Embouchure Questions: Mouth Corner Snap and the Lip Pucker

I’m trying to get through some questions I have piling up. Here’s one I got from Chris a while back.

Hi Dave,

I have another Reinhardt related question. Somethings about my playing are getting better, especially my range and endurance, but my tone is not big and full in all registers.

I think at least part of the problem is that I don’t naturally experience any puckering. I get an okay tone by just putting the mouthpiece on my lips in their natural place and blowing – the embouchure firms but the corners don’t ‘snap forward’ – and from here I have a low G to a 3rd ledger F (trumpet), or sometimes G’s and A’s above that. I can do that through pinching or compression. But I don’t have a big, rich sound.

I also recall reading on Trumpet Herald that lip pucker was considered to be something added after everything else was working.

Do you think it is possible that you can develop like I mentioned without the pucker element developing? If so, how would someone go about adding that element to their playing?


As always, it’s really hard to be specific without watching you play, so all I can do is speak generally. It’s difficult to fully grasp many of Donald Reinhardt’s descriptions through text, you often need to have someone show you what things look like.

The mouth corner inhalations is a difficult process to get used to and is one that I find myself always striving to improve on too. This involves keeping your lips just touching inside the mouthpiece and breathing through the mouth corners. When you attack the initial note after inhaling you want the tongue, breathing, and embouchure to all coordinate together. This is where the mouth corner “snap” comes in place. At the peak of your inhalation, and without hesitation, you begin to blow. At the exact same time your tongue will move to its position behind the upper teeth and start the backstroke that creates the articulation (“tah,” “tee,” “dah,” doh,” etc., depending on how pointed an attack you want and what register you’re playing). While these both are going on your mouth corners should snap quickly into their position, firmed roughly where they are when your mouth is closed at rest.

If the corner snap isn’t happening for you there are a couple of things you can try to get them working better. Often times the reason we have trouble coordinating mechanics is because there’s so much going on at once we can’t think about everything well enough to time it in. Try removing something from the equation and work only on one or two things at a time.

Let’s not assume that the mouth corner snap is the only issue. It could be that the reason you’re not able to time getting your corners into position is because something else in the process is happening at the wrong time too. Take some simple exercises and try some nose inhalations with breath attacks first while watching your embouchure in a mirror. Keep everything looking as identical as possible while breathing in through the nose as it looks when you’re playing. You want to make your chops work as if all you need to do play is to go from inhaling to blowing, nothing else visibly changes except the air. When you think you’ve got the idea, switch do doing this with your eyes closed and concentrate on what the feel is like.

Next, continue nose inhalations but add a tongued attack. Again, spend some time watching yourself in a mirror and also with your eyes closed to concentrate on the feel. Reinhardt often had short sets in a give exercise that repeated (his “Spiderweb Routine,” for example).  You can watch yourself in a mirror for the first time through and then close your eyes for the second.


As you begin getting your exhalation and tonguing coordinating comfortably gradually switch to a mouth corner inhalation. Again, watch yourself in a mirror to see if you are getting your mouth corners to move as quickly as possible from their open position to “snapping” into playing position. Even if it’s not working quite like it should, make note of what it looks like in the mirror and what it feels like when it works wrong. Don’t let your mouth corners open too much or pull back out into an excessive smile position while inhaling, think of them opening just enough to take a slow and relaxed breath. Remember to draw your tongue out of the way of the intake of air.

If you’re still having difficulties with the corner snap, remove the tonguing again and practice breath attacks with the mouth corner inhalations. You may be bottling the air up with the tongue and because of this your mouth corners hesitate a moment to get into position. Again, do some mirror observations and also close your eyes to concentrate on the feel.

As far as the “lip pucker” goes, my thoughts here may be different from what some of Reinhardt’s students might tell you. It’s also possible that Reinhardt felt that what a high brass player would do is slightly different from low brass. That said, I think that perhaps some of the differences you might hear from different players that studied from Reinhardt might also be influenced by when they happened to take lessons from him. Here’s what Reinhardt wrote in 1942 in the Pivot System for Trumpet, A Complete Manual With Studies.

The eventual goal of the PIVOT SYSTEM is a natural LIP-PUCKER. Your lips go forward to meet the mouthpiece-rim; you should not bring the mouthpiece to meet the lips. This mode of playing reduces all lip-pressure to a minimum and the extreme top-register can be played with apparent ease. Replace the old-fashioned “smile system” with the PIVOT and the LIP-PUCKER, and many unnatural lip complications will vanish.

Note that in the context of discussing the lip pucker Reinhardt refers to the “smile embouchure.” Around 1900 it was actually fairly common for brass teachers to encourage players to pull their mouth corners back as if smiling to ascend, something that we know today limits a brass musician’s high range and endurance. We also know that Reinhardt frequently taught players to go from point A to point B by teaching them to go to point C, only to bring them back to point B later. This can be an effective pedagogical trick, but if you’re not in a situation where you’re getting a teacher to watch what you’re doing you can end up doing too much of a good thing and take it too far. I suspect that in this situation Reinhardt may have been encouraging a lip pucker in order to discourage a smile embouchure.

Compare the above quote from Reinhardt to what he published in 1973 in his Encyclopedia of the Pivot System.

In the PIVOT SYSTEM, the term lip pucker is to imply a tightening down of the mouthcorners against the teeth. Because of the circular formation of the teeth, the mouthcorners must “snap forward” into this puckered position simultaneously with the initial attack. This snapping forward of the mouthcorners occurs a split-second after the mouthcorner inhalation has been enacted. The lip pucker increases its forward push (cushion formation) while the performer is ascending the register of the instrument, and decreases it while he descends. Thus the lip pucker is utilized from the very moment that the initial attack is executed and throughout the blowing; however, it must never be used as a means of forming the embouchure to make the lips receptive to mouthpiece placement.

The PIVOT SYSTEM lip pucker is the “neutralizing or equalizing force” of the “forward and backward” embouchure pressures which are constantly utilized throughout the playing. Remember, the mouthpiece must always be placed upon an embouchure with “buzzing firmness,” and the lip pucker itself must be formed and synchronized with each and every initial attack. In short, do not pucker for placement, pucker to play!

