No Pressure Brass Embouchure – Fact or Urban Legend?

I’ve blogged about this topic before. The specific story is that a famous brass player or teacher is giving a clinic or lesson and he or she hangs the instrument from the ceiling and with no pressure plays a high, loud note with beautiful tone. I mentioned in that earlier post that if this demonstration actually happens I would expect someone somewhere would have it up on YouTube or somewhere else on the internet. All I could find were stories where someone claimed to have seen it.

Until now. Sort of. Here is my attempt to duplicate this experiment.

If you make it through the entire video you won’t see and hear good results.

The point of the stories I hear tend towards the idea that mouthpiece pressure is bad and that minimal mouthpiece pressure is optimal. Personally, I feel that excessive mouthpiece pressure is a symptom of something else that’s not working correctly and if you correct that issue the mouthpiece pressure will balance itself on its own, no need to consciously attempt to reduce mouthpiece pressure.

Beyond that, it’s obvious that some mouthpiece pressure is necessary, and it may be more than some folks realize. I’ve blogged about this topic before as well. Some amateur trumpet players who happened to be engineers designed an experiment where they showed experienced trumpet teachers photographs of different players (ranging from professionals to amateurs) playing different pitches they were unable to accurately judge how much mouthpiece pressure was actually measured.

So for now, at least, I consider these stories an urban legend. If you disagree, post your own video or help me find one and I’ll plug it here.

10 Proven Ways to Improve Your Breathing Collected By Will Kimball

I’ve posted before about Will Kimball’s excellent blog. Kimball teaches trombone at Brigham Young University and usually posts on historical topics. Here is a great essay he wrote concerning breathing for brass players. He searched through scientific literature to get at the truth behind breathing and came up with 10 Ways To Improve your breathing based on what we know scientifically.

  1. Practice taking deep breaths
  2. Eat fruit and vegetables
  3. Don’t smoke
  4. Stay physically fit
  5. Allow full expansion
  6. Don’t wear tight clothes
  7. Avoid eating a lot before performing
  8. Relax
  9. Maintain good posture
  10. Take big breaths, even when you don’t think you need them

Much of the above list he compiled is common sense, but some of it goes against the grain of our brass playing urban legends. For example, Kimball mentions the belief (among some brass players) that carrying some extra weight improves lung function or lung capacity, scientific studies actually show the reverse to be true. Time to hit the gym a little more.

The last point, taking big breaths even when it doesn’t seem necessary for the phrase, has at least one caveat. Citing Arend Bouhuys, a specialist in respiration who has studied musicians, Kimball points out that with a larger breath less effort is required to exhale air, helping the musician to maintain relaxed effort in playing. Essentially the internal pressure of having a full breath means the musician simply relaxes to begin exhalation, rather than having to engage the muscles of expiration. However, Kimball also notes that in soft playing that this practice could potentially work against the player as he or she will need to work against the natural tendency for exhalation with the full breath or risk moving too much air.

Although Kimball doesn’t refer to it, I think that the same can apply to extreme upper register playing as well. Playing in the upper register requires a much smaller aperture and moves less air, much like playing soft. Often times I find that taking a very large breath to attack a pitch in the upper register results in too much air pressure and taking in a bit less air makes it easier to get a clean attack.

At any rate, the whole article is worth a read and Kimball supplies links to all the scientific studies he cites there. Go check it out here.

The Thirty Five Basic Points of the Pivot System

In the Donald S. Reinhardt Facebook discussion page the 35 Basic Points of the Pivot System came up. While much of this will not make sense without the rest of the book, I wanted to post these points here so I could more easily refer to them. This come from the “Encyclopedia of the Pivot System,” by Donald S. Reinhardt, p. 229-237.

1. Be ever mindful of the SENSATION THEORY (question and answer twelve in chapter one), and make certain that its principles are constantly utilized throughout your playing. The primary purpose of the warm-up routines is to reestablish yesterday’s playing sensations, or to adjust and align your pre-playing and playing sensations until they merge into the all-essential unified sensation. Remaining alert to the sensations involved during your playing makes it possible to master any new mechanical (physical) point in the shortest time. During the early stages of any warm-up remain conscious of the blowing sensation rather than the pitch and sound factors. Commence your warm-up with a HOOO (no tongue) attack as this utilizes only the breath and the lip-vibrations. Think of the breath and the lips as the basic factors and the tongue as the refining factor (not a crutch) to both. Never warm up so loudly that you experience strain or so softly that you feel a pinching or a holding back. It is obvious, therefore, that your warm-up dynamic level will vary from day to day in order to cater to vast physical differences.

