Eliminating the Smile Embouchure

After over 10 years of blogging I figured that I had already covered this very common embouchure issue in its own post, but after wanting to help out a teacher with some questions about it I searched and realized that I’ve only discussed the smile embouchure in the context other topics. In this post I’m going to dig into the smile embouchure and go over some common suggestions for eliminating it that I think are inefficient before I go over what I’ve found to be the best approach. If you want to skip all that, check out this post on free buzzing.

Around the turn of the last century it was apparently common for brass teachers to actually instruct students to ascend by pulling the mouth corners back into a smile. It works, to a degree, similar to the way that stretching a rubber band while you pluck it will cause the band to vibrate faster and therefore sound a higher pitch. This technique has a characteristic look.

Avoid the Smile Embouchure

Today this technique is almost universally rejected by brass teachers. It tends to limit the upper register and endurance. Pulling the mouth corners back to ascend eventually reaches a limit to where the musician simply can’t smile even further to ascend, resulting in a range cap. Stretching the lips back also makes the lips more sensitive to mouthpiece pressure. This results in difficulty with endurance and also simply risks injury due to mouthpiece pressure.

While brass pedagogy seems to have come to a general consensus on avoiding the smile embouchure, we don’t have an agreement on the best way to help students make corrections to the smile embouchure. Part of this disagreement is due to every student being a little different and responding to instructions in their own ways, but a large part of the disparity in instruction seems to be due to a general lack of knowledge about what’s happening in the embouchure in the first place.

Awareness and Conscious Effort Is Inefficient

If you’ve never struggled with the smile embouchure yourself it might seem that the best way to eliminate the smile embouchure is to help your student become aware of the problem and ask him or her to consciously stop it. Mirror observation is often used for feedback and brass teachers will often prescribe exercises that start in the range where the corners are not pulling back and ascend gradually into the trouble range. The idea here is to start from a point of good technique (mouth corners in place) and strive to keep that technique the same while ascending.

This usually doesn’t work, at least not very efficiently. It’s notoriously difficult for brass players to make this sort of adjustment for a couple of reason. First, these musicians have a “conditioned response” to ascending on their instrument. It’s simply too habitual for them to just stop. Secondly, and even more relevant, the muscles at and around the mouth corners are usually too weak to hold them in place while ascending.

It’s pretty well established now that the area around mouth corners are responsible for a lot of the muscular effort for a well-formed brass embouchure. There have been studies that empirically investigate which muscles in the embouchure are active while playing a brass instrument. The more advanced the player, the more focused the embouchure effort is on keeping the corners firm (and the chin flat). The advanced trumpet player in the image above (the top row) shows a much more focused muscular effort at the mouth corners (and chin) than the beginner (middle row) and trumpet student (bottom row).

One reason why it’s so difficult for brass students to eliminate the smile embouchure is because the muscles that should be holding the mouth corners in place are too weak. Just as you can’t expect someone to bench press 200 pounds without building up to it, a brass musician can’t hold their mouth corners in place without developing the strength to hold them in position.

Embouchure Problems Are Embouchure Problems – QED

One of the most common approaches I come across from teachers, who I feel should know better, promote the idea the all embouchure problems are really breathing problems. These teachers insist that the best way to help a student make corrections to a smile embouchure are to work on breathing. Many also emphasize assignments of music, rather than technical exercises.

While there’s nothing inherently wrong in teaching good breathing and musical expression, any smile embouchure correction that happens as a result here is largely going to be in spite of, rather than because of the focus on breathing. Don’t misunderstand what I’m pointing out. Excellent brass technique requires efficient breathing and musical expression, but embouchure problems are embouchure problems. Teachers who advocate for developing embouchure technique purely through good breathing and musical expression usually insist that it’s ultimately better to take a student’s attention away from their embouchure. That may be all well and good, depending on the student, but in the process they ignore what the real cause and effect of the smile embouchure actually is. In this case, I think advocating that the teacher have a good understanding of embouchure technique here is different from discussing how much of that to communicate to students and when.

