Embouchure, a noun, in the world of music, means the shaping of the lips to the mouthpiece of an instrument. It also refers to the mouth of a river, the widest part where all the water fans out and becomes less turbulent; where the tension of the running water is finally released. Long familiar with the first definition, I only learned the second meaning recently.
I first learned about embouchure in the 4th grade pre-band, where I was assigned a flute.
I dutifully kept it in my backpack, counting the hours that I carried it with me as practice time on the little calendars that I had to hand in to my teacher. Then, at 16, my brother took me to hear a jazz ensemble. Somehow Iíd never understood that there was more to music than pop songs, marching band renditions of Tequila, and the occasional Bach cantata.
Suddenly, my reason for existence was to become a jazz and blues master. Within 24 hours of that concert Iíd borrowed a sax. I joined a jazz ensemble. Other girls swooned over teen magazines featuring pin-ups of Bon Jovi and New Kids On The Block. They studied the stars, they memorized lyrics. I committed jazz and blues facts to memory. Louis Armstrongís favorite food was red beans and rice; Charlie Parker died from a drug overdose. I was learning 12 bar blues, memorizing Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday albums, and listening intently to Nick Brignola and Benny Carter. And practicing night and day.
Mastering the sax meant first mastering tone. And that meant perfecting my embouchure. I developed calluses on the inside of my lip from holding the mouth piece. The muscles of my face grew taught and firm from hours of practice. Iíd found my first true love.
But like a novice lover, I couldnít be content with the mere companionship of music. I had to master it, to own it. I planned to go to college to study it. I took a job and hired a private teacher to help me prepare for my auditions.
Sometimes, the pain of loving something is too overpowering. Sometimes, the fear of losing love is so great, the fear canít help but manifest. And in that final year before college, thatís exactly what happened. I feared my impending audition. I feared rejection. Iíd memorized all my scales, perfected my embouchure, mastered my audition piece. But two hours before I was to play, I called and cancelled. Fearing my love would break my heart, I beat her to the punch.
I returned the sax, and I lost my embouchure. I stopped listening to jazz, stopped humming the blues, and avoided concerts. On delusional days I would talk about my ďjazz periodĒ and claim that it ended because I was too busy. On honest days, listening to jazz or blues would make me cry.
And so began a 12 year musical drought that didnít end until my daughter was born. Mothers occasionally have bouts of powerful instinct, and thatís the only explanation I have for why, when she was four months old, instead of attempting to sooth her angst and build her IQ with Beethoven, I pulled out Muddy Waters instead. The opening song was I Canít Be Satisfied. And there, swinging on my hips, immersed in Big Crawfordís bass, and Muddy Watersí voice and guitar, was my daughterís first giggle, followed only seconds later by joyous laughter.
My lips werenít closing around a mouthpiece, but there was the embouchure, where the river opened up. All those years where I equated my love for music with mastery over it melted away. Love is not about mastery. Itís about the experience itself, in whatever way the soul participates.
That was one year ago. And in that year, Iíve finally been able to listen to jazz and blues without my heart breaking. Last night, we listened to our friend Muddy once more. I held my daughter to my chest and we slid around the room, and she giggled and lifted her arms and waved them to the music; then flapped them up and down, perfectly to the beat. And I realized that Iíd finally I discovered the other side of music. I felt the sensuous abandon of allowing the blues to wash over me, like a bubbling spa or my husbandís hands gracing the back of my neck. For most of my life I had only known one side of music: the discipline of mastery, and the disappointment that I never managed to achieve it. And here, in a tangle of arms and legs and giggles with my daughter, was the other side -- the irrepressible joy of existing in the moment, and by so doing, touching eternity. Here was the mouth of the river --the true joy of music itself.