Note that in the above passage Reinhardt discusses the lip pucker as the mouth corners snapping “forward” and that this forward lip pucker increases as you ascend and decreases as you descend. Many people interpret a lip pucker as bringing the mouth corners inward as you play (opposite of the smile embouchure), however by 1973 Reinhardt was describing the lip pucker a bit differently from his earlier description.

Reinhardt also had a “Lip Pucker Routine” that was similar to the Spiderweb Routine, but with some important differences.

Lip Pucker Routine

In this exercise you must not crescendo on the half note. Continue to expand the intervals chromatically to high C. Again, use a mirror to observe the “forward pushing of the mouthcorners with the eighth note.”

Lastly, a personal anecdote that may offer some additional insights. Keep in mind here that I’m going by memory of what I was told by two different teachers who studied extensively from Reinhardt. I’ve looked around for my lesson notes and couldn’t find the exact ones I’m thinking of, so I may have some of the details wrong. Take it with a grain of salt.

At one point a Reinhardt teacher (a trumpet player) offered a suggestion that I should think of bringing my mouth corners inward towards the mouthpiece rim as I ascend. This is something that many brass players sometimes recommend. It did seem to help the production of the extreme upper register.

However, later in a lesson with a different teacher (a trombonist), he pointed out that my inward mouth corner pucker was causing my sound to thin out and causing difficulties with descending back down without needing to pull the mouthpiece off my lips and reset. I was relying on squeezing too much “meat” into the mouthpiece cup to get the faster vibrations, rather than building strength and holding the mouth corners firmly in place. When I asked about the instructions to bring the mouth corners inward to ascend this teacher suggested that it could be something that Reinhardt felt was different for trumpet than for trombone.

That said, it’s possible that this might have been due to the time period when these two particular teachers studied with Reinhardt. We know that Reinhardt was constantly testing and evolving his pedagogy. Consider the many changes he made from publishing the Pivot System Manuals and the Encyclopedia of the Pivot System. According to some of Reinhardt’s students who took pedagogy lessons from him towards the end of his life he had made changes from what he wrote in the Encyclopedia as well. He was constantly evolving and making updates and corrections to what he taught. Often times I feel that some of the posts in the Trumpet Herald Reinhardt Forum reflect instructions that might have been particular to that student or were Reinhardt’s method to get a student to exaggerate a particular mechanical issue that would have been brought back at a later time. Take all recommendations (including mine here) with a grain of salt if you’re not at an in-person lesson.

In short, I wouldn’t worry too much about a “lip pucker,” per se, but instead spend time coordinating your mouth corner snap and keeping your mouth corners locked in place for the entire range (roughly where they might be when your mouth is closed and at rest). As you ascend, the mouth corners will gradually push forward to ascend and come back slightly to descend, but think of this as the forward pressure of the mouth corners “neutralizing” the backward pressure of the mouthpiece and don’t let this forward push become too extreme. Opening up your sound is something that I would need to watch you play to help with. Using your proper embouchure motion (not too much, not too little) can really help here. Also, don’t neglect how you’re breathing here. With all the attention on embouchure that we sometimes do it’s easy to forget that the breathing is a very important part of our playing. Breathing is also one of the most natural parts of brass playing and is comparatively easy to correct. It may be that you’re doing too much forward mouth corner pucker in the first place, thinning out your tone somewhat. Spend some time forgetting about your chops and strive towards the sensation that your breathing is doing the work for your embouchure. Then forget all about chops, breathing, and tonguing and be sure to practice expressive playing.

Good luck!

Embouchure Question: Upstream While Playing, Downstream While Blowing

I’ve got a whole bunch of questions from a while ago piling up and I wanted to try to get some of them answered as best as I can. Part of the reason it takes me so long to respond to these is that often times there’s no way I can offer any advice without being able to watch the player in person. That said, I can sometimes make some general suggestions that might be helpful, or at least clear up some confusion. Here is one I got last month.

Hello, I have watch almost every single one of your videos posted on youtube about upstream embouchure as I have one. I have even commented to ask you once but there wasn’t a reply from you so I gave up on asking you but I somehow came to this site still wondering if my embouchure is right and am somehow writing an email to you haha. Anyways, my embouchure is an upstream embouchure as I said before but when I blow the air without a mouthpiece, the air goes downward. I have tried playing with a downstream embouchure but it pretty much doesn’t work for me. So I kept playing with a upstream embouchure but now that I am trying to play high notes on a trumpet like G, A, B, and high C, the sound barely comes out. People say it has to do with practices but I practice A LOT.

First of all, I can’t assume that you’ve got an upstream embouchure without being able to watch you play, so yes, if you can send a video for me to watch that might be helpful. Sometimes folks misunderstand what it means to have an upstream embouchure (“low placement” embouchure type), because there is a very common misconception that playing with an upstream embouchure means playing with a high horn angle. An upstream embouchure is dependent on a mouthpiece placement that has more lower lip inside the mouthpiece, not a high horn angle. Perhaps you do grasp this important point and are playing with an upstream embouchure, but this doesn’t necessarily mean you should be playing this way, or perhaps you are doing something incorrect in your playing that is causing your problems. Without watching you play, it’s hard to say.

Secondly, because an upstream embouchure depends on the mouthpiece placement, there’s really no correlation between how you play (or should be playing) and how you blow or buzz without a mouthpiece. In fact, I recommend that all players, regardless of embouchure type, free buzz with their lips set in a downstream position. This is helpful for strengthening the embouchure muscles in a safe and correct way, while contorting your lips into an upstream free buzz will probably work your embouchure in the wrong way.

Air to Nose ExerciseThere is an exercise that Roy Stevens came up with that you might find helpful, the “air to nose exercise.” This was one of three away-from-the-horn exercises that Stevens covered in his book. In this exercise you roll your lips in to “hug the teeth edges,” then by bringing your jaw forward you blow air so that it strikes the tip of your nose. This approximates what happens inside the mouthpiece for an upstream player, particular those more common “low placement” embouchure type players who play with a protruded jaw position.

