Donald Reinhardt on the Nerve Racking Ab Rattle

I was going through some materials I have accumulated put together by Donald Reinhardt for different students and came across his text on the trombone Ab rattle. Difficulty on the Ab above the treble clef for trombonists is very common. It’s a conundrum because in the classic cases the A and G just around it are usually easier, so there’s something about that particular pitch. Here’s what Donald Reinhardt had to say about it.

Muscular strain of any kind “chop-wise” can cause unwanted “rattles and overtones” – this occurs, generally speaking on the high “Ab”…When Frank Holton marketed the Holton Revelation Trombone, the ad stated: “POSITIVELY NO WOLF TONES ON “Ab”… So you see that this is not new by any means.

I recall hearing Christian Lindberg discuss it at a master class in the context of pointing out an particular instrument design that moves a brace somewhere different to counter the Ab rattle. It does seem possible that the high numbers of complaints about the high Ab could be due in part to traditional instrument construction.

Most rattles can be corrected by first making certain that all inner embouchure legs are offering complete support – . . .

For those of you who haven’t studied from Reinhardt, the “inner embouchure legs” is referring to the foundation of the mouthpiece rim and lips together against the teeth and gums. Reinhardt often used the analogy of the four legs of a table (or three legs of a stool, for certain upstream embouchure students). You want a solid support with all the legs, so nothing wobbles while you’re playing.

. . . second, that more pressure is used on the lower lip (rather than the upper that you are now using, unfortunately) – . . .

This particular handout I’m quoting was labeled for a particular student, but this is another common issue. The lower lip is thicker than the upper lip (I’m talking about bulk of the entire lip, not just how much vermillion can be seen) and is better able to take mouthpiece pressure. Unfortunately, when we get tired or play in the upper register it helps, to a degree, to increase pressure on the upper lip. This ultimately makes you tired quicker and if you really dig into the upper lip, you can cause damage. Most muscle injuries (at least, anecdotally from what I’ve seen) seem to happen to the upper lip. Keep maybe 60% on the lower lip as much as possible.

. . . that the playing angle of your instrument is too high, making essential jaw support impossible – . . .

This one goes along with keeping more mouthpiece pressure on the lower lip. If you are one of the players with a horn angle that is close to straight out or even higher, you’ll need to make sure that your jaw is positioned far enough forward to provide the support of the “embouchure legs” on the lower teeth and gums. If that doesn’t work, maybe your overall horn angle should be lowered to work better for you. Keep in mind that this is a feature that is different for different players.

. . . that the position of your head is too far forward – and lastly, that the throat on your particular mouthpiece is too large.

Trying a smaller mouthpiece throat may be helpful for trombonists to check if they’re getting a lot of high Ab rattles or even rattles in other ranges.

Press too much for pianissimo!

This sentence I think belongs with the previous one. My guess is that Reinhardt was pointing out to his student that he was pressing too much for pianissimo.

You must understand that lip strain (or, worse, ruptured chops) must heal slowly; therefore, it is obvious that you must kill the feel that goes along with the rattle. . . Mental damage is far worse than muscular damage. THINK THIS OVER.

The “mental damage” he refers to can happen to players in other contexts of embouchure dysfunction too. It’s very easy for the brass player to start “flinching” every time they get to that high Ab (or whatever issue they’re having). Perhaps a more accurate analogy are the golfer “yips.”

From the first note of the practice-day exaggerate the diaphragmatic lift and make certain that you are not over breathing. This though alone will heal up the ruptured rattle chops. AVOID PLAYING TOO LOUD IN THE MIDDLE AND LOWER REGISTERS…

There’s a lot to unpack in that paragraph. If you alter some of the language slightly and didn’t know it was a quote from Reinhardt, you might mistake it for advice by someone from the “song & wind” approach. Reinhardt gets remembered today for his discovery and classification of brass embouchure types, but he did work with students’ breathing as well.

