O.J.'s Trumpet Page Interview

The Balanced Embouchure

An interview with Jeff Smiley

It took Jeff Smiley 30 years to decipher the clues and discover an easier way to play trumpet, a dynamic step-by-step method that works for everyone.

Jeff is a trumpet teacher who works with all age groups and skill levels.In the last 14 years, he has taught over twenty thousand lessons in the Dallas area in Texas.

His book, "The Balanced Embouchure", is now available.
It is the core text of a projected series of books dealing with unique dynamic range of motion exercises. These exercises tend to enhance every player's embouchure development - often dramatically.

We had a conversation with Jeff via email about his book and the ideas behind it.

Before we start talking about your book, could you please tell us a bit about your background as a trumpeter and teacher?
Early on, I had little training, and developed the worst possible habits. Still, I was at or near first chair in high school concert band, and lead in jazz (good to F#). But by the time college came around, the limitations from those habits had become painfully obvious, so I attempted an embouchure change. Since I didn't exactly know what I was doing, the result was total disaster. It wasn't paralysis from overanalysis. It was sheer ignorance of fundamental embouchure mechanics, and there was nobody around who could help (very much pre-internet!).

Oddly enough, I was also teaching trumpet throughout this period, and was having tremendous success. I had learned a wide assortment of techniques (bag of tricks) that enabled me to help just about anyone, although the laws underlying those techniques (universal principles) were yet a mystery.

Eventually my chops improved, through nothing but persistence. I was your basic 5 hours a day, 365 days per year type of player, with an ability to focus on one thing for a long period of time. My chops still weren't great, but at least I could perform.

For many reasons, college eventually became a dead end. So, I joined the Army as a trumpet player. During this time, I met and studied for a year with Claude Gordon. To me, he was an archetypal character, larger than life, and a fabulous storyteller. Just being around him was fun, which, I realize in hindsight, was actually the main benefit I received from studying with him. Certainly, I improved very little during that time. His own early life as a trumpeter had been filled with turmoil from faulty embouchure instruction. As a result, he later shied away from attempting to teach any specifics regarding lip position. The problem was, I needed those specifics!

After the Army, my whole life changed. My original plan was to move to L.A. with some friends, continuing with my music education. Instead, I had an epiphany, a sudden clarity that my life was moving in a direction which was ultimately never going to be satisfying. This led me on a long search for self knowledge, the kind that is not easily found in books.

Now, years later, the search continues, but several issues are much clearer. I have chosen to put most of my energy into trumpet teaching rather than playing. In life, you take actions which always have an effect on your environment and those around you. Will the effect be more positive or negative? I have found that when I give service to others, as in teaching trumpet, I don't need to worry about it, that the effect is always predominately positive. Plus, I enjoy giving service! There is a level of satisfaction in helping others that was never present for me in the performance environment. For others, performance may be the right choice. It wasn't for me.

By the way. Those that think that performance skills translate into teaching skills are sadly mistaken, a point that I cover in great detail in the book. In my opinion, most inefficient trumpet instruction is the result of failed attempts by pro players to reverse engineer their embouchures. All of them play unconsciously, often from an early age, and do not understand the stages of development a typical player must go through to make progress.

The book has the title, "The Balanced Embouchure." What does that mean?
We observe all of existence in terms of a polarity, that there is an opposite to anything that we can conceive - life/death, hot/cold, open/closed and so on. But what most of us don't consider is, opposites define each other. For example, there would be no way to grasp the quality that we call "light" if darkness wasn't around to give us a point of reference. The same goes for happiness-sadness, or tension-relaxation.

A trumpet embouchure offers a perfect example of this coexistence of opposites. Lip tension/relaxation, air power/air resistance, and so on. In the typical embouchure, all of these opposing forces are present. But which ones are most important for the developing player?

The real answer is, they are all complementary to one another. Tension is just as important as relaxation. Air resistance must be there along with air power. In short, a balance must be struck in order for the activity of playing to take place.

Any state of balance has a central point, a fulcrum. To me, the central fulcrum when playing trumpet is the position and movement of the lips. They are responsible for an astounding array of activities, sometimes even in opposition to themselves! And all too often, they are wholly inadequate to the task, as most players unhappily discover.

