Book Review: Still Playing, My Journey Through Embouchure Surgery and Rehabilitation

Denver Dill has played trumpet with the West Point Band since 2004, a remarkable achievement for musicians under any circumstances.  What makes Dill’s experiences even more noteworthy is that he injured his lip in high school, completed both undergraduate and graduate degrees in trumpet, and successfully auditioned for his spot with the West Point Band – all with a damaged lip.  Eventually his injury began to affect his playing to the point where he could no longer work out his way through his difficulties.   He was diagnosed with a torn orbicularis oris and had surgery to correct it.  He has since made a successful comeback to playing and written a book about his experiences.

Still Playing, My Journey Through Embouchure Surgery and Rehabilitation is self published, but very well produced with color charts and photographs, well laid out, and solidly bound as a paperback.  It’s not a very long book, but since the pages aren’t numbered I can’t say exactly how long it is.  Dill writes about several topics in his book, including his history of how he injured his lip, his surgery, and recovery process.  While there is much in the text that is really superfluous to the topic of embouchure injury and rehabilitation, Dill writes so well that I found myself mostly enjoying reading passages about his personal life.  It’s the discussion about his surgery and recovery process that I was most interested in, of course, and Dill didn’t disappoint there.

One thing that I would like to give Dill credit for is something that I find lacking in a lot of other resources musicians put together concerning injuries and rehabilitation, his medical disclaimer.  Early on in his book Dill writes: Continue reading Book Review: Still Playing, My Journey Through Embouchure Surgery and Rehabilitation

Guess the Embouchure Type – Giuliano Sommerhalder

I bookmarked this video of Swiss/Italian trumpet player Giuliano Sommerhalder playing Rafael Mendez’s virtuoso arrangement of Mexican Hat Dance a while back and have been meaning to do a “Guess the Embouchure Type” for a while now.  I don’t remember how I came across this video, so if you forwarded it to me my apologies for no credit.

At any rate, Sommerhalder is a very fine player and this video has a few places where you can get a good enough look at his chops to guess his embouchure type.  Take a look and see what you think.  My guess after the break.

Continue reading Guess the Embouchure Type – Giuliano Sommerhalder

“Bull Dog” Embouchure Exercise

There are a handful of away-from-the-instrument exercises that brass musicians can do to help build embouchure strength, such as free buzzing, the pencil trick, jaw retention drill, and the P.E.T.E.  These exercises, when done correctly, will help players target specific muscles used for playing without the risk of excessive mouthpiece pressure.  I’ve recently come across a similar exercise, explained by George Rawlin.  He calls it the “bull dog” exercise.

I have a couple of minor issues with some of the things he describes in his video.  At one point he talks about the “ideal set” for a player’s jaw to be protruded forward so the teeth are aligned.  This is correct for a large number of players, but some brass musicians actually play better with a receded jaw position.  Embouchure characteristics like this depend on the player’s anatomy and you shouldn’t try to force your jaw to a position that doesn’t work for you. His discussion about where the mouthpiece gets placed also doesn’t apply to all players.  His bit at the end about “air play” and relying on the instrument to get the buzz may be a good playing sensation to go after for some players, there are other players who need to go after the opposite sensation and work on firming up their lip center more.

I don’t feel that the position of the mouth corners when performing this bull dog exercise is necessarily exactly how you want to play, but it does at least seem to work on the muscles at the mouth corners where you want to focus your effort.  If done carefully and in moderation it could be helpful for some players who need to strengthen up the muscles that intersect at and just under the mouth corners.

Surveys of European Horn Styles

The International Horn Society has digitized and made available the raw data from a couple of surveys done on European horn players.

