The Influence of Tongue Position On Brass Playing

Back in 2003 some physicists from Australia (Wolfe, Tarnopolsky, Fletcher, Hollenberg, and Smith) presented at the Stockholm Music Acoustics Conference on research they conducted on the role of the tongue position on didjeridu and the trombone.

Many players of wind instruments talk of the perceived importance of the shape of the mouth on the sound. In the case of the didjeridu, the effect on the timbre is so clear as to be incontestable. Among scientists, however, there is considerable variation in opinion about the effect on pitch [1- 4]. In this paper we report experiments on well-characterised model systems: artificial wind instrument players. Using plausible values of the relevant parameters, these show that vocal tract shapes can have important effects on both pitch and timbre.

Many brass performers and teachers, including myself, have cited Bernoulli’s principle as assisting the air speed as it strikes the vibrating lips for the importance of tongue position while playing. I’ve asked some physics teachers and engineers about this and almost all of them, with some exceptions, have suggested that this might be true. That said, this presentation was focused on the vocal tract impedance (if I understand this correctly, that is how the shape of the vocal tract influence pitch and timbre of a particular pitch).

On the didjeridu the influence was quite strong, perhaps in part due to the larger bore size of the instrument and the much larger vibrating area (there are a lot more of the lips inside the “mouthpiece” of the didjeridu than inside a trombone mouthpiece). They did note that it was an influence on the trombone, however.

The shift in pitch, over the range studied, is typically 20cents: a musically important effect for intonation. Preliminary measurements on experienced brass players showed a comparable shift in pitch when they were asked to lower the tongue, keeping all else constant.

They also noted that a change in tongue position can “cause a transition between different playing register.” In other words, you can shift tongue position and change partials on a brass instrument.

This has some interesting implications for brass performers and teachers. Some folks swear that they keep their tongue position consistent, regardless of what register they play in. This view is in the minority and I suspect that players who claim this aren’t even aware of their shifting tongue position. That said, different people are going to have variations in the size and shape of their mouth and tongue and it would be interesting to compare those players. I’m also curious about the difference between different traditional brass instruments. Do trumpet players change the position of their tongue more or less than tuba players?

Regardless, I think that research like this suggests that tongue position is an important part of playing in tune and with a focused tone on a brass instrument. Players and teachers dealing with intonation issues or poor tone may want to investigate what is happening with the tongue position and work out practice approaches that can help a player learn how to achieve an optimal tongue position according to the register being played.

How To Form a Trumpet (brasswind) Embouchure in Four Steps, by Charlie Porter

Here’s a lengthy video by trumpet player Charlie Porter on how to form a brass embouchure.

I have had some disagreements with Porter in the past. I have some quibbles with some of his instructions too, but I like his recommendation to set firm the lips up before setting the mouthpiece on the lips. Two of the other steps he recommends (pulling the lips open after setting the mouthpiece and wetting the lip center with the tongue after that) I feel would risk undoing the value of firming before setting.

Watching through the video I didn’t understand if he was suggesting the embouchure aperture remains open throughout the lip vibration, so I asked him about it. He was kind enough to take the time to clarify for me.

Of course the lips rapidly close and open during vibration. That’s not the point…I’m not arguing that they they never close briefly, per each vibration occurring…the point is that players are often way too tight and begin with closed lips and press them together to the point of distorting the vibration.

It’s a rather long video, but take look at it if you’re interested in different thoughts about setting the embouchure formation for playing.

Firm, Place, Breathe, Blow

A thread on the Facebook Trombone Pedagogy group lately has been discussing different thoughts on coordinating breathing with setting the embouchure and placing the mouthpiece. I thought I’d take this opportunity to discuss my preferred way of teaching students to coordinate air and embouchure together, based on Donald Reinhardt’s instructions from his writings, including his Encyclopedia of the Pivot System.

While the jaw is in its playing position, form the saturated embouchure with ALMOST buzzing firmness, so that the lips are “just touching” at the vibrating points. When in doubt, form the lips as if to buzz. . .

Place the mouthpiece upon the embouchure formation as just prescribed and use sufficient “contact pressure” to locate and sustain its position in the playing groove of the embouchure. The actually placement must be executed in accordance with the [embouchure] type. . .

Inhale the high-pitched, whispered “IM” (not “OM” or “UM”) through both mouthcorners – NEVER THE MOUTHCENTER – simultaneously. . . In short, eliminate “gear shifting” and inhale with a minimum of embouchure distortion.

