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.
A recent topic on the Trombone Chat forum has gotten me thinking some about the way the lower lip will function differently for different brass musicians. Doing a cursory search on the internet you’ll find a lot of advice that is contradictory to each other. My general impression is that most folks who have an opinion about whether the lower lip should roll in when ascending lean towards avoiding it. But there are some players who feel they do so who arguably successful players.
Of course a lot of what brass teachers advise is based on what they think they are doing by feel. It’s uncommon for brass teachers, at least in the United States, to not look closely at a variety of brass players and compare what the lower lips are doing. It’s one thing to recommend what you feel works for you, but I think it’s worth taking the time to carefully observe what’s actually happening.
Regular readers here and other knowledgable brass teachers will immediately know that what a player’s lower lip should be doing is dependent on the individual’s anatomy and will be different from player to player. That said, you can observe particular patterns in a brass musician’s embouchure that make certain predictions about how a player’s lower lip will function when working correctly. There will always be variations, even among players belonging to the same embouchure type (intro to the three basic embouchure types).
The easiest embouchure type to see the lower lip is the “low placement” type. Because there is more lower lip inside the mouthpiece the lower lip vibrates with more intensity than the upper lip. When a low placement player plays in the lower register the lower lip gets blown a bit more forward into the mouthpiece cup. As an upstream player ascends you can see the lower lip sort of flattening out, but it never really seems to roll or curl in. Now it might feel like the lower lip is rolling in to some low placement type players and that can be one possible way to make it click for students, but it really doesn’t actually describe what you see.
From my personal experience as a low placement player, I used to allow my lower lip to blow out too far into the cup, particularly when I was getting tired. It resulted in some weird double buzzes. I also would have some trouble getting back into the upper register without taking the mouthpiece off my lips and resetting.
The “very high placement” embouchure types have the reverse lip ratio to low placement players. With these players you will see the lower lip rolling in, to a certain degree. I’ve also noticed these players will often bring their jaw forward slightly as they ascend, which might affect how much lower lip roll is proper for the individual. These players usually have the rim contact on their lower lip such that the lower lip doesn’t vibrate with as much intensity as the upper lip. Speculating, I would think that rolling in the lower lip for very high placement players could assist them with keeping the vibrating surface on the lower lip minimal.
“Medium high placement” embouchure types are still downstream, like very high placement players, but they use the opposite embouchure motion. The lower lips on these brass players looks similar to very high placement players, but there may be more of a tendency for the lower lip to roll in to ascend with these players. Donald Reinhardt’s embouchure type III would be an example of a medium high placement embouchure type that is distinguished by it’s lower lip roll when ascending. Tommy Dorsey was supposed to belong to the type III embouchure, as was Reinhardt. In Doug Elliott’s film, “The Brass Player’s Embouchure,” he shows video of Dave Steinmeyer playing into a transparent mouthpiece and even though Steinmeyer wasn’t classified by Reinhardt as belonging to the type III (if I recall Doug’s story correctly), he still has a very prominent lower lip roll when he ascends.
Speaking of embouchure films, Lloyd Leno’s film is one of the best places you can go to observe the lower lip with some different brass players. What’s so nice about Leno’s film is that it was shot using high speed filming, so you can observe how the lips vibrate as the players ascend and descend. The photos above are only capturing the aperture at the time the photo was taken.
There is a brass musician urban legend where a famous musician, usually a trumpet player, is said to have the instrument hanging from the ceiling on wires of some sort and then proceeds to demonstrate playing loud and high notes with “no pressure.” A while back I tried to duplicate this for fun.
Recently I got an email from Jackson, who was doing some research on the great Mexican trumpet player Rafael Méndez. Jackson came across the following, which may be a letter written as part of Méndez’s 1981 obituary. It was written by Ronald E. Dishon and he reminisces on when he met Méndez in 1953.