In 1964 and 1965, Wendell (Pete) Exline took a sabbatical leave from his position at what is now Eastern Washington University. He flew to Frankfurt, Germany, bought a VW bus and drove all over Europe, interviewing, recording and photographing principal horn players of several European orchestras. Pete’s account of his trip can be found here. In 2009, Pete gave all of the the audio tapes, photographic negatives and interview notes he collected to the IHS. Data from that sabbatical project, now digitzed, is the basis for the first “Survey of European Horn Playing Styles” presented here. Each player was photographed four times, playing the horn from both front and back and buzzing on an embouchure visualizer ring.

Being an embouchure nut, I was most interested in looking at each player’s mouthpiece placement.  Rim visualizers can be a little deceptive compared to a transparent mouthpiece, but you can frequently get a good enough look to know the player’s embouchure type.  Since you can’t see a musician’s embouchure motion in still photographs, it’s not possible to say for certain which of the two downstream types the player belongs to, but you can usually tell if the player has an upstream or downstream embouchure.

Since downstream embouchures are more common, particularly among horn players (I believe for reasons based more on tradition than anything related to the instrument itself), you would expect those embouchure types to be more prevalent in these surveys.  There are 23 subjects.  My best guess is that maybe around 10%-15% of brass players (regardless of instrument) are (or should be) upstream players, so I would expect 1-4 of these players to have a low placement type embouchure and the rest to be very high or medium high placement types. Continue reading Surveys of European Horn Styles

Physical Therapy For Musicians

The other day I had a great phone conversation with David Shulman.  Shulman is a physical therapist who specializes working with musicians who have repetitive motion injuries related to playing.  He had contacted me to ask for some ideas working with brass players who have injured lip muscles.  We talked for a while about some of the things brass musicians can do away from the instrument to help build (or rebuild) muscles around the lips without actually playing, which can lead to re-injuring a damaged muscle.  I talked to him a little bit about free buzzing, the pencil trick, and the P.E.T.E.

Here’s a short video he has put together where he describes his practice and the workshops he presents to music students and teachers.

One of the things I asked David about was about which lip was more prone to being injured.  Donald Reinhardt felt the upper lip was more likely to be injured due to excessive mouthpiece pressure.  David also noticed that the majority of lip injuries happen on the upper lip.  Reinhardt’s advice to keep more mouthpiece “weight” on the lower lip should help brass players avoid injuries like this.

Guess the Embouchure Type – Tine Thing Helseth

This one is a sort of a repost.  I had done this same “Guess the Embouchure Type” of Tine Helseth from this video earlier, but a server hiccup (and not remembering to put on automatic backups) caused about 2 weeks worth of posts and comments to be deleted.

At any rate, Helseth is a very fine Norwegian trumpet player.  She’s really known for her classical trumpet soloing, but the below video shows some excellent closeups of her embouchure while playing (or at least during a video shoot, the production value of this video is such that they may not be playing exactly what we’re hearing).  Take a look and guess which embouchure type you think she plays as.

Continue reading Guess the Embouchure Type – Tine Thing Helseth

The Non-Relationship Between Gapped Teeth and High Range

One of the more common brass urban legends is that players with a gap or chip in their front teeth have an easier time with the high register.  Indeed, it is possible to find players who have this feature and have incredible high range (Jon Faddis and Dave Steinmeyer come to mind) .  While conducting research for my dissertation this was one anatomical characteristic I looked at.  I didn’t have a large enough sample size of players with gaps between their front teeth to have a statistically honest result, but I was able to note that there are also players who have these features who don’t have an easy time with high range.

Recently I came across an interview given by the great high note trumpet player Maynard Ferguson in 1960 where he recounted an experience he had. Continue reading The Non-Relationship Between Gapped Teeth and High Range

An Open Letter to Charlie “hotlipsporter” Porter About Placing On the Red (and his response)

Charlie Porter is a very fine trumpet player.  If you’re not familiar with his playing, you can hear some excellent playing on his YouTube channel or on his web site.  Go ahead and check him out, he’s worth hearing.