That said, I’m not a fan of the way he instructs a “diaphragmatic lift.” It’s been pointed out that students can imitate this lift to match what they think they should be doing with their breathing, but without actually supporting the air correctly. I also note that the diaphragm is used during inhalation only, so while blowing you shouldn’t really have it engaged. Lastly, this lift of the abdominal regions while blowing is a result of correct breath support, not the process itself.

All that criticism aside, playing loudly in the middle and low registers does seem to hurt your upper register security. I notice this first hand a lot lately, since a fair amount of my gigging these days is playing early jazz styles where I play loudly in the middle and low register all night.

SUMMARY

  1. From the moment of placement do I find and retain my “legs” throughout the inhalation and the playing…
  2. Do I retain more pressure on my lower lip and lower jaw. . . even when fatigued!
  3. To keep my playing angle from getting up too high too soon in the range!
  4. That my head position does not get too far forward – ears line up with the shoulders!
  5. Kill the feel of the rattle – this is vital, do not take it lightly!
  6. From the first note of the day exaggerate the diaphragmatic lift – and make certain that you do exaggerate it for the first few notes of the day…
  7. REDUCE THE VOLUME DURING PRACTICE FOR ALL MIDDLE AND LOWER REGISTER WORK FOR THE TIME BEING.

Again, keep in mind that Reinhardt’s instructions above are for a particular student. While your milage may vary from the above suggestions, if you’re a trombonist with difficulties on the high Ab Reinhardt’s advice is worth looking over.

Donald Reinhardt’s Pivot System Orientation and Analysis Audio

A number of years ago I was given a cassette tape of Donald Reinhardt talking about his “orientation and analysis” to his pedagogical approach to teaching. Apparently he was giving very similar talks to all of his students during their first lesson and he figured that if he recorded it that a new student could listen to this while waiting for their lesson time. This made it quicker for Reinhardt to jump right in and begin personalizing the student’s instructions and also allowed him to be teaching one student while the new student was listening to the tape.

The first portion of the tape was to introduce his students to the basics of his approach. Many of the things he discussed were already written out on sheets of paper that may have been handed out and followed along while listening to the tape, but not having studied directly with Reinhardt I’m not certain. The second part of the tape is Reinhardt discussing his Pivot System Manuals for trumpet and trombone and some of the specific instructions, many of which were not written in the book itself.

Keep in mind that these recordings are in many ways a snapshot of how Reinhardt happened to be teaching at that time. If you read through many of the descriptions and instructions from the Pivot System Manuals, originally published in the 1940s, and compare them to his Encyclopedia of the Pivot System, first published in the 1970s I believe, you’ll not that he changed quite a bit. Towards the end of his life I understand that he had changed much of his approach quite a bit from what you can hear in these tapes. For example, he changed the definition of the term “pivot” and had apparently regretted even using the term “pivot system” because it led to a lot of misunderstanding of what he was trying to do with his pedagogy. I also understand that he also expressed less concern for exactly what a student played when practicing mechanics, but was more specific about exactly how the student was supposed to play it. He didn’t specifically ask students to follow each group of exercises, practicing one group each day, but rather assigned exercises based on what the student needed at that particular time.

At any rate, here are the links to the tracks. If you’re interested in the Pivot System Manuals they are out of print in their original form now, an edited version of them for trumpet and trombone are currently available.

Introduction
What is the proper attitude?
What is the improper attitude?
Phases of the Pivot System
Pivot System for Mechanics
The Encyclopedia of the Pivot System
Introduction to the Sensation Theory
The Sensation Theory
The left hand grip
What is the Pivot System
Maloclusions
The thirty-five points of the Pivot System
The Pivot Stabilizer
An open mind
Building reserve

Basic Pivot Manual instructions
Form Studies
Pivot Manual order
Get a pencil
Instruction for trombonists
Group 1
Group 2
Group 3
Group 4
Group 5
Group 6 for trumpet
Group 6 for trombone
Group 7 for trumpet
Group 7 for trombone
Group 8 for trumpet
Group 8 for trombone
Group 9 for trumpet
Group 9 for trombone
Group 10 for trombone
Group 11 for trombone
Pivot System Warm-Up 57

You might notice that there are only nine groups of exercises for trumpet and eleven for trombone. The additional two groups for trombone are exercises designed to increase slide facility.

