Embouchure Dystonia Treatment – Some Questions and Criticisms

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.

Type Switching

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.

  1. Are certain embouchure types more prone to severe embouchure dysfunction than others?
  2. What embouchure characteristics (e.g. embouchure type switching) correlate to embouchure dysfunction?
  3. 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?
  4. How often is a diagnosis of focal task specific dystonia of the embouchure really a result of type switching?
  5. Does conscious correction of embouchure type switching lead to improvement in embouchure dysfunction?
  6. 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?
  7. 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?
  8. 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.

Guess the Embouchure Type – Nagy Miklos

I was going through some bookmarked links from a while back and found this performance of the Antonio Rosetti Horn Concerto in Eb Major by Hungarian hornist Nagi Miklos. Not only was this piece new to me (at least I don’t recall having heard it before, in spite of it being part of the standard horn rep), but I wasn’t familiar with Miklos either. Check out Miklos’s playing and this piece on this YouTube video. While you’re at it, watch his chops and see if you can guess his embouchure type. My guess comes after the break.

Continue reading Guess the Embouchure Type – Nagy Miklos

The Pencil Trick Exercise Revisited

If you’re not familiar with the “Pencil Trick” exercise for brass players, it’s a type of embouchure exercise where the player holds a pencil between the lips and holds it straight out for as long as he or she can, just through pinching the lips together. There are a some different variations of it described in books and online, and lots of ways to interpret the basic instructions.

My first exposure to this exercise was second hand, a description of it from a trombonist who watched some trumpet players on a tour bus doing it. The first publication I’ve come across that discusses it is Donald Reinhardt’s Encyclopedia of the Pivot System. Here’s what Reinhardt recommended:

A standard, unsharpened wooden pencil is generally used for this routine. Form your saturated embouchure as if to buzz and place the tip of either end of the pencil between your compressed lips – NOT BETWEEN YOUR TEETH. While pointing the pencil in a forward, horizontal manner, strive to support it with only the “pinching power” of your lips. Do not become discouraged if the pencil falls to the floor. In practically all cases a great deal of perseverance is required. As soon as sufficient pinching power of the embouchure formation has been achieved, the prescribed drill will no longer present a problem. Initially, do not attempt the embouchure pencil support for more than a few seconds at a time – it is extremely strenuous. After each attempt has been completed, remove the pencil from between your lips, drop your jaw, open your mouth, exhale and relax. You will feel the results of your workout throughout the lower part of your facial area; this is correct. The amount of time consumed for each workout may be extended; however, it is vital that you accomplish this by degrees.

– Donald S. Reinhardt, Encyclopedia of the Pivot System, Appendix 4-5.

When I do practice this myself, or teach it to a student, this is my preferred method of practicing the pencil trick exercise. But it’s not the only way. Here’s a 10 minute video discussion by George Rawlin, who also came up with the “Bull Dog” exercise that I’ve discussed here. In Rawlin’s version, the pencil is held in contact with the teeth and it’s purpose is to get the teeth aligned.

As with his “Bull Dog” exercise, I feel compelled to mention that the aligned jaw that Rawlin recommends is not necessarily best for all players. I don’t have any formal stats to site, but I feel pretty confident that a majority of brass players do play with their jaw set so that the teeth are aligned. That said, not all should, and it’s a pretty sizable minority.

Unfortunately, I don’t think Rawlin’s system for getting the teeth aligned using the pencil as a guide is going to be accurate. One way to get the pencil to point straight is to close the teeth, for example. I just don’t see it as useful as simply aligning your teeth and using mirror feedback, if you need some.

While many players don’t want to play while aligning their teeth, Rawlin covers a situation that isn’t uncommon, players who should be aligning their teeth, but have trouble thrusting their jaw forward for long periods of time. I prefer a different exercise for this situation.

About 3:00 into the video Rawlin describes exactly one of the reasons why I’m careful about recommending this exercise if I can’t watch the student do it a bit to make sure he or she is doing it correctly. In Reinhardt’s version, the lip compression used to hold the pencil out comes from the mouth corners and shouldn’t be top/bottom squeeze.

And at about 4:50 into his video Rawlin describes one of my personal pet peeves. If you’re tempted to do this pencil exercise (or mouthpiece buzz) in the car, please reconsider. Not only is a distraction from driving, but if the air bag goes off because you get rear ended you’re going to end up sorry you had a stick in your mouth. If you must do something musical in the car, sing to yourself or listen to good music.

