Why “Schools” of Brass Playing?

I’ve griped about my pet peeve here more than once, but a recent forum discussion on the Trumpet Herald concerning mouth corners got me thinking about this topic again. The debate there centers around whether it’s better to worry about what your mouth corners are doing, which is an interesting conversation to have, but it got framed into different “schools” of trumpet teaching.

When I lurk on the dedicated forums* on the Trumpet Herald I notice that there is a lot of advice that is common across different camps of trumpet teaching and playing. There is also an awful lot of contradictory information. The trouble with the debates that crop up there (and elsewhere) are that it tends to focus on what a particular teacher said, rather than trying to understand why.

For example, the discussion on mouth corners led to a debate on whether or not it was useful to learn about what the corners are supposed to do when playing and how to use that information. Some folks cited teachers and players who argued against worrying about the mouth corners at all while others did the same for focused practice on the mouth corners. Both sides can’t be right, can they? Or does it really have to come down to try everything, use what works for you? Is there any way we can narrow down which approach is going to work best for our particular situation?

One potentially useful exercise to help us answer those questions is to speculate on some reasons why a teacher would recommend a particular approach. Looking then at the context of the argument you will hopefully be able to determine how much weight you should give to that instruction and spend less time on trial and error figuring out what works and more time making music. Here, then, are three hypothetical motivations.

1. Other playing mechanics need to be prioritized. There are many facets to successful brass technique. A brass player needs to coordinate breathing, tonguing, fingering/slide – all within the context of performing expressively and (usually) playing well with other performers. There may be more than one area where the teacher identifies playing deficiencies, but it’s really difficult to address more than one at a time. An experienced teacher will often prioritize which area should be corrected first (breathing, for example) and tell a student to not worry about another (embouchure, for example). Sometimes students (who often become teachers themselves later) will interpret that to mean you should never pay attention to how your embouchure is working because breathing will fix it.

Consider a masterclass scenario. If you only have about 15 minutes to work with a particular student and see a handful of things you can recommend you only have time to make so many corrections. The teacher will often prioritize things that can be addressed in that short amount of time. I have argued before that breathing is perhaps the most natural aspect of brass technique, is one of the easiest to fix, and is one of the areas where the field of brass teachers and players as a whole have the greatest understanding. Therefore, it will get much more attention in these sort of situations.

Furthermore, some teachers like to do the “crazy like a fox” style of instruction. Arnold Jacobs seems to have been quite good at telling his students how to play while at the same time telling them how to play. Here’s my favorite example, from Song and Wind.

A common problem is that of a double buzz, or as Jacobs calls it, “segmentation.” This happens when the embouchure is set for vibrations higher than what is actually desired. A major factor is insufficient air to fuel the vibration. It is, in fact, hardly ever an embouchure problem. The tongue’s position is too high and forward in the mouth. To correct segmentation, adjust the embouchure to vibrate at the pitch that is desired – play with a thicker air stream and keep the embouchure open.

The bold emphases are mine to help you see how contradictory some great teachers can be, in the same paragraph in this example. Another example comes from a tape I have of Donald Reinhardt giving a lesson. In it he discusses how he will raise a student’s horn angle to get them to change the position of the jaw, precisely because he didn’t want his student’s attention on the jaw at that time. Reinhardt goes on to talk about how over a period of lessons he will sometimes ask the student to practice with a horn angle that isn’t where he expects it should be. There are plenty of examples we can find where teachers will tell a student to go from point A to point C in order to make them go to point B.

If you don’t understand why a teacher makes a recommendation, you might take something too literally. Don’t just listen to what is being said, make an effort to decipher where that recommendation comes from.

2. The teacher really doesn’t understand that particular area. I frequently remind people to take my ideas with a grain of salt. All of us are wrong at times, even in areas where we are otherwise quite knowledgeable. Teachers tend to instruct their students in a  way that worked for them, and can get quite clever and practiced at helping their students – even when they don’t understand what students are physically doing when playing the instrument. Even (maybe especially) great players can have literally no idea how they play, but they can have solid analogies and highly charismatic personalities that lead to great teaching.