As far as your difficulties playing above G go, I would really need to watch you play, preferably in person. There are many things that players can do that hinder their development in the upper register. For example, it’s very common for “low placement” type players to bring their mouth corners back into a smile while ascending, which limits their high range. Or it may be related to how your embouchure motion is working (or not working). It might also be related to something that you’re doing in a completely different register which might not be apparent at first.

Do you have a question that you’d like to see me address here? Please feel free to contact me and ask away. I can’t promise that my response won’t be, “I’d have to see it,” but if I can answer generally I’ll try to give it a try.

“Associated Risks” of Trumpet Pedal Tones

Quite a bit ago now in the comments section of another post, Lyle (check out his Music Therapy blog) asked me about what I had referred to as the “associated risks” of practicing pedal tones. I have a number of times recommended here that trumpet players avoid practicing many pedal tones or even avoid them altogether. In my opinion, the benefits trumpet players get from pedal tones can be achieved by practicing other things. Furthermore, sometimes players on all brass play their extreme low range in a way that is fundamentally different from how they play the rest of the range. This encourages bad habits in the rest of the range, hence my comment about “associated risks.”

First, a definition of terms to help avoid confusion. Pedal tones on most brass instruments are usually defined as the fundamental pitch (“pedal” Bb on trombone, for example). The next partial up in the overtone series is an octave up, then the perfect 5th, etc. You will see in standard literature the occasional pedal tone called for tuba, and the rest of the low brass and horns see them fairly frequently in standard solo and orchestral repertoire.

Trumpets are a slightly different animal, though. First, the design of the trumpet has an acoustical impedance that makes their “pedal C” below the treble clef staff not quite function acoustically quite the same way it does on the other brass. Furthermore, trumpet players usually talk about the pitches between low F# and pedal C also as “pedal tones.” In contrast,  other brass players tend to call those “fake tones.” You essentially are bending the pitch lower than it wants to slot, there’s no partial there to actually play. All these “pedal tones” rarely show up in the standard trumpet literature and when they do, they usually used as a special effect.

So for the purpose of my discussion here, I’m mainly writing for trumpet players, not the other brass instrumentalists. The other brass instruments not only have to play pedal tones in musical situations much more, but also the construction of the instruments tend to make playing pedal tones properly much easier. That said, there are situations where I would instruct a student on any other brass to temporarily stop playing pedals (or even just below a certain low pitch) because the way he or she is playing them is similar to what’s happening with the trumpet pedal tones as I’ll be describing them.

The gist of my argument here, if you don’t care to read past for the details, is that many brass players will excessively practice playing their extreme low register in a way that works horribly for the rest of the range. Trumpet players in particular, due I believe in part to the construction of the instrument, are prone to developing playing issues from excessive pedal tone practice.

Donald Reinhardt, who was one of the primary sources for my dissertation, was quite adamant that he didn’t want his trumpet students practicing pedal tones.

Many years ago, back in Sousa’s time, a well-known cornet virtuoso accidentally discovered that by the daly practice of sustained, fortissimo, chromatically descending pedal tones (from the pedal “C” on down) with various modes of articulation, the extreme upper tones became playable, at least momentarily. After exhaustive experimentation, however, he found that his “falsetto-type high register” was extremely short-lived. After this time the register would return to less than normal.

One of my eighteen instructors related such a pedal tone case. This performer, however, had lasted for a year and a half before the register reduction became apparent. The pedal theory calls upon enormous amounts of embouchure vibrating area to respond in a very slow, relaxed fashion for the various pedal tones being played. The embouchure formation is then supposed to be capable of tremendous pinching or pucker power for the much tenser, more rapid vibrations of the extreme upper register of the cornet or trumpet. In some cases this immediate upper register response (directly following the pedal tone practice) did result in the playing of a few “falsetto” high tones; however, the results were nil after a few attempts.

Even now we have some of the pedal tone instructors, and each one claims to be the first. I might say this so-called method was in the books long before any of these gentlemen were born. It is true that they have added to the exercises in the pedal register and have systematized the procedure; however, I can assure that eventually the net result will be the same as when it was introduced over sixty years ago.

Donald Reinhardt, Encyclopedia of the Pivot System

According to a tape I have of Reinhardt giving a trumpet lesson in 1980 he stated that the cornet virtuoso from the quote above was Harold Stambaugh, who played with Sousa from 1920-1929. Reinhardt also elaborated in this lesson that while many pedal tone advocates have great range and sound, he found their staccato articulations weak. He found that trumpet players who practiced a great deal of pedal tones had a tendency to bring the embouchure characteristics that work fine for pedal tones into their normal playing range, limiting their abilities to articulate staccato passages cleanly.

The way that pedal tones can potentially mess with a brass musicians depends in part on the player’s embouchure type. Playing a lot of pedal tones on the trumpet tend to encourage the trumpet player to put a lot of upper lip inside the mouthpiece. Some method books even specifically instruct you to you place the mouthpiece like this to practice pedal tones. This is fine if you’re a “very high placement” embouchure type. If you’re a low placement type, however, you end up with a pedal tone embouchure (downstream, probably) and an embouchure for the rest of your range (upstream). There is a noticeable shift where this happens that you can usually both see and hear, if you’re paying attention for it. Here is an example I noticed on YouTube.

Notice how he has to set his mouthpiece placement very high on the lips to play the pedal, essentially playing with a “very high placement” embouchure type. In order to get up into his normal playing range, however, he is forced to physically pull the mouthpiece off his lips and slide it down to a “low placement” embouchure type, a shift you can both see and hear quite clearly in that example. This is one way practicing pedals for upstream trumpet players can be so destructive. You essentially encourage a mouthpiece placement that works exactly opposite of how you should be playing. Here’s an example I happened video myself.

[jwplayer mediaid=”4454″]

This particular musician is an excellent “low placement” embouchure type trumpet player demonstrating some Claude Gordon exercises for me. As he plays through them, notice how he resorts to puckering his lips forward and loosing the “legs” (the feeling of of the mouthpiece and lips together against his teeth and gums). Also consider how he has to slide his mouthpiece to a higher position on his lips when he goes into the pedal register, switching to a downstream embouchure. On those exercises where he starts in the pedal register you can see him suddenly slide his mouthpiece placement lower and switch back to his normal upstream embouchure as he gets into the normal range.

