There’s seems to be a lot more research done on the development of motor skills with athletics compared to music, so often times musicians will look at athletics and sports training methods for ideas on improving musical practice and pedagogy. Recently I came across a podcast called Golf Science Lab and listened to their episode, What Every Golfer Ought to Know About FOCUS with Dr Gabriele Wulf.
Where should your focus be in during a shot? Or when you’re learning how should you think about a move to make a change in the most effective way.
Although the motor skills used in golf are pretty different than those used in playing the trombone, for example, it’s not too far of a leap to assume that what applies to golf might also be useful for musical practice. Wulf says,
Performance is often enhanced immediately when I focus externally as opposed to internally, but also the learning process is facilitated when learners adopt an external focus. So learning is sped up. You reach a higher skill level sooner than you would with an internal focus.
An internal focus refers to the coordination of body movements, where an external focus is on the intended effect. In golf the examples of things that a golfer could use as an external focus were the club, the ball, the hole, even the player’s belt buckle or buttons. One of the interesting points made in the podcast were the distance effect. In other words, the further away the point of focus, the better the results. So focusing attention on club face would be better than focusing on the handle of the club because it’s a bit further away. Focusing on the ball is a bit further than the club face, but focusing on the flag or the hole would do better. Here’s the rub, the optimal distance of the focus depends on the skill level. An expert golfer would focus on the trajectory of the ball or target, but a novice would do better focusing on the club face, because they still need to practice the technique.
The tricky thing is to try to teach and practice the necessary technique with external focus. Wulf offered a golf example. Rather than telling the novice golfer to transfer his or her weight to the left foot (an internal focus), teach them to push off of the ground on the left (external focus).
What does this mean for music practice? Off the top of my head, with brass embouchure practice try taking the attention off the lips and move them on to the mouthpiece rim. When practicing breathing instead of paying attention to the feeling of the stomach and chest moving, focus on the air as it passes the lips or even visualize the air blowing across the room.
What ideas can you think of to teach musical technique in such a way as to move the focus from internal to external? How can you take that idea and make the focus even further away the more expert the musician becomes?
One of the more popular posts I’ve written here is Brass Embouchures: Playing On the Red Is Fine (as long as it fits your anatomy). In this post I tried, somewhat unsuccessfully, to point out the flaws in the nearly universal belief among brass teachers that placing the mouthpiece so that the rim contacts the vermillion of the lips is a bad thing. I will try in this post to reiterate my points more clearly.
Before going too deep into this discussion, I’ve found that it’s important to point out that I’m not making a blanket recommendation that brass players should adopt a mouthpiece placement that sets the rim right on the upper or lower lip vermillion. I’m merely pointing out that the very pointed advice to avoid it is based on faulty logic and a misunderstanding of both the anatomy of the lips and embouchure form and function. Most folks aren’t going to have the anatomical features that make such a high or low mouthpiece placement work efficiently, but some do and for these players moving the mouthpiece placement off the red can be as detrimental to their embouchure as another player moving the placement to the red when it shouldn’t be. This is something that is unique to the individual player and needs to be taken on a case by case basis.
There are three basic arguments against placing the mouthpiece on the lips so that it contacts the vermillion along the top or bottom of the rim:
A famous teacher or player advocated against it.
The anatomy of the vermillion is such that it makes it more sensitive and prone to damage than the rest of the lip.
It’s mechanically incorrect and won’t work as well as a placement with less rim contact on the vermillion.
Famous Players and Teachers
If you’re reading the post and questioning why I’m going against what appears to be conventional brass pedagogy, that’s a good thing. I always recommend that folks learn not just what we know about brass pedagogy and mechanics, but also take the time to understand how we know what we know. It’s very easy to find folks who actively discourage placing the mouthpiece on the red of the lips, but it’s not easy to understand why they recommend that. Many of these folks make their case using arguments 2 or 3 above, but an awful lot simply assert without evidence.
The bottom line here is that we can’t simply take a statement at face value based on how famous the person is who said it, we need to look past that and deal with the evidence. That which is stated without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.
There is an awful lot of misinformation and misunderstanding about the anatomy and histology of the lips in the brass literature. Here is one example:
To function properly, the inner edge of the mouthpiece must be placed on tissue that is supported by muscle, but the lips are composed of fatty tissue that by itself cannot support a normal embouchure.
-Frank Campos, Trumpet Technique, 2005
Part of the difficulty in parsing comments like Campos’s is that while the medical literature has a very precise definition of the lips (which runs all the way up to the nose and down to the chin), many brass authors use the term “lips” to refer to just the vermillion. Regardless of the exact meaning in the statement above, it’s demonstrably incorrect. The entire lip, including under the vermillion, is internally made up of the orbicularis oris muscle group. There absolutely is muscle under the vermillion. Be careful when you look at diagrams that draw in the vermillion as a point of reference, they are misleading. Here is one diagram that leaves out the vermillion as a reference.
Another, less common, point I’ve recently come across is that because the epidermis at the vermillion is thinner than the normal epidermal layer there is less cushion from the skin:
Lips have around 3-5 cellular layers and above the vermillion border has as high as 16 cellular layers.
Since “asdfghj” is both posting anonymously and also not citing his/her source, I can’t really comment on the legitimacy of this claim, however it does seem plausible. The reason the vermillion of the lips are red in people with fairer skin is that the color of the blood vessels underneath the vermillion come through. For the sake of argument, I’ll accept this as true. I still don’t find this a compelling argument and here’s why.
Without heading over to a university library and digging through the literature, a cursory internet search shows one apparently reputable source that states, “The thickness of the epidermis varies in different types of skin; it is only .05 mm thick on the eyelids, and is 1.5 mm thick on the palms and the soles of the feet.” How does this compare to the layer of skin of the lips, both the vermillion and elsewhere? It’s hard to say for certain using the internet, but Wikipedia (take it with a grain of salt) states, “The average human skin cell is about 30 micrometers in diameter, but there are variants. A skin cell usually ranges from 25-40 micrometers (squared), depending on a variety of factors.”
Let’s use the 30 micrometers average to calculate how thick the skin of the vermillion is compared to the normal epidermal layer on the lips. If the vermillion has 4 layers, that 120 micrometers. The 16 layers of skin in the rest of the lips would make for a layer 480 micrometers, a difference of 360 micrometers, or .36 millimeters. For comparison, human hair is said to range up to 181 micrometers in diameter, so the difference here is about two layers the size of the of a human hair.
I don’t find supposed cushion of two hairs to be a compelling difference, considering the mouthpiece forces involved. It’s not the layer of skin that provides the cushion and support of the embouchure, but the muscle underneath.
All the above shows, however, that there don’t appear to be plausible reasons why the vermillion would be more sensitive to pressure. That doesn’t mean that the vermillion actually isn’t. In order to get an idea, I spend some time back in 2012 going through both the medical and musical literature to see if there was any indication that injuries to the lip occurred at the vermillion more than the rest of the lip, or to see if any medical professionals happened to comment on this specific point.
While most brass players don’t “place on the red” in such a way that the rim contact the upper or lower vermillion a great deal, 100% of brass players place the mouthpiece with at least some rim contact on the vermillion. If the vermillion was more prone to injury than the rest of the lip, I would think that the medical literature discussing lip injuries due to brass playing would indicate this. In fact, it is rarely mentioned.
Injuries to the lips due to brass playing happens where the rim happens to be on the lips, irrespective of the vermillion. It appears that the upper lip (the entire lip, not just the vermillion) is more prone to injuries than the lower lip (hence the common advice to not “dig into” the upper lip with the mouthpiece or keep more mouthpiece “weight” on the lower lip compared to the upper). Injuries can and do happen under the vermillion, but perhaps more commonly outside the vermillion (which is unsurprising, if you consider that more players are going to have the rim contact on the upper lip above the vermillion. In fact, some lip injuries happen completely away from the rim contact.
I was also able to find some literature that flat out stated that the vermillion area of the lips is not more prone to injury. H.L. Wilson, a medical doctor writing for The Clarinet, discussed the vermillion in the context of a clarinet embouchure.
In summary, the vermilion portion of lips tolerates pressure well. . .
-Wilson, H.L. (2000). Lips. The Clarinet, 27(4), 38-39.
Yes, the forces involved in a clarinet embouchure and brass embouchure are different, but combined with a more thorough understanding of the anatomy and histology of the lips along with a lack of evidence to the contrary, this leads me to believe that there is no anatomical reason to believe that it is risky to place the brass mouthpiece rim on the vermillion.
While the above discussion of anatomy is outside of my particular area of expertise, brass embouchure mechanics is right in my wheelhouse. I first became interested in brass embouchure mechanics sometime around 1996. I wrote my dissertation on original research investigating brass embouchure types and their correlation to easily observed physical characteristics. Since completing my doctorate in 2000 I’ve published and presented resources that deal with brass embouchures in a peer reviewed journal, academic papers, online, and at professional conferences. I’ve documented with photos and video around 100 brass players’ embouchures of beginning students, college students, professional performers, university brass teachers, and amateurs over five states at six different universities. I’ve been asked to consult with physical therapists and doctors treating embouchure injuries in the United States and Europe and some of my writing about brass embouchure have been translated into Japanese and Italian. Part of conducting my research involved thorough reviews of the literature, so at risk of blowing my own horn (pun intended), I’m fairly confident in the information and context I can provide here about brass mechanics.
On the other hand, we can consider whether it’s mechanically incorrect to place the mouthpiece very high or low. This feature also varies quite a bit from player to player, with most folks falling more towards the center than very high or very low. While there are many anatomical features that influence an individual brass player’s mouthpiece placement, such as the shape of the teeth and gums that provides the support structure for the embouchure, the most likely characteristics that influences the vertical placement of the mouthpiece include the length of the lips compared to the length of the teeth and gums and possibly the shape and angle of the lips to each other. The shorter the player’s upper lip, the more likely that player appears to need to place the mouthpiece lower on the lips.
As you can see in the photo to the left, my upper lip is very short in comparison to my upper teeth and gums. When I form my embouchure I have to stretch my upper lip down quite a bit in order to get it over the upper front teeth. There simply isn’t much lip mass in my upper lip that is free to vibrate inside the mouthpiece.
A vibrating brass embouchure works more like a clarinet reed than an oboe reed. One lip or another predominates inside the mouthpiece and is the primary vibrating area. The other lip does vibrate in tandem with the other, but it serves more like the clarinet mouthpiece to the other lip as the reed. This feature can be easily seen on Lloyd Leno’s films.
