Weekend Picks

It’s Friday. Here are some random music-related links for you to peruse this weekend.

Did you know that there is a brass band in New Zealand that since 1895 performs on bicycles?

 How about a bicycle brass band from Holland?

When directing an ensemble in rehearsal I often use an analogy that isolating individual musicians playing, as if we were recording everyone, would sound different than when you hear the same part played in the context with the whole ensemble. For example, a single big band trumpet part isolated might sound too short, but when the whole brass section plays that way together it comes out just right. Here’s a similar idea, listen to the vocal tracks from the Beatles isolated out of context from the rest of the parts.

An older discussion about teacher tenure and why it’s not the firing itself that is the issue, it’s how the threat of firing teachers allows other people (often not qualified or informed enough about the teacher’s job and situation) to control the teacher’s day to day work.

And lastly, something a little lighter. Here are 27 jokes only classical music nerds will understand.

Embouchure Dystonia Treatment – Some Questions and Criticisms

Unless you are one of my regular readers chances are that you’ve come to this post looking for advice about some severe embouchure dysfunction. While I hope the following can provide some helpful avenues to explore, my target audience here are more the music teachers out there who promote themselves as “chop docs” or purport to diagnose and/or treat what often gets called “embouchure dystonia.” For the purposes of this essay, I will be using the terms “embouchure dystonia” and “embouchure dysfunction” at times interchangeably. I will try to be specific with my language when possible, but keep in mind that what some folks call “embouchure dystonia” may not be a neurological disorder, but an issue of embouchure mechanics.

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke define “dystonia” as:

…a disorder characterized by involuntary muscle contractions that cause slow repetitive movements or abnormal postures. The movements may be painful, and some individuals with dystonia may have a tremor or other neurologic features. There are several different forms of dystonia that may affect only one muscle, groups of muscles, or muscles throughout the body. Some forms of dystonia are genetic but the cause for the majority of cases is not known.

More specifically relevant for brass players’ embouchures, the variety of dystonia that we need to understand is known as a “focal task specific dystonia.” Again, from the NINDS:

Task-specific dystonias are focal dystonias that tend to occur only when undertaking a particular repetitive activity.  Examples include writer’s cramp that affects the muscles of the hand and sometimes the forearm, and only occurs during handwriting.  Similar focal dystonias have also been called typist’s cramp, pianist’s cramp, and musician’s cramp. Musician’s dystonia is a term used to classify focal dystonias affecting musicians, specifically their ability to play an instrument or to perform. It can involve the hand in keyboard or string players, the mouth and lips in wind players, or the voice in singers.

Before I go further I need to clarify my background and thoughts on embouchure dystonia. As I always try to point out when discussing anything medical, I am not a medical professional and in no way am I qualified to diagnose or treat a neurological disorder. While I will attempt to describe some possible causes, or at least correlations, with severe embouchure dysfunction below, my thoughts and advice should in no way be considered valid medical advice. Always consult with a medical professional if you suspect a medical condition.

The Difference Between Music and Medicine

This leads me to my first criticism, music teachers who purport to diagnose and treat medical disorders. Stop it. While your intentions may be good and you may very well be helping folks suffering from embouchure dysfunction recover, there is potential to cause great harm. Call what you do what it is, embouchure troubleshooting. Unless you have had the medical training and licensing to legally treat and/or diagnose medical conditions you are skirting the line of practicing therapy or medicine without a license.

I mentioned potential harm. I will shortly argue that there are non-medical reasons why some brass players’ embouchures break down and cause symptoms consistent with focal task specific dystonia. Unless you have the qualifications to diagnose a medical condition your proclamation that a student coming to you for help with embouchure dysfunction has “embouchure dystonia” may cause that person to delay or avoid necessary medical treatment. If the student has Bell’s palsy or a mild stroke, for example, delaying a correct diagnosis and proper medical attention can ruin the student’s chance at making a complete recovery. Or it can lead to more serious complications beyond playing a brass instrument. Medical conditions like focal task specific dystonia do exist and should be treated under the supervision of a qualified professional.

Leave the medicine to the medical professionals and you should advise your students to seek medical attention, when appropriate.

Do Your Homework/Ignorance Is Not Bliss

It sometimes surprises me how ignorant the field of brass pedagogy as a whole is of embouchure form and function. There is definitely a culture of ignorance here that discourages brass musicians from learning to truly understand how their embouchure functions and put it into a larger context of how different brass players play differently. One of the most influential voices in encouraging players and teachers to remain blissfully unaware was Arnold Jacobs. Jacobs encouraged his students to, “Think product, not methodology” (Also Sprach Arnold Jacobs: A Developmental Guide for Brass Wind Musicians). Whether or not he actually intended this idea to be taken as such, many brass teachers have interpreted this to mean that one should never analyze brass technique.

Roger Rocco, a former student of Jacobs, has written on his blog that embouchure dystonia is caused in part by:

Focus on self awareness, self analysis, or the instrument.

