No Pressure Brass Embouchure – Fact or Urban Legend?

I’ve blogged about this topic before. The specific story is that a famous brass player or teacher is giving a clinic or lesson and he or she hangs the instrument from the ceiling and with no pressure plays a high, loud note with beautiful tone. I mentioned in that earlier post that if this demonstration actually happens I would expect someone somewhere would have it up on YouTube or somewhere else on the internet. All I could find were stories where someone claimed to have seen it.

Until now. Sort of. Here is my attempt to duplicate this experiment.

If you make it through the entire video you won’t see and hear good results.

The point of the stories I hear tend towards the idea that mouthpiece pressure is bad and that minimal mouthpiece pressure is optimal. Personally, I feel that excessive mouthpiece pressure is a symptom of something else that’s not working correctly and if you correct that issue the mouthpiece pressure will balance itself on its own, no need to consciously attempt to reduce mouthpiece pressure.

Beyond that, it’s obvious that some mouthpiece pressure is necessary, and it may be more than some folks realize. I’ve blogged about this topic before as well. Some amateur trumpet players who happened to be engineers designed an experiment where they showed experienced trumpet teachers photographs of different players (ranging from professionals to amateurs) playing different pitches they were unable to accurately judge how much mouthpiece pressure was actually measured.

So for now, at least, I consider these stories an urban legend. If you disagree, post your own video or help me find one and I’ll plug it here.

How To Form a Trumpet (brasswind) Embouchure in Four Steps, by Charlie Porter

Here’s a lengthy video by trumpet player Charlie Porter on how to form a brass embouchure.

I have had some disagreements with Porter in the past. I have some quibbles with some of his instructions too, but I like his recommendation to set firm the lips up before setting the mouthpiece on the lips. Two of the other steps he recommends (pulling the lips open after setting the mouthpiece and wetting the lip center with the tongue after that) I feel would risk undoing the value of firming before setting.

Watching through the video I didn’t understand if he was suggesting the embouchure aperture remains open throughout the lip vibration, so I asked him about it. He was kind enough to take the time to clarify for me.

Of course the lips rapidly close and open during vibration. That’s not the point…I’m not arguing that they they never close briefly, per each vibration occurring…the point is that players are often way too tight and begin with closed lips and press them together to the point of distorting the vibration.

It’s a rather long video, but take look at it if you’re interested in different thoughts about setting the embouchure formation for playing.

Are Big Band Brass Players Losing the Concept of Being Team Players?

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Playing trombone is NOT like punching people!

I remember reading this essay by Doug Yeo years ago, Me, Myself and I: Are Orchestral Brass Players Losing the Concept of Being Team Players?. Back in 1997 Yeo expressed his concerns that trends in orchestral brass playing had not necessarily been for the best.

Go into the parking lot of any brass conference, convention or workshop, and you’re bound to find more than a few cars with the bumper sticker that reads, “Question authority.” Some would argue that this mindset is the province of trumpet players alone but that surely is not the case. Over the past twenty years, American orchestral playing has been undergoing a significant change, as brass players have (with some notable exceptions) asserted themselves beyond their traditional role in the orchestra.

Most students go through their “loud” phase, of getting together with other players and just knocking the living daylights out of orchestral excerpts. This can be great fun to do, good for the face and boosting to the ego. But excerpt sessions don’t always relate to the real world, and as many brass players have developed a more “muscular” concept of playing, the American orchestra has, in my mind, begun to suffer.

Yeo’s essay is specific to orchestral brass playing, but much of it seems to relate to big band brass playing as well, at least among the big bands I get to hear and play in. The details are different, as are some of the influences, but a lot is similar.

The job of balancing an orchestra lies with the conductor alone. But there is no denying that a 15 member brass section can ruin any orchestral concert (despite what the conductor wants) very easily as the combined volume of the strings and winds can never compete with that of even a single trombonist. Arnold Jacobs once told me that in his view, the bass trombone was the instrument of the orchestra that had by far the greatest “high volume potential” owing in part to the fact that after the flute, the bass trombone utilized the highest flow rate of any wind instrument, including the tuba.

