I just came across this neat video by “Paul the Trombonist.” He plays one chorus of blues either in the style of or an exact transcription by some of the greatest jazz trombonists who ever lived (born before 1943). Check it out.
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.
When playing dixieland, New Orleans/Chicago styles of traditional jazz each of the horn players in the front line (usually trumpet or cornet, clarinet, and trombone) will collectively improvise polyphonic ensemble passages. In order to make this work without getting in each others’ way, each instrumentalist fits within a particular role. The cornet player will usually play or paraphrase the melody while the clarinetist improvises a rhythmically active line generally in a register above the cornet player. Meanwhile, the trombonist plays a supporting line under the cornet and clarinet, with an emphasis on outlining the chord progression with lots of glisses. Done well, this is one of the most exciting things to listen to and is great fun to play.
Who has the hardest job in the traditional jazz front line, the trumpet/cornet player, the clarinetist, or the trombonist? Ivan, over on his Playing Traditional Jazz blog, discusses this very question. I’ve found that most players will automatically assume that their own job is the most challenging, but one clarinetist thought differently.
Clarinet is easier than trumpet in that we generally don’t have to learn many melodies. If you’re flexible and have a good ear and instinct, you can listen to the trumpet for specific types of melody lines that tell you a) what the next chord might be, and b) if we do a double-ending or change pitch, etc.
. . .
To play the way I do, clarinet is easier, because I can play whatever I want and don’t need to know the song one bit.
One of the points Ivan makes is that cornet/trumpet players not only need to learn the chord progression for soloing and embellishing on the ensemble passages, but they also need to know the melody very well, since they usually cover the melody in performance.
This insight is supported by another correspondent (a trumpet player), who told me he often asks whether – for a change – one of the other players would like to play the melody line in the first chorus or two of a tune. He has been surprised to find that very fine players are often reluctant to do this, claiming that they are not sure of the melody – even though they can create wonderful decorations around it!
Ivan does make the point that clarinet players can really make or break a traditional jazz band and that the clarinet part requires a mastery of the instrument and of the tune.
What about the trombonist?
I consider his job extremely difficult too. He needs to know the harmonic progression of every tune the band plays (either as a result of hard graft in learning the chord sequences or by developing an amazing ear for the bassline of the successive chords). He has to push the band along through the chord changes. This frequently involves (starting on the fourth note of a bar and moving on to the first of the next) taking the harmony from the root of one chord to the root of the next by means of a glissando or direct punching out of the notes.
But he must also have a huge repertoire of tricks and phrases. He should be able to take on the melody for an occasional chorus – to give variety to the presentation. And he should be a skilful user of mutes: a good range of trombone effects is possible to embellish the music.
Ultimately, I think Ivan and I agree that playing any of the instruments in the front line requires a lot of work and practice to do well, however there is one point I would like to make that I don’t think is emphasized enough in Ivan’s post. Playing the clarinet or trombone part still means you need to know the melody extremely well, if anything so you know what not to play!
This is particularly important for the group I perform with, the Low-Down Sires. We currently have only a two horn front line, cornet and trombone. With a 3rd horn player it’s not such a big deal if two of us end up on the same melody or countermelody note because someone will be playing another chord tone. But with two horns if I don’t know what the cornet will be playing and I end up on the same pitch the whole character of the ensemble chorus suddenly gets thin sounding. This was a point that Ben Polcer made in the recent Lindy Focus music track I sat in on. He asked me to help demonstrate a collective improvisation with him on the tune Careless Love. There’s one spot in the tune where the natural tendency for me as the trombonist would be to keep a descending melodic line going, and as a line it fits great over the chord changes. Unfortunately, it also happens to coincide with one very important melody note, so I had to sacrifice a nice voice leading in that part to not double his part. Ben went out of his way to point out that I did this afterwards and noted how important is was for all the horn players to learn the melody, not just the trumpet or cornet player.