He doesn’t cite any medical literature supporting this statement, nor does it align with what any reputable sources state about focal task specific dystonia. As the bulk of Rocco’s discussion on his blog related to embouchure dystonia is ideological and philosophical, I would question his statement here.

Another common, but misguided, approach to treating embouchure dysfunction is to assume that it is purely a result of overuse. Lucinda Lewis’s web site and books make this mistake. According to Lewis:

For the purpose of discussion here, embouchure overuse syndrome refers to any chronic embouchure-related playing problems which last for more than two weeks and includes any or all of the following:  lip pain, chronic lip swelling or bruising, numb, rubbery, or cardboard lips, recurring pressure-point abrasions, air-induced abrasions, lack of endurance, unfocused sound, lack of playing control, and chronic high-range problems.

 – Broken Embouchures, by Lucinda Lewis

What she has done here is taken virtually every embouchure issue and placed them under the umbrella as “embouchure overuse.” The problem is this not only oversimplifies the issue, but also prescribes a general treatment program that may not be relevant for the situation. Chronic high range problems can come from a variety of mechanical issues, many not related to overplaying. Abrasions on the lips can be exacerbated by twisting the lips up with the mouthpiece. Lip swelling and bruising can occur because the mouthpiece placement isn’t balanced correctly between the upper and lower lip. A particularly demanding playing period may be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back, but incorrect mechanics are possibly behind the issues to start with.

It’s easy to find similar ideas throughout the musical literature, but sources that discourage embouchure analysis typically lack an accurate and complete discussion of brass embouchure mechanics. You can’t analyze something you don’t understand. What they miss is that if you are analyzing something incorrectly you’re going to have trouble making the needed corrections. Combine this with the pithy phrase that embouchure “analysis leads to paralysis” and you’re going to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Do your homework first.

As a general field, brass pedagogy is largely ignorant of brass embouchure form and function. Some folks are willingly so and proud of it. Other folks are misguided. I like to think that most brass players and teachers simply have been ill-advised and with access to good information will be able to make more informed decisions about how to practice and teach embouchure development. Either way, actively discouraging people to avoid learning about reality is doing our brass students a serious disservice and you need to stop it.

The basic brass embouchure types as a topic is not all that difficult to comprehend. If you feel that having a general understanding of music theory is helpful for performing music (and I hope you don’t need to be convinced of that), then surely making a similar effort to understand brass embouchures better is well within your capabilities. Yes, there is a time and place for forgetting about brass technique, but don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. You must make an effort to fully understand a topic before you dismiss it as unnecessary or wrong.

What You Need To Know About Brass Embouchures

In order to treat embouchure dysfunction you need to first understand embouchure form and function. Since there are many contrary ideas out there you will need to have the tools to place them into a proper context. I’ve written fairly extensively about this topic on this site, but I will go over some basic information in this post in order to better make my points. A good introduction to this topic, however, can be found here and a more complete one here.

If you look closely at brass players’ embouchures you will soon notice that every embouchure is different. This makes sense, since every player has different anatomical features. That said, you will also begin to notice that there are specific patterns in brass embouchures. Using two observable features of a functioning brass embouchure you can begin to categorize all brass embouchures into different types. These embouchure types are not practice methods or instructions, but rather describe observable characteristics that all brass embouchures have, whether or not the player is aware of them.

The first category to note is that of air stream direction. While many players are convinced that they blow the air straight down the shank of the mouthpiece, observation with a transparent mouthpiece shows otherwise. Virtually every successful brass player will place the mouthpiece so that one lip or another predominates inside the mouthpiece. When more upper lip is placed inside the mouthpiece the air stream passes the lips and gets blown in a downward direction. The reverse is true when more lower lip is placed inside, the air stream passes the lips and strikes the mouthpiece cup above the shank. Horn angle, while important to an individual’s embouchure, does not determine air stream direction, mouthpiece placement does.

These days brass embouchure air stream direction should be common knowledge, but it isn’t. This characteristic has been independently discovered and confirmed by a variety of sources and the literature is available in academic libraries and much of it is now freely accessible online. More importantly, it’s not that hard to see for yourself. The link I posted in the previous paragraph shows some photographs and videos and transparent brass mouthpieces are available and relatively cheap. If you’re helping players with severe embouchure dysfunction you need to be aware of air stream direction and whether or not your student’s embouchure is upstream, downstream, or switching between both. You will want to understand that not everyone plays with a mouthpiece placement that fit’s his or her anatomy and be aware that changing mouthpiece placement and air stream direction can help or hurt some players, sometimes in a dramatic fashion.

