Jim Chesebrough Sabbatical Project – 50 Lessons

Dr. Jim Chesebrough, who teaches at Keene State College, has a sabbatical project going on now where he’s traveling across the U.S. and taking lessons from a variety of different brass teachers. He’s video recording each lesson and then leaving some thoughts up about them on his web site here. It’s a very cool project and sounds like a great way to not only revitalize your own playing but also learn some new approaches and pick up some new teaching tricks.

I learned about Jim’s project when he contacted me asking if he could take a lesson from me as part of it. I’m very honored to be considered, since there is some very august company in his list of teachers. Jim was interested in picking my brain about embouchure with me, so we spent pretty much the entire lesson going over that. It’s not something I always focus on, but it may be one area where the information I can offer is different from what he might get from other teachers.

That said, I know he’s planning on grabbing some lessons with a couple of brass teachers that I’ve learned a lot from, Dave Sheetz and Doug Elliott. It will be interesting to hear what Jim learns from those guys and compare it to what I thought. In our lesson we ended up discussing some comparisons and contrasts of what Donald Reinhardt taught, for example, and some other more traditional approaches to teaching brass technique. Both Dave and Doug studied extensively with Reinhardt.

Check out Jim’s web site from time to time. As he adds new lesson notes and videos I’m sure there will some great stuff up there.

Jon Faddis’ 1977 and 2013 Embouchure Comparison (and “guess the embouchure type”)

Check out the following video of Jon Faddis performing in 1977, when he would have been only about 24 years old. It’s amazing trumpet playing, but take a close look at his embouchure formation and see what you would think if you didn’t hear the sound.

We get to see Faddis taking a breath up close a couple of times and you can see how much he pulls his lips off the mouthpiece and has to reform after every initial attack. His mouth corners don’t look all that symmetrical, which may not necessarily be a bad thing, but his upper lip looks like it’s a little loose on his left side.

It’s always interesting to see such great playing, even when you can spot things that are “wrong” with it. Of course it’s hard to argue with playing like in the above video.

Now compare that to this video from 36 year later, in 2013.

In this video you don’t see so much of Faddis pulling his lips off the mouthpiece when he takes a breath in. Instead, his lips stay in place on the rim and he breathes in through his mouth corners. His corners look more symmetrical to me in this video. There’s overall less excessive moving going around with his embouchure in this more recent video. Everything looks more stable overall. At least this is how it looks to me.

I find the idea of being able to view great brass players’ embouchures early on in their careers and compare their playing later on to be an interesting avenue to explore. How do players in their early career compare to years later? Do players with more longevity tend to have certain embouchure characteristics or develop those features as they continue to play?

And while I’ve mentioned Faddis in some other posts here concerning his embouchure type, I don’t think I’ve actually done a “Guess the Embouchure Type” with him. After watching the above videos, what’s your guess? Mine after the break.

Continue reading Jon Faddis’ 1977 and 2013 Embouchure Comparison (and “guess the embouchure type”)

Embouchure Change Questions: Overbite, Mouthpiece Placement, and High Range

Here’s another embouchure question from my pile, sent by Khai from Malaysia. As always, keep in mind that I’m going to have to speak somewhat generally and make some educated guesses, particularly since I haven’t watched Khai play.

Hi, I’ve been playing the trombone for about 3 years in my high school band. But a year ago, a senior told me that I am using a wrong embouchure, when I hit a high F (which would be my highest “comfortable” note) I would have a pretty extreme upper lip overbite which would more or less completely cover the pink flesh bits of my lower lip and my tone would sound really thin and airy. I have worked on changing it for a while by evening out my lips for a 50-50 or 60-40 ratio, well its pretty underdeveloped but its easier to go for higher notes even though there’s no good sound quality in it, and if I play softly the tone is alright but as soon as I try to go above a middle F in forte the tone gets weak and I run out of air really fast, I don’t feel like my lips are really vibrating and like I’m only using air to play the notes. So here are my questions. Do I need to change my embouchure? How do I change my embouchure? And how do I increase my lip vibration when I get to higher ranges? Do you have any tips that could help me with my embouchure change if I need to? I will really appreciate any tips or advice you can give, thanks.

