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.

Embouchure Motion Pedagogy – Part 1, Finding a Student’s Embouchure Motion

Many players, maybe most, are completely unaware of their embouchure motion, in spite of it being a very important part of embouchure form. Of course there are some players who do what works for their anatomy without ever needing to worry about it, but other players can unconsciously develop a way of playing that is contrary to their embouchure motion in the rest of their range. Some players may have an embouchure motion that jumps all over the place and it’s not obvious where it should be from watching them play. Some players have an embouchure motion that is very small and hard to observe. Since everyone is different, this topic quickly becomes so complex many teachers feel it’s best to ignore this and let the body figure itself out. This two part series will discuss my current thoughts on this topic, starting with talking about some strategies teachers can use to find a student’s correct embouchure motion. On Monday I’ll go over some common issues that students have with their embouchure motion and some ideas on how to approach practicing and teaching an efficient embouchure motion.

Before I go any further let me offer a “caviet emptor.” This is a difficult concept to discuss and it’s easy to be misinterpreted. Going into the level of detail I feel that does this topic justice and is complete enough to avoid misunderstandings assumes that the reader is patient enough to read the whole article and focused enough to not skim important points. Not to mention that in the process of writing sometimes things get mixed up or maybe I’m just plain wrong about something. As always, I encourage you to be skeptical of this information until you’ve confirmed it for yourself.

If you want a more detailed refresher about what I mean by “embouchure motion” follow that link, but the quick refresher is that I’m referring mainly to the way that brass players will slide the mouthpiece and lips together so that they are pushed up towards the nose and pulled down towards their chin along the teeth and gums. This aids the player in increasing or decreasing the lip vibrations. Some players push up to ascend while others pull down. In conjunction with this, there are also subtle changes in jaw position and horn angle that will go on as well. While everyone has differences in how this will work best, this is an important part of a brass player’s embouchure form.

Because all players will have a different embouchure motion determining a student’s embouchure motion can be tricky. I personally prefer to approach it in two stages where in addition to experimenting with what seems to be working, I also eliminate other possibilities to see what doesn’t work. “Trial and error” is one way to describe this, but I prefer to think of it as the scientific method – you don’t prove something by looking for evidence that supports your thought, you test what you believe by trying to prove it wrong.

The first stage I go through is trying to work out the player’s general embouchure motion direction (pushing up to the nose or pulling down towards the chin to ascend). Donald Reinhardt wrote about one method of determining the direction of a player’s embouchure motion. I’ll quote him here, but keep in mind that the definition of how he uses the word “pivot” is exactly the same thing as I’m using “embouchure motion” for. Do not confuse Reinhardt’s use of “pivot” for tilting the horn, that is not what he meant by it.

A fairly reliable, although not completely infallible, PIVOT TEST or method of selecting the correct PIVOT for a particular physical type is as follows:

1. Play a sustained half note, moderately loud, on the trumpet. . . middle C . . . and slur up to the G or to the high C. . . Practice this ascending slur at least six times and push up. . . Strive to locate the core or center of each sound with the PIVOT mentioned and be concerned by the amount of effort utilized and the particular type of tonal timbre.

2. Repeat the entire procedure in an identical manner but this time pull down while ascending (not referring to the instrument angular motion). . . Again strive to produce the centers of all pitches involved and pay particular attention to the effort and sound factors.

Generally speaking, one of the two PIVOT CLASSIFICATIONS (interjecting here, Reinhardt is talking about the embouchure motion, not tilting the horn) will offer much greater freedom of embouchure response than the other; this is the correct ascending PIVOT to select.

Donald S. Reinhardt, Encyclopedia of the Pivot System, pp. 200-201

I’ve cut out some info from the above quote for the sake of describing the method first, but I do want to mention the recommended pitches to start on with the other brass instruments. Reinhardt recommended trumpets on middle C (written C5), trombones/baritones/euphoniums on middle Bb (Bb3), horns on C below the treble clef staff (written C4), and BBb tuba low Bb (3rd ledger below bass cleff staff, Bb1).