In a little bit I’ll show you how you can get a student to stop pulling the mouth corners back into a smile while forming an embouchure almost immediately (with some qualifications). I have never seen working on breathing to help a student correct a smile embouchure as immediately. If fixing the breathing fixes any “embouchure problem” immediately then the original issue was misdiagnosed. Embouchure problems are embouchure problems – by definition.

Sure, working on breathing and musical expression can (eventually) result in a brass musician correcting the smile embouchure. However, this is because the student is developing embouchure strength and control over time from practicing the instrument, not because the breathing is better or the musician’s mental image of the music is in mind. Furthermore, some players who happen to be more prone to a smile embouchure appear to have difficulty building embouchure strength simply by playing a lot (see Low Placement embouchure type players), at least more so compared to peers who have different anatomical features.

Free Buzzing

In my experience, regular free buzzing practice is the fastest and most efficient route to eliminating the smile embouchure, for a number of reasons. While I go over my rational, it’s important that I specify how I teach free buzzing and address some common concerns about it.

There are many brass players and teachers who dismiss free buzzing because it doesn’t directly relate to how the instrument is played. This is true, but if you are careful and methodical about your approach you are actually exploiting this difference. Consider the “conditioned response” difficulties I mentioned above.

For advocates of fixing the smile embouchure with breathing and musical expression, my rational for addressing it instead with free buzzing should be already familiar to them.

For example, in order to change the preconditioned responses elicited in a student when playing his or her instrument, Mr. Jacobs will simply remove the musical instrument and have the student blow on the back of the hand, buzz on a mouthpiece, or breathe into a strange apparatus. By conditioning the correct response away from the horn, it is then transferable to the instrument. This offers the additional benefits of keeping exercises from dulling musical passion, enhancing strangeness, allowing a multi-sensoral approach, and avoiding previously conditioned baggage. Most importantly, this additive approach keeps players from having to go back to square one on their instruments-particularly valuable for professional players who must maintain a busy schedule. Thus instead of altering a bad behavior, Mr Jacobs advocates that one simply learn a new correct behavior to supplant it by changing stimuli and eventually transferring the response back to the horn. Meanwhile, the old, undesired behavior will extinguish itself from lack of use.

The Pedagogy of Arnold Jacobs: Part 2 of 5, by David Brubeck

When a student has developed a habitual way of playing the instrument that is getting in their way, it’s very difficult to approach it from what they are doing wrong. Instead, it’s more effective to go after what to do correctly. Furthermore, crafty teachers like Arnold Jacobs used ways to remove the trigger for the conditioned response (the instrument) and make corrections where those bad habits didn’t come into play. As the proper technique became learned, the instrument was gradually added to the mix.

Free buzzing does exactly this, with the added benefit of actually building strength in the muscles that hold the mouth corners in place. Furthermore, free buzzing higher pitches softly and with a mosquito-like sound makes it virtually impossible to pull the mouth corners back into a smile. Instead of helping to raise the pitch, it hinders it. While free buzzing the brass musician has to keep the corners locked in place.

So to return to what I wrote above, it instantly fixes the smile embouchure, albeit in a different context. It introduces “strangeness” removing the conditioned response. Even better, where playing the instrument allows the student to pull the corners back to ascend before the range caps, free buzzing only reinforces the correct mouth corner position. For these reasons, I feel that using free buzzing to eliminate a student’s smile embouchure is superior to addressing it directly while playing or through breathing and musical expression.

How to Free Buzz

My personal favorite free buzzing exercise to teach is from Donald Reinhardt. He prescribed slightly rolling in the lower lip inward and just over the lower teeth while bringing the top lip down to lightly touching the lower lip.

Without any assistance from the mouthpiece or the instrument, form the lips in the prescribed manner and sustain a buzz on middle concert B flat to the fullest extent of a normal playing breath. . . Buzz and inhale three times in the prescribed manner and strive to make each buzz a higher pitch than the previous one – then rest.