Not to mention that it’s a nice change once in a while to change the roles around and have one of the other horn players cover the melody. And you will never know when it might suddenly become necessary. Several years ago I went to a performance by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and their trumpet player, John Brunious, had passed away unexpectedly just before their tour. Since there wasn’t enough time to replace him, the other horn players covered the melody the whole concert.
Yes, I’m guilty of neglecting the melody on a lot of the tunes I regularly play with the Sires, but I’ve found that on those pieces where I not only have the chord progression memorized but also can cover the melody if asked my tailgating fits so much better with what the rest of the band is doing. Which reminds me that I have some transcribing to do in order to learn some new tunes. . .
When performing with the Low-Down Sires, a traditional jazz group, we frequently decide (either collectively or individually) to perform the solos off of recordings rather than to improvise our own. We recently added Duke Ellington’s composition East St. Louis Toodle-Oo (Harlem Twist) to our repertoire and I really enjoyed the trombone solo on the recording. We all thought this would be a good one for me to play the recorded solo on, so I transcribed “Tricky Sam” Nanton’s solo from it.
It’s got a couple of interesting things on it. The opening lick is cool for the motive he played with a three note melodic idea superimposed over different parts of the first couple of measures.
Nanton also plays around with some chromatic passing tones on his solo break, specifically a passing tone between the 5th and 6th notes of the major scale and then the 2nd and 3rd notes. This chromatic passing tone usage would become pretty common with bebop musicians and sometimes is called a “bebop scale” today. For example, a major scale with the passing tone between the 5th and 6th notes is frequently called a “major bebop scale” and a major scale with a passing tone between the 6th and 7th notes is sometimes called the “dominant bebop scale.” Here is Nanton’s solo break.
It’s a short, but very tasty solo. Click here to download a PDF of the whole thing. As always, I recommend you at least double check my accuracy here and let me know if you spot any errors. It’s best to do your own transcribing, since you’ll learn the whole stylistic language (articulation, vibrato, swing feeling, etc.) as well as develop your own ear much better that way.
I just finished a quick solo transcription of a trombonist soloing on “Blues on Parade.” I was helping Tad out with this transcription and he thinks it must be Bill Harris from Woody Herman’s Live, Volume 2 album (which seems plausible to me, but I don’t have the entire album and the album credits). Here’s the transcription I did (pdf here).
It’s a simple solo, but swings hard and was played with a lot of energy and excitement (just like Bill Harris usually played). There are some elements of tailgate trombone style in there with some of the bends and glisses. Note the use of a lot of rhythmically simple quarter notes and lots of silence throughout.
Does anyone out there have this album and can confirm that this solo was played by Bill Harris?
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.
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.
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
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.
I’ve recently begun playing with the Low-Down Sires, a dixieland group based out of Asheville, NC. I have always enjoyed playing dixieland, although I hadn’t been playing a whole lot of it lately, so it’s a lot of fun to be playing it again regularly. One of the things I really appreciate about this group is that everyone makes a serious effort to play in the style. There’s nothing worse than listening to players who don’t play stylistically correct, regardless of what genre of music they’re performing.
One of the tunes we’ve been playing that’s been giving me some trouble is Jelly Roll Morton’s King Porter Stomp. This tune is challenging for me to solo over, in part because of the changes (it starts on the IV chord, not rare but somewhat unusual), key (Ab major, not too hairy, but a little tricky if I’m not focused), and bright tempo. Taken together, it’s not usually a big deal for me to adjust to these changes and tempo, but I keep finding myself wanting to bop over it. In order to give me some ideas for a more stylistically correct approach I decided to transcribe Lou McGarity’s solo over this tune and get inside it a bit.
There’s a couple of things in it I find interesting. McGarity uses a lot of Ab major pentatonic over it, but with some added passing tones between the 5th (Eb) and 6th (F) as well as a lower neighbor passing tone to the 3rd (C). Here’s an example from the first 4 measures of his solo.
