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

Embouchure Question – Doubling on Brass

Kelly is a brass doubler who was looking for some help with his or her embouchure type.

Hi, i was wondering if there is any way i can tell if im i medium high placement or a very high placement player? I feel i am a flexible player, but i struggle with anything above the staff (Trumpet player) i also play euphonium, but the opposite occurs. Its much easier for my to play in the upper register on euphonium than on Trumpet. does this mean i’m a medium or high placement player?

This is a tough question to answer, even when I’m able to watch you play in person. In order to actually give someone targeted advice about embouchure I at least need to see some video footage (here is a post I’ve put together that describes in detail the sort of thing that I like to see on video). There is so much that can happen with a player that causes similar symptoms that any suggestions I offer without watching a player can be the complete opposite of what they should be doing. Even working with a student in person it can be difficult to tell with just one lesson which embouchure type will work best in the long term for a player.

Based on what Kelly wrote above I would look at how Kelly’s embouchure looks on both euphonium and trumpet and see if they are indeed the same embouchure type or if Kelly is using a different embouchure type for the different instruments. It’s best if a player can play with the same embouchure type for any brass doubles and it will work better if a player places the mouthpieces in concentric circles on the lips, rather than lining up the top of the rim, for example, in the same place. That can result in type switching or even just having to work harder on one of the instruments because the lips may be fighting for predominance inside the mouthpiece cup.

It’s not hard to find trumpet players who can pick up a low brass instrument and play very high, but struggle with the low register. If you’re used to focusing your embouchure inside a trumpet mouthpiece you can more easily force the lip vibrations into that very small surface area inside a low brass mouthpiece and play into the trumpet range. On the other hand, usually the tone isn’t so focused sounding and often these trumpet players have difficulty descending this way. Lip compression needs to start from the mouth corners, not inside the mouthpiece cup. When these trumpet players learn to do this their tone and low register might open up, but they will loose some of their high range until they learn how to ascend from this more appropriate embouchure formation.

Another fairly common situation is to find brass players (even non-doublers) who type switch between “very high placement” and “medium high placement” embouchure types. At times it will be clear after a little experimentation which embouchure type is going to be correct, but it can also be very difficult to tell, particularly for players who have not been playing for very long or younger players. Since your anatomy determines the most efficient embouchure type it is often necessary for the player to allow some time to complete the growth spurt before you can more correctly determine the embouchure type. Players who haven’t yet learned good embouchure form (using the correct muscles, firming the lips correctly, etc.) will sometimes fluctuate between embouchure types as the lack of stability makes it hard to figure out what’s going to work.

Without having watched Kelly play, the best advice I can offer for now would be to strengthen up the embouchure formation with some light, simple free buzzing exercises (follow that link for the exercise Donald Reinhardt came up with). I wouldn’t be worrying too much about which embouchure type you have, since if you guess wrong you can end up doing more harm than good. Concentrate on other things (firm your lips before placing the mouthpiece, keep the mouthpiece on the lips while breathing through the mouth corners, practice good breath control, etc.) and over time allow your embouchure type to develop on its own. Most players will naturally and subconsciously figure out their own embouchure type this way.

Sometimes a player will type switch and not work out their own embouchure type, however. In this case it can be very helpful to catch lessons from someone who has a deeper understanding of brass embouchure form and function who can do some controlled experimentation and help you find your own embouchure type. At the very least, lessons with an experienced brass teacher who doesn’t really deal with embouchure will help you with other aspects of your playing that should help your embouchure settle down and make your embouchure type more apparent.

Embouchure Question: Should I Change My Off-Center Embouchure

Here’s another question I got from my virtual pile of email. This one is from Veronika.

I am a French horn/trumpet player in high school and I play with an embouchure that is off to my right of my lips and I have had teachers tell me I need to fix it or I will hit a point where it will get in the way of my playing and I have had others say that if it works for me then I should be fine I would like to know if this is a bad thing and if I need to fix it if you could get back to me ASAP it would be great

As I usually have to say with questions like this, I can’t really answer your question without watching you play, preferably in person. Every player is different and so for me to say without seeing you that you need to change your embouchure (or keep it the same) would not be good advice. Your teachers, on the other hand, have presumably watched you play and notice something not working correctly and have offered a suggestion. My first instinct would be to follow their advice and give it an honest effort.

However, even some very fine musicians and experienced teachers often make some erroneous recommendations simply because they don’t have an interest in embouchures and assume that what works for them (and even a majority of their students) must be correct. Everyone has a different face, so everyone will have a different embouchure. If you do a search for “off center” here on my blog you’ll see many examples of embouchures that are placed to one side, and some of these are world class brass musicians. Most players will find that their embouchures are a little to one side, but generally centered along the horizontal. Some players play much better with a very off-center mouthpiece placement.

