Stories

Jonathan Lipton and His Embouchure Change at 18

Not many people know that Jonathan Lipton (horn of the London Symphony for more than three decades) suffered an embouchure change during his student days. In this interview, he talks about how he dealt with this issue that troubles so many brass players.
jonathan lipton horn embouchure change

So, take us back to the beginning. You are from America. Where did you study?

I studied at SUNY Purchase, New York, in 1972. The college had only just started, so I was in the first graduating class four years later. One of the other horn players from that time was Eric Ralske, now the principal horn of the MET Opera. In the very first lesson I had, my teacher changed my embouchure. I had been a trumpet player before, but after breaking my right arm in a high school football game, I switched to the horn.

I got pretty good quickly, but the embouchure change had a significant effect. It took me several years to work out how to do it. I basically had to teach myself throughout my time at Purchase.

Wow, that’s nuts. Do you think having a major change like that proved helpful later in your career, in terms of analysing problems, etc.?

One of the most important things for me as a horn player and teacher is learning and consolidating good habits and foundations — like backswing and filling the horn with warm dark air. My philosophy with teaching is making sure that the habits are consistent and sound so that when we are tackling something like Strauss’ Horn Concerto No. 2, there is a good solid basis to fall back onto. I liken it to trees; cultivating the soil and ensuring the roots are well maintained is more important than the glitter on the leaves.

When doing your daily warm-up, you really have to look within and observe what is going on. We sometimes must take a mindful step back and just be with it.

An embouchure change at 18 would have been so tough to deal with it — how did you manage to push through this point?

I think I just had to do it. I had no musical background in my family, though my trumpet teacher was the principal of the NBC Symphony Orchestra with Toscanini, a guy named Raymond Crisara. He taught me nothing about the foundations; he just said, “Put the thing on your face and blow!”. No one taught me about breathing and preparation; I had to work that out for myself, which is why it is so fundamental to my teaching. But ultimately, my epitaph would read, “He just had to do it”. Even over lockdown, I only took four days off playing the horn — I breathe, I do my Yoga, and I play the horn!

So, when did you move to London and what happened when you did?

When I first moved to England in 1976, you had to be in the musician’s union to get any work. And in order to be in the union, you had to be a resident for two years, so I spent my first two years working as a builder and selling ice cream on the beach at Great Yarmouth. I would return from my shift selling ice cream and do my three hours of self-examining practice. Eventually, I started doing the audition rounds. I probably did 60 auditions before getting my first job with the Ulster Orchestra in Northern Ireland — I have so many letters upstairs which say no thank you!

Website: jonathanlipton.net

Full Interview: “You Must Put the 12 Feet of Ego Away in the Case and Go for a Mindful Walk”

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