As an aside, this particular player told me he eventually abandoned the Gordon routines because he personally didn’t find them beneficial over the long term.

BE Roll OutThese embouchure characteristics, both changing to a different mouthpiece placement and loosing the embouchure “legs,” are two very common ways in which trumpet players (and sometimes other brass) disconnect the way they play extreme low range with the rest of their range. Another way some methods instruct trumpet players to play pedals is to intentionally roll the lips out and place the mouthpiece on the inner membrane of the lips, as in this photo here. This necessarily requires another embouchure shift to roll the lips back into their proper position to play out of this register, not to mention potential damage to the membrane of the inner lip. The end result isn’t too dissimilar from the two video examples above, where the players needed to slide the lips and mouthpiece to new positions in order to get out of that range.

At other times some players will incorporate an excessive jaw drop to descend. While this works to a degree and helps players get a bigger sound in the low register, there is a tendency for the jaw drop to pull the mouthpiece off its correct placement on the top lip. This doesn’t always happen, but it’s just another way in which many trumpet (and other brass) players approach pedal tones that contrast with the way they play (or want to be playing) the rest of their range.

You can argue that as long as a player doesn’t actually use the pedal tone embouchure in their normal playing range, what’s the harm? As long as you really don’t obsessively practice pedal tones you’re probably not going to really hurt your playing, but the difficulties trumpet players usually have playing pedals in a way that is consistent with their normal range, coupled with the risks of bringing that pedal tone embouchure up, are enough for me to suggest that trumpet players simply avoid practice them and find other exercises to relax the lips, open the sound, and build range.

Collapseing,pedalBb,frontPlayers on other brass instruments may also want to avoid practicing extreme low registers in a manner that doesn’t match their normal playing embouchure as well, as in the photo to the left. However, since the rest of the brass instruments use pedal tones in standard literature and they are acoustically more resonant notes than on trumpet, eventually these players will want to learn how to descend to pedals without resorting to collapsing the embouchure formation or an embouchure shift.

Can trumpet players play pedal tones in a way that connects seamlessly with the rest of their range? Sure, but it takes a lot of practice and is easier for players of certain embouchure types than others. Are the benefits of practicing pedal tones worth spending that time? Considering that there are other things that I think do just as well for the player (although this is personal to the individual player and his or her embouchure type) that don’t have the associated risks, I personally prefer to recommend trumpet players avoid pedal tone practice. Will the occasional pedal tones really mess up a player? Probably not, but excessive daily pedal tone practice can.

There are, of course, many very fine trumpet players who swear by pedal tone practice. There are also many who never do it. While a great deal of this is personal and unique to the individual player’s anatomy, I would challenge trumpet players to try avoiding pedal tones for a month or three and spend your time practicing other things. Come on back afterwards and let us know how things go in the comments here.

Interview on Free Music Ed Podcast

About a month ago I posted a new resource I discovered that I recommend for music educators called FreeMusicEd.org.  The podcast covers some great topics, such as iPad and iPhone apps for band directors, dealing with limited instrumentation, brass mouthpieces, marching band arrangements, and much more.

Stephan Cox, the brain behind FreeMusicEd.org invited me to come onto the podcast and interviewed me about a number of my favorite blogging topics, including teaching jazz improvisation, brass embouchures, teaching composition, and other odds and ends. It was a great time talking with Stephan and he was an excellent host who asked great questions. The podcast is now live and you can download it here or by searching for FreeMusicEd on iTunes (best to type it in as one word to find it easily). Be sure to go through and listen to his other podcasts and poke around the website some too!

Brass Myths – Hanging the Trumpet From the Ceiling

Have you heard the story about [insert famous player] who hung his/her [insert brass instrument, but usually trumpet] from the ceiling and played [insert incredibly high note]? Have you actually seen it done? Me neither, but there’s usually a friend of a friend who swears it was done.

I’ve looked all over YouTube for a video of this famous trick and never been able to find it. I did find the below two videos which attempt to duplicate this as a demonstration.

Now the problem with the above demo is that he’s not really playing all that high. Of course, you can also create a pretty good seal by pushing the mouthpiece back against the lips with the trumpet held just in by the valve like this. Similarly…

…with the trumpet on the palm like this you can create quite a bit of mouthpiece pressure. Try it out yourself to see what I mean. I can even spot this player’s embouchure motion (down and to his left to ascend) while he does this, so he clearly has enough control over how he grips the instrument to apply an appropriate amount of mouthpiece pressure.

With as ubiquitous as this myth is, why are there no videos of anyone doing this? Do you know of one? Please post your link in the comments.

Milt Steven’s Beefs and Pet Peeves for Trombonists

Milt Stevens (1942-2007) was the principle trombonist with the National Symphony Orchestra for 29 years before his death in 2007. He maintained a busy performing schedule and also taught at Catholic University. A while back I was poking around to learn a bit more about him and found some notes from one of his clinics called Beefs and Pet Peeves. A lot of these are my own personal pet peeves as well and some I think are a little particular to Stevens’s own situation. Here’s a few of them that I had some additional thoughts  or comments to make.

2. Not knowing tempos, styles, interpretations!
Listen!: Get lots of recordings.
Listen!: Keep radio tuned to classical stations.
Listen!: Attend live concerts.

I’ll add to this that I feel you should listen to all styles of music, not just classical (or jazz, if you perform jazz). Focus on what you want to perform most, but don’t neglect other styles. One of the reasons I feel successful as a musician is because I can step into many different musical situations and playing convincingly and stylistically. I perform with orchestras, big bands, traditional jazz combos, salsa bands, R&B bands, rock horn sections, brass chamber ensembles, solo recitals, and conduct a concert band and brass band. If all I listened to was jazz or classical music I’d not be as flexible, nor would I have been prepared to join these groups.

4. Pointing bell into the music stand!
Don’t wander with the bell as you play (unless you are David Taylor). Play off the left side of your stand, and when you read from the right hand page of music, don’t angle the bell into the stand.