2. Saturate your lips with saliva. This is intended to include the corners of your mouth. It is recommended that you wet your lips several times before the initial playing of the day. This should be done because the saliva to the lips often acts like ink to a blotter, especially for the first few wettings. The idea of wetting the corners of your mouth is to facilitate the inhalation and to prevent embouchure distortion from excessive mouthcorner stretching. Certain present-day squeak artists do adhere to the dry vibrating point principle; however, other than their ability to produce the high ones — their over-all tongue manipulation and control is not worth mentioning. Because tonguing tends to dampen their vibrating points with saliva, their embouchures (with the dry vibrating points) fall apart and become useless under such conditions. With few exceptions, a wet embouchure should be the first choice of any modern brass instrument performer.

3. Your lips must be formed in such a manner that they are just touching—throughout preparation for placement—throughout your placement—throughout your inhalation—and at the completion of your blowing. Your lip aperture (the space blown open -not tongued open) must occur only during your actual blowing.

4. Form your lips as if to buzz so that the membrane of your lower lip is drawn slightly in and over your lower teeth, while the tip of your upper lip reaches down and contacts your lower lip (while slightly overlapping it) at the vibrating points. This is often termed a buzzing embouchure.

5. Always approach your lips for placement with your mouthpiece and instrument in the exact playing angle. This is very important because it sets your jaw as well as your embouchure and both are a must. If the angle jumps up during the attack, then your jaw was set with its position entirely too receding; whereas, if the instrument angle jumps down—then your jaw was protruding to excess during the placement of the mouthpiece. Check on this important point by diligent mirror observation and make the necessary corrections.

6. At the very moment that your mouthpiece placement is being enacted, sufficient grip pressure must be employed against your lips to make your outer and inner embouchures merge and feel as one solidified unit. Too little mouthpiece pressure may cause your placement to drift or float and completely upset your essential playing
sensations. This is especially true while your embouchure is in its formative stages. The mouthpiece pressure is applied toward you while you are executing your placement and during your inhalation from the corners of your mouth. The forward pressure (puckered resistance)—the backward pressure (mouthpiece pressure)—and the neutralization of the opposing forces occurs during your actual attack and throughout your blowing. When the forward pressure equalizes the backward pressure—the two pressures used during the playing reach a point of neutrality or freezing point. In the PIVOT SYSTEM, therefore, we press to neutralize—not to press! The forward pressure employed during the playing is the basis for the all- essential lip pucker. This works hand-in-hand with your PIVOT for your particular physical type.

7. Your mouthpiece should be placed upon an embouchure of almost buzzing firmness.This prevents any twisting or winding up during the mouthpiece placement. It is safe to say, therefore, that this essential firmness must be arrested with sufficient grip pressure during your placement and inhalation. The actual lip pucker occurs from the moment of the attack to the conclusion of the blowing. If this is carried out in the proper manner, your grip pressure will prevent too much flesh from rushing in and under the rim and into the cup of the mouthpiece. You can see that the lip pucker being the opposite of the smile is intended to neutralize both the forward and the backward pressures and assist in the formation of the hermetic seal of the mouthpiece rim and the flesh of the outer embouchure.

8. Always—place, inhale, play; never—inhale, place, play! A reverse order of these points means that you are seriously impeding the synchronization of your basic playing factors. This is a vital point; do not take it lightly!

9. During your formative stages, the mouthpiece pressure upon your lips during your inhalation should be the same as or more than when playing. This hard and fast correctional requirement may be modified according to your particular physical specifications when sufficient development permits; however, in the meantime, carryout this “must” to the letter. Forget your traditional ifs and buts and master this logic.

10. Inhale the high-pitched, whispered inhalation IM (not OM or UM) through the corners of your mouth (never the center of your mouth). Generally speaking, always execute this slower than you think!