At any rate, there is an awful lot of disagreements about his exercise. Many players (some very fine ones) think that it’s a silly waste of time at best and at worse you’re messing up your chops. This certainly can be true, depending on the circumstance. There’s some value that players can get from doing it, but I’m not entirely convinced these days that the cost/benefit ratio from doing it is worth the effort. In my own playing, I find that free buzzing is a better use of my time than the pencil trick.  I also find that considering how easy it is do do the pencil trick exercise in an unproductive way, it’s better to focus my students toward free buzzing as well.

Embouchure Question: Dealing With an Upstream Mouthpiece Placement Shift

I often will scan through topics on brass fora for blogging ideas. This particular question was asked on the Trumpet Herald Forum.

So for some time now my I have had decreased range and endurance. I think it is due to a weak upper lip. When I get about a G above the staff my emborchure changes and goes from a 1 third top, 2 thirds bottom to a 1 fourth top, 3 fourths bottom. Is there a way to just strength my upper lip?

Here, then, is my slightly edited response in that topic.

My short advice is to place the mouthpiece where you put it for the high range and learn to play your entire range there. It may take some weeks of practice before you start becoming comfortable enough to play that way always, but you’ll probably be better off in the long term. If you want to understand why I feel this way, read on.

When I get about a G above the staff my emborchure changes and goes from a 1 third top, 2 thirds bottom to a 1 fourth top, 3 fourths bottom.

Since I have not watched you play in person, you should take my advice with a grain of salt. That said, based on your description you have a “low placement” upstream embouchure type. It’s neither good nor bad, it’s sort of like being left handed. It’s less common than the downstream embouchure types, so you’ll see fewer players around using it. It also is different from the other embouchure types and certain instructions you might get that work great for downstream players actually work against low placement players. I’ve taught many upstream players and happen to be one myself.

Your switch in mouthpiece placement at a certain point in your range is actually a pretty common upstream problem. Again, without watching you play I can’t be certain if this applies to you or not, but almost every time I’ve seen this (and experienced it in my own playing at one time) the solution is not to try to keep your low register placement for the high register, it’s to learn to play your entire range with the high register placement. And this placement has been without exception, for these players, a placement with more lower lip inside the mouthpiece (placement closer to the chin).

Something that helped me and many of my students with similar issues is to place the mouthpiece on your lips where it works best for the high range, play an open note in your high range, and slowly and softly slur down a partial and back up, then back down two partials and up, down three and up, etc. Accept a thinner sound for the moment, just learn what your chops need to do in order to descend with the high register setting. Avoid dropping your jaw as much as possible for this and don’t worry if you can’t get much lower than where you want to reset.

If you watch yourself in a mirror while doing this you might be able to notice that you’re pushing your lips and mouthpiece together upward towards the nose as you descend. This is natural and proper for upstream players (the downstream embouchures can either do the same or reverse, depending on type). The track of this “embouchure motion” of up to descend and down to ascend can be close to straight up and down, or it can be angled, but it should probably be a straight line and consistently work in the same direction (i.e., up and slightly to the right to descend, down and slightly to the left to ascend). If you find yourself needing to reverse the direction of this you might be going too far with it.

Along with good breathing and proper tongue arch to change registers, finding the exact spot for your embouchure motion for each pitch is going to help you open up your sound and keep your mouthpiece placement consistent for your entire register. A good analogy is that your chops are, for now, like a muscle car. The engine sounds pretty rough when you’re idling at the stop light, but once your up to highway speed it’s very smooth. Once you can “tune up” your playing mechanics to adjust you’re “engine” will work fine in all registers.

Again, all the above makes certain assumptions based only one what you’ve written here already, and I could be way off base. I also want to mention that much of what I wrote would be wrong for most other players, so for any folks who disagree, please put my advice in that context.

Embouchure Question – Tongue Between Teeth

grain of saltI’m in the process of cleaning out my email inbox and getting back to all the questions I’ve gotten over the past few months. Here’s one that I thought would be interesting enough to post here. Bob writes:

In the past we have touched on the the idea of TCE. I have some questions,or maybe I would like to hear some more of your observations of Why, the tongue between the teeth would hinder development of sound, range, flexibility. I am just very interested as to why I find this working so well and so easily for me. My range continues to grow in both directions as well as improvement in my tone. I’m not on a Devil’s advocate idea,just trying to gain some insight, if there is any,as to why is it embouchure specialists are so against something that I find wonderful for playing.