The other embouchure characteristic that is even less known about in the field as a whole is what I prefer to call an “embouchure motion.” Virtually every successful brass player, whether or not they are aware of it, will push and pull their mouthpiece and lips together as a single unit in an upward and downward direction along their teeth and gums while changing registers. The general direction and specific angle that this embouchure motion takes varies between players, but it appears to be an essential part of a well functioning embouchure. Some players will generally push the mouthpiece and lips up towards the nose as they ascend, while others will pull down. These basic patterns also correlate with an individual’s air stream direction. Upstream players will almost always pull down to ascend, while downstream players may either do the same or the reverse. Again, this phenomenon has been discovered and independently verified by different resources, but is still not widely known about.

Using these two basic embouchure characteristics alone it’s possible to categorize at least three basic brass embouchure types. Using other features, such as jaw position and horn angle, it’s possible (but probably unnecessarily complicated) to define even more brass embouchure types. If you’re helping players recover from severe embouchure dysfunction you should become aware of these basic brass embouchure types and learn how to spot them. These are important variables you need to consider.

Type Switching

While I haven’t seen as many cases of embouchure dystonia or embouchure dysfunction as some, every single case that I have looked closely at (and documented, in some cases) exhibits some form of embouchure type switching. A handful of these are players who probably should be playing with an upstream embouchure but for some reason aren’t, often due to advice from well-intentioned but ignorant teachers. More commonly, however, I see type switching between the two basic downstream embouchure types. If you look for these players’ embouchure motion you will be hard pressed to see if they are pulling down to ascend or pushing up. Sometimes they reverse the direction at a particular point in their range or they go too far with the embouchure motion at a certain point. Here’s an example from YouTube recorded by Joaquín Fabra, who believes that embouchure dystonia is a “behavioral” problem and treats dystonia as a psychological issue. Watching the video of that particular horn player you can see his embouchure motion changing directions.

Here’s another video recorded by Fabra that shows a trumpet player. Note how this player’s embouchure motion during the earlier part of the video shows his mouthpiece and lips bobbing around for almost every attack. Every time he plays a note he is trying to hit a moving target. Later in the video, the trumpet player is largely symptom free and you will be able to spot how much more consistent the embouchure motion is, particularly on the initial attacks of notes.

To the best of my knowledge, Fabra doesn’t even consider the player’s type switching. In his interview with Dave Stragg Fabra is quite clear that he feels embouchure dystonia is caused by an emotional condition and he avoids discussion of embouchure mechanics, even going so far as to imply that the embouchure analysis is partially responsible for the condition in the first place. Considering his apparent lack of understanding of the basic embouchure types, but the correction of type switching in many of his documented examples, I argue that Fabra’s approach would benefit from not merely treating the psychological results of severe embouchure dysfunction but consciously correcting embouchure mechanics.

Returning to Lucinda Lewis’s thoughts, she feels that a treatment program for embouchure dysfunction requires the brass musician returning to their embouchure form prior to the breakdown. In Broken Embouchures she wrote, “Fixing your embouchure means rehabilitating your mechanics back to their pre injury integrity.” (2005, p. 40). What is missing from her text, however, is any consideration if the pre-injury embouchure was malfunctioning in the first place. My favorite analogy for this is lifting heavy objects with your back. You can get away playing wrong for a while, particularly if you’re naturally strong. Keep lifting with your back over time, however, and you’re going to be more prone to injury. If you suffer from severe embouchure dysfunction and get better by returning to your old way of playing you should consider that you might just be getting better at playing wrong. Teachers need to be aware of their students’ embouchure type and overall embouchure form in order to eliminate type switching as the culprit to embouchure dysfunction. It can also help players correct type switching before it causes the breakdown in the first place.

Where To Go From Here

The bulk of my above rant is largely concerned with the lack of awareness among brass teachers and players of embouchure mechanics and our inability to put them into a proper context when troubleshooting embouchure dysfunction. If the field of brass pedagogy is dropping the ball here we can’t expect the medical community to be any better, and players suffering from embouchure dysfunction are perhaps not going to be well served by doctors and therapists treating embouchure dystonia. But beyond this issue, which will be corrected over time when more players become better educated on this topic, we need to start asking better questions about embouchure dystonia. Some of these questions can (and should) be objectively researched, but again, this needs to start at the level of the musical community, who are not only going to have a higher stake in this issue but also should have the necessary background in brass technique to better study brass embouchures.

But in order to do this better music educators need to take research methodology more seriously. To a certain degree, our lack of awareness of how to conduct research and interpret academic articles and papers is understandable. We are first and foremost artists and our primary concern should be musical expression. That said, critical thinking is a skill that pays off in dividends both in and out of music. It behooves all brass teachers, not just ones who specialize in treating embouchure dysfunction, to learn about cognitive bias, how to conduct original research, and how to search for accurate and quality information on musical topics. Once we have changed our culture of ignorance for one of critical thinking and awareness we can begin asking (and researching) questions that potentially lead to more effective treatment of embouchure dysfunction. Here are a few that I personally feel we should be asking.

