Keys to Avoiding Chop Problems

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This past year I have been in contact with several players who have had embouchure problems, including focal dystonia. These can be very serious to deal with, but a couple basic observations come to mind after some recent conversations.

  1. The inclination is to try to practice your way out of these problems.
  2. That won’t work.

People that have worked out serious issues usually have to step back and relearn elements of their playing, as outlined in some detail here by David Vining. It would be good however to avoid developing serious problems. I believe there are two keys to avoiding serious problems of this type.

  1. Warm up well every day
  2. Don’t overplay. Rest and pace yourself in your playing day, don’t practice furiously for hours and hours. Hard practice is a questionable virtue.

In relation both of these things in recent reading I found quite interesting what Gunther Schuller wrote in his classic book Horn Technique (1962) about the warm-up. Warming up well is a big key to a healthy embouchure.

Wherever I have traveled there always seem to be a few players who feel–or at least claim to feel–that warming up is not necessary for them. Some of these are indeed excellent players, gifted with natural physical talent for the horn, to whom the warming up that a less natural player requires is an anathema. Around such players a kind of myth arises that the warm-up is a waste of time, and only for weak players–that it is a “sissy” approach to the horn. This gets so insidious at times that others, very impressed by the talent of these “natural” players, feel inferior if they warm up, and consequently become ashamed of their cautious attitude–very often with disastrous results in their playing…. What the student may also not be aware of is that our “no-warm-up-for-me” player may feel just a bit uncomfortable during the ENGAGEMENT, but, being talented and experienced, he is able to compensate for this sufficiently so that his playing does not suffer too obviously….

There is nothing ignoble about warming-up…. The greatest artist on the French horn that I have been privileged to hear spent a full half-hour warming up each day. It simply took that long for his embouchure and breathing apparatus to reach the degree of utter sensitivity his great artistry demanded. That was Bruno Jaenicke, a German emigrant, who for some twenty-five years was the solo horn of the New York Philharmonic under such illustrious and demanding conductors as Mengelberg, Furtwangler, and Toscanini.

One other point about warm-ups. If the player’s schedule calls for a heavy rehearsal in the morning, a free afternoon, and a performance that night, he will do well to re-warm-up (on a reduced scale) before the evening concert. The original morning warm-up will not extend to the evening in such a case, especially after a strenuous morning rehearsal. During the afternoon the lip will tend to stiffen up, and therefore it must be loosened up and made flexible once more. I think anyone familiar with ATHLETICS will confirm the WISDOM of this approach, and–as shocking as it may seem to some–there is something of the physically taxing “ATHLETIC” nature to certain aspects of horn playing.

UPDATE: Please also see this article on Focal Dystonia by Bruce Hembd.

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