I deal with this all the time with band students (and also frequently the adult players I conduct and sometimes even with professional brass players I perform with). The trouble is that when you play into the music stand you hear yourself quite clearly, but your sound isn’t projected forward to the audience and the rest of the group. Get used to directing your bell forward!

5. Pointing bell too low (toward the floor) or too high (at the head of the conductor)!
Ideally, the entire trombone section would agree on a mutually acceptable angle to hold the trombones. Use the “bells up” angle only for special effect.

On this one I’ll differ slightly with Stevens. Everyone has at least a slightly different horn angle and not every section will agree on a “mutually acceptable angle.”

I find it curious that Stevens would be such a stickler for this. One of my teachers, Doug Elliott, included Stevens in his film, The Brass Player’s Embouchure, and showed Stevens’s fairly low horn angle. If I recall correctly, Stevens had one of the most rare embouchure types. Doug’s teacher, Donald Reinhardt, called this embouchure type the Type III or “jellyroll” embouchure type because it is characterized by a rather pronounced lower lip roll and lowered horn angle. Even more unusual for Stevens’s embouchure, he used the reverse embouchure motion that most “jellyroll” embouchure players use, he pushed up to ascend and pulled down to descend. For a brief discussion of how Reinhardt’s embouchure types correlate to the embouchure classifications I prefer to use click here.

7. Allowing sound to puny, weak!
Get a weighty sound with resonance. Pretend that you can feel your resonant tone coming back into your body through your feet. Start with better quality inhales. Inhale thinking “OH”; exhale thinking “HO”.

Much like teaching articulations through using syllables, teaching breathing using these mouth shapes can be problematic if you’re not careful. Personally, I prefer to practice (and teach) keeping the lips just touching in the center (inside the mouthpiece) when breathing and breath through the mouth corners. When you open your mouth to inhale you end up having to hit a moving target when you make that initial attack right afterwards. Also, crashing the mouthpiece up against your lips every time after you breathe doesn’t seem to help your endurance in the long term.

10. Having tone production and embouchure problems due to using a dry lip embouchure!
Most brass players play with moisture on lips, even where the rim touches the lips. Mention survey of NSO brass.

I haven’t seen the NSO brass survey, but it doesn’t surprise me that most of the players played with a wet embouchure. There are some players who prefer a dry embouchure and just can’t fully adopt a wet embouchure, though. When I first made an embouchure change to the “low placement” embouchure type I was unable to keep my mouthpiece placement consistently on the same spot with a wet embouchure and I played dry. Gradually I switched to playing wet on the bottom lip and dry on the top lip to keep the rim from slipping off my top lip while playing. Eventually I was able to fully make the switch to a wet embouchure on both lips, which is my preferred way to play today. That said, every once in a while I’ll practice dry to work on some things.

In general, I’d recommend that any brass player who can play with a wet embouchure should try to adopt this. There are some advantages to this over dry for all around brass playing. Not everyone can play wet, however, and these players shouldn’t overly concern themselves about playing this way.

12. Trying to have a big sound by opening lips too far!
Your tone will be “woofy”, if your aperture is too wide for your air stream. Instead, open breathing apparatus, throat, and inside of mouth.

Players belonging to the “medium high placement” embouchure type are more prone to this problem than the other basic types, but all players should avoid this.

I also like this advice from Stevens because he discusses a good strategy for getting a focused and resonant tone – work on breathing and tongue position. Too often I come across advice from well-intentioned brass teachers who are all about breathing and keeping an open throat, etc., but when the encounter player with an unusual mouthpiece placement (e.g., the “low placement” type player) with a thin sound, they forget all about this important advice and immediately try to correct the mouthpiece placement first. Eliminate the other elements before you change embouchures.

14. Not letting lower jaw protrude enough to align lips!
When descending into lower register, allow a pivot. When ascending into extreme high register, try a reverse pivot!

Much like the horn angle above, this is personal to the player. Again, I’m surprised that Stevens would make this one of his personal beefs, because if I recall from Doug’s film, Stevens had a receded jaw position and lowered horn angle.

15. Having to shift mouthpiece up and down to change registers!
Learn to traverse registers without excessive shifting.

It’s best to keep your mouthpiece placement consistent, regardless of the register you’re playing. There will always be some pushing and pulling of the mouthpiece and lips together in an upward and downward direction, but keep it from being too excessive.

23. Having a non-existent or improper vibrato!
Discuss proper speed and amplitude. Discuss lip/jaw and slide vibrato. Mention diaphragm vibrato as not commonly done on brass instruments, except French horn.

I found Stevens’s comment of horn vibrato interesting. Most horn players I know don’t use vibrato, even for solo playing. John Ericson, from Horn Matters, has a nice article on horn vibrato here.

24. Not relying on basic tools to help you learn!
Metronome. 1/2-speed tape recorder. Mirror. Video camera. Tuner.

These days you don’t really need a 1/2 speed tape recorder, you can do the same thing with computer software. I remember lessons with Ed Kocher where we would record ourselves playing Rochut etudes phrase by phrase and then listen back to them at 1/2 speed. All the little cracked notes, out of tune pitches, and out of tempo rhythms were brought out even more by this. It was a real positive kick in the pants.

28. Exhibiting poor stage presence
Emptying water too obviously. Drinking water too obviously and too often. Not acknowledging audience/accompanists. Not bowing and taking curtain calls correctly.

This side of performing is something that is too often not taught, for some reason, yet it has a very important effect on the quality of the performance and how the audience perceives the sound. This topic deserves a post of it’s own at a later date.

29. Having no vocal training!
Sing in choruses and choirs. Be able to hear intervals before they happen. Have a singing quality to your sound.

One of the best things I’ve done for my trombone performing is to take a few vocal lessons and to perform regularly in choirs. Not to mention that it now allows me to sing backup in some of the groups I perform in once in a while as needed.

30. Not being a complete musician!
Listen to many and various recitals. Improvise. Be able to play by ear. Play in public often. Know how to effect a phrase and “turn a nuance”. Performing musically, with understanding, style, and emotion, is the primary goal of this art form.

See my comments on #2 above.

There’s plenty more beefs and pet peeves at Stevens’s web site. Go check it out here.

Got any of your own beefs or pet peeves you need to get off your chest? Leave your thoughts about them in the comments section here.