To remedy this, I developed exercises designed to exaggerate the normal lips range of motion, thereby increasing the lip's ability to form more complex combinations of opposing motions (shapes) which more effectively promote a continuous state of balance within the context of dynamic activity. (whew!)

In other words, through the repetition of relatively simple exercise targets, the lips become more intelligent, more able to move far enough and morph into more complex shapes to match the task at hand.

How did this book project start?
About ten years ago, I sat down to write a trumpet method book, and quickly discovered that I still had more questions than answers. Then, a couple of years back, I awoke one morning with the Balanced Embouchure method in my head, clear and complete, right down to the title.

It's funny how things turn out. The whole thing would have never crystallized without the varied and somewhat unusual fields of knowledge that I've explored in recent years (including Neuro-Linguistic Programming and consciousness-based development systems) which sometimes pulled me away from the trumpet for long periods of time.

Anyway, my first reaction was, can it really be this simple? Since I was already teaching the bulk of the method, I added the newer ideas to my student's lessons and watched what happened. The results were truly unbelievable. Over a period of several months, all of my "problem students" - the one's whose complex embouchures used to be a major challenge to deal with - resolved their basic lip position issues. Again, I don't mean "most" of them, or "a high percentage of them," I mean ALL of them! It may sound impossible, or seem more likely that I just got lucky. But, since I work with between 50 and 60 students per week, the odds of it being the result of sheer chance are close to zero.

Naturally, I wanted to share this knowledge with other teachers. But I learned long ago that people in general tend to be resistant to new ideas - look how long that Farkas has dominated our trumpet education! - and that the only way I could ever convince anybody that all of this was more than a crazy idea, would be to write a book, with lots of specifics and details. In that way, the sheer volume of information would be almost impossible to dismiss, whether or not the reader decided to follow the program.

In the acknowledgments, you say that without the help, inspiration, and genius of others, this book would never have been conceived. What do you mean?
I think that it was Isaac Newton who explained that he saw further than most people only because he had "stood on the shoulders of giants", such as Kepler and Copernicus. Although I am no Newton, I am sure that if this book enjoys any success, it is largely because of those players and teachers like Jerry Callet and Louis Maggio, who spent lifetimes figuring out stuff that I now take for granted.

How is "The Balanced Embouchure" different from other methods?
I think that the relative positioning of my approach is easier to understand when placed in the following context:

The goal of every embouchure development process is the same, which is to positively affect the coordination of the lips (and tongue and air), fully integrating them into a system that operates unconsciously, at the highest level of efficiency.

What differentiates the various methods is the "target" used by each teacher to most effectively trigger and promote this unconscious coordination.

A target is an action or goal intended to help the student more easily synthesize several smaller puzzle pieces into a larger one, and not have to be conscious about every little thing. For example, the instruction "blow faster air" is a common target phrase used with beginners in hopes that it will automatically trigger a coordination of air, lips and tongue that spontaneously results in the ability to hit higher notes. This particular target, by the way, is often ineffective because there are a lot of ways to blow faster air, some obviously more efficient than others.

These targets may be better described as "tricks" to activate (or gradually massage in through repetition) a greater unconscious mind response.

Targets (a convenient name only) are used to generate more "unconscious competence." They may be simple or complex. Complex targets tend to quickly pull together bigger chunks of the puzzle, but the resulting organization may be unbalanced. A good example of this is the idea of attempting to learn how to play high notes by copying somebody's upper register sound. This is an "end result" target, much like a golfer thinking about the ball landing in the hole, or the basketball player shooting a jump shop while concentrating on the bottom of the net. Ideally, this approach should work the quickest, prompting the unconscious mind to organize all of the details between beginning and end.

Unfortunately, end result targets have limited effectiveness, because the majority of students are not "unconsciously open." For a wide variety of reasons (a huge topic for later discussion), most players can't easily coordinate - in a balanced way - a complex chain of events. In other words, some part, or group of parts, stubbornly remains out of synch with the whole, NO MATTER HOW LONG THE END RESULT FOCUS IS MAINTAINED.

So, we start looking at manipulating the individual parts.

When the targets are more immediate, such as a particular lip or tongue placement, they are easier to hit, but focusing on individual movements can get complicated in a hurry. Sometimes it results in what's commonly called "paralysis by overanalysis" - getting lost in the parts to the point of being unable to function.