At it’s heart, Reinhardt’s advice is to work towards unifying the player’s pre-playing sensations with the playing sensations. In other words, he felt it was valuable to have as little change as possible in the position of the lips and mouthpiece upon the lips from inhaling to playing. In order to encourage this, he instructed his students to practice (during certain exercises – not during rehearsing and performance) to firm the lips as if buzzing first, place the mouthpiece on the firmed lips, inhale through the mouth corners while maintaining mouthpiece pressure and holding the lip center just touching, then commence blowing by coordinating the mouth corners snapping into their correct position. Taking breaths in the middle of phrases is to be simply a matter of continuing to breathe through the mouth corners while keeping everything under the mouthpiece rim and inside the mouthpiece should remain more or less in playing position.

Many players, including some excellent ones, either don’t consider their embouchure when breathing or are so focused on moving lots of air that they don’t feel that minimizing the embouchure “gear shift” between inhaling and blowing is valuable. Some players will open their mouth very wide to inhale and the mouthpiece placement shifts slightly every time they begin blowing. Some players will set the mouthpiece on relaxed lips and firm them only just as they begin blowing, which can result in twisting or winding the lips up under the rim or distortions and inconsistency in their overall embouchure formation from breath to breath. Consistency in a player’s embouchure formation should result in better playing consistency.

One of the biggest challenges to adopting this approach is that it’s difficult to take in as much air as quickly when you’re only breathing through the mouth corners. Trumpet and horn players may find the smaller mouthpiece size makes keeping the lip center just touching inside the mouthpiece while inhaling to be easier than low brass players with their larger mouthpieces. I think it’s important to keep in mind that this approach is meant to be practiced only at specific times in your routine and then forgotten about while you move on or are performing. We can think of this approach as an ideal goal, but that not every playing situation is going to make that ideal work at every moment. By aiming towards the ideal in your practice you are minimizing the potential for this to cause issues, both short term cracking notes from time to time or the longer term (and fortunately rarer) embouchure dysfunction that can result.

Nils Wogram – Guess the Embouchure Type

Nils Wogram is a jazz trombonist from Germany. He’s really a terrific player, he’s got that great combination of excellent technique paired with a lot of creativity. I was surfing YouTube and came across this fantastic solo using multiphonics.

There’s not really a good look at his chops in this video to really guess his embouchure type. It *seems* like his mouthpiece is fairly high and close to the nose, but the camera never focuses closely enough and at a good enough angle to say more than his embouchure is one of the downstream types. I did want to post that video, though, because it’s a really neat example of what someone can do with multiphonics.

This video has a much clearer shot of his chops.

Wogram’s solo starts about 2:25 into the above video. Watch it and guess his embouchure type. My guess below the break. Continue reading Nils Wogram – Guess the Embouchure Type

Golfing Focus Applied to Music

There’s seems to be a lot more research done on the development of motor skills with athletics compared to music, so often times musicians will look at athletics and sports training methods for ideas on improving musical practice and pedagogy. Recently I came across a podcast called Golf Science Lab and listened to their episode, What Every Golfer Ought to Know About FOCUS with Dr Gabriele Wulf.

Where should your focus be in during a shot? Or when you’re learning how should you think about a move to make a change in the most effective way.

Although the motor skills used in golf are pretty different than those used in playing the trombone, for example, it’s not too far of a leap to assume that what applies to golf might also be useful for musical practice. Wulf says,

Performance is often enhanced immediately when I focus externally as opposed to internally, but also the learning process is facilitated when learners adopt an external focus. So learning is sped up. You reach a higher skill level sooner than you would with an internal focus.

An internal focus refers to the coordination of body movements, where an external focus is on the intended effect. In golf the examples of things that a golfer could use as an external focus were the club, the ball, the hole, even the player’s belt buckle or buttons. One of the interesting points made in the podcast were the distance effect. In other words, the further away the point of focus, the better the results. So focusing attention on club face would be better than focusing on the handle of the club because it’s a bit further away. Focusing on the ball is a bit further than the club face, but focusing on the flag or the hole would do better. Here’s the rub, the optimal distance of the focus depends on the skill level. An expert golfer would focus on the trajectory of the ball or target, but a novice would do better focusing on the club face, because they still need to practice the technique.

