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.

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.

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. 

Making 21st Century Connections to Brass Music

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about a video demonstration by physicist Richard Smith where he shows how air doesn’t need to travel through a brass instrument in order for the normal acoustics of the instrument to work. While I find the science behind it and the creative thinking he used to create the demonstration interesting, what I’m most curious about is the discussion is sparked on the pedagogy forum where I first came across this video. If you didn’t see this video, here it is again.

I mentioned in my previous post that I found some of the comments disappointing and surprising. I made a couple of responses in the pedagogy forum that I wanted to share here for other folks who are concerned about “practical applications” of taking the time to learn this information.


The only legitimate criticism I’ve seen in this thread is that the title of the video is somewhat misleading, although I think it’s still technically true. All we really need to get a brass instrument to resonate is an oscillator, it doesn’t need to be lips excited by air being blown past them.

But for those of you who are being snarky, dismissive, or downright degrading Dr. Smith’s video demonstration because you don’t see an immediate application to trombone pedagogy, here are a few things I’d like to offer as food for thought.

In North Carolina, where I live, the public school’s guidelines for music standards are broken into three parts: Musical Literacy, Musical Response, and Contextual Relevancy. These are then further broken down into more detailed standards, one of which states, “Understand global, interdisciplinary, and 21st century connections with music.” Other states likely have similar education standards. In my opinion, this is a good goal to have. Music is not created and learned in a vacuum. It’s important to learn how music relates to history, sociology, and yes, science.

I think we all agree that modeling to our students is an important and effective way to communicate musical instructions. Most of us probably play for our students and recommend listening to quality performances. You might also consider that you’re not just modeling music, but also attitude. Even if you only teach private lessons, when you openly dismiss a science demonstration that describes the way a brass instrument actually works you’re effectively undermining that student’s band director’s attempts to make an interdisciplinary connection with music. You’re modeling that science isn’t relevant to music and discouraging science literacy. And you might consider that many of the members of this Facebook group are students and future music educators. What attitude should the experienced teachers here be modeling to them?

Unless you’re teaching at a conservatory, and even if you do, your students are likely going to have to make a connection with science and music at some point in their life. The video demonstration (and the technical paper) may not seem directly relevant to the lessons you’re teaching now, but when that student asks for your advice about, for example, a presentation she has to give for another class and how she might incorporate her love for trombone into that discipline, you now have a resource you can recommend.

It’s impossible to predict what’s going to get all your students excited about trombone. Many students might really connect with this video and that could potentially help you in your lessons. And if you’re thinking that this is only good for students with an analytical learning style you need to consider that “learning styles” are mostly just “learning preferences” and teaching to a student’s preferences don’t usually lead to better outcomes. If a student is resistant to analytical thinking, it’s probable that it’s exposing a weakness that should be improved, not avoided.

While I’m not a scientist, I am a science fan. Learning more about the way the world actually works is cool. Like music, I find science intrinsically rewarding on its own without requiring any direct relevance to something else. But when the science happens to relate to music, even superficially, that makes it even more interesting to me. I’m sure I’m not alone with this, and you might have some students who feel similarly.


f you’re concerned about the content of this video not being “practical,” it’s arguably more practical in the 21st century to teach scientific literacy than to teach how to make fart sounds through a metal tube. Hyperbole aside, one immediate practical benefit can be found right here. It’s prompted an interesting discussion about why we tend to teach through analogy and visualization. This has spun off somewhat to a discussion of how such instructions can be taken to the extreme and how and why to pull things back. This is a good conversation for teachers to have.

Do you need to stop everything in your weekly lessons to show your students this video? Of course not, but the information contained are worth filing away for the future. Here’s another practical application. Your hypothetical student arrives to his or her lesson with a large pimple on the lip right where the mouthpiece rim is placed. You have 30-60 minutes to fill. I’m sure you could think about lots of ways to fill this time with “practical” information, but some students will get really jazzed about stuff like this. Even students who might not be immediately receptive to science might take this idea and run with it later. It’s hard to predict the downstream effects of improving our understanding of the way the world works. Maybe that student takes the membrane mouthpiece device shown in this video, combines it with a piece of technology yet to be developed, and then writes a graduate thesis that has a direct effect on brass pedagogy.

Furthermore, I think brass pedagogy could stand a little more of the scientific method and critical thinking. One thing we learn from this video is that our intuitions about the way our instruments really work aren’t always accurate. That’s definitely practical knowledge to have.

Coming Back After 211 Days Off

Sarah Paradis is the trombonist with the Mirari Brass Quintet. I was able to watch them give a masterclass a number of years ago which was wonderful. Sarah recently had a son (congratulations, Sarah!), but some complications forced her to take a long time off from the trombone. She’s doing well now and is back to playing trombone and blogging about her experience taking such a long time off and what it’s going to take for her comeback.

Mentally, I didn’t mind too much about this break because I knew it was something I had to do for my health and especially for the health of my baby. It hurt my ego a bit because I couldn’t play with Mirari Brass Quintet, I couldn’t take any gigs, and I missed out on an audition for my local symphony. But again, my family’s health is more important than any gig, so it was clear what I had to do.

