I’ve published a new brass embouchure pedagogy resource here on wilktone.com. It replaces the Embouchure FAQ page I had up before. I call it Embouchure 101 because while the information I put in there isn’t very widely understood by brass teachers and players, it is a conceptually simple and objective approach to brass embouchure technique. There’s nothing in it that’s going to be new for a regular reader of my blog, other than some of the presentation I use.
If you’re a music teacher who works with brass students I hope you’ll take some time to read through it and look at the examples I provide. Even if you’re a very experienced teacher you may discover some things about brass embouchures that you weren’t aware of before. I show examples of basic embouchure patterns and discuss the pedagogical implications of what improved understanding of embouchure form and function can mean.
A topic on Trombone Chat got me thinking about the current state of brass embouchure pedagogy.
As Doug notes in the forum thread, traditional brass pedagogy has been dominated by Arnold Jacobs’s approach. In this approach you actively avoid working on the embouchure. In essence most brass students are taught to breathe well and focus on the end product. You should ignore the embouchure.
And that’s why brass embouchure research is so rare and generally unknown outside of a few. Fortunately I was encouraged to explore this topic for my graduate research. I know graduate students who were actively discouraged from doing any sort of pedagogy research on brass embouchures because it wasn’t appropriate or worth doing.
What does the latest research say about teaching brass embouchures? I just scanned through an academic library searching for “(embouchure) AND (pedagogy)” for publications that have come out in the past 5 years. I found just 6 relevant hits.
The Effect of a Researcher Composed Mouthpiece Buzzing Routine on the Intonation and Tone Quality of Beginning Band Brass Students
Beghtol, Jason. The University of Mississippi, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2017. 10746240.
No mention of embouchure types that I noticed. (The abstract notes, “Results suggest the inclusion of a daily mouthpiece buzzing routine does not have a significant effect on beginning band brass students’ intonation or tone quality.”)
OPTIMIZATION OF THE BRASS PLAYING BREATHING PROCESS IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE PHYSIOLOGICAL PROCESSES OF NATURAL BREATHING
Bardins, Sandis; Marnauza, Mara. Problems in Music Pedagogy; Daugavpils Vol. 13, Iss. 1/2, (2014): 97-110.
This one mentioned embouchure twice. The author’s point in both of those sentences is that breathing is important to a well functioning embouchure.
This leads to creating an unnecessary tension and stress in the body, because the natural inspiratory reflex (so-called Herring-Breuer reflex) is not implemented (White, 2005), and also contributes to the expiratory muscle fatigue and rapid decrease of the physical endurance – general for the body, because the body is not supplied with oxygen, as well as embouchure, which receives a reduced amount of air for creation of a sound and has to compensate it by pressing the mouthpiece against the lips.
This approach to mastering breathing patterns in wind instrument playing has several advantages:
3. a more stable air flow which relieves work of the embouchure, thus increasing its endurance and working limits in ultimate registers.
This article pretty much represents mainstream brass pedagogy. Fix the breathing and embouchure will do fine, no need to learn about how embouchure works.
Approaches to the Horn Embouchure: Historical and Modern
Author: Schons, Anthony
Journal: The Horn call
Date: 02/01/2015 Volume: 45 Issue: 2 Page: 58
I actually can’t find this full text online, so I don’t know what it says about embouchure. It could be relevant and I’m curious because I’d like to see how horn pedagogy has evolved (or not). Horn pedagogy seems to have its own quirks that you don’t see in other brass teaching.
Insights on Dealing with Braces
Whitis, James. School Band & Orchestra; Las Vegas Vol. 17, Iss. 9, (Sep 2014): 36-38,40,42,44,46
This article is not scientific at all and is based on the author’s personal experience both having braces and teaching students with braces. I don’t think the advice in there isn’t bad, per se, but it is very incomplete. I’ve seen a lot in the literature that’s like this, one teacher or player’s anecdotes are described, but rarely subjected to any testing.
Song and Wind 2.0: goal-oriented teaching in the applied studio
International Trombone Association Journal. 42.1 (Jan. 2014): p32+.
The only reason this came up in my search was because the term “embouchure” was in one of the citations (Fletcher, S. (2008). The effect of focal task-specific embouchure dystonia upon brass musicians: A literature review and case study. Doctoral Dissertation. The University of North Carolina at Greensboro.). Here’s the specific citation.
