Brass Embouchure Dystonia – What does a typical case tell us?

Let me start this post by making it very clear that I am not a medical professional. In no way should anyone use the information I’m posting to diagnose or treat a medical condition. My recommendation is to visit your doctor and get checked out, or get a referral to a specialist.

I’ve been thinking recently about some of the papers and articles that discuss brass embouchure dystonia. While I have written up before about helping musicians with embouchure dysfunction, I haven’t really written up a close look at what appears to be a typical situation. In his literature review and case study, Dr. Seth David Fletcher wrote a hypothetical case:

Consider the following scenario: a trombone player earns a seat in on of the nation’s premier orchestras. One day in rehearsal she notices that she cannot articulate some middle-register notes cleanly. The following week this difficulty recurs and is noticed by the conductor. Naturally, she increases her practice and focuses on the source of the problem. Unfortunately, she then develops an uncontrollable tremor in her embouchure when playing sustained tones. Over the course of the next few months her ability to play rapidly declines the the point that she is forced to stop playing.


Even though this case is hypothetical, it includes some characteristics that are noted as being common for brass musicians dealing with dystonia-like symptoms. It’s more common in men than women and the mean age of onset is 37 years old. Symptoms include lip lock, tremors and involuntary contractions in the embouchure muscles.

Jan Kagarice in a presentation for the International Trombone Festival in 2004 wrote more about typical cases (see Fletcher’s dissertation, p. 33 for the full chart). Personal traits include being a natural player, considered to be talented and successful, a perfectionist who practices a great deal, and naturally expressive and talented. The onset of the problem manifests in a change of playing sensation. Symptoms arise, and the case usually progresses along the pattern described above.

For my purposes, I’d like to consider the following descriptions that appear to be typical.

Common Patterns of Brass Musicians with Dystonia-Like Symptoms

  1. A natural musician who practices a lot, but who doesn’t typically need to address technique.
  2. An issue begins to manifest and the musician begins to diagnose and try to correct the issue through task-specific practice.
  3. The problem gets worse.

Some of the authors of the papers and articles use this typical pattern as evidence that because there is a correlation with task-specific practice, and by implication, perhaps the cause. I’m not so sure that this is accurate.

First, it’s worth noting that there is also correlation between being a “natural” player (who didn’t really need to be shown how to play correctly, just did) and the onset of a problem that they can’t practice their way out of. Secondly, when it comes to the task-specific instructions on the topic of brass embouchures, one thing that is worth noting is how contradictory a lot of the advice is. When a natural musician tries to eliminate a playing difficulty through task-specific practice, it’s worth looking at what specific tasks they are practicing and whether it actually makes corrections in the player’s embouchure technique. Particularly if a musician is a “natural” player they are unlikely to understand how to analyze their embouchure and how to make specific corrections.

Like others, I feel we should be helping players with embouchure dystonia in a wholistic manner, including emotionally and musically. However, I feel we’re missing some important clues by jumping directly to goal-oriented approaches to treating embouchure dystonia. The onset of the musician’s problems will typically manifest prior to the task-specific practice. The cause of the symptoms may be in the musician’s technique and the effect of trying to practice out of it incorrectly is what leads to the full blown breakdown. At the very least, teachers and therapists should be aware of brass embouchure types and be able to note type switching. How they choose to make necessary embouchure mechanics corrections is up to them, but they should understand what they should be accomplishing.

As I mentioned above, I’m not a medical professional and neurological disorders are out of my area of expertise. Brass embouchures mechanics, however, are in my wheelhouse. There are important variables that is being missed by many musicians and medical professionals who are working to treat embouchure dystonia. As I mentioned last month, there seems to be a movement in Europe to take a more objective and scientific approach to embouchure dysfunction. I hope that researchers, therapists, and music teachers in the U.S. will follow their lead.

Improvisation Practice – Small Goals

A while ago I was working with some of my adult students new to jazz improvisation. We were practicing playing over the tune Take the A Train and I wanted to give the beginners in the group some ideas on how to select good note choices over the tune. We broke down the chord progression into vamps and practiced blowing over a single chord or one spot in the chord progression first, then applied what they learned in the context of the whole tune.

This concept, breaking up improvisation into working on 1 or 2 things at a time, works very well. By putting yourself into a box and forcing yourself to be as creative and musical as possible within those constraints you develop better technical and conceptual facility with your topics. What’s nice about this approach is that you can make it as easy or as hard as you need to in order to challenge yourself.

