Tooth Structure and Brass Embouchure, Part 2

I’ve blogged about this topic before, but it has been almost 8 years. One of the individuals I mentioned in there was Matty Shiner, a trombonist and teacher who had some strong ideas on tooth structure and what he considered ideal for brass playing. Matty Shiner’s brother, Eddie, was a trumpet teacher who shared Matty’s views. In an interview with one of Shiner’s former students, Jim Pugh, Matty was asked about tooth structure and embouchure.

JP: Explain your views on the teeth and how they relate to playing.

MS: If you notice your better players, nobody seems to have teeth like this (demonstrating, he shows an inverted point with his hands) or laterals sticking out like this. The teeth are like a bridge on a violin. There’s a certain curvature and the height has to be right. When a violinist takes an instrument for a new bridge, they measure it down to the thousandths of an inch. It has to be just right. And you have a notch for each string. Now suppose I took a knife and made the bridge a little shorter, that would be like somebody with a closed bite. If I made that bridge a half or quarter of an inch too high, it would be like somebody who has an overbite. There would be a lot of distance between the teeth, then all of the pressure is on the upper lip. It has to be pretty close. I did a clinic at the international trombone conference in Nashville on teeth alignment. After the seminar, I received bags of mail from all over the world.

JP: Do you see this as the way for the mouthpiece to sit in the proper place, using a high point as the center or is it more a means of shaping the air stream as it enters the mouthpiece?

MS: A little of both. You have to have a decent alignment of those teeth. We have a couple of boys here whose teeth are very flat. They get a good sound but their flexibility isn’t what it should be. After they have been playing a while, with their teeth being so flat, it cuts off the circulation and they have some problems. That needs to be corrected. There is a new system now called bonding. Before that, the only way you could make a change was by putting braces on the person’s teeth. It’s a long procedure and it takes a lot of time to align the teeth properly. But now with this bonding technique, if the dentist is shown where to put the bonding and understand the problem, within a short period of time, you can hear an improvement. Nobody can ever tell me that the teeth don’t mean anything.

The only other primary reference I can find about Shiner’s ideas comes from a 1972 dissertation by Charles Isley, A Theory of Brasswind Embouchure Based Upon Facial Anatomy, Electromyographic Kinesiology, and Brasswind Embouchure Pedagogy. While conducting research, Isley interviewed Shiner (but didn’t transcribe the interview for his paper). According to Isley, Shiner was actually recommending dental reconstruction for his students who didn’t have what Shiner considered “ideal.”

Shiner . . . recommend that the upper two central incisors form a slight outward V, or wedge shape, so that the greater amount of mouthpiece weight will ben in the center of the upper lip. According to this theory, the player would be able to avoid pinning the lips at the lateral points of mouthpiece contact, creating better muscular control of the lips inside the mouthpiece. Students whose natural front teeth arch depart from this wedge shape are advised to undergo orthodontic treatment. Results in such cases have been dramatic, offering strong support for the V shape in the upper central incisors. As to the lower teeth, a slightly rounded arch is considered desirable.

Charles Isely, p. 124

The bold emphasis is mine. If you didn’t have the tooth structure that Shiner felt was ideal he actually recommended an orthodontic procedure. This is highly problematic for a number of reasons, but most importantly – MUSIC TEACHERS DO NOT HAVE THE QUALIFICATIONS OR TRAINING TO RECOMMEND ANY MEDICAL PROCEDURE.

I also want to make note that I didn’t remove any citation for the final two sentences in the above quote about Shiner’s hypothesis and there should be one there. As far as I can tell, Shiner never published any papers or articles that discussed his methodology or statistical results. While it’s possible that one of the Shiner brothers actually did so, I suspect that I would have found it when conducting research on my own dissertation (which also happens to be on the topic of how anatomy influences trombone embouchures). The lack of publications on Shiner’s ideas doesn’t mean that he didn’t apply solid methodology and undergo some informal peer review, but it is a red flag to take the hypothesis with a grain of salt.

Another (major) red flag is that I highly doubt that any university Internal Review Board would grant approval to use human test subjects in such a way as to advise someone get dental reconstruction to test the hypothesis that there is an ideal tooth structure for brass embouchure. If you’re conducting research involving medical interventions you’d better believe that they will require you to make your methodology publicly available. If Shiner was conducting research without IRB approval this would be getting into both ethical and legal issues (at least today, maybe IRB protocols were looser back when the Shiner brothers were actively teaching). This means we should supplement with quite a few more grains of salt.