From this perspective, it has been easier to discuss, disseminate, and perhaps even implement the comparatively clearer assertions of more behaviorist-leaning teachers; therefore, despite enthusiastic support for Jacob’s ideas, the dialogue on teaching within our field often continues to target task-oriented concepts. (Fletcher, 2008; Marston, 2011)
I’ve read both Fletcher’s and Marston’s dissertations (she cites her own dissertation a lot in this article). I think her criticism of “task-oriented concepts” are off base. The criticism that so much of this type of teaching is contradictory is, to me, evidence that a model, such as Donald Reinhardt’s and Doug Elliott’s embouchure type approaches need to be better understood in order to evaluate and compare different pedagogical practices. If you aren’t analyzing things correctly, you’re not going to teach the right task oriented concepts in the first place. Sure, it’s a lot easier to focus on product over process and get an immediate benefit. But if you’re going to truly compare task-oriented versus product oriented pedagogy you should at least learn how to do both right.
And again, I have to make the point that it’s valuable for teachers to understand the process too, even if they minimize their discussion of the mechanics of brass playing with their students. The whole point of Marston’s article is to teach brass technique by emphasizing the end goal, and while acknowledging that there are smaller steps to reach that goal, at no point does she make any mention to what good brass technique is other than to mention breathing.
And Marston’s impressions that task-oriented teaching is dominant today seems off to me. If the 6 papers and articles I found today are representative, Song & Wind is getting more attention.
A pedagogical approach for developing the endurance, technical facility and flexibility necessary to perform Anthony Plog’s Concerto for Solo Trumpet, 14 Brass, and Percussion
Sullivan, Michael. California State University, Long Beach, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2014. 1528052.
This last one is a case study of one student’s preparation for a demanding performance. The embouchure references in here seem to be mainly related to specific exercises the author found particularly helpful in preparing to perform, but an awful lot of those embouchure exercises reference air flow as the key. While I don’t want to minimize the role that good breathing plays for successful brass playing, it does represent mainstream brass pedagogy’s approach that the only thing that is important for embouchure is to have good breathing.
So there you have it, for what it’s worth. Bear in mind that this was a cursory search and there are probably some hidden gems that I didn’t come across. I also intentionally kept the search terms narrow and eliminated hits that weren’t relevant (anything related to woodwind for example and historical papers). Of the 6, three emphasized breathing as the key for embouchure technique. One article was based purely on anecdotes, so the information should be taken with a grain of salt. Only one made any attempt at scientific inquiry and subjecting pedagogical ideas to a test.
Point of clarification update – there are definitely more than these out there, probably a lot more, it was just what happened to be accessible through one college library web site. My interest in using these six was to use it as a snapshot for what current research happens to be out there on brass embouchure pedagogy.
A couple of weeks ago I blogged about a video demonstration by physicist Richard Smith where he shows how air doesn’t need to travel through a brass instrument in order for the normal acoustics of the instrument to work. While I find the science behind it and the creative thinking he used to create the demonstration interesting, what I’m most curious about is the discussion is sparked on the pedagogy forum where I first came across this video. If you didn’t see this video, here it is again.
I mentioned in my previous post that I found some of the comments disappointing and surprising. I made a couple of responses in the pedagogy forum that I wanted to share here for other folks who are concerned about “practical applications” of taking the time to learn this information.
The only legitimate criticism I’ve seen in this thread is that the title of the video is somewhat misleading, although I think it’s still technically true. All we really need to get a brass instrument to resonate is an oscillator, it doesn’t need to be lips excited by air being blown past them.
But for those of you who are being snarky, dismissive, or downright degrading Dr. Smith’s video demonstration because you don’t see an immediate application to trombone pedagogy, here are a few things I’d like to offer as food for thought.
In North Carolina, where I live, the public school’s guidelines for music standards are broken into three parts: Musical Literacy, Musical Response, and Contextual Relevancy. These are then further broken down into more detailed standards, one of which states, “Understand global, interdisciplinary, and 21st century connections with music.” Other states likely have similar education standards. In my opinion, this is a good goal to have. Music is not created and learned in a vacuum. It’s important to learn how music relates to history, sociology, and yes, science.
I think we all agree that modeling to our students is an important and effective way to communicate musical instructions. Most of us probably play for our students and recommend listening to quality performances. You might also consider that you’re not just modeling music, but also attitude. Even if you only teach private lessons, when you openly dismiss a science demonstration that describes the way a brass instrument actually works you’re effectively undermining that student’s band director’s attempts to make an interdisciplinary connection with music. You’re modeling that science isn’t relevant to music and discouraging science literacy. And you might consider that many of the members of this Facebook group are students and future music educators. What attitude should the experienced teachers here be modeling to them?
Unless you’re teaching at a conservatory, and even if you do, your students are likely going to have to make a connection with science and music at some point in their life. The video demonstration (and the technical paper) may not seem directly relevant to the lessons you’re teaching now, but when that student asks for your advice about, for example, a presentation she has to give for another class and how she might incorporate her love for trombone into that discipline, you now have a resource you can recommend.