Encyclopedia of the Pivot System, p. 169, by Donald Reinhardt

That’s it. Maybe 3-5 minutes at most. Done as described and with just a little bit of work daily spread out over several weeks it should make for noticeable improvements without the risk of feeling “muscle bound” or otherwise screwing up a brass musician’s chops.

As an aside, I edited out the part where Reinhardt instructs holding your finger over your lips when inhaling and breathing in through the mouth corners for clarity here, but I do teach and recommend that in my more detailed discussion and video of this exercise. I also want to point out that the free buzz should be soft and thin sounding. Try to make it sound like a mosquito buzz.

That one exercise done daily for a few weeks or so should translate into a reduction of the smile embouchure at least, and over time can even eliminate it by itself. If your student needs some more help, there are two additional ideas you can try with free buzzing. One can be helpful for pretty much all players, others require you to know and understand the student’s basic embouchure type. These are also based on (if not outright taken from) exercises I picked up from Reinhardt’s writings.

Using Reinhardt’s description of a free buzz above, instruct your student to free buzz a pitch that is at least F below middle C (concert pitch, in other words F3 or F inside the bass clef). Keep the free buzzing tone soft and mosquito-like. After free buzzing that pitch, have the student play the pitch on their instrument as a long tone, then stop and rest. Then buzz pitches up a scale and repeat this exercise until they start feeling fatigued. Observe how the mouth corners look, but it’s not necessary to have the student watch in a mirror unless it helps then to see it (another option is to have the student watch in the mirror every other pitch). This exercise, which I feel is good for any brass player, can help eliminate the smile embouchure by helping the student to experience the correct mouth corner position while free buzzing and then quickly try to translate that to the instrument.

If the student is one of the downstream embouchure types, particularly the Very High Placement type, you can take the above exercise but instead of free buzzing and then playing the pitch on the instrument next, have him or her free buzz into the instrument. For some downstream embouchure type players this can be an excellent way to fine tune other elements of embouchure form as well as the mouth corner position. Low Placement/upstream type brass player will not want to practice buzzing into the instrument, since their mouthpiece placement too drastically changes certain elements of their embouchure form while playing compared to free buzzing.

Free buzzing ticks off all the boxes that we know is effective for correcting instrumental technique. It specifically strengthens the muscles we want. It forces the brass musician’s mouth corner form towards the habit we’re trying to develop while also removing the trigger for the habit we’re trying to eliminate. Lastly, it’s effective over time, but it’s probably more efficient than any other common approach to correcting the smile embouchure.

Remember, keep your student’s free buzzing light, soft, and somewhat airy sounding. A little bit every day spread out over time is much better than a lot at once.

One final idea for those teachers who insist that everything their student works on should have musical value. Use the same described procedure for free buzzing (soft and thin sounding, keep it above F3, etc.) but free buzz simple tunes. Personally, I think it’s fine to work on instrumental technique by removing it from a musical context at times, but if your student has difficulty switching focus back on the music or slips too easily into trying to multitask while playing, free buzzing melodies has the same benefits.

“Embouchure Motion” Stabilizer

Donald Reinhardt created an exercise he called the “Pivot Stabilizer.” He intended students to use this exercise as their first notes of the day. Here is the exercise, with some hand written notes and instructions for a specific trumpet student.

In order to better understand this exercise you first should forget about the embouchure “pivot.” Reinhardt defined it a certain way, but unless you studied it from him you almost certainly don’t understand what it is. Instead, think of this as an exercise to stabilize a brass musician’s “embouchure motion.”

Embouchure Motion – The natural motion a brass player makes when changing registers where the mouthpiece and lips together will be pushed and pulled along the teeth and gums in a generally up and down motion. The position of the mouthpiece on the lips doesn’t change, just the relationship of the mouthpiece rim and lips to the teeth and gums. Some players will push upward to ascend while others will pull down. Some players will have a track of their embouchure motion that is side to side. For more details on this phenomenon go here.

