A mirror can be a very useful tool in practice sessions. It is a great way to self-diagnose and to make adjustments that can further improvement.
Many high school and college practice rooms these days it seems come well-equipped with both pianos and wall mirrors, so I think that people are already familiar with the notion of practicing in front of a mirror.
What may not be so familiar is what to look for. A mirror can be a great tool for some, but for others it can be a mystery or worse, a source of frustration.
A mirror gives us feedback on a number of things, including: posture, hand position and embouchure. This being said, it can also draw attention to issues that may not be anything to be concerned about.
In this regard, a question that gets regularly asked is this:
My embouchure is off-center and is not horizontally perfect in the middle of my lips. Should I make a change to center the mouthpiece on my lips?
1.) Faces are not symmetrical
Using my own photograph, a simple experiment illustrates how off-balance our faces really are. At a glance, everything is there that one would expect – eyes, ears, a nose and lips – and nothing seems greatly out of order.
Now, let’s look at the same photograph with registration lines superimposed on top.
This is by no means scientific, but right away one can observe a number of differences between the right and left sides of my face.
- The left ear is higher than the right ear
- The left eye is slightly higher than the right eye
- The mouth (at least when smiling) is not a perfect curve, and the left side goes up higher than on the right
- The center of the nose, mouth and chin do not line up in a perfect, straight line
- My glasses are crooked, in order to match up with my varying eye heights
Taking this a step further, here are two versions of the same photo but with truly perfect symmetry.
This effect is accomplished by copying one side of the face, reversing it, then connecting the two sides into one image. If my face where perfectly symmetrical, it would look like this:
When looking at my lips in these mirrored images, subtle differences can be observed (in spite of the facial hair).
Even famous Hollywood actors – that rely on beauty for their trade – have asymmetrical faces. Actor Angelina Jolie, for example, almost looks like two different people when this same mirror-effect is applied.
In the broader and more philosophical sense, beauty might be defined as a symmetry of unbalanced elements.
More relevant to horn playing, the point here is that no one has a face that is perfectly symmetrical. The big question to procure from this casual experiment would be: if my face is not absolutely symmetrical, why should I worry about my embouchure being symmetrical?
2.) Our brains can be fooled
While practicing in front of a mirror can be a great tool, it can also present problems if the practice is taken too literally.
Beyond optical illusions (see also the Thatcher illusion applied to Dennis Brain), our brains are also easily fooled into delusional thinking. Problems can be imagined where perhaps no problems may even exist. For some, a mirror can exacerbate minor paranoia into a bigger issue.
Not everyone has perfectly straight teeth and I certainly fall into the category of having very crooked teeth. My bite resembles this picture (at right) of a what one writer calls “redneck teeth.”
As shown in the picture at right, my right canine tooth sticks out prominently and my front teeth are very uneven.
When my mouthpiece is absolutely centered, that projecting canine tooth (and perhaps even more importantly, the gap next to it) becomes an issue. To compensate, I play with a mouthpiece setting that is off-center and have done so for many years.
When pursuing balance in your playing, keep in mind that symmetry and balance are not the same thing. Sometimes, a “balanced embouchure” is defined by asymmetrical elements.
A mobile work by the artist Alexander Calder illustrates this concept brilliantly in the abstract. While this work is constructed of many different shapes and sizes, it achieves a strong sense of balance between its two branches.
Take everything you see in a mirror with a grain of salt. This feedback can be very interesting information, but it may not necessarily indicate that there is a problem or a strong need to make a change.