As I sat there in awe, watching and listening , he suddenly stopped and asked me to approach where he was standing. In the middle of this room, suspended from the ceiling, was a trumpet on wires. He detached it and asked me to hold it and play a single note–any note–for him. I was so taken by his presence that I was reluctant to play and sheepishly declined his offer. However, he immediately assured me that it’s okay and he just wanted to see how I held and played the horn. Little did I know, he was about to teach me some things I have never forgotten and lacked the ability to perform well then and now.
What he was about to demonstrate was non-pressure blowing. Most student trumpet players press the mouth piece somewhat hard against the lips to make the sound come out of the horn. What he demonstrated to me was that this method was not necessary to make a solid tone emanate from the trumpet. So he asked me to now try his method. Of course, I had lots of difficulty making a strong sound, but got the idea that he was trying to show me. He then placed the trumpet once again in the wire hooks suspended from the ceiling and asked me to try to play a note not touching the horn with my hands, but only with my lips.The trumpet went swing back and forth, every which way, for I lacked the ability to smoothly control my embouchure. After my attempt, he then told me to go practice all that he had taught me. Before leaving, I thanked him many times during that short stay for his kind and gentle instructions. After we were through, he went back to blowing low notes, some loudly, some quietly, from this trumpet suspended in air, never touching it with his hands
For the record, I doubt that “no pressure” is a desirable thing for brass players. Research has been done on the amount of mouthpiece pressure brass players use and even seasoned professional players use quite a lot. We also know that experienced brass teachers can’t accurately judge the amount of mouthpiece pressure a player may be using. “No pressure” approaches are based more on a philosophy or playing ideology, rather than any sort of objective description of how functioning brass embouchures actually work.
That’s not to say that excessive mouthpiece pressure is OK to ignore, or that reducing the mouthpiece pressure might be good for some folks, but it’s entirely depends on what the individual student is doing. Before I try to reduce a student’s mouthpiece pressure I want to make sure that his or her embouchure formation is held firmly enough to accept a typical amount of playing pressure. In my opinion, avoiding technique issues or damage to the lips by mouthpiece pressure is best approached by developing the muscular strength and control in the embouchure to hold the lips firm at all times.
I came across this video the other day of trombonist Matt Smith playing through an arrangement I wrote (and posted online) of Mood Indigo, by Duke Ellington. Check out his playing.
He really did a good job with it, better than me. You can hear my recording and download a copy of the music here.
A while back some of the staff members of the Trombone Forum (TTF) created the Trombone Chat forum. TTF has been languishing for quite a while due to a variety of issues and from time to time simply would go offline with little or no notice. Recently it went off line for a server move and software update, but it’s been down for longer then planned.
Regardless of what happens at TTF, I wanted to plug Trombone Chat. Having seen the work the moderators there did with TTF I know that it will be a friendly place to discuss trombone related topics and, unlike TTF, a number of staff members over there have the “keys to the forum” and can keep things running if the chief administrator gets too busy to handle general upkeep.
Registration is free and pretty quick (your account does need to be approved by a human, but they seem to be checking up on that regularly). Head on over an join in the discussion.
Having a comments section here in my blog is sometimes a double edged sword. I do feel that one of the most powerful tools the internet can be used for is the ability for us to question and discuss things with people that we would not otherwise get the opportunity to interact with. The flip side of that benefit is that online discussion often breaks down and has the opposite effect that we want. I see this all the time on brass fora. Too often folks offer advice to someone they have never seen or heard play before. Sometimes I question whether the confidence they seem to have about their responses are unjustified. Sometimes those folks don’t (or can’t) demonstrate even basic competence. Joey Tartell has noticed similarly and written about this phenomenon in his blog post, Nuance.
I do not argue with these people. In fact, I choose not to engage with them at all. What I’d like to discuss today is what’s missing from so many online discussions.