The tricky thing is to try to teach and practice the necessary technique with external focus. Wulf offered a golf example. Rather than telling the novice golfer to transfer his or her weight to the left foot (an internal focus), teach them to push off of the ground on the left (external focus).

What does this mean for music practice? Off the top of my head, with brass embouchure practice try taking the attention off the lips and move them on to the mouthpiece rim. When practicing breathing instead of paying attention to the feeling of the stomach and chest moving, focus on the air as it passes the lips or even visualize the air blowing across the room.

What ideas can you think of to teach musical technique in such a way as to move the focus from internal to external? How can you take that idea and make the focus even further away the more expert the musician becomes?

Playing On the Red Is Fine (Redux)

One of the more popular posts I’ve written here is Brass Embouchures: Playing On the Red Is Fine (as long as it fits your anatomy). In this post I tried, somewhat unsuccessfully, to point out the flaws in the nearly universal belief among brass teachers that placing the mouthpiece so that the rim contacts the vermillion of the lips is a bad thing. I will try in this post to reiterate my points more clearly.

Before going too deep into this discussion, I’ve found that it’s important to point out that I’m not making a blanket recommendation that brass players should adopt a mouthpiece placement that sets the rim right on the upper or lower lip vermillion. I’m merely pointing out that the very pointed advice to avoid it is based on faulty logic and a misunderstanding of both the anatomy of the lips and embouchure form and function. Most folks aren’t going to have the anatomical features that make such a high or low mouthpiece placement work efficiently, but some do and for these players moving the mouthpiece placement off the red can be as detrimental to their embouchure as another player moving the placement to the red when it shouldn’t be. This is something that is unique to the individual player and needs to be taken on a case by case basis.

There are three basic arguments against placing the mouthpiece on the lips so that it contacts the vermillion along the top or bottom of the rim:

  1. A famous teacher or player advocated against it.
  2. The anatomy of the vermillion is such that it makes it more sensitive and prone to damage than the rest of the lip.
  3. It’s mechanically incorrect and won’t work as well as a placement with less rim contact on the vermillion.

Famous Players and Teachers

If you’re reading the post and questioning why I’m going against what appears to be conventional brass pedagogy, that’s a good thing. I always recommend that folks learn not just what we know about brass pedagogy and mechanics, but also take the time to understand how we know what we know. It’s very easy to find folks who actively discourage placing the mouthpiece on the red of the lips, but it’s not easy to understand why they recommend that. Many of these folks make their case using arguments 2 or 3 above, but an awful lot simply assert without evidence.

The bottom line here is that we can’t simply take a statement at face value based on how famous the person is who said it, we need to look past that and deal with the evidence. That which is stated without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.

Anatomy

There is an awful lot of misinformation and misunderstanding about the anatomy and histology of the lips in the brass literature. Here is one example:

To function properly, the inner edge of the mouthpiece must be placed on tissue that is supported by muscle, but the lips are composed of fatty tissue that by itself cannot support a normal embouchure.

-Frank Campos, Trumpet Technique, 2005

Part of the difficulty in parsing comments like Campos’s is that while the medical literature has a very precise definition of the lips (which runs all the way up to the nose and down to the chin), many brass authors use the term “lips” to refer to just the vermillion. Regardless of the exact meaning in the statement above, it’s demonstrably incorrect. The entire lip, including under the vermillion, is internally made up of the orbicularis oris muscle group. There absolutely is muscle under the vermillion. Be careful when you look at diagrams that draw in the vermillion as a point of reference, they are misleading. Here is one diagram that leaves out the vermillion as a reference.

Another, less common, point I’ve recently come across is that because the epidermis at the vermillion is thinner than the normal epidermal layer there is less cushion from the skin:

Lips have around 3-5 cellular layers and above the vermillion border has as high as 16 cellular layers.

-“asdfghj,” 2017

Since “asdfghj” is both posting anonymously and also not citing his/her source, I can’t really comment on the legitimacy of this claim, however it does seem plausible. The reason the vermillion of the lips are red in people with fairer skin is that the color of the blood vessels underneath the vermillion come through. For the sake of argument, I’ll accept this as true. I still don’t find this a compelling argument and here’s why.

Without heading over to a university library and digging through the literature, a cursory internet search shows one apparently reputable source that states, “The thickness of the epidermis varies in different types of skin; it is only .05 mm thick on the eyelids, and is 1.5 mm thick on the palms and the soles of the feet.” How does this compare to the layer of skin of the lips, both the vermillion and elsewhere? It’s hard to say for certain using the internet, but Wikipedia (take it with a grain of salt) states, “The average human skin cell is about 30 micrometers in diameter, but there are variants. A skin cell usually ranges from 25-40 micrometers (squared), depending on a variety of factors.”