As Reinhardt mentioned, this method isn’t always perfect. Sometimes players will change the direction of their embouchure motion at a particular point in their range. I will usually also do the same test, but have players slur from their starting pitch down large intervals. What I think should work to slur up an octave from their starting pitch should work exactly in the opposite direction to slur down. The incorrect embouchure motion direction should also similarly show you what doesn’t work.

embouchure_motionOnce I have worked out the general direction of a student’s embouchure motion I try to then work out how this particular student’s individual differences are going to change the details of how their embouchure motion will work best. Not everyone has an embouchure motion “track” that is straight up and down. Many players have a “track” that is angled to one side. Notice in my hypothetical example here that even though the imaginary track that the embouchure motion is going is generally up and down, it’s slightly angled so that the ascending motion is up and to the right of the diagram, and descending is down and to the left. The key point is that it’s functioning in a straight line, just angled to the side.

So at this stage I repeat Reinhardt’s “embouchure motion test” while asking the student to try angling their ascending embouchure motion to various degrees and on both sides. Listening for timbre and intonation I want to find the extreme ends on how this student can play with an embouchure motion to not just find what seems to be working, but again eliminating other possible ways before settling in. Then repeat for a descending slur. Again, what works to ascend should be the exact opposite to descend.

Recently Rich Hanks posted about this on the Reinhardt Forum at the Trumpet Herald. Again, please remember that he is using Reinhardt’s definition of “pivot,” which is defined as the pushing and pulling of the mouthpiece and lips up and down along the teeth, not horn angle.

In general, there will be a direction where the pitch goes sharp and a direction where the pitch goes flat. Often, you can even get that on one note. While trying to hold a pitch steady for a long tone, for example, you can experiment with moving the horn up/down and left/right. Hopefully, you will notice patterns on that one note. Then see if that works the same over intervals.

By moving the horn angle around while the player is sustaining a single note you might notice certain intonation or timbre changes. For example, if the student’s pitch goes sharp when you move the horn angle towards the right, then this player might want to incorporate this angle change when ascending and move towards the left to descend. With some students I may recommend they not worry about their horn angle for a while, depending on how they already play and what sort of things we decide should be priorities. However, while doing a little of this experimenting I will also sometimes make their embouchure motion for them while they’re trying to sustain a single pitch. If I push a student’s mouthpiece and lips together up towards the nose and the pitch drops, then this helps provide additional support that this student’s general embouchure motion should be down to ascend. Sometimes you can even make a student slur a partial up or down this way. Here’s a video that shows me experimenting with one student this way.

Gradually, through this combination of experimentation, a pattern will hopefully emerge that all points towards a specific embouchure motion that works best for a particular student. Sometimes it takes weeks to work out the kinks, but other times it will be obvious pretty quickly.

Many students will  frequently react to having their horn angle or embouchure motion moved for them by adjusting their head to follow. They are used to playing a certain way and want it to feel that way, whether or not it’s correct. Especially if you’re trying to find the extreme edges where certain things can work it’s hard for the student to fight that urge. This sort of experimentation requires the student be comfortable with things not working, since what you’re experimenting with gives you clues as to how to make it work. I should also mention that it can be very demanding on the chops to do this sort of experimentation, and I find it’s useful to allow for lots of short breaks. These are good times to discuss what you’re looking and listening for and what you notice, or to answer any questions the student might have.

In part 2 (to be posted Monday) I’ll go over some common issues students have with their embouchure motions and some thoughts on how to correct them as efficiently as possible so that more time can be spent on making music over developing chops.

If you’re a teacher who considers the embouchure motion as important to learn about, how do you determine your students’ most efficient ones? If you’re a student who had your embouchure motion typed by a teacher, what sort of things did he or she check for that are different from my thoughts above? Got questions on how to interpret something you notice while experimenting? Leave your comments below.

Air Pockets and Guess the Embouchure Type – Frank Rosolino

Recently I came across an idea that trombonist Frank Rosolino played with air pockets under his upper lip. David emailed me to ask about this and mentioned that the guy he heard it from sat in on a gig with Rosolino and noticed it. Then last week while traveling to a gig with trombonist Joey Lee, he mentioned the same thing. Joey told me the fellow he heard it from speculated that the air pockets under Rosolino’s upper lip were responsible for him occasionally “airing out” when going for high notes.

