressure when improvising, but those instances are fewer and farther between than they were in the past. Most often, when I realize I can't hit a note, I stop trying. I'll either take things down an octave, or I'll just put my horn down and rest. Now that I'm using less pressure, I'm finally building muscles rather than tearing them down.
For the past year, I've tried to spend at least 25 minutes a day on ear training. I start with intervals, move on to random melodies, and finish with simple songs. On a good day, I surprise myself with my accuracy. Just a couple of weeks ago during my random interval session, I listened to and played (by ear) at least 20 intervals in a row without a single mistake. Similarly, my accuracy with random melodies and simple songs continues to improve. Unfortunately, I still have bad days where I struggle to lock in pitches. I'm extremely encouraged by my progress, however, and believe that those bad days will diminish in frequency as time goes on.
In many ways, I feel like my journey with jazz improvisation is just beginning. I've only recently been able to play my ideas accurately by ear. This ability has given me greater control over my playing and simultaneously given me the freedom to take more risks when I improvise. This is all very new for me and very exciting. I can't wait to hear my playing years from now!