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.