I’m generally skeptical about claims like this unless I read it from a primary source, but it is possible that Rosolino did play with air pockets under his upper lip. I’ve blogged about this technique before, but in the context of trumpeter Tim Morrison. In this particular case there is an interview I found where Morrison discusses how and why he plays this way.

I was curious to compare what Morrison’s upper lip looked like (as someone who is known to play with air pockets under his upper lip) with Rosolino’s while playing, so I went back and watched some video of Morrison playing and then compared it to this video footage of Frank Rosolino. If you skip ahead to 1:53 you can jump right to a pretty good close shot of Rosolino playing for a bit. Then skip ahead to 2:35 and get a look from the front. See if you can tell if there are air pockets there or not. While your at it, see if you can guess his embouchure type. My guess below, followed by more discussion on playing with air pockets.

With his big mustache and shadows created by the studio lighting Continue reading Air Pockets and Guess the Embouchure Type – Frank Rosolino

Guess the Embouchure Type – Phil Wilson

Max sent me a link to this YouTube video of the great Phil Wilson soloing on Lonesome Old Town with the Woody Herman Orchestra. Not only is it a great sample of Wilson’s phenomenal playing, you also get a couple of good looks at Wilson’s chops. Enough to play “guess the embouchure type.” Take a good look  and see if you can tell which embouchure type Phil Wilson has. The best view of his embouchure starts at about 2:26, but you really need to at least start at the beginning of the solo at around 1:57 so you can hear Wilson show off his high chops a bit. My guess after the break.

Continue reading Guess the Embouchure Type – Phil Wilson

Thoughts On Mouthpiece Buzzing

Mouthpiece 2Buzzing exercises and phrases on the mouthpiece alone is a very common tool and most brass teachers advocate it. I’ve used it myself for a long time both in my teaching and my own practice, but I’ve been relying on it less and less over the years. Influenced in a large part by the ideas of Donald Reinhardt, as taught to me mainly through Doug Elliott, I’ve pretty much eliminated its use in my own practice and tend to avoid recommending it to students in most cases now. That said, this viewpoint is in the minority and there are some situations where I sometimes find myself having a student buzz on the mouthpiece for a quick correction or boost in confidence.

While different teachers will instruct mouthpiece buzzing differently, I think it’s useful to think a bit about what it seems to be doing for a brass musician’s playing, what are the benefits and what are the potential drawbacks to its practice. In working out some of these pros and cons it may be possible to avoid some of the issues that it may cause or find alternative exercises, depending on whether you choose to mouthpiece buzz or not.

One of my teachers, John Seidel, taught me to use mouthpiece buzzing in a way where he would have me play a legato phrase or three, such as on a Rochut etude, buzz the passage on the mouthpiece (using no tongue except for initial attacks right after a breath), and then immediately pop the mouthpiece back on the instrument and play the same phrases again. Almost always I would get a feeling of relaxed playing and the tone would sound more focused and resonant. After playing a bit the improvement tended to disappear and I’d want to mouthpiece buzz again to recapture the sensation. I’ve used this same exercise with many students over the years and found that most players get similar results to this. Some of the key points in this exercise seem to be that you must buzz without using the tongue except for initial attacks after the breaths and you must play on the instrument immediately after buzzing on the mouthpiece.

What causes this noticeable difference and why does it seem to disappear for many players after playing a bit? I recall John saying that over the years he found little difference after mouthpiece buzzing because he felt that the habits that mouthpiece buzzing encouraged were already established in his regular playing. What are those habits?

I believe that mouthpiece buzzing encourages a player’s ear, embouchure, and breathing to all work together in order to buzz accurately on pitch. Mouthpiece buzzing is simply different from playing the instrument. If it were very similar then there would really be no point in practicing it as you might as well be playing your instrument. One of the differences is that you must focus your embouchure at the specific pitch you’re buzzing, while playing your instrument you can be a little off with the lip compression and let the overtone series slot the pitch for you. There’s also less air resistance and so you end up having to use your air more efficiently and take a larger inhalation in order to make longer phrases that would be easier on the instrument. It also requires you to really know the sound of the intervals and “hear” the pitches in your head so you can buzz the correct notes.