I assume that by “high F” you mean the F a couple of ledger lines and a space just above the bass clef staff, and not the F above that. If you’re talking about the F above “high B flat,” then that would be high enough that my guess is that your embouchure is working fine up there and you should play your whole range with that setting. If this is the first F above the bass clef staff, then the same might apply, in spite of what a senior told you. Then again, maybe you would do well to make an embouchure correction for your entire range. Without being able to watch you play, preferably in person, it’s really impossible to say for certain.

You mention an overbite, by which I’m assuming that your lower jaw is naturally receded. Again, without being able to watch you play, I can only offer some possibilities. One thought is that you should bring your jaw forward some, possibly even as much so that your teeth are aligned. That said, some players do better with a receded jaw position and perhaps you are one of them. You might be able to benefit from Donald Reinhardt’s “jaw retention drill,” which is an away-from-the-instrument exercise. Follow that link to check out what this exercise is and try it out a bit daily for the next few weeks. If your jaw needs to come forward more to play this exercise can help you get more comfortable with this position.

You mention mouthpiece placement, but it’s not really clear to me where you’re placing the mouthpiece normally and what works best for your upper register. I would avoid trying to place the mouthpiece so that you’ve got a 50/50 ratio. Some brass musicians do play well on what might look from the outside like a half and half placement, but one lip or another must predominate inside the cup and the majority of players should place the mouthpiece so that there’s clearly more than one lip inside. Check out this link here for a little more about mouthpiece placement and air stream direction. You might benefit from trying to place the mouthpiece in both the upstream and downstream positions and see if you can find a “sweet spot” where the upper register becomes easier to play. While you’re at it, experiment a bit with placing off to one side or another too. Many great players have off-center placements, some very much so. Don’t worry too much about a big, rich tone at first, just see if you can find a placement that allows you to play high. It’s often easier to open up the sound after you find an embouchure that works for you rather than to try to go for sound first and then build range.

Ideally, all this sort of experimentation (and some others that are too difficult to describe just now) would be done in a private lesson or two. It’s quite difficult to do this stuff, even if you have some experience working with brass embouchures, let alone on your own. Whether or not you should change your embouchure depends on whether or not there are issues that are being caused by an incorrect embouchure type for your face or whether it’s due to you having other incorrect playing mechanics that are making your current embouchure work less than ideal. Often times the answer is a little bit of both.

My last piece of advice for you is to try to build some embouchure strength and control with a little bit of daily free buzzing. Follow this link to watch a video describing a simple exercise I recommend and read up a bit more about it. After a couple of weeks or so practicing this exercise it may become more apparent whether or not an embouchure change will be necessary for you or if you just need to make corrections in how you’re currently playing. Again, without being able to watch you play, that’s the best I can do.

Good luck!

Embouchure Consultations: How To Ask For and Get My Help

As I’m trying to get caught up on some of the brass embouchure questions I’ve been emailed I thought it would be helpful to put together a single resource about how to ask for, and get, my help. Too often folks will contact me for help and I simply have to reply that I’d have to watch them play (preferably in person) to offer any advice. That said, there are some things that people can do that will help me get an idea of what’s going on so that at the very least I can speak generally, if not more specifically.

1. I have to see it.

Unlike some other folks’ approaches that either have a one-size-fits-all approach or even dismisses embouchure issues as related to breathing or use of the tongue, I really need to watch you play in order to understand what’s going on. Every individual has a different face, so every player has a different embouchure. Although there are certain patterns that you can learn to recognize, even players that have a similar embouchure type will have unique issues that can make what they need to work on different. There’s no way around this point, I have to be able to watch you play.

I don’t teach video lessons, and I’m skeptical of anyone who does. Having taken some long distance lessons myself as well as met with folks informally via Skype to try to help out with embouchure issues many times before, I know how incredibly difficult it is doing a video conference in place of an in person lesson. However, I suppose it’s better than nothing in circumstances where a knowledgable teacher isn’t available for some reason or another. Unfortunately, my schedule is usually busy enough that I really can’t afford to take a couple of hours out of my time to meet with players via a video conference, particularly since I refuse to take any money for this.

A temporary compromise is for you to video tape your embouchure for me playing some things and let me take a look. Sometimes I can spot right away what a player is doing and give very particular advice, so it’s worth taking 30 or 60 minutes to video tape your embouchure and let me get a closer look.