Some teachers know they are ignorant in some area and so simply don’t address that topic much. Others have come to ideas based on inaccurate information or an error in logic. Good brass teachers that fit this scenario come up with solid practice methods in spite of their ignorance through careful trial and error. They may not understand why it works, they just see it does. We can very easily fool ourselves into seeing patterns that aren’t really there.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? Well, that’s probably not the best attitude. What we can say is accurate about brass technique today is different from what was generally understood in the past. Educational psychologists have made great improvements in our understanding of how we learn and retain information and skills. Kinesiology has similarly made corrections in how we develop motor skills and what approaches train them faster and consistently.

Musical performance and education needs to be more fluid and self-correcting to take advantage of these advances. Before you pass on advice to someone else, it’s worth checking up on your source for that information and see if it holds up under scrutiny. Are our goals to advance as musicians and help others on the same path? If so, I argue we should make an better effort to try to keep current and give other ideas a closer look, even when they contradict our own cherished beliefs.

3. The teacher is right, at least to a degree. Great brass teachers are authorities in the area of teaching brass. While this doesn’t necessarily mean they are always right, their background as teachers and performers means we should pay attention to what they say. But in light of some of the contradictions you’ll hear from different teachers and players say about developing good brass technique, a little more context is needed.

Consider all the different ideas and techniques brass players have about tongue arch. There are some folks who swear they never change the position of their tongue while slurring notes and others who advocate changing it to play in different registers. Some folks let their tongue tip hover in their mouth while holding pitches while others will set the tongue tip below the lower teeth. There are some methods that instruct students to hold their tongue pressed up against their lower lip at all times. Brass embouchure technique is another example. I won’t go into that topic here because I’ve so frequently written about this topic before.

When we consider that the size and shape of everyone’s tongue, oral cavity, teeth, lips, etc. are different, it stands to reason that some folks will simply play better with an alternate technique. Some of these methods will be a little more common than others and some of those approaches may be dead ends, but that shouldn’t stop us from exploring why these techniques work (or don’t work) and come to an understanding why we should recommend them or not and under what circumstances.

Where to go from here?

I would be lying if I said that I’ve got the right answer. The above musings are really extreme caricatures of possible brass teacher motivations. Most likely there is a little bit of all three in you and me too. I hope, at least some of the time, to have the humility to consider that some of my ideas are wrong and explore different, better ways to teach and play. As musicians and music educators we should be more concerned with teaching our students how to think about music, rather than what to think.


* If you don’t read the Trumpet Herald forum, they have forums that are dedicated to discussing the teaching of a particular instructor or “school” of instructors.

Happy 2015

Happy 2015 to everyone. I had a very busy last couple of months. It’s typical for me to have a lot of rehearsals and performances during December, but this last month was busier than I usually have. The good news is that for the most part everything I performed was very fun.

One of the recent highlights was conducting the Land of the Sky Symphonic Band in concert at the Diana Wortham Theater at the very end of November. We always perform a varied program. This one included Aegean Festival Overture by Andreas Makris. If you’re not familiar with this piece, it is probably the most challenging piece of music I’ve ever conducted due to the mixed meters that change almost constantly throughout. Everyone in the band worked really hard on that music (and the rest of the concert).

The Asheville Jazz Orchestra performed our annual Stan Kenton Christmas Concert just before Christmas, as usual. This year we performed two concerts, instead of the typical one. It was successful enough that I think we’ll be doing the second performance again next year. This show is always fun. If you’re not familiar with Stan Kenton’s Merry Christmas album, the charts, all written by Ralph Carmichael, are really a lot of fun to play and quite difficult. The Twelve Days of Christmas is one of the ones that I always look forward to playing for the challenge.