For me, and for a minority of other brass players, anything other than this extremely low placement doesn’t work well at all. Most folks find it too hard to play this way, but they don’t have the same extremely short upper lip. I tried for a long time to play with a more conventional looking mouthpiece placement. I was taught early to try to keep my mouthpiece centered on the lips and with more upper lip inside and so I played that way all the way into my mid-20s. My personal experience was that I played OK with the centered placement (well enough to get through two music degrees and be accepted into doctoral studies in trombone performance), but until I made the correction to my embouchure you see in the photo to the right that I did not have the range and endurance I needed to play at a high level. This embouchure type isn’t as common as more conventional looking brass embouchures, but it probably represents about 10% of brass players.
Despite the opinions of many other brass players and teachers who feel otherwise, there appears to be no anatomical or mechanical reasons why placing the mouthpiece so that the rim contacts a great deal of the vermillion is going to lead to greater risk of injury or mechanical difficulties, provided that the player’s anatomical features are best suited to that placement. Individual anatomy is so variable that even setting a “rule of thumb” is arbitrary at best and may even lead to a brass student playing in a way that is mechanically inefficient for his or her face – which does increase the risk of injury, regardless of how conventional the mouthpiece placement may look.
In my opinion, the whole idea of using the vermillion as a factor for diagnosing or troubleshooting a brass embouchure is misguided. It is much better for brass teachers and players to gain a more thorough understanding of the basic brass embouchure types and how they function, as well as how much brass embouchures vary from player to player, even between players belonging to the same embouchure type. We can probably safely ignore the advice from teachers who emphatically state that this is wrong unless and until they begin providing plausible evidence to the contrary.
A recent thread on the Trombone Pedagogy Facebook group has gotten me thinking about building embouchure stability in the low range. The specific topic there concerns a particular student who has a very unstable embouchure in general and on low Bb has an uncontrollable waver in her tone. I don’t have permission to share the video, but I do have some photos that illustrate the same situation.
The photo to the right is of a trombonist playing a pedal Bb. I chose this photo because the student trombonist had a similar looking embouchure formation on her low Bb. Note how the embouchure formation has collapsed and is very loose looking.
While it may be necessary at first for inexperienced players to get into the extreme low register like this, overplaying like this will very likely cause issues down the road if the player doesn’t make corrections (click here to read up and view some video footage I documented). Like all habits, it can be difficult to correct and the longer a player relies on collapsing the embouchure formation to play low the harder it will be. Unfortunately, some of the default advice I was reading on Facebook also seemed to encourage practicing in the low register in a manner that makes it harder to make the necessary embouchure corrections.
Asking a student to “blow more air,” or even to simply “support” the note with the air is going to make it harder for the student to play in the low register with the same level of firmness in the embouchure formation as the rest of their range, but this is what some teachers recommend. Personally, I prefer to help a student with this issue by developing exercises or practicing musical passages that start in a higher range and descend to the problem area with a decrescendo. Playing softly in that low register makes it easier for the student to hold the mouth corners firm, maintain the overall embouchure formation, and use a bit more mouthpiece pressure for additional embouchure stability.
For comparison, here are a couple of photos of a different player. The photo to the left is a high Bb (Bb4/ledger lines above bass clef staff). The one to the right is the same player playing a low Bb (Bb2/in the bass clef staff). Note how similar they look from the outside (I happened to catch the vibrating lips on the low Bb when the embouchure aperture was close to closed, but at their peak opens you can see a bigger difference on the embouchure aperture between these pitches).
Playing softly and accepting a thinner tone will help a student to successfully experience what it feels like to play in the low register with a stable embouchure formation. As she gets more comfortable playing that way she can begin adding air and working to open up the sound, but if the embouchure formation collapses again she should stop, reset, and try again with just a little less air. Over time it will get better and easier to add more air. However, it’s important for her to stop encouraging this habit as quickly and completely as possible. Throwing more air at an embouchure formation that is too loose and unstable will not help her build the strength and control to stop collapsing.
That said, performances (and most rehearsals) are different. The above advice is for practice and private lessons. When you perform it’s more important to do whatever you have to in order to sound good. If that means collapsing to play low, that’s fine. Over time the student will be able to play correctly with enough comfort and volume that she won’t even think about making a change, it happens because it has replaced her old habit.
A topic over at the Trumpet Herald got me thinking about the initial placement of the mouthpiece on the lips. Robert P asked,
When setting the mp are your lips completely relaxed or do you in some way manipulate them – tense, flex, stretch, pucker etc.?
How would you describe what you do when you set the mp?
The following several posts offered essentially two different procedures. Some folks stated that they set the mouthpiece on the lips only after they firm the lips in some way. Other players offered that they prefered to place the mouthpiece on relaxed lips and firm the embouchure before playing. What I find most interesting, however, is the rational behind these opposing viewpoints.
For the record, I’m in the “firm your lips first” camp and my thoughts here pretty much come from Donald Reinhardt’s here. To paraphrase Reinhardt, it’s best to have as little distortion in your embouchure formation as possible. Firming the lips first and then placing the mouthpiece on them is meant to help they player keep their embouchure formation stable and avoid any twisting or winding up of the lips with the mouthpiece. It also helps the player place the mouthpiece more consistently in the same spot on the lips.
So what is the rational for setting the mouthpiece on relaxed lips? That’s a little harder for me to summarize. It seems that few players actually advocate this, it’s simply what they happen to do. Some of the Trumpet Herald users seem to do this because they are either emulating a player who does this or following the advice from a particular teacher, without elaborating on why they feel this way. The best argument for I’ve heard is that it helps maintain relaxed playing technique and the lips are only firmed when they need to be, while playing, although I don’t think this outweighs the benefits from firming first.
One post brings up the “paralysis by analysis” trope. There’s too much to think about already so why bother? The problem with that argument (or rather, one of the many problems) is that if one way will lead to better results, not adopting it is limiting. If one way can lead to problems not being aware of those issues makes it impossible to accurately troubleshoot. Certainly teachers need to intellectually understand this.
Speaking of embouchure problems, I have heard several logical reasons why placing the mouthpiece on relaxed lips isn’t ideal. I’ve already mentioned above that this can lead to twisting or winding up the lips with the mouthpiece. If you’ve put the mouthpiece pressure on the lips and then firm the lips you can pin the lips in a position that is inconsistent every time you place the mouthpiece back on. The lips have to slide against the mouthpiece rim in order to get into their ideal position inside the cup which means you’re hitting a moving target with your embouchure every time you replace the mouthpiece. If you’re not putting on enough mouthpiece pressure until that split second before the initial attack then you’re making it even more of a moving target.
Regardless, one important point to discuss before moving forward is that regardless of how you set the mouthpiece for the initial attack, when you inhale between phrases if you open your embouchure formation to take in air and firm them again at the attack you’re going to be hitting that moving target again – even if you set the mouthpiece on firmed lips to start with.
Advice and Conclusion
Reinhardt’s process for setting the mouthpiece and how to maintain a stable embouchure formation is, in my opinion, something that all players can benefit from practicing. While his description is of an ideal, making small steps towards that goal can provide good results without obsessing over every small step in the process. Here is a way you can go about practicing this by breaking things up into small chunks.
Pick a warmup with at least 5 minutes of simple exercises that you already have memorized. Long tones and overtone slurs work great for this, particularly if you start in different ranges for a bit.
Use a mirror or video your embouchure so that you can see what you’re doing. Don’t worry about analyzing what you’re doing while practicing, but be aware of what you see.
For that 5 minutes or so of your warmup always firm your lips before placing the mouthpiece on your embouchure formation. It’s not the lips center that holds them firm, it’s the mouth corners. You’re not worried about what note you’re going to play, you want the mouth corners firmed and locked in their playing position.
At first, after setting the mouthpiece breathe through the nose to get used to the “ideal” of having the embouchure already in place. As you practice this, watch your mouth corners in particular in the mirror or video. At first they may loosen up or wiggle around a bit when you inhale and before the initial attack. Before and after the attack you are striving to make it look the same. Your ideal goal is if you turn the sound off on the video you would be hard pressed to tell when the sound starts by watching the embouchure alone.
As you get comfortable with nose inhalations, begin breathing through the sides of your mouth while keeping the lip center touching lightly together inside the mouthpiece. Maintain the mouthpiece pressure as if you were already playing. Simply relax the mouth corners and inhale slowly. It might help to really wet the mouth corners with saliva before placing if your finding they want to stick together. When you attack the pitch the mouth corners should snap into place.
After a few minutes or so of this, forget about it and move on to whatever else you want to practice.
Take a couple of minutes during your warm down to practice the placement again.
That’s it, just a few minutes or so a day. You might find this very weird at first, particularly if you have been doing things differently for decades, as I had. It took me years of practice to internalize this technique to the point of where it’s automatic when I perform. During that learning process, however, I noticed my embouchure formation being more consistent even when I was skipping or missing steps. Other players may take to it quite easily. It’s well worth the effort you might have to put into it to head towards the ideal.
Do you already firm your lips before placing the mouthpiece? Was this a conscious effort on your part or the natural way you play? If you haven’t thought about it before or if you consciously place the mouthpiece on relaxed lips, please considering trying this out for a couple of weeks or so and report your progress. Did you find it helpful or a waste of your time? No change?
A lot of what is commonly taught about brass embouchures is based on hearsay or descriptions on playing sensations. This results in a lot of contradictory advice that isn’t always grounded in fact. That’s why it’s very exciting to me to see Hans Boschma, Kees Hein Woldendorp, et al, taking a scientific approach to studying brass embouchure. Even more importantly, they recognize the need for more research and more communication across disciplines. They recently published a video that describes their research and shows a lot of the data points they’ve collected. The call it the CODE of Embouchure.
CODE stands for Classification, Observation, Diagnosis , and Evaluation.
The CODE of Embouchure can be used by both brass players, their teachers, ‘brass-medicine’ physicians and – therapists. The CODE of Embouchure can be used in intervals of time to detect dysfunctional embouchure and/or to control for improvements/ changes in embouchure due to brass training (or therapy) e.g. at the conservatoir or in a therapeutical setting. In the final part of the movie a practical instruction is provided with the voluntary participation of many internationally known first rank brass players.
I’ve been skimming through it, skipping ahead after watching some of each brass player shown. Most of it is detailed video footage of different brass players playing a wide variety of different things with some written commentary on different embouchure characteristics. There are many good examples of “medium high placement” and “very high placement” embouchure types. Assuming that the brass players shown are a somewhat random sample, I would expect to see few “low placement” embouchure types. There is one trumpet player who I suspect may be a “low placement” upstream players, but it’s a bit hard to say for sure with what I saw (he definitely switches to downstream when he plays pedal tones). Other than that example, all the rest of the brass players belong to one of the two basic downstream embouchure types.