Porter has created some instructional videos on YouTube and has made some comments on some of my own embouchure vods, specifically regarding our differing ideas on whether it’s incorrect to place the mouthpiece so that the rim contacts the red of the upper lip.  My point of view is, provided this suits the individual player’s anatomy, this may be the best possible placement for a particular musician.  Porter’s thought is that there are no exceptions to this rule and it is always bad to place the mouthpiece this way.  We’ve had some back and forth about this in the YouTube comments, but with the restrictions placed on how many characters you’re allowed to use in a comment it’s a very poor medium to have an honest intellectual conversation.  In an effort to both explain myself more clearly and also to make this conversation more open and accessible, here then is an open letter to Charlie Porter. Continue reading An Open Letter to Charlie “hotlipsporter” Porter About Placing On the Red (and his response)

Tooth Structure and Brass Embouchure

While conducting research for my dissertation some of the anatomical characteristics I looked at involved my test subjets’ tooth structure.  Specifically, I documented how straight the upper and lower teeth were in each player and whether the player had missing teeth or gaps between the front teeth.  I then looked at whether these specific features would make accurate predictors for a player’s embouchure type.  It turned out they don’t, at least not the particular players I looked at.

While reviewing the literature for my paper I did come across a few references to tooth structure and brass embouchures.  Maurice Porter’s 1967 book, The Embouchure hypothesizes that a player’s “embouchure potential” is, in part, determined by the player’s dental structure, but his text is light on the details of his methodology and exactly how this is supposed to work.  Lacey Powell wrote that a brass player should have “four good, long, and even teeth” in his 1982 article in The Instrumentalist titled The Embouchure Speaks.  There are many sources that also mention how a player’s teeth affects the embouchure, but mostly references to finding a comfortable spot on the lips to place the mouthpiece so that a sharp edge or protruding tooth doesn’t dig into the lips.

There are also all the stories and brass playing urban legends that talk about a particular player who fell down a flight of stairs and chipped a tooth only to discover an extra octave or two in range.  A variation is that a famous high note player had a gap between his teeth fix and lost some of his range.  I even personally know a trumpet player who admitted to filing his front teeth in order to make them shorter so they wouldn’t “get in the way.”  I’ve heard from some credible sources that there is a grain of truth to some of these stories, but there are also many weaker players with the same dental structure and things like this aren’t a cure-all.

Recently I’ve learned a bit about another pedagogue who speculated that there was an “ideal” tooth structure for brass players, trombonist Matty Shiner.  Shiner doesn’t appear to have published his research in any scholarly or medical journals (at least I couldn’t find anything), but I have been learning a bit more about Shiner’s ideas in a Trombone Forum topic and also in an interview he gave.  Shiner stated: Continue reading Tooth Structure and Brass Embouchure

Free Buzzing For Brass Players

Athletes frequently train strength and endurance by cross training with  lifting weights or isometric exercises.  A football player, for example, can get stronger simply by playing more football, but lifting weights specifically targets the muscles he wants to build without risking injury.  Likewise, there are certain exercises that brass players can practice away from the instrument that will help build embouchure strength and control without the risk of playing too much and using too much mouthpiece pressure as you get tired.

There are a few of these sort of away-from-the-horn exercises, such as the pencil trick, jaw retention drill, and the P.E.T.E.  My personal favorite is free buzzing.

Free buzzing is essentially buzzing your lips without using the instrument or mouthpiece.  Some teachers and players discourage free buzzing as being too different from actual playing while others huge advocates of it.  Like in many things, I feel that when done in a certain way with moderation free buzzing can be an extremely helpful exercise, particularly for players who have issues with their embouchure related to having too loose an embouchure formation or with things like bunching the chin or a smile embouchure.

Here’s a short YouTube video I put together to demonstrate how I recommend practicing free buzzing.

Free buzzing is different from playing, particularly for some players, so I don’t recommend that you try to use is as a diagnostic tool.   Continue reading Free Buzzing For Brass Players