It’s impossible to predict what’s going to get all your students excited about trombone. Many students might really connect with this video and that could potentially help you in your lessons. And if you’re thinking that this is only good for students with an analytical learning style you need to consider that “learning styles” are mostly just “learning preferences” and teaching to a student’s preferences don’t usually lead to better outcomes. If a student is resistant to analytical thinking, it’s probable that it’s exposing a weakness that should be improved, not avoided.
While I’m not a scientist, I am a science fan. Learning more about the way the world actually works is cool. Like music, I find science intrinsically rewarding on its own without requiring any direct relevance to something else. But when the science happens to relate to music, even superficially, that makes it even more interesting to me. I’m sure I’m not alone with this, and you might have some students who feel similarly.
f you’re concerned about the content of this video not being “practical,” it’s arguably more practical in the 21st century to teach scientific literacy than to teach how to make fart sounds through a metal tube. Hyperbole aside, one immediate practical benefit can be found right here. It’s prompted an interesting discussion about why we tend to teach through analogy and visualization. This has spun off somewhat to a discussion of how such instructions can be taken to the extreme and how and why to pull things back. This is a good conversation for teachers to have.
Do you need to stop everything in your weekly lessons to show your students this video? Of course not, but the information contained are worth filing away for the future. Here’s another practical application. Your hypothetical student arrives to his or her lesson with a large pimple on the lip right where the mouthpiece rim is placed. You have 30-60 minutes to fill. I’m sure you could think about lots of ways to fill this time with “practical” information, but some students will get really jazzed about stuff like this. Even students who might not be immediately receptive to science might take this idea and run with it later. It’s hard to predict the downstream effects of improving our understanding of the way the world works. Maybe that student takes the membrane mouthpiece device shown in this video, combines it with a piece of technology yet to be developed, and then writes a graduate thesis that has a direct effect on brass pedagogy.
Furthermore, I think brass pedagogy could stand a little more of the scientific method and critical thinking. One thing we learn from this video is that our intuitions about the way our instruments really work aren’t always accurate. That’s definitely practical knowledge to have.
Sarah Paradis is the trombonist with the Mirari Brass Quintet. I was able to watch them give a masterclass a number of years ago which was wonderful. Sarah recently had a son (congratulations, Sarah!), but some complications forced her to take a long time off from the trombone. She’s doing well now and is back to playing trombone and blogging about her experience taking such a long time off and what it’s going to take for her comeback.
Mentally, I didn’t mind too much about this break because I knew it was something I had to do for my health and especially for the health of my baby. It hurt my ego a bit because I couldn’t play with Mirari Brass Quintet, I couldn’t take any gigs, and I missed out on an audition for my local symphony. But again, my family’s health is more important than any gig, so it was clear what I had to do.
In this first of what I hope are several posts, Sarah writes a bit about the circumstances that required her to take time off of the horn, what it was like to teach lessons without being able to play, and her plan for further posts on this topic. I’m looking forward to reading more about her experiences and what we can all learn from her. Check back later on the Brass Blog for updates.
Here’s an interesting video put together by Dr. Richard Smith, a scientist, musician, and instrument maker. In this video he demonstrates something that seems counterintuitive – you don’t have to blow air through the instrument in order for it to function normally.
A few years ago I had heard about this experiment and tried to recreate it. I drilled a hole through the cup of an old mouthpiece and tried setting up the membrane to block the air from going through. It didn’t work. Later I came across his technical paper on the topic and learned that I needed to set the membrane up before the shank of the mouthpiece. But it looks like what is really important was to set up a “shank” that directs the air out of the mouthpiece and instrument.
It was almost impossible to get the lips to vibrate under these conditions of using a small side hole. However, a solution was found by comparing this acoustical problem with the electrical analogy of a.c./d.c. decoupling – as used in most electronic circuits. This shows that a resistance is needed for the d.c. flow to occur. To provide this resistance acoustically, a narrow tube was placed in the side hole to give enough air resistance for the lips to vibrate against and to enable sustained vibration.
Maybe I will have to go back and find that old mouthpiece and see if I can set it up correctly and try it out. It would take more skill (and the proper tools) than I currently possess, but I have a couple of friends that would probably be interested enough in goofing around with it to give me a hand.
I came across this video on an online forum devoted to brass pedagogy. Some of the ensuing comments bugged me. Here are some actual quotes from that forum.
He is right. Air does not have to travel through the tube. Unfortunately we have a tough time wiggling our lips back and forth 200 and more times per second. I just tried it. Nope. Wait. About 6 per second just now.