I got to play one of the dances at this year’s Lindy Focus swing dance camp again this year with the Jonathan Stout Orchestra. I was fortunate that the dance I played on was the Duke Ellington tribute night. I’ve played a lot of Ellington music before, and of course I love to listen to his recordings, but this was probably the first time I’ve played three sets of nothing but Ellington charts. Jonathan had us performing the actual Ellington/Strayhorn arrangements, not stock charts. I ended up playing mostly the Juan Tizol parts the whole night. Since I played slide trombone, not valve trombone, a few of the lines were pretty tricky to handle. There were only a couple of us from the local area in the band, everyone else was from out of town as far away as L.A., New York, or New Orleans. It was a very fine band and one of the most enjoyable gigs I’ve played in quite a long time.

Last weekend the Low-Down Sires played a dance for the Triangle Swing Dance Society near Durham, NC. Jason Krekel played with us on banjo and guitar for this show. Jason is an excellent musician and I hope to get to play with him a lot more in the future. It was also fun to talk with Jeffry at this dance, who read this blog and had some embouchure questions we talked about during one of my set breaks. It’s always fun to meet readers of this blog in person, especially at my out of town shows.

I plan on catching up on some blogging this month and especially getting to the pile of emails I’ve gotten with questions and suggestions for topics. If you’ve sent me a question and not heard back from me please feel free to drop me another line and remind me. I’ll try to get to each of those in the order they came in, so look for your response in the next couple of weeks or so, either as a private reply or here as a blog post (and I’ll email you if I post an answer here). Please remember that if you’re looking for embouchure advice that I really need to see your playing to help and this page here will let you know what you can do to help me help you better.

Weekend Picks

I’m a little late today posting my weekend picks. I’ll make it up to you by posting one more than usual today.

VictrolaHave you ever wondered Why Nerdy White Guys Who Love the Blues Are Obsessed With a Wisconsin Chair Factory?

Paramount is this incredible label that was born from a company called the Wisconsin Chair Company, which was making chairs, obviously. The company had started building phonograph cabinets to contain turntables, which they also were licensing. And they developed, like many furniture companies, an arm that was a record label so that they could make records to sell with the cabinets. This was before a time in which record stores existed. People bought their records at the furniture store, because they were things you needed to make your furniture work.

Transcribing music is one of the best things you can do for all around musicianship. It helps train your ear, writing it down improves your sight reading, you develop expressive nuances in your own playing, and it helps you develop a vocabulary for improvisation.

Kathy Jensen’s signature laugh with transcription. She has endless licks and can laugh in any key. She’s also a killer sax player.

Her laughter is infectious. You can check out more about Kathy Jensen at www.hornheads.com.

If you’re a jazz musician or a fan of jazz jam sessions you’ll recognize what Bill Anschell has to say about jam sessions. Consider, for example, the vocalists you run into at jam sessions.

Vocalists are whimsical creations of the all-powerful jazz gods. They are placed in sessions to test musicians’ capacity for suffering. They are not of the jazz world, but enter it surrepticiously. Example: A young woman is playing minor roles in college musical theater. One day, a misguided campus newspaper critic describes her singing as …”jazzy.” Voila! A star is born! Quickly she learns “My Funny Valentine,” “Summertime,” and “Route 66.” Her training complete, she embarks on a campaign of session terrorism. Musicians flee from the bandstand as she approaches. Those who must remain feel the full fury of the jazz universe (see “The Vocalist” below). IH: The vocalist will try to seduce you—and the rest of the audience—by making eye contact, acknowledging your presence, even talking to you between tunes. DO NOT FALL INTO THIS TRAP! Look away, your distaste obvious. Otherwise the musicians will avoid you during their breaks. Incidentally, if you talk to a vocalist during a break, she will introduce you to her “manager.”

Read a whole lot more at Bill Anschell’s Jazz Jam Sessions: A First-Timer’s Guide.

On a more serious note, I found Bob Gillis’s discussion on trumpet embouchures to be fascinating. I have some minor quibbles with a couple of his points, but those are based on the perspective of an upstream embouchure player. I’m guessing that Bob must be a downstream embouchure type (not a wild guess, the majority of brass players are). Here’s a sample.