  1. Are certain embouchure types more prone to severe embouchure dysfunction than others?
  2. What embouchure characteristics (e.g. embouchure type switching) correlate to embouchure dysfunction?
  3. Is embouchure type switching a cause of a specific neurological disorder that can be mapped in the brain or does the neurological issue cause the type switching?
  4. How often is a diagnosis of focal task specific dystonia of the embouchure really a result of type switching?
  5. Does conscious correction of embouchure type switching lead to improvement in embouchure dysfunction?
  6. Do programs that are successful in treating severe embouchure dystonia lead to a player correcting embouchure type switching, even if type switching is not a consideration of that program? If so, would conscious corrective procedures that encourage a player to avoid type switching better serve?
  7. Do mechanical issues related to embouchure type switching lead to the psychological troubles that brass musicians suffer from? If so, can making mechanical corrections lead to a reduction or elimination of the psychological issues?
  8. How can brass teachers helping players who suffer from severe embouchure dysfunction balance a treatment program to address both the mechanical issues related to embouchure type switching and the psychological issues related to inability to perform?

Leading To Open and Honest Communication

I have criticized some folks by name in this essay and elsewhere online before. In the past some of these teachers have taken this criticism personally, even though that is not my intention. Please note that I do my best to address ideas, not people as individuals. I also am very careful to try and qualify my opinions as much as possible to clarify when one of my ideas is based on objective evidence or mere speculation. Furthermore, I have been wrong before and will continue to be wrong again. One of the reasons I post my thoughts about this topic publicly is so that experts can point out the flaws in my reasoning.

The scientific method has been so successful due to its self correcting nature. Brass teachers helping players suffering from severe embouchure dysfunction need to follow this model more. This involves questioning each others’ ideas, challenging our own assumptions, and engaging in an open and honest debate with each other. Too often we view this as being impolite and forget that this is how advances are made. No single individual treating embouchure dystonia has all the right answers, no matter how successful their treatment program seems to be. The lone genius leading the way for everyone to follow is really just a myth. We are collectively a lot smarter than we are individually.

Advice For Suffering Players

If you made it through all this and you are a player suffering from severe embouchure dysfunction I want to conclude with my advice for you. I have had some success helping some folks with chop problems myself and I also know a handful of folks around the U.S. that I recommend, but if you want help you’ll probably have to travel to someone unless you happen to live in their area. Video consultations, while having potential, generally don’t lend themselves to diagnosing embouchure problems and the solutions.

There are brass teachers who are successful at helping folks with embouchure dysfunction who don’t demonstrate an awareness of embouchure types and how to correct type switching, but I typically would encourage a student to seek the help from someone more knowledgable. Ask questions. Furthermore, when you are looking for help I think it’s good to remember the Dunning/Kruger Effect. The more black and white a discussion of embouchure dysfunction is and the more sure of themselves they can help, I find the more likely their approach is going to be based on philosophy or analogy than objective reality. Treatment programs that are based in the “Harold Hill Think System” may be more likely to be successful in spite of, rather than because of what you learn. A second opinion may be a good idea, even if it seems to be working for you.

Then again, I may be wrong. Take the time to follow some of the resources and links I’ve posted here about brass embouchure function and dysfunction and judge for yourself. My goal here is to make brass teachers and players aware of the information that is available in order to place advice into a proper context, not scare anyone away from an opposing viewpoint. I welcome questions and criticisms to my own ideas and encourage you to leave them in the comments section below.

Guess the Embouchure Type – Nagy Miklos

I was going through some bookmarked links from a while back and found this performance of the Antonio Rosetti Horn Concerto in Eb Major by Hungarian hornist Nagi Miklos. Not only was this piece new to me (at least I don’t recall having heard it before, in spite of it being part of the standard horn rep), but I wasn’t familiar with Miklos either. Check out Miklos’s playing and this piece on this YouTube video. While you’re at it, watch his chops and see if you can guess his embouchure type. My guess comes after the break.

Continue reading Guess the Embouchure Type – Nagy Miklos

Weekend Picks

It’s Friday and it has been a while since I’ve posted some random music-related links for you to surf this weekend.

Coping With Change As Brass Players Age is an essay written by trombonist and composer Brad Howland. Frankly, everything he mentions in there is good for brass players of any age.

An odd side effect of a mood-stabilization drug might actually be able to help adults develop absolute pitch. Read more about it on Want Perfect Pitch? You Might Be Able To Pop a Pill For That.

While this Music Timeline is short on classical music (meaning none) it is a neat interactive way to explore popular and jazz music styles.

Believe it or not, my own composing has been influenced by cartoon music. Here’s an old Warner Brothers cartoon that I love, featuring music written by the great Shorty Rogers, The Three Little Bops.

Stabilizing the Embouchure

Daniel shared a video of his embouchure with me and asked me about helping his range. After watching it, I wrote the following in response. Since the advice I gave Daniel is something that I continue to work on myself, I thought I’d share it here.

By the way, I still have a backlog of emails from players who are waiting for some embouchure help from me. I’m sorry about the delay, and please feel free to drop me a reminder email about it.


Hi, Daniel.