Still, teachers continue to move in the direction of breaking down the complex chain of events into simpler targets, because the alternative (such as learning by copying) has been proven over and over again (another huge topic for discussion) to be a numbers game, working for only the few.

Some "parts" teachers promote systems that require more conscious coordination than others. For instance, the Jerry Callet Superchops embouchure contains extremely specific descriptions of the tongue and the position of both lips. Of course, getting these elements to work in harmony together is a different story (although those that succeed often improve tremendously). In this case, as it is with most systems using simple targets, the hope is that if you focus on it consciously for long enough, the individual movements will eventually become automatic (more unconscious), and then you can go about your business of playing the horn.

In writing The Balanced Embouchure, I went in a slightly different direction, designing target exercises to affect lip position OUTSIDE what is considered the typical range of motion of the lips. Since I knew that lip movement during playing was extremely complex - all of the microscopic movements going on inside the mouthpiece were certainly too complex for me to ever effectively model - I reasoned that by increasing lip range of motion, the lips would gradually grow in intelligence, unconsciously forming a more complex coordination that any teacher could intellectually conceive.

Since increasing the lip range of motion means exaggerating lip movements in a specific direction, the key to success is understanding universal principles, which aids you in knowing which movements are more or less in the "right" direction (for example, stretching or smiling is the "wrong" direction, even though a small percentage of players have success using it). I found that specific roll-in and roll-out movements are the answer. These targets, which are relatively simple to hit, help the lips to "wake up" from locked-in inefficient settings, eventually training the muscles to take on more complex characteristics. The end result is a continuously flexing embouchure, which allows students to play from the double pedal register on up G above high C and beyond.

A huge side benefit of doing lip movements outside the norm, is that players can maintain their current embouchures while adding the increased range of motion. My students have proven, time after time, that it allows positive change to take place more easily.

Isn't starting beginners on double pedal C, and G above the staff, rather unusual?
These notes are actually very easy for the average beginner to hit when proper instruction is given. Both notes are normally introduced into the lesson within the first few months to begin increasing the lip range of motion.

One of the best side benefits of hitting G above the staff early on, is that students, by direct experience, learn that playing above the staff is no big deal. Most of us learned exactly the opposite, and unnecessarily suffered long term psychological consequences as a result, including lowered self esteem. Even after several years, part of me is still amazed to work with 6th graders who look at notes above the staff with little or no fear. As for the notes that are higher still, they understand how to get them - and exactly what tools to use - if they choose to put the energy into it.

Can you tell us what you expect from students in terms of development?
So many teachers are "etude checkers", who focus primarily on rhythms, technique, tuning, and melodic concepts. But a high percentage of students - perhaps most - need more. Range and stamina are fundamental requirements for a healthy embouchure. Establishing standards for range development at different grade levels, and teaching the mechanics which allow those standards to be met, is a big priority in my philosophy.

By the end of 6th grade, all of my students can play a G above the staff, as demonstrated by playing a two octave G scale, up and down, in one breath.

By the end of 8th grade, all of them reach high C, in preparation for the demands of high school literature. Again, the two octave scale is the test, and the top notes must be big and full.

By 12th grade, the target is high G (above high C). What I've found is, not every student wants to get there, which is OK with me. For those that do, the G is well within any student's capability, achievable 100% of the time, and of performance quality (although most of the "performances" are in jazz and marching band).

To many readers, this may sound highly improbable. But be honest and ask yourself, is it instead possible that your expectations are too low? Are you conditioned by past failure to believe in old myths about the safety of playing high; that it is radical or dangerous, especially for younger (pre-college) players, or that players who can play high always tend to have a bad tone?

My experience is exactly the opposite, especially regarding tone quality. The healthiest embouchures are normally the ones that can easily access the upper register, at any age. And players with a strong, flexible embouchure can more easily create the kind of tone they want, as is illustrated by the following true story.

Several years ago I had a student who was auditioning for college. His piece was "Bride of the Waves" by Herbert Clarke. My student had a good chops, so I simply gave him a tape of the Gerard Schwartz recording, and told him to copy it in every way, especially tone quality. We spent little time on it in lessons, as he preferred working on other aspects of his playing.