John Berry, in his excellent jazz pedagogy text The Jazz Ensemble Director’s Handbook, wrote about the “Monster Bass Trombonist.” He’s describing a common trend in student musicians, not professionals, but occasionally I run into this player in the professional world (not recently, and not anyone I work with regularly now!).

About once a decade the music world renders up a bona fide (pardon the pun) “Monster Bass Trombonist” – you know, the guy who can play louder than any human on earth…

…A good MBT (or even a bad one who thinks he’s good) can “cop an attitude.” He becomes a star. He basks in compliments. He becomes a junkie for oohs and ahas. He craves ever more. He plays LOOUUDD!!! . . . All the time!

Well, it’s not just bass trombonists. You find them in the whole brass section.

In his essay, Yeo brings up equipment trends in orchestral brass playing.

Part of the problem is simple ignorance; the idea that Bruckner symphonies are to be played at maximum volume would horrify Bruckner, the reserved, insecure, Catholic composer of music for and about the church and the inexpressible “beyond.” Let us not forget that his symphonies also require us to play as soft as possible. Unfortunately, many players look at passages marked fff and simply blow until the seams pop. Unsatisfied with the way their instruments respond to this treatment, they continually hunt for something that will allow them to play even louder with a reasonably good sound. Hence, we now have tenor players in many major orchestras using bass trombone slides and 3 or 4G mouthpieces, and bass trombonists without leadpipes, playing mouthpieces that resemble tuba mouthpieces, and gigantic dual bore slides. All of these changes do indeed allow players to play louder.

This mirrors equipment choices of big band brass players, although the influences are different. Many big bands pride themselves on the “faster, louder, higher” school. Certainly big bands like Stan Kenton and Maynard Ferguson have greatly influenced big band style and the demands of those styles strongly influence big band brass players to make certain equipment choices that favor louder and higher.

About 15 years ago I went to a clinic the great big band composer/arranger Bob Florence was giving. One thing that really stuck with me is that he said, if the details I remember are correct, that he never uses mp dynamics any longer because bands never play soft enough. If he wants mp, he writes p. For p he writes pp.

I’ve been playing and directing the Asheville Jazz Orchestra for a while now. We’ve played a lot of gigs together, but some of the ones that stand out in my mind as being particularly good were those times we played without a sound system. Everyone listened closely, especially during solos, and dynamics were played consistently correctly. Knowing that there wasn’t a sound technician “fixing the mix” for us forced everyone to become team players. It was just a mental switch, but it made a huge difference in the overall quality of our music.

What about your experience? Are the big bands you play with a “blast fest” all the time? What gigs have you played were the musical quality was excellent specifically because everyone was a great team player?

Weekend Picks

Here are a handful of random music-related links for your browsing this weekend.

Can you shatter a wine glass with your voice?

A human voice can shatter a glass. Every object has a resonant frequency – the natural frequency at which something vibrates. Wine glasses, because of their hollow shape, are particularly resonant. If you run a damp finger along the rim of a glass, you might hear a faint, ghostly hum – the resonant frequency of the glass. Or you can simply tap the glass and hear the same frequency. To shatter the glass, a singer’s voice has to match that frequency, or pitch, and the glass must have microscopic defects.

Mirror DuetThe Mirror Duet is usually attributed to Mozart, although there is some question about that. If you’re not familiar, it’s a duet where the two players stand facing each other, reading the same page of sheet music. And it works.

 

CsárdásI have no idea who Helen Amvroseva and George Shakhnin are/were, and no way to embed this video of them performing Csárdás on trumpet, trombone, and piano. It’s both impressive and funny.

 

Reinhardt Forum Restrictions

The Trumpet Herald sub-forum dedicated to discussing Donald Reinhardt has gotten more restrictive recently. This appears to be a response from a post from former Reinhardt student, Doug Elliott, who stated that he feels Reinhardt’s tongue-types are largely unnecessary. Forum moderator, Rich Willey, deleted the ensuing discussion and apparently Doug is now banned from posting there. Rich posted Our stated purpose on the Reinhardt Forum.