Brass Exercise From Donald Reinhardt – Rests

I’ve been revisiting Donald S. Reinhardt’s “Pivot System For Trombone,” frequently referred to by former Reinhardt students as “The Manual.” The book, now out of print, contains 11 different groups of exercises in the trombone book (9, I believe for trumpet, because Reinhardt added a couple of groups that deal with slide technique). One of the things that makes it difficult for someone just to pick up the book and work out of it is that Reinhardt intended his students to practice out of this book in very specific ways. Originally, the student was to play one group each day, moving on to the next group the next day until the student completed the entire book, then start from the beginning and repeat. After each day’s group, the student was to jump to the back of the book and practice his “Form Studies,” which are scale and chord arpeggio exercises with different articulation patterns.

My teacher, Doug Elliott, studied extensively with Reinhardt. Doug has mentioned to me a couple of times that by the time he was studying with Reinhardt that he had abandoned this specific approach to using this book and was assigning students particular groups according to what he felt they needed to work on. Reinhardt also had lots of other exercises that aren’t in “The Manuals” that he would use for a particular student, depending on what their strengths and weaknesses were.

Furthermore, much of the specific instructions in these books that Reinhardt assigned weren’t included in the text writeup in the book. For three of the daily groups, Reinhardt instructed his students to do something during rests that I have not come across in any other brass method.

During the rest in the second measure Reinhardt instructed students to not breathe and to not let up on the mouthpiece pressure in the slightest. “In short, stay like a Sphinx for 4 beats.” He was adamant that the student shouldn’t move the head, instrument, or anything at all. There are several sets of similar slurs starting on different pitches and going to different pitches all through the first three groups of “The Manual.”

Other brass pedagogues have come up with similar exercises where during the rests you keep the mouthpiece on the lips, with the embouchure firmed and the mouthpiece pressure consistent as with playing, and then breathe through the nose. Reinhardt had exercises where he instructed students to practice that way. What is unique about this particular instruction is that you don’t take in another breath and attack the pitch after the rest with only the air that is left from where you left off. He wrote, “During the rests d not breathe, or raise the mouthpiece pressure; this develops control of the breath.” (my emphasis)

The concern I always have when I both practice these exercises myself and when recommending them to others is that there is a strong possibility that during the rests you can stop the air by closing off the glottis and then have to open it again when beginning the pitch after the rest. Developing that habit would be very contrary to good brass playing and folks who do this usually struggle with initial attacks after a breath and you can sometimes hear them grunt just before playing. You have to consciously keep the glottis open and stop the pitch through the breathing muscles. I think this is probably what Reinhardt was thinking of when he wrote that this develops control of the breath.

Depending on how full a breath you take to start the exercise and how much air you’ve already expelled you may need to stop the air by either relaxing the muscles of expiration or even engaging the muscles of inspiration at a point of balance. Consider that when your lungs are full of air the air pressure alone should be sufficient to commence blowing. All you need to do is relax the muscles of inspiration and you begin to exhale. It’s not until you’ve exhaled enough air that the air pressure equalizes that the muscles of exhalation become more necessary (this is an overly simplistic explanation, since factors like the range and dynamic being played, as well as the average flow of the instrument you’re playing come into play). At these rest points you have to find a point of breathing balance and freeze there.

Coincidentally, I recently caught a lesson with Doug Elliott and we talked about this group of exercises. We both have noticed how hard it is to get folks to practice this exercise correctly. Perhaps the hardest thing for players to do is to keep the mouthpiece pressure and lip position frozen in place as if playing. You have to imagine that you’re still blowing and playing the pitch during the rests, the only difference is that you’re simply not blowing. Everything else in your body, including the embouchure formation and mouthpiece pressure, is exactly the same as if you were playing. It’s really easy for students to not do this correctly. If you watch yourself in a mirror, look to see if you’re relaxing the mouthpiece pressure or otherwise adjusting your embouchure formation during the rests. If you video record yourself, turn the sound off and see if you can tell when you’re resting. Ideally, you want it to be hard to tell.