While the summary and practice tracks I’m posting here are related to note choices (e.g., “what” to play), you can easily take the same approach while practicing other topics. For example, I usually spend time with new students helping them practice improvising creatively while using lots of silence in their soloing (e.g., “when” to play). By forcing yourself to stop playing for a while you can take a moment to evaluate what you just played and think about what you’re about to play. Other topics could include “how” to play ideas (i.e., what register you play in, dynamics, etc.).

The tune Take the A Train is in C major, and most of the changes to the tune are diatonic to C major. This means that you can play C major scales for a large portion of the tune. If you’re new to improvisation, this takes some of the choices of what to play out of your hands and gives you a chance to work on other improvisation topics. Or, it will give you a chance to really listen to how the note choices fit over a particular chord. You’re not trying to just develop your technique, but also your ear.

Let’s take the first chord, C6 or Cmaj7. In the particular arrangement we’re playing the chord is notated as a C6 and to get students started with that chord I like to use the C major pentatonic scale. Pentatonic scales are fun to play over and provide more melodic interest than a major scale because they have built in steps and built in leaps already in the scale.

C6/C major pentatonic scale

Here is a MIDI file of a C6 chord vamp. Practice improvising only using the notes in the C major pentatonic scale above over this practice track. While you’re practicing, take some time to stop playing and think about what you just played and how it sounded. Then wait for a moment before playing to think about what you are about to play. Really try to be as creative as possible while only practicing the C major pentatonic scale over this chord. You might also try improvising over the notes in a complete C major scale and compare the difference in sound. Certain notes will sound hipper, while other notes (the F, for example) will sound quite dissonant and want to resolve a step up or down.

Skipping one of the chords in the tune for a bit, let’s look at the Dmin7 chord. This chord is diatonic to C major. Since it is the diatonic chord based on the second note of the major scale this chord is analyzed as a minor ii chord. If you play the C major scale but using D as the root tone the scale becomes the dorian mode.

Dmin7/D dorian mode

Here is a practice track of a Dmin7 vamp. Try the same approach as above – use lots of silence to give yourself a chance to evaluate what you just played and think about what you will play next. Experiment with the different pitches in the D dorian mode over this chord. Some notes will sound more colorful and some will be a bit bland sounding (such as D, the root of the chord).

The G7 chord is analyzed as the V in the key of C. This diatonic chord is harmonically unstable (particularly with the 7th added) and wants to resolve to the I chord (C6, using Take the A Train as our example). Like the Dmin7/D dorian example above, the chord and resulting mode (G mixolydian) are diatonic to the key of C.

G7/G mixolydian mode

Here is a G7 vamp practice track.

The bridge of the tune temporarily changes the key center from C major to F major, but both for the sake of keeping the examples diatonic to the key of C and to give us another approach to the Fmaj7 chord, I want to demonstrate this chord as functioning as a IV chord in the key of C, rather than a I chord in the key of F.

Fmaj7/F lydian mode

Playing a C major scale using F as the root results in the above lydian mode. This is 1 note away from being a major scale. Instead of a Bb we have a B natural. This is a very colorful tone (#11) and provides a slightly different sound when used over a major 7th chord. Try it out with the below practice track.

There’s one other section in the arrangement of Take the A Train we were working on that contains a chord progression that can be largely thought of as diatonic to the key of C major, that is the turnaround. A turnaround, if you’re not familiar with this term yet, is a chord sequence that is really static in that it doesn’t really provide a cadence pattern or otherwise move us away from the tonic key. In our arrangement the turnaround happens in the last two measures of the first A section and the final A section. The chord sequence itself is C6, A7b9, Dmin7, G7 (or a I VI ii V sequence). As you can see, all but the A7b9 chord are diatonic chords that are covered above. Rather than get into the weeds about what to play over the altered dominant type of chord that this one non-diatonic fits into, to get us started improvising over this turnaround I want to present this turnaround with a diatonic Amin7 chord instead (a very common chord progression, I vi, ii V).

Amin7/A natural minor scale

Here is a practice track of the turnaround C6, Amin7, Dmin7, G7, but rather than two beats per chord each chord lasts one measure. All of the chords and resulting scale/modes are diatonic to C major, so if you play nothing but notes in the C major chord you can get by. As you’re playing this chord pattern, though, you will want to listen for how certain notes sound over each chord. Remember to use lots of silence to help you evaluate and think ahead.

There are three other chords in our arrangement of Take the A Train that are not diatonic to the key. Two of them are dominant 7 chords. Like the G7 chord above, using the mixolydian mode will provide good note choices for your to practice.