I don’t mind people playing devil’s advocate at all, and this is an interesting topic to discuss, regardless of what your personal thoughts are. I do think it’s accurate to state that playing with your tongue between your teeth is discouraged by most. However, it’s not completely unheard of. As I’ve brought up in other posts here, advocates of a “tongue controlled embouchure” (sometimes abbreviated as “TCE”) recommend the tongue tip presses against the lower lip while playing. Donald Reinhardt noted this phenomenon and listed it as one of his rare tongue types, correct for players with “long thick lower lips with exceptionally short stumpy lower teeth.” It’s possible that the reason Bob finds this technique so wonderful for playing is because it simply is the best possible method for his anatomical features.

That said, there are some folks who adopt a tongue controlled embouchure who I strongly suspect would be better off in the long term doing something different. Every player who plays with the tongue between the teeth like this I’ve heard in person (and almost without exception on video or audio too) has a tone that I find less-than-pleasant. Even if it gives them great high range, I just don’t like the way it sounds. If this doesn’t describe you, or if you’re happy with the sound, then perhaps it will be fine. For the large majority of players, however, there are some drawbacks to keeping the tongue between the lips that may not be obvious in the short term.

First, the attacks. If you’re attacking each pitch with the tongue striking the lips you’re working harder than you need to on each attack. Yes, some players get quite good at clean attacks this way, but there are more split second adjustments that need to happen compared to having your lips already in position for the the pitch and tonguing behind the teeth. Keeping the attacks clean with the tongue against the lips takes more vigilance than otherwise and I suspect that valuable practice time is better served working on other things that will work better in the long term.

Typically, keeping your tongue on the lips will require a more open jaw position than I think is optimal for the long term. There are a lot of players who get used to playing with a more open jaw position (with and without the tongue on the lips) that learn to play well, but in the long term this seems to run the risk of problems. Just this past weekend I worked with a horn player who couldn’t hold pitches steady. One of the things that ended up having a beneficial effect on her playing was to bring her teeth closer together. She had been playing at a high level for decades, but eventually she couldn’t make this technique work (and to be clear, there were other issues going on here and it wasn’t just the jaw position hindering her playing).

Donald Reinhardt, one of my go-to sources for brass embouchure form and function, felt that attacking the pitch with the tongue between the lips was one of the worst techniques for range, flexibility, endurance, and playing confidence. According to Reinhardt, this is because the mouthpiece ends up “bobbing and shifting its position during any detached tongued passages.” The brass player risks subconsciously letting up on the mouthpiece pressure prior to the attack and then the mouthpiece will be suddenly thrust back against the lips for the attack. All this thrusting of the mouthpiece back and forth of the mouthpiece against the lips means that your lips are taking a beating while playing.

As I’ve speculated on other posts about the tongue controlled embouchure, keeping the tongue tip against the lower lip while playing may provide a range boost for players because the forward position of the tongue really helps the player focus the air stream against the embouchure aperture. For some downstream players the tongue also ends up providing some of the lip compression that are more typically (and more correctly, in my opinion) done at the mouth corners. For players who find the tongue on the lower lip effective I recommend taking the tongue tip and instead attacking pitches behind the upper teeth and then snapping it to press against the gully behind and below the lower teeth. The tongue center can then be pressed forward towards the compressed embouchure formation but be kept off the lips entirely. This allows the jaw position to be closed enough for long-term progress and the muscular effort done at the mouth corners instead. Yes, this will take practice and time to make work, but I feel it’s better for most players over the long term.

I’ll close my thoughts again by quoting Reinhardt because in my experience I’ve found the following to be accurate.

Whenever a performer permits his tongue to penetrate between his teeth and lips, he is actually opening them to allow the tip of his tongue to penetrate between them. In so doing, he is subconsciously depending upon the timing of his reflexes to bring his lips together again for the purpose of vibrating. Some players get by in this manner for years but as they advance in age and their reflexes slow down, the real playing difficulties commence. Learn to use your tongue without molesting the embouchure formation in any way.

– Donald Reinhardt, Encyclopedia of the Pivot System

So Bob, maybe your experience is absolutely correct for you, but not most other folks. Maybe the reason you find it works better is because there’s something else you’re doing (or not doing) while playing without the tongue between the lips that makes a tongue controlled embouchure work better in the short term, but a different approach would work better in the long term. Since I haven’t been able to watch you play I can only speculate. Take my thoughts with a big grain of salt.