This is not an open forum where you can just post anything you please.

If it’s not a question about what Reinhardt taught, or if it’s not a direct statement of something that Reinhardt wrote or taught you, or maybe a short report how something Reinhardt taught made a big difference in your playing, then it serves no useful purpose here if we’re sticking to the mission of our stated purpose.

I understand Rich’s basic concern here. He wants the forum to be on topic, and it’s his prerogative to run the forum this way. It is, however, a very narrow restriction. This is a good way to design a library site or FAQ, but not very encouraging for vibrant discussion.

Reinhardt’s writings and opinions did, in fact, change, but we are left with a large body of work exactly the way Reinhardt left it, not as we interpret it all these years later.

Rich acknowledges that Reinhardt was open to changing his ideas, and from what I’ve heard from other former students he continued to do so as long as he was teaching. I prefer to honor Reinhardt’s legacy by following his model, rather than pin down what he said into something static.

I have had many requests through the years to keep on doing the job of “keeping this forum pure Reinhardt,” and some people have gone away with their feelings hurt. Some of the most notable posters on this forum have called (or PM’ed) and thanked me for doing the dirty work of cleaning out the “riff raff” or those who are not interested in the stated purpose of this forum.

The disgruntled few who are no longer with us are usually not missed, and those who continue to look to this forum for real answers that Reinhardt discovered all those years ago ought to be greeted with answers à la Reinhardt, not the way we think his teaching might have evolved all these years later.

I do believe that there are some who feel similarly to Rich about how to restrict discussion there. My guess is that there are some others who tolerate it because they are genuinely interested in learning about Reinhardt. I’m not certain that the “disgruntled few” are so few and aren’t missed, but maybe I’m projecting my own bias here.

Thank you for understanding and helping to keep this forum “Pure” Reinhardt.

I don’t have the time or inclination to create and moderate a public forum these days, but Facebook makes it easy to start a discussion group. If folks want a another place to discuss Donald Reinhardt’s pedagogy and how we can better teach it ourselves go here and send me a request to join.

Embouchure Question: Dealing With an Upstream Mouthpiece Placement Shift

I often will scan through topics on brass fora for blogging ideas. This particular question was asked on the Trumpet Herald Forum.

So for some time now my I have had decreased range and endurance. I think it is due to a weak upper lip. When I get about a G above the staff my emborchure changes and goes from a 1 third top, 2 thirds bottom to a 1 fourth top, 3 fourths bottom. Is there a way to just strength my upper lip?

Here, then, is my slightly edited response in that topic.

My short advice is to place the mouthpiece where you put it for the high range and learn to play your entire range there. It may take some weeks of practice before you start becoming comfortable enough to play that way always, but you’ll probably be better off in the long term. If you want to understand why I feel this way, read on.

When I get about a G above the staff my emborchure changes and goes from a 1 third top, 2 thirds bottom to a 1 fourth top, 3 fourths bottom.

Since I have not watched you play in person, you should take my advice with a grain of salt. That said, based on your description you have a “low placement” upstream embouchure type. It’s neither good nor bad, it’s sort of like being left handed. It’s less common than the downstream embouchure types, so you’ll see fewer players around using it. It also is different from the other embouchure types and certain instructions you might get that work great for downstream players actually work against low placement players. I’ve taught many upstream players and happen to be one myself.

Your switch in mouthpiece placement at a certain point in your range is actually a pretty common upstream problem. Again, without watching you play I can’t be certain if this applies to you or not, but almost every time I’ve seen this (and experienced it in my own playing at one time) the solution is not to try to keep your low register placement for the high register, it’s to learn to play your entire range with the high register placement. And this placement has been without exception, for these players, a placement with more lower lip inside the mouthpiece (placement closer to the chin).

Something that helped me and many of my students with similar issues is to place the mouthpiece on your lips where it works best for the high range, play an open note in your high range, and slowly and softly slur down a partial and back up, then back down two partials and up, down three and up, etc. Accept a thinner sound for the moment, just learn what your chops need to do in order to descend with the high register setting. Avoid dropping your jaw as much as possible for this and don’t worry if you can’t get much lower than where you want to reset.