Overall, I think it’s very nice research and a good video. My main complaint is the lack of attention on upstream brass embouchures, but perhaps that’s my personal bias as a “low placement” type player myself. Also, most of the video is devoted to “observation” and I would have liked more discussion about the “classification,” “diagnosis” and “evaluation” parts. Minor quibbles aside, thanks to Hans Boschma and Kees Hein Woldendorp for posting this and for Hans for letting me know it was available.
For more information about the CODE of embouchure and Hans’s work please visit his web site (you may need Google’s translate feature if you aren’t bilingual).
The 8 tonic system is an attempt to organize and simplify the methods that have been used to teach improvisors to use Hexatonic/Triad-Pairs in the past. Hexatonic scales used for improvisation is now an important tool of the modern improvisor, yet there are inherent problems with the methods that have been taught up to this point. The biggest problem with Hexatonics is that they immediately sound formulaic and too much like a pattern. The other problem is that in order to use a wide variety of different Hexatonic/Triad-Pairs the player must commit many different formulas to memory in order to make the correct calculations to find the HT/TPs. These formulas are short calculations, like: Major triad from the #11 and Major Triad from the b13, but they start to add up and get overwhelming.
Here’s an interesting discussion by a rock guitarist that I think is good advice for any musician on improving your rhythm.
From time to time I get asked to translate some of my articles into different languages for nonnative English readers. Unfortunately, that’s beyond my abilities but some of my readers have graciously volunteered their time to translate some of my posts. E. Díaz recently translated my article, Embouchure Dystonia Treatment – Some Questions and Criticisms, into Spanish.
Muchos gracias, E. Díaz!
A menos que seas uno de mis lectores regulares, es posible que hayas llegado hasta este post buscando consejos sobre alguna disfunción severa de embocadura. Aunque espero que las siguientes líneas puedan provee algunos caminos útiles para explorar, mi audiencia objetivo son los maestros de músicos que se promueven como los “doctores del pitar” o que pretenden diagnosticar y/o tratar lo que con frecuencia se conoce como “distonía de embocadura”. Para los propósitos de este trabajo, estaré usando el término “distonía de embocadura” y “disfunción de embocadura” de manera intercambiada. Trataré de ser específico con mi lenguaje tanto como sea posible, pero mantengan en la mente que lo que algunos llaman “distonía de embocadura” puede no ser un desorden neurológico, sino un problema de la mecánica de la embocadura.
El Instituto Nacional de Trastornos Neurológicos y Derrames (NINDS, siglas en inglés) define “distonía” como:
“un trastorno caracterizado por contracciones musculares involuntarias que causan movimientos lentos y repetitivo o posturas anormales. Los movimientos pueden ser dolorosos, y algunos individuos con distonía pueden tener temblores u otras características neurológicas. Hay distintas formas de distonía que pueden afectar a un músculo, un grupo de músculos o musculos a lo largo del cuerpo. Algunas formas de distonía son genéticas pero la causa de la mayoría de los causos es desconocida.”
Específicamente más relevante para las embocaduras de quienes tocan metal, la variedad de distonía que necesitamos entender se conoce como “distonía focal específica de una actividad”, nuevamente, definida según el NINDS:
“las distonías específicas de una actividad son distonías focales que tieneden a ocurrir solo cuando se lleva a cabo repetidamente una actividad particular. Los ejemplos incluyen el calambre del escritor que afecta los musculos de la mano y ocasionalmente los del antebrazo, y solo ocurre durante la escritura. Distonías focales similares han sido llamadas calambres del mecanógrafo, del pianista y del músico. La distonía del músico es un término utilizado para clasificar las distonías focales que afectan a los músicos, específicamente su habilidad para tocar un instrumento o actuar. Puede involver las manos en los instrumentistas de cuerda o teclado, la boca y los labios en los de aliento, o la voz en los cantantes”
Antes de continuar, necesito aclarar mi formación y mis ideas sobre la distonía de embocadura. Como siempre intento señalar al discutir algo médico, no soy un profesional de la medicina y en ninguna manera estoy calificado para tratar un desorden neurológico. Mientras intento describir algunas causas posibles, o por lo menos correlaciones, de las disfunciones severas de embocadura más adelante, mis ideas y consejos no deben de ningún modo considerarse un consejo médico válido. Siempre debes consultar con un profesional médico si sospechas de una condición médica.
LA DIFERENCIA ENTRE MÚSICA Y MEDICINA
Esto me lleva a mi primer crítica, los maestros de música que pretenden diagnosticar y tratar desórdenes médicos. Deténganse. Mientras sus intenciones pueden ser buenas y quizá estén ayudando a personar a recuperarse de una disfunción de embocadura, hay un riesgo de que se cause un gran daño. Llamen a lo que hacen lo que es, resolver problemas de embocadura. A menos que tengan el entrenamiento médico y la licencia para legalmente tratar y/o diagnosticar condiciones médicas, están sobre la línea de practicar terapias o medicina sin licencia.
Mencioné daño potencial. Brevemente diré que hay razones no-médicas por las cuales algunas embocaduras se dañan y provocan síntomas parecidos a la distonía focal de embocadura. A menos que estén calificados para diagnosticar una condición médica, su proclamación de que un estudiante que llega a ustedes tiene “distonía de embocadura” puede causar que esa persona dilate o evite un tratamiento médico necesario. Si el estudiante tien la parálisis de Bell o un derrame ligero, por ejemplo, postergar un diagnóstico correcto con su atención médica correspondiente puede arruinar las oportunidades del estudiante de recuperarse por completo. O puede conducir a complicaciones más serias que estén más allá de tocar un instrumento de metal. Las condiciones médicas como distonía focal específica existen y deben ser tratadas bajo la supervisión de una persona calificada.
Dejen la medicina a los profesionales y ustedes deberán aconsejar a sus estudiantes a buscar atención médica, cuando sea apropiado.
HAGAN SU TAREA, LA IGNORANCIA NO ES DICHA
Algunas veces me sorprente lo ignorante que es el campo de la pedagogía de los metales de la forma y función de la embocadura. Hay definitivamente una cultura de ignorancia que evita que los músicos de metal aprendan a entender realmente como su embocadura funciona y poner en un contexto más amplio como distintos músicos tocan de manera distinta. Una de las voces más influyentes en hacer que los músicos y los maestros permanezcan dichosamente desprevenidos fue Arnold Jacobs. Jacobs alentaba a sus estudiantes a “pensar en el producto, no en la metodología” (Also Sprach Arnold Jacobs: A Developmental Guide for Brass Wind Musicians/Así hablaba Arnold Jacobs: Una guía para el desarrollo de músicos de aliento metal) Sea o no su intención que su idea se tomase de esta manera, muchos maestros de metal han interpretado que esto significa que uno nunca debe analizar la técnica de los metales.
Roger Rocco, un antiguo estudiante de Jacobs, ha escrito en su blog que la distonía de la embocadura es causada en parte por:
“Enfocarse en la consciencia de sí mismo, en el análisis de sí mismo, o del instrumento”
Él no cita ninguna fuente médica que corrobore su declaración, ni esto se alínea con lo que fuentes de buena reputación declaran sobre la distonía específica. Como el mayor volumen de la discusión relacionada con distonía focal del blog de Rocco es ideológica y filosófica, pondría en cuestión su declaración aquí.
Otra aproximación común, pero mal guiada, es la de asumir que la disfunción de embocadura es meramente un resultado de sobreuso. La página y libros de Lucinda Lewis cometen este error. De acuerdo a Lewis:
Para el propósito de la discusión aquí, el síndrome del sobreuso de la embocadura se refiere a cualquier problema crónico relacionado con la embocadura que dure por más de dos semanas e incluye cualquiera de los siguientes: dolor de labios, moretones o inflamación crónica, entumecimiento, labios de cartón, abrasiones recurrentes en los puntos de presión, abrasiones inducidas por el aire, falta de aguante, sonido desenfocado, falta de control de tocar y problemas crónicos del registro agudo.
– Broken Embouchures, de Lucinda Lewis.
Lo que ella ha hecho aquí es tomar virtualmente cualquier problema de embocadura y lo ha colocado bajo la sombrilla de “sobreuso de la embocadura”. El problema no es solo que sobre-simplifique, pero además prescribe un tratamiento general que puede no ser relevante para la situación. Los problemas crónicos del registro agudo pueden venir de una variedad de problemas mecánicos, muchos de los cuales no se relacionan con el sobreuso. Las abrasiones de los labios pueden ser exacerbadas por retorcer los labios hacia arriba con la boquilla. El hinchamiento de los labios y los moretones pueden ocurrir porque la colocación de la boquilla no está balanceada correctamente entre el labio superior y el inferior. Un periodo particularmente demandante de tocar puede ser la paja proverbial que rompe la espalda del camello, pero la mecánica incorrecta está atrás de los factores con los que se debe empezar.
Es fácil encontrar ideas similares a lo largo de la literatura musical, pero las fuentes que descartan el análisis de la embocadura a menudo carecen de una discusión completa y precisa de la mecánica de la embocadura. No puedes analizar algo que no entiendes. De lo que carecen es que si tú analizas algo incorrectamente vas a tener problemas haciendo las correcciones necesarias.Si combinas esto con la lamentable frase de “análisis lleva a parálisis” vas a tener una profecía que se autocumple. Haz tu tarea primero.
Como un área general, la pedagogía de los metales se lleva a cabo en gran parte ignorando la forma y función de la embocadura. Algunas personas lo hacen conscientemente y están orgullosos de esos. Otros están mal aconsejados. Me gusta pensar que la mayoría de los músicos y maestros simplemente han recibido mala orientación y que con un buen acceso a buena información podrán ser capaces de tomar decisiones más informadas sobre cómo practicar y enseñar el desarrollo de la embocadura. En ambos casos, activamente hacer que la gente evite aprender acerca de la realidad está haciendo un despropósito a nuestros estudiantes y debe ser detenido.
Los tipos básicos de embocadura no son un tema difícil de entender. Si sientes que tener una comprensión general de la teoría musical es útil para tocar música (y espero que no tengas que ser convencido de eso), entonces, con seguridad, hacer un esfuerzo similar para entender las embocaduras está muy bien dentro de tu capacidad. Sí, existe un tiempo y un lugar para olvidarse de la técnica de los metales, pero “no tires al bebé con el agua de la bañera”. Debes hacer un esfuerzo para entender completamente un tema antes de que lo descartes por ser innecesario o equivodado.
