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.

Embouchure Type Questions: Which Type Is Right For You?

Tristin sent the following question to me about his embouchure.

Hi! I am a sophomore at a fine arts school and I love to play the trumpet in band. However, while I was playing one day, I noticed that I change embouchure to play different registers of the trumpet better. I then tried experimenting to find a suitable embouchure for me to play the full range of my instrument, but I found that I can play pretty much the same with all the embouchure types you wrote about: very high, medium-high, and very low. This confuses me greatly, and I do not know which embouchure is best in the long run according to my anatomy. i find myself constantly switching between the three every time I play to try and find which one is best. To worsen the situation, I started to develop a double-buzz and my playing is going downhill. Which embouchure setting is best for me? I’m not sure if this helps, but I have an overbite, though I seem to even the teeth when I play. Thank you.

As always, I can’t offer specific advice without being able to watch you play (preferably in person). I don’t teach video lessons for embouchure troubleshooting because I don’t find them conducive to troubleshooting, but sometimes I can spot something if you are able to post a video of your playing. Check out what I wrote here for what I need to see in order to help you out.

While I can’t tell you which embouchure type is going to be best for you in the long term without watching you play, I can speak generally about your situation. Keep in mind that everyone is different and what I’m saying here may not necessarily apply to you. Sometimes players will want to practice in a way that helps make a correction and then go back to another way of playing later.

Which brings me to my first general point. Assuming your the typical age for a high school sophomore in the U.S., your anatomical features that determine which embouchure type is going to work best for you may change around. Some folks continue to grow up until they’re about 21 years old. Even older brass musicians will sometimes find embouchure features changing around as teeth naturally shift or as they develop as players. Even if I could be there to watch you play it might be that you just need some more time playing before your embouchure type settles down. This is far more common than most people realize. It can be very frustrating for a player, particularly if they have no idea why they’re struggling.

Rather than worry about what embouchure type you should be playing on, it may be better for you to practice developing good embouchure form. While embouchure characteristics vary from player to player, there are some good rules of thumb for all players that will help you use the most efficient muscles and develop the strength and control you’ll need when your embouchure type settles down.

One exercise I like to help players develop strong chops is the free buzzing exercise I wrote about here. Just a little bit every day long-term is best with this exercise. Don’t overdo it and remember it’s just an exercise, not a method to diagnose your embouchure. Think of it like weight lifting for your chops.

Regarding your double buzz, it’s entirely possible that it’s being caused by you shifting your mouthpiece placement all around trying to find your best embouchure type. Since I suggest you not worry about your embouchure type for now, pick a placement that’s not too centered and stick with it for your entire range as much as you can. Usually I will recommend starting with the placement that works best for your high range and practice descending from there. That said, there are too many exceptions for me to say this should be universally followed. A double buzz can be caused by several different things. I’ve written about it here for some further information.

You mention you have an overbite and bring your jaw forward to more or less align your teeth when you play. That would suggest either a “very high placement” embouchure type or a “very low placement” type, because for these players this jaw position is most common. Again, there are too many exceptions for this to be a truism. Also, just because you’re protruding your jaw to play now doesn’t mean you’ll always want to or that this is necessarily correct for you now. Much like your best embouchure type, I wouldn’t be too concerned with what your jaw is necessarily doing right now beyond keeping it more or less in place and reducing or eliminating a jaw drop to descend.

Since you’re studying at a fine arts school you are probably getting exactly the sort of instruction and experiences you need to get better. While I hope that I’ve been able to give you some helpful ideas, your best resource right now will be the teachers and instructors you get to work with in person. Have fun and good luck!

Embouchure Question: Does Trombone Playing Develop Trumpet Endurance?

Here’s another question from way back (February!) that I’m finally getting around to.

Hi Dave,

First of all, many thanks for all the information you make available here. It is invaluable.

Here’s my question, in a nutshell – Will picking up the trombone and practising for, say, 30 minutes a day help a cornet / trumpet player develop their endurance, beyond what they would get by just playing their main horn?