One common pattern Tartell notes is the false dichotomy, when a disagreement is framed as either all or nothing, black or white, without acknowledging that there can be a continuum of possibilities and shades or gray in between. My posts a while back about the relative value of metronome practice is one example. The ensuing discussion between blogs and in the comments section kept getting reduced, in spite of my efforts, to “metronome practice is bad versus metronome practice is good.” There was little room to discuss the nuance between. Another similar pattern is the assumption that when someone says one thing is good, that means the author is calling something else bad. The metronome discussion is another good example. Just because I find a metronome a good practice and teaching tool doesn’t mean that using other approaches are bad.
Tartell lists several suggestions for how to make an online discussion more fruitful. Here is his basic list, but I suggest that you go over and read his elaborations on his original post.
- Decide what’s important to you.
- Will getting involved do any good?
- Stick to the subject at hand.
- Realize that other people could have something important to say.
- Not all opinions are equal.
- Know when to get out.
Learning to play any musical instrument, including trombone, is an inherently “knacky” experience. So much of what you need to do to be successful involves trying something a bunch of times, making small physical adjustments each time, until it clicks once. Then there’s a lot of trial and error trying to make it work that way consistently. Each musician’s playing sensations are going to be different and be influence by not only anatomical differences, but also the history of how they played before and their personal beliefs and biases.
This is undoubtedly why a lot of brass pedagogy involves teaching musical artistry first and teaching technique through modeling and metaphor. The end result, however, is that there is less consensus about what good brass technique is and how to achieve it. We have a tendency to look towards so-called “natural players” for advice, who may be the least qualified to tell us what’s actually physically happening when performing.
Couple this with a persistent culture of ignorance in brass pedagogy. It’s normal for some brass teachers to discourage folks to analyze their playing. It will to lead to “paralysis by analysis.” If you do, you won’t see the forest for the trees. Imitate the sound you want and you’ll learn it, just like you learned to talk as a baby. If a centipede had think about how it walked it would get nowhere. Don’t think, play.
I find this attitude confusing. Why would a teacher disparage questioning and thinking? That’s the message it sends. And that’s what those students end up passing on when they become teachers.
The other side of this coin is the vast amount of pseudoscience you can find in brass pedagogy. Part of this is due to literal interpretations of analogies and over reliance on fallible playing sensations. A lot of it is due to us over estimating what we actually know. At its heart, it’s a lack of scientific literacy. Trombone teachers usually aren’t scientists, but we tend to misunderstand what science actually is and mistrust it. It’s often seen as a non-overlapping magisterium with both music and teaching. If the science suggests something we’re teaching is wrong, that’s just an egghead in the white tower who hasn’t spent enough time in the trenches.
Science isn’t a collection of disciplines like anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, and acoustics, although those disciplines might inform how we teach trombone. Science isn’t about acquiring facts either, although they might help us too. At it’s heart, science is about exploring the limits of what we know. It’s about testing a hypothesis and challenging assumptions. And it also happens to involve a lot of creative thinking, much like in music.
Superficially, we probably already do this in our instruction. We try out something with a student and assess whether it worked. We test it out for a while and then try something else. If we can’t find the answer is a resource we have, we create one specific to the student. When something works for one student, we try it out with another student and see what happens. Over time, we can develop a large repertoire of analogies and methods and get a good feel for when to try one and when to try the other.
However, we sometimes confuse this for science. Science recognizes that the nature of that experimentation we did in our teaching studio is inherently biased. It’s too easy to simply confirm what we already believe, rather than learn something new. You can’t look for evidence that your hypothesis is right, you look for ways to falsify your beliefs. If you ideas withstand that sort of scrutiny, then maybe you’re on to something. Brass pedagogy has long only looked for evidence to support our preconceived beliefs.
Herein lies the scientific method’s greatest strength. It is self-correcting and always looking to learn more. Science-based pedagogy has been more popular in other disciplines (e.g., athletics) because brass pedagogy hasn’t been as good at fixing our old mistakes. We routinely revere long dead pedagogues, now and then referring to their texts as “bibles” and former students of those teachers as “disciples.” This isn’t an attitude conducive to change.