It’s difficult to generalize why some players do better with an off-center placement. Sometimes brass musicians will talk about a protruding or sharp tooth that requires them to place the mouthpiece so the rim can’t contact the tooth. I’ve heard other players describe how they intentionally place the rim over a protruding tooth or gap in order to “lock in” their placement. Again, it’s a very personal feature.

Getting back to Veronika’s question, I would just close by pointing out that it’s not how your embouchure looks that is important, it’s how it functions and how good it sounds. If you sound best with an off-center mouthpiece placement then I think that this is where you should leave it. Whenever I recommend an placing the mouthpiece in a different spot than where it is I do so because there is an immediate improvement in something that needs to be fixed and because I can’t fix that issue with any other method. If your teacher is telling you that in time the “muscles will develop” with a more centered placement I would try to find a different teacher and grab a second opinion when you can. I’ve even heard of some cases where excellent brass players have done everything their teacher told them to do in their lessons, but practiced how they knew they should play on their own in order to get by. That’s not ideal, but always an option if you think you’re being steered wrong in this area.

Do you have a question about brass embouchures or any other music related topic you’d like to see me discuss here? Drop me a line with your questions.

Embouchure Question: “True Buzz” and Equipment Size Fitting Your Size

I’m trying to get through some of the questions I’ve been emailed that have piled up. This one is from Mark.

Hi Dave,  your suggestions to me as a fellow upstreamer to do shorter practice chunks (5 min.) was very helpful to me a few yrs. back…thanks!  (On a side note, you might be interested to know that in high school I knew my emb. was different from everyone else I knew, & Kai was the only person who looked to have a similar one, from a photo, and that he had a brighter sound than JJ.)  
Anyway, since we free buzz downstream, how can we tell about the accuracy of our true buzz, as downstreamers do? Also, as I am on the somewhat smaller side, is smaller equip. more in resonance with me as as a player, or is that irrelevant?
Thanks for your time,  Mark

In case you surfed over here and haven’t seen how I personally will use the terms “upstream” and “downstream” in relationship to embouchure, you will want to take a bit on look through this resource here. Both Mark and I are not talking about whether you have a high or low horn angle, we’re talking about how the air stream actually passes the lips into the mouthpiece.

Mark mentions that upstream players will (should) free buzz downstream when practicing free buzzing exercises. This is because it is the best way for brass players to target the specific muscles you want to focus on with your brass embouchure (the intersection of muscles at and just under the mouth corners). Trying to make your free buzz work upstream, even if you’re naturally an upstream player, typically forces your lips into a position where you’re not really targeting the correct muscles. Here is another resource I have put together on free buzzing.

To get to Mark’s question about the accuracy of the buzz I think it’s important to note that I don’t consider free buzzing to be a useful diagnostic tool, but rather a type of practice that one can use. While it may be true that many downstream players want to make their playing embouchure more like their free buzzing embouchure, that’s not always the case. For some players of any embouchure type you can see the aperture forming in one spot with free buzzing, but if you look inside a transparent mouthpiece or visualizer you’ll see the aperture forming in a a different spot on the lips (here’s a resource I’ve put together on this topic). Incidentally, I do not use a rim cut-a-away/visualizer as a diagnostic tool either, but prefer a transparent mouthpiece as it shows us the most accurate look at a player’s embouchure as it actually is functioning while performing. If you want to see what any player’s embouchure is actually doing when playing you shouldn’t rely on free buzzing or rim only buzzing. It might be similar, but it might be completely different. Brass teachers and players who rely exclusively on those methods for embouchure diagnosis are getting an incomplete picture.

Regarding Mark’s equipment question, I have to start off by warning everyone that I really haven’t looked very closely at this. Most of my mouthpiece recommendations are based on what I learned from Doug Elliott in some of my lessons with him. We’ve mostly discussed how different embouchure types can respond to different general mouthpiece features. It seems logical that for a very small person a smaller mouthpiece might be typical and larger folks might want to play on a generally larger mouthpiece. That said, I don’t really know how accurate this idea is.

One thing that I really like about the equipment recommendations I got from Doug is that he started from a general recommendation and then methodically helps you find the right mouthpiece for you. In one of my lessons he brought out different sized rims and had me try them out one at a time, going to the next larger size each time. As I went bigger we both noticed slight improvements in my sound up to a point at which the next larger rim size made my sound less focused. Going back to one size smaller ended up being perfect for me.

If you’re looking to work out a good mouthpiece size for your personal embouchure I’d recommend a similar experiment. Try out mouthpieces that change one feature (cup size, cup shape, rim size, rim bite, etc.) and methodically try them out until you find the best fit for you. It may be more difficult to get a hold of all those different mouthpieces, but I think this may be the best way to really know for sure.