Your situation is one that is kind of tough for me to be specific based on what I can see on a video. In person there are some things we could try and they might provide better clues, but for now I think you should think about having a good overall embouchure formation. Once that’s working a little better it becomes easier to get more personalized.

Watch the video and see how your lips open for the breath and then have to come together quickly as you attack the pitch. This way of breathing is great for taking in large breaths very quickly, but it’s rough on the chops. First, every time you take a breath the mouthpiece has to lighten up on pressure when you open your lips, but then has to “crash” back against your lips for the attack. It’s not as stable and it’s rough on endurance. Secondly, when you go to attack the note it’s very tough to have both the lips firmed correctly for the note and the mouthpiece to be on the right place on the lips.

Just for practice, I’d suggest you take any warmup/routine exercises you do and as you go through a practice session, do a little bit of the following:

  1. Firm your lips as if you were going to buzz.
  2. Place the mouthpiece on the firmed lips and don’t allow yourself to change the position of the lips at all (you might want to wet your lips to set the mouthpiece so it can more easily slide to where it wants to go without twisting up your lips in any way).
  3. Breath in and play the exercise.

When it comes to inhaling for the first note of the exercise you should start out by leaving your chops set, ready to play. You can learn to do this in stages:

  1. Breathe through the nose (your lips firmed and the mouthpiece pressure as if you were already playing).
  2. Breathe through the mouth corners while keeping the lips inside the mouthpiece together. A little more mouthpiece pressure than you might use while playing can help you keep the lips center together while breathing through the mouth corners.

Eventually it can really help to go to breathing through the mouth corners like #2 just above all the time, not just for the first note after putting the instrument on your lips, and not just for exercises. But for now just spend 5-10 minutes a day at the beginning of your practice trying this out for the first notes you play when you put the horn to your lips.

If you find that as your practicing this that your mouthpiece placement wants to drift in any direction (up, down, left, right), allow that to happen. Your placement looks very close to half and half, which actually is not that common. If you find getting the high notes out is easier with a placement higher or lower on the lips, spend some practice time playing with that mouthpiece placement and see what happens.

After a couple of weeks of trying this out let me know how it feels to play now and even take another short video. Please take a look at the link I sent earlier. It will tell you the things to video record that help me figure out what’s going on.

Good luck!

Dave

The Pencil Trick Exercise Revisited

If you’re not familiar with the “Pencil Trick” exercise for brass players, it’s a type of embouchure exercise where the player holds a pencil between the lips and holds it straight out for as long as he or she can, just through pinching the lips together. There are a some different variations of it described in books and online, and lots of ways to interpret the basic instructions.

My first exposure to this exercise was second hand, a description of it from a trombonist who watched some trumpet players on a tour bus doing it. The first publication I’ve come across that discusses it is Donald Reinhardt’s Encyclopedia of the Pivot System. Here’s what Reinhardt recommended:

A standard, unsharpened wooden pencil is generally used for this routine. Form your saturated embouchure as if to buzz and place the tip of either end of the pencil between your compressed lips – NOT BETWEEN YOUR TEETH. While pointing the pencil in a forward, horizontal manner, strive to support it with only the “pinching power” of your lips. Do not become discouraged if the pencil falls to the floor. In practically all cases a great deal of perseverance is required. As soon as sufficient pinching power of the embouchure formation has been achieved, the prescribed drill will no longer present a problem. Initially, do not attempt the embouchure pencil support for more than a few seconds at a time – it is extremely strenuous. After each attempt has been completed, remove the pencil from between your lips, drop your jaw, open your mouth, exhale and relax. You will feel the results of your workout throughout the lower part of your facial area; this is correct. The amount of time consumed for each workout may be extended; however, it is vital that you accomplish this by degrees.

– Donald S. Reinhardt, Encyclopedia of the Pivot System, Appendix 4-5.

When I do practice this myself, or teach it to a student, this is my preferred method of practicing the pencil trick exercise. But it’s not the only way. Here’s a 10 minute video discussion by George Rawlin, who also came up with the “Bull Dog” exercise that I’ve discussed here. In Rawlin’s version, the pencil is held in contact with the teeth and it’s purpose is to get the teeth aligned.

As with his “Bull Dog” exercise, I feel compelled to mention that the aligned jaw that Rawlin recommends is not necessarily best for all players. I don’t have any formal stats to site, but I feel pretty confident that a majority of brass players do play with their jaw set so that the teeth are aligned. That said, not all should, and it’s a pretty sizable minority.

Unfortunately, I don’t think Rawlin’s system for getting the teeth aligned using the pencil as a guide is going to be accurate. One way to get the pencil to point straight is to close the teeth, for example. I just don’t see it as useful as simply aligning your teeth and using mirror feedback, if you need some.

While many players don’t want to play while aligning their teeth, Rawlin covers a situation that isn’t uncommon, players who should be aligning their teeth, but have trouble thrusting their jaw forward for long periods of time. I prefer a different exercise for this situation.