Let’s use the 30 micrometers average to calculate how thick the skin of the vermillion is compared to the normal epidermal layer on the lips. If the vermillion has 4 layers, that 120 micrometers. The 16 layers of skin in the rest of the lips would make for a layer 480 micrometers, a difference of 360 micrometers, or .36 millimeters. For comparison, human hair is said to range up to 181 micrometers in diameter, so the difference here is about two layers the size of the of a human hair.

I don’t find supposed cushion of two hairs to be a compelling difference, considering the mouthpiece forces involved. It’s not the layer of skin that provides the cushion and support of the embouchure, but the muscle underneath.

All the above shows, however, that there don’t appear to be plausible reasons why the vermillion would be more sensitive to pressure. That doesn’t mean that the vermillion actually isn’t. In order to get an idea, I spend some time back in 2012 going through both the medical and musical literature to see if there was any indication that injuries to the lip occurred at the vermillion more than the rest of the lip, or to see if any medical professionals happened to comment on this specific point.

While most brass players don’t “place on the red” in such a way that the rim contact the upper or lower vermillion a great deal, 100% of brass players place the mouthpiece with at least some rim contact on the vermillion. If the vermillion was more prone to injury than the rest of the lip, I would think that the medical literature discussing lip injuries due to brass playing would indicate this. In fact, it is rarely mentioned.

Injuries to the lips due to brass playing happens where the rim happens to be on the lips, irrespective of the vermillion. It appears that the upper lip (the entire lip, not just the vermillion) is more prone to injuries than the lower lip (hence the common advice to not “dig into” the upper lip with the mouthpiece or keep more mouthpiece “weight” on the lower lip compared to the upper). Injuries can and do happen under the vermillion, but perhaps more commonly outside the vermillion (which is unsurprising, if you consider that more players are going to have the rim contact on the upper lip above the vermillion. In fact, some lip injuries happen completely away from the rim contact.

-Papsin, B.C., Maaske, L.A., & McGrail, J.S. (1996). Orbicularis oris muscle injury in brass players. Laryngoscope 106, 757-760.

I was also able to find some literature that flat out stated that the vermillion area of the lips is not more prone to injury. H.L. Wilson, a medical doctor writing for The Clarinet, discussed the vermillion in the context of a clarinet embouchure.

In summary, the vermilion portion of lips tolerates pressure well. . .

-Wilson, H.L. (2000). Lips. The Clarinet, 27(4), 38-39.

Yes, the forces involved in a clarinet embouchure and brass embouchure are different, but combined with a more thorough understanding of the anatomy and histology of the lips along with a lack of evidence to the contrary, this leads me to believe that there is no anatomical reason to believe that it is risky to place the brass mouthpiece rim on the vermillion.

Mechanics

While the above discussion of anatomy is outside of my particular area of expertise, brass embouchure mechanics is right in my wheelhouse. I first became interested in brass embouchure mechanics sometime around 1996. I wrote my dissertation on original research investigating brass embouchure types and their correlation to easily observed physical characteristics. Since completing my doctorate in 2000 I’ve published and presented resources that deal with brass embouchures in a peer reviewed journal, academic papers, online, and at professional conferences. I’ve documented with photos and video around 100 brass players’ embouchures of beginning students, college students, professional performers, university brass teachers, and amateurs over five states at six different universities. I’ve been asked to consult with physical therapists and doctors treating embouchure injuries in the United States and Europe and some of my writing about brass embouchure have been translated into Japanese and Italian. Part of conducting my research involved thorough reviews of the literature, so at risk of blowing my own horn (pun intended), I’m fairly confident in the information and context I can provide here about brass mechanics.

First, there appears to be no relationship between the size and shape of an individual’s vermillion and the player’s embouchure technique. There doesn’t appear to be any relationship between how the lips vibrate at the vermillion and the rest of the lips. There is a wide range of vertical mouthpiece placement among brass players, with a minority that place the mouthpiece either high or low enough so that the rim of the mouthpiece contacts a great deal of the upper or lower lip vermillion. There is also a lot of variation on how wide an individual brass player’s vermillion is, as well as differences between rim sizes. Considering that the division between vermillion and normal skin on the lips is arbitrary and varies so much, I don’t think that it’s really useful to discuss mouthpiece placement as a factor of where it is placed in relation to the vermillion.