LO QUE NECESITAS SABER SOBRE LAS EMBOCADURAS
Para tratar la disfunción de embocadura, primero necesitas entender su forma y función. Al haber muchas ideas contrarias debes tener las herramientas para colocarlas en un contexto adecuado. He escrito bastante extensivamente sobre esto en este blog, pero continuare con alguna información básica sobre esto en este post para puntualizar mejor.
Si te fijas de cerca en la embocadura de los músicos pronto descubrirás que cada embocadura es distinta. Esto tiene sentido, pues cada músico tiene características anatómicas distintas. Habiendo dicho eso, también notarás que existen algunos patrones específicos en las embocaduras. Usando dos características observables de una embocadura funcional puedes empezar a categorizarlas en distintos tipos. Estos tipos de embocadura no son métodos de práctica o instrucciones, sino que describen características observables que todas las embocaduras tienen, estén o no conscientes de estas los instrumentistas.
La primer categoría es la de la dirección del aire. Mientras muschos músicos están convencidos que soplan el aire hacia abajo de la boquilla, observar esto con una boquilla transparente muestra algo distinto. Virtualmente todos los músicos exitosos ponen la boquilla de modo que un labio o el otro predomine dentro de la boquilla. Cuando se coloca más el labio superior dentro de la boquilla la corriente de aire toma una dirección hacia abajo (downstream) al pasar los labios. Lo contrario pasa cuando se coloca más el labio dentro, el flujo de aire pasa los labios y choca la copa de la boquilla arriba del tubo (upstream). El ángulo del instrumento, a pesar de ser importante para la embocadura, no determina la dirección del aire; es la colocación de la boquilla la determinante.
En estos días la dirección del aire debería ser un conocimiento común, pero no lo es. Esta característica ha sido independientemente descubierta y confirmada por una variedad de fuentes y existen documentos disponibles en bibliotecas académicas y mucha información disponible gratuitamente en línea. Aún más importante, no es difícil darte cuenta por ti mismo. El *link* que posteé en el párrafo previo muestra algunas fotos y videos y las boquillas transparentes no son difíciles de conseguir ni caras. Si tú estás ayudando a músicos con disfunciones severas debes de estar atento a la dirección del aire y a si la embocadura de tu alumno es upstream, downstream o alternan entre ambas. Querrás entender que no todos tocan con una embocadura que satisface su anatomía y deberas estar consciente de que cambiar la colocación y el flujo de aire puede ayudar o lastimar a algunos, a veces de manera dramática.
La otra característica de la embocadura que es aún más desconocida en el ámbito es lo que me gusta llamar “motricidad de embocadura” (embouchure motion). Virtualmente todos los músicos de éxitos, estén o no conscientes de esto, empujarán y jalarán la boquilla y los labios juntos como una unidad hacia arriba o hacia abajo a lo largo de sus dientes y encías al cambiar registros. La dirección general y el ángulo específico que esta motricidad varía de músico en músico, pero se muestra como una parte esencial de una embocadura funcional. Algunos músicos por lo general empujan la boquilla y los labios hacia la nariz al subir el registro, mientras otros la jalan hacia abajo. Estos patrones básicos tambien están correlacionados con la dirección del aire del individuo. Los que tocan upstream casi siempre jalarán hacia abajo para ascender a los agudos, mientras que los downstream pueden hacer lo mismo o lo contrario. Otra vez, este fenómeno ha sido descubierto y verificado por distintas fuentes, pero aún no está ampliamente divulgado.
Usando estas dos características básicas por sí solas es posible categorizar tres tipos básicos de embocadura por lo menos. Utilizando otras características, tales como la posición de la mandíbula y el ángulo del instrumento, es posible (aunque probable e innecesariamente complicado) definir aún más tipos de embocadura. Si tú estás ayudando a los músicos a recuperarse de una disfunción severa deberás estár atento a estos tipos básicos de embocadura y aprender a distinguirlos. Estas son variables importantes que debes considerar.
ALTERNACIÓN DE TIPO
Si bien no he visto muchos casos de distonía o disfunción de embocadura como tales, cada caso que he visto detenidamente (y en algunas ocasiones, documentado), exhibe alguna forma de alternación del tipo. Un puñado de estos son músicos que probablemente debería estar tocando upstream y que por alguna razón no lo están, a menudo por los consejos de un maestro bien intencionado pero sin pericia. Aún más común, sin embargo, veo alternación entre ambas variantes downstream. Si miras la motricidad de embocadura tendrás dificultad para ver si están jalando hacia abajo o empujando hacia arriba para ascender a los agudos. Algunas veces dan la vuelta a la dirección en un punto particular de su registro o van muy lejos con la motricidad de la embocadura en cierto punto. *aquí hay un ejemplo de youtube* grabado por Joaquí Fabra, quien cree que la distonía es un problema conductual y quien trata a la distonía como un problema psicológico. Al mirar el video de este cornista puedes ver la motricidad de su embocadura alternar la dirección.
Aquí está otro video de Joaquín Fabra que muestra a un trompetista. Observa como la motricidad del músico en la primer parte del video muestra boquilla y labios haciendo pucheros alrededor de casi cada ataque. Cada vez que toca una nota está intentando darle a un blanco movedizo. Más adelante del video, el trompetista está casi carente de síntomas y podrás ver la consistencia en la motricidad de la embocadura, particularmente en el ataque inicial de las notas.
A mi parecer, Fabra ni siquiera considera que el músico está alternando. En su entrevista con Dave Stragg, Fabra deja bastante claro que el percibe que la distonía es causada por una condición emocional y el evita la discusión de la mecánica de la embocadura, llegando incluso a dar a entender que el análisis de la embocadura es parcialmente la causa de la condición en primer lugar. Considerando su aparentemente carencia de entendimiento de los tipos básicos de embocadura, pero la corrección de la alternación, yo diría que la aproximación de Fabra se vería beneficiada de no tratar meramente los resultados psicológicos de la disfunción severa, sino de corregir conscientemente la mecánica de la emocadura.
Regresando a las ideas de Lucinda Lewis, ella siente que un programa de tratamiento de la disfunción de embocadura requiere que el músico de metal regrese a la embocadura previa al colapso. En Embocaduras Rotas (Broken Embouchures) escribió, “Reparar tu embocadura quiere decir rehabilitar la mecánica a su integridad pre-daño” (2005, p.40). Lo que falta en su texto es, como sea, considerar si la embocadura pre-daño era funcional en primer lugar. Mi analogía favorita para esto es el levantar objetos pesados con la espalda. Puedes estar tocando mal por un rato, particularmente si eres fuerte. Pero si lo sigues haciendo serás más propenso a lastimarte. Si sufres de una disfunción severa y mejoras al regresar a tu embocadura previa debes considerar que quizá solo estés mejorando en tocar mal. Los maestros deben de estar atentos a la embocadura de sus estudiantes y a la forma general de la embocadura para poder eliminar los cambios de tipo que sean los culpables de una disfunción. También puede ayudar a los músicos a corregir el cambiar de tipo antes de que ésto provoque un colapso, en primer lugar.
A DÓNDE IR DESDE AQUÍ
La mayoría de mi escrito aquí está dedicado a la falta de atención a la mecánica de la embocadura por parte de los maestros y estudiantes de metales y a nuestra incapacidad de poner esto en un contexto adecuado al atender a la disfunción de la embocadura. Si el campo de la pedagogía de los metales está aventando la toalla aquí no podemos esperar que la comunidad médica tenga mejor desempeño y los músicos que sufren de la disfunción quizá no vayan a ser bien atendidos por doctores y terapistas que traten la distonía. Pero más allá de este problema, que será corregido cuando más músicos estén más conscientes de este tema, necesitamos comenzar a hacer mejores preguntas sobre la distonía de embocadura. Algunas de estas preguntas pueden (y deberían) ser investigadas objeticamente, pero nuevamente, esto necesita comenzar al nivel de la comunidad musical, quienes no solo tendran una participación más importante en este tema pero quienes también deberán tener la formación necesaria en la técnica para mejorar las embocaduras.
Pero para mejorar esto los educadores musicales necesitan tomar más en serio la metodología de la investigación. Hata cierto grado, nuestra falta de consciencia de cómo llevar a cabo investigaciones e interpretar artículos académicos es entendible. Antes que todo somos artistas y nuestra preocupación primaria debería ser la expresión musical. Habiendo dicho esto, el pensamiento crítico es también una capacidad que se remunera dentro y fuera de la música. Corresponde a todos los maestros, no solo a aquellos que tratan la disfunción, aprender a conducir investigación, aprender sobre los sezgos cognitivos y cómo buscar información precisa y de calidad de temas musicales. Una vez que hayamos cambiado nuestra cultura de la ignorancia por una de prencamiento crítico y consciencia podremos comenzar a hacer preguntas (y a investigar) cuestiones que potencialmente dirijan hacia un tratamiento más efectivo de la disfunción de emocadura. Aquí hay algunas preguntas que personalmente creo debemos hacer:
¿Son algunos tipos de embocadura más propensos a la disfunción?
¿Qué características de embocadura (por ejemplo, cambio de motricidad de embocadura) pueden correlacionarse con la disfunción de embocadura?
Es el cambiar de tipo de embocadura una causa de transtornos neurológicos específicos que pueda ser mapeada en el cerebro o es el problema neurológico el que causa el cambio?
¿Qué tan a menudo es un diagnóstico de distonía realmente el resultado de cambiar de tipo?
¿Conduce la corrección consciente de la alternación entre embocaduras a una mejora en la disfunción?
¿Conducen los programas que son existosos en tratar la disfunción severa a correcciones de la alternación entre embocaduras, aún si la alternación no está considerada en ese programa? De ser así, ¿Servirían mejor los procedimientos que encaminan a un músico a evitar la alternación?
¿Llevan a problemas psicológicos las fallas mecánicas relacionadas con la alternación de embocadura? De ser así, ¿puede lograrse una reducción o eliminación e los problemas psicológicos a través de correcciones mecánicas?
¿Cómo pueden los maestros ayudar a los músicos que padecen disfunción severa hacer un programa de tratamiento balanceado que ataque los problemas mecánicos relacionados con la embocadura y psicológicos relacionados con la incapacidad para tocar?