While this is perhaps a legitimate consideration for the purpose of teaching brass technique, it’s really a straw man complaint. In his video Smith in fact goes out of his way to explicitly state that air is needed to set the lips to vibrate, but the point of his demonstration is the fact that once the air passes the lips there’s no physical law that the air needs to actually move through the instrument in order for it to work normally.
Just because you and I can’t think of an immediate pedagogical application of Smith’s demonstration doesn’t mean that there isn’t one.
What would be massively helpful is if he didn’t sound like trash doing it the way we all do it.
Again, the complaint here does have a bit of validity, but this too is irrelevant to the intention of Smith’s demonstration video. As best as I can tell, Smith’s background is mainly in acoustics and instrument design and construction. For all I know his main instrument may not be any of the instruments he is demonstrating in this video. He may be too busy building instruments and researching acoustics to do much practice these days. In no way does his ability to play a brass instrument negate the factual statements he makes.
Purely pointless IMHO.
Personally, I feel that being this dismissive is a shame coming from a teacher. Teachers are supposed to inspire curiosity and creative thinking. The point I made above about not passing judgement just because we don’t think of an immediate relevance to teaching brass applies here. But more importantly, discouraging students from exploring this video also dissuades students from learning about topics other than music. I’ve had and have students who have no intention of going into music as a career path, and some who have even been physics majors. I wonder how one of those students would feel to find me disparaging a factually correct demonstration of acoustics like this.
But if you need some practical applications, you don’t have to look very far. Simply pay close attention to what Smith says in his video. He mentions how without needing to blow air through the instrument you wouldn’t need a spit valve or need to clean the instrument out regularly. In the paper Smith recalls how research into the a.c./d.c. effect of brass acoustics has influenced the way in which instruments were tested for design and construction faults.
Pedagogical applications of this research are a little harder to think of, but not impossible. One could use the altered mouthpiece sort of like running with small weights strapped to your wrists and feet. Playing exercises or music would require more effort and could potentially be useful for advanced players to build playing endurance. Another thought I had was that if the mouthpiece could be tweaked enough so that it played similarly enough to playing the instrument normally one could design an almost perfectly silent practice mute. Practice mutes tend to be very stuffy and while that can be used in a manner similar to what I just mentioned, it makes relying on a practice mute for long term practice less ideal. Imagine a combination of a practice mute with this type of mouthpiece so that it would feel almost like playing with an open horn while being quiet enough to practice late at night in a hotel room.
Here’s an excerpt from a much longer response to Smith’s demonstration video.
Gotta love these quacks.
There are SO MANY OF THEM!!!
Whadda waste of time!!!
Whadda buncha MAROONS!!!
Having a certain degree of proficiency in reading music notation is considered an important skill for most musicians. If you’re going to perform classical music music literacy is essential. Many of the jazz performances I do require the musicians to sight read charts. If you want to play in a pit orchestra for a musical theater production you will need to know how to read music. In spite of this requirement for these musical endeavors, music literacy appears to be on the decline.
Writing in the Journal of Music Teacher Education, Edward P. Asmus wrote:
I have noticed a phenomenon that seems to be on the rise: an increasing number of applicants auditioning for entrance into undergraduate music programs are unable to read music. Colleagues across the nation, music recruiters, ensemble directors, and theory teachers are all reporting an increasing number of entering music majors who are unable to read music notation and produce music on their major instruments from it. Those auditioning are able to play or sing prepared pieces with performance levels sufficient for admission. However, when they are asked to sight-read musical notation, the results are dreadful.
I’ve noticed something similar, not just with undergraduate students but also even many professional musicians. The reasons for this decline are varied, but I believe that some of this trend comes from pressures placed on music educators at the high school level.
Consider a typical high school band program. During the fall semester, it’s much more likely that the only band experience the students will have will be marching band. While the music is usually initially learned through sheet music, there isn’t much emphasis placed on reading it. In fact, the goal is to have the music memorized as quickly as possible. Once the music has been learned, the show often emphasizes the drill over the music. While I don’t want to denigrate the hard work that great marching band programs put into their show, these bands typically work the same music for months. There’s not much opportunity for these students to spend time practicing their music reading skills.
High school chorus programs are often worse at teaching music literacy. It’s very easy to resort to teaching the music by rote imitation and vocal students often struggle with music notation. It takes some effort on the part of the choir director to help students improve their sight singing.
For both the band and choral programs at high school there are also the pressures of contests. Receiving a high rating on a contest is often one of the main ways that music educators will be judged on their teaching by administrators who likely have little to no music education themselves. It can be tempting for the music teacher to teach primarily for the contest and play the same music for a long time, rather than spend time learning new music through notation. When students don’t get much opportunity to practice their reading, they don’t improve.