About 3:00 into the video Rawlin describes exactly one of the reasons why I’m careful about recommending this exercise if I can’t watch the student do it a bit to make sure he or she is doing it correctly. In Reinhardt’s version, the lip compression used to hold the pencil out comes from the mouth corners and shouldn’t be top/bottom squeeze.

And at about 4:50 into his video Rawlin describes one of my personal pet peeves. If you’re tempted to do this pencil exercise (or mouthpiece buzz) in the car, please reconsider. Not only is a distraction from driving, but if the air bag goes off because you get rear ended you’re going to end up sorry you had a stick in your mouth. If you must do something musical in the car, sing to yourself or listen to good music.

At any rate, there is an awful lot of disagreements about his exercise. Many players (some very fine ones) think that it’s a silly waste of time at best and at worse you’re messing up your chops. This certainly can be true, depending on the circumstance. There’s some value that players can get from doing it, but I’m not entirely convinced these days that the cost/benefit ratio from doing it is worth the effort. In my own playing, I find that free buzzing is a better use of my time than the pencil trick.  I also find that considering how easy it is do do the pencil trick exercise in an unproductive way, it’s better to focus my students toward free buzzing as well.

Embouchure Question: Dealing With an Upstream Mouthpiece Placement Shift

I often will scan through topics on brass fora for blogging ideas. This particular question was asked on the Trumpet Herald Forum.

So for some time now my I have had decreased range and endurance. I think it is due to a weak upper lip. When I get about a G above the staff my emborchure changes and goes from a 1 third top, 2 thirds bottom to a 1 fourth top, 3 fourths bottom. Is there a way to just strength my upper lip?

Here, then, is my slightly edited response in that topic.

My short advice is to place the mouthpiece where you put it for the high range and learn to play your entire range there. It may take some weeks of practice before you start becoming comfortable enough to play that way always, but you’ll probably be better off in the long term. If you want to understand why I feel this way, read on.

When I get about a G above the staff my emborchure changes and goes from a 1 third top, 2 thirds bottom to a 1 fourth top, 3 fourths bottom.

Since I have not watched you play in person, you should take my advice with a grain of salt. That said, based on your description you have a “low placement” upstream embouchure type. It’s neither good nor bad, it’s sort of like being left handed. It’s less common than the downstream embouchure types, so you’ll see fewer players around using it. It also is different from the other embouchure types and certain instructions you might get that work great for downstream players actually work against low placement players. I’ve taught many upstream players and happen to be one myself.

Your switch in mouthpiece placement at a certain point in your range is actually a pretty common upstream problem. Again, without watching you play I can’t be certain if this applies to you or not, but almost every time I’ve seen this (and experienced it in my own playing at one time) the solution is not to try to keep your low register placement for the high register, it’s to learn to play your entire range with the high register placement. And this placement has been without exception, for these players, a placement with more lower lip inside the mouthpiece (placement closer to the chin).

Something that helped me and many of my students with similar issues is to place the mouthpiece on your lips where it works best for the high range, play an open note in your high range, and slowly and softly slur down a partial and back up, then back down two partials and up, down three and up, etc. Accept a thinner sound for the moment, just learn what your chops need to do in order to descend with the high register setting. Avoid dropping your jaw as much as possible for this and don’t worry if you can’t get much lower than where you want to reset.

If you watch yourself in a mirror while doing this you might be able to notice that you’re pushing your lips and mouthpiece together upward towards the nose as you descend. This is natural and proper for upstream players (the downstream embouchures can either do the same or reverse, depending on type). The track of this “embouchure motion” of up to descend and down to ascend can be close to straight up and down, or it can be angled, but it should probably be a straight line and consistently work in the same direction (i.e., up and slightly to the right to descend, down and slightly to the left to ascend). If you find yourself needing to reverse the direction of this you might be going too far with it.

Along with good breathing and proper tongue arch to change registers, finding the exact spot for your embouchure motion for each pitch is going to help you open up your sound and keep your mouthpiece placement consistent for your entire register. A good analogy is that your chops are, for now, like a muscle car. The engine sounds pretty rough when you’re idling at the stop light, but once your up to highway speed it’s very smooth. Once you can “tune up” your playing mechanics to adjust you’re “engine” will work fine in all registers.

Again, all the above makes certain assumptions based only one what you’ve written here already, and I could be way off base. I also want to mention that much of what I wrote would be wrong for most other players, so for any folks who disagree, please put my advice in that context.

Tongue Arch Up Against the Molars

Here’s a question I got a while back from Boaz.

After several times starting to play trumpet daily, I’ve just noticed that the left side of my tongue doesn’t make contact with the upper molars, but my right side does.  I believe this has an effect on focusing the airstream (in all if not the middle to high range), puffing my cheeks and overall ease of playing.  The cheek that puffs the most is the left side which is solved if I focus on keeping the tongue touching both the top-left and top-right molars.  I literally feel like the air escapes from the throat to my left cheek, then out the lips.  With the tongue touching the teeth I feel as if I can finally perform lipslurs primarily using only the tongue arch.