Free Buzzing Questions – How To Use Your Tongue

Chris sent me a message recently asking for some thoughts on free buzzing. If you haven’t already done so, you might want to check out my post on free buzzing to understand Chris’s questions and my response.

Hi Dave,

I’ve a question about buzzing a la reinhardt. There is one thing he doesn’t mention and that is the tongue except for saying to use a breath attack.

The reason I ask is that I have a wide tongue and would fit into tongue Type One. I feel that the tongue takes a lot of the normal work off the embouchure though, which is a good thing for playing probably, except that muscle that really focus the aperture are still surprisingly week despite a lot of buzzing etc.

I’ve been trying Buzzing a la Reinhardt while keeping the tongue down and my buzzing range drops by more than an octave AND even a middle G (trumpet) feels like twice as much effort is happening at the embouchure to hold the air focused.

I think this might be why buzzing has never really had a huge effect on my playing and the tongue doing so much air-focusing work has stymied the development of my embouchure a bit, at least in terms of strength.

What do you think?

Reinhardt did instruct his students to avoid using the tongue when practicing his free buzzing exercises. He found that it helped players get better response by forcing them to set the lips to vibrating with the air alone and not using the tongued attack as a crutch. It also can be useful for certain corrections while playing, tonguing on the lips, for example.

Reinhardt doesn’t mention what the player should do with his or her tongue once the buzz has been established in his free buzzing routines. I’ve always found it best to hold my tongue while buzzing in the same way that I slur and sustain pitches while playing, in my case the tongue tip snaps down to the gully below my lower teeth and gums and presses forward slightly. Whatever your tongue does normally while playing is probably correct also for free buzzing.

Reinhardt’s Tongue-Type One is one of the less common ones and wasn’t generally recommended by Reinhardt because of “the marked limitations in the lower register.” After the attack the Tongue-Type One performer’s tongue snaps back in the mouth while the sides of the tongue are held in contact with the upper teeth. This focuses the air through a much smaller mouth cavity and really helps some players with getting out very high notes. The drawback is that it tends to thin out the sound in the low register. Reinhardt warned, “the tongue type one is not recommended or intended for all-around brass playing.”

Reinhardt’s warnings aside, there are some great players that are known to use this tongue type, typically trumpet players known for their upper register work. I think that I would generally agree with Reinhardt that this tongue type is probably not best for most players, particularly for general all-around brass playing.

Since I haven’t been able to watch you play, Chris, I really can’t say if you might be better served with a different tongue type. As you alluded to above, I suspect that if you tried to change your tongue type for playing you might find a similar drop in range while playing as you do for free buzzing. It’s possible that after an adjustment period your range would come back or it’s also possible that the Tongue-Type One is the best for you. Hard to say without watching you play.

Getting back to which tongue type to use while free buzzing, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to not be able to buzz as high if you try adopting another tongue type for free buzzing. The point of the exercise isn’t to see how high you can buzz but to strengthen the muscles at the mouth corners and lower lip area. If adopting a different tongue type while buzzing makes for a drop in range but increased work in those areas then it might be best to keep your tongue in that position for the exercise. It also might be a good way to help you learn a different tongue type for playing, if you decide that this is the route you want to take. It’s probably worth experimenting with for a while, as long as you don’t overdo free buzzing in the first place.

Good luck and please keep us posted on how things turn out!

Guess the Embouchure Type – Jerome Callet

Someone has uploaded to YouTube Jerome Callet’s video lessons, Master Superchops Disc 1. According to this thread in the Trumpet Herald Jerome Callet Forum Callet has decided to allow this video to remain up on YouTube (disc 2, which can be found here, provides more successful players than in disc 1).

I’ve written about Callet’s unusual recommendations a bit in my article on the so-called “tongue controlled embouchure” before. I discuss my reservations on why I generally don’t recommend this technique over there and many players searching for some advice about the tongue controlled embouchure have made this post on of the most popular ones here. At the time that I wrote that post I had not seen this video but based my thoughts largely on what was more publicly available online and in books as well as with conversations with tongue controlled embouchure advocates. Keeping in mind that the tongue controlled embouchure is not unique to Callet and his students, after watching this video I haven’t changed my mind about this technique. If anything, watching Callet work with three different trumpet students has reinforced my opinion that this technique is generally not useful for the majority of trumpet players and I would typically discourage players from trying to incorporate these techniques in their own practice and performing.

I’ll discuss some of my reservations below, but watch the video all the way through and make your own opinions. While you do so, let’s play “guess the embouchure type” with all the players in the video, starting with Callet and then going on to the three students in this video. My thoughts after the break.

Looking through all of the players working on Callet’s unorthodox technique reinforces how regardless of whatever else a player may be doing or thinking, the mouthpiece placement will always imply an air stream direction and there will always be an embouchure motion, if you know what to look for. Using these two basic embouchure characteristics we can see each player using one of the three basic embouchure typesContinue reading Guess the Embouchure Type – Jerome Callet

The Facial-Flex Device – Why you probably don’t need to use it to strengthen your embouchure

Developing embouchure control requires a certain degree of embouchure strength. Having strong embouchure muscles allows the brass musician to focus the muscular effort in the correct place, develop a more effortless feeling while playing, and tolerate mouthpiece pressure better without risking injury.

lip musclesThe orbicularis oris is one muscle group used in playing a brass instrument. It is used to pucker the lips and close the mouth. It encompasses the entire lips, including the vermillion and runs from just under the nose to down just above the chin.

Here is a video I recently came across where “Bahb” Civiletti (I’ve discussed Cviiletti before in my discussion about the tongue controlled embouchure, a technique I generally discourage) discusses a Facial-Flex device that is designed to strengthen the orbicular oris.

Best as I can tell, this device can be used as an “away from the horn” exercise to strengthen the orbicular oris, but I think a good question to consider here is whether or not this particular exercise is a good thing for brass players to practice.