There is good science being done on brass pedagogy. Our understanding of both the acquisition of motor skills and the specific physical process of playing the trombone is better understood now than it was when I was a student. The exciting part is that access to this research and the scientists who do this is easier than ever. What’s difficult is vetting the information into a correctly nuanced context. That takes some effort and should be an ongoing process. You can’t just look at what we know, but also question how we know what we know.
A few months ago I caught up with Doug Elliott and took another lesson. For those who don’t know, Doug’s embouchure types and terminology are the ones I prefer to use here and my lessons and interview with him were important resources for my dissertation. Doug studied from Donald Reinhardt and took Reinhardt’s ideas and developed a presentation of them that makes them easier to understand.
At any rate, at my last lesson with Doug he reminded me of Reinhardt’s “Elasticity Routine,” or at least the technique and point behind it. I have some inconsistencies in how my chops function between my upper register and F3 and below. Glissing without using the slide between partials in this register are helping me make my embouchure function more consistently. They are also pretty good for developing lip flexibility and overall embouchure control.
There was a forum topic on the Trombone Forum that was discussing similar exercises, so I threw together a short video describing and demonstrating what I’ve been practicing. It’s not as good as Doug’s demonstration for me, but I think you can get the point of how the Elasticity Routine works. The exact glisses that you do are not as important as how you do them. Do not let up on the mouthpiece pressure and try to gliss between those partials as smoothly as possible.
I had a couple of pretty good glisses in there and some examples of me struggling to make them sound smooth. They all sound better now than they did a few months ago. The point is not that this should sound good (although that’s what I’m trying for when practicing this drill), but how they help your playing.
The following rant was inspired by a Trombone Pedagogy Facebook group thread started by a teacher who was wondering how to help a young student who was playing with his lower lip predominant. The teacher was asking for advice on how to correct this embouchure. My rant below is in response to many of the ensuing comments. I will be paraphrasing instead of directly quoting, in part because these responses are so common and don’t really need an attribution for context.
First, a little background on what an upstream embouchure is. All brass musicians, regardless of what they might think they are doing or should be doing, play in such a way that one lip or another predominates inside the mouthpiece. When the upper lip is predominant, most common, the air stream passes the lips in a downward direction.
Most brass players have an embouchure that is similar, although the amount of upper to lower lip may be different. A minority of brass musicians, however, do the opposite. These players place the mouthpiece closer to the chin and because of the predominance of lower lip the air stream gets directed upwards.
With that basic understanding out of the way, I will get into addressing some of these typical comments.
Change the mouthpiece placement. That student will thank you for it later.
While it does happen that students will adopt an upstream embouchure when they should be playing downstream, it’s much more common for these “low placement embouchure type” players to be playing that way because it is the most efficient embouchure type for their anatomical features. Before you change the mouthpiece placement you need to address issues with embouchure form, breathing, tonguing, posture, etc. Usually if you correct those other playing characteristics the embouchure will function better.
Sometimes you can disguise those other issues by changing the mouthpiece placement, but that’s only covering up the real problems the student is having. Before the embouchure form is developed properly, for example, you just can’t tell where the best mouthpiece placement is for a particular student.
That student should try another instrument instead. Has he/she considered a woodwind instrument or vocals?
I tend to avoid encouraging a student to change to a different instrument if they’ve expressed an interest in their brass instrument. Sure, maybe some folks will take to another instrument and never look back, but that’s a solution in search of a problem. If you need more bass clarinetists in your band be honest about why you are encouraging the change. If you’re suggesting the change because you don’t know how to help that student, then do some homework and learn. This is your responsibility as a teacher (or even as someone giving advice on the internet). Ask questions. That’s what the Facebook Trombone Pedagogy group is for!
