Frøydis Ree Wekre on myths and negative rules
When I started to play the horn as a teenager I got the firm impression that only people with thin lips would have the potential to become really good horn players. This myth stayed in the back of my mind for many years and certainly delayed my progress in several areas. My own, somewhat thick lips became the excuse and explanation for various problems. My own creative problem-solving and flow of new ideas on how to improve technically slowed down considerably because of believing in this myth.
Later I have run across other myths that for some people had been damaging to their progress and self confidence, but often later proven to be wrong.
Many of these myths turn into negative advice and rules on how not to do it. This kind of advice is handed out freely as pompous statements in the form of “never do this/never do that”, understood: “To do this or that is against every law, written or unwritten, and if you do this or that anyway, your playing/your chances/your whatever will be severely damaged.”
Below follows a collection of such “nevers”; statements that can have a negative effect on the minds of sensitive people. Some of the rules are self-experienced, and others have been told me by students and colleagues. Each one will be presented separately with my comments.
“Never puff your cheeks.” My first horn teacher told me this, and I followed his advice obediently. However, one evening, as I was watching the orchestra where he played, I noticed something strange in the horn section; surprisingly for me, my own teacher puffed his cheeks occasionally! When asked about this during my next lesson, he thought about it for a while, then smiled and held firm to his earlier advice, but of course, the grain of doubt had been put into my mind. Later I have found that puffing the cheeks occasionally when playing in certain ranges or dynamics might help to give stiff corner muscles a quick, temporary relaxation. It might also help producing a different tone colour, if one is unable to create that on the normal, non-puffed setting. So, my answer to this rule would be: Yes, for the most part, although no rule without exceptions!
“Never move your embouchure.” To move or not to move – this rule is quite common, and in my opinion somewhat dangerous. Watching good players on different brass instruments, from trumpet to tuba, one can see gradually more and more movements in the face muscles as the range gets lower. The horn has an extremely wide range, covering four octaves, and many great players do what they have to do with the embouchure to make the tones come out sounding the way they want. And, “what they have to do” sometimes will include visible movements in the cheeks, lips and jaw. If people believe in this rule too much, again the flow of creativity will be stopped, and one may easily get stuck, doing everything “right” visibly and still not get the desired sounding results.
“Never drop your jaw.” Fortunately, nobody ever told me this in my early days, but I have had numerous students who had to learn to break this rule if their low range was ever going to exist. The question is, of course, when and how much to drop or move the jaw.
“Never speak about embouchure.” I do have some sympathy for this one. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, as they say. Some people get over-analytical and forget the more important factors, like focusing on the actual musical plan and the flow of air. However, the work of the facial muscles is also important, and sometimes it might be necessary to discuss and maybe also to adjust various parts of this work.
“Never moisten your lips/Never play on dry lips.” I have heard and read both of these statements. What is one supposed to believe? I think either way can work, judging from what I have seen and heard in different players.
“Never buzz on your lips without your mouthpiece.” Several horn players seem to have had negative experiences doing this, and then they turn around and tell everybody else not to do it. However, I wish to speak for those of us who have found it very useful to buzz on the lips alone. When done in reasonable amounts, and when considered nothing more than “aerobics” for the face, my experience is that buzzing on the lips can be constructive for strength and control.
“Never raise your shoulders when you breathe.” This is indeed a super negative statement, especially for players with a small vital lung capacity from nature. When “normal” people (not brass players) sigh, one can see that their shoulders will be raised by the extra deep inhalation, in a very natural way. Of course I do understand the initial reason for this recommendation of keeping the shoulders low. It is of course best to avoid unwanted tension (such as raising the shoulders with no air involved) during playing. But if one wants to utilise the full lung capacity, at times it is necessary to explore the feeling of a very deep sigh, and therefore to permit the shoulders to be moved upwards by the air that thus will fill the lungs in all directions, also upwards.
