An Examination of the Anatomical and Technical Arguments Against Placing the Mouthpiece on the Vermillion

While placing the mouthpiece on the vermillion of the lips is commonly described by brass teachers as inherently damaging to the player’s lips or limiting to the player’s technique, the rational for these arguments lacks sufficient evidence to support this opinion. A review of the medical research found no specific evidence supporting the contention that the vermillion is incapable of withstanding the mouthpiece pressure applied by typical brass playing and found some evidence to the contrary. The music literature related to embouchure technique shows some support for the argument that rim contact on the upper lip will limit the vibrations of the top lip, however this position fails to take into account the differences between upstream and downstream brass embouchure technique.

To determine if an aural effect caused by mouthpiece placement on the vermillion could be noted a survey was conducted asking participants to listen to short sound clips of six professional trumpet players and guess whether the player placed the mouthpiece with significant rim contact on the vermillion. The 98 participants scored an average accuracy rate of 51.9%, suggesting that there is no noticeable aural difference between placing the mouthpiece on the vermillion or not.

It was noted that the lack of sufficient collaboration between the medical and musical fields has hindered research in the area of injuries and other medical issues caused by brass playing. Medical experts typically have an insufficient background in brass technique to understand how improper playing mechanics may contribute to injuries. Musical experts frequently make incorrect statements regarding the anatomy of the lips and often demonstrate limited understanding of how anatomical features affect individual player’s embouchure form and function.

Here is the full paper.

Herbert Clarke Noticing Upstream Cornet Player

A discussion about my Playing in the Red Blindfold Test over on the Trumpet Herald Forum brought up Herbert Clarke. Looking through my copy of his Technical Studies I didn’t find any specific recommendations about mouthpiece placement, so I decided to poke around online and see if there was any advice attributed to Clarke about mouthpiece placement. While I wasn’t able to find anything specific, I did find something interesting that apparently was written in Clarke’s Series of Autobiographical Sketches. Clarke tells the story of how he went to a concert and heard a very fine cornet player solo.

The number, an extremely difficult cornet solo which demanded great endurance in playing was the Excelsior Polka by Frewin (I later purchased a copy for cornet and piano). At the ending of the solo the young player was given an ovation of tumultuous applause, in which I joined vigorously. The cornetist again arose, but this time stepped to the front of the platform, and to my wonderment played the entire solo through for the second time without seeming tired or making a slip. The remarkable thing about his performance was that he played so easily, gracefully; apparently with unconcern, and without any facial muscular contortions or movements. His face did not become purple, distorted, or show any signs of strain. I always had made such hard work in playing even a simple little polka which did not reach G on the first space above, that to watch him play with such perfect ease a number which seemed filled with top “C’s” and then end it on the highest note, actually dumfounded me. It was both a revelation and an inspiration!

After the close of the concert I inquired as to the players identity, and learned that he was a Walter B. Rogers who came from the little town of Delphi, in Indiana, I also found out that he played at the Opera House when the season was done.

Later Clarke had the opportunity to watch Rogers perform up close and he noticed his mouthpiece placement. Clarke tried to imitate Rogers here but found it impossible for him.

After the show was over I walked along to think about it, and finally determined to try to imitate this “wonder”. The next morning after breakfast I took my cornet to my room and commenced to experiment, but the more I blew the harder it became for me. Then I stood before the mirror and tried to adjust the mouthpiece to my lips the same as I had observed Rogers do the night before, placing just a little of it on the upper lip with more on the lower lip and drawing the latter in slightly over the teeth, but not a tone came out of the cornet! I tried it again and again with no better results, and then I did actually get mad. I kept up this experimenting all that day, and the following night bought another front seat ticket for the some show. On this night Rogers played a cornet solo between the acts, not standing up before the audience but remaining seated. The selection was Hartman’s Carnival of Venice, and well, perhaps I did not watch him as he played it!

Based on Clarke’s description (bold emphasis is mine) it is probable that Rogers had an upstream (low placement type) embouchure. This embouchure type is less common than the downstream types, but is correct for a sizable minority of players. Many teachers recommend against this embouchure type based on their own experiences trying to play this way and failing. Downstream embouchure type players will almost always find playing with an upstream, low placement embouchure challenging, to say the least. Here’s what Clarke found when he tried it.

The next morning I tried the same way of playing as on the previous day, only changing the position of the mouthpiece against my lips, and again struggled to produce tones. The only result being that I found myself worse off than before, and by the end of that week I could play neither in the old way nor in the new. This was so discouraging that I nearly arrived at a point of giving up the whole thing in disgust. Fortunately for me, however, I had been born with a goodly amount of perseverance and obstinacy in my makeup and stuck to the game although not without admitting to myself that if it was necessary to play the cornet in the old way and suffer with the some strains and headaches as before, perhaps it might be as well if not better to discard playing altogether.

For some reason upstream players tend to do better playing downstream than downstream players incorrectly playing upstream. This seems to reinforce the idea that placing the mouthpiece so there’s more lower lip inside is wrong. However, for players with the anatomy that is suited for a low placement embouchure type this won’t work as well as sticking with the best placement for their face and learning to work with it.