 

Weekend Picks

I’m a little late today posting my weekend picks. I’ll make it up to you by posting one more than usual today.

VictrolaHave you ever wondered Why Nerdy White Guys Who Love the Blues Are Obsessed With a Wisconsin Chair Factory?

Paramount is this incredible label that was born from a company called the Wisconsin Chair Company, which was making chairs, obviously. The company had started building phonograph cabinets to contain turntables, which they also were licensing. And they developed, like many furniture companies, an arm that was a record label so that they could make records to sell with the cabinets. This was before a time in which record stores existed. People bought their records at the furniture store, because they were things you needed to make your furniture work.

Transcribing music is one of the best things you can do for all around musicianship. It helps train your ear, writing it down improves your sight reading, you develop expressive nuances in your own playing, and it helps you develop a vocabulary for improvisation.

Kathy Jensen’s signature laugh with transcription. She has endless licks and can laugh in any key. She’s also a killer sax player.

Her laughter is infectious. You can check out more about Kathy Jensen at www.hornheads.com.

If you’re a jazz musician or a fan of jazz jam sessions you’ll recognize what Bill Anschell has to say about jam sessions. Consider, for example, the vocalists you run into at jam sessions.

Vocalists are whimsical creations of the all-powerful jazz gods. They are placed in sessions to test musicians’ capacity for suffering. They are not of the jazz world, but enter it surrepticiously. Example: A young woman is playing minor roles in college musical theater. One day, a misguided campus newspaper critic describes her singing as …”jazzy.” Voila! A star is born! Quickly she learns “My Funny Valentine,” “Summertime,” and “Route 66.” Her training complete, she embarks on a campaign of session terrorism. Musicians flee from the bandstand as she approaches. Those who must remain feel the full fury of the jazz universe (see “The Vocalist” below). IH: The vocalist will try to seduce you—and the rest of the audience—by making eye contact, acknowledging your presence, even talking to you between tunes. DO NOT FALL INTO THIS TRAP! Look away, your distaste obvious. Otherwise the musicians will avoid you during their breaks. Incidentally, if you talk to a vocalist during a break, she will introduce you to her “manager.”

Read a whole lot more at Bill Anschell’s Jazz Jam Sessions: A First-Timer’s Guide.

On a more serious note, I found Bob Gillis’s discussion on trumpet embouchures to be fascinating. I have some minor quibbles with a couple of his points, but those are based on the perspective of an upstream embouchure player. I’m guessing that Bob must be a downstream embouchure type (not a wild guess, the majority of brass players are). Here’s a sample.

By then stopping the incoming mouthpiece weight when it first contacts this ideal preset of the embouchure, the player will have taken all of the steps to create the best possible seal before involving any action of the embouchure musculature. This extremely close proximity of the mouthpiece serves as a great reference…meaning it will clearly reveal what specific gaps still remain, and what exact shape the embouchure must assume to complete its interface with the mouthpiece. This embouchure “sandwich” (like the filling of the Oreo cookie) between the mouthpiece rim and teeth (with their irregularities) must fulfill much more than a role of a seal or gasket though, for it also functions as the instrument’s reed and facing (the top and bottom lips, respectively). That means the act of sealing the interface between mouthpiece and teeth formation must be done in a way that does not disrupt the vibration of the top lip, but that instead increases the efficiency of its vibration. This efficiency is achieved by also simultaneously focusing the size and shape of the lip aperture, all the while making sure the top lip is as relaxed as possible.

Read more on his post, The Landing: The Final Focus and Seal. It looks like he has a lot more interesting stuff there which I will need to look through more carefully later.

And lastly, the Mnozil Brass will be touring not too far from me in February. If you’re not familiar with them, they are incredible musicians and also very entertaining performers. Here is their performance of Lonely Boy.

Question – Helping Woodwinds Transition to Brass

Kim sent me a good question via email.

When I’m not working as an engineer I assist local marching bands with visual and brass. The program I’m with now has a very good and successful approach to outdoor brass playing that’s almost the same I was taught in drum corps. They do really well in jazz which I wish was in my wheelhouse. I’m a low brass player but have adopted the mellophones, those poor redheaded stepchildren to give extra special attention and help.