The most charitable conclusion I can draw from the above concerns is that Shiner was using a working hypothesis in his studio and informally conducting “research” to test his ideas. They appear to be based on “armchair speculation” about how brass embouchures supposedly function rather than objective data. Any results obtained from such an informal process is really suspect. Any data is anecdotal at best and researcher bias is almost certainly influencing Shiner’s conclusions. There really isn’t any solid evidence published on this topic in the literature to start with and also conflicting ideas with equal or more validity. Pass the salt.

Based on the above, my assumption is that Shiner was recommending an expensive and not completely risk free dental procedure based on dubious evidence. While the Shiner brothers may have had a lot going for their teaching and playing, I think we can safely ignore their advice. In fact, I think it’s fair to call it out as outright flawed.

Don’t get your medical/dental advice from me, Shiner, or any other music teacher. If you want to adjust your teeth, consult with your dentist or orthodontist and get a second opinion if you feel it’s appropriate.

Lip Rip Blues – Blog About Brass Playing Lip Injuries

I was cleaning out some broken bookmarks on my browser and found a (now dark) blog called Lip Rip Blues by trumpet player Jonathan Vieker. In 2011 he severely injured his lip, had surgery, and blogged about his rehabilitation process. Vieker wrote posts covering how he injured himself in the first place, dealing with the psychological repercussions, his setbacks and success, and more.

The morning after I got hurt, as I made a cup of coffee and sat down at the computer to figure out what was wrong with the muscle in my lip, I discovered quickly that there just wasn’t enough information available about embouchure injuries.

This site is my attempt to do something about that.

My interest in lip injuries is peripheral to the research I’ve done on brass embouchure technique. While some brass musicians ask me for help when they have a lip injury, I haven’t personally injured my lip beyond the point where more than a couple of days off would be enough. Players like Vieker help me better understand both the physical and mental issues that brass musicians go through after a severe lip injury.

Two particularly interesting posts in there are Chops and Data: Can Tracking Our Habits Lead to More Consistent Playing? and Chops and Data, Part II: The Results. Vieker describes his approach to logging different variables and how they correlated to how his chops felt. This approach is something that I advocate more of in brass pedagogy in general. It can lead to interesting insights that you haven’t considered before or make you realize that your not actually doing what you think you are.

On Memorizing Music

A while back I blogged about memorizing tunes you will improvise over. The consensus (which I agree with) is that it’s better to have the tunes memorized, because it helps free up your improvisations. I also pointed out that sight reading (or rather, “sight improvising”) skills are also important and so it’s worth being able to look at changes for the first time and improvise over them.

Organist Jonathan Dimmock discusses a similar topic in his article, The Folly of Memorization. In addition to discussing his thoughts on memorizing music he also brings in some historical context. Did you know that Clara Schumann was largely responsible for the trend for pianists to memorize their music? As a woman musician in the 1850s she struggled to be noticed, so she decided to do something that was unprecedented at the time – perform by memory.

The critics were outraged! That she, a woman!, would have the audacity to do something as bold as that was surely to be condemned. But the male pianists of the day saw it differently. They knew that their prowess, even their male virility, was at stake; they could not allow a female to show them up! And so the cult of piano memorization was born. In short order, this would also penetrate the world of concerto performances on every instrument.

According to Dimmock, the changing relationship of musicians to audience that occurred during the Industrial Revolution also made this trend go “viral.” It was during this time that the idea of a “genius artist” became mainstream. This concept is so pervasive today that it’s hard to imagine how musicians were perceived differently today. Prior to the Classical Period in music history musicians were seen more as skilled labor rather than artists. After Schumann’s influence, musicians strove to impress and communicate artistic goals, in part through performing demanding music by memory.

It’s after Dimmock’s description of the historical influences where I feel he goes off the rails. He appears to believe that either you’re going to be skilled at memorization or skilled at improvisation, but not both (or, for that matter, neither).

We now know that the brain is organized in a manner that performers are either adept at memorization or improvisation. Yes, these two things are hard-wired into brain functioning and almost mutually exclusive. Show me a brilliant improviser and I would be willing to bet that they struggle to memorize music. One is not better than the other; they are different and of equal merit.