I understand this might vary from case to case, and on the quality of the embouchure on both horns. But assuming an efficient (even if not highly developed) embouchure on both horns, would you say this would generally help from a purely “muscular” point of view? Could it even prompt a more efficient embouchure by “forcing” the player to “do things right”?

A little bit about me if you don’t mind – I’m a comeback cornet player after a 5 year break.
My range and endurance were never great. I never got above, say, a G on the staff.
The good news is – I don’t care about range too much. As an amateur trad jazz player, I don’t want to hit screaming high notes. As long as I can play within that range comfortably and play a singing solo, I am happy. So my main concern is really endurance. I still find myself struggling sometimes about 6 months into my comeback.

I would love to meet you in person, but I live in London so that would unfortunately not be possible any time soon (hey, who knows, I might be coming to New England some of these days). Sooner or later I might make a video as and send it to you to have a look at if you don’t mind, which would of course be much appreciated.

Many thanks again for all your time and effort you put into the site. Sorry if this turned out to be a long message!

All the best,

This is really a good question, and to be honest I don’t have a very firm answer for you. I used to double on the different brass instruments, but I found it difficult to keep all of them up and especially had trouble moving from low brass to high brass. These days I infrequently play brass other than trombone, but I also have a much better understanding of how my embouchure works than I did when I was doubling seriously. As a result, I can play with a pretty decent range on any brass instrument, albeit with limited control and not such a good sound on high brass.

Most of the time when I pick up a secondary instrument it’s in a teaching situation to either demonstrate something or fill in a missing part. I do still sometimes practice trumpet in order to work on some specific things for my trombone embouchure. Occasionally I’ll play a low brass secondary and I find adapting to the valves more tricky than a different mouthpiece on low brass.

I think brass players can learn a lot about how to play their primary instrument by practicing other brass instruments. Generally speaking, going from something smaller to something larger (trumpet to trombone, euphonium to tuba, etc.) can help many players learn to move air better and relax the embouchure formation. Many trumpet players will play some trombone as a warm down (in fact, I recommend trumpet players who practice lots of pedal tones replace that with trombone playing).

Moving from larger to smaller (tuba to trombone, euphonium to horn, etc.) can often help players learn how to focus their air properly for their upper register. I don’t have the source at my fingertips (so take this with a grain of salt), but I recall that Arnold Jacobs (I think) once measured the air pressure required to play the exact same pitches on different brass instruments and found them very similar. For example, a trombonist playing a B flat above the bass clef staff will use the air similarly to playing a written C in the treble clef staff on trumpet (both Bb 4). There’s also probably some good strength building in the embouchure musculature that helps translate when going back to the lower brass instrument.

As you suggest, practicing on a secondary brass instrument with a significantly different mouthpiece size can force you to “do things right,” or at least to help you move into a more correct direction. I feel it’s best to go into such practice with an understanding of what specifically you’re going to work on and to carefully monitor your playing so that you can avoid picking up the wrong things or going too far in one direction. If you’re finding it beneficial to your primary instrument keep practicing your secondary, but don’t overdo it and get too much of a good thing. Likewise, if it’s causing problems you should dial it back or even eliminate it for a while.

To all the other brass doublers out there let us know what you feel in the comments below. Do you find practicing a secondary brass instrument beneficial to your primary instrument? Do you find differences going from a larger to smaller compared with going smaller to larger?

Embouchure Questions: Relationship Between Free Buzzing, Mouthpiece Buzzing, and Playing

I really need to go through my inbox and respond to all the good questions I’ve gotten. This one is from January.

Hello, Dr. Wilken. My name is Kevin and I am a college sophomore who plays the trombone, and I just had a few questions. First, I would like to ask what the relationship is between free buzzing and buzzing on the mouthpiece alone. I can free buzz a little bit, but I do not do it often. And I can buzz on the mouthpiece fine although I wasn’t really able to when I first started playing which was about 3 years ago. Should you be able to free buzz a note and translate that into mouthpiece buzzing? Also, what would be the best thing to do to try and play with great tone? A lot of times when I play, I play with a nasally sound, and I really want to fix that. I realize that I should probably already know the answers to these questions since I have been playing for a couple of years, but my initial training wasn’t too informing because I switched somewhat spontaneously about halfway through high school. Thank you very much for your time.