By then stopping the incoming mouthpiece weight when it first contacts this ideal preset of the embouchure, the player will have taken all of the steps to create the best possible seal before involving any action of the embouchure musculature. This extremely close proximity of the mouthpiece serves as a great reference…meaning it will clearly reveal what specific gaps still remain, and what exact shape the embouchure must assume to complete its interface with the mouthpiece. This embouchure “sandwich” (like the filling of the Oreo cookie) between the mouthpiece rim and teeth (with their irregularities) must fulfill much more than a role of a seal or gasket though, for it also functions as the instrument’s reed and facing (the top and bottom lips, respectively). That means the act of sealing the interface between mouthpiece and teeth formation must be done in a way that does not disrupt the vibration of the top lip, but that instead increases the efficiency of its vibration. This efficiency is achieved by also simultaneously focusing the size and shape of the lip aperture, all the while making sure the top lip is as relaxed as possible.

Read more on his post, The Landing: The Final Focus and Seal. It looks like he has a lot more interesting stuff there which I will need to look through more carefully later.

And lastly, the Mnozil Brass will be touring not too far from me in February. If you’re not familiar with them, they are incredible musicians and also very entertaining performers. Here is their performance of Lonely Boy.

Question – Helping Woodwinds Transition to Brass

Kim sent me a good question via email.

When I’m not working as an engineer I assist local marching bands with visual and brass. The program I’m with now has a very good and successful approach to outdoor brass playing that’s almost the same I was taught in drum corps. They do really well in jazz which I wish was in my wheelhouse. I’m a low brass player but have adopted the mellophones, those poor redheaded stepchildren to give extra special attention and help.

My (the band’s problem) is that a sax player, great musician, opted to fill in a mello hole. That has been done in the past with a lot of success. This kid fracks all the attacks, has a gut piercing tone, and when he settles on a pitch can play loud. And his notes get chopped off hard.

What I can see is it looks like he’s reverting subconciously to a sax embouchure. That makes for zero or at best spitting/crackling noises from his horn. From your articles I also think he has developed some type of tongue controlled embouchure.

I’ve only been with this band a few weeks and wasn’t there when this kid switched. He’s working hard and knows/hears what’s happening but has not been able to get the information into his body.

He was pretty much parachuted into this and that’s the real problem. He hasn’t had time to really figure it out how sound production works.

Thank you for any suggestions, pointers, comments,
Kim

As always, I can’t really offer specific advice on your student without being able to watch him play. However, you offered some clues as to what might be happening, so here are some things you can look for.

A saxophone embouchure is different than a brass instrument embouchure. One of the fundamental differences is the position and muscular effort of the mouth corners. With a sax embouchure the mouth corners will come in towards the mouthpiece. With this inward push of the mouth corners a sax embouchure is sometimes describe with the lips gripping the mouthpiece as if they are a rubber band.

With brass embouchures, though, this inward push of the mouth corners towards the mouthpiece rim can cause problems. Instead of puckering his lips in and/or forward to the mouthpiece rim he should practice locking the corners in place, more or less where they are when at rest. One analogy that might be useful here is for him to think of the mouth corners as being the ends of a violin or guitar string. This will take time for him to build the strength and coordination to do so, but some simple free buzzing in the correct way can help here.

The other thing it sounds like your sax-turned-mellophone student is doing is articulating everything with the tongue on the lips, and perhaps also stopping the tone this way. On sax he will tongue on the reed for the attacks, so me may similarly be striking the lips with his tongue for the attacks. In this case he will want to move the tongue tip back and behind the upper teeth to attack the pitch, as if saying “tah.” In fact, it may be valuable practice for him to try to attack pitches with no-tongue breath attacks, as if saying “hoo” first. Once he can get a few good breath attacks happening he can start adding a light tongued attack. Try emphasizing that the tongue is a refining factor of the attack, not the defining factor. The air is what creates the attack, the tongue just shapes it.

He may also be releasing notes by slapping the tongue against his lips or even just using a tongue cutoff (as if saying “taht”). Regardless, the releases of notes are best learned by simply stopping the blowing, not using the tongue. Yes, there may be situations where a very clipped release makes a tongue cutoff work, but it needs to be controlled and is best saved as a special effect.