The problem is that the low range doesn’t sound resonant because I’m not used to this yet and that my tongue level is too high now.  In time I’m hoping my body will adjust to this and that I’m hoping this is a step to correct playing.  Can you tell me if you have found the tongue touching the upper molars consistent in most if not all ranges of brass playing?  I’m not sure how different trombone would affect the tongue in terms of the tongue arch.

What you are describing, Boaz, is very similar to something Donald Reinhardt wrote about in his Encyclopedia of the Pivot System as one of his less common tongue types. In this tongue type after the tongue tip’s backstroke attack the sides of the tongue will contact the inner sides of the upper teeth and remain there for slurring and sustaining. This technique is used by many “squeak artist” trumpet players because the narrow passage the air stream must travel between the high tongue arch and the roof of the mouth (along with proper coordination of the breathing and embouchure) helps these players get into the extreme upper register.

Boaz also discovered the drawback to using this tongue technique – the difficulties in the low range. Reinhardt didn’t recommend it for all-around brass playing for this very reason. Quoting Reinhardt:

…[I]f this high tongue-arch is maintained the lower register will suffer accordingly, because the size of the air column is entirely too limited as it passes over the tongue. Players in this category claim that if they permit the tongue-arch to be lowered to accommodate the lower tones they cannot bring the tongue back to its original position for the upper register, unless they inhale and start again. I repeat, the tongue type one (this is Reinhardt’s term for this tongue type) is not recommended or intended for all-around brass playing.

I have heard that players with unusually large oral cavities (particularly a tall roof of the mouth) are able to mitigate the difficulties in the low register. I’ve not explored this tonguing method much myself, but I don’t have much of an issue bringing my tongue arch back up after descending into the low register without needing to inhale and start again. It’s hard to say what’s physically happening to the players Reinhardt noted in the quote above. Generally speaking, I think it’s better to adopt one method to apply the tongue arch and stick with it, rather than switching around, but it seems to be less necessary for long-term playing than adopting a single embouchure type is.

As far as the cheek puff Boaz mentions, this is something I’d want to watch to offer any specific advice. There are some circumstances when a cheek puff seems to be necessary and proper for certain players, but that’s typically more with trumpet players who have very small oral cavities and while they play in the upper register very loudly. Some low brass players may find it helpful to play in the extreme low register. In all of these situations, however, I feel it’s important to keep the cheek puff as far away from the mouth corners as possible. When the cheek puff is allowed to pull the corners away it can start to mess with the embouchure.

Got any thoughts yourself? Do you use a similar method to Boaz with your tongue arch? If so, how do you deal with the difficulties it tends to cause in the lower register? Please leave your comments below.

Weekend Picks

It’s Friday, so here are a few music related links for your perusal this weekend.

Drummer Peter Erskine on Jazz Flick ‘Whiplash’. I haven’t seen this film and based on what I’ve read about it  I’m not certain I’ll rush out to see it in theaters. The band director character sounds like the sort I try to avoid. Erskine wrote:

Being a jerk is, ultimately, self-defeating in music education: for one thing, the band will not respond well; secondly, such bandleaders are anathema to the other educators who ultimately wind up acting as judges in competitive music festivals — such bands will never win (the judges will see to that).

Joey Tartell teaches trumpet at Indiana University and he points out that You’re Not Always Entitled To Your Opinion.

There are people posting so often that their voices are heard more, and they are therefore treated as experts. But a lot of these people have no standing in the real world. Recently, I read as the Associate Principal Trumpet of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Third Trumpet of the New York Metropolitan Orchestra were, separately, berated online for offering their opinions on some trumpet related matters. I’d like to say that I was amazed, but considering what I’ve read in the past few years online, I was just sad.

You already know Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, but do you know how celebrated a musician his older sister, Maria Anna Mozart, was?

Leopold Mozart, a court musician, began teaching Maria Anna, his first-born child, to play harpsichord when she was 8 years old. She progressed quickly, with 3-year-old Wolfgang often at her side. After a few years, Wolfgang tried to play sections from Maria’s music book. “Over time, Nannerl’s playing became more and more brilliant, her technique perfect,” Rieger says. “Young Wolfgang was probably impressed by that and inspired to play.”

I mentioned in a recent blog post how Donald Reinhardt was known to occasionally tell his students to practice in a way that would intentionally exaggerate the ultimate goal. Rich Hanks posted a previously unpublished interview that describes one example.

Now these statements are exaggerated. They have to be. So that when you say, “Let’s forget Reinhardt,” you’ll play well, because I’ve exaggerated so much that enough rubs off in the subconscious to have that take over.

And lastly, it’s not just trumpet players who are competitive musicians.