There are similarities between free buzzing, mouthpiece buzzing, and playing your brass instrument, but there are also some important differences. If you’re clever and understand how your embouchure should function (or have proper guidance from a teacher) you can use buzzing to enhance your playing. If you’re not sure what you’re doing or are working under a false assumption, you can develop habits that potentially work against your playing.

In order to put this into context you need to have a basic understanding of the different brass embouchure types. Of the three basic types, two place the mouthpiece higher on the lips and are considered downstream embouchures. The third is less common, places the mouthpiece low on the lips, and is upstream. You really can’t choose your embouchure type, the one that works best for you is dependent on your anatomy, not your teacher’s embouchure or what player you want to emulate.

One of the reasons why this is important is so that you broaden your understanding of the influence the mouthpiece and instrument have on how your embouchure functions. Consider first that when buzzing, either with the mouthpiece or lips alone, you don’t have the instrument slotting the correct pitch according to the overtone series. This means that you can be a little bit off with your embouchure firmness for any given note and the horn will force your embouchure into the correct pitch, assuming you’re close enough.

Try taking a legato phrase or three from a Rochut etude or something similarly lyrical. Play those phrases on your instrument first and make sure you know what the pitches sound like, then buzz it on your mouthpiece. When you buzz it, I recommend you eliminate tonguing from the equation and only allow yourself to tongue the initial attacks after taking in a breath. Don’t worry too much about glissing between pitches, although if you can accurately mouthpiece buzz without sliding from note to note you should. Immediately after mouthpiece buzzing pop the mouthpiece back into the instrument and play the passages on your instrument.

Usually after this sort of practice players will find that their playing feels easier and the tone sounds more focused and resonant. Mouthpiece buzzing correctly will force you to focus the embouchure vibrations perfectly, rather than relying on the instrument to help slot the embouchure for you. It also requires more air to mouthpiece buzz. When you transfer the feeling of mouthpiece buzzing to playing the instrument it can make the playing more efficient in these ways.

However, often this feeling and improved timbre go away after a minute or so of playing. Furthermore, it’s pretty easy to mouthpiece buzz in a way that isn’t so conducive to good playing, but works great on the mouthpiece alone. Because of this, and also because the improvements you’re working on with mouthpiece buzzing can also be developed in other ways, I hesitate to recommend mouthpiece buzzing unless I am able to show a player how I prefer to approach it and how to avoid problems. In a nutshell, try to mouthpiece buzz with the exact same embouchure formation as you play with. Don’t let your lips get blown more into the cup when buzzing than how you normally play. It may feel to you like this is a good thing when you transfer it to the instrument, but I don’t feel this practice is sustainable in the long term for most players.

Free buzzing is also a different animal from playing and mouthpiece buzzing. As an upstream trombonist, I use free buzzing in my own practice purely as a strength building exercise. I feel that all players can benefit from some simple free buzzing exercises for just 2-5 minutes a day (follow my link above on free buzzing to learn about one exercise). Many downstream players can also benefit from free buzzing into the instrument. For downstream players at an appropriate stage of development free buzzing a pitch and then bringing the mouthpiece and instrument up to the lips can help them find the most efficient mouthpiece placement, horn angle, lip position, and fine tune other embouchure characteristics. For upstream players, and some downstream players, this exercise will work against your playing, so use at your own risk.

Regarding your question about playing with good tone, it’s difficult to offer specific advice since I haven’t been able to watch you play. Mouthpiece and free buzzing can help, if done correctly, but could also potentially mess you up if overdone or practiced wrong. Don’t forget the importance that breathing and tongue position have on your tone quality too. There are times in a player’s stage of development where it might be better to accept a thin sound short term in order to practice playing correctly long enough to develop the knack for opening up the sound.

Guidance from an experienced teacher with regular lessons will go a long way here compared to advice given over the internet. You mentioned you’re a college student, but not if you’re enrolled in trombone lessons at school. Most colleges offer private music lessons for credit, even if you’re not a music major, so check that out in the fall and see if you can get weekly lessons. Even if you already study from your college trombone professor, you might try visiting another teacher for a lesson from time to time and get a different perspective.