In this first of what I hope are several posts, Sarah writes a bit about the circumstances that required her to take time off of the horn, what it was like to teach lessons without being able to play, and her plan for further posts on this topic. I’m looking forward to reading more about her experiences and what we can all learn from her. Check back later on the Brass Blog for updates.

Exciting Your Instrument Without Moving Air

Here’s an interesting video put together by Dr. Richard Smith, a scientist, musician, and instrument maker. In this video he demonstrates something that seems counterintuitive – you don’t have to blow air through the instrument in order for it to function normally.

A few years ago I had heard about this experiment and tried to recreate it. I drilled a hole through the cup of an old mouthpiece and tried setting up the membrane to block the air from going through. It didn’t work. Later I came across his technical paper on the topic and learned that I needed to set the membrane up before the shank of the mouthpiece. But it looks like what is really important was to set up a “shank” that directs the air out of the mouthpiece and instrument.

It was almost impossible to get the lips to vibrate under these conditions of using a small side hole. However, a solution was found by comparing this acoustical problem with the electrical analogy of a.c./d.c. decoupling – as used in most electronic circuits. This shows that a resistance is needed for the d.c. flow to occur. To provide this resistance acoustically, a narrow tube was placed in the side hole to give enough air resistance for the lips to vibrate against and to enable sustained vibration.

Maybe I will have to go back and find that old mouthpiece and see if I can set it up correctly and try it out. It would take more skill (and the proper tools) than I currently possess, but I have a couple of friends that would probably be interested enough in goofing around with it to give me a hand.

<rant>

I came across this video on an online forum devoted to brass pedagogy. Some of the ensuing comments bugged me. Here are some actual quotes from that forum.

He is right. Air does not have to travel through the tube. Unfortunately we have a tough time wiggling our lips back and forth 200 and more times per second. I just tried it. Nope. Wait. About 6 per second just now.

While this is perhaps a legitimate consideration for the purpose of teaching brass technique, it’s really a straw man complaint. In his video Smith in fact goes out of his way to explicitly state that air is needed to set the lips to vibrate, but the point of his demonstration is the fact that once the air passes the lips there’s no physical law that the air needs to actually move through the instrument in order for it to work normally.

Just because you and I can’t think of an immediate pedagogical application of Smith’s demonstration doesn’t mean that there isn’t one.

What would be massively helpful is if he didn’t sound like trash doing it the way we all do it.

Again, the complaint here does have a bit of validity, but this too is irrelevant to the intention of Smith’s demonstration video. As best as I can tell, Smith’s background is mainly in acoustics and instrument design and construction. For all I know his main instrument may not be any of the instruments he is demonstrating in this video. He may be too busy building instruments and researching acoustics to do much practice these days. In no way does his ability to play a brass instrument negate the factual statements he makes.

Purely pointless IMHO.

Personally, I feel that being this dismissive is a shame coming from a teacher. Teachers are supposed to inspire curiosity and creative thinking. The point I made above about not passing judgement just because we don’t think of an immediate relevance to teaching brass applies here. But more importantly, discouraging students from exploring this video also dissuades students from learning about topics other than music. I’ve had and have students who have no intention of going into music as a career path, and some who have even been physics majors. I wonder how one of those students would feel to find me disparaging a factually correct demonstration of acoustics like this.

But if you need some practical applications, you don’t have to look very far. Simply pay close attention to what Smith says in his video. He mentions how without needing to blow air through the instrument you wouldn’t need a spit valve or need to clean the instrument out regularly. In the paper Smith recalls how research into the a.c./d.c. effect of brass acoustics has influenced the way in which instruments were tested for design and construction faults.

Pedagogical applications of this research are a little harder to think of, but not impossible. One could use the altered mouthpiece sort of like running with small weights strapped to your wrists and feet. Playing exercises or music would require more effort and could potentially be useful for advanced players to build playing endurance. Another thought I had was that if the mouthpiece could be tweaked enough so that it played similarly enough to playing the instrument normally one could design an almost perfectly silent practice mute. Practice mutes tend to be very stuffy and while that can be used in a manner similar to what I just mentioned, it makes relying on a practice mute for long term practice less ideal. Imagine a combination of a practice mute with this type of mouthpiece so that it would feel almost like playing with an open horn while being quiet enough to practice late at night in a hotel room.

Here’s an excerpt from a much longer response to Smith’s demonstration video.

Gotta love these quacks.

There are SO MANY OF THEM!!!

Whadda waste of time!!!

Whadda buncha MAROONS!!!

*sigh*

</rant>

Guess the Embouchure Type – Nat Adderley

It’s been a while since I’ve done a “Guess the Embouchure Type,” so I’m way overdue. Here is a video of the Cannonball Adderley Quintet playing Work Song. Nat Adderley’s solo starts at 2:39 if you want to skip straight to that. Although the video resolution is pretty low, I think you can a close enough look at Nat’s chops that you can make a fairly accurate guess as to his basic embouchure type. My guess after the break.

Continue reading Guess the Embouchure Type – Nat Adderley