Without going through and picking apart his evidence and logic, I feel Dimmock is missing some important information regarding how we learn and retain skills, including memorization and improvisation. Contrary to Dimmock’s opinion, I think it’s clear that with practice musicians can learn to excel at both. In fact, as my blog post from earlier discusses, I think skills like reading, memorization, and improvisation are all part of the overall big picture in what I’m interested in while performing music. Sure, some people will have more aptitude in one or another (or both or neither), but we’re not really “hard wired” to only be good in one and never become successful in another.

Why memorize your concert music? Personally, when I’ve gotten ready for a solo performance (particularly as a featured soloist on a concert with only one piece to perform) I tend to have the music mostly memorized merely out of the repetition from practicing the piece a lot. Taking the extra step to prepare to perform it by memory isn’t usually a lot of work beyond. Many soloists feel that not having to watch the music helps them to play more expressively.

The strongest argument I can think of for memorizing music is the it simply looks better on stage. We know that even highly experienced musicians will rate the exact same performance differently depending on the attire that the performer wears. It may not be “fair,” but it’s something that musicians use to their advantage (dress up for your gig and your audience will like your performance better). Performing on stage from memory is just one more thing that can push a good performance into a great on in the minds of your audience.

While your musical goals may not align with mine, when I perform I’m trying to make a connection with my audience. Getting rid of the sheet music while soloing may only be a subtle difference, but it’s the aggregate of the small details that make for the overall musical effect.

That said, I think Dimmock has some valid points.

I believe that the cult of memorization is now coming into its sunset, led on by the sunrise of the Technological Age. It’s computers that memorize! Humans give something else to art, we give soul. It’s time to stop insisting humans need to act like computers. Let’s let computers do the memorizing, and allow people to do the soulful communication. It is only through the latter that transformation of the listener is possible.

What do you think? Is memorizing music bad, good, or neither? Do you feel that you have the ability to improvise, memorize, but not do both well? What experiences have you had that are different from mine and Dimmock’s? Please leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Tartellog – Thoughts on Trumpet Pedagogy

I recently came across Tartellog, the trumpet blog of Joey Tartell. I forget how I happened across this post by him, but I really enjoyed reading his discussion of brass pedagogy that emphasizes critical thinking about how we teach.

With so many resources available today, it can be difficult to separate what may help you from what is just garbage from what could actually harm you.  To aid you in your search for good pedagogy, I’ve put together a list of five warning signs.  If you encounter any of these, think hard before proceeding.

His list of five warning signs are:

  • Shortcuts
  • Guarantees
  • Secrets
  • Gadgets and Equipment
  • “Schools”

His last warning sign, teachers who identify as belonging to a particular “school” of trumpet playing is one of the few I’ve come across that mirrors my own concerns about this trend. Like Tartell clarifies in his post, many teachers and students get wrapped up in self-identifying with a particularly influential pedagogue to the exclusion of any other approach or method. This stifles improving our teaching and doesn’t often serve the student well either.

What I mean by “schools” is the rigidity of basing all pedagogy from the mouth of one person. 

. . .

My problem comes from thinking that any one of them was the only person who could teach.  This leads to thinking that your “school” holds the secret, and no one else really understands.

And like Tartell, I’ve also found that when I’ve pointed this out as a problem, it often gets interpreted as me attacking a famous teacher.

If you studied with one of these teachers and are thinking:
“Hey, wait a minute, my teacher was great.  Why is Joey attacking my teacher?”‘
I’m not.  It is likely that I really like your teacher.  The point I’m trying to make is that just because your teacher was great doesn’t mean others weren’t.
If you think that only one person could teach, and that person is now dead, that means that your pedagogy is now dead too.  This is unacceptable.
Pedagogy should be an ever-evolving process, growing as needed with each generation.  We take what our teachers gave to us and, combined with our experiences, pass on what we know to our students.

I’m going to have to look through more of Joey Tartell’s Tartellog. Scanning through his other posts it looks like he has a lot of interesting things to say about brass playing and teaching there. Go check it out!

Online Trombone Journal Reboots

The Online Trombone Journal has rebooted!

Friends and Colleagues,


On behalf of the OTJ development team and the many authors who have contributed to the OTJ in the past, I am very pleased to announce the redeveloped Online Trombone Journal is now available at http://www.trombone.org/

This redevelopment included re-writing every line of code and revisiting every article and review. This is only the beginning however.  We hope you will consider publishing in the OTJ, and sending new recordings, literature and other items for review.  Let us know how we can be of service to you and your students.