My (the band’s problem) is that a sax player, great musician, opted to fill in a mello hole. That has been done in the past with a lot of success. This kid fracks all the attacks, has a gut piercing tone, and when he settles on a pitch can play loud. And his notes get chopped off hard.

What I can see is it looks like he’s reverting subconciously to a sax embouchure. That makes for zero or at best spitting/crackling noises from his horn. From your articles I also think he has developed some type of tongue controlled embouchure.

I’ve only been with this band a few weeks and wasn’t there when this kid switched. He’s working hard and knows/hears what’s happening but has not been able to get the information into his body.

He was pretty much parachuted into this and that’s the real problem. He hasn’t had time to really figure it out how sound production works.

Thank you for any suggestions, pointers, comments,
Kim

As always, I can’t really offer specific advice on your student without being able to watch him play. However, you offered some clues as to what might be happening, so here are some things you can look for.

A saxophone embouchure is different than a brass instrument embouchure. One of the fundamental differences is the position and muscular effort of the mouth corners. With a sax embouchure the mouth corners will come in towards the mouthpiece. With this inward push of the mouth corners a sax embouchure is sometimes describe with the lips gripping the mouthpiece as if they are a rubber band.

With brass embouchures, though, this inward push of the mouth corners towards the mouthpiece rim can cause problems. Instead of puckering his lips in and/or forward to the mouthpiece rim he should practice locking the corners in place, more or less where they are when at rest. One analogy that might be useful here is for him to think of the mouth corners as being the ends of a violin or guitar string. This will take time for him to build the strength and coordination to do so, but some simple free buzzing in the correct way can help here.

The other thing it sounds like your sax-turned-mellophone student is doing is articulating everything with the tongue on the lips, and perhaps also stopping the tone this way. On sax he will tongue on the reed for the attacks, so me may similarly be striking the lips with his tongue for the attacks. In this case he will want to move the tongue tip back and behind the upper teeth to attack the pitch, as if saying “tah.” In fact, it may be valuable practice for him to try to attack pitches with no-tongue breath attacks, as if saying “hoo” first. Once he can get a few good breath attacks happening he can start adding a light tongued attack. Try emphasizing that the tongue is a refining factor of the attack, not the defining factor. The air is what creates the attack, the tongue just shapes it.

He may also be releasing notes by slapping the tongue against his lips or even just using a tongue cutoff (as if saying “taht”). Regardless, the releases of notes are best learned by simply stopping the blowing, not using the tongue. Yes, there may be situations where a very clipped release makes a tongue cutoff work, but it needs to be controlled and is best saved as a special effect.

It will be a challenge for your student to both learn to play the mellophone and learn the drill at the same time. It would be great if he can set up some weekly one-on-one time with a brass teacher for a while until he starts getting more of the feel for what he needs to do to play a brass instrument. You never know, he might end up enjoying it so much he switches instruments.

Good luck and please keep us posted on how things progress.

Trumpet Related Injuries

YouTube user “Rufftips” (John) has posted a video about injuries that trumpet players are at risk for. Take a look.

It’s almost 10 minutes long, so if you don’t feel like watching it all the way through just now, I will summarize what he discusses and offer some additional thoughts of my own.

The first condition that John discusses is focal dystonia. Like some other folks online, he passes along some misinformation here. He calls focal dystonia a “muscle condition,” where it is more accurate to call it a neurological condition. The National Center of Neurological Disorders and Stroke discusses dystonia here.

The cause of dystonia is not known. Researchers believe that dystonia results from an abnormality in or damage to the basal ganglia or other brain regions that control movement. There may be abnormalities in the brain’s ability to process a group of chemicals called neurotransmitters that help cells in the brain communicate with each other.  There also may be abnormalities in the way the brain processes information and generates commands to move.  In most cases, no abnormalities are visible using magnetic resonance imaging or other diagnostic imaging.

I’ve written several times briefly about “embouchure dystonia” before here, but I tend to avoid going into too much detail about it because I understand that even experts poorly understand what’s going on. In fact, my personal opinion studying brass embouchures leads me to believe that much of what gets defined as embouchure dystonia may really be related to the player doing some embouchure type switching. Since most brass players (let alone medical professionals) don’t have an idea of what embouchure types are and how they can vary from player to player, the underlying cause of a player’s difficulties get diagnosed as an extremely rare neurological disorder that, as you can see from the NCNDS’s quote above, is challenging to diagnose.