“Never breathe through your nose.” Isn’t this one interesting! Nature has equipped us with two ways to inhale, and although we get more quantity when inhaling through the mouth, the way of the nose can be just the right solution in certain situations. “Sniffing”, as done by tuba players and flute players at times, is well worth exploring. Also there are times when a deep and calm inhalation through the nose will have a wonderfully soothing effect on our body, and thus on the performing.
“Never play without support/Never use or mention support.” Excessive use of body tension while playing can be very negative, for sound quality, for endurance, and for the player’s well-being. The “wind-and-song” concept will be sufficient for most people, most of the time. However, the larger muscles in the body can help the smaller ones. For me, selective use of the lower abdominal muscles has turned out to be a life saver in extreme situations (for high and soft solos and entrances, for example).
“Never put your tongue between your lips.” This again restricts creativity in finding the best and cleanest possible attacks for whatever occasion in the music. Personally, I sometimes break this “rule” in the middle and lower range, for the sake of the utmost clarity.
“Never start a tone without the tongue.” One of my teachers said this to me, and being obedient to this rule eventually led to unwanted tension and fear of soft attacks. Only when I started to experiment with air-attacks was I able to break down my hang-up.
“Never stop a tone with the tongue.” For the most part, this is good and tasteful advice, but I have experienced situations in the orchestra when a conductor wants a special effect, an abrupt kind of stop to a brass chord, for example. Then tongue-stopping can be “correct”.
“Never play on the B-side below written g’.” I cannot count all the students I have had over the years who had been raised by this rule, and who had to suffer through a period when they needed to discover and learn all the other options for fingerings on a double horn. No violinist would ever dream of not teaching the students all the fingering options on all four strings. Only with this knowledge (i.e. really knowing all options of both sides of the double horn) can one be truly free to choose the best fingerings for whatever musical context.
“Never play on a Conn/Alexander/Holton/Paxman/Yamaha etc.” This is an interesting and very often geographical “rule”, mostly originating from one dominant teacher/player, who transfers his or her phobias to students and to other players who hope to get some gigs in this neighbourhood. When this one person then maybe changes equipment, everybody else gets liberated from the old rule, but sometimes will have to obey to a new one. My own feelings about these kinds of statements are very negative indeed. Often the people who have such strong opinions do not have the courage to participate in - or even want to know the results of - blind tests, not to mention accepting that different players may sound their best on individually different instruments.
“Never play on a cupped mouthpiece/Never play on a straight mouthpiece.” There are many variations on these statements, some of which also have to do with sizes etc. The way I see it, people have different teeth, lips and overall facial setup. In addition, there is different taste and priorities out there regarding sound, range, clarity etc. Some sound great on cupped mouthpieces, others do just fine on straight mouthpieces. Also, on the issue of changing: Unfortunately it is all too easy to mess up people’s minds through a change of equipment such as the mouthpiece. There are players (and teachers) who tend to blame all playing problems on the equipment. Thus there will be an urge for changing, again and again. Caution is my advice, even if a change seems absolutely necessary.
“Never tap your toe while playing/Never play without tapping your toe (foot).” These are two confusing and directly conflicting rules. For participating in classical music I do think it is an advantage to be able to play without any visual signs of how one feels the beats. For other genres the situation and culture is different.
“Never watch the conductor.” Yes, we are many experienced orchestra players who will be sympathetic to this one. However, one could have the conductor somewhere in the very corner of one’s eyes, just in case something unexpected would be happening….
“Never leave before you get paid.” I wish I could manage to live by this one. But real life is not always what one would wish.
There are no rules without exceptions - also not this one! Therefore, be cautious the next time you have the urge to utter: Never do – whatever. Your statement may be a true reflection of your own, current opinion on the matter, but nevertheless, other individuals may have found other, equally good solutions. If you say: In my own, humble, subjective, personal opinion and experience, this is how it works for me, then you open up for others – and especially students - to find their own ways. Maybe in the end they will agree with you, after all, at least on some issues. One can only hope!