Whatever the ultimate reason why Reinhardt instructed students with these exercises, I always find that after playing these groups for a day or so that I feel very strong. There’s something about these groups that really helps me build my chops up. It’s certainly possible that they would be just as effective with nose inhalations, and I would certain recommend that for a student who is struggling with keeping the glottis open. Perhaps in the future I’ll try some experimenting and practice them with nose inhalations to see if I notice any difference.

No Pressure Brass Embouchure – Fact or Urban Legend?

I’ve blogged about this topic before. The specific story is that a famous brass player or teacher is giving a clinic or lesson and he or she hangs the instrument from the ceiling and with no pressure plays a high, loud note with beautiful tone. I mentioned in that earlier post that if this demonstration actually happens I would expect someone somewhere would have it up on YouTube or somewhere else on the internet. All I could find were stories where someone claimed to have seen it.

Until now. Sort of. Here is my attempt to duplicate this experiment.

If you make it through the entire video you won’t see and hear good results.

The point of the stories I hear tend towards the idea that mouthpiece pressure is bad and that minimal mouthpiece pressure is optimal. Personally, I feel that excessive mouthpiece pressure is a symptom of something else that’s not working correctly and if you correct that issue the mouthpiece pressure will balance itself on its own, no need to consciously attempt to reduce mouthpiece pressure.

Beyond that, it’s obvious that some mouthpiece pressure is necessary, and it may be more than some folks realize. I’ve blogged about this topic before as well. Some amateur trumpet players who happened to be engineers designed an experiment where they showed experienced trumpet teachers photographs of different players (ranging from professionals to amateurs) playing different pitches they were unable to accurately judge how much mouthpiece pressure was actually measured.

So for now, at least, I consider these stories an urban legend. If you disagree, post your own video or help me find one and I’ll plug it here.

How To Form a Trumpet (brasswind) Embouchure in Four Steps, by Charlie Porter

Here’s a lengthy video by trumpet player Charlie Porter on how to form a brass embouchure.

I have had some disagreements with Porter in the past. I have some quibbles with some of his instructions too, but I like his recommendation to set firm the lips up before setting the mouthpiece on the lips. Two of the other steps he recommends (pulling the lips open after setting the mouthpiece and wetting the lip center with the tongue after that) I feel would risk undoing the value of firming before setting.

Watching through the video I didn’t understand if he was suggesting the embouchure aperture remains open throughout the lip vibration, so I asked him about it. He was kind enough to take the time to clarify for me.

Of course the lips rapidly close and open during vibration. That’s not the point…I’m not arguing that they they never close briefly, per each vibration occurring…the point is that players are often way too tight and begin with closed lips and press them together to the point of distorting the vibration.

It’s a rather long video, but take look at it if you’re interested in different thoughts about setting the embouchure formation for playing.

Firm, Place, Breathe, Blow

A thread on the Facebook Trombone Pedagogy group lately has been discussing different thoughts on coordinating breathing with setting the embouchure and placing the mouthpiece. I thought I’d take this opportunity to discuss my preferred way of teaching students to coordinate air and embouchure together, based on Donald Reinhardt’s instructions from his writings, including his Encyclopedia of the Pivot System.

While the jaw is in its playing position, form the saturated embouchure with ALMOST buzzing firmness, so that the lips are “just touching” at the vibrating points. When in doubt, form the lips as if to buzz. . .

Place the mouthpiece upon the embouchure formation as just prescribed and use sufficient “contact pressure” to locate and sustain its position in the playing groove of the embouchure. The actually placement must be executed in accordance with the [embouchure] type. . .

Inhale the high-pitched, whispered “IM” (not “OM” or “UM”) through both mouthcorners – NEVER THE MOUTHCENTER – simultaneously. . . In short, eliminate “gear shifting” and inhale with a minimum of embouchure distortion.