D7/D mixolydian mode
C7/ C mixolydian mode

The C7 chord happens just before the bridge. It functions as a V chord to the IV chord. In other words, C7 leads to F.

The last chord to discuss is the most unusual, but it’s not all that hard to play over. The D7#5 chord that happens in the 3rd and 4th measures of the A section provide some harmonic instability and help set up the following ii V I diatonic pattern. A scale that gets good note choices for this chord is the D whole tone scale. A whole tone scale is a 6 note scale that only has whole steps between pitches. Because it only uses whole steps, you could even think of the below scale as having no real root. Any of the pitches in the scale could sound like the root of the chord.

D7(#5)/D whole tone scale

Try out the whole tone scale of this practice track. Remember to use silence in your soloing.

Once your comfortable enough over the individual chords you can work on applying them in the context of a tune. Here’s a practice track to the entire tune Take the A Train.

If you need the changes to the whole tune, here is a PDF of just the chord progression, but you’ll want to know that this particular PDF isn’t exactly the same as the arrangement my students are working on. It’s close enough, though, that you should be able to use it to help practice the above note choice exercises in context. As always, use lots of silence during your practice to evaluate and think ahead. Listen closely to how particular notes of these scales sound over the chords. Listen to the musical effect of improvising only using steps and compare this to times when you might use leaps (or, in the case of C pentatonic, when they happen to be built into the scale).

Then after a while, make sure to forget about all this and jam. Let your ear be your guide as to what you play and let the spirit and mood of the music tell you what to play, when to play it, and how.

Site Updates

This week I’m going to try making some updates to this site. Some of them will be behind the scenes and you’ll hopefully not notice any difference. That said, there are some plugins I’ve been using that are no longer being updated, so some of the content may disappear or not be accessible, depending.

While I’m at it, I will be doing some minor redesigns. Some of the pages here are in need of getting the information updated and in some cases I will probably just delete the page altogether (depending on how attached I am to the content and whether or not the traffic to those pages warrants my effort).

The “Embouchure FAQ” is pretty old and I have some ideas on how to better present the information, so that page will get a detailed update. That’s a bigger project, however, and it may take longer than a week for me to get it ready to make public. Keep an eye on this blog for further info.

Rehabilitation and Music Conference

Kees Hein Woldendorp passed along the announcement for a conference an international congress about ‘rehabilitation and music’ at Revalidatie Friesland, the Netherlands on April 24, 2019. He will be defending his PhD thesis, “Musculoskeletal complaints and dysfunction in musicians,” there. There will be some presentations about brass embouchures there. Here’s the announcement.

Click the image to go to their registration page.

The 1959 Project

60 years ago was a banner year in jazz history.

1959 was arguably the most creative year in all of jazz history. Bird had already passed away, and this year would see the passings of Lester Young and Billie Holiday. Musically speaking, when we read jazz history texts or see the labels among the many diverse styles of jazz (i.e “Free Jazz,” “Modal Jazz,” “Third Stream,” etc…), we tend to separate these different styles into alternate universes. In fact, many of the contributions we now consider to be jazz “classics” all happened around the same time.

There were so many great records and performances that happened in 1959. Here’s a neat web site that posts a snapshot of jazz from 60 years ago with new photos posted every day. It’s called the 1959 Project.

Threadspotting – Brass Embouchure Certification

Time that I might usually spend doing a little blogging here has been taken up with other projects, including something that is related to a recent topic started on Trombone Chat forum, Embouchure mechanics certificates?

The beginning of the thread discusses the broader topic of degrees or certifications as a measure of the breadth and expertise of the holder. Where I find it gets more interesting is when it spins off into a discussion of brass embouchure pedagogy.

As I alluded to above, I’m currently putting together something related to embouchure pedagogy that I’ll be posting here when complete, but it’s a pretty extensive project and I want to have it complete (or complete enough) before it goes live. I will say this, there will be very little in it that can’t already be found if you poke around through all my blog posts, but the presentation and organization will be a bit different from how I’ve done this before.

The First Noel, Big Band Arrangement

North Carolina got hit with a blizzard overnight and it’s expected to continue snowing through tomorrow. Since I’m fortunate to not have lost power (yet), I’ve been putting the finishing touches up on a big band arrangement of “The First Noel.” Here is a MIDI demo of it.

If you’re curious, I do most of my composing/arranging directly into Finale and the above playback file is Finale’s playback. For the rhythm section parts I create a Band-in-a-Box MIDI file and open it up with Finale, then copy and paste the parts I want into my big band score. That gives me a quick and easy rhythm section playback.