On the other hand, what sort of drawbacks are there from buzzing on the mouthpiece? Oddly enough, I think the reason why people find benefits from buzzing (because it’s different from playing the instrument) is also what causes the drawbacks. Getting good at buzzing in the mouthpiece is simply different from playing on the instrument and what works well for buzzing is not necessarily great for consistent playing. Buzzing on the mouthpiece a lot seems to end up with an embouchure formation that is too loose and open in general compared to playing on the instrument. You’re also not training yourself to adjust to the overtone series correctly (keep in mind that a mouthpiece also has an overtone series, it’s just very high and different from the instrument). In particular, there are areas of “turbulence” in buzzing the mouthpiece alone that sometimes players have difficulties getting around and they sometimes resort to contorting their embouchure formation or otherwise doing something they should be doing when playing their instrument.

So over the years I’ve been moving away from practicing and teaching mouthpiece buzzing and instead using other exercises to work the same thing. For practicing good breath control I like to use breathing exercises from the Breathing Gym instead. For working on focusing the embouchure correctly I practice and teaching things using the instrument instead (this can be different for each individual player and is hard to generalize here). Ear training is easily practiced by singing instead of mouthpiece buzzing.

I will say, however, that one area where I still think mouthpiece buzzing has some value over other exercises is when working with beginners. Players who haven’t been playing for very long can benefit from learning how to buzz on the mouthpiece because it helps them work towards a good embouchure and eliminates things like fingerings or slide positions and tonguing so they can concentrate on keeping their mouth corners firm, etc. That said, I think that mouthpiece buzzing can be easily overdone and care should be taken with beginners to not rely on it too much.

What do you think? Do you practice buzzing on the mouthpiece and/or teach students buzzing? Why do you think it’s beneficial or not? What do you do to maximize the results or avoid drawbacks?

Embouchure Reminder by Hans Boschma

Hans Boschma, who created the site on (in Dutch, so you’ll need to rely on translation software to read it if you don’t speak Dutch) emailed me a Prezi presentation for his Embouchure Reminder poster that I’d like to share with you. It’s interesting, although as a non-Dutch speaker I’m guessing that a lot of his ideas are getting lost in translation. In reading through it carefully I’ve found some things that seem to be misleading or maybe factually inaccurate. Take a look through his presentation first and then let me know if you think the below comments to Hans from me are accurate or if maybe I’m misunderstanding his ideas (or maybe I’m just plain wrong). Links in my comments go to other posts in my blog that go into more details about what I’m commenting on specifically if anyone wants to see more about my evidence and/or logic on why I feel a particular way.

1. I’m assuming that the 3rd slide (titled ” Interpretation of Stroboscopy”) refers to the diagrams on the prior slide. If so, you seem to be implying that the position of the mouthpiece on the lips is changed for different registers. I found that the majority of fine brass players do not change the position of the mouthpiece on the lips for different registers and personally prefer to teach my students to keep their placement consistent throughout their entire range.

2. On the first slide titled “B Continuation Normal Embouchure” you wrote, “The lower you play the higher the mouthpiece will shift and reverse.” This again give the erroneous impression that the mouthpiece is shifting to a new position on the lips, whereas what actually happens is that the mouthpiece and lips together will slide along the teeth and gums. The mouthpiece/lips shift to a new position in relation to the teeth and gums. Also, some players will do this in the opposite direction, so some push the mouthpiece and lips together up to ascend while others pull down to ascend. My preferred term for this phenomenon is “embouchure motion.” More on this in a moment.