My advice here is if you feel you might have a neurological condition affecting your brass playing you should get a referral to a specialist and never take medical advice from a brass teacher. A brass teacher who is diagnosing and claiming to treat “embouchure dystonia” is not qualified to do either, no matter how many players he or she has helped with lessons.

John next discusses is Bell’s palsy. He does the right thing here and recommends viewers to visit a doctor. I wish he had mentioned that early on in his video.

Over the course of video recording brass player’s embouchures for some of my research I’ve documented two trumpet players who had prior to my recording their chops suffered from Bell’s palsy. While both felt things were not quite 100% for them at the time of the video recording, they both have made complete recoveries. I believe that one of them commented that his doctor told him that the early this condition is diagnosed and treated the faster the recovery period and the more likely the player will make a complete recovery. At one point this disorder might be career ending for a brass player, but these days the medical profession knows enough about Bell’s palsy that treating it has much better outcomes and most people make complete recoveries with proper treatment.

After discussing Bell’s palsy John covers nerve damage. He mainly talks about nerve damage that might occur from getting dental work. John comments that diligent and careful practice can eliminate playing symptoms from nerve damage, but how much of that is simply related to recovery time and how much due to a specific sort of practice isn’t clear to me. Again, if you suspect nerve damage I suggest you discuss your symptoms with a medical professional.

Laryngocele is the next condition John talks about and he even demonstrates what it looks like. I had not heard this term used before, but it’s essentially a neck puff, at least as defined by John. I found a paper published in the Internet Journal of Otorhinolaryngology that defines it slightly differently.

Laryngocele is a rare, benign dilatation of the laryngeal saccule which may be asymptomatic or they may present with cough, hoarseness, stridor, sore throat and swelling of the neck. The incidence of laryngocele is 1 per 2.5 million people per year.

I’ve written about a neck puff before. If you want to read what Donald Reinhardt wrote about this and his recommendations for reducing or eliminated a neck puff please check it out here.

Next up is a brief discussion of the teeth and John’s personal experience with this issue. He recommends getting a mold made of your teeth so that in the event that you need some reconstructive work done on your teeth you can have the dental technicians reconstruct it as close as possible.

Just to add my two cents here, I generally don’t recommend dental work to try to fix a malfunctioning embouchure. I feel that it’s better (and cheaper) in the long term to learn to work with your anatomical features. It is definitely possible to play correctly with all sorts of tooth formations, so there is little need for a player to have his or her teeth worked on in order to find a nonexistent (in my opinion) ideal tooth structure.

John finishes his video discussing lip injuries, again using his own experiences here as a case study. After injuring his upper lip accidentally with a pair of pliers. Eventually he ended up having a plastic surgeon remove the scar tissue from his lip and carefully rebuilt his playing.

If I recall correctly one of my teachers, Doug Elliott, when through something similar when he hit himself in the lip with a hammer. Or maybe this was one of his other students. At any rate, Doug is a fantastic mouthpiece maker and he scooped out a rim to fit the scar tissue and he (or his student) was able to play normally. Eventually the scar tissue healed and he was able to go back to a normal mouthpiece rim.

John recommends what I feel is good advice about rebuilding your chops slowly and carefully. I would also emphasize playing softly throughout your rebuilding, something I don’t recall John mentioning in his video.

In short, I think this video is worth checking out, particularly for folks interested in medical issues related to or affecting brass playing. I wouldn’t suggest folks looking for help with embouchure problems watch it with the intention of self-diagnosing (ironically, I don’t want the same for a lot of my blog posts). I prefer to refer musicians to medical professionals for medical issues. Self-diagnosing from stuff you read on the internet is a bad idea, especially when that medical information is coming from someone like me, a non-medical professional.

Embouchure Type Switching – Very High and Medium High Placement Confusion

Long time readers of my blog will know the huge influence my teacher Doug Elliott has had on both my playing and teaching. Doug was the first person I met who understood the role of how anatomical features influence a brass musician’s embouchure. My lessons with Doug inspired me to learn more about brass embouchures and to begin researching that topic seriously. My dissertation, the correlation between Doug Elliott’s embouchure types and selected physical and playing characteristics among trombonists was largely based on a lengthy interview he graciously agreed to give me. The embouchure types I use and much of the other terminology I use were taught to me by Doug. I know other folks who have similar experience studying and teaching brass embouchures, but Doug’s presentation has always been my favorite.