It takes too long to fix all the weird import errors when I try to import a Band-in-a-Box solo into Finale and since the chart will soon be played by real musicians I didn’t worry about plugging in solos in the demo. There are three soloists. The first 16 bars is alto sax, followed by 8 of trombone and 8 of trumpet.

This tune was interesting to work with and arrange. It’s an unusual tune, the same phrase repeats and then a refrain follows that is very similar to the original phrase. Creating a swinging big band arrangement of that form presented some challenges. Because each of the three phrases in the “tune” are so similar, it would quickly become repetitive to have every phrase of the chart be based on the same phrase. I broke up that pattern in four different ways. First, I changed up the reharmonization for the refrain (third) phrase. I also wrote a new 8 bar section to use as an intro, interlude, and coda. During the solos section I inserted a bridge based on the bridge to “Frosty the Snowman.” Lastly, I modulate to new keys, on the shout chorus every phrase.

Assuming no weather related setbacks, the Asheville Jazz Orchestra will premier this arrangement at our annual Stan Kenton Christmas Concert this Friday night. If you’re in western North Carolina that night, please come on out.

Recreating Ancient Greek Music

Ancient and early music is not one of my main interests, but I found the following documentary on YouTube fascinating.

First choral performance with reconstructed aulos of reconstructed ancient scores of Athenaeus Paean (127 BC) and Euripides Orestes chorus (408 BC), with the evidence presented and explained by Professor Armand D’Angour, Jesus College Oxford.

I found the discussion about the double pipe tuning particularly interesting. The construction of each pipe is such that they aren’t fully chromatic. By tuning each pipe a half step apart the piper is able to play a melodic line that would not be possible otherwise.

Guess the Embouchure Type – Trombonist Jeremy Wilson

I wasn’t familiar with Jeremy Wilson’s playing or teaching prior to coming across his YouTube channel. He’s got a few performance videos on there as well as some videos where he discusses his philosophy of music practice and performance. There’s some really excellent and inspiring things there, you should explore it. All of the videos I watched were well produced too.

One of the videos I enjoyed very much was his performance of a piece called Tresin Terra, by David M. Rodgers. Wilson’s performance is amazing. His tone is consistent and beautiful across the entire range. His playing is not only technically impressive but also very expressive. The composition is also very cool. I was watching the video trying to look for Wilson’s embouchure type, but I kept getting lost in the music. Take a look and see if, like me, you had to go back to guess Jeremy Wilson’s embouchure type. I will put my guess under the break.

Continue reading Guess the Embouchure Type – Trombonist Jeremy Wilson

The Current State of Brass Embouchure Pedagogy

A topic on Trombone Chat got me thinking about the current state of brass embouchure pedagogy.

As Doug notes in the forum thread, traditional brass pedagogy has been dominated by Arnold Jacobs’s approach. In this approach you actively avoid working on the embouchure. In essence most brass students are taught to breathe well and focus on the end product. You should ignore the embouchure.

And that’s why brass embouchure research is so rare and generally unknown outside of a few. Fortunately I was encouraged to explore this topic for my graduate research. I know graduate students who were actively discouraged from doing any sort of pedagogy research on brass embouchures because it wasn’t appropriate or worth doing.

What does the latest research say about teaching brass embouchures? I just scanned through an academic library searching for “(embouchure) AND (pedagogy)” for publications that have come out in the past 5 years. I found just 6 relevant hits.

The Effect of a Researcher Composed Mouthpiece Buzzing Routine on the Intonation and Tone Quality of Beginning Band Brass Students
Beghtol, Jason. The University of Mississippi, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2017. 10746240.

No mention of embouchure types that I noticed. (The abstract notes, “Results suggest the inclusion of a daily mouthpiece buzzing routine does not have a significant effect on beginning band brass students’ intonation or tone quality.”)

OPTIMIZATION OF THE BRASS PLAYING BREATHING PROCESS IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE PHYSIOLOGICAL PROCESSES OF NATURAL BREATHING
Bardins, Sandis; Marnauza, Mara. Problems in Music Pedagogy; Daugavpils Vol. 13, Iss. 1/2, (2014): 97-110.

This one mentioned embouchure twice. The author’s point in both of those sentences is that breathing is important to a well functioning embouchure.

This leads to creating an unnecessary tension and stress in the body, because the natural inspiratory reflex (so-called Herring-Breuer reflex) is not implemented (White, 2005), and also contributes to the expiratory muscle fatigue and rapid decrease of the physical endurance – general for the body, because the body is not supplied with oxygen, as well as embouchure, which receives a reduced amount of air for creation of a sound and has to compensate it by pressing the mouthpiece against the lips.