Good luck and keep us posted on your progress.

Bill Bing on Playing On the Red and Guess the Embouchure Type

Regular readers may already know that one of my pet peeves is the huge number of brass teachers who (ignorantly, in my opinion) discourage all students from placing their mouthpiece in a way that the rim is contacting the red of the lips. It’s fairly common to hear players talking about the “evils of placing on the red.” I recently came across another example of this by trumpet player Bill Bing.

Bing is skeptical that brass players (or at least trumpet players) can play successfully with the mouthpiece placed in such a way that a lot of rim contacts the lower lip. That said, other than a brief mention at the beginning, the rest of this video doesn’t mention placing on the red at all.  Nor does he explain why he feel’s it’s a bad thing other than that he’s never noticed it before. The closest thing to explaining why this is wrong is when he comments that he didn’t personally find it successful.

My personal experience happens to be the exact opposite of Bing’s. He found it didn’t work to place the mouthpiece on the red of his lips and made a correction that made things better. On the other hand, I found that after being instructed to play with a centered mouthpiece placement moving my setting onto the red of my upper lip actually worked best. It really depends on the individual player and is something that I don’t like to generalize.

At any rate, watch Bing’s video (particularly at around 4:51) and take a guess on Bill Bing’s embouchure type. My guess after the break.

Continue reading Bill Bing on Playing On the Red and Guess the Embouchure Type

Embouchure Questions: Playing Didgeridoo and the Sensation Theory

I’ve got a lot of embouchure questions piling up and want to try to get more of them answered here for folks. Here are a couple from way back (and sorry for the long delay in getting back to you folks!).

Krešo asks:

Hello Dave. I am curious, I bought a didgeridoo and started to mix my trumpet playing and didgeridoo playing. I play didgeridoo mostly as a warmup before trumpet. It seems to get blood flow to lips quicker then else. What do you think about that and can I damage my lips with it?

I have a couple of didgeridoos myself and enjoy playing them once in a while. Personally, I’ve never found them to be detrimental to my brass playing, but you have to realize that a didgeridoo does generally use different techniques and that if you get too used to it and aren’t aware of what you’re doing you might bring some of the didgeridoo technique back into your trumpet playing.

One thing that a number of brass players have experienced is that a bit of playing on a brass instrument with a significantly larger mouthpiece can work great as a warm down. For example, trumpet players might play a little trombone to warm down or trombonists might play a little tuba. The difference between this and what Krešo mentions is that this is as a warm down, not so much a warm up.

I’m not certain that I would use didgeridoo as a warm up, but without being able to watch you play it’s hard to say if what you’re doing could cause some potential risk to your playing or not. One way it could be detrimental is because a didgeridoo feels very different from trumpet and if you try to make your trumpet playing match your feeling of playing didgeridoo you could create some inefficient habits.

John sent the following, not really a question, but some good insights and related in part to Krešo’s question:

Here is James Morrison talking about his warm up or lack of warm up.  

I had heard that he takes the horn out of the case and starts the gig.  When he appeared at the U. of Montana Jazz Festival he said that he hadn’t played any trumpet for the previous two weeks.  I saw him take the horn out and start the rehearsal.  He sounded great from the first note on.  I believe he does what Reinhardt calls the “Sensation Theory”.  I talked to Doug Elliott about this and he agrees.  Doug said that he also never warms up anymore.  The main point is that a player really only needs a couple of minutes of warm up at most.  Anything after that is practicing.

My most influential teacher regarding brass embouchures is Doug Elliott and I recall him saying the same thing to me about his lack of warmups. One of Doug’s teachers was Donald Reinhardt, who wrote a bit about a concept he called the “sensation theory.” In the Encyclopedia of the Pivot System Reinhardt wrote:

The SENSATION THEORY is the approach to the instrument whereby the player relies primarily on feeling rather than on sound to produce his notes. Generally speaking, the more completely the dependence on feeling the player can achieve, the more accuracy he will acquire. As dependency on sound is lessoned, the player arrives at how a note will feel rather than how it will sound. His accuracy and assurance will grow commensurately. . .