It will be a challenge for your student to both learn to play the mellophone and learn the drill at the same time. It would be great if he can set up some weekly one-on-one time with a brass teacher for a while until he starts getting more of the feel for what he needs to do to play a brass instrument. You never know, he might end up enjoying it so much he switches instruments.

Good luck and please keep us posted on how things progress.

Trumpet Related Injuries

YouTube user “Rufftips” (John) has posted a video about injuries that trumpet players are at risk for. Take a look.

It’s almost 10 minutes long, so if you don’t feel like watching it all the way through just now, I will summarize what he discusses and offer some additional thoughts of my own.

The first condition that John discusses is focal dystonia. Like some other folks online, he passes along some misinformation here. He calls focal dystonia a “muscle condition,” where it is more accurate to call it a neurological condition. The National Center of Neurological Disorders and Stroke discusses dystonia here.

The cause of dystonia is not known. Researchers believe that dystonia results from an abnormality in or damage to the basal ganglia or other brain regions that control movement. There may be abnormalities in the brain’s ability to process a group of chemicals called neurotransmitters that help cells in the brain communicate with each other.  There also may be abnormalities in the way the brain processes information and generates commands to move.  In most cases, no abnormalities are visible using magnetic resonance imaging or other diagnostic imaging.

I’ve written several times briefly about “embouchure dystonia” before here, but I tend to avoid going into too much detail about it because I understand that even experts poorly understand what’s going on. In fact, my personal opinion studying brass embouchures leads me to believe that much of what gets defined as embouchure dystonia may really be related to the player doing some embouchure type switching. Since most brass players (let alone medical professionals) don’t have an idea of what embouchure types are and how they can vary from player to player, the underlying cause of a player’s difficulties get diagnosed as an extremely rare neurological disorder that, as you can see from the NCNDS’s quote above, is challenging to diagnose.

My advice here is if you feel you might have a neurological condition affecting your brass playing you should get a referral to a specialist and never take medical advice from a brass teacher. A brass teacher who is diagnosing and claiming to treat “embouchure dystonia” is not qualified to do either, no matter how many players he or she has helped with lessons.

John next discusses is Bell’s palsy. He does the right thing here and recommends viewers to visit a doctor. I wish he had mentioned that early on in his video.

Over the course of video recording brass player’s embouchures for some of my research I’ve documented two trumpet players who had prior to my recording their chops suffered from Bell’s palsy. While both felt things were not quite 100% for them at the time of the video recording, they both have made complete recoveries. I believe that one of them commented that his doctor told him that the early this condition is diagnosed and treated the faster the recovery period and the more likely the player will make a complete recovery. At one point this disorder might be career ending for a brass player, but these days the medical profession knows enough about Bell’s palsy that treating it has much better outcomes and most people make complete recoveries with proper treatment.

After discussing Bell’s palsy John covers nerve damage. He mainly talks about nerve damage that might occur from getting dental work. John comments that diligent and careful practice can eliminate playing symptoms from nerve damage, but how much of that is simply related to recovery time and how much due to a specific sort of practice isn’t clear to me. Again, if you suspect nerve damage I suggest you discuss your symptoms with a medical professional.

Laryngocele is the next condition John talks about and he even demonstrates what it looks like. I had not heard this term used before, but it’s essentially a neck puff, at least as defined by John. I found a paper published in the Internet Journal of Otorhinolaryngology that defines it slightly differently.

Laryngocele is a rare, benign dilatation of the laryngeal saccule which may be asymptomatic or they may present with cough, hoarseness, stridor, sore throat and swelling of the neck. The incidence of laryngocele is 1 per 2.5 million people per year.

I’ve written about a neck puff before. If you want to read what Donald Reinhardt wrote about this and his recommendations for reducing or eliminated a neck puff please check it out here.

Next up is a brief discussion of the teeth and John’s personal experience with this issue. He recommends getting a mold made of your teeth so that in the event that you need some reconstructive work done on your teeth you can have the dental technicians reconstruct it as close as possible.