Some of the professional musicians that I’m familiar with also struggle with sight reading. Often times these musicians are very talented players, with good technique and abilities, but they too may spend a lot of their time either performing music that is already learned, learned by rote, or never notated in the first place. It’s a shame, because I enjoy playing with many of these players but so many of the gigs I play and book require good sight reading ability.
What can individual musicians do to improve their music literacy? Of course one of the best ways to improve your sight reading is to practice sight reading, there are some other things that players can do to work on reading notation better.
- Learn scales and chord arpeggios – The trend is to get these memorized as quickly as possible, and while I agree that this is an important goal for all musicians, there’s some value in practicing scales and patterns while reading them. Most tonal music will be made up of scales and chords and it’s useful to be able to visually recognize these patterns. When you’re sight reading a piece of music that has a fragment of a scale you will recognize it faster and spend less time processing it and more time scanning ahead.
- Follow along with a score while listening to a recording – This is a similar idea to reading scales and chords. You want to make a connection between the visual schema (in this case, the schema is a notated “packet” of musical information) and the aural realization of it. Much like reading text, your eyes and brain quickly skim over words that you’ve read many times and no longer need to slow down to process it.
- Transcribe music – Jazz musicians use transcription all the time as a tool for learning improvisation. There’s something to be said for memorizing the a solo without resorting to notating it, but by writing it down you’re approaching it from the opposite direction of #2 above. It can be quite difficult to work out rhythmic notation for many musicians, but this process helps you assimilate what the visual representation of that sound looks like on paper.
- Learn lots of music from notation – I don’t mean to sight read lots of music here, I mean to really learn to play a piece of music. The trouble with practicing sight reading is that the goal is to get through the music, not fix mistakes. By spending time learning to play music from the written page and ensuring that it’s accurate you will learn to make the corrections in your reading that you have to skip over when you’re playing in real time.
- Learn to recover while reading – There are different ways to approach practicing a piece of music, and they all have some validity. If you’re performing or rehearsing with other players you don’t have the luxury to stop and go back, you need to recover and pick up with your part as quickly as you can. This is why I strongly encourage music students to always finish the phrase you’re playing before you stop and go back to practice a trouble area. If you always stop right after a mistake, you will not develop the ability to recover when a mistake happens in performance. This is sort of the opposite side of the coin from #4 above. You have to be able to continue playing past a mistake, but you also need to go back and learn how to not make the same mistake again.
There are other strategies that individual musicians can employ in their practice. There is also some pedagogical research I’ve recently looked at that investigates effective ways to teach music literacy in the classroom. There’s a lot more that can be said about music literacy, but I’d also like to hear your ideas. Do you feel your reading skills are strong enough? What have you done to practice your sight reading skills? What strategies do you employ with your students? Leave your comments below.
A recent topic on the Trombone Chat forum has gotten me thinking some about the way the lower lip will function differently for different brass musicians. Doing a cursory search on the internet you’ll find a lot of advice that is contradictory to each other. My general impression is that most folks who have an opinion about whether the lower lip should roll in when ascending lean towards avoiding it. But there are some players who feel they do so who arguably successful players.
Of course a lot of what brass teachers advise is based on what they think they are doing by feel. It’s uncommon for brass teachers, at least in the United States, to not look closely at a variety of brass players and compare what the lower lips are doing. It’s one thing to recommend what you feel works for you, but I think it’s worth taking the time to carefully observe what’s actually happening.
Regular readers here and other knowledgable brass teachers will immediately know that what a player’s lower lip should be doing is dependent on the individual’s anatomy and will be different from player to player. That said, you can observe particular patterns in a brass musician’s embouchure that make certain predictions about how a player’s lower lip will function when working correctly. There will always be variations, even among players belonging to the same embouchure type (intro to the three basic embouchure types).
The easiest embouchure type to see the lower lip is the “low placement” type. Because there is more lower lip inside the mouthpiece the lower lip vibrates with more intensity than the upper lip. When a low placement player plays in the lower register the lower lip gets blown a bit more forward into the mouthpiece cup. As an upstream player ascends you can see the lower lip sort of flattening out, but it never really seems to roll or curl in. Now it might feel like the lower lip is rolling in to some low placement type players and that can be one possible way to make it click for students, but it really doesn’t actually describe what you see.
From my personal experience as a low placement player, I used to allow my lower lip to blow out too far into the cup, particularly when I was getting tired. It resulted in some weird double buzzes. I also would have some trouble getting back into the upper register without taking the mouthpiece off my lips and resetting.