On the other hand, we can consider whether it’s mechanically incorrect to place the mouthpiece very high or low. This feature also varies quite a bit from player to player, with most folks falling more towards the center than very high or very low. While there are many anatomical features that influence an individual brass player’s mouthpiece placement, such as the shape of the teeth and gums that provides the support structure for the embouchure, the most likely characteristics that influences the vertical placement of the mouthpiece include the length of the lips compared to the length of the teeth and gums and possibly the shape and angle of the lips to each other. The shorter the player’s upper lip, the more likely that player appears to need to place the mouthpiece lower on the lips.

As you can see in the photo to the left, my upper lip is very short in comparison to my upper teeth and gums. When I form my embouchure I have to stretch my upper lip down quite a bit in order to get it over the upper front teeth. There simply isn’t much lip mass in my upper lip that is free to vibrate inside the mouthpiece.

A vibrating brass embouchure works more like a clarinet reed than an oboe reed. One lip or another predominates inside the mouthpiece and is the primary vibrating area. The other lip does vibrate in tandem with the other, but it serves more like the clarinet mouthpiece to the other lip as the reed. This feature can be easily seen on Lloyd Leno’s films.

For me, and for a minority of other brass players, anything other than this extremely low placement doesn’t work well at all. Most folks find it too hard to play this way, but they don’t have the same extremely short upper lip. I tried for a long time to play with a more conventional looking mouthpiece placement. I was taught early to try to keep my mouthpiece centered on the lips and with more upper lip inside and so I played that way all the way into my mid-20s. My personal experience was that I played OK with the centered placement (well enough to get through two music degrees and be accepted into doctoral studies in trombone performance), but until I made the correction to my embouchure you see in the photo to the right that I did not have the range and endurance I needed to play at a high level. This embouchure type isn’t as common as more conventional looking brass embouchures, but it probably represents about 10% of brass players.

Summary

Despite the opinions of many other brass players and teachers who feel otherwise, there appears to be no anatomical or mechanical reasons why placing the mouthpiece so that the rim contacts a great deal of the vermillion is going to lead to greater risk of injury or mechanical difficulties, provided that the player’s anatomical features are best suited to that placement. Individual anatomy is so variable that even setting a “rule of thumb” is arbitrary at best and may even lead to a brass student playing in a way that is mechanically inefficient for his or her face – which does increase the risk of injury, regardless of how conventional the mouthpiece placement may look.

In my opinion, the whole idea of using the vermillion as a factor for diagnosing or troubleshooting a brass embouchure is misguided. It is much better for brass teachers and players to gain a more thorough understanding of the basic brass embouchure types and how they function, as well as how much brass embouchures vary from player to player, even between players belonging to the same embouchure type. We can probably safely ignore the advice from teachers who emphatically state that this is wrong unless and until they begin providing plausible evidence to the contrary.

Building Embouchure Stability In Low Range – Less Air, Not More!

A recent thread on the Trombone Pedagogy Facebook group has gotten me thinking about building embouchure stability in the low range. The specific topic there concerns a particular student who has a very unstable embouchure in general and on low Bb has an uncontrollable waver in her tone. I don’t have permission to share the video, but I do have some photos that illustrate the same situation.

25pedalbbfront-copyThe photo to the right is of a trombonist playing a pedal Bb. I chose this photo because the student trombonist had a similar looking embouchure formation on her low Bb. Note how the embouchure formation has collapsed and is very loose looking.

While it may be necessary at first for inexperienced players to get into the extreme low register like this, overplaying like this will very likely cause issues down the road if the player doesn’t make corrections (click here to read up and view some video footage I documented). Like all habits, it can be difficult to correct and the longer a player relies on collapsing the embouchure formation to play low the harder it will be. Unfortunately,  some of the default advice I was reading on Facebook also seemed to encourage practicing in the low register in a manner that makes it harder to make the necessary embouchure corrections.

Asking a student to “blow more air,” or even to simply “support” the note with the air is going to make it harder for the student to play in the low register with the same level of firmness in the embouchure formation as the rest of their range, but this is what some teachers recommend. Personally, I prefer to help a student with this issue by developing exercises or practicing musical passages that start in a higher range and descend to the problem area with a decrescendo. Playing softly in that low register makes it easier for the student to hold the mouth corners firm, maintain the overall embouchure formation, and use a bit more mouthpiece pressure for additional embouchure stability.