For the record, I am an advocate of using exercises to build strength in the embouchure muscles. Things like free buzzing, the pencil trick exercise, the jaw retention drill, and the P.E.T.E. can all be used effectively. When done correctly (and doing them correctly is the key) they can be analogous to weight lifting for your chops. They allow you to build muscular strength in a particular set of muscles without risking injury that can result from lots of heavy playing. When done incorrectly, however, they can end up developing the wrong muscles or train the player to use the muscles incorrectly that might potentially work against the player. In the case of the device that Civilitti is promoting above, I suspect that it may do more harm than good to a brass player’s embouchure.

It is definitely true that the orbicularis oris is a muscle group used for playing a brass instrument. Dr. Matthias Bertsch and Dr. Thomas Maca studied the muscles used by trumpet players using infared thermography and compared the muscles used by experienced players to inexperienced players.

The analysis demonstrates that the main facial muscle activity during warm up is restricted to only a few muscle groups (M.orbicularis oris, M.depresor anguli oris).  The “trumpeter’s muscle” (M.buccinator) proved to be of minor importance.

Student Trumpet 2Pro TrumpetHowever, I take issue with Civilitti’s presentation of photographs of a handful of trumpet player’s as “evidence” for how important this muscle is for a brass embouchure. Here are photographs of two trumpet players, one students and one professional player. Compare how their muscles look to the photos Civilitti presents. The bottom player is the professional trumpet player playing a high C while the top is the student playing the same pitch (and struggling). Can you tell by the photographs alone how much the orbicularis oris is engaged and whether or not one player is using more or less effort than the other? I’m not certain looking at photographs of great players (out of context, no less) will be an accurate measurement of what muscles are used and to what extent. In contrast, take a look at this photograph of a professional player from Bertsch and Maca’s paper. Note the areas where more muscular activity has occurred (redder).

Pro Trumpet Thermographic

With this particular player the orbicular oris is shown to be engaged, but largely focused in the lower lip with this particular player, not so much the top lip (as Civiletti points out in his video). Now I would caution everyone from drawing any conclusions from these small number of examples, but it does suggest that perhaps the orbicular oris isn’t engaged quite in the same manner that Civiletti feels, at least not with all players.

Note also in the above thermographic photo that the muscles at and just under the mouth corners are shown to be an area of much muscular effort with this player. This is the area where I believe the bulk of your embouchure effort should come from, not the orbicularis oris. When brass players are able to develop the strength to lock their mouth corners in place and use that area instead of relying on a pucker or smile to ascend the playing is generally stronger. The Facial-Flex device Civiletti demonstrates strengthens the orbicular oris in such a way as to move the mouth corners inward as with a pucker formation, rather than locking them in place.

This is the exact same reservation I have with some of the other “away from the horn” exercises I often recommend. Some players will practice the pencil trick or P.E.T.E. in such a way that they are using the orbicularis oris in the way Civiletti’s device is used. By bringing the mouth corners in to pucker around the pencil or P.E.T.E., rather than locking them in place and using the muscles indicated in the thermographic photo above, you are training your embouchure formation to work in this way. It’s important when practicing the pencil trick or P.E.T.E. to form your lips as if playing, rather than allowing the mouth corners to come inward into a pucker. This is tricky, because this works to a certain extent, but generally causes more long term problems than it solves. (For full disclosure, my personal experience here is a tendency to pucker my right corner too much in particular, which results in some difficulties with attacks and sound in my upper register up to a certain point and some difficulties getting into my low register after playing high without resetting the mouthpiece. When I’m able to keep the corners  in place and more relaxed it is easier and sounds more focused. Take that for what it’s worth, a single anecdote.)

All that said, I suppose there may be certain situations where the device Civiletti is demonstrating might be useful. Many players will bring their mouth corners back as if smiling to ascend and for these players it might actually be helpful to train their mouth corners to come inward instead. I suspect, however, that this might be best done in moderation and once the player gets a more proper embouchure formation happening it would likely be better to avoid using the Facial-Flex device altogether. My preference is to use free buzzing as an exercise to help players with the smile embouchure as it not only strengthens to correct muscles but also trains the player to keep the mouth corners in their most efficient place.

In summary, I personally feel that the use of the Facial-Flex device is probably not very helpful for brass players, and possibly even counterproductive. There are other exercises that target the embouchure muscles in a better way with less risk of allowing the mouth corners to slip into a position that tends to work against good brass playing.

Do you have a different opinion? Have you experimented with the Facial-Flex device yourself and found it useful or did it work against your playing? Leave your comments below and let us know what you think.

Embouchure Motion Pedagogy – Part 2, Common Issues and Corrections

In part 1 last week I discussed a basic procedure for working out how a give student’s embouchure motion functions best. If you haven’t read it yet, I encourage you to at least skim through that before reading this one. In this article I’m going to cover some of my thoughts on what to do with this information and why it’s important.

But before I do just my quick standard disclaimer. Please don’t assume that everything I present here is 100% correct. I try to be clear when I’m confident about a piece of information and when I’m speculating and some of what I’ve come to rely on may be outdated or just plain wrong. This is also a pretty complex topic and it’s a fine line to dance between brevity and clarity on one side with completeness and attention to details on the other.

As I mentioned in part 1, most players seem to be completely unaware of their embouchure motion. They unconsciously make it work and many brass musicians play great without ever needing to consider it (click here to see one example I recorded on video). However, many players can develop a reversal in their embouchure motion form and function that hinders their playing. Sometimes this issue isn’t apparent for a long time afterwards and by the point where it begins causing trouble, the issue is harder to correct. Even for players who are doing things pretty correctly in an unconscious way might find minor tweaks to offer good long term results.

There are many out there who are no doubt already thinking that all this will lead to “paralysis by analysis.” Before I go any further I think I should address some valid concerns some people bring up. I would agree with some that it’s much easier (and faster, at least in the short term) to teach brass students by teaching good breathing and to play by sound, not by analyzing their embouchure. I’m not suggesting that we forget this approach, just take advantage of information that helps put everything into the situational context. Also, you don’t need to explain every minute detail to your student unless you find the student is interested or might be able to benefit from understanding. Knowledge is not a bad thing, but if you’re worried about the student thinking about the wrong thing while playing then the issue is one of focus, not the fault of the information or evidence that it’s wrong. The time and place to analyze the embouchure and work on corrections is in the teaching studio and practice room. There’s also other things that need to be taught and practiced too, so just spend whatever amount of time you find is helpful, explain in as much detail as you feel is best, and move on to other materials when it’s time.