Just to add my two cents here, I generally don’t recommend dental work to try to fix a malfunctioning embouchure. I feel that it’s better (and cheaper) in the long term to learn to work with your anatomical features. It is definitely possible to play correctly with all sorts of tooth formations, so there is little need for a player to have his or her teeth worked on in order to find a nonexistent (in my opinion) ideal tooth structure.

John finishes his video discussing lip injuries, again using his own experiences here as a case study. After injuring his upper lip accidentally with a pair of pliers. Eventually he ended up having a plastic surgeon remove the scar tissue from his lip and carefully rebuilt his playing.

If I recall correctly one of my teachers, Doug Elliott, when through something similar when he hit himself in the lip with a hammer. Or maybe this was one of his other students. At any rate, Doug is a fantastic mouthpiece maker and he scooped out a rim to fit the scar tissue and he (or his student) was able to play normally. Eventually the scar tissue healed and he was able to go back to a normal mouthpiece rim.

John recommends what I feel is good advice about rebuilding your chops slowly and carefully. I would also emphasize playing softly throughout your rebuilding, something I don’t recall John mentioning in his video.

In short, I think this video is worth checking out, particularly for folks interested in medical issues related to or affecting brass playing. I wouldn’t suggest folks looking for help with embouchure problems watch it with the intention of self-diagnosing (ironically, I don’t want the same for a lot of my blog posts). I prefer to refer musicians to medical professionals for medical issues. Self-diagnosing from stuff you read on the internet is a bad idea, especially when that medical information is coming from someone like me, a non-medical professional.

Embouchure Type Switching – Very High and Medium High Placement Confusion

Long time readers of my blog will know the huge influence my teacher Doug Elliott has had on both my playing and teaching. Doug was the first person I met who understood the role of how anatomical features influence a brass musician’s embouchure. My lessons with Doug inspired me to learn more about brass embouchures and to begin researching that topic seriously. My dissertation, the correlation between Doug Elliott’s embouchure types and selected physical and playing characteristics among trombonists was largely based on a lengthy interview he graciously agreed to give me. The embouchure types I use and much of the other terminology I use were taught to me by Doug. I know other folks who have similar experience studying and teaching brass embouchures, but Doug’s presentation has always been my favorite.

Yesterday I was able to catch the first lesson I’ve had with Doug in a few years. It was also particularly exciting for me because I brought a couple of trumpet player friends along with me and got the chance to again watch Doug teach first hand. I’ve had the chance to watch both of these friends play up close many times before and even been asked for advice about their chops in the past, so it was very interesting to compare my thoughts and suggestions to Doug’s. Of course, I found my own lesson to be insightful. Doug has always been able to spot things that I do inefficiently, even though I can make it work for most of my playing. He also clarified some things for me that I had thought I had a good grasp on, but still needed more guidance with. My lesson, however, is probably worth a post of its own later.

The topic of the day ended up being players who are “very high placement” embouchure types but who have characteristics of the “medium high placement” embouchure type. Both of my friends who came along for lessons were in this situation and some recent online discussions (including my most recent Guess the Embouchure Type post here) and a private email discussion I’ve been having with John W. dealt with this pattern.

This situation has been a tricky one for me to help students with in the past. There have been times where I’ve been able to spot what was going on right away and immediately help, such as one of the trumpet players I documented in Part 2 of my video/blog post on embouchure troubleshooting. In that particular case the trumpet player was playing well with a “very high placement” up to a certain point in his range, but then reversed the direction of his embouchure motion in his high range. Once I helped him keep the direction of his embouchure motion moving up to ascend (instead of pulling down in that range, like a “medium high placement” embouchure player would) his upper register opened up and increased.

My friends had some similar experiences in their lesson with Doug. One of them I was already convinced should be a “very high placement” player. Doug helped him tweak his horn angles and embouchure motion and slightly altered the way he set his embouchure formation. My other friend wasn’t so obviously a “very high placement” type player to me, but Doug spotted it right way. What I found most interesting about watching this lesson was my friend’s tendency to bunch his chin while playing. My thought was that in order to determine this friend’s correct embouchure type would be to get him to first stabilize his embouchure formation and then his embouchure type would become apparent. Doug, on the other hand, found his correct embouchure type and the embouchure formation stabilized on its own, without needing to address it at all. My friend’s bunched chin was a symptom, not the cause, of his playing inefficiencies.