Yesterday I was able to catch the first lesson I’ve had with Doug in a few years. It was also particularly exciting for me because I brought a couple of trumpet player friends along with me and got the chance to again watch Doug teach first hand. I’ve had the chance to watch both of these friends play up close many times before and even been asked for advice about their chops in the past, so it was very interesting to compare my thoughts and suggestions to Doug’s. Of course, I found my own lesson to be insightful. Doug has always been able to spot things that I do inefficiently, even though I can make it work for most of my playing. He also clarified some things for me that I had thought I had a good grasp on, but still needed more guidance with. My lesson, however, is probably worth a post of its own later.

The topic of the day ended up being players who are “very high placement” embouchure types but who have characteristics of the “medium high placement” embouchure type. Both of my friends who came along for lessons were in this situation and some recent online discussions (including my most recent Guess the Embouchure Type post here) and a private email discussion I’ve been having with John W. dealt with this pattern.

This situation has been a tricky one for me to help students with in the past. There have been times where I’ve been able to spot what was going on right away and immediately help, such as one of the trumpet players I documented in Part 2 of my video/blog post on embouchure troubleshooting. In that particular case the trumpet player was playing well with a “very high placement” up to a certain point in his range, but then reversed the direction of his embouchure motion in his high range. Once I helped him keep the direction of his embouchure motion moving up to ascend (instead of pulling down in that range, like a “medium high placement” embouchure player would) his upper register opened up and increased.

My friends had some similar experiences in their lesson with Doug. One of them I was already convinced should be a “very high placement” player. Doug helped him tweak his horn angles and embouchure motion and slightly altered the way he set his embouchure formation. My other friend wasn’t so obviously a “very high placement” type player to me, but Doug spotted it right way. What I found most interesting about watching this lesson was my friend’s tendency to bunch his chin while playing. My thought was that in order to determine this friend’s correct embouchure type would be to get him to first stabilize his embouchure formation and then his embouchure type would become apparent. Doug, on the other hand, found his correct embouchure type and the embouchure formation stabilized on its own, without needing to address it at all. My friend’s bunched chin was a symptom, not the cause, of his playing inefficiencies.

This situation is a pretty common one and I suspect is the most likely scenario for a player who gets diagnosed with what is sometimes caused “embouchure dystonia” or “embouchure overuse syndrome.” Doug seems to agree with me that the cause of the embouchure dysfunction isn’t usually neurological or overplaying, but rather than a physical playing situation causing some problems that turn into a lack of confidence and setting up a downward spiral. Because most players aren’t familiar enough with how brass embouchures function correctly (and how this can be different from player to player), they aren’t informed enough to find the root cause of their problems. I think Doug was the first person I heard use the analogy that this is like lifting with your back. You can get away with it for a while, and even lift very heavy objects like this when you’re in shape. Over time, however, this can lead to troubles and even injuries.

I wonder if this confusion between playing as a “very high placement” embouchure type and “medium high placement” type usually ends up with the player correctly playing as a “very high placement’ embouchure type. If I understand Doug’s point of view correctly here, this is more often the case, rather than players ending up best as a “medium high placement.” embouchure type. This might be because that players who have the anatomy that makes a “very high placement” embouchure type are more common than the other embouchure types. On the other hand, it appears that there’s something about many “very high placement” type players that allows them to play to a high degree with characteristics of the “medium high placement” type, albeit inefficiently compared to how their chops can be working.

I know there are some regular commentators here who belong to the “very high placement” embouchure type. If you are (or think you are), have you ever had a period where you struggled due to playing with characteristics that are associated with the “medium high placement” embouchure type? If you know that you’re really a “medium high placement” have you ever been mistyped (by yourself or others) as a “very high placement?” Please leave your comments and thoughts about anything related to this topic below.

If you’re looking for help with your embouchure I can’t recommend highly enough Doug’s expertise. You can contact Doug for lesson inquiries through his web site. He also makes great customizable low brass mouthpieces, which can learn more about there too.

Guess the Embouchure Type – Melissa Venema

It’s been a while since I’ve played “Guess the Embouchure Type.” To bring it back I’m going to take a look at Dutch trumpet player Melissa Venema. She’s a remarkable player at only 19 years old at the time I write this. She was 18 in when this concert video was recorded.

There are several pretty good shots of her embouchure, but it may be tricky to pick her embouchure type. Take a close look and see what you think. My guess after the break. Continue reading Guess the Embouchure Type – Melissa Venema