Developing a practice routine to work on a student’s embouchure motion is, like the student’s embouchure motion itself, going to be unique to the student. There’s a balance I try to strike between giving someone specific enough instructions to fully understand how to practice this and being vague enough to allow them to find what works for them. I generally try to give them instructions that they should “ascend by pulling down and slightly to the left/descend by pushing up and slightly to the right” or some similar sounding language specific to how I think their embouchure motion should function.

Two general types of exercises that most brass players are familiar with are good for practicing the embouchure motion – slip slurs and lip flexibility exercises based on the overtone series. Donald Reinhardt had a specific set he called the “Pivot Stabilizer” and “Track Routine” that are good starting points to describe the basic idea.

Again, Reinhardt used the term “pivot” to refer to this phenomenon of brass players pushing their mouthpiece and lips together along the teeth to change registers, not to refer to tilting the horn around. Most brass players use the term “pivot” differently, so I prefer to use Doug Elliott’s term, “embouchure motion,” instead. Reinhardt’s “[Embouchure Motion] Stabilizer” exercise was essentially a series of lip slurs where the player would start on a middle register note, slur down to a low register note, and then slur up to increasingly higher notes. I prefer to use octave slurs instead for a number of reasons. I first learned about this approach when interviewing Doug for my dissertation. He said:

What specific exercises do you suggest for various embouchure types to speed along corrections?

I suggest octave slurs, because it’s enough distance that you can see and feel the motion, if you watch in a mirror.  It’s also a reference point, every octave should be the same amount of motion regardless of what octave it is.  For example, almost all trombone players move way too far between middle B flat and low B flat.  If you try playing middle B flat to low B flat and look in the mirror you see this huge motion.  And every other octave in the horn you don’t move that far.   Well, it will all work a lot better if you made it the same distance.   Close that up and open it up somewhere else.

So it’s not an incremental thing where the higher you ascend the amount of the motion gets smaller?

I would say that’s the way most people actually play but I don’t think that’s desirable.  I think it needs to be the same amount of motion for each octave.  Or close to it.

The other exercise Reinhardt commonly used was his “Track Routine.” Brass players are already familiar with the lip flexibility exercises that move along different partials with the same fingering or slide position and the basic notes of the “Track Routine” are similar. What was different was how he wanted students to practice them. First, he advised his students to tongue them first and then on the same breath slur them on the repeat. He felt that this would make for an inherently more stable embouchure formation from the get go, since slurring them first would allow students to have their embouchure a little too flabby. He also wanted his students to play these exercises while paying close attention to the line their embouchure motion takes while keeping any changes in horn angle to an extreme minimum. Much like with the octave slurs, by carefully watching yourself play these in a mirror (and also by concentrating on the playing sensation) you can use this exercise to make the most embouchure motion consistent and unconscious.

There are some common issues students run into with their embouchure motion form. The one Doug mentioned in the quote above, using too much motion at a particular point in your range, is one I am quite familiar with.  I spent years working on correcting this and still have a tendency to resort to it from time to time. Here’s some video footage from several years ago where the problem is quite noticeable.

In my particular case, I carefully worked octave slurs ascending from middle Bb to high Bb and watched myself in a mirror to see how much motion I was making and how the track of the ascending slur was off to one side. Then I practiced descending from middle Bb to low Bb and tried to make it work the same, just in the opposite direction. It was hard to do this without resorting to dropping my jaw too much, but over time I’ve developed more consistency down there overall. I’m also pleased that I was able to make corrections to this before it could cause problems down the road. It’s not good to allow such reversals to become too ingrained, the problems they can cause sometimes happens in other registers where the shift isn’t happening.

Here’s an example of a trumpet player I worked with who was having difficulties with his upper register. While testing his embouchure motion I noticed that at a particular spot in his upper range he unconsciously reversed the direction of his embouchure motion, instead of continuing to push up to ascend he began to pull down there. After a bit of experimenting both in that range and finding out what works everywhere else in his range I had enough information to suggest he try continuing to push up to ascend at that point and fight the urge to pull down.

That particular case ended up being a fairly easy one for me to spot and help. Quite often I work with students who it’s much more difficult to tell how their embouchure motion should be working. Their embouchure motion may bob around on their face and be so inconsistent that it’s hard to tell what they should be doing. In these cases I think it’s fine to say, “I don’t know yet, but let’s work on these other issues first and see what happens.” It’s better to stabilize their embouchure first and see what happens. Here’s an example of one of these situations where I wasn’t too sure by the end of the session. With this particular example I’m not willing to fully commit to which direction his embouchure motion should move, but you can see and hear my thought process at the time. I’ve lost touch with this player, so I’m not sure what happened or if he is even still playing. With similar players I’ve worked the student’s best embouchure motion usually becomes more apparent over time if there are other issues that should be corrected first (i.e, this player needed more overall embouchure firmness first, then perhaps his embouchure motion would become clearer).

Another issue you’ll come across when checking out student’s embouchure motions is that sometimes they will continue moving in the same general direction, but hook off at a slightly different angle at a particular point in their register. Unfortunately I didn’t catch this happening at the time from the front view on video, but here is one example of this and the results he got from making his embouchure motion move in a straight line.

Obviously this is just scratching the surface of a complex topic, yet it’s one that gets very little attention in most methods and texts. In my opinion, gaining a better understanding of how it works is not just helpful for teachers, but also players as well. Placed in context of the big picture an instructor sees it serves as a useful tool for helping a student realize his or her musical goals.

Before concluding this series, I do want to pose some questions. What exactly is it that the embouchure motion is doing to help a brass musician play in a particular register? “Very high placement” type players and “low placement” type players might be considered upside down versions of each other, so from a mechanical standpoint, might they be essentially doing the same thing, just in the opposite direction/lip/etc.? The “medium high placement” type player is downstream, like the “very high placement” player, yet uses the same embouchure motion as the “low placement” upstream player. Why? What is it about this particular embouchure type would make it function in this way?

Post your musings in the comments.