Assuming that you fully understand the embouchure motion definition above, you can make use of Reinhardt’s exercise to help make a student’s embouchure motion function more efficiently with less conscious effort. The arrows drawn into the music above are a specific trumpet student’s embouchure motion direction, just make sure that you’re instructing (or using, if this is for your own practice) the correct embouchure motion for the individual student. The student should use this exercise as a way to find where the tone is most open and resonant for each particular note.

The first time through each three measure set the student should watch what the embouchure motion looks like in a mirror. On the repeat Reinhardt instructed the student to close his or her eyes and instead focus on the feel of the embouchure motion assisting with the slurs. The “V” after each set was Reinhardt’s notion to remove the mouthpiece from the lips for a moment before moving on to the next set.

One thing I wanted to adjust for this exercise was the starting note and where the “home base” range for this exercise lies. For many students, particularly the Very High Placement and Low Placement embouchure types, it can be more useful to use a higher pitch as the central range point. Many of these musicians will find it easier to play correctly in their upper register, so slurring up to the high range before playing down to their low range gives them a better chance to descend correctly (as opposed to slurring down to the low range before up to the high range, as Reinhardt’s original exercise).

The above exercise duplicates the purpose of Reinhardt’s “Pivot Stabilizer” but moves the center of the exercise to G on top of the staff (for trumpet) and also has the student playing an ascending slur first, before descending to low C.

If you want to experiment with your own practice or teaching using these exercises here are some printable files for you.

Original Pivot Stabilizer
Embouchure Motion Stabilizer for Trumpet
Embouchure Motion Stabilizer for Horn (I might transpose the range differently, depending on the student)
Embouchure Motion Stabilizer for Trombone/Baritone/Euphonium
Embouchure Motion Stabilizer for Tuba

Guess the Embouchure Type – Trombonist Jeremy Wilson

I wasn’t familiar with Jeremy Wilson’s playing or teaching prior to coming across his YouTube channel. He’s got a few performance videos on there as well as some videos where he discusses his philosophy of music practice and performance. There’s some really excellent and inspiring things there, you should explore it. All of the videos I watched were well produced too.

One of the videos I enjoyed very much was his performance of a piece called Tresin Terra, by David M. Rodgers. Wilson’s performance is amazing. His tone is consistent and beautiful across the entire range. His playing is not only technically impressive but also very expressive. The composition is also very cool. I was watching the video trying to look for Wilson’s embouchure type, but I kept getting lost in the music. Take a look and see if, like me, you had to go back to guess Jeremy Wilson’s embouchure type. I will put my guess under the break.

Continue reading Guess the Embouchure Type – Trombonist Jeremy Wilson

Coming Back After 211 Days Off

Sarah Paradis is the trombonist with the Mirari Brass Quintet. I was able to watch them give a masterclass a number of years ago which was wonderful. Sarah recently had a son (congratulations, Sarah!), but some complications forced her to take a long time off from the trombone. She’s doing well now and is back to playing trombone and blogging about her experience taking such a long time off and what it’s going to take for her comeback.

Mentally, I didn’t mind too much about this break because I knew it was something I had to do for my health and especially for the health of my baby. It hurt my ego a bit because I couldn’t play with Mirari Brass Quintet, I couldn’t take any gigs, and I missed out on an audition for my local symphony. But again, my family’s health is more important than any gig, so it was clear what I had to do.

In this first of what I hope are several posts, Sarah writes a bit about the circumstances that required her to take time off of the horn, what it was like to teach lessons without being able to play, and her plan for further posts on this topic. I’m looking forward to reading more about her experiences and what we can all learn from her. Check back later on the Brass Blog for updates.

New, Old Trombone Forum Up

A while back some of the staff members of the Trombone Forum (TTF) created the Trombone Chat forum. TTF has been languishing for quite a while due to a variety of issues and from time to time simply would go offline with little or no notice. Recently it went off line for a server move and software update, but it’s been down for longer then planned.

Regardless of what happens at TTF, I wanted to plug Trombone Chat. Having seen the work the moderators there did with TTF I know that it will be a friendly place to discuss trombone related topics and, unlike TTF, a number of staff members over there have the “keys to the forum” and can keep things running if the chief administrator gets too busy to handle general upkeep.

