Interview: Jazz Hornist Mark Taylor and Notes on Embouchure Dystonia

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Last weekend I noted that in Episode 120 of The Mellocast the topic of Focal Dystonia came up with jazz hornist Mark Taylor. There he noted that he found this recent Horn Matters article and the links there helpful in sorting out some nagging embouchure problems of his own. Typically when seen in brass players Focal Dystonia relates to instability of the embouchure in often one specific register. It can be among the most difficult things any brass player has to work through. Mark agreed to answer a few questions about his recent experiences.

JE: Starting out at the present day, where are you presently in regard to your embouchure?

MT: It has been a real rollercoaster over the last couple of weeks. I stumbled onto the idea of FD just as my embouchure “wobbling” was returning and I was getting really frustrated with not being able to work on ANYTHING in my practice sessions other than getting my chops to work. Oddly, once I actually started playing music (in rehearsal or performance) I had almost no problems! Warm ups, however, were sheer hell and drastically affected my confidence in being able to play well. I felt my embouchure was “unstable”.

I’m ecstatic that making one little conceptual shift and taking a zinc supplement (I have a copper sensitivity and an unlacquered horn) seem to have really, FINALLY, turned things around.

JE: Tell us about the conceptual shift that you recently made.

MT: Well, after reading the articles on FD on Horn Matters I went to David Vining’s website and read about his experience. I have to be clear, though. I haven’t been diagnosed with Focal Dystonia, or anything else except being more sensitive than most to copper (and, possibly, nickel). It’s just that everything I read about FD seemed to mirror the experience I’ve had over the last 10 years.

The shift I made was simple. Like David Vining, I redefined what embouchure meant to me. I realized that my attention, especially when warming up, had shrunk down to that tiny area of my face involved in making a buzz. I widened my focus, specifically to include my air column and posture and on maintaining what I call a “supported” setting AND a relaxed, non-stressed mental state.

JE: I find it interesting that you use the term “wobbling” to describe it as this is exactly how it looks and feels for many players who struggle with embouchure issues. I have also seen that it may be of benefit to support the embouchure in relation to the mouthpiece and to find that non-stressed place mentally. When did you first notice it? What is the history of it in your playing?

MT: I guess it started in the late 90s when I was working with Max Roach, among others. It first showed up in actual playing and rehearsing more than practicing (which is where I get hit now). I remember being in Finland on tour and asking trumpet player Cecil Bridgewater to come to my room and look at my chops to see what was going on! His observation was that I seemed to have no “set” for my corners which I attributed to my sort of schizo attempt to create a sound that was simultaneously big and fat AND lean and agile. Balance and projection are always an issue, for me at least, in jazz and improvised settings. Anyway, things deteriorated from there and pretty soon I couldn’t maintain a setting at all. It felt like the horn was just bouncing around on my face!

I finally went to see John McNeil who is the jazz trumpet professor at New England Conservatory. He and Laurie Frink wrote a book called Flexus which is a based somewhat on Carmine Caruso’s approach and is aimed at improvising trumpet players. They’re both known in NYC as great folks to deal with embouchure problems. John helped me start over and build a setting that would work. The only issue was that it would take ALL my attention to keep it working! Things have steadily gotten better but have felt unstable ever since. Recently, I felt that instability increasing and some “wobbling” had returned – mostly on mellophone, actually – so I felt the need to do some research online and see what I could find out.

JE: Turning a corner, this summer you are being featured as a contributing artist at the International Horn Symposium in San Francisco. What will you be playing?

MT: I’m very excited about appearing at the IHS Symposium this summer! I have to talk to Wendell Rider more to find out when and how long I’m supposed to play (and with whom!?). If I have a little time then I’d love to do a standard (or two) and one of my compositions. A lot will depend on who the rhythm section is and what they’re comfortable with. Also, I’d love to sit down with folks, either formally or informally, and talk about what happens “after chord-scales”. What do you do after you know which notes to play when? That’s the sort of stuff that interests me and that I’d like to share with other improvisers.

JE: Any other projects underway?

MT: As you know, my RocketHub project was fully funded, so my third CD “At What Age” should be out by the time of the Symposium and I’m currently working on a small tour out West around that time. I’m hoping to play somewhere else in San Francisco, go to LA and, maybe, up to Portland or east to New Mexico. We’ll see. Also, look for the start of a new project (or three) I’ve got up my (virtual) sleeve.

JE: Thank you Mark! Looking forward to the CD and to hearing you in San Francisco. I will close below with quotes and links to more information on Mark Taylor.

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“The French horn is a notoriously finicky beast to master in a fast-paced improv setting which is probably why not many players have made their mark with the instrument. Add Mark Taylor’s name to the list of the chosen few.”
— Time Out New York

“Mark Taylor’s quartet certainly is unlike any other performing in today’s jazz scene.”
—Don Williamson, JazzReview.com

“An incisive soloist …”
—JazzTimes

“Taylor plays French horn boldly and lyrically…”
—Bob Blumenthal, Atlantic Monthly

MARK TAYLOR MUSIC
http://www.marktaylormusic.net

Facebook Fan page:
http://www.facebook.com/pages/Mark-Taylor/43829663873

“Circle Squared” CD is available at:
http://www.cdbaby.com/marktaylor

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