11. During the IM inhalation, your tongue must recede about a sixteenth of an inch away from your teeth. This permits great quantities of air to pass freely around your tongue, without resorting to any abnormal stretch in the corners of your mouth to obtain it. The stretch in the corners of your mouth for the inhalation must be minimized.

12. The tongue during the IM inhalation must be very relaxed while receding. The tongue thus far should have two duties: one, it must contact your lower teeth or lower gums during the mouthpiece placement; and two, it must recede during the IM inhalation. The tongue will have additional duties later in the playing; however, it must be understood that no tongue stiffness must ever be tolerated.

13. Whenever time permits—always inhale slowly! This prevents all kinds of unnecessary nervous and muscular tension from entering into your playing. An over-rapid inhalation is often the cause of a quiver or tremolo—the unwanted tonal annoyances which frequently occur during sustained pianissimo playing.

14. During your inhalation, the position of your head and the angle of your instrument must not be altered in any way, because these faults permit changes to occur in both your jaw position and embouchure formation. You must learn to inhale with as little embouchure and jaw distortion as possible. Do not regard your inhalation maneuver as an opportunity to shift gears with the positions of the embouchure and jaw.

15. During your inhalation, especially after playing a number of lower tones, always retrieve your lower lip. This means that your lower lip must be returned to its starting point. In short, your lips during your interphrase inhalation must be identical in position to your initial inhalation. Do not take this important point lightly.

16. If your mouthpiece is placed slightly more to one side of your mouth than the other, then more air should be inhaled from the opposite corner of your mouth. This is vital to keep your embouchure in line. Check on this point by diligent mirror observation.

17. In the PIVOT SYSTEM, the start of the lower tone and the higher tone must be identical in that they are both produced at the outset with the just touching embouchure and they are blown (not tongued) apart. The principal difference must be in the amount of lip compression (pinching power) employed.

18. At the outset of any standard or normal mouthcorner inhalation, your diaphragm and abdominal regions must protrude with firmness. As this inhalation continues a slight expansion will be felt in your chest and an open, free feeling will be noticed in your throat. Make certain that you use this type of inhalation whenever and wherever possible. This is the same principle as air being blown into a large paper bag—the bottom fills first and then the top.

19. Whenever time does not permit, then use the quarter breath—the sniff breath—the gasp breath—the chest heave—etc. It must be thoroughly comprehended that this form of rapid inhalation must be used only to augment but never to replace the standard or normal mouthcorner inhalation. In short, they are intended to serve as a means to an end rather than the standard mode of playing. This habit has become so strong with certain Latin-American performers (because of short, choppy phrases) that they find it impossible to play any type of slow ballad or any sustained passages.

20. Positively never tolerate any lifting of your shoulders during any inhalation because this fault is a positive guarantee that you will be short- winded. Test this fault and notice how it restricts your inhalation.

21. During your inhalation think of the corners of your mouth, your inhaled air, and your tongue all moving backward together as one solidified unit.

22. DO NOT ALTER THE POSITION OF YOUR HEAD OR THE ANGLE OF YOUR INSTRUMENT DURING YOUR INHALATIONS! This point has been repeated because of its significance.

23. At the peak of any inhalation, positively never delay your attack. The exhalation or the blowing must gain momentum from the inhalation, and all work in one coordinated movement, rather than a delay during the so-called bridge between the two factors. You do not delay when you speak; therefore, do not delay when you execute an attack to play. The idea of bottling up the air for a so-called crisp, explosive attack is utterly preposterous. The desired result must be procured from nervous and muscular synchronization—not from any form of physical delay.

24. With each and every initial attack, the diaphragm and abdominal regions must lift (not protrude) in a firm synchronized manner. The higher the note played, the more pronounced this lift must become. Positively never protrude your diaphragm and abdominal regions for any form of playing, especially while ascending, because this old-time playing fallacy has caused more ruptures, hernias, hemmorhoids, etc., among trumpet players than all other playing faults combined. If you possess this fault—lose it! Remember, a clean musical delivery must be the result of correct muscular timing—not nervous delay.