27highbbfront-copy27lowbbfront-copyFor comparison, here are a couple of photos of a different player. The photo to the left is a high Bb (Bb4/ledger lines above bass clef staff). The one to the right is the same player playing a low Bb (Bb2/in the bass clef staff). Note how similar they look from the outside (I happened to catch the vibrating lips on the low Bb when the embouchure aperture was close to closed, but at their peak opens you can see a bigger difference on the embouchure aperture between these pitches).

Playing softly and accepting a thinner tone will help a student to successfully experience what it feels like to play in the low register with a stable embouchure formation. As she gets more comfortable playing that way she can begin adding air and working to open up the sound, but if the embouchure formation collapses again she should stop, reset, and try again with just a little less air. Over time it will get better and easier to add more air. However, it’s important for her to stop encouraging this habit as quickly and completely as possible. Throwing more air at an embouchure formation that is too loose and unstable will not help her build the strength and control to stop collapsing.

That said, performances (and most rehearsals) are different. The above advice is for practice and private lessons. When you perform it’s more important to do whatever you have to in order to sound good. If that means collapsing to play low, that’s fine. Over time the student will be able to play correctly with enough comfort and volume that she won’t even think about making a change, it happens because it has replaced her old habit.

Are Big Band Brass Players Losing the Concept of Being Team Players?

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Playing trombone is NOT like punching people!

I remember reading this essay by Doug Yeo years ago, Me, Myself and I: Are Orchestral Brass Players Losing the Concept of Being Team Players?. Back in 1997 Yeo expressed his concerns that trends in orchestral brass playing had not necessarily been for the best.

Go into the parking lot of any brass conference, convention or workshop, and you’re bound to find more than a few cars with the bumper sticker that reads, “Question authority.” Some would argue that this mindset is the province of trumpet players alone but that surely is not the case. Over the past twenty years, American orchestral playing has been undergoing a significant change, as brass players have (with some notable exceptions) asserted themselves beyond their traditional role in the orchestra.

Most students go through their “loud” phase, of getting together with other players and just knocking the living daylights out of orchestral excerpts. This can be great fun to do, good for the face and boosting to the ego. But excerpt sessions don’t always relate to the real world, and as many brass players have developed a more “muscular” concept of playing, the American orchestra has, in my mind, begun to suffer.

Yeo’s essay is specific to orchestral brass playing, but much of it seems to relate to big band brass playing as well, at least among the big bands I get to hear and play in. The details are different, as are some of the influences, but a lot is similar.

The job of balancing an orchestra lies with the conductor alone. But there is no denying that a 15 member brass section can ruin any orchestral concert (despite what the conductor wants) very easily as the combined volume of the strings and winds can never compete with that of even a single trombonist. Arnold Jacobs once told me that in his view, the bass trombone was the instrument of the orchestra that had by far the greatest “high volume potential” owing in part to the fact that after the flute, the bass trombone utilized the highest flow rate of any wind instrument, including the tuba.

John Berry, in his excellent jazz pedagogy text The Jazz Ensemble Director’s Handbook, wrote about the “Monster Bass Trombonist.” He’s describing a common trend in student musicians, not professionals, but occasionally I run into this player in the professional world (not recently, and not anyone I work with regularly now!).

About once a decade the music world renders up a bona fide (pardon the pun) “Monster Bass Trombonist” – you know, the guy who can play louder than any human on earth…

…A good MBT (or even a bad one who thinks he’s good) can “cop an attitude.” He becomes a star. He basks in compliments. He becomes a junkie for oohs and ahas. He craves ever more. He plays LOOUUDD!!! . . . All the time!

Well, it’s not just bass trombonists. You find them in the whole brass section.

In his essay, Yeo brings up equipment trends in orchestral brass playing.

Part of the problem is simple ignorance; the idea that Bruckner symphonies are to be played at maximum volume would horrify Bruckner, the reserved, insecure, Catholic composer of music for and about the church and the inexpressible “beyond.” Let us not forget that his symphonies also require us to play as soft as possible. Unfortunately, many players look at passages marked fff and simply blow until the seams pop. Unsatisfied with the way their instruments respond to this treatment, they continually hunt for something that will allow them to play even louder with a reasonably good sound. Hence, we now have tenor players in many major orchestras using bass trombone slides and 3 or 4G mouthpieces, and bass trombonists without leadpipes, playing mouthpieces that resemble tuba mouthpieces, and gigantic dual bore slides. All of these changes do indeed allow players to play louder.