If you watch yourself in a mirror while doing this you might be able to notice that you’re pushing your lips and mouthpiece together upward towards the nose as you descend. This is natural and proper for upstream players (the downstream embouchures can either do the same or reverse, depending on type). The track of this “embouchure motion” of up to descend and down to ascend can be close to straight up and down, or it can be angled, but it should probably be a straight line and consistently work in the same direction (i.e., up and slightly to the right to descend, down and slightly to the left to ascend). If you find yourself needing to reverse the direction of this you might be going too far with it.

Along with good breathing and proper tongue arch to change registers, finding the exact spot for your embouchure motion for each pitch is going to help you open up your sound and keep your mouthpiece placement consistent for your entire register. A good analogy is that your chops are, for now, like a muscle car. The engine sounds pretty rough when you’re idling at the stop light, but once your up to highway speed it’s very smooth. Once you can “tune up” your playing mechanics to adjust you’re “engine” will work fine in all registers.

Again, all the above makes certain assumptions based only one what you’ve written here already, and I could be way off base. I also want to mention that much of what I wrote would be wrong for most other players, so for any folks who disagree, please put my advice in that context.

Why “Schools” of Brass Playing?

I’ve griped about my pet peeve here more than once, but a recent forum discussion on the Trumpet Herald concerning mouth corners got me thinking about this topic again. The debate there centers around whether it’s better to worry about what your mouth corners are doing, which is an interesting conversation to have, but it got framed into different “schools” of trumpet teaching.

When I lurk on the dedicated forums* on the Trumpet Herald I notice that there is a lot of advice that is common across different camps of trumpet teaching and playing. There is also an awful lot of contradictory information. The trouble with the debates that crop up there (and elsewhere) are that it tends to focus on what a particular teacher said, rather than trying to understand why.

For example, the discussion on mouth corners led to a debate on whether or not it was useful to learn about what the corners are supposed to do when playing and how to use that information. Some folks cited teachers and players who argued against worrying about the mouth corners at all while others did the same for focused practice on the mouth corners. Both sides can’t be right, can they? Or does it really have to come down to try everything, use what works for you? Is there any way we can narrow down which approach is going to work best for our particular situation?

One potentially useful exercise to help us answer those questions is to speculate on some reasons why a teacher would recommend a particular approach. Looking then at the context of the argument you will hopefully be able to determine how much weight you should give to that instruction and spend less time on trial and error figuring out what works and more time making music. Here, then, are three hypothetical motivations.

1. Other playing mechanics need to be prioritized. There are many facets to successful brass technique. A brass player needs to coordinate breathing, tonguing, fingering/slide – all within the context of performing expressively and (usually) playing well with other performers. There may be more than one area where the teacher identifies playing deficiencies, but it’s really difficult to address more than one at a time. An experienced teacher will often prioritize which area should be corrected first (breathing, for example) and tell a student to not worry about another (embouchure, for example). Sometimes students (who often become teachers themselves later) will interpret that to mean you should never pay attention to how your embouchure is working because breathing will fix it.

Consider a masterclass scenario. If you only have about 15 minutes to work with a particular student and see a handful of things you can recommend you only have time to make so many corrections. The teacher will often prioritize things that can be addressed in that short amount of time. I have argued before that breathing is perhaps the most natural aspect of brass technique, is one of the easiest to fix, and is one of the areas where the field of brass teachers and players as a whole have the greatest understanding. Therefore, it will get much more attention in these sort of situations.

Furthermore, some teachers like to do the “crazy like a fox” style of instruction. Arnold Jacobs seems to have been quite good at telling his students how to play while at the same time telling them how to play. Here’s my favorite example, from Song and Wind.

A common problem is that of a double buzz, or as Jacobs calls it, “segmentation.” This happens when the embouchure is set for vibrations higher than what is actually desired. A major factor is insufficient air to fuel the vibration. It is, in fact, hardly ever an embouchure problem. The tongue’s position is too high and forward in the mouth. To correct segmentation, adjust the embouchure to vibrate at the pitch that is desired – play with a thicker air stream and keep the embouchure open.