3. On the same slide you mention using a “pivot.” While your use of this term is consistent with how most other brass players use the word “pivot,” you may want to be aware that the author that coined this term, Donald Reinhardt, defined a pivot as the sliding of the mouthpiece and lips together as a single unit up and down along the teeth and gums. This is why I prefer to use the term “embouchure motion” to describe this, as it is less likely to be confused. Also, you seem to be implying that the angle of the instrument is what determines the air stream direction of the embouchure. This is not accurate. The ratio of upper to lower lip inside the mouthpiece is what causes an embouchure to be upstream or downstream, not horn angle. If a player places the mouthpiece so there is more upper lip inside the cup, the embouchure will be downstream, even if the horn angle is straight out. Likewise, players who place with more lower lip inside have an upstream embouchure, even if the horn angle is tilted down. As far as “straight stream” goes, one lip or another should predominate inside the mouthpiece and the air will be either upstream or downstream. I’ve never observed a player blow straight into the shank without having serious playing issues, although the lower a player plays the closer towards blowing straight the air stream will go.

4. It’s hard to interpret what you say in the second slide titled “B Continuation of Normal Embouchure” without being able to look at the diagrams you seem to be referring to, but I’m confused about a couple of points you mention. First, although you are calling these characteristics “normal” you are also commenting that these normal embouchures are characterized by mouthpieces that are either “too large” or “too small.” You also mention some of these as shifting happens “mostly upwards” or such, but don’t comment on whether this shifting (I assume you’re referring to what I prefer to call the embouchure motion) happens while ascending or descending, which is confusing. In B6 you are calling blowing straight down the shank as normal, which really seems to only be accompanied by players with problems. Again, properly functioning embouchures really appear to either be upstream or downstream, a principle that you can see for yourself if you use a transparent mouthpiece to look at brass embouchures. In B8 you comment on the lip thickness as a determining characteristic of downstream embouchures. In my dissertation research the statistical analysis of lip thickness showed no significant correlation to embouchure type, so I don’t think that this statement can be considered accurate.

5. I’m not certain how to interpret your diagrams of “Embouchure Deviations” and the descriptions you use without more information. For example, you show number 9 of a split tooth and comment that there is some “rustling and hiss” in the sound. There are many fine brass players with significant gaps in their teeth. Two that I can think of off the top of my head are Jon Faddis and Dave Steinmeyer, both who have very focused sounds that I wouldn’t describe as having any hiss in them. I think it’s more important for a player with features like this to learn to work with their tooth structure and it’s definitely possible for players without gaps in their teeth to have some hiss in their sound. It seems to me there must be other factors at work producing this sound, rather than the teeth. You also show one player with an off-center aperture and comment that this results in a “loss of power.” I think if you observe many fine brass players using a transparent mouthpiece you’ll see that off-center apertures are more common than you seem to be implying here and they aren’t really accompanied by a weaker embouchure. Similar to the gapped teeth, many players without an off-center aperture have problems with a loss of power and manny players with an off-center aperture have very strong embouchures. It would appear that these issues are caused by something different, and probably such symptoms are caused by enough different things that it’s not so easy to encapsulate into such a simple cause and effect relationship as you appear to be implying in this presentation.

6. On the first slide titled “D Embouchure Deviations 2” you comment that round teeth arch cause problems. Again, this is not something I’ve ever noticed, but I do agree that your teeth structure are important considerations for building a good embouchure. Much like I commented above, I feel what players who are having issues related to their teeth have to do is work out how to work with those characteristics. This sometimes means placing the mouthpiece very high, very low, an/or off to one side of the lips. Sometimes players without any easily observable anatomical characteristics play better with atypical mouthpiece placements as well, so I’m not certain that there’s a direct cause and effect relationship here either.

7. On your slide entitle “F: Low Tones/Low Play” you mention that the jaw must come forward and the horn tilted up. This is indeed how many players to get into their low register, but I think this is too simplistic in many ways. For example, some players will descend more easily by bringing their horn angle slightly down instead of up. Secondly, I personally don’t advocate doing something in the embouchure, like dropping the jaw and/or bringing it forward to descend, unless it works the opposite way to descend. Many (perhaps most) players will bring their jaw slightly forward to ascend and slightly back to descend. However, at a certain point in their low range (usually extreme low range) they will reverse this by bringing their jaw suddenly forward a great deal. Personally, I think it’s best to avoid this practice as much as possible as this seems to be accompanied by a change in timbre and potentially can cause issues down the road if this practice starts to work it’s way into the middle and upper register. Working with the embouchure motion, jaw position, and horn angle in the middle and upper register can help these players learn how these minute changes work, which then can help them open up the low register without resorting to horn angle and jaw position change you’re advocating here. I should mention, however, that my ideas here are probably not the majority opinion, but I do think the logic that this is based on is sound and have had success helping students learn how to descend in this way.