Registration is free and pretty quick (your account does need to be approved by a human, but they seem to be checking up on that regularly). Head on over an join in the discussion.

Bozo As Played By Ed Cuffee

One of my favorite bands to play with is the Low-Down Sires. We strive to recreate the spirit of early jazz styles as authentically as possible, frequently even through recreating performances of groups that pioneered the style. One tune we recently added to our repertoire is Bozo, as recorded by Clarence Williams (featuring King Oliver).

After learning to play this solo, we discovered that the tune “Bozo” appears to be a plagiarized version of “Tozo,” by Fletcher Henderson. Check out what the blogger for Pop From Yestercentury noticed in his post, Tozo and Bozo.

Regardless of who originally composed this tune, here is the melody/paraphrase of this tune as played by trombonist Ed Coffee on the Clarence Williams recording of “Bozo.” Check out the first four measures and think about the historical context of the melody and chord.

Listen closely to the recording on the embedded video above and let me know if you hear it the same. I hear the harmony pretty clearly as an Eb7 chord. While an Eb7 chord isn’t all that unusual in a tune in G major during this style period, having it right at the beginning of the tune is odd. Even more strange is the A natural and E natural (enharmonically Fb) in the melody notes.

For a jazz tune composed at least as early as 1927 this is harmonically surprising, very much ahead of its time. This is quite early in jazz for an altered dominant chord. You will find examples in swing style tunes, but it’s not until the emergence of bebop where this sort of harmonic relationship becomes common.

In the context of this tune, which is in the key of G major, an Eb7 chord more commonly leads by resolving down a half step to the dominant, D7. In “Bozo” it skips the dominant chord and jumps immediately to the tonic, but only after a fairly long time. In most jazz tunes of this time period it’s not uncommon for chords to remain static for so long, but a harmonically sophisticated chord of this type would normally not sit statically for so long.

Then there’s the altered extensions of this chord. Looking forward again to the 1940s and later, it became common in jazz to alter the dominant chord extensions by altering certain chord tones like the 9ths and 11ths. It’s unusual in a jazz tune from the late 1920s.

As an interesting aside, I’ve often heard of this chord relationship (VI7 chord) as called the “pineapple chord,” but never understood the context of why. My formal music theory background compares it to the Neapolitan chord, but my jazz theory background things about it as a tritone substitution to the V chord.

Does anyone know why “pineapple chord” has become a common term for this chord function?

The link below is a PDF to my transcription of the melody/paraphrase. As always, take it with a grain of salt and check it yourself for errors. Let me know if you find any.

Bozo – Trombone

Elasticity Routine For Lip Flexibility

A few months ago I caught up with Doug Elliott and took another lesson. For those who don’t know, Doug’s embouchure types and terminology are the ones I prefer to use here and my lessons and interview with him were important resources for my dissertation. Doug studied from Donald Reinhardt and took Reinhardt’s ideas and developed a presentation of them that makes them easier to understand.

At any rate, at my last lesson with Doug he reminded me of Reinhardt’s “Elasticity Routine,” or at least the technique and point behind it. I have some inconsistencies in how my chops function between my upper register and F3 and below. Glissing without using the slide between partials in this register are helping me make my embouchure function more consistently. They are also pretty good for developing lip flexibility and overall embouchure control.

There was a forum topic on the Trombone Forum that was discussing similar exercises, so I threw together a short video describing and demonstrating what I’ve been practicing. It’s not as good as Doug’s demonstration for me, but I think you can get the point of how the Elasticity Routine works. The exact glisses that you do are not as important as how you do them. Do not let up on the mouthpiece pressure and try to gliss between those partials as smoothly as possible.

I had a couple of pretty good glisses in there and some examples of me struggling to make them sound smooth. They all sound better now than they did a few months ago. The point is not that this should sound good (although that’s what I’m trying for when practicing this drill), but how they help your playing.