The bold emphases are mine to help you see how contradictory some great teachers can be, in the same paragraph in this example. Another example comes from a tape I have of Donald Reinhardt giving a lesson. In it he discusses how he will raise a student’s horn angle to get them to change the position of the jaw, precisely because he didn’t want his student’s attention on the jaw at that time. Reinhardt goes on to talk about how over a period of lessons he will sometimes ask the student to practice with a horn angle that isn’t where he expects it should be. There are plenty of examples we can find where teachers will tell a student to go from point A to point C in order to make them go to point B.

If you don’t understand why a teacher makes a recommendation, you might take something too literally. Don’t just listen to what is being said, make an effort to decipher where that recommendation comes from.

2. The teacher really doesn’t understand that particular area. I frequently remind people to take my ideas with a grain of salt. All of us are wrong at times, even in areas where we are otherwise quite knowledgeable. Teachers tend to instruct their students in a  way that worked for them, and can get quite clever and practiced at helping their students – even when they don’t understand what students are physically doing when playing the instrument. Even (maybe especially) great players can have literally no idea how they play, but they can have solid analogies and highly charismatic personalities that lead to great teaching.

Some teachers know they are ignorant in some area and so simply don’t address that topic much. Others have come to ideas based on inaccurate information or an error in logic. Good brass teachers that fit this scenario come up with solid practice methods in spite of their ignorance through careful trial and error. They may not understand why it works, they just see it does. We can very easily fool ourselves into seeing patterns that aren’t really there.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? Well, that’s probably not the best attitude. What we can say is accurate about brass technique today is different from what was generally understood in the past. Educational psychologists have made great improvements in our understanding of how we learn and retain information and skills. Kinesiology has similarly made corrections in how we develop motor skills and what approaches train them faster and consistently.

Musical performance and education needs to be more fluid and self-correcting to take advantage of these advances. Before you pass on advice to someone else, it’s worth checking up on your source for that information and see if it holds up under scrutiny. Are our goals to advance as musicians and help others on the same path? If so, I argue we should make an better effort to try to keep current and give other ideas a closer look, even when they contradict our own cherished beliefs.

3. The teacher is right, at least to a degree. Great brass teachers are authorities in the area of teaching brass. While this doesn’t necessarily mean they are always right, their background as teachers and performers means we should pay attention to what they say. But in light of some of the contradictions you’ll hear from different teachers and players say about developing good brass technique, a little more context is needed.

Consider all the different ideas and techniques brass players have about tongue arch. There are some folks who swear they never change the position of their tongue while slurring notes and others who advocate changing it to play in different registers. Some folks let their tongue tip hover in their mouth while holding pitches while others will set the tongue tip below the lower teeth. There are some methods that instruct students to hold their tongue pressed up against their lower lip at all times. Brass embouchure technique is another example. I won’t go into that topic here because I’ve so frequently written about this topic before.

When we consider that the size and shape of everyone’s tongue, oral cavity, teeth, lips, etc. are different, it stands to reason that some folks will simply play better with an alternate technique. Some of these methods will be a little more common than others and some of those approaches may be dead ends, but that shouldn’t stop us from exploring why these techniques work (or don’t work) and come to an understanding why we should recommend them or not and under what circumstances.

Where to go from here?

I would be lying if I said that I’ve got the right answer. The above musings are really extreme caricatures of possible brass teacher motivations. Most likely there is a little bit of all three in you and me too. I hope, at least some of the time, to have the humility to consider that some of my ideas are wrong and explore different, better ways to teach and play. As musicians and music educators we should be more concerned with teaching our students how to think about music, rather than what to think.


* If you don’t read the Trumpet Herald forum, they have forums that are dedicated to discussing the teaching of a particular instructor or “school” of instructors.

Weekend Picks

I’m a little late today posting my weekend picks. I’ll make it up to you by posting one more than usual today.

