Saturday, July 19, 2014

Adopting a new approach towards breathing and embouchure

All throughout my music education, the diaphragm, ribcage and embouchure were all things that had to be controlled.
"Expand your ribcage"
"Expand your belly"
"Form the smallest aperture"

Breathing is a natural process.  As long as I can breathe through the whole range of my capacity while keeping my throat and glottis open and body relaxed, my muscles will instinctively move in the most efficient manner.

I've seen a number of articles that support this breathing philosophy.

This one provides sources to peer-reviewed work with respect to this philosophy as well as other ideas to improve breathing for musicians:

In order to develop a working embouchure, I am going to relinquish conscious control of it and approach it with the following definition:

"The embouchure is a three-dimensional entity in motion which only exists if fed by the airflow.  The air blows the tissue into the right shape and size to produce the right note."

I've also seen this definition on several websites with various paraphrasing, including from the dissertation "The Effect of Focal Task-Specific Embouchure Dystonia Upon Brass Musicians: A Literature Review and Case Study" by Seth Fletcher which can be found at

A problem statement and hypothesis

Once I realized that I am dealing with embouchure dystonia, I needed to identify the physical origins of the problem, what triggers a spasm, and exactly how my neural pathways are tangled (problem statement).  I postulate that if I address the physical origins of the problem, construct a new "pathway" that engages only the proper muscle groups, and develop an effective visualization to maintain the proper muscle response in the presence of triggers, I will be able to play again (hypothesis).

The physical origins of the problem
  • Poor breath usage, capacity and control
    • I forgot how every morning as an undergraduate flute performance major I practiced vigorous breathing exercises to expand my lung capacity and improve my breath control.  Even if I don't practice every day, I should always perform breathing exercises to keep my breathing muscles strong.
    • Long periods of time went by where I didn't play my flute lasting months to years at a time.  Every time I picked up my flute, I compensated for my weak breath control with my embouchure.
  • Although it served me well overall when I played professionally, my embouchure was always a bit rigid in the low register which compromised the responsiveness of my articulation.  To compensate, I diligently practiced articulation exercises to mask this weakness.
    • I had my flute overhauled and when I got it back, there was a timing problem among the keys synchronized with the F key that caused a large amount of resistance in D, D# and E in the 2nd octave.  It took years before I finally found a repair technician who was able to find this problem and fix it.  Meanwhile, I thought I was stuck playing a lousy flute and having to distort my embouchure to get those notes to sound halfway decent.  (For the record, I play a handmade sterling silver Powell with a Drelinger headjoint that was "fit" to me by Sandy Drelinger himself.  There should be absolutely nothing suddenly "lousy" about a setup like this.)
Spasm triggers
  • Small pad leaks that cause me to force in the low register
  • Playing in public
  • My condition deteriorated to the point that just trying to form an embouchure without the flute causes a spasm
How I believe my neural pathways are tangled
  • My left cheek muscle, embouchure muscles and tongue are neurologically tangled.  When I play, I have a contraction in my left cheek muscle and the response is to bear down on my embouchure.  My embouchure moves when I articulate and my left cheek muscle spasms as well

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Two important websites

David Vining's honest and detailed account of his recovery from embouchure dystonia:

Focal Dystonia: A Musician's Resource:

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Remembering how to breathe

The key to my success is the careful rebuilding of my breathing technique.  Reading brought me to the realization that the deterioration of breath control was a major factor as to why I developed embouchure dystonia.  Over the last several years at least, my embouchure was contributing to the support of my sound to a greater and greater extent as my breathing apparatus continued to get weaker and weaker from an inconsistent practice regimen which included months and sometimes years of not playing. 

Developing my breath control and posture needs to be the first step.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014


When I saw the description of focal task-specific embouchure dystonia, I knew that's what was plaguing me for the better part of 10 years.  I was desperately hunting around the internet looking for anything that could help me bring back some semblance of my embouchure.  There it was in the comment section of a very nice YouTube video demonstrating proper flute playing technique.  Someone mentioned something off-the-cuff about dystonia.  I googled that word and felt a sense of relief knowing that I can finally put a name to the source of my frustration and unhappiness for the past several years.

I don't need a medical doctor to give me a diagnosis.  He or she would simply observe what I observed on my own: involuntary contractions in the muscles on the left side of my face causing the left corner of my mouth to pull uncomfortably to the left.  If I "strong-armed" my embouchure in such a way that it became extraordinarily tense and immobile, I could play.  Sort of.  It is a very uncomfortable and tiring way to play.  It certainly does not resemble by any stretch of the imagination how loose and flexible my embouchure felt when I played professionally.

Furthermore, according to all articles I have read about musician's dystonia, it has been determined to commonly afflict classically-trained professional-level musicians 35-45 years of age who have a disposition towards perfectionism and identity entanglement with their profession (I am what I do).  In addition, there's usually an event or a series of events that start the slow progression of focal task-specific dystonia:

"Wow, my embouchure feels a bit strange on those notes."  Turning towards a fellow musician, "Does my embouchure look more strained to you than normal?  Does my tone sound pinched at all?"  The fellow musician doesn't notice anything out of the ordinary.

"I need to woodshed more -- get back to basics!"  Marathon technical practicing sessions ensue and the problems become progressively worse to the point where the musician starts to seriously consider getting out of music permanently.

For those who aren't familiar with focal task-specific dystonia, the following website will give you a quick picture as to what it is:

The purpose of this blog is to document my personal journey to rehabilitate my embouchure.  I expect this journey to be a long one, but I am determined to play beautifully again.  Hopefully, this blog will also provide others afflicted with embouchure dystonia some comfort knowing that there's someone out there who understands exactly what they're going through and is right there with them.