At it’s heart, Reinhardt’s advice is to work towards unifying the player’s pre-playing sensations with the playing sensations. In other words, he felt it was valuable to have as little change as possible in the position of the lips and mouthpiece upon the lips from inhaling to playing. In order to encourage this, he instructed his students to practice (during certain exercises – not during rehearsing and performance) to firm the lips as if buzzing first, place the mouthpiece on the firmed lips, inhale through the mouth corners while maintaining mouthpiece pressure and holding the lip center just touching, then commence blowing by coordinating the mouth corners snapping into their correct position. Taking breaths in the middle of phrases is to be simply a matter of continuing to breathe through the mouth corners while keeping everything under the mouthpiece rim and inside the mouthpiece should remain more or less in playing position.

Many players, including some excellent ones, either don’t consider their embouchure when breathing or are so focused on moving lots of air that they don’t feel that minimizing the embouchure “gear shift” between inhaling and blowing is valuable. Some players will open their mouth very wide to inhale and the mouthpiece placement shifts slightly every time they begin blowing. Some players will set the mouthpiece on relaxed lips and firm them only just as they begin blowing, which can result in twisting or winding the lips up under the rim or distortions and inconsistency in their overall embouchure formation from breath to breath. Consistency in a player’s embouchure formation should result in better playing consistency.

One of the biggest challenges to adopting this approach is that it’s difficult to take in as much air as quickly when you’re only breathing through the mouth corners. Trumpet and horn players may find the smaller mouthpiece size makes keeping the lip center just touching inside the mouthpiece while inhaling to be easier than low brass players with their larger mouthpieces. I think it’s important to keep in mind that this approach is meant to be practiced only at specific times in your routine and then forgotten about while you move on or are performing. We can think of this approach as an ideal goal, but that not every playing situation is going to make that ideal work at every moment. By aiming towards the ideal in your practice you are minimizing the potential for this to cause issues, both short term cracking notes from time to time or the longer term (and fortunately rarer) embouchure dysfunction that can result.

Nils Wogram – Guess the Embouchure Type

Nils Wogram is a jazz trombonist from Germany. He’s really a terrific player, he’s got that great combination of excellent technique paired with a lot of creativity. I was surfing YouTube and came across this fantastic solo using multiphonics.

There’s not really a good look at his chops in this video to really guess his embouchure type. It *seems* like his mouthpiece is fairly high and close to the nose, but the camera never focuses closely enough and at a good enough angle to say more than his embouchure is one of the downstream types. I did want to post that video, though, because it’s a really neat example of what someone can do with multiphonics.

This video has a much clearer shot of his chops.

Wogram’s solo starts about 2:25 into the above video. Watch it and guess his embouchure type. My guess below the break. Continue reading Nils Wogram – Guess the Embouchure Type

Playing On the Red Is Fine (Redux)

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:

  1. A famous teacher or player advocated against it.
  2. The anatomy of the vermillion is such that it makes it more sensitive and prone to damage than the rest of the lip.
  3. 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.

Anatomy

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.

-“asdfghj,” 2017

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.

-Papsin, B.C., Maaske, L.A., & McGrail, J.S. (1996). Orbicularis oris muscle injury in brass players. Laryngoscope 106, 757-760.

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.

Mechanics

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.

First, there appears to be no relationship between the size and shape of an individual’s vermillion and the player’s embouchure technique. There doesn’t appear to be any relationship between how the lips vibrate at the vermillion and the rest of the lips. There is a wide range of vertical mouthpiece placement among brass players, with a minority that place the mouthpiece either high or low enough so that the rim of the mouthpiece contacts a great deal of the upper or lower lip vermillion. There is also a lot of variation on how wide an individual brass player’s vermillion is, as well as differences between rim sizes. Considering that the division between vermillion and normal skin on the lips is arbitrary and varies so much, I don’t think that it’s really useful to discuss mouthpiece placement as a factor of where it is placed in relation to the vermillion.

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.

Summary

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.

Building Embouchure Stability In Low Range – Less Air, Not More!

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.

25pedalbbfront-copyThe 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.

27highbbfront-copy27lowbbfront-copyFor 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.

What Is the Rational For How You Set the Mouthpiece?

IIIAA 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. After a few minutes or so of this, forget about it and move on to whatever else you want to practice.
  7. 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?