This situation is a pretty common one and I suspect is the most likely scenario for a player who gets diagnosed with what is sometimes caused “embouchure dystonia” or “embouchure overuse syndrome.” Doug seems to agree with me that the cause of the embouchure dysfunction isn’t usually neurological or overplaying, but rather than a physical playing situation causing some problems that turn into a lack of confidence and setting up a downward spiral. Because most players aren’t familiar enough with how brass embouchures function correctly (and how this can be different from player to player), they aren’t informed enough to find the root cause of their problems. I think Doug was the first person I heard use the analogy that this is like lifting with your back. You can get away with it for a while, and even lift very heavy objects like this when you’re in shape. Over time, however, this can lead to troubles and even injuries.

I wonder if this confusion between playing as a “very high placement” embouchure type and “medium high placement” type usually ends up with the player correctly playing as a “very high placement’ embouchure type. If I understand Doug’s point of view correctly here, this is more often the case, rather than players ending up best as a “medium high placement.” embouchure type. This might be because that players who have the anatomy that makes a “very high placement” embouchure type are more common than the other embouchure types. On the other hand, it appears that there’s something about many “very high placement” type players that allows them to play to a high degree with characteristics of the “medium high placement” type, albeit inefficiently compared to how their chops can be working.

I know there are some regular commentators here who belong to the “very high placement” embouchure type. If you are (or think you are), have you ever had a period where you struggled due to playing with characteristics that are associated with the “medium high placement” embouchure type? If you know that you’re really a “medium high placement” have you ever been mistyped (by yourself or others) as a “very high placement?” Please leave your comments and thoughts about anything related to this topic below.

If you’re looking for help with your embouchure I can’t recommend highly enough Doug’s expertise. You can contact Doug for lesson inquiries through his web site. He also makes great customizable low brass mouthpieces, which can learn more about there too.

Weekend Gig and Weekend Picks

If you’re in western North Carolina this weekend, come on out to hear the Asheville Jazz Orchestra perform at the White Horse Black Mountain on Saturday, September 20, 2014. We play two sets of big band jazz starting at 8 PM.

Here are my picks for your weekend music-related surfing.

It do be International Talk Like a Pirate Day, ye scurvy dog! Drink yer grog and let loose with some Pirate Music & Sea Shanties.

Now this is concentration. Watch as this flautist performs flawlessly in spite of a butterfly landing right on her nose and camping out for a while.

 Here’s a very interesting and insightful essay posted by trombonist Alex Iles about Versatility vs. Adaptability. He writes:

Just as a gymnast must adapt and constantly re-distribute her weight and energy in order to perform difficult choreographed routine on a 4 inch wide balance beam, freelance musicians must adapt to a wide variety of demands that are constantly changing.

Here’s one for the trumpet players, although every musician will get some good info from this one. Pick up some advice on how to play in a big band trumpet section.

And lastly, since it’s marching band season here’s a description of the Seven People You Meet at Marching Band Contests.

Guess the Embouchure Type – Melissa Venema

It’s been a while since I’ve played “Guess the Embouchure Type.” To bring it back I’m going to take a look at Dutch trumpet player Melissa Venema. She’s a remarkable player at only 19 years old at the time I write this. She was 18 in when this concert video was recorded.

There are several pretty good shots of her embouchure, but it may be tricky to pick her embouchure type. Take a close look and see what you think. My guess after the break. Continue reading Guess the Embouchure Type – Melissa Venema

Weekend Picks

I’m playing tonight (Friday, August 29, 2014) at Highlands Playhouse with the Asheville Jazz Orchestra. Dinner is served for attendees at 7 PM and the concert starts at 8. Stop by if you’re in the area.

Here are my picks for your weekend surfing.

Liz Ryan offers 7 Reasons To Let Your Kid Study Music. It’s a little different from your typical list that strives to show a connection between musical study and academic success, although there’s a bit of that in there too.

