Boot Camp for the Woodwind Embouchure *

I’ve got a theater gig coming up, so I’ve been getting my flute chops back to top shape. I am also getting over a hand injury that caused me to not play for nearly 8 weeks. As a woodwind specialist, I do not get the opportunity to practice every instrument every day. Generally, only the instruments that about to be used get attention while others are ignored. Percussionists call it “rotation of neglect.”

Because of this, over the years I’ve become an expert on getting ready quickly. Getting back in top shape after time off is not just practicing long tones. There are two basic types of practicing: serious study [working on improvement] and maintenance [bare minimum to keep chops active and strong]. But if you have to get back in top form quickly you have to use a different practice routine than normal. There is a third type of practice for this: chop-building, whose sole purpose is to bring back the chops of an instrument that has not been played on in quite a while.

Brass players often focus on building their chops but as woodwind players we feel that this doesn’t apply to us. This is where we are wrong; we need to build strength just like the brass and just playing long tones is not enough. In order to improve the embouchure we need to do an intense workout that creates an intense workout. I use what I call long practice.

What I mean by this is that I stop very little and try to keep playing as much as possible. In regular practice, I would focus on errors and work just that aspect, trying to improve. But that starting-stopping does not help with the doubles rejuvenation practice. Do not stop playing, even if you have problems. Things are repeated several times which gives you a chance to make things better but you keep going; fix things while you play. I got this idea from one of my flute teachers who was getting frustrated with my constant restarting, trying to get things perfect from the beginning. She told me to keep playing and learn how to make the adjustments along the way, because when performing you do not get the luxury of restarting.

Adapting this idea to all the doubles seemed obvious and I saw great improvements. The other part is the routine in the practice session. The normal routine is to warm-up and then focus attention on specific material. In this new way, you mix things up. I use my warm-up material throughout the session, interspersed with scales and thirds then complete pieces nonstop with all repeats. By sprinkling my warm-up among the other parts I find my weaknesses quickly. It also allows me to monitor my lip work during a piece. (When I’m totally warmed-up, difficult passages are easier, making it less obvious of the subtle changes that need to be done to successfully complete it.)

The other part of this is the constant playing. By stopping for mini breaks, my embouchure rests, giving it a chance to reform. I want to push the limits of my lips and this can only be done by not stopping. This creates a shock to the system which is why I mix the warm-up material throughout and not just at the beginning. When my lips start showing signs of fatigue I do part of the warm-up, which refocuses the lips and prepares it for continuing.

The material used is also important. I try to use staccato tonguing as much as possible because it requires use to be vigilante to keep a good tone. The technique must be active and varied but not so difficult that you cannot make it through non-stop without practicing it. You also want to make sure to use the full tessitura, low and high, not just the middle which is easy.

The flute routine looks similar to this:

  • Warm-up 1
  • Taffenel scale pattern, full range in C, C#, D, Eb, E
  • Harmonics study 1 (Warm-up 2)
  • Thirds
  • Harmonic study 2 (Warm-up 3)
  • High note fingering exercise
  • Warm-up 4
  • Full Piece/Etudes (I generally use Baroque material, all movements with all repeats)

I do this routine 2-3 times each day. When starting this, you may not get through all the material before your tone quality starts to drastically suffer. That’s okay. By Day two you will find your tone lasting longer. Keep going. The next day it will last even longer. As your endurance builds, extend the session with more scales and music, preferably long, taxing etudes. By the end of the week the instrument will be back to full speed, like you never took a break.

If I need to get it back even quicker, I do the routine 4-5 times a day. The routine initially lasts roughly 20 minutes, making it easy to fit several of them in a day. As the sessions start getting longer, I first reduce the scale work, then the extra warm-up material, until I play mainly music with a bare minimum warm-up.

For the clarinet I like using chord studies and two octave exercises (E1-E2-E3-E2-E1, F1-F2-F3-F2-F1) in addition to thirds. Material wise, I use etudes that have a lot of leaps and go across the break a lot. On saxophone, instead of thirds I like to use fourths and fifths as well as chord studies. Both clarinet and saxophone have their own harmonic work that I use.

Keep in mind that this is not the way to develop your tone but a way to bring it back quickly. Think of it like Boot Camp for your lips. It is very similar to short intense workouts at the gym.

By fatiguing the lips and then using warm-ups to readjust the embouchure in many short sessions you can rebuild strength in your embouchure. So if you need to get an instrument back in shape quickly, it can be done. It is just a matter of changing how you practice.

* Adapted from my e-book, The Working Doubler: Improving Your Woodwinds

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