The moral of the story is that you should work with the mouthpiece placement that works best for you and learn to play your entire range that way. Trying to “fix” your chops by imitating someone with a different embouchure type can be destructive to your playing. Asking your students to adopt your own embouchure type because that’s how you happen to play isn’t always going to work either.

Playing on the Red Blindfold Test

A while back I wrote a post debunking the logic of why many teachers and players incorrectly argue against allowing brass players to place the mouthpiece on the red of their lip. Going through these common points I’ve come to the conclusion that while placing the mouthpiece so there is a lot of rim contact on the upper or lower lip doesn’t work for everyone, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this placement, which is why I titled that post “Playing On the Red Is Fine (as long as it fits your anatomy).”

Recently one of the authors I quoted in that article, Frank Gabriel Campos, posted a couple of responses. In one of his replies he wrote:

In a blind audition, I can easily tell within a minute that someone is playing on the red.

To be honest, I doubt that anyone can really tell by sound alone if a player is placing on the red. This also reminded me of how some players and teachers who are familiar with embouchure types sometimes claim that they can tell which embouchure type a player is simply by hearing a recording. So with this thought in mind, I’ve put together an informal quiz to see how many people can actually tell.

Listen to these 6 audio clips. All 6 players are professional trumpet players with advanced degrees. 5 of the 6 players are college trumpet teachers. Three specialize in classical trumpet and 3 specialize in jazz trumpet, although some do cross over. At least one of these players places the mouthpiece so that rim contacts with the red of the lip and at least one player does not.

(Note: The quiz plugin I’m using seems to be a little buggy, but hopefully it will allow you to see how you did at the end as well as let you know which embouchure type each player belongs to.)

Player A

Player B

Player C

Player D

Player E

Player F

[wpsqt name=”Test Quiz” type=”quiz”]

How did you do? Please leave your comments below, but don’t give away any answers to those who haven’t tried the test yet. If you want to see video of the players in the audio samples check it out here (no cheating and watching it first!).

Brad Goode’s Skeleton Mouthpiece Warm-Up and Guess the Embouchure Type

I’ve had this YouTube video bookmarked for a while and been meaning to post it. Trumpet player Brad Goode demonstrates a warm up he uses with a “skeleton mouthpiece” (sometimes called an embouchure visualizer).

One thing that I’d like to echo that Brad says in his video is that the “visualizer” is not really very good for looking at the embouchure. The lack of normal resistance sometimes will make the lips form in a slightly different position than they will when playing, which is why I prefer to use a transparent mouthpiece for embouchure diagnosis. The skeleton mouthpiece has some interesting potential for practice, though. Check out how Brad uses it and while we’re at it, let’s play “Guess the Embouchure Type.” My guess after the break.

Continue reading Brad Goode’s Skeleton Mouthpiece Warm-Up and Guess the Embouchure Type

Lip Injury Help

I don’t want anyone to confuse this particular post an an endorsement of Dr. Richard Cox’s work with musicians who have injured their lips.  I really don’t know much about him, most of what I can say comes from this video.  Take a look and see what you think.

He makes some statements in there I agree with and he appears to have some background in medicine.  In fact, he claims doctorates in medicine, psychology, and theology (and those don’t even include his three honorary doctorates).* Continue reading Lip Injury Help

Guess the Embouchure Type – Denver Dill

I’ve blogged recently about Denver Dill’s new book, Still Playing, My Journey Through Embouchure Surgery and Rehabilitation.  Shortly before my copy of his book arrived I got an email from Denver, who happened to come across this site.  After watching some of my embouchure vods he was interested in putting together something similar that would show his embouchure.  He demonstrates his mouthpiece placement both prior to the surgery and after.  Denver also got a hold of a transparent mouthpiece for his video, posted by the West Point Band’s YouTube page.  Take a look and see if you can guess Denver’s embouchure type.  My guess after the break.

Continue reading Guess the Embouchure Type – Denver Dill

Embouchure Question – Developing Lower Lip Strength

Here is another question emailed to me from a tubist named Michael.

I just watched a few of your videos and they have given me alot of insight.  I play the tuba, and I have known for a while that it is my embouchure, and not my air, that was restricting my high notes (since I could play some notes on euph that I couldnt on tuba).  Through experimentation, I have decided that the reason is my lower lip doesn’t provide a firm enough surface for my upper lip to vibrate against (im a down winder).  I saw that you said miscitto buzzes can help with upper lip str., but do you know a good way to work on lower lip str?

Michael is referring specifically to my vod on free buzzing, I think.  In that video I discuss an exercise where you imitate the sound of a mosquito buzzing to encourage working the muscles that all intersect around the mouth corners.  As you build strength at the mouth corners you will also be developing strength and control of your lower lip as well, so I recommend free buzzing for you also.

That said, without more information I can’t really suggest anything else you can be doing.  It’s very hard to self-diagnose your own embouchure.  Just because you think you have one of the downstream embouchure types doesn’t necessarily mean that you really do.  Or that you should really be playing with that embouchure type.  I personally don’t teach video lessons.  That said, if you are able to take some video footage of your embouchure and let me look at it I might be able to spot something useful.  If you’re not already doing so, see if you can get together with a private teacher who can take the time to help you spot what you can do to improve but also prioritize things to work on.