This mirrors equipment choices of big band brass players, although the influences are different. Many big bands pride themselves on the “faster, louder, higher” school. Certainly big bands like Stan Kenton and Maynard Ferguson have greatly influenced big band style and the demands of those styles strongly influence big band brass players to make certain equipment choices that favor louder and higher.

About 15 years ago I went to a clinic the great big band composer/arranger Bob Florence was giving. One thing that really stuck with me is that he said, if the details I remember are correct, that he never uses mp dynamics any longer because bands never play soft enough. If he wants mp, he writes p. For p he writes pp.

I’ve been playing and directing the Asheville Jazz Orchestra for a while now. We’ve played a lot of gigs together, but some of the ones that stand out in my mind as being particularly good were those times we played without a sound system. Everyone listened closely, especially during solos, and dynamics were played consistently correctly. Knowing that there wasn’t a sound technician “fixing the mix” for us forced everyone to become team players. It was just a mental switch, but it made a huge difference in the overall quality of our music.

What about your experience? Are the big bands you play with a “blast fest” all the time? What gigs have you played were the musical quality was excellent specifically because everyone was a great team player?

What Is the Rational For How You Set the Mouthpiece?

IIIAA topic over at the Trumpet Herald got me thinking about the initial placement of the mouthpiece on the lips. Robert P asked,

When setting the mp are your lips completely relaxed or do you in some way manipulate them – tense, flex, stretch, pucker etc.?

How would you describe what you do when you set the mp?

The following several posts offered essentially two different procedures. Some folks stated that they set the mouthpiece on the lips only after they firm the lips in some way. Other players offered that they prefered to place the mouthpiece on relaxed lips and firm the embouchure before playing. What I find most interesting, however, is the rational behind these opposing viewpoints.

For the record, I’m in the “firm your lips first” camp and my thoughts here pretty much come from Donald Reinhardt’s here. To paraphrase Reinhardt, it’s best to have as little distortion in your embouchure formation as possible. Firming the lips first and then placing the mouthpiece on them is meant to help they player keep their embouchure formation stable and avoid any twisting or winding up of the lips with the mouthpiece. It also helps the player place the mouthpiece more consistently in the same spot on the lips.

So what is the rational for setting the mouthpiece on relaxed lips? That’s a little harder for me to summarize. It seems that few players actually advocate this, it’s simply what they happen to do. Some of the Trumpet Herald users seem to do this because they are either emulating a player who does this or following the advice from a particular teacher, without elaborating on why they feel this way. The best argument for I’ve heard is that it helps maintain relaxed playing technique and the lips are only firmed when they need to be, while playing, although I don’t think this outweighs the benefits from firming first.

One post brings up the “paralysis by analysis” trope. There’s too much to think about already so why bother? The problem with that argument (or rather, one of the many problems) is that if one way will lead to better results, not adopting it is limiting. If one way can lead to problems not being aware of those issues makes it impossible to accurately troubleshoot. Certainly teachers need to intellectually understand this.

Speaking of embouchure problems, I have heard several logical reasons why placing the mouthpiece on relaxed lips isn’t ideal. I’ve already mentioned above that this can lead to twisting or winding up the lips with the mouthpiece. If you’ve put the mouthpiece pressure on the lips and then firm the lips you can pin the lips in a position that is inconsistent every time you place the mouthpiece back on. The lips have to slide against the mouthpiece rim in order to get into their ideal position inside the cup which means you’re hitting a moving target with your embouchure every time you replace the mouthpiece. If you’re not putting on enough mouthpiece pressure until that split second before the initial attack then you’re making it even more of a moving target.

Regardless, one important point to discuss before moving forward is that regardless of how you set the mouthpiece for the initial attack, when you inhale between phrases if you open your embouchure formation to take in air and firm them again at the attack you’re going to be hitting that moving target again – even if you set the mouthpiece on firmed lips to start with.

Advice and Conclusion

Reinhardt’s process for setting the mouthpiece and how to maintain a stable embouchure formation is, in my opinion, something that all players can benefit from practicing. While his description is of an ideal, making small steps towards that goal can provide good results without obsessing over every small step in the process. Here is a way you can go about practicing this by breaking things up into small chunks.