VictrolaHave you ever wondered Why Nerdy White Guys Who Love the Blues Are Obsessed With a Wisconsin Chair Factory?

Paramount is this incredible label that was born from a company called the Wisconsin Chair Company, which was making chairs, obviously. The company had started building phonograph cabinets to contain turntables, which they also were licensing. And they developed, like many furniture companies, an arm that was a record label so that they could make records to sell with the cabinets. This was before a time in which record stores existed. People bought their records at the furniture store, because they were things you needed to make your furniture work.

Transcribing music is one of the best things you can do for all around musicianship. It helps train your ear, writing it down improves your sight reading, you develop expressive nuances in your own playing, and it helps you develop a vocabulary for improvisation.

Kathy Jensen’s signature laugh with transcription. She has endless licks and can laugh in any key. She’s also a killer sax player.

Her laughter is infectious. You can check out more about Kathy Jensen at www.hornheads.com.

If you’re a jazz musician or a fan of jazz jam sessions you’ll recognize what Bill Anschell has to say about jam sessions. Consider, for example, the vocalists you run into at jam sessions.

Vocalists are whimsical creations of the all-powerful jazz gods. They are placed in sessions to test musicians’ capacity for suffering. They are not of the jazz world, but enter it surrepticiously. Example: A young woman is playing minor roles in college musical theater. One day, a misguided campus newspaper critic describes her singing as …”jazzy.” Voila! A star is born! Quickly she learns “My Funny Valentine,” “Summertime,” and “Route 66.” Her training complete, she embarks on a campaign of session terrorism. Musicians flee from the bandstand as she approaches. Those who must remain feel the full fury of the jazz universe (see “The Vocalist” below). IH: The vocalist will try to seduce you—and the rest of the audience—by making eye contact, acknowledging your presence, even talking to you between tunes. DO NOT FALL INTO THIS TRAP! Look away, your distaste obvious. Otherwise the musicians will avoid you during their breaks. Incidentally, if you talk to a vocalist during a break, she will introduce you to her “manager.”

Read a whole lot more at Bill Anschell’s Jazz Jam Sessions: A First-Timer’s Guide.

On a more serious note, I found Bob Gillis’s discussion on trumpet embouchures to be fascinating. I have some minor quibbles with a couple of his points, but those are based on the perspective of an upstream embouchure player. I’m guessing that Bob must be a downstream embouchure type (not a wild guess, the majority of brass players are). Here’s a sample.

By then stopping the incoming mouthpiece weight when it first contacts this ideal preset of the embouchure, the player will have taken all of the steps to create the best possible seal before involving any action of the embouchure musculature. This extremely close proximity of the mouthpiece serves as a great reference…meaning it will clearly reveal what specific gaps still remain, and what exact shape the embouchure must assume to complete its interface with the mouthpiece. This embouchure “sandwich” (like the filling of the Oreo cookie) between the mouthpiece rim and teeth (with their irregularities) must fulfill much more than a role of a seal or gasket though, for it also functions as the instrument’s reed and facing (the top and bottom lips, respectively). That means the act of sealing the interface between mouthpiece and teeth formation must be done in a way that does not disrupt the vibration of the top lip, but that instead increases the efficiency of its vibration. This efficiency is achieved by also simultaneously focusing the size and shape of the lip aperture, all the while making sure the top lip is as relaxed as possible.

Read more on his post, The Landing: The Final Focus and Seal. It looks like he has a lot more interesting stuff there which I will need to look through more carefully later.

And lastly, the Mnozil Brass will be touring not too far from me in February. If you’re not familiar with them, they are incredible musicians and also very entertaining performers. Here is their performance of Lonely Boy.

Trumpet Related Injuries

YouTube user “Rufftips” (John) has posted a video about injuries that trumpet players are at risk for. Take a look.

It’s almost 10 minutes long, so if you don’t feel like watching it all the way through just now, I will summarize what he discusses and offer some additional thoughts of my own.