25. POSITIVELY NEVER SMILE TO ASCEND; LEARN TO PIVOT AND THEN TO PUCKER!

26. The tongue is now BLOWN FORWARD in a very relaxed manner from its IM (slightly receded) position so that it strikes the back of the upper teeth, the upper gums, or higher depending upon the range being played. This is sometimes called the first stage of the attack. The proper tongue-arch level may be assisted by using the vowel AAA (DAAA or TAAA) for the lower register—OOO (DOOO or TOOO) for the middle register—and EEE (DEEE or TEEE) for the upper register. Since there are eight distinctly different tongue types, the matter of tongue obstruction, etc., must be discussed during one of your early lessons in the PIVOT SYSTEM.

27. NEVER PERMIT THE TIP OF YOUR TONGUE TO PENETRATE BETWEEN YOUR TEETH AND LIPS IN ANY REGISTER, AT ANY TIME. This is a hard and fast rule but strive to live up to it at all times. TONGUE PENETRATION IS ONE OF THE CHIEF CAUSES OF INADEQUATE RANGE, ENDURANCE, FLEXIBILITY, ETC.

28. After striking, the tongue immediately snaps back (and down in some cases) into the mouth to permit the cone-like air column to strike the back of the compressed embouchure formation, where the least resistance is presented for the blowing. This is often referred to as the second stage of the attack.

29. The duties of the tongue up to this point are as follows:

  1. It must contact the lower teeth or lower gums while the mouthpiece placement is being enacted.
  2. It must recede a trifle during the IM inhalation.
  3. It must strike the back of the upper teeth, the upper gums, or higher depending upon the particular register being played. Remember, the vowels (already suggested) will assist you in achieving the essential tongue-arch level.
  4. It must never be permitted to penetrate between your teeth and lips in any register, at any time.
  5. It must snap back (and down in some cases) into your mouth to permit the cone-like air column to move forward to create the essential lip-vibrations for the particular range being played.
  6. Its arch-level is used to control all types of slurring and flexibility in general.

30. The length of the tongue backstroke is one of the controlling factors for both volume and speed; whereas, the level of the tongue-arch is one of the governing factors for range. Keep these facts in mind while analyzing any tongue problem.

31. All prescribed mechanical (physical) procedures must be carried to extremes during your daily practice periods; however, while you are playing your engagements give your entire attention to music. This is both necessary and proper.

32. Remember, the only time that any sensation is new is the first time; therefore, when you strive to master any new mechanical point make certain that you do not expect the new sensation to be as vivid in later attempts, or you will be carrying the point to extremes. Failure to observe this important fact has caused many performers to experience extended playing frustration.

33. Remember, there are no playing secrets—just logic and common sense. Intelligent, consistent daily practice and study invariably wins out over this word talent.

34. The primary purpose of the PIVOT is to make it possible for you to retain constantly the all-essential line-up between your lips and teeth, so that the lip-vibrations will not be impeded or obliterated in any particular part of your range. It is for this reason that you must study this ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE PIVOT SYSTEM and the PIVOT SYSTEM MANUAL thoroughly and completely. In the PIVOT SYSTEM four standard embouchure and jaw types and five subtypes (nine in all) are utilized and you are directed to fall into one type or the other. This is the only method whereby your individual differences are given scientific consideration. In this manner Mother Nature is satisfied.

35. If you are really serious about your study, I suggest from an hour and a half to five hours of study and practice daily. You must learn to rest exactly as long as you practice. Five minutes of playing means five minutes of resting, etc. In this way you are constantly building up your playing reserve and endurance and never permitting a thoughtless, illogical practice period to tear it down and destroy it. May I suggest a daily review of these thirty-five basic points of the PIVOT SYSTEM.

The Encyclopedia of the Pivot System is out of print now and hard to find. If you do find a copy, it’s a bit difficult to read through it and get a firm grasp on what Reinhardt wanted unless you get some help from a former Reinhardt student or someone else who is well versed in Reinhardt’s pedagogy. It is written in a FAQ style and isn’t written in a way that is designed to help you grasp basic concepts first before moving on to more advanced ones. Stick with it, though, and it is one of the most comprehensive and complete discussions of brass technique that I’ve found.

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.