Upstream players are players who have a protruded lower jaw or an underbite. That’s what makes them upstream.
Players with an underbite almost always play better with an upstream embouchure, but that alone isn’t going to make their embouchure upstream. There must be more lower lip inside the mouthpiece in order for their embouchure to function upstream (Caveat – Sometimes lip texture comes into play. It’s rare, but you might look at an embouchure from the outside and think it’s one direction but when you look on a transparent mouthpiece the lip position seem flipped. My feeling is that moving the mouthpiece placement to a more appropriate placement can often help).
I don’t have a way to post the video clip (nor have I obtained permission), but my teacher, Doug Elliott, made a film in the 1980s called The Brass Player’s Embouchure. In this film he shows a trombonist with an underbite, but with a mouthpiece placement that was close to the nose and it function downstream. Moving this player’s mouthpiece placement so that it had more lower lip inside worked better.
And not all upstream players will have a protruded jaw position anyway.
Look again at the downstream embouchure example I posted above and note his jaw position. Jaw position while playing will be an influence, but doesn’t actually make a player upstream or downstream.
Also worth considering are Donald Reinhardt’s embouchure types. While I prefer to teach and communicate using different terminology, he did make note of players with particular jaw positions while at rest compared to playing. For example, he classified players with a natural, even bite.
Such brass musicians will almost always need to place the mouthpiece either very high (close to the nose, downstream) or very low (close to the chin, upstream). It might go either way, and for players like this it is sometimes quite difficult to tell which way it might go. Even if that is a very accomplished brass musician (read through what Brad Goode has written about figuring out his embouchure type).
That’s an [insert one brass instrument type here] thing. Those of us who play [insert other brass instrument type here] can’t/shouldn’t play upstream.
After 20 years of studying brass embouchures on all instruments intensively, I’ve come to the conclusion that while there are some differences that the size of the mouthpiece causes, it’s only a matter of scale and that the same embouchure characteristics are found on all the brass instruments.
Now it’s easier to find examples with trumpet players for a couple of reasons. Consider that the larger the mouthpiece, the more likely that the chin or nose will get in the way of placing very high or very low. A trumpet mouthpiece, on the other hand, allows much more leeway for getting the most efficient ratio of upper to lower lip for the particular player. That said, horn players are much less varied, which I believe is due to the adherence of a particular pedagogue’s advice as well as a comparative lack of players who are self taught and simply do what works instead of what is commonly taught.
That’s an [insert musical style] thing. It won’t work for [insert another musical style].
It’s only good for [high or low register playing]. It won’t work for [low or high register playing].
Like the brass instrument argument, I hear this all the time and from opposite sides of the spectrum. There are upstream brass musicians known for their upper register. There are also upstream brass players known for the lower register. They can be found playing in all styles of music successfully.
Embouchure type is influenced by the musician’s anatomical features, not playing style, instrument choice, or musical genre.
When you place the mouthpiece with so much rim contact on the upper lip, it isn’t free to vibrate and causes problems.
Both lips do vibrate in conjunction, but they do not vibrate with equal intensity. The predominant lip inside the mouthpiece vibrates with greater intensity. Brass embouchures appear to be sort of between a double reed phenomenon, where both reeds vibrate with equal intensity, and a clarinet reed, where the reed vibrates against the surface of the mouthpiece. For a brass embouchure to function efficiently the lip that has more rim contact (the upper lip in the case of the upstream brass musician) will function somewhat like the clarinet mouthpiece while the other lip (lower lip for upstream embouchures) is more like the reed.
This isn’t arm chair speculation. You can see it in Lloyd Leno’s film quite easily. Here’s part 1 of 3, but the link is to the entire playlist.
If you watch the entire film you’ll also be able to note some downstream trombonists in the film who place the mouthpiece with a great deal of rim contact on the lower lip. For some reason this isn’t as widely discouraged, even by the same players who make this argument when it concerns an upstream embouchure.