The college reps showed up at his high school a few weeks later, with piano player in tow, at the groggy hour of eight o'clock in the morning! They apologized for the early hour, but asked my student to go for it anyway, and just do his best.

He pulled the horn out of the case, ice cold, and started warming up on Roll-Out #4 (he was in a hurry). Within 2 minutes, he was whipping out G's above high C at quadruple forte. Finally he stopped and said, "I'm ready." The representatives were looking at each other, shaking their heads, and asked, "Kind of a strenuous warm up, wasn't it?" "Not really," he said, looking at them blankly. He began.

Halfway through, they stopped him. "No need to continue" they said. He had sounded so much like the original Gerard Schwartz recording, that they were blown away. He got a full scholarship, a free ride for four years.

As we both know, Jerry Callet's methods have met with skepticism from part of the trumpet community. Do you expect to get similar reactions?
Jerry Callet is like an eccentric uncle - you know, the one that you thought was so interesting and entertaining, until he showed up at your dinner party stark naked and embarrassed the hell out of everybody!

Jerry may - or may not - embarrass you if you hang around him long enough. But he WILL force you out of old, locked-in ways of thinking. I sought him out at a time in my life when I needed some answers. To this day, I can't think of a single other person who could have helped me like he did.

Jerry is a unique individual, very much self-made, who appears to be content with his niche in life as guru to high note players. He seems relatively unconcerned about his reputation among teachers, or whether or not his methods will ever be accepted by a wider audience, or even taught outside of his own studio. Whoever shows up on his doorstep, that's good enough for him

I went in the opposite direction. My concern is with the thousands of players each year that receive inefficient instruction, which results in a pitiful low level of achievement, generation after generation. It's obvious to me, and to anybody who really looks at it, that mainstream trumpet teaching is a numbers game. The vast majority of sincerely motivated trumpet students either struggle, quit in frustration, or doggedly keep seeking answers until late in life when they stumble across someone like Jerry Callet. What a waste of human potential! It seem to me that getting the education right in the first place is the better way to go.

Since music educators are the gatekeepers of the system, any attempt at reforms must go through them.

For that reason, my book is designed to more easily fit into the "real world" of trumpet educator's expectations. To be sure, some of Jerry's influence is still there, but it is presented in a logical way that is easy to understand and difficult to refute.

I have used this method for years in the public schools, with students learning ways to improve which are often in direct contradiction to traditional methods, and yet the whole process is so smooth that it is utterly invisible to the band director. Most directors still do not know what I do. As long as it works, they are happy, which is OK with me for now.

Eventually, I want to take this directly to band directors and say, "This is what works. Here's the evidence, and these are the people you respect who support this conclusion. Now, please start using it so we can begin helping more players." That's down the road a piece, a kind of "phase three" in the bigger picture. Phase one was doing the research with the students and writing the book, about a two year process. Phase two, where we're at now, is steadily getting the book out there, and building an international core of players who are successfully overcoming their embouchure challenges. It may be years before phase three happens, but I remain optimistic and very patient.

There is an accompanying CD which has most of the book exercises on it. Can you tell us about it?
Of all the embouchure development method books that I have read, the majority have one thing missing - the teacher!

Writing such a method is not an easy task, as many would-be authors have discovered. With so many variables present when playing the instrument, potential questions can easily outnumber the pages in the book. In an ideal world, if each reader could just open the cover and have the teacher pop out, common misunderstandings, at the very least, would be eliminated forever.

That's one of my goals regarding the exercise CD, which is enclosed in the back cover of the book. Sometimes, despite the best text explanations, one playing of the CD is worth a thousand words.

Another reason for the CD is to show how easily the exercises can be learned. All of the performers are teenagers, or younger. Hey, if a twelve year old kid can do it, then you can too!

What future plans do you have for the project?
My next step is to introduce a beginner book, designed like "Standard of Excellence" or other similar titles, but integrated with the BE range of motion exercises and a more progressive structure. I also want to publish a BE teachers manual, and several shorter books covering different aspects of playing.

Finally, where can people get the book?
Visit my website at www.trumpetteacher.net. Many entire chapters are printed there for evaluation. Order information is on the "Books" page.

o.j. - 2001/2002