This approach to mastering breathing patterns in wind instrument playing has several advantages:

3. a more stable air flow which relieves work of the embouchure, thus increasing its endurance and working limits in ultimate registers.

This article pretty much represents mainstream brass pedagogy. Fix the breathing and embouchure will do fine, no need to learn about how embouchure works.

Approaches to the Horn Embouchure: Historical and Modern
Author: Schons, Anthony
Journal: The Horn call
ISSN: 0046-7928
Date: 02/01/2015 Volume: 45 Issue: 2 Page: 58

I actually can’t find this full text online, so I don’t know what it says about embouchure. It could be relevant and I’m curious because I’d like to see how horn pedagogy has evolved (or not). Horn pedagogy seems to have its own quirks that you don’t see in other brass teaching.

Insights on Dealing with Braces
Whitis, James. School Band & Orchestra; Las Vegas Vol. 17, Iss. 9, (Sep 2014): 36-38,40,42,44,46

This article is not scientific at all and is based on the author’s personal experience both having braces and teaching students with braces. I don’t think the advice in there isn’t bad, per se, but it is very incomplete. I’ve seen a lot in the literature that’s like this, one teacher or player’s anecdotes are described, but rarely subjected to any testing.

Song and Wind 2.0: goal-oriented teaching in the applied studio
Karen Marston
International Trombone Association Journal. 42.1 (Jan. 2014): p32+.

The only reason this came up in my search was because the term “embouchure” was in one of the citations (Fletcher, S. (2008). The effect of focal task-specific embouchure dystonia upon brass musicians: A literature review and case study. Doctoral Dissertation. The University of North Carolina at Greensboro.). Here’s the specific citation.

From this perspective, it has been easier to discuss, disseminate, and perhaps even implement the comparatively clearer assertions of more behaviorist-leaning teachers; therefore, despite enthusiastic support for Jacob’s ideas, the dialogue on teaching within our field often continues to target task-oriented concepts. (Fletcher, 2008; Marston, 2011)

I’ve read both Fletcher’s and Marston’s dissertations (she cites her own dissertation a lot in this article). I think her criticism of “task-oriented concepts” are off base. The criticism that so much of this type of teaching is contradictory is, to me, evidence that a model, such as Donald Reinhardt’s and Doug Elliott’s embouchure type approaches need to be better understood in order to evaluate and compare different pedagogical practices. If you aren’t analyzing things correctly, you’re not going to teach the right task oriented concepts in the first place. Sure, it’s a lot easier to focus on product over process and get an immediate benefit. But if you’re going to truly compare task-oriented versus product oriented pedagogy you should at least learn how to do both right.

And again, I have to make the point that it’s valuable for teachers to understand the process too, even if they minimize their discussion of the mechanics of brass playing with their students. The whole point of Marston’s article is to teach brass technique by emphasizing the end goal, and while acknowledging that there are smaller steps to reach that goal, at no point does she make any mention to what good brass technique is other than to mention breathing.

And Marston’s impressions that task-oriented teaching is dominant today seems off to me. If the 6 papers and articles I found today are representative, Song & Wind is getting more attention.

A pedagogical approach for developing the endurance, technical facility and flexibility necessary to perform Anthony Plog’s Concerto for Solo Trumpet, 14 Brass, and Percussion
Sullivan, Michael. California State University, Long Beach, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2014. 1528052.

This last one is a case study of one student’s preparation for a demanding performance. The embouchure references in here seem to be mainly related to specific exercises the author found particularly helpful in preparing to perform, but an awful lot of those embouchure exercises reference air flow as the key. While I don’t want to minimize the role that good breathing plays for successful brass playing, it does represent mainstream brass pedagogy’s approach that the only thing that is important for embouchure is to have good breathing.

So there you have it, for what it’s worth. Bear in mind that this was a cursory search and there are probably some hidden gems that I didn’t come across. I also intentionally kept the search terms narrow and eliminated hits that weren’t relevant (anything related to woodwind for example and historical papers). Of the 6, three emphasized breathing as the key for embouchure technique. One article was based purely on anecdotes, so the information should be taken with a grain of salt. Only one made any attempt at scientific inquiry and subjecting pedagogical ideas to a test.


Point of clarification update – there are definitely more than these out there, probably a lot more, it was just what happened to be accessible through one college library web site. My interest in using these six was to use it as a snapshot for what current  research happens to be out there on brass embouchure pedagogy.