Things Horn Teachers Say: Not PC on Farkas, and Some Notes on The Balanced Embouchure

- - Please visit: Wichita Band Instrument Co. - -

As noted in part II of this series, most horn and brass teachers that disagree with elements of the Farkas approach to the embouchure tend to dance around the topic a bit, at least in public. One of the few to just go at the topic directly is Jeff Smiley. People ask me about his book The Balanced Embouchure fairly often and I will say on the record that I find it to be quite interesting. It is a trumpet book but has developed a bit of a following among horn players. The approaches to tonguing and the high range are quite a bit different than those presented by Farkas and, while not completely unknown in materials published after The Art of French Horn Playing (if you look for them specifically), they are approaches that have remained somewhat hidden for a variety of reasons that should be more widely used and understood.

Getting at technical specifics of the book, an example the author gives in his own website is the following section on the flat chin. This is something most horn players/teachers accept almost as a religious doctrine. Farkas in The Art of Brass Playing describes it as an integral feature of “the brass player’s face.” But read the below, step back, think it over. The underlined passages are not my additions; they are all from the original source.

The Flat Chin

- - Please visit: hermann-baumann-shop.com/ - -

But even more confusing is the mystery of the flat chin.  It’s the most common embouchure used today.  And the primary cause of most frustration.

Here I want to pause and thank Jerome Callet for pointing out some of the problems with using a flat chin.  Jerry is a true pioneer whose discoveries have changed the trumpet world.  For more about him, click onto “Reviews.”

Look into a mirror while buzzing a mouthpiece.  Most of you will observe that your chin becomes flat and pointed.  Stop buzzing and focus on the mid point between your bottom lip and chin.  Start buzzing again.  Notice how your muscles go down, stretching away from the mouthpiece.

Now, stop and think for a second.  Trumpet playing involves a certain amount of mouthpiece pressure and closing of the lips to play higher.  Logically, what should help you play higher with more cushion –  muscles bunching towards the mouthpiece or stretching away from the mouthpiece?  If you answered “away from”, hopefully your mind will change when you finish the next section on Mechanics.

And yet, some players perform well with a flat chin.  The late Philip Farkas, former principle [sic] horn with the Chicago Symphony, even wrote a book extolling it’s virtues after noticing how many of his fellow professionals were “flat-chinners.”  The obvious question is, if so many good players use it, how bad can it be?

The answer is, it’s not bad; it’s inefficient.  It’s so difficult that only a small number of players are physically capable of pulling it off.

First Chair Johnny

The evidence is out in the open for everyone to see, in every teacher’s daily experience.  Flat chin trumpet teaching has always been a numbers game.  Given a hypothetical section of ten flat chin players, only one – Johnny, the first chair – will be outstanding.  The next two or three kids will be average to above average, and the rest will be frustrated.  For most teachers, this waste of human potential is considered normal and is perpetuated on all levels from teacher to student, generation after generation.

What keeps this wasteful cycle going?  Teachers fail to consider the idea that only 10% can make the flat chin work.  When students at the middle of the section complain about a lack of progress (or complain about how hard it is to flatten their chin – believe me, for some it’s pure torture), the teacher always points to first chair and says, “It works for Johnny.  You must not be trying hard enough.”

If pressed further, the instructor may fall back on the “not everybody is created equal” line, or use the infamous “Maybe your lip is not right.  Have you thought about switching to baritone?”

Now, that last one is a low blow – no pun intended – and an insult to baritones!

Wastefulness and humiliation aside, what it all comes down to is that flat chin embouchures are inefficient.  Can a player perform with an inefficient embouchure?  Of course.  Obviously, there are many different embouchure types, and some work better than others.  But most players, including professionals – the majority of them flat-chinned, ex-first chair Johnnys – never find the most efficient balance point.  Early on, they happen upon or are steered into a lip setting which gives them some (limited) success and stay locked there forever.  In concert they probably sound good, but the audience doesn’t know about their lifelong struggle with upper register, lack of chops confidence, and the outrageous long hours of practice required to keep the whole thing from falling apart.

Smiley does not hold back! He really does present some interesting and very intuitive ideas in this publication in his own, unique way.

Along the same lines, later in his website he offers some definite opinions about different types of brass teachers, also excerpted from The Balanced Embouchure. I gather that I would be viewed in his system as a cross between these two types below, based on having played full time in Nashville (third horn) but also having earned a Doctorate from Indiana University and teaching now full time at Arizona State.

The Symphony GuyUsually are good players, but not necessarily great.  Most have flat chin (Farkis) [sic] embouchures.  Most were first chair Johnnys in high school and are now good second chair players on the professional level, but still struggle with range.  They have an old school approach developed from years spent at colleges or music conservatories, so they favor big mouthpieces like a 1C.  Because of their background, they are put on a pedestal by most band directors and parents, irrespective of their teaching percentage success (which is often quite low).  The common misperception is, “He is a well-schooled player, so he must be a well-schooled teacher.”  However, players good at teaching the nuances of performance may know nothing about the underlying mechanics which power the machine.

The “Dr.” Many college teachers with advanced degrees insist that you call them “doctor,” which makes sense because they have about as much success teaching trumpet mechanics as medical doctors have in curing the common cold.    Universities tend to have feeder systems – graduate assistants who teach the lowly undergraduate students before the students can qualify to be taught be the self-important “doctor.”  This weeds out all of the people who have problems!  The doctor only gets the best players and everybody else gets shown the door.  If the doctor is the expert, shouldn’t he be teaching the players with the biggest problems?  Don’t they need his help the most?

He also describes the trumpet/brass teacher types “The Band Director,” “Joe High Note,” “The Scientist,” and “The Feeler.” In the case of the two examples quoted above (and the others in his book) I believe that he is laying out rather exaggerated caricatures as examples rather than describing any actual individuals. In terms of my teaching at Arizona State I always spend quite a bit of time with the younger students for the very reason that they do need help the most.

Anyway, there you have it; an example of someone clearly thinking outside the traditional approaches in his publications and teaching. As a commenter on the Facebook Horn Articles Online fan page pointed out there are literally dozens of topics presented by Farkas that could be reexamined in terms of technical specifics; the flat chin example above is just one. Periodically I will follow up with more examples.

UPDATE: For another review see http://www.wilktone.com/?p=183

Return to Part I