Your pre-playing sensation is the feel that you experience in your embouchure formation and anatomy a split-second before you execute your attack for the particular tone to be played.

Your playing sensation is the feel that you experience in your embouchure formation and anatomy during the actual blowing of your instrument.

Your unified sensation, the “must in all consistent brass playing, is the merging of your pre-playing and playing sensation into one solidified feel.

Some folks will confuse this concept with ignoring the sound altogether. Nothing could be further from the truth, but what Reinhardt was advocating was consistency in making your embouchure formation and anatomy matching as closely as possible to what you do when you play before you even start blowing. Brass players who get braces, for example, know first hand how strange it can feel when the braces get put on and taken off and it takes some time to adjust and get comfortable with the feel because of the changing support of the teeth and gums behind the lips and mouthpiece rim.

Or as another example, I remember when my braces came off and I wore a retainer (which I took off to play) I spent a few days talking a little funny because the retainer covering on the roof of my mouth meant that where I was used to putting my tongue to speak consonants had radically changed. Even though I knew exactly what the sound of the words I was speaking should have been, it took me some time to get used to the different feel.

Most brass players will go after this feel of playing unconsciously. Reinhardt was an advocate of specifically going after this unified sensation, which involved some specific playing and practicing techniques that are somewhat unique to his teaching (such as the mouth corner inhalations).

How many of you play didgeridoo? Do you ever feel that practicing didgeridoo is detrimental to your main brass instrument or have you only found positive or neutral effects? How do you think playing didgeridoo affects the playing sensations on your main brass instrument? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below and let us know what you think.

More Thoughts on the Stratos Embouchure Trainer

I’ve written about the Stratos device before, although I notice the video I embedded there has since become private. However, there is a newer and much longer video posted now where Stratos inventor, Marcus Reynolds, talks about it at the British Association for Performing Arts Medicine conference in 2013 (I believe).

It’s a rather long video, so if you don’t mind spoilers here is my synopsis.

First, bear in mind that this is essentially an infomercial. You can probably skip the first 60 seconds, since it’s really just soothing music with some scrolling text testimonials and description of what you’re about to watch.

The device itself is interesting. It basically clamps on to your leadpipe or mouthpiece and places an adjustable piece against your chin. If you want to work on bringing your chin forward/your horn angle up I can see how this could be helpful. Reynolds also demonstrates how it can be used to play with less pressure, although I personally feel it’s better to try and identify what is making the player use too much pressure and fix that instead.

I’m not sure how I feel about the demonstration where he keeps putting all the weight on the Stratos on his chin, keeping it off the lips. at 5:08 Reynolds intentionally sounds bad with almost no mouthpiece. He doesn’t elaborate on why it’s a good thing to practice this way, beyond the old trope about “letting the blood into the lips.” In my opinion, if you want to practice like this you should go all the way and simply practice free buzzing.

At around 8:00 in Reynolds talks about a conversation he had earlier with one of the doctors attending his presentation. He mentions how practicing with the Stratos on and then removing it had the effect that the player wants to keep the chin forward. It’s curiously sort of a backwards effect, when you think about it. By placing something against your chin and pushing it back for a while you end up wanting to bring your chin even further forward. While not all brass players will actually want to bring their chin forward to play, this is one area where the Stratos might actually be very useful.

And I have to gripe, of course, about Reynolds’ repeating the old myth that the air stream passes the lips and gets blown straight down the mouthpiece shank (starts about 9:14). Regular readers will already know about some of the evidence that’s available to see brass air stream direction. There may be some value to using the Stratos for some players, but I suspect that it’s not going to help a player learn to blow straight down the shank. In fact, this situation is actually bad for brass playing. If this is the basis on which the Stratos works, then it’s based on a false premise and should be reexamined.

At £149.99 (about $250 U.S.) the Stratos device is not cheap and I probably won’t be getting one any time soon to teach with. I would also love to see someone research carefully and take a more objective look at how well the Stratos works and what it’s helpful for. There’s a lot of potential, I think, but I’m sure it’s not a panacea and might actually hurt more than it helps in some situations. Caveat emptor.