The first condition that John discusses is focal dystonia. Like some other folks online, he passes along some misinformation here. He calls focal dystonia a “muscle condition,” where it is more accurate to call it a neurological condition. The National Center of Neurological Disorders and Stroke discusses dystonia here.

The cause of dystonia is not known. Researchers believe that dystonia results from an abnormality in or damage to the basal ganglia or other brain regions that control movement. There may be abnormalities in the brain’s ability to process a group of chemicals called neurotransmitters that help cells in the brain communicate with each other.  There also may be abnormalities in the way the brain processes information and generates commands to move.  In most cases, no abnormalities are visible using magnetic resonance imaging or other diagnostic imaging.

I’ve written several times briefly about “embouchure dystonia” before here, but I tend to avoid going into too much detail about it because I understand that even experts poorly understand what’s going on. In fact, my personal opinion studying brass embouchures leads me to believe that much of what gets defined as embouchure dystonia may really be related to the player doing some embouchure type switching. Since most brass players (let alone medical professionals) don’t have an idea of what embouchure types are and how they can vary from player to player, the underlying cause of a player’s difficulties get diagnosed as an extremely rare neurological disorder that, as you can see from the NCNDS’s quote above, is challenging to diagnose.

My advice here is if you feel you might have a neurological condition affecting your brass playing you should get a referral to a specialist and never take medical advice from a brass teacher. A brass teacher who is diagnosing and claiming to treat “embouchure dystonia” is not qualified to do either, no matter how many players he or she has helped with lessons.

John next discusses is Bell’s palsy. He does the right thing here and recommends viewers to visit a doctor. I wish he had mentioned that early on in his video.

Over the course of video recording brass player’s embouchures for some of my research I’ve documented two trumpet players who had prior to my recording their chops suffered from Bell’s palsy. While both felt things were not quite 100% for them at the time of the video recording, they both have made complete recoveries. I believe that one of them commented that his doctor told him that the early this condition is diagnosed and treated the faster the recovery period and the more likely the player will make a complete recovery. At one point this disorder might be career ending for a brass player, but these days the medical profession knows enough about Bell’s palsy that treating it has much better outcomes and most people make complete recoveries with proper treatment.

After discussing Bell’s palsy John covers nerve damage. He mainly talks about nerve damage that might occur from getting dental work. John comments that diligent and careful practice can eliminate playing symptoms from nerve damage, but how much of that is simply related to recovery time and how much due to a specific sort of practice isn’t clear to me. Again, if you suspect nerve damage I suggest you discuss your symptoms with a medical professional.

Laryngocele is the next condition John talks about and he even demonstrates what it looks like. I had not heard this term used before, but it’s essentially a neck puff, at least as defined by John. I found a paper published in the Internet Journal of Otorhinolaryngology that defines it slightly differently.

Laryngocele is a rare, benign dilatation of the laryngeal saccule which may be asymptomatic or they may present with cough, hoarseness, stridor, sore throat and swelling of the neck. The incidence of laryngocele is 1 per 2.5 million people per year.

I’ve written about a neck puff before. If you want to read what Donald Reinhardt wrote about this and his recommendations for reducing or eliminated a neck puff please check it out here.

Next up is a brief discussion of the teeth and John’s personal experience with this issue. He recommends getting a mold made of your teeth so that in the event that you need some reconstructive work done on your teeth you can have the dental technicians reconstruct it as close as possible.

Just to add my two cents here, I generally don’t recommend dental work to try to fix a malfunctioning embouchure. I feel that it’s better (and cheaper) in the long term to learn to work with your anatomical features. It is definitely possible to play correctly with all sorts of tooth formations, so there is little need for a player to have his or her teeth worked on in order to find a nonexistent (in my opinion) ideal tooth structure.

John finishes his video discussing lip injuries, again using his own experiences here as a case study. After injuring his upper lip accidentally with a pair of pliers. Eventually he ended up having a plastic surgeon remove the scar tissue from his lip and carefully rebuilt his playing.