I am an experienced teacher and performer and I have never come across a successful upstream player.
My first response to this is that you’re probably not qualified (yet!) to identify one when you see it. Furthermore, if you don’t consider embouchure types to be a useful pedagogical tool, then you’re simply not going to look for them – even if you know what to look for. So many teachers seem to think that by watching a player blow air, free buzz, mouthpiece buzz, talk, whatever, that you’re going to be able to determine a player’s embouchure type. You can’t. Or at least I can’t and I doubt you can.
I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t need a transparent mouthpiece to type most players’ embouchures, but I know the limitations of this and will grab a transparent mouthpiece when needed. Simply put, the most accurate method of typing a brass musician’s embouchure is to look at how they play while playing the instrument into a transparent mouthpiece. Rim visualizers can give you important clues, but the lack of resistance and the reflection of the standing wave back to the lips (as well as other factors) come into play and make a rim visualizer less accurate.
To my knowledge, no one has yet conducted a robust enough study to determine the percentage of upstream players, but by my best guess I would say around 10%-15%. That’s a sizable enough minority that anyone who takes the time to actually look for upstream players among your students and performing colleagues will find them. If you’re not seeing them, you’re probably not looking.
That said, an awful lot of teachers who should know better make a big deal about “correcting” an upstream embouchure when they see one. I get emails and private messages all the time from folks describing this situation. Particularly for teachers who work with older students you’re going to find fewer upstream students because they get “weeded out” by well-intentioned, but ignorant teachers. Either those students quit brass out of frustration or they play with less success than they could because they had their embouchure changed to a less efficient one. I’m a good example of the later, although I was never changed to downstream. I was instructed from the get go to play downstream. Which leads to:
We should teach what’s most common because that will have the best chance of success.
There is some logic to this, but in the case of mouthpiece placement I don’t even think we should talk about it with beginners. Teach embouchure form, not mouthpiece placement, and most of the time I’ve found the student will naturally gravitate to the best embouchure type for his or her anatomy. When it doesn’t, then it’s time to intervene, but this correction needs to be an educated choice that eliminates difficulties in embouchure form (or breathing, tonguing, whatever is influencing the student’s embouchure in a negative way) first.
I am an experienced teacher and never have to consider a brass embouchure type. It’s unnecessary and even makes things worse!
It does take some effort to learn how to type a brass student’s embouchure and use it to make embouchure corrections and design a course of study and practice that will work best for the individual student, but it’s not rocket science. If you found studying music history and music theory to inform your brass playing in a positive way then you already understand how taking the time to learn about different related topics is useful. If embouchure analysis is making things worse it’s because the analysis is faulty in the first place. Learn how brass embouchures actually function and apply what you learn, adjusting as you need to. And if the student is analyzing their embouchure technique at the wrong time, help your student learn to focus on one thing at a time while practicing for a bit each day and focus on the musical expression the rest of the time.
And if you throw out that tired phrase, “paralysis by analysis” I say you’ve lost credibility and the argument.
I’ve been meaning to post about these videos for a while. Matthias Bertsch, who has conducted a lot of research into how musicians perform on their instruments, has posted a couple of videos on YouTube that look at the tongue motion of different musicians. He attached sensors to the tongue and was able to model how the tongue moves when performing different things on trumpet and clarinet.
Just last week I posted about Doug Yeo’s experience playing trombone while inside an fMRI scanner. Bertsch’s trumpet video above showed some of the clips from much older research looking at the tongue motion of brass players using fluoroscopic techniques, which unfortunately exposes the test subjects to radiation and really isn’t an ethical use of that technology knowing what we do now about the dangers of such exposure. The motion sensor analysis and fMRI studies are significant improvements and hopefully as the technology gets better (and cheaper and easier to use) we will see more research conducted into how brass and woodwind players play their instruments. Taking the guess work out of what correct technique is and what a student is actually doing has the potential to significantly improve how we teach music in the future.