The “very high placement” embouchure types have the reverse lip ratio to low placement players. With these players you will see the lower lip rolling in, to a certain degree. I’ve also noticed these players will often bring their jaw forward slightly as they ascend, which might affect how much lower lip roll is proper for the individual. These players usually have the rim contact on their lower lip such that the lower lip doesn’t vibrate with as much intensity as the upper lip. Speculating, I would think that rolling in the lower lip for very high placement players could assist them with keeping the vibrating surface on the lower lip minimal.
“Medium high placement” embouchure types are still downstream, like very high placement players, but they use the opposite embouchure motion. The lower lips on these brass players looks similar to very high placement players, but there may be more of a tendency for the lower lip to roll in to ascend with these players. Donald Reinhardt’s embouchure type III would be an example of a medium high placement embouchure type that is distinguished by it’s lower lip roll when ascending. Tommy Dorsey was supposed to belong to the type III embouchure, as was Reinhardt. In Doug Elliott’s film, “The Brass Player’s Embouchure,” he shows video of Dave Steinmeyer playing into a transparent mouthpiece and even though Steinmeyer wasn’t classified by Reinhardt as belonging to the type III (if I recall Doug’s story correctly), he still has a very prominent lower lip roll when he ascends.
Speaking of embouchure films, Lloyd Leno’s film is one of the best places you can go to observe the lower lip with some different brass players. What’s so nice about Leno’s film is that it was shot using high speed filming, so you can observe how the lips vibrate as the players ascend and descend. The photos above are only capturing the aperture at the time the photo was taken.
Learning to play any musical instrument, including trombone, is an inherently “knacky” experience. So much of what you need to do to be successful involves trying something a bunch of times, making small physical adjustments each time, until it clicks once. Then there’s a lot of trial and error trying to make it work that way consistently. Each musician’s playing sensations are going to be different and be influence by not only anatomical differences, but also the history of how they played before and their personal beliefs and biases.
This is undoubtedly why a lot of brass pedagogy involves teaching musical artistry first and teaching technique through modeling and metaphor. The end result, however, is that there is less consensus about what good brass technique is and how to achieve it. We have a tendency to look towards so-called “natural players” for advice, who may be the least qualified to tell us what’s actually physically happening when performing.
Couple this with a persistent culture of ignorance in brass pedagogy. It’s normal for some brass teachers to discourage folks to analyze their playing. It will to lead to “paralysis by analysis.” If you do, you won’t see the forest for the trees. Imitate the sound you want and you’ll learn it, just like you learned to talk as a baby. If a centipede had think about how it walked it would get nowhere. Don’t think, play.
I find this attitude confusing. Why would a teacher disparage questioning and thinking? That’s the message it sends. And that’s what those students end up passing on when they become teachers.
The other side of this coin is the vast amount of pseudoscience you can find in brass pedagogy. Part of this is due to literal interpretations of analogies and over reliance on fallible playing sensations. A lot of it is due to us over estimating what we actually know. At its heart, it’s a lack of scientific literacy. Trombone teachers usually aren’t scientists, but we tend to misunderstand what science actually is and mistrust it. It’s often seen as a non-overlapping magisterium with both music and teaching. If the science suggests something we’re teaching is wrong, that’s just an egghead in the white tower who hasn’t spent enough time in the trenches.
Science isn’t a collection of disciplines like anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, and acoustics, although those disciplines might inform how we teach trombone. Science isn’t about acquiring facts either, although they might help us too. At it’s heart, science is about exploring the limits of what we know. It’s about testing a hypothesis and challenging assumptions. And it also happens to involve a lot of creative thinking, much like in music.
Superficially, we probably already do this in our instruction. We try out something with a student and assess whether it worked. We test it out for a while and then try something else. If we can’t find the answer is a resource we have, we create one specific to the student. When something works for one student, we try it out with another student and see what happens. Over time, we can develop a large repertoire of analogies and methods and get a good feel for when to try one and when to try the other.
However, we sometimes confuse this for science. Science recognizes that the nature of that experimentation we did in our teaching studio is inherently biased. It’s too easy to simply confirm what we already believe, rather than learn something new. You can’t look for evidence that your hypothesis is right, you look for ways to falsify your beliefs. If you ideas withstand that sort of scrutiny, then maybe you’re on to something. Brass pedagogy has long only looked for evidence to support our preconceived beliefs.
Herein lies the scientific method’s greatest strength. It is self-correcting and always looking to learn more. Science-based pedagogy has been more popular in other disciplines (e.g., athletics) because brass pedagogy hasn’t been as good at fixing our old mistakes. We routinely revere long dead pedagogues, now and then referring to their texts as “bibles” and former students of those teachers as “disciples.” This isn’t an attitude conducive to change.