8. In your next slide you discuss “Non Pivot.” If you define pivot the way Reinhardt did (what I prefer to call the embouchure motion), then all players will pivot to some degree or another. If you’re defining it as a horn angle change, then not all players will tilt their horn to change registers. Of those players who don’t, some will possibly play better if they do learn how to adapt their horn angle according to the register, as long as they learn how to make this work with their anatomy. This is something that is personal to the individual player and hard to generalize or relate to any specific embouchure or physical characteristics.

9. Almost all of your diagrams show a very large mouthpiece over the vermillion (red) of the lips and most seem to be perfectly centered. While a tubist’s embouchure might actually look like this, I’m not certain that this makes for the best or most accurate depiction of how mouthpiece placements work with brass embouchures. It implies that a centered placement is best (not typically true, one lip or another must predominate, sometimes to a large degree). There’s a lot more variation in how brass embouchures work and I’m not convinced that your diagrams make for the best way to present what works and what doesn’t work. While it’s very difficult to capture good photographs and video of players playing into a transparent mouthpiece, in my opinion this is the best way to go and really the only way to accurately document what you will actually see. Drawing diagrams may help present information, but they can also be misleading and I’ve found that many brass authors who rely on drawing diagrams to describe what goes on inside the mouthpiece are frequently wrong and simply imagining what they think should be happening rather than taking the effort to actually look. Philip Farkas is one example, in his book “The Art of Brass Playing” he described air stream direction completely wrong, but then later discovered upstream and downstream embouchures and published these photos in “A Photographic Study of 40 Virtuosi Horn Players’ Embouchures.” Many of your diagrams do match what I’ve observed using transparent mouthpieces, but some do not so I can’t tell how much actual study of functioning embouchures you’ve done to arrive at those depictions.

Criticism aside, there’s a lot in his presentation that I agree with. More importantly, I like that Hans is interested in sharing his information and taking a scientific approach to studying the embouchure, rather than the “arm chair” speculation that passes for embouchure analysis by many brass players and teachers. I think if more people would toss around ideas like this and make it easy for discussion and debate that the field as a whole would move forward more quickly than it tends to.

K.O. Skinsnes Discusses the Buzzing Lips

Here’s an interesting video where mouthpiece manufacturer K.O. Skinsnes of Stormvi describes his understanding of how the lips buzz inside the mouthpiece. Take a look and see if you agree with everything he says.

Getting into the acoustics of brass instruments can be tricky and there is a certain degree of controversy that goes on. A lot of the disagreements can be chalked up to how often brass players rely on what we think we’re doing as opposed to objective observation. But in general, I found Skinsnes basic description to match my current understanding. There are a handful of things I’d like to comment on, however.

Early in the video he mentions some players’ opinion that the lips start open. Personally, I think it’s best to start the blowing with the lips in a closed position (breathing through the mouth corners with the lips inside the mouthpiece just touching), but some players do prefer to begin with the lips open. Where some confusion arises comes from the claims by some players that the lips remain open the whole time. This simply isn’t true, the lips open and close very rapidly during their buzz cycle, although Skinsnes isn’t commenting on this misunderstanding in his discussion, it’s common enough and frequently gets confused in the discussion of how the lips buzz on a brass instrument.

One area where I have some disagreement with Skinsnes is how to describe the muscular contraction that keep the lips more closed. First, notice that he labels this as “clamping” the lips together and “tension in the throat.” I prefer to describe this as “muscular contraction,” as we have a tendency to equate “clamping” and “tension” as bad things that we must avoid. Skinsnes claims that all we need to do is get the lips to buzz, but glosses over how the muscular contraction of the embouchure and breathing combine to change pitch and dynamics. In order to play louder there must be more air blown past the lips and in order to play higher the lips must be drawn back more firmly against the teeth and gums so the cycle of the buzz is faster, in spite of how Skinsnes explaining this.