HACIA UNA COMUNICACIÓN ABIERTA Y HONESTA
He criticado y nombrado a algunas personas aquí y también, previamente, en otras ocasiones en linea. Algunos de estos maestros han tomado esta crítica personalmente, aún cuando esta no es mi intención. Por favor, nótese que yo hago lo que puedo para enfocarme en las ideas, no en las personas como individuos. Así también soy cuidadoso de probar y calificar mis opiniones tanto como sea posible ya sea de mis ideas está basada en evidencia objetiva o mera especulación. Más aún, me he equivocado en el pasado y continuaré cometiendo equivocaciones. Una de las razones por las cuales posteo mis pensamientos sobre este tópico públicamente es para que los expertos puedan señalar las fallas en mi razonamiento.
El método científico ha sido tan exitoso debido a su naturaleza autocorrectiva. Los maestros de metales que ayuden a los músicos que padezcan una disfunción severa necesitan seguir más este método. Esto involucra cuestionarse sobre las ideas de los otros, retando nuestras propios supuestos y comprometerse en un debate abierto y honesto con los demás. Muy a menudo vemos esto como descortés y nos olvidamos de que así es como se hace el progreso. Ningún individuo que trate a la distonía tendrá todas las respuestas, no importa qué tan exitoso sea su programa de tratamiento. El genio solitario que guía el camino para todos es solo un mito. Colectivamente somos mucho más inteligentes de lo que somos individualmente.
CONSEJOS PARA MÚSICOS QUE PADEZCAN DISFUNCIÓN DE EMBOCADURA
Si llegaste hasta aquí y eres un músico que padece disfunción severa de embocadura quiero concluir con mi consejo para ti. He tenido éxito en ayudar algunas personas con problemas al pitar y también sé de un puñado de amigos a lo largo de los EUA que puedo recomendar, pero si quieres ayuda probablemente tendrás que trasladarte a menos que vivas en su área. Las consultas por video, a pesar de tener potencial, generalmente no se prestan a diagnosticar problemas de embocadura y a encontrar la solución.
Hay maestros que tienen éxito en tratar problemas de disfunción que no demuestran una consciencia de los tipos de embocadura y cómo corregir las alternaciones, pero yo por lo general animaría a un estudiante a buscar ayuda de alguien más reconocible. Hagan preguntas. Más aún, cuando buscas ayuda creo que es necesario tener en cuenta el efecto Dunning/Kruger: mientras más blanco/negro se torne una discusión, más probable es que se vuelva ena discusión filosófica que una realidad objetiva. Los programas de tratamiento que se basan en el Sistema de Pensamiento de Harold Hill tienen más probabilidades de éxito a pesar de, en vez de por lo que aprendas. Una segunda opinión puede ser una buena idea, aún si aparentemente te está funcionando.
Otra vez más, puedo estar equivocado. Tómate tu tiempo para seguir los recursos y links que he posteado aquí sobre la función y disfunción de embocadura y juzga por ti mismo. Mi objetivo aquí es conscientizar a los músicos y maestros de la información disponible para colocar los consejos en un contexto apropiado, no para espantar a las personas de un punto de vista opuesto. Le doy la bienvenida a preguntas y críticas a mis propias ideas y te invito a que las pongas en la sección de comentarios de abajo.
The following article is a rewrite of an earlier one originally published in 2003 on the Online Trombone Journal, entitled An Introduction to Donald S. Reinhardt’s Pivot System. Because the OTJ is currently not being updated and the code used to publish everything is so old the original article is currently unaccessible on the OTJ. I decided that this would be a good time to revisit the article and make it more accessible to folks wanting an introduction to Reinhardt’s teaching without overwhelming them with details that may not be relevant to their teaching or playing. If you wish to read the original article I have posted it here.
Donald S. Reinhardt (1908 – 1989), was an American trombonist and music teacher. As a young man he was frustrated with his lack of technical progress on the instrument, in spite of practicing very hard and studying with many experienced music teachers. One day an accident damaged the tuning slide on his trombone and when it was returned from the repair shop the counter weight was inadvertently left off. When Reinhardt went to play again the loss of the counter weight led to a much lower horn angle than he usually played, however the results were markedly better for him. Because the different embouchure that resulted was so unusual compared to the other brass player’s Reinhardt knew he became interested in studying how other musicians played. Over time, he analyzed and categorized thousands of players’ embouchures, tonguing, breathing, and other mechanical aspects of brass technique.
In 1939 the theater orchestra where Reinhardt performed was fired and so he took some time off to travel across the United States with his wife. While on this trip he met a young trombone student in Kansas, whom he gave a short lesson to. Helping this student led to Reinhardt’s interest in teaching brass musicians how to better achieve technical mastery of their instruments. Over the next couple of years he gave brass lessons for free in order to test out his ideas. In 1954 he established a teaching studio in Philadelphia.
Reinhardt called his approach to teaching brass the “Pivot System,” a name he would eventually regret. The term “pivot” led to the impression that he taught brass players to tilt their horn around while playing, while the term “system” implied that there was a universal approach that all brass students were to follow. Instead, the goal of his pedagogy was to find the physical and mental procedures that allowed each student to progress according to their anatomical and psychological makeup. He wrote:
The PIVOT SYSTEM (sic) is a scientific, practical, proven method of producing the utmost in range, power, endurance and flexibility on the trumpet, trombone and all other cupped-mouthpiece brass instruments. It was originated not only through forty years of research and experimentation in practical playing, teaching, writing and lecturing to many thousands of professionals, semi-professionals, supervisors, teachers, students, etc., but also through designing and producing personalized mouthpieces and being consultant of instrument design for several leading manufacturers of brass instruments.
This system, working on tried and tested principles, first of all analyzes and diagnoses the physical equipment of the player and then presents a specific, concrete set of rules and procedures which enable the individual to utilize, with the greatest possible efficiency, the lips, teeth, gums, jaws, and general anatomy with which he is naturally endowed.
– Reinhardt, Encyclopedia of the Pivot System, 1973 page XI
Because of the personalized nature of Reinhardt’s teaching it is very difficult to provide a summary of his pedagogy. He would break down his discussion of playing mechanics into three primary playing factors, breathing, tonguing, and embouchure. Depending on the needs of the student Reinhardt would emphasize one playing factor over another and developed individualized routines to help students improve.
Reinhardt’s ideas on teaching breathing mirror what many other brass teachers and players have advocated over the years. He felt that the foundation of good breath control began with good posture, whether seated or standing. Two areas where Reinhardt approached breathing somewhat differently from many other brass teachers were his suggestions on “timed breathing” and mouth corner inhalations.
Reinhardt believed that rather than always taking a full breath to play that brass players should aim to take in enough air to play the phrase comfortably and no more. He felt that over breathing, particularly for the upper register, caused problems, including dizziness and strain. Under breathing would lead to a thin tone and lack of coordination with the tonguing and embouchure. He asked his students to practice breathing in slowly when possible, rather than trying to inhale enough air to make the phrase as quickly as possible.
More unusual than Reinhardt’s recommendation for timed breathing were his advice on mouth corner inhalations. Reinhardt felt that many playing issues were caused by brass musicians pulling their lips away or out of position from the mouthpiece to breath. In order to combat this tendency he instructed his students to keep the mouthpiece in place on the lips while breathing through the mouth corners. He likened the mouth center to an “outtake valve” while the mouth corners functioned as an “intake valve.” When the inhalation was complete the student was to snap the mouth corners forward into playing position immediately and without hesitation begin the blowing.
Reinhardt’s instructions on tonguing could be very detailed and different for students, depending on factors such as the size of the student’s oral cavity, length of the tongue, relationship of the lower lip to the lower teeth, and other anatomical and stylistic considerations. However, he broke down the mechanics of tonguing on a brass instrument into the following.
The tongue as used in the PIVOT SYSTEM has three principal duties: one, the level of the tongue-arch is one of the factors for the control of range; two, the length of the tongue backstroke is one of the determining factors for volume and speed; and three, the tongue-level directs and governs the size of the cone-like air column so that it may strike the back of the compressed embouchure formation to produce the lip-vibrations for the particular tone to be played.
– Reinhardt, Encyclopedia of the Pivot System, page 82.
He discouraged almost all his students to avoid attacking pitches with the tongue striking the lips. He wrote:
“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.”
– Reinhardt, Encyclopedia of the Pivot System, 1973, pp. 100-101.
Arguably it is in the area of embouchure where Reinhardt’s teaching can contribute the most to brass pedagogy. He was perhaps the first brass author to make note of different embouchure types and make them an important part of his teaching. While these ideas remain somewhat controversial still today, the embouchure characteristics he describe have been independently discovered by later authors and researchers and make for a powerful pedagogical tool for brass teachers willing to make the effort to learn more about them.
In order to understand Reinhardt’s embouchure types it is first necessary to understand two basic characteristics that all brass players’ embouchures have, whether or not the player is aware of them, air stream direction and an embouchure motion that Reinhardt originally called a “pivot.”
While many brass players consider air stream direction to be the result of the player’s horn angle, use of a transparent mouthpiece shows that the main determining factor of the embouchure air stream direction is the ration of upper to lower lip placed inside the mouthpiece. When a brass player places the mouthpiece so that there is more upper than lower lip inside the mouthpiece cup the upper lip predominates and the air stream can be seen to pass the vibrating lips at a downward angle. When the a downstream brass musician plays in the upper register the angle of the air stream is directed even more so in a downward direction. Conversely, when a downstream embouchure player plays in the low register the air stream angle is closer towards blowing straight into the mouthpiece shank.
Upstream embouchure players are exactly opposite. These player set the mouthpiece upon the lips so that the lower lip predominates inside the cup and the air stream gets blown past the lips at an upward angle. When these musicians play in the upper register the angle the air stream passes the lips is even more upstream while in the lower register the air stream angle appears to get blown closer to straight out.
The other main embouchure characteristic that is used to categorize a brass musician’s embouchure according to Reinhardt was the phenomenon he called a “pivot.” Reinhardt adjusted his definition of this term over time, and would later regret using it as a label for his pedagogy. Early in his teaching career he defined a pivot as:
Pivoting is the transfer of what little pressure there is used in playing from one lip to another. . . The instrument is slightly tilted to get the tone at its most open point.
-Reinhardt, Pivot System Manual for Trombone, 1942, p. 23.
This definition implies that the tilting of the instrument is the important consideration with the pivot, leading many to erroneously assume that Reinhardt advocated tilting the horn up and down in order to change registers. His later definition of the brass pivot is a more accurate description of the phenomenon.
The PIVOT is controlled by pulling down or pushing up the lips on the teeth with the rim of the mouthpiece. The outer embouchure…and the mouthpiece move vertically (some with slight deviations to one side or the other) as one combined unit on the invisible vertical track of the inner embouchure …; however, the position of the mouthpiece on the outer embouchure must not be altered in any way.
