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.


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,

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.