Five Lessons from my Embouchure Change

This week’s Five Things Friday post comes to us from trumpet player and recent high school graduate, Katherine Idleman. Katherine recently decided to undertake an embouchure change, and has chosen to share what that transition has taught her. Thanks to Katherine for writing!

Katherine's HeadshotKatherine Idleman is 18 years old and will be majoring in music education at Bucknell University this fall. She plans to join the many ensembles at Bucknell and hopes to become a band director for a middle and/or high school. She has played trumpet for 8 years and is learning trombone, clarinet, and saxophone as well. Katherine was a member of the Intermediate Wind Symphony and Jazz Band at Interlochen Arts Camp
in 2015. In 2016 and 2017, she was a member of the World Youth Wind Symphony and trumpet institute at Interlochen. Katherine was chosen to conduct the famous Interlochen Theme. This summer, she is going to be a camp counselor at Interlochen. She was also a member of the Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra for two years. She became a member of MYSO’s flagship orchestra, the Senior Symphony, her second year. She was a member of her high school’s concert, jazz and pep band and conducted her high school band for a band arrangement of the Finale
from Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite at her last concert. She is an avid advocate for music education and currently volunteers her time raising money for and teaching music at the Albert E. Kagel school in Milwaukee, shadowing band directors throughout Wisconsin and playing for churches in her community.


“You need to change your embouchure:” These are words no brass player ever wants to hear. I had gotten used to hearing it, though, and it made me upset every time. I knew that changing my embouchure meant I was going to sound like a beginner again but I could never find a convenient time to take a few weeks up to many months to go through this process. However, one day I told myself, you know what, it’s either now or never, and I am so glad I did.

Photo of Katherine playing in 2016, with the rim of her mouthpiece clearly set inside her top lip
(Picture from Summer of 2016)

March 2017: I couldn’t wait to get my braces off; I had them for five years, for goodness sake! I learned how to play trumpet with them, which means I did not know what playing without them felt like… or HOW to play without them. Nevertheless, my unrelenting optimism had me believing once these bad boys are off, everything is going to be perfect! Boy, was I wrong.

Although I struggled with the process of adapting to a new way of playing, the difficulties of deciding to change my embouchure and going through with that change have taught me more than just where to put my mouthpiece. The following are five lessons I learned through having to change my playing again and again:

Lesson #1: Change is the only constant. As brass players, our mouths are everything. However, we have to remember that the mouth is a part of our body and our body is always changing. I became acutely aware of the role of my mouth and the change it was undergoing when my braces were removed. These incidents can make playing much more difficult or even force you to stop playing for a few days or months. It can be easy to put yourself down while going through a rough patch while everyone else around you seems to be happy and playing just as easily and beautifully as the day before. No matter what happens with your playing physically or psychologically, it is important to embrace change and accept the hard parts of the process. This leads me into the second lesson I learned:

Lesson #2: Don’t be so hard on yourself. On March 12th 2017, I got to see, hear and meet one of my absolute favorite trumpet players and role models, Tine Thing Helseth, perform. The next day, I got my braces off. The first thing I did when I got home was bolt up the stairs and rip my trumpet out of its case. I eagerly placed the mouthpiece in the leadpipe and put it up to my lips in the standard correct position, which I had never used. Oh geez, uh, this doesn’t feel right, I thought. I buzzed my lips and could not make a sound. What?! This isn’t what this was supposed to be like!! I tried again and produced an obnoxiously loud splat noise that left me appalled. This wasn’t my playing!

I started questioning if I was still a trumpet player; all of a sudden, I could not play the trumpet. I wanted people to hear me play but I didn’t want people to see my odd embouchure.  I started thinking negative thoughts and convinced myself that people saw me as a ditsy blonde who had no idea what she was doing. I really believed that I was let into groups, winning awards, and earning more challenging parts because people felt bad. I wish I knew then but I definitely know now, that is completely untrue.

My embouchure would not have been such an issue if I were a beginner or just playing for myself, but, being someone who absolutely loves music, I had joined as many musical groups and gigs as possible. How could I explain my sudden inability to play trumpet, which I would need months to fix, to those groups? I had no idea, so I avoided the issue by switching right back to my old embouchure—just without the barbed wire fence in my mouth this time. If I switched to the new embouchure, I would lose all of my control, range, tone, everything… but if I kept the old one, I could keep all of that and at the time, I didn’t care how improper it was, I just wanted to play. Over the next year, I made changes to improve my embouchure and at the beginning of 2018, I thought I had found a lifetime embouchure. It worked wonderfully, judges no longer pointed it out and, yes, it still looked a bit different. But everyone’s does. This brings me onto my third lesson.

Photo of Katherine playing at her recent recital, with her old embouchure
(Picture from my senior recital from this April 2018)

Lesson #3: “Suffer the pain of discipline or the pain of regret.” I stumbled upon this quote by Jim Rohn a little over a week ago. While my old embouchure worked well for short periods of time, I was playing on the red of my lip and I got fatigued quickly. This forced me to compensate in other ways. My band director, through my stubbornness, suggested once again that I really should change my embouchure. I was frustrated; I felt like I was at the top of my playing, everything was going fantastic and I could not be happier; Why would I change it again? He told me that this was the last time he would give me that advice. I could either take it or leave it. I didn’t know right away what I would do. I didn’t even want to touch my trumpet that day, I was so conflicted. As I scrolled through my Instagram feed, I stumbled upon the above quote. I decided to be disciplined. I no longer wanted to postpone my embouchure change, convincing myself that everything was fine the way it was when I could improve. On May 3rd of this year, a day after speaking with my band director, I wiped the slate clean. I worked on fundamentals, playing chromatically from the G below the staff to the G in the staff and Clarke technical exercises. The difficulty I had in those first few days gave me flashbacks to middle school beginning band and my scale preparation for my college auditions. I am finding my voice on the trumpet again, and, thanks to this embouchure change, my playing is so much better than it was before. I’m finding that I can play more effectively, with much better intonation and it simply feels easier. Other than the fact I have a lot of range and overall control to build back up, I am so happy I made the decision to change my embouchure and actually change it this time. I can see and hear now that the reward is really worth the wait.  

Photo of Katherine playing with her new embouchure
(Picture from May 12th 2018)

Lesson #4: Don’t be afraid to admit when something isn’t working. One of my greatest challenges in this process was just admitting to myself that something really needed to change. Once I accepted that my old embouchure was holding me back, I was able to begin the process of finding something that would work better. It is easy to get stuck in your ways or to fear change. Our self-worth can get tied up in how we see our playing, and acknowledging a fault or room for improvement can be daunting. However, acknowledging weaknesses is the only way to get better.

Lesson #5: Reach out for support when you need help. Times of transition can be tricky, and can feel impossible when we approach them alone. Without the help of my band director and trumpet teachers, I never would have changed my embouchure. I had thought, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, however, it took the urging of my wonderful teachers to see that, it really was broken and needed fixing. Additionally, I have leaned on the support of my friends and family as I have worked through this change.

 Transition is hard, but sometimes necessary. Believe in yourself and never give up!

Thank you for reading! My Instagram is @katherineidleman
I would absolutely love to connect with you!

 

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