Sincerely, 

Richard Human

I have done some volunteer work with the OTJ almost since it was first founded. Richard and the rest of the OTJ team have done a huge amount of work to redesign and update the site. Very soon new content will be posted and probably some other bells and whistles. Please go check it out at www.trombone.org.

Julie Landsman teaches Carmine Caruso

I haven’t yet watched all videos and gone through all the PDF downloads, but if the quality is consistent from the first video this is a great series of instructional videos for brass players wanting to learn more about the pedagogy of Carmine Caruso. Here’s the first video.

Landsman has been the principle horn player for the Metropolitan Opera for over 25 years and is on the faculty of The Juilliard School.

You can go here to see all the videos embedded and go here to download the printable PDF files that included written instructions and sheet music for horn. If you play another brass instrument you’ll need to adopt and transpose some of the exercises, but it should be pretty easy for anyone to work out how to do that.

“Embouchure Motion” Stabilizer

Donald Reinhardt created an exercise he called the “Pivot Stabilizer.” He intended students to use this exercise as their first notes of the day. Here is the exercise, with some hand written notes and instructions for a specific trumpet student.

In order to better understand this exercise you first should forget about the embouchure “pivot.” Reinhardt defined it a certain way, but unless you studied it from him you almost certainly don’t understand what it is. Instead, think of this as an exercise to stabilize a brass musician’s “embouchure motion.”

Embouchure Motion – The natural motion a brass player makes when changing registers where the mouthpiece and lips together will be pushed and pulled along the teeth and gums in a generally up and down motion. The position of the mouthpiece on the lips doesn’t change, just the relationship of the mouthpiece rim and lips to the teeth and gums. Some players will push upward to ascend while others will pull down. Some players will have a track of their embouchure motion that is side to side. For more details on this phenomenon go here.

Assuming that you fully understand the embouchure motion definition above, you can make use of Reinhardt’s exercise to help make a student’s embouchure motion function more efficiently with less conscious effort. The arrows drawn into the music above are a specific trumpet student’s embouchure motion direction, just make sure that you’re instructing (or using, if this is for your own practice) the correct embouchure motion for the individual student. The student should use this exercise as a way to find where the tone is most open and resonant for each particular note.

The first time through each three measure set the student should watch what the embouchure motion looks like in a mirror. On the repeat Reinhardt instructed the student to close his or her eyes and instead focus on the feel of the embouchure motion assisting with the slurs. The “V” after each set was Reinhardt’s notion to remove the mouthpiece from the lips for a moment before moving on to the next set.

One thing I wanted to adjust for this exercise was the starting note and where the “home base” range for this exercise lies. For many students, particularly the Very High Placement and Low Placement embouchure types, it can be more useful to use a higher pitch as the central range point. Many of these musicians will find it easier to play correctly in their upper register, so slurring up to the high range before playing down to their low range gives them a better chance to descend correctly (as opposed to slurring down to the low range before up to the high range, as Reinhardt’s original exercise).

The above exercise duplicates the purpose of Reinhardt’s “Pivot Stabilizer” but moves the center of the exercise to G on top of the staff (for trumpet) and also has the student playing an ascending slur first, before descending to low C.

If you want to experiment with your own practice or teaching using these exercises here are some printable files for you.

Original Pivot Stabilizer
Embouchure Motion Stabilizer for Trumpet
Embouchure Motion Stabilizer for Horn (I might transpose the range differently, depending on the student)
Embouchure Motion Stabilizer for Trombone/Baritone/Euphonium
Embouchure Motion Stabilizer for Tuba

Embouchure 101 Launches

I’ve published a new brass embouchure pedagogy resource here on wilktone.com. It replaces the Embouchure FAQ page I had up before. I call it Embouchure 101 because while the information I put in there isn’t very widely understood by brass teachers and players, it is a conceptually simple and objective approach to brass embouchure technique. There’s nothing in it that’s going to be new for a regular reader of my blog, other than some of the presentation I use.

If you’re a music teacher who works with brass students I hope you’ll take some time to read through it and look at the examples I provide. Even if you’re a very experienced teacher you may discover some things about brass embouchures that you weren’t aware of before. I show examples of basic embouchure patterns and discuss the pedagogical implications of what improved understanding of embouchure form and function can mean.

If you are skeptical or curious, please read the introduction. If you just want to jump in and begin looking closely at brass embouchure technique, start with Part 1.