There is good science being done on brass pedagogy. Our understanding of both the acquisition of motor skills and the specific physical process of playing the trombone is better understood now than it was when I was a student. The exciting part is that access to this research and the scientists who do this is easier than ever. What’s difficult is vetting the information into a correctly nuanced context. That takes some effort and should be an ongoing process. You can’t just look at what we know, but also question how we know what we know.
The following rant was inspired by a Trombone Pedagogy Facebook group thread started by a teacher who was wondering how to help a young student who was playing with his lower lip predominant. The teacher was asking for advice on how to correct this embouchure. My rant below is in response to many of the ensuing comments. I will be paraphrasing instead of directly quoting, in part because these responses are so common and don’t really need an attribution for context.
First, a little background on what an upstream embouchure is. All brass musicians, regardless of what they might think they are doing or should be doing, play in such a way that one lip or another predominates inside the mouthpiece. When the upper lip is predominant, most common, the air stream passes the lips in a downward direction.
Most brass players have an embouchure that is similar, although the amount of upper to lower lip may be different. A minority of brass musicians, however, do the opposite. These players place the mouthpiece closer to the chin and because of the predominance of lower lip the air stream gets directed upwards.
With that basic understanding out of the way, I will get into addressing some of these typical comments.
Change the mouthpiece placement. That student will thank you for it later.
While it does happen that students will adopt an upstream embouchure when they should be playing downstream, it’s much more common for these “low placement embouchure type” players to be playing that way because it is the most efficient embouchure type for their anatomical features. Before you change the mouthpiece placement you need to address issues with embouchure form, breathing, tonguing, posture, etc. Usually if you correct those other playing characteristics the embouchure will function better.
Sometimes you can disguise those other issues by changing the mouthpiece placement, but that’s only covering up the real problems the student is having. Before the embouchure form is developed properly, for example, you just can’t tell where the best mouthpiece placement is for a particular student.
That student should try another instrument instead. Has he/she considered a woodwind instrument or vocals?
I tend to avoid encouraging a student to change to a different instrument if they’ve expressed an interest in their brass instrument. Sure, maybe some folks will take to another instrument and never look back, but that’s a solution in search of a problem. If you need more bass clarinetists in your band be honest about why you are encouraging the change. If you’re suggesting the change because you don’t know how to help that student, then do some homework and learn. This is your responsibility as a teacher (or even as someone giving advice on the internet). Ask questions. That’s what the Facebook Trombone Pedagogy group is for!
Upstream players are players who have a protruded lower jaw or an underbite. That’s what makes them upstream.
Players with an underbite almost always play better with an upstream embouchure, but that alone isn’t going to make their embouchure upstream. There must be more lower lip inside the mouthpiece in order for their embouchure to function upstream (Caveat – Sometimes lip texture comes into play. It’s rare, but you might look at an embouchure from the outside and think it’s one direction but when you look on a transparent mouthpiece the lip position seem flipped. My feeling is that moving the mouthpiece placement to a more appropriate placement can often help).
I don’t have a way to post the video clip (nor have I obtained permission), but my teacher, Doug Elliott, made a film in the 1980s called The Brass Player’s Embouchure. In this film he shows a trombonist with an underbite, but with a mouthpiece placement that was close to the nose and it function downstream. Moving this player’s mouthpiece placement so that it had more lower lip inside worked better.
And not all upstream players will have a protruded jaw position anyway.
Look again at the downstream embouchure example I posted above and note his jaw position. Jaw position while playing will be an influence, but doesn’t actually make a player upstream or downstream.
Also worth considering are Donald Reinhardt’s embouchure types. While I prefer to teach and communicate using different terminology, he did make note of players with particular jaw positions while at rest compared to playing. For example, he classified players with a natural, even bite.
Such brass musicians will almost always need to place the mouthpiece either very high (close to the nose, downstream) or very low (close to the chin, upstream). It might go either way, and for players like this it is sometimes quite difficult to tell which way it might go. Even if that is a very accomplished brass musician (read through what Brad Goode has written about figuring out his embouchure type).
That’s an [insert one brass instrument type here] thing. Those of us who play [insert other brass instrument type here] can’t/shouldn’t play upstream.
After 20 years of studying brass embouchures on all instruments intensively, I’ve come to the conclusion that while there are some differences that the size of the mouthpiece causes, it’s only a matter of scale and that the same embouchure characteristics are found on all the brass instruments.
Now it’s easier to find examples with trumpet players for a couple of reasons. Consider that the larger the mouthpiece, the more likely that the chin or nose will get in the way of placing very high or very low. A trumpet mouthpiece, on the other hand, allows much more leeway for getting the most efficient ratio of upper to lower lip for the particular player. That said, horn players are much less varied, which I believe is due to the adherence of a particular pedagogue’s advice as well as a comparative lack of players who are self taught and simply do what works instead of what is commonly taught.