First of all, if you’re having a particular issue (trouble with range, a double buzz, difficulty holding a steady pitch, etc.) I need to see what it looks like when that happens. This may seem like a no brainer, but I’ve lost count of how many times someone has gotten in touch with me about problems with their upper register only to send me video footage of them playing in the middle and low register only. In order to correct problems we need to diagnose what’s going on when things work wrong, so please try to video tape it.

Somewhat counter-intuitively, problems in one register can sometimes be caused not by how you’re playing in that register but by something you’re doing in a different register. Additionally, there are sometimes other issues that I would consider a priority before any sort of correction to your specific problem can be addressed. I also need to see how you’re playing over your entire playable range. Octave slurs are a great thing for this because it also gives me a very clear look at not just how you’re playing a pitch, but also how you’re changing pitches. Here is a basic set of octave slurs that should help give an idea what I like to observe.

Octave Slurs

The specific pitches are less important than getting slurs that span over your entire range.

Take video that is close up enough that all that is mostly visible is the overall embouchure area, including the chin, mouth corners, cheeks, etc. Take a look at some of the embouchure videos I’ve created and you’ll get a good idea of the angles and how close I’d like it to be. Also please try to get views from both the front and sides (although with trombonists it can be hard to get a view of the left side because the horn gets in the way, that’s fine).

Rather than emailing the video file to me directly, post it someplace so I can download it when I’m ready to take a look at it. Large files as email attachments are sometimes inconvenient if I have to wait for them to download while I’m trying to take care of other business online.

Sure, if you have some general questions or just can’t get video posted for me to watch, feel free to contact me anyway. Just don’t be surprised if my response is, “I have to see it.”

2. Describe your specific questions in some detail.

Are there certain situations that make your issues more problematic? Did you notice these issues after a particularly demanding playing schedule or change of equipment? What does it feel like? Give this some careful consideration and give me as many clues as you can think of. Sometimes these things are irrelevant, but at other times they can help me come up with an idea that I won’t get from watching your video alone.

3. Be patient and polite.

I tend to stay pretty busy with teaching, performing, composing/arranging, conducting, blogging, social obligations, etc. As much as I’d like to help everyone out as quickly as possible, please also keep in mind that I do this stuff for a living. Because I don’t feel that this sort of consultation is worth charging you money for, you’ll need to wait for me to have enough time to give your questions the attention it deserves. Believe it or not, it can take quite a while to look through your questions and video and compile my best response.

If you don’t hear back from me in a couple of weeks or so, please feel free to drop me another line and update me on your issues. Like many of us, sometimes my email inbox piles up or I accidentally delete your message or otherwise forget. A polite reminder is helpful for me.

I hesitate a bit to bring this next point up, but I do get bothered by how often I spend a couple of hours or more going through video and putting together what I hope are thoughtful and helpful recommendations only to never get a thank you back. A quick reply to acknowledge you got my message goes a long way to me. If my suggestions don’t make sense or aren’t helping, let me know and I’ll see what I can figure out. No response at all, however, makes me less inclined to help you (and other folks) out in the future.

4. Don’t expect too much.

The way I teach really doesn’t lend itself to long-distance consultation. If your situation is interesting enough to me I will sometimes try to arrange a video conference to help you out, but even this is really a less than ideal way to diagnose and troubleshoot embouchure issues. There have been times where I have been able to help players, but there have also been times where I just couldn’t figure out what was going on. On a couple of occasions I’ve tried to help someone online and though I had come up with some good suggestions only to meet with the player in person and changed my mind. More frequently I’ve offered suggestions that the player didn’t fully grasp online and when we met in person I was able to get them pointed in the right direction. Online correspondence is just not conducive for this sort of teaching.

Maybe I can help you. Sometimes I can’t. Be prepared for the possibility that what I recommend isn’t going to work for you.

5. Please don’t contact me via YouTube.

If you’re reading this you’ve already discovered my blog. Many brass players will see my videos posted on YouTube and either ask questions in the comments there or via a YouTube message. While I usually see those (eventually) and try to get around to replying to them, YouTubes comments form and message features are really inconvenient enough for me that I’m likely to not get around to responding to you. The best two ways to get my attention are to either contact me here or leave your question in the comments section on a relevant blog post here.

Don’t let all the above discourage you. Brass embouchures happens to be a topic that I am passionately fascinated about and it’s really quite easy to get me to virtually talk your ear off about it. Simply dropping me a line or leaving a comment on a post here about your questions is usually enough to get me interested and I’ll do my best to give you all the help I can (eventually).

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.

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.