Why You Shouldn’t Be a Fake Book Player – And a Couple of Reasons Why You Should

Eric (no last name that I can find) published an article on jazzadvice.com that makes a very compelling argument that jazz musicians should not read tunes out of a fake book. For the non-jazz musicians out there, a “fake book” is a collection of lead sheets (melody and chord progressions) of standard jazz compositions. Often you will find players using them on gigs or in rehearsals. Eric argues that using them is a crutch. He describes three pitfalls of using a fake book.

I) Ignoring your Ears
The main problem with fake books is that they allow you to play tunes and create solos without using your ears.

One of Eric’s points here is that by using your eyes to read the music you’re going to turn off your ears. Fair enough, but my classical music colleagues typically read music on their performances and they are always advocating using your ears and listening to what you are playing and what’s around you at the same time. Granted, they are not improvising, but there’s probably a happy medium in there that we can use.

II) You don’t really ‘Know’ the tune
When you rely on a fake book, you never get to the point where you “know” the tunes that you’re playing.

Back in the day I worked as a trombonist on cruise ships. On one ship I worked on we had two cruises a week, two shows each night. I ended up playing the same show four times a week, and some of the dance sets we played used the same book even more often. It got to the point where I had much of the music memorized, even without consciously trying to.

Maybe I’m different from some folks, but I naturally get to know tunes just by playing them over and over again.

III) Limiting the music
When you can only play the tunes in that fake book on your music stand, you’re not only putting yourself in a box musically, you’re limiting the music itself. But, what exactly does that mean?

Eric’s article was published in 2014, but even then I think I was beginning to see the use of tablets and phones as PDF readers become prolific on gigs. Many people (including myself) have what would be 1,000s of pages of sheet music stored on a tablet instantly available for when a tune is called that isn’t memorized. Sure, there are tunes that just aren’t in those books too, but we enjoy access to sheet music these days that just wasn’t possible in the days of fake book hard copies.

With the caveats that I’ve presented, let’s look at the benefits Eric mentions for learning tunes by ear.

I) Improving your ear
By getting away from the fake book, you’ll not only improve your ear, you’ll actually be using it.

Learning a tune by ear also has the added benefit of memorizing it faster (at least for me). Sure, it will take you longer (initially) to be able to play the entire melody, but that melody and the changes will get into your long term memory quicker and stick with you longer.

II) Knowing a tune intellectually and aurally fosters creativity

Creativity is dependent upon a certain level of proficiency and freedom.

I think most of us improvise more creatively when we know the tune really well.

III) Listening and interacting when you perform
One common theme that you see with players or groups that use books to perform is that everyone ends up staring at the book. Every player is in their own world and focusing on their own part. They’re all playing at the same time, yet no one is playing together. As a result there is little to no musical communication within the group.

Again, I would like to point out that in the classical world musicians strive to listen and interact with each other while reading their sheet music. Granted, there are different aesthetics going on in classical music compared to jazz. Instead, I think it’s a matter of attention.

We can typically only concentrate on a one or two things at a time, but performing music requires us to have control over multiple things at a time. Musicians will need to have technical mastery over their instrument, play together with other musicians, concentrate on time, harmony, melody, etc. Effective multitasking in and of itself isn’t about developing the ability to think about many things at once, it’s about having such command over the task that attention isn’t required, it’s automatic. That’s why having a tune committed to memory is so useful. By not needing to concentrate on the sight reading it frees up your mental energy to concentrate on listening and interacting with your fellow musicians.

And therein lies my best case (weak as it is) for learning to read lead sheets. Many of the “ear” players I gig with are not great sight readers. Don’t get me wrong, they can be some of the most creative musicians to work with, but when I get with them on a gig that requires reading they struggle. Jazz musicians who are solid sight readers don’t need to take up such mental energy trying to follow the lead sheet because their reading is to the point where it’s automatic. Those musicians can get on a gig with my big band and sight read one of my original compositions while listening, interacting, and improvising creatively. I don’t think it’s just the act of reading the music that is limiting a jazz musicians playing, it’s the mental focus of reading that’s pulling their attention away from listening and using their ear.

All that said, Eric’s article is a great read and the advice he offers is golden. Check out more of what he wrote and start (or continue) memorizing tunes. While you’re at it, take a tune you don’t know and haven’t heard before and force yourself to play over it by sight. Two sides of the same coin.