Are you a trumpet (or any brass) player looking for some new exercises to break things up? Check out the Exercise Database For Trumpet Players, Teachers and Students.

In 1920s America admitting to a homosexual relationship could get you thrown in jail or worse. In spite of that, some lesbian blues singers more than alluded to their preferences. Lisa Hix has written a fascinating look at Singing the Lesbian Blues in 1920s Harlem.

Lastly, it’s easy to find YouTube videos of trumpet players showing off their high range. If you find those videos impressive, you’ll enjoy this High Note Trumpet Nation Anthem.

Embouchure Question – Doubling on Brass

Kelly is a brass doubler who was looking for some help with his or her embouchure type.

Hi, i was wondering if there is any way i can tell if im i medium high placement or a very high placement player? I feel i am a flexible player, but i struggle with anything above the staff (Trumpet player) i also play euphonium, but the opposite occurs. Its much easier for my to play in the upper register on euphonium than on Trumpet. does this mean i’m a medium or high placement player?

This is a tough question to answer, even when I’m able to watch you play in person. In order to actually give someone targeted advice about embouchure I at least need to see some video footage (here is a post I’ve put together that describes in detail the sort of thing that I like to see on video). There is so much that can happen with a player that causes similar symptoms that any suggestions I offer without watching a player can be the complete opposite of what they should be doing. Even working with a student in person it can be difficult to tell with just one lesson which embouchure type will work best in the long term for a player.

Based on what Kelly wrote above I would look at how Kelly’s embouchure looks on both euphonium and trumpet and see if they are indeed the same embouchure type or if Kelly is using a different embouchure type for the different instruments. It’s best if a player can play with the same embouchure type for any brass doubles and it will work better if a player places the mouthpieces in concentric circles on the lips, rather than lining up the top of the rim, for example, in the same place. That can result in type switching or even just having to work harder on one of the instruments because the lips may be fighting for predominance inside the mouthpiece cup.

It’s not hard to find trumpet players who can pick up a low brass instrument and play very high, but struggle with the low register. If you’re used to focusing your embouchure inside a trumpet mouthpiece you can more easily force the lip vibrations into that very small surface area inside a low brass mouthpiece and play into the trumpet range. On the other hand, usually the tone isn’t so focused sounding and often these trumpet players have difficulty descending this way. Lip compression needs to start from the mouth corners, not inside the mouthpiece cup. When these trumpet players learn to do this their tone and low register might open up, but they will loose some of their high range until they learn how to ascend from this more appropriate embouchure formation.

Another fairly common situation is to find brass players (even non-doublers) who type switch between “very high placement” and “medium high placement” embouchure types. At times it will be clear after a little experimentation which embouchure type is going to be correct, but it can also be very difficult to tell, particularly for players who have not been playing for very long or younger players. Since your anatomy determines the most efficient embouchure type it is often necessary for the player to allow some time to complete the growth spurt before you can more correctly determine the embouchure type. Players who haven’t yet learned good embouchure form (using the correct muscles, firming the lips correctly, etc.) will sometimes fluctuate between embouchure types as the lack of stability makes it hard to figure out what’s going to work.

Without having watched Kelly play, the best advice I can offer for now would be to strengthen up the embouchure formation with some light, simple free buzzing exercises (follow that link for the exercise Donald Reinhardt came up with). I wouldn’t be worrying too much about which embouchure type you have, since if you guess wrong you can end up doing more harm than good. Concentrate on other things (firm your lips before placing the mouthpiece, keep the mouthpiece on the lips while breathing through the mouth corners, practice good breath control, etc.) and over time allow your embouchure type to develop on its own. Most players will naturally and subconsciously figure out their own embouchure type this way.

Sometimes a player will type switch and not work out their own embouchure type, however. In this case it can be very helpful to catch lessons from someone who has a deeper understanding of brass embouchure form and function who can do some controlled experimentation and help you find your own embouchure type. At the very least, lessons with an experienced brass teacher who doesn’t really deal with embouchure will help you with other aspects of your playing that should help your embouchure settle down and make your embouchure type more apparent.