Random thoughts on ‘natural’ technique, embouchure study and sports analogies


Over the weekend I wrote a fairly lengthy response to comments posted on “‘Radical’ Embouchure Experiments, IV – Using a Visualizer” and thought that it was worth reiterating as an article.

Most of the text in this article comes from that response and to see the full context, please go to the comments section of the original article.

Au natural?

Now is a good time to clarify the why of these embouchure articles I have written. Why I am posting these embouchure articles online? What is the example being illustrated?

I first would argue that there is nothing cosmically metaphysical or subconscious about learning to play the horn. We are not born with a natural capability to play the horn, one that only needs to be brought to the surface by a caring and attentive guru.

Until animals start buzzing their lips in the jungle, I don’t buy the ‘natural’ approach that some teachers tout as a selling point – along with its abstract, pop-psychology terminology. While it might work for some students with the right mindset and technical accomplishment, this approach to teaching the horn has virtually no established pedagogy to rely on. It is up to the individual teacher in this case to determine the method.

Playing any musical instrument requires technical knowledge, and mental and physical skill. For some that requires breaking things down and analyzing it to see how it works and all fits together. The pursuit of this knowledge isn’t always about solving problems. Sometimes it is the pursuit of an answer – or just raw knowledge.

While I do concur that being relaxed and efficient is important in playing the French horn, the subconscious is rife with pitfalls – denial and delusion being the biggest dangers that can get a player or teacher in trouble.

Hogwash and snake oil

Most of these natural methods and techniques I have heard over the years border on hogwash and snake oil. They tend to go beyond a simple definition of natural as meaning relaxed or efficient, and profess some kind homeopathic method that is attuned to nature or the subconscious mind. There may even be an air of religiosity or spirituality to it.

Human beings are born to walk and run. Birds to sing. Brass players for the most part, have to learn it the hard way.  There is nothing natural about playing a brass instrument. It takes practice and diligence.

To some, this might sound like blasphemy or heresy – something akin to atheism. I call it reality. While playing a musical instrument can sometimes feel like (or be a part of) a religious experience, it is not a religion in itself.

This is not to say that performing music cannot be spiritual, of course. The point rather is that pedagogy and religion can make for strange bedfellows.

Analogies to the universe and nature may sound pretty, but to a pragmatist like myself who likes to tinker and explore they lack depth and practicality. Thinking in abstractions can be useful of course (I do that myself sometimes) but like the subconscious itself it is all too easy to float into outer space riding on a poetic, ivory tower.

While I agree that over-thinking in music performance can be detrimental, lazy-thinking or feel-good thinking can be equally destructive, even with the best intentions from an intelligent and experienced teacher.

Real world training

Athletes change their forms (in a broad musical sense, their embouchures) all the time.

They are trained by coaches to think very technically about aspects of the game in order to improve quickly and stay competitive. In this pursuit they utilize the latest, state-of-the-art technologies in order to iron out the details.

Paula Radcliffe, for example, analyzes every single step she takes in minute, technical detail yet she still manages to be a world-class runner that runs with grace and beauty. I would venture to guess that because she studies her stride in detail, Ms. Radcliffe is a world-champion.

Any notion that athletes don’t work, think intensely and study hard at what they do is absolutely incorrect. They are trained warriors with fine-tuned skills.

At game-time – yes – the subconscious may kick in, but this a byproduct of training. Athletic virtuosity is a result of intense, technical training. It does not generate from communing with the universe. Games are won with diligence, technical precision, planning, strategy, tactics, artistry and moreover, teamwork.

If we musicians are to use sports metaphors and analogies in our training and thinking, this process should be kept in mind. Cherry-picking clever sports metaphors to support a homeopathic or holistic method is misleading and frankly, irresponsible.

The devil in the details

Does studying the stars ruin the heavens? Does studying the embouchure lead to “paralysis by analysis“? In concert do players think about deep, technical detail?

Most likely, no. Probably no more than I would think about embouchure ratio during a concert. That would be silly – and perhaps even distracting. In the concert I focus on the music of course just as the athlete thinks about the ball or the finish line.

However, to suggest that it is dangerous or wrong to think about what you are doing in training sessions is dangerous and reckless in itself. One visit to Arnold Jacobs’ old studio – a room of measuring devices and anatomical charts – disproves this notion outright.

The growth mindset

In the meantime, I remain pragmatic and practical about playing the horn, working towards my own personal enlightenment through a method that works for me – a premise made clear in Part One of this series.

Some players are born. Others (most) are made. The main reason I have posted these articles was not to rock the boat of the horn world, but rather to demonstrate and document a learning process.

It is a growth mindset, and this is the entire point. If you need to, please take everything else with a grain of salt.

University of Horn Matters