That’s an [insert musical style] thing. It won’t work for [insert another musical style].
It’s only good for [high or low register playing]. It won’t work for [low or high register playing].
Like the brass instrument argument, I hear this all the time and from opposite sides of the spectrum. There are upstream brass musicians known for their upper register. There are also upstream brass players known for the lower register. They can be found playing in all styles of music successfully.
Embouchure type is influenced by the musician’s anatomical features, not playing style, instrument choice, or musical genre.
When you place the mouthpiece with so much rim contact on the upper lip, it isn’t free to vibrate and causes problems.
Both lips do vibrate in conjunction, but they do not vibrate with equal intensity. The predominant lip inside the mouthpiece vibrates with greater intensity. Brass embouchures appear to be sort of between a double reed phenomenon, where both reeds vibrate with equal intensity, and a clarinet reed, where the reed vibrates against the surface of the mouthpiece. For a brass embouchure to function efficiently the lip that has more rim contact (the upper lip in the case of the upstream brass musician) will function somewhat like the clarinet mouthpiece while the other lip (lower lip for upstream embouchures) is more like the reed.
This isn’t arm chair speculation. You can see it in Lloyd Leno’s film quite easily. Here’s part 1 of 3, but the link is to the entire playlist.
If you watch the entire film you’ll also be able to note some downstream trombonists in the film who place the mouthpiece with a great deal of rim contact on the lower lip. For some reason this isn’t as widely discouraged, even by the same players who make this argument when it concerns an upstream embouchure.
I am an experienced teacher and performer and I have never come across a successful upstream player.
My first response to this is that you’re probably not qualified (yet!) to identify one when you see it. Furthermore, if you don’t consider embouchure types to be a useful pedagogical tool, then you’re simply not going to look for them – even if you know what to look for. So many teachers seem to think that by watching a player blow air, free buzz, mouthpiece buzz, talk, whatever, that you’re going to be able to determine a player’s embouchure type. You can’t. Or at least I can’t and I doubt you can.
I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t need a transparent mouthpiece to type most players’ embouchures, but I know the limitations of this and will grab a transparent mouthpiece when needed. Simply put, the most accurate method of typing a brass musician’s embouchure is to look at how they play while playing the instrument into a transparent mouthpiece. Rim visualizers can give you important clues, but the lack of resistance and the reflection of the standing wave back to the lips (as well as other factors) come into play and make a rim visualizer less accurate.
To my knowledge, no one has yet conducted a robust enough study to determine the percentage of upstream players, but by my best guess I would say around 10%-15%. That’s a sizable enough minority that anyone who takes the time to actually look for upstream players among your students and performing colleagues will find them. If you’re not seeing them, you’re probably not looking.
That said, an awful lot of teachers who should know better make a big deal about “correcting” an upstream embouchure when they see one. I get emails and private messages all the time from folks describing this situation. Particularly for teachers who work with older students you’re going to find fewer upstream students because they get “weeded out” by well-intentioned, but ignorant teachers. Either those students quit brass out of frustration or they play with less success than they could because they had their embouchure changed to a less efficient one. I’m a good example of the later, although I was never changed to downstream. I was instructed from the get go to play downstream. Which leads to:
We should teach what’s most common because that will have the best chance of success.
There is some logic to this, but in the case of mouthpiece placement I don’t even think we should talk about it with beginners. Teach embouchure form, not mouthpiece placement, and most of the time I’ve found the student will naturally gravitate to the best embouchure type for his or her anatomy. When it doesn’t, then it’s time to intervene, but this correction needs to be an educated choice that eliminates difficulties in embouchure form (or breathing, tonguing, whatever is influencing the student’s embouchure in a negative way) first.
I am an experienced teacher and never have to consider a brass embouchure type. It’s unnecessary and even makes things worse!
It does take some effort to learn how to type a brass student’s embouchure and use it to make embouchure corrections and design a course of study and practice that will work best for the individual student, but it’s not rocket science. If you found studying music history and music theory to inform your brass playing in a positive way then you already understand how taking the time to learn about different related topics is useful. If embouchure analysis is making things worse it’s because the analysis is faulty in the first place. Learn how brass embouchures actually function and apply what you learn, adjusting as you need to. And if the student is analyzing their embouchure technique at the wrong time, help your student learn to focus on one thing at a time while practicing for a bit each day and focus on the musical expression the rest of the time.
And if you throw out that tired phrase, “paralysis by analysis” I say you’ve lost credibility and the argument.