– Reinhardt, Encyclopedia of the Pivot System, 1973, p. 194.
Where some players would ascend by pushing the mouthpiece and lips together as a unit upward towards the nose to ascend, other players pulled the mouthpiece and lips together down towards the chin to ascend. Many players will also perform best with the track of this motion at an angle, rather than straight up or down. Horn angle may be correctly altered at the same time, but the amount of change and direction the horn angle may change is personal to the player. To learn more about the embouchure motion Reinhardt called a pivot please visit this page devoted to the topic.
Using the player’s air stream direction, direction of pivot, as well as the position of the jaw while both at rest and while playing Reinhardt would classify four main embouchure types with five subtypes, resulting in nine different embouchure types. Because some of these types function the same while playing, most former students of Reinhardt’s tend to only classify students into three or four brass embouchure types.
Before learning about Reinhardt’s embouchure types it’s important to note that he felt that a player’s embouchure type was determined by the student’s anatomical features and isn’t a choice that a student or teacher can make. Reinhardt felt that long term progress and playing success was best done with adopting the one embouchure type that best fit the student’s physical characteristics rather than switching between types or adopting a type that wasn’t most efficient for the player’s anatomy. Each embouchure type has some general characteristics and may respond to exercises and routines in very different ways. Over decades of careful experimentation, Reinhardt developed practice routines and exercises that were designed to help players of different embouchure types progress successfully.
Embouchure Type I and Type IA
The Type I and Type IA embouchures are rarer than most of the other types. These player’s upper and lower teeth meet when the jaw is in its natural position. Oddly enough, this teeth and jaw structure appears to inhibit anything other than a very high mouthpiece placement (downstream Type I) or very low (upstream Type IA) mouthpiece placement from working efficiently. Other than the position of the teeth, these types are virtually identical to other embouchure types while the musician is playing. Type I embouchures are identical while playing to either the Type IIIA or Type IIIB embouchures and the Type IA embouchure is identical to the Type IV embouchure while playing. Because of this fact, the Type I and Type IA embouchures will not be covered in detail here (Reinhardt, Encyclopedia of the Pivot System, 1973, p. 205).
Embouchure Type II and Type IIA
The Type II and Type IIA embouchures are similar to the Type I embouchures in that they are distinguished by the natural position of the upper and lower teeth. Players belonging to this rarer type have lower teeth that protrude in front of the upper teeth when the jaw is in its resting position. Because of this teeth and jaw position these individuals will almost always play with an upstream embouchure, necessitating a mouthpiece placement with more lower lip. Other than the position of the player’s teeth while the jaw is in its resting position, the Type II embouchure is virtually identical to the Type IV embouchure. The Type IIA embouchure are very similar to the Type IVA embouchure while playing. Because of these similarities the Type II and Type IA embouchures will not be covered here in detail (Reinhardt, Encyclopedia of the Pivot System, 1973, pp. 206-207).
Embouchure Type III
The Types III, IIIA, and IIIB are much more common than the Types I, IA, II, and IIA. These player’s lower teeth naturally recede behind the upper teeth when the jaw is in its resting position. Players belonging to these types rarely protrude their lower jaw past the point where the upper and lower teeth are even and all three types place the mouthpiece with more upper lip inside the mouthpiece cup.
Reinhardt’s Type III embouchure, often called the “Jelly Roll Type,” plays with a mouthpiece placement with usually only slightly more upper lip inside the mouthpiece cup. Because there is more upper lip than lower lip inside the mouthpiece the air stream is directed at a downward angle inside the mouthpiece cup. The jaw is typically receded beneath the upper and because of this the horn angle is typically tilted lower, often quite extremely. In addition to the receded lower jaw, one of the main distinguishing features of this embouchure type is that the player’s lower lip membrane is positioned in and slightly over the lower teeth. As this type player ascends the lower lip roll becomes more pronounced.
The Type III embouchure motion is usually to pulling down towards the chin to ascend and pushing up towards the nose to descend. In rarer cases Type III embouchure players will do the reverse pivot and push up to the nose to ascend while pulling down to descend.
In many cases a Type III player will have difficulties with the extreme upper register, changing types as he or she plays from around a concert F above high B flat or higher. This is particularly common with trumpet players, due to the smaller mouthpiece size and increased demand on faster lip vibrations. In these situations Reinhardt would reclassify this player as a Type IIIA or IIIB, according to their embouchure in the extreme upper register. True Type III players have a jaw that cannot protrude far enough to make a playing on a Type IIIA or Type IIIB possible. (Sheetz, PivoTalk Newsletter, Vol. 2, #3, p. 3).
One common difficulty Type III players have is their necessity of playing with the bell directed towards the floor because of a receded lower jaw. Players with this trouble need to be careful to not put their head too far back and place undue strain on their neck, restricting the throat (Sheetz, Quirks of the Types).
The Type IIIA embouchure tends to play with the mouthpiece placed quite high, often just under the nose with trombonists. These players also typically protrude the jaw more than the standard Type III players, but never to the point of thrusting the lower teeth beyond the upper teeth. With the jaw in a more protruded position the horn angle tends to be almost horizontal, and sometimes even higher. Because the upper lip predominates inside the mouthpiece cup this type also is classified as a downstream type.
Type IIIA performers always utilize Pivot Classification One, pushing up towards the nose to ascend and pulling down towards the chin to descend. When a student found that Pivot Classification Two worked more efficiently Reinhardt would classify the player as a Type IIIB (Reinhardt, Encyclopedia of the Pivot System, 1973, pp. 208-209).
Brass players belonging to Reinhardt’s Type IIIA embouchure often have a tendency to raise their horn angle while inhaling. When they bring the mouthpiece back down to play they crash the mouthpiece rim against the lips, causing swelling and inhibiting endurance. Type IIIA players of larger mouthpieces, such as trombonists, may find that their nose gets in the way of their ascending pivot, necessitating practice increasing their lip pucker instead of relying exclusively on their pivot to ascend (Sheetz, Quirks of the Types).
The Type IIIA embouchure tends to play with the mouthpiece placed quite high, often just under the nose with trombonists. These players also typically protrude the jaw more than the standard Type III players, but never to the point of thrusting the lower teeth beyond the upper teeth. With the jaw in a more protruded position the horn angle tends to be almost horizontal, and sometimes even higher. Because the upper lip predominates inside the mouthpiece cup this type also is classified as a downstream type.
Type IIIA performers always utilize Pivot Classification One, pushing up towards the nose to ascend and pulling down towards the chin to descend. When a student found that Pivot Classification Two worked more efficiently Reinhardt would classify the player as a Type IIIB (Reinhardt, Encyclopedia of the Pivot System, 1973, pp. 208-209).
Brass players belonging to Reinhardt’s Type IIIA embouchure often have a tendency to raise their horn angle while inhaling. When they bring the mouthpiece back down to play they may crash the mouthpiece rim against the lips, causing swelling and inhibiting endurance. Type IIIA players of larger mouthpieces, such as trombonists, may find that their nose gets in the way of their ascending pivot, necessitating practice increasing their lip pucker instead of relying exclusively on their pivot to ascend (Sheetz, Quirks of the Types).
Embouchure Type IIIB
The Type IIIB embouchure is perhaps the most common one, especially among symphonic brass players, and is therefore most frequently described in method books by brass pedagogues who recommend a single embouchure for all students. These players typically don’t place the mouthpiece as high as a Type IIIA embouchure or as low as a Type III. The upper lip still predominates inside the mouthpiece cup and this embouchure is therefore classified as a downstream embouchure. The lower teeth of a Type IIIB player is receded beneath the upper teeth on these players and the horn angle is usually slightly lower than a IIIA.
Type IIIB players always utilize Pivot Classification Two, pulling down towards the chin to ascend and pushing up to descend. When a Type IIIB student finds that Pivot Classification One is more efficient this player should be reclassified as a Type IIIA (Reinhardt, Encyclopedia of the Pivot System, 1973, p. 209).
Type IIIB embouchure players tend to have great flexibility and an easier time playing with a darker tone quality, but also have a tendency to become so concerned with a fat sounding lower and middle register that they play with too open an aperture. This results in difficulties playing above a concert D flat above high B flat. Because this type utilizes Pivot Classification Two it is also common for these players to dig the mouthpiece rim into their upper lip, causing swelling and trouble with endurance (Sheetz, Quirks of the Types).
Embouchure Type IV and IVA
Embouchure Types IV and IVA players have lower teeth which recede beneath the upper teeth while their jaw is in their resting position, but since these types place the mouthpiece with more lower lip inside the cup than upper lip the air stream is directed at an upward angle, regardless of the position of the jaw while playing or horn angle.
In addition to placing the mouthpiece lower on the lips, Reinhardt’s Type IV embouchure plays with the lower jaw quite protruded beyond the upper, in spite of the jaw’s natural position. While playing this embouchure type is identical to Reinhardt’s Type II embouchure. Due to the protruded position of the lower jaw the horn angle of this embouchure type is very high, sometimes higher than horizontal.
Type IV players almost always utilize Pivot Classification Two, pulling down to ascend and pushing up to descend. There are exceptions, however. In those exceptions Reinhardt often found that the mouthpiece placement was too low for this player’s embouchure and the player should adopt a different embouchure type (Reinhardt, Encyclopedia of the Pivot System, 1973, p. 210).
It is common for Type IV players to change their horn angle while inhaling and crash the mouthpiece against the lips for initial attacks, similar to the Type IIIB embouchure (Sheetz, Quirks of the Types).
Type IVA embouchures are identical to Type IV embouchures with a couple of exceptions. Like the Type IV, these players place the mouthpiece with more lower lip inside the mouthpiece and the air stream is directed in an upward direction. Unlike the Type IV embouchure, Type IVA players keep their jaw in a somewhat receded position so that the lower jaw is beneath the upper while playing, resulting in a downward horn angle.
The Type IVA embouchure typically utilizes Pivot Classification Two, pulling down to ascend and pushing up to descend, but there are some deviations to this principle (Reinhardt, Encyclopedia of the Pivot System, 1973, pp. 210-211).
The type IVA embouchure can be a very delicate embouchure type in the player’s early stages, which may be one reason why so many brass method books actively discourage utilizing this embouchure. When the Type IVA placement is a little wrong the whole embouchure system can often break down completely. Similar to the Type IIIB embouchure, Type IVA players often dig into their upper lip while pivoting down to ascend, causing excessive swelling (Sheetz, Quirks of the Types).