The Ab major pentatonic scale (Ab, Bb, C, Eb, and F) provides a nice sound to blanket over this chord sequence (which makes up most of the solo changes). The chromatic passing tones (E/Fb and B/Cb) give it a little more color without sounding to bopish in the dixieland style.
McGarity recorded this solo in 1951, quite a while after the tailgate trombone style evolved, but he plays some of the typical glisses and long notes in this solo. Somewhat unusually, he also shows off his solid upper register by screaming a high Eb in this solo. Here’s an example from last 8 measures of the second chorus.
If you’d like to see the whole transcription, you can use this link. As I always like to recommend, you shouldn’t trust my transcription for complete accuracy. For one thing, I’ve only approximated some of the glisses and smears McGarity plays. If you don’t really listen closely to the sound you’re going and try to learn this solo you’re going to miss a huge part of the style. Here’s a YouTube video I found of this recording, but be aware that the sound was sped up so that it is playing back a half step higher. You can buy this track here.
A short while ago I got an email from Rusty McKinney, formerly the bass trombonist with the Utah Symphony. Rusty is one of the examples of an upstream orchestral player I mentioned in my article about five common embouchure misconceptions, specifically referring to the myth that all players need to place the mouthpiece centered or with more top lip inside the mouthpiece. Rusty has a low placement and plays quite well with it! He gave me permission to quote our email exchange and so here are some of the things he mentioned to me, with a few of my thoughts scattered between.
I ran across your site and saw that you mentioned me in your upstream are in “Myths ” section. I often make the upstream list and am intrigued and slightly amused that it is usually me and jazz artists!
Like Rusty, I too find it interesting that most of the upstream players that we know about are jazz players. It’s definitely true that downstream players are more common, not because of any inherent advantage but because more players don’t have the anatomical features that make upstream players work best. I also feel that because teachers have a tendency to teach what worked for them personally that many upstream players are taught to move their mouthpiece higher on the lips and are forced into a downstream embouchure inadvertently. These players will typically struggle and either never reach their full potential or give up brass playing altogether. Because jazz players are more likely to be self taught and classical players tend to go through formal music education (particularly in conservatories, where tradition is strong) this tends to weed out upstream players in favor of downstream players.
Anyway, I wanted to let you know that I am more in your neighborhood than I used to be. I left the Utah Symphony about two years ago to switch my emphasis to being a church music director and as such I am now fulltime at White Plains United Methodist Church in Cary, NC.
I am still playing regularly, often subbing in the NC symphony, and playing for NC Opera and various orchestras that are put together for Duke Chapel. And I have given master classes this past Spring at UNC Chapel Hill for Mike Chris’ Studio and at UNCSA for John Ilika’s studio.
Hope we can connect sometime. My upstream embouchure still works just fine!
One of the common arguments I hear from downstream teachers who discourage the low mouthpiece placement that is what makes an upstream embouchure is that it will eventually break down. Rusty is a perfect example of how an upstream embouchure can function very well long term, when the player learns to work with his or her natural tendencies.
Too many folks dismiss the embouchure and that is a bad thing. I would have been ruined by well meaning teachers had I not been so bull headed. And been lucky to find folks along the way like Doug [Elliot] who either understood how the upstreamer functions or as with others who didn’t care how I did it, as long as I got good results and had endurance.
One of the funniest moments was when I was in Jr. High and my teacher, a respected ( and rightfully so ) college professor had me play for a visiting artist from Las Vegas. He had a few suggestions about improving my legato but said nothing about my embouchure. When my teacher started pointing out all the things that were “wrong” with my set-up the clinician said, “Hey man, if you can get a sound like that you could stick the mouthpiece in your ear for all I care!” It was pretty funny. My teacher wasn’t especially amused.
Great story. Thanks to Rusty for stopping by and allowing me to post his emails. I’m excited that he’s now so close to where I am (Asheville, NC) and the next time I make it out east towards him I hope that we’ll be able to hook up and share some upstream embouchure stories.
My own upstream embouchure is still working fine too!