Skinsnes’s description of the standing wave is spot on, but where I feel he goes wrong is he over-simplifies the role that embouchure strength and control has in playing in the upper register. According to Skinsnes, all that needs to happen is the lip buzz needs to be timed in with the cycle of the standing wave to make playing in the upper register easy. This dismisses the importance of focusing your muscular effort in the correct way in order to time your buzz efficiently. When a player has good embouchure strength and control it feels easy, just as a weight lifter who has built up upper body strength will find bench pressing 150 pounds to feel easy compared to someone who is out of shape. I don’t mean to completely dismiss the role that timing in the buzz has, but I feel Skinsnes misses the importance of good embouchure strength and form in coordinating the timing.

Just to offer another contrasting description, check out what Lloyd Leno has to say in his film, Lip Vibration of Trombone Embouchures on the topic of controlling the lip buzz for the upper register. Skip to about 4:37 into the video for the relevant quote.

Notice that as the pitch ascends the horizontal width of the aperture narrows. But also notice that at the same time the lips are turned in and brought closer to the teeth so that the amount of lip vertically decreases. We all know that a small mass can be made to vibrate rapidly more easily than a large mass. When players realize how to control this mass they can develop their upper range more easily.

Skinsnes and Leno describe the function of the lip buzz a bit differently here. Where Skinsnes feels that the upper register is played best through simple timing the opening and closing aperture with the reflection of the standing wave, Leno notes that this timing is made by the playing positioning the lips in such a way that the amount of mass and shape of the lip that vibrates.

There’s more I can write on the perceived dichotomy between muscular effort and relaxed coordination to play loudly or in the upper register, but that will have to wait for later. Until then, let me know what you think. Do you feel that playing in the upper register is primarily a matter of strength building, coordination, or some combination of both? If the later, how much do you feel is strength and how much is coordination?

Jaw Position/Horn Angle Changes and Guess the Embouchure Type – Allen Vizzutti

A recent topic on the Trumpet Herald Forum reminded me of the below video of Allen Vizzutti playing some extremely impressive double tongued octaves. Check it out.

What I wanted to comment on here is Vizzutti’s noticeable horn angle changes as he changes octaves. You can clearly see that as he ascends he brings the bell of his horn down slightly and to his left and does the reverse to descend. It seems like a lot of motion, but considering the overall range he’s playing it’s really not all that much change. This change isn’t quite so noticeable when he’s playing music that doesn’t have such large interval leaps. In the below video you can see some good shots of him not only playing large interval changes but also playing phrases where his horn angle changes aren’t that noticeable.

It’s worth noting here that the specific angle changes Vizzutti is making here aren’t going to be the same for all players. Many players, myself included, find that bringing your jaw slightly forward and angle slightly up works best to ascend. Some players may find the general direction of the horn angle change to be more or less straight up and down while many players will find some angular deviation, like Vizzutti’s. The important part here is that it moves pretty much in a straight line and more or less the same amount between octaves. What works for one player isn’t going to be the same for another, and what works for a single individual can also change over time as the player develops.

I’d also like to point out that while many (perhaps most) brass players look at these horn angle changes and call this a “pivot,” this is not what Donald Reinhardt, who coined the term, meant by it. Reinhardt used this term to refer to the way that players will slide the mouthpiece and lips together as a single unit up and down along the teeth and gums to change registers. I prefer to use Doug Elliott’s term “embouchure motion” instead, because it’s less likely to be confused. Two players with the same direction of embouchure motion may end up making the opposite changes in horn angle. It can be very personal to the player and isn’t an easy thing to generalize.

You can get a very clear look at Vizzutti’s chops in these videos, enough to take a guess at his embouchure type. I’ll put my guess after the break. Continue reading Jaw Position/Horn Angle Changes and Guess the Embouchure Type – Allen Vizzutti