The best way to learn more about the pedagogy of Donald S. Reinhardt is to study from one of his former students, particularly the few who attended his teacher clinics. Most of the students that Reinhardt taught focused exclusively on their personal correctional procedures and may not be as qualified as others to correctly classify a student’s embouchure type or design a good routine. Today there are more “second generation” students who learned about Reinhardt’s pedagogy from one of his former students and who have gone on to make it part of their own teaching.
Baring lessons with a qualified teacher, the most detailed book about Reinhardt’s teaching is The Encyclopedia of the Pivot System. Reinhardt’s intention with this large text was to help students who were taking lessons with him. It is organized in a frequently asked questions format by topic, but little effort was made to arrange the materials in a linear manner. The writing style can be very technical at times and this book may not be the best introduction to Reinhardt’s pedagogy, although serious students of the Pivot System will want to read this book. Pivot System for Trumpet/Trombone, A Complete Manual With Studies is a much older book and much of the writing in this book is considered out of date compared to the Encyclopedia of the Pivot System. It does, however, contain many exercises that Reinhardt developed to help players with breathing, tonguing, articulations, embouchure development, range, dynamics, and more. Like the Encyclopedia of the Pivot System, these books are best explored under the guidance of a teacher experienced with Reinhardt’s pedagogy who can help the student design a routine that fits the individual’s particular embouchure and tonguing types.
Reinhardt, D. S. (1973). The Encyclopedia of the Pivot System of the pivot system for all cupped mouthpiece brass instruments, a scientific text. New York: Charles Colin.
Reinhardt, D. S. (1942). Pivot System for Trombone, A Complete Manual With Studies. Bryn Mawr, PA: Elkan-Vogel, Inc.
Reinhardt, D. S. (1942). Pivot System for Trumpet, A Complete Manual With Studies. Bryn Mawr, PA: Elkan-Vogel, Inc.
Sheetz, David H. Gone But Still Important, PivoTalk on the Web [Online] Unavailable
Sheetz, David H. Quirks of the Type, PivoTalk on the Web [Online] Unavailable
Wilken, D. (2000). The correlation between Doug Elliott’s embouchure types and playing and selected physical characteristics among trombonists. D.A. diss., Ball State University.
Trumpet Herald Donald S. Reinhardt Forum
An online forum devoted to discussing Reinhardt’s teaching and the Pivot System. Discussion here is actively moderated to restrict content to things written or spoken by Reinhardt exclusively.
Donald S. Reinhardt Foundation Official Website
The official web site of the Donald S. Reinhardt Foundation, a not for profit organization devoted to preserving the teachings of Reinhardt. At this time this web site has not been updated since 2011.
This is not an open forum where you can just post anything you please.
If it’s not a question about what Reinhardt taught, or if it’s not a direct statement of something that Reinhardt wrote or taught you, or maybe a short report how something Reinhardt taught made a big difference in your playing, then it serves no useful purpose here if we’re sticking to the mission of our stated purpose.
I understand Rich’s basic concern here. He wants the forum to be on topic, and it’s his prerogative to run the forum this way. It is, however, a very narrow restriction. This is a good way to design a library site or FAQ, but not very encouraging for vibrant discussion.
Reinhardt’s writings and opinions did, in fact, change, but we are left with a large body of work exactly the way Reinhardt left it, not as we interpret it all these years later.
Rich acknowledges that Reinhardt was open to changing his ideas, and from what I’ve heard from other former students he continued to do so as long as he was teaching. I prefer to honor Reinhardt’s legacy by following his model, rather than pin down what he said into something static.
I have had many requests through the years to keep on doing the job of “keeping this forum pure Reinhardt,” and some people have gone away with their feelings hurt. Some of the most notable posters on this forum have called (or PM’ed) and thanked me for doing the dirty work of cleaning out the “riff raff” or those who are not interested in the stated purpose of this forum.
The disgruntled few who are no longer with us are usually not missed, and those who continue to look to this forum for real answers that Reinhardt discovered all those years ago ought to be greeted with answers à la Reinhardt, not the way we think his teaching might have evolved all these years later.
I do believe that there are some who feel similarly to Rich about how to restrict discussion there. My guess is that there are some others who tolerate it because they are genuinely interested in learning about Reinhardt. I’m not certain that the “disgruntled few” are so few and aren’t missed, but maybe I’m projecting my own bias here.
Thank you for understanding and helping to keep this forum “Pure” Reinhardt.
I don’t have the time or inclination to create and moderate a public forum these days, but Facebook makes it easy to start a discussion group. If folks want a another place to discuss Donald Reinhardt’s pedagogy and how we can better teach it ourselves go here and send me a request to join.
Unless you are one of my regular readers chances are that you’ve come to this post looking for advice about some severe embouchure dysfunction. While I hope the following can provide some helpful avenues to explore, my target audience here are more the music teachers out there who promote themselves as “chop docs” or purport to diagnose and/or treat what often gets called “embouchure dystonia.” For the purposes of this essay, I will be using the terms “embouchure dystonia” and “embouchure dysfunction” at times interchangeably. I will try to be specific with my language when possible, but keep in mind that what some folks call “embouchure dystonia” may not be a neurological disorder, but an issue of embouchure mechanics.
The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke define “dystonia” as:
…a disorder characterized by involuntary muscle contractions that cause slow repetitive movements or abnormal postures. The movements may be painful, and some individuals with dystonia may have a tremor or other neurologic features. There are several different forms of dystonia that may affect only one muscle, groups of muscles, or muscles throughout the body. Some forms of dystonia are genetic but the cause for the majority of cases is not known.
More specifically relevant for brass players’ embouchures, the variety of dystonia that we need to understand is known as a “focal task specific dystonia.” Again, from the NINDS:
Task-specific dystonias are focal dystonias that tend to occur only when undertaking a particular repetitive activity. Examples include writer’s cramp that affects the muscles of the hand and sometimes the forearm, and only occurs during handwriting. Similar focal dystonias have also been called typist’s cramp, pianist’s cramp, and musician’s cramp. Musician’s dystonia is a term used to classify focal dystonias affecting musicians, specifically their ability to play an instrument or to perform. It can involve the hand in keyboard or string players, the mouth and lips in wind players, or the voice in singers.
Before I go further I need to clarify my background and thoughts on embouchure dystonia. As I always try to point out when discussing anything medical, I am not a medical professional and in no way am I qualified to diagnose or treat a neurological disorder. While I will attempt to describe some possible causes, or at least correlations, with severe embouchure dysfunction below, my thoughts and advice should in no way be considered valid medical advice. Always consult with a medical professional if you suspect a medical condition.
The Difference Between Music and Medicine
This leads me to my first criticism, music teachers who purport to diagnose and treat medical disorders. Stop it. While your intentions may be good and you may very well be helping folks suffering from embouchure dysfunction recover, there is potential to cause great harm. Call what you do what it is, embouchure troubleshooting. Unless you have had the medical training and licensing to legally treat and/or diagnose medical conditions you are skirting the line of practicing therapy or medicine without a license.
I mentioned potential harm. I will shortly argue that there are non-medical reasons why some brass players’ embouchures break down and cause symptoms consistent with focal task specific dystonia. Unless you have the qualifications to diagnose a medical condition your proclamation that a student coming to you for help with embouchure dysfunction has “embouchure dystonia” may cause that person to delay or avoid necessary medical treatment. If the student has Bell’s palsy or a mild stroke, for example, delaying a correct diagnosis and proper medical attention can ruin the student’s chance at making a complete recovery. Or it can lead to more serious complications beyond playing a brass instrument. Medical conditions like focal task specific dystonia do exist and should be treated under the supervision of a qualified professional.
Leave the medicine to the medical professionals and you should advise your students to seek medical attention, when appropriate.
Do Your Homework/Ignorance Is Not Bliss
It sometimes surprises me how ignorant the field of brass pedagogy as a whole is of embouchure form and function. There is definitely a culture of ignorance here that discourages brass musicians from learning to truly understand how their embouchure functions and put it into a larger context of how different brass players play differently. One of the most influential voices in encouraging players and teachers to remain blissfully unaware was Arnold Jacobs. Jacobs encouraged his students to, “Think product, not methodology” (Also Sprach Arnold Jacobs: A Developmental Guide for Brass Wind Musicians). Whether or not he actually intended this idea to be taken as such, many brass teachers have interpreted this to mean that one should never analyze brass technique.
Roger Rocco, a former student of Jacobs, has written on his blog that embouchure dystonia is caused in part by:
Focus on self awareness, self analysis, or the instrument.
He doesn’t cite any medical literature supporting this statement, nor does it align with what any reputable sources state about focal task specific dystonia. As the bulk of Rocco’s discussion on his blog related to embouchure dystonia is ideological and philosophical, I would question his statement here.
Another common, but misguided, approach to treating embouchure dysfunction is to assume that it is purely a result of overuse. Lucinda Lewis’s web site and books make this mistake. According to Lewis:
For the purpose of discussion here, embouchure overuse syndrome refers to any chronic embouchure-related playing problems which last for more than two weeks and includes any or all of the following: lip pain, chronic lip swelling or bruising, numb, rubbery, or cardboard lips, recurring pressure-point abrasions, air-induced abrasions, lack of endurance, unfocused sound, lack of playing control, and chronic high-range problems.
– Broken Embouchures, by Lucinda Lewis
What she has done here is taken virtually every embouchure issue and placed them under the umbrella as “embouchure overuse.” The problem is this not only oversimplifies the issue, but also prescribes a general treatment program that may not be relevant for the situation. Chronic high range problems can come from a variety of mechanical issues, many not related to overplaying. Abrasions on the lips can be exacerbated by twisting the lips up with the mouthpiece. Lip swelling and bruising can occur because the mouthpiece placement isn’t balanced correctly between the upper and lower lip. A particularly demanding playing period may be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back, but incorrect mechanics are possibly behind the issues to start with.
It’s easy to find similar ideas throughout the musical literature, but sources that discourage embouchure analysis typically lack an accurate and complete discussion of brass embouchure mechanics. You can’t analyze something you don’t understand. What they miss is that if you are analyzing something incorrectly you’re going to have trouble making the needed corrections. Combine this with the pithy phrase that embouchure “analysis leads to paralysis” and you’re going to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Do your homework first.
As a general field, brass pedagogy is largely ignorant of brass embouchure form and function. Some folks are willingly so and proud of it. Other folks are misguided. I like to think that most brass players and teachers simply have been ill-advised and with access to good information will be able to make more informed decisions about how to practice and teach embouchure development. Either way, actively discouraging people to avoid learning about reality is doing our brass students a serious disservice and you need to stop it.