Online Trombone Journal Articles Available Again

Just a short post this week to announce that articles I’ve written for the Online Trombone Journal are now back and accessible. I guess there was a glitch in a table somewhere in the code which didn’t recognize my author code. I had forgotten about it, but it recently came up again and Richard found the problem and fixed it.

The OTJ was one of the earliest web sites I worked on, serving as an editor, forum administrator, and other assorted odds and ends. Some of the articles I wrote for the OTJ were in the official capacity as a staff member, but some of them went through the blinded peer review process (the ones with the gold mortar board symbol). There are a number of reviews I wrote on trombone books or recordings. I also wrote a short series of articles on jazz improvisation for beginners, a series of articles covering the history of jazz trombone styles and performers, a summary of Donald Reinhardt’s “pivot system,” and an article covering how to practice lip flexibility for jazz trombonists.

Trombone Playing In fMRI Scanner

There have been a few videos lately of brass players who have gone into an fMRI scanner to observe what the soft tissue is doing while playing. Recently bass trombonist Doug Yeo was a test subject and he wrote about his experience.

Yet while trombonist and Boston-based brass pedagogue John Coffey (1907-1981)  summarized his teaching with the pithy phrase, “Tongue and blow, kid,” successful brass instrument articulation and tone production actually requires a bit more understanding. Teachers and performers have written legions of books and articles about what players should do with their tongue and other members of the body’s oral cavity, but such descriptions have been hampered by an obvious problem: we cannot see inside the mouth or touch the tongue, glottis or soft palate while playing. One’s tongue cannot touch one’s tongue in order to feel one’s tongue when it is in use. It is clear that much of what has been said about the workings of the tongue during playing has been nothing more than well-meaning conjecture.

It’s really very cool that Yeo, Dr. Peter Iltis, and the other folks at the Max Planck Institute are conducting research like this. Too much of brass pedagogy is based on guess work and conjecture. Brass instructors tend to teach how they think they play, but often when we look closer at what actually happens when we play we end up surprised.

Yeo wrote that while playing in the fMRI scanner he was very conscious of trying to “keep the tongue down and the throat open at all times, in all registers and in all dynamics,” as he was instructed by Edward Kleinhammer. Watching the video created by the fMRI, however, Yeo notes:

As I begin playing, you will observe that as I slur higher, my tongue moves both up and back in my oral cavity. There is also movement below the base of my tongue, with my larynx and glottis – the opening between the vocal cords – moving slightly upward. When I was playing, I felt no sensation of this upward movement in my neck; I always felt that my throat was very relaxed and my tongue was “down.”

We still have a lot to learn about how the tongue, throughout, soft pallet, lips, etc. work together with the breathing to play brass instruments successfully, but it seems that the evidence is mounting that at least most, if not all, players will raise the level of the tongue arch as they ascend. Why exactly this happens and what it’s doing for the player is mainly conjecture at this point, but we see this happen in virtually all players who have done this sort of study using fluoroscopy, fMRI, or even motion detectors attached to spots on the tongue.

I’d like to see this research replicated with performers who do (or at least claim to do) something different with their tongue position. For example, I have consciously worked on slurring and sustaining notes by snapping the tip of my tongue down to the gully below my lower teeth and gums, which helps me keep my tongue position lower in the mouth (I think) and seems to open up my sound. When I slur up I will think of pushing my tongue forward to raise the level of tongue arch. I would think that this instead brings the tongue position forward, rather than back in my oral cavity. Then again, this might look closer to how Yeo’s tongue arch is working than I realize. There are also some folks who articulate by keeping their tongue tip “anchored” down on the lower teeth or gums and attacking the note with more of the middle part of the tongue (some folks call this “anchored” tonguing or “dorsal” tonguing).

There is some footage of Yeo double tonguing. I would like to see someone doodle tonguing in an fMRI scanner too.

It is worth going to Yeo’s writeup of his experience and both reading the historical background as well as watching more of the videos that have been posted there. Thanks to Doug Yeo for making his thoughts and those videos accessible!