  1. Pick a warmup with at least 5 minutes of simple exercises that you already have memorized. Long tones and overtone slurs work great for this, particularly if you start in different ranges for a bit.
  2. Use a mirror or video your embouchure so that you can see what you’re doing. Don’t worry about analyzing what you’re doing while practicing, but be aware of what you see.
  3. For that 5 minutes or so of your warmup always firm your lips before placing the mouthpiece on your embouchure formation. It’s not the lips center that holds them firm, it’s the mouth corners. You’re not worried about what note you’re going to play, you want the mouth corners firmed and locked in their playing position.
  4. At first, after setting the mouthpiece breathe through the nose to get used to the “ideal” of having the embouchure already in place. As you practice this, watch your mouth corners in particular in the mirror or video. At first they may loosen up or wiggle around a bit when you inhale and before the initial attack. Before and after the attack you are striving to make it look the same. Your ideal goal is if you turn the sound off on the video you would be hard pressed to tell when the sound starts by watching the embouchure alone.
  5. As you get comfortable with nose inhalations, begin breathing through the sides of your mouth while keeping the lip center touching lightly together inside the mouthpiece. Maintain the mouthpiece pressure as if you were already playing. Simply relax the mouth corners and inhale slowly. It might help to really wet the mouth corners with saliva before placing if your finding they want to stick together. When you attack the pitch the mouth corners should snap into place.
  6. After a few minutes or so of this, forget about it and move on to whatever else you want to practice.
  7. Take a couple of minutes during your warm down to practice the placement again.

That’s it, just a few minutes or so a day. You might find this very weird at first, particularly if you have been doing things differently for decades, as I had. It took me years of practice to internalize this technique to the point of where it’s automatic when I perform. During that learning process, however, I noticed my embouchure formation being more consistent even when I was skipping or missing steps. Other players may take to it quite easily. It’s well worth the effort you might have to put into it to head towards the ideal.

Do you already firm your lips before placing the mouthpiece? Was this a conscious effort on your part or the natural way you play? If you haven’t thought about it before or if you consciously place the mouthpiece on relaxed lips, please considering trying this out for a couple of weeks or so and report your progress. Did you find it helpful or a waste of your time? No change?

CODE of Embouchure

A lot of what is commonly taught about brass embouchures is based on hearsay or descriptions on playing sensations. This results in a lot of contradictory advice that isn’t always grounded in fact. That’s why it’s very exciting to me to see Hans Boschma, Kees Hein Woldendorp, et al,  taking a scientific approach to studying brass embouchure. Even more importantly, they recognize the need for more research and more communication across disciplines. They recently published a video that describes their research and shows a lot of the data points they’ve collected. The call it the CODE of Embouchure.

CODE stands for Classification, Observation, Diagnosis , and Evaluation.

The CODE of Embouchure can be used by both brass players, their teachers, ‘brass-medicine’ physicians and – therapists. The CODE of Embouchure can be used in intervals of time to detect dysfunctional embouchure and/or to control for improvements/ changes in embouchure due to brass training (or therapy) e.g. at the conservatoir or in a therapeutical setting. In the final part of the movie a practical instruction is provided with the voluntary participation of many internationally known first rank brass players.

I’ve been skimming through it, skipping ahead after watching some of each brass player shown. Most of it is detailed video footage of different brass players playing a wide variety of different things with some written commentary on different embouchure characteristics. There are many good examples of “medium high placement” and “very high placement” embouchure types. Assuming that the brass players shown are a somewhat random sample, I would expect to see few “low placement” embouchure types. There is one trumpet player who I suspect may be a “low placement” upstream players, but it’s a bit hard to say for sure with what I saw (he definitely switches to downstream when he plays pedal tones). Other than that example, all the rest of the brass players belong to one of the two basic downstream embouchure types.

Overall, I think it’s very nice research and a good video. My main complaint is the lack of attention on upstream brass embouchures, but perhaps that’s my personal bias as a “low placement” type player myself. Also, most of the video is devoted to “observation” and I would have liked more discussion about the “classification,” “diagnosis” and “evaluation” parts. Minor quibbles aside, thanks to Hans Boschma and Kees Hein Woldendorp for posting this and for Hans for letting me know it was available.

For more information about the CODE of embouchure and Hans’s work please visit his web site (you may need Google’s translate feature if you aren’t bilingual).