The basic brass embouchure types as a topic is not all that difficult to comprehend. If you feel that having a general understanding of music theory is helpful for performing music (and I hope you don’t need to be convinced of that), then surely making a similar effort to understand brass embouchures better is well within your capabilities. Yes, there is a time and place for forgetting about brass technique, but don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. You must make an effort to fully understand a topic before you dismiss it as unnecessary or wrong.
What You Need To Know About Brass Embouchures
In order to treat embouchure dysfunction you need to first understand embouchure form and function. Since there are many contrary ideas out there you will need to have the tools to place them into a proper context. I’ve written fairly extensively about this topic on this site, but I will go over some basic information in this post in order to better make my points. A good introduction to this topic, however, can be found here and a more complete one here.
If you look closely at brass players’ embouchures you will soon notice that every embouchure is different. This makes sense, since every player has different anatomical features. That said, you will also begin to notice that there are specific patterns in brass embouchures. Using two observable features of a functioning brass embouchure you can begin to categorize all brass embouchures into different types. These embouchure types are not practice methods or instructions, but rather describe observable characteristics that all brass embouchures have, whether or not the player is aware of them.
The first category to note is that of air stream direction. While many players are convinced that they blow the air straight down the shank of the mouthpiece, observation with a transparent mouthpiece shows otherwise. Virtually every successful brass player will place the mouthpiece so that one lip or another predominates inside the mouthpiece. When more upper lip is placed inside the mouthpiece the air stream passes the lips and gets blown in a downward direction. The reverse is true when more lower lip is placed inside, the air stream passes the lips and strikes the mouthpiece cup above the shank. Horn angle, while important to an individual’s embouchure, does not determine air stream direction, mouthpiece placement does.
These days brass embouchure air stream direction should be common knowledge, but it isn’t. This characteristic has been independently discovered and confirmed by a variety of sources and the literature is available in academic libraries and much of it is now freely accessible online. More importantly, it’s not that hard to see for yourself. The link I posted in the previous paragraph shows some photographs and videos and transparent brass mouthpieces are available and relatively cheap. If you’re helping players with severe embouchure dysfunction you need to be aware of air stream direction and whether or not your student’s embouchure is upstream, downstream, or switching between both. You will want to understand that not everyone plays with a mouthpiece placement that fit’s his or her anatomy and be aware that changing mouthpiece placement and air stream direction can help or hurt some players, sometimes in a dramatic fashion.
The other embouchure characteristic that is even less known about in the field as a whole is what I prefer to call an “embouchure motion.” Virtually every successful brass player, whether or not they are aware of it, will push and pull their mouthpiece and lips together as a single unit in an upward and downward direction along their teeth and gums while changing registers. The general direction and specific angle that this embouchure motion takes varies between players, but it appears to be an essential part of a well functioning embouchure. Some players will generally push the mouthpiece and lips up towards the nose as they ascend, while others will pull down. These basic patterns also correlate with an individual’s air stream direction. Upstream players will almost always pull down to ascend, while downstream players may either do the same or the reverse. Again, this phenomenon has been discovered and independently verified by different resources, but is still not widely known about.
Using these two basic embouchure characteristics alone it’s possible to categorize at least three basic brass embouchure types. Using other features, such as jaw position and horn angle, it’s possible (but probably unnecessarily complicated) to define even more brass embouchure types. If you’re helping players recover from severe embouchure dysfunction you should become aware of these basic brass embouchure types and learn how to spot them. These are important variables you need to consider.
While I haven’t seen as many cases of embouchure dystonia or embouchure dysfunction as some, every single case that I have looked closely at (and documented, in some cases) exhibits some form of embouchure type switching. A handful of these are players who probably should be playing with an upstream embouchure but for some reason aren’t, often due to advice from well-intentioned but ignorant teachers. More commonly, however, I see type switching between the two basic downstream embouchure types. If you look for these players’ embouchure motion you will be hard pressed to see if they are pulling down to ascend or pushing up. Sometimes they reverse the direction at a particular point in their range or they go too far with the embouchure motion at a certain point. Here’s an example from YouTube recorded by Joaquín Fabra, who believes that embouchure dystonia is a “behavioral” problem and treats dystonia as a psychological issue. Watching the video of that particular horn player you can see his embouchure motion changing directions.
Here’s another video recorded by Fabra that shows a trumpet player. Note how this player’s embouchure motion during the earlier part of the video shows his mouthpiece and lips bobbing around for almost every attack. Every time he plays a note he is trying to hit a moving target. Later in the video, the trumpet player is largely symptom free and you will be able to spot how much more consistent the embouchure motion is, particularly on the initial attacks of notes.
To the best of my knowledge, Fabra doesn’t even consider the player’s type switching. In his interview with Dave Stragg Fabra is quite clear that he feels embouchure dystonia is caused by an emotional condition and he avoids discussion of embouchure mechanics, even going so far as to imply that the embouchure analysis is partially responsible for the condition in the first place. Considering his apparent lack of understanding of the basic embouchure types, but the correction of type switching in many of his documented examples, I argue that Fabra’s approach would benefit from not merely treating the psychological results of severe embouchure dysfunction but consciously correcting embouchure mechanics.
Returning to Lucinda Lewis’s thoughts, she feels that a treatment program for embouchure dysfunction requires the brass musician returning to their embouchure form prior to the breakdown. In Broken Embouchures she wrote, “Fixing your embouchure means rehabilitating your mechanics back to their pre injury integrity.” (2005, p. 40). What is missing from her text, however, is any consideration if the pre-injury embouchure was malfunctioning in the first place. My favorite analogy for this is lifting heavy objects with your back. You can get away playing wrong for a while, particularly if you’re naturally strong. Keep lifting with your back over time, however, and you’re going to be more prone to injury. If you suffer from severe embouchure dysfunction and get better by returning to your old way of playing you should consider that you might just be getting better at playing wrong. Teachers need to be aware of their students’ embouchure type and overall embouchure form in order to eliminate type switching as the culprit to embouchure dysfunction. It can also help players correct type switching before it causes the breakdown in the first place.
Where To Go From Here
The bulk of my above rant is largely concerned with the lack of awareness among brass teachers and players of embouchure mechanics and our inability to put them into a proper context when troubleshooting embouchure dysfunction. If the field of brass pedagogy is dropping the ball here we can’t expect the medical community to be any better, and players suffering from embouchure dysfunction are perhaps not going to be well served by doctors and therapists treating embouchure dystonia. But beyond this issue, which will be corrected over time when more players become better educated on this topic, we need to start asking better questions about embouchure dystonia. Some of these questions can (and should) be objectively researched, but again, this needs to start at the level of the musical community, who are not only going to have a higher stake in this issue but also should have the necessary background in brass technique to better study brass embouchures.
But in order to do this better music educators need to take research methodology more seriously. To a certain degree, our lack of awareness of how to conduct research and interpret academic articles and papers is understandable. We are first and foremost artists and our primary concern should be musical expression. That said, critical thinking is a skill that pays off in dividends both in and out of music. It behooves all brass teachers, not just ones who specialize in treating embouchure dysfunction, to learn about cognitive bias, how to conduct original research, and how to search for accurate and quality information on musical topics. Once we have changed our culture of ignorance for one of critical thinking and awareness we can begin asking (and researching) questions that potentially lead to more effective treatment of embouchure dysfunction. Here are a few that I personally feel we should be asking.
Are certain embouchure types more prone to severe embouchure dysfunction than others?
What embouchure characteristics (e.g. embouchure type switching) correlate to embouchure dysfunction?
Is embouchure type switching a cause of a specific neurological disorder that can be mapped in the brain or does the neurological issue cause the type switching?
How often is a diagnosis of focal task specific dystonia of the embouchure really a result of type switching?
Does conscious correction of embouchure type switching lead to improvement in embouchure dysfunction?
Do programs that are successful in treating severe embouchure dystonia lead to a player correcting embouchure type switching, even if type switching is not a consideration of that program? If so, would conscious corrective procedures that encourage a player to avoid type switching better serve?
Do mechanical issues related to embouchure type switching lead to the psychological troubles that brass musicians suffer from? If so, can making mechanical corrections lead to a reduction or elimination of the psychological issues?
How can brass teachers helping players who suffer from severe embouchure dysfunction balance a treatment program to address both the mechanical issues related to embouchure type switching and the psychological issues related to inability to perform?
Leading To Open and Honest Communication
I have criticized some folks by name in this essay and elsewhere online before. In the past some of these teachers have taken this criticism personally, even though that is not my intention. Please note that I do my best to address ideas, not people as individuals. I also am very careful to try and qualify my opinions as much as possible to clarify when one of my ideas is based on objective evidence or mere speculation. Furthermore, I have been wrong before and will continue to be wrong again. One of the reasons I post my thoughts about this topic publicly is so that experts can point out the flaws in my reasoning.
The scientific method has been so successful due to its self correcting nature. Brass teachers helping players suffering from severe embouchure dysfunction need to follow this model more. This involves questioning each others’ ideas, challenging our own assumptions, and engaging in an open and honest debate with each other. Too often we view this as being impolite and forget that this is how advances are made. No single individual treating embouchure dystonia has all the right answers, no matter how successful their treatment program seems to be. The lone genius leading the way for everyone to follow is really just a myth. We are collectively a lot smarter than we are individually.
Advice For Suffering Players
If you made it through all this and you are a player suffering from severe embouchure dysfunction I want to conclude with my advice for you. I have had some success helping some folks with chop problems myself and I also know a handful of folks around the U.S. that I recommend, but if you want help you’ll probably have to travel to someone unless you happen to live in their area. Video consultations, while having potential, generally don’t lend themselves to diagnosing embouchure problems and the solutions.
There are brass teachers who are successful at helping folks with embouchure dysfunction who don’t demonstrate an awareness of embouchure types and how to correct type switching, but I typically would encourage a student to seek the help from someone more knowledgable. Ask questions. Furthermore, when you are looking for help I think it’s good to remember the Dunning/Kruger Effect. The more black and white a discussion of embouchure dysfunction is and the more sure of themselves they can help, I find the more likely their approach is going to be based on philosophy or analogy than objective reality. Treatment programs that are based in the “Harold Hill Think System” may be more likely to be successful in spite of, rather than because of what you learn. A second opinion may be a good idea, even if it seems to be working for you.
Then again, I may be wrong. Take the time to follow some of the resources and links I’ve posted here about brass embouchure function and dysfunction and judge for yourself. My goal here is to make brass teachers and players aware of the information that is available in order to place advice into a proper context, not scare anyone away from an opposing viewpoint. I welcome questions and criticisms to my own ideas and encourage you to leave them in the comments section below.