Embouchure Question – Tongue Between Teeth

grain of saltI’m in the process of cleaning out my email inbox and getting back to all the questions I’ve gotten over the past few months. Here’s one that I thought would be interesting enough to post here. Bob writes:

In the past we have touched on the the idea of TCE. I have some questions,or maybe I would like to hear some more of your observations of Why, the tongue between the teeth would hinder development of sound, range, flexibility. I am just very interested as to why I find this working so well and so easily for me. My range continues to grow in both directions as well as improvement in my tone. I’m not on a Devil’s advocate idea,just trying to gain some insight, if there is any,as to why is it embouchure specialists are so against something that I find wonderful for playing.

I don’t mind people playing devil’s advocate at all, and this is an interesting topic to discuss, regardless of what your personal thoughts are. I do think it’s accurate to state that playing with your tongue between your teeth is discouraged by most. However, it’s not completely unheard of. As I’ve brought up in other posts here, advocates of a “tongue controlled embouchure” (sometimes abbreviated as “TCE”) recommend the tongue tip presses against the lower lip while playing. Donald Reinhardt noted this phenomenon and listed it as one of his rare tongue types, correct for players with “long thick lower lips with exceptionally short stumpy lower teeth.” It’s possible that the reason Bob finds this technique so wonderful for playing is because it simply is the best possible method for his anatomical features.

That said, there are some folks who adopt a tongue controlled embouchure who I strongly suspect would be better off in the long term doing something different. Every player who plays with the tongue between the teeth like this I’ve heard in person (and almost without exception on video or audio too) has a tone that I find less-than-pleasant. Even if it gives them great high range, I just don’t like the way it sounds. If this doesn’t describe you, or if you’re happy with the sound, then perhaps it will be fine. For the large majority of players, however, there are some drawbacks to keeping the tongue between the lips that may not be obvious in the short term.

First, the attacks. If you’re attacking each pitch with the tongue striking the lips you’re working harder than you need to on each attack. Yes, some players get quite good at clean attacks this way, but there are more split second adjustments that need to happen compared to having your lips already in position for the the pitch and tonguing behind the teeth. Keeping the attacks clean with the tongue against the lips takes more vigilance than otherwise and I suspect that valuable practice time is better served working on other things that will work better in the long term.

Typically, keeping your tongue on the lips will require a more open jaw position than I think is optimal for the long term. There are a lot of players who get used to playing with a more open jaw position (with and without the tongue on the lips) that learn to play well, but in the long term this seems to run the risk of problems. Just this past weekend I worked with a horn player who couldn’t hold pitches steady. One of the things that ended up having a beneficial effect on her playing was to bring her teeth closer together. She had been playing at a high level for decades, but eventually she couldn’t make this technique work (and to be clear, there were other issues going on here and it wasn’t just the jaw position hindering her playing).

Donald Reinhardt, one of my go-to sources for brass embouchure form and function, felt that attacking the pitch with the tongue between the lips was one of the worst techniques for range, flexibility, endurance, and playing confidence. According to Reinhardt, this is because the mouthpiece ends up “bobbing and shifting its position during any detached tongued passages.” The brass player risks subconsciously letting up on the mouthpiece pressure prior to the attack and then the mouthpiece will be suddenly thrust back against the lips for the attack. All this thrusting of the mouthpiece back and forth of the mouthpiece against the lips means that your lips are taking a beating while playing.

As I’ve speculated on other posts about the tongue controlled embouchure, keeping the tongue tip against the lower lip while playing may provide a range boost for players because the forward position of the tongue really helps the player focus the air stream against the embouchure aperture. For some downstream players the tongue also ends up providing some of the lip compression that are more typically (and more correctly, in my opinion) done at the mouth corners. For players who find the tongue on the lower lip effective I recommend taking the tongue tip and instead attacking pitches behind the upper teeth and then snapping it to press against the gully behind and below the lower teeth. The tongue center can then be pressed forward towards the compressed embouchure formation but be kept off the lips entirely. This allows the jaw position to be closed enough for long-term progress and the muscular effort done at the mouth corners instead. Yes, this will take practice and time to make work, but I feel it’s better for most players over the long term.

I’ll close my thoughts again by quoting Reinhardt because in my experience I’ve found the following to be accurate.

Whenever a performer permits his tongue to penetrate between his teeth and lips, he is actually opening them to allow the tip of his tongue to penetrate between them. In so doing, he is subconsciously depending upon the timing of his reflexes to bring his lips together again for the purpose of vibrating. Some players get by in this manner for years but as they advance in age and their reflexes slow down, the real playing difficulties commence. Learn to use your tongue without molesting the embouchure formation in any way.

– Donald Reinhardt, Encyclopedia of the Pivot System

So Bob, maybe your experience is absolutely correct for you, but not most other folks. Maybe the reason you find it works better is because there’s something else you’re doing (or not doing) while playing without the tongue between the lips that makes a tongue controlled embouchure work better in the short term, but a different approach would work better in the long term. Since I haven’t been able to watch you play I can only speculate. Take my thoughts with a big grain of salt.