If I recall correctly one of my teachers, Doug Elliott, when through something similar when he hit himself in the lip with a hammer. Or maybe this was one of his other students. At any rate, Doug is a fantastic mouthpiece maker and he scooped out a rim to fit the scar tissue and he (or his student) was able to play normally. Eventually the scar tissue healed and he was able to go back to a normal mouthpiece rim.

John recommends what I feel is good advice about rebuilding your chops slowly and carefully. I would also emphasize playing softly throughout your rebuilding, something I don’t recall John mentioning in his video.

In short, I think this video is worth checking out, particularly for folks interested in medical issues related to or affecting brass playing. I wouldn’t suggest folks looking for help with embouchure problems watch it with the intention of self-diagnosing (ironically, I don’t want the same for a lot of my blog posts). I prefer to refer musicians to medical professionals for medical issues. Self-diagnosing from stuff you read on the internet is a bad idea, especially when that medical information is coming from someone like me, a non-medical professional.

Embouchure Type Switching – Very High and Medium High Placement Confusion

Long time readers of my blog will know the huge influence my teacher Doug Elliott has had on both my playing and teaching. Doug was the first person I met who understood the role of how anatomical features influence a brass musician’s embouchure. My lessons with Doug inspired me to learn more about brass embouchures and to begin researching that topic seriously. My dissertation, the correlation between Doug Elliott’s embouchure types and selected physical and playing characteristics among trombonists was largely based on a lengthy interview he graciously agreed to give me. The embouchure types I use and much of the other terminology I use were taught to me by Doug. I know other folks who have similar experience studying and teaching brass embouchures, but Doug’s presentation has always been my favorite.

Yesterday I was able to catch the first lesson I’ve had with Doug in a few years. It was also particularly exciting for me because I brought a couple of trumpet player friends along with me and got the chance to again watch Doug teach first hand. I’ve had the chance to watch both of these friends play up close many times before and even been asked for advice about their chops in the past, so it was very interesting to compare my thoughts and suggestions to Doug’s. Of course, I found my own lesson to be insightful. Doug has always been able to spot things that I do inefficiently, even though I can make it work for most of my playing. He also clarified some things for me that I had thought I had a good grasp on, but still needed more guidance with. My lesson, however, is probably worth a post of its own later.

The topic of the day ended up being players who are “very high placement” embouchure types but who have characteristics of the “medium high placement” embouchure type. Both of my friends who came along for lessons were in this situation and some recent online discussions (including my most recent Guess the Embouchure Type post here) and a private email discussion I’ve been having with John W. dealt with this pattern.

This situation has been a tricky one for me to help students with in the past. There have been times where I’ve been able to spot what was going on right away and immediately help, such as one of the trumpet players I documented in Part 2 of my video/blog post on embouchure troubleshooting. In that particular case the trumpet player was playing well with a “very high placement” up to a certain point in his range, but then reversed the direction of his embouchure motion in his high range. Once I helped him keep the direction of his embouchure motion moving up to ascend (instead of pulling down in that range, like a “medium high placement” embouchure player would) his upper register opened up and increased.

My friends had some similar experiences in their lesson with Doug. One of them I was already convinced should be a “very high placement” player. Doug helped him tweak his horn angles and embouchure motion and slightly altered the way he set his embouchure formation. My other friend wasn’t so obviously a “very high placement” type player to me, but Doug spotted it right way. What I found most interesting about watching this lesson was my friend’s tendency to bunch his chin while playing. My thought was that in order to determine this friend’s correct embouchure type would be to get him to first stabilize his embouchure formation and then his embouchure type would become apparent. Doug, on the other hand, found his correct embouchure type and the embouchure formation stabilized on its own, without needing to address it at all. My friend’s bunched chin was a symptom, not the cause, of his playing inefficiencies.

This situation is a pretty common one and I suspect is the most likely scenario for a player who gets diagnosed with what is sometimes caused “embouchure dystonia” or “embouchure overuse syndrome.” Doug seems to agree with me that the cause of the embouchure dysfunction isn’t usually neurological or overplaying, but rather than a physical playing situation causing some problems that turn into a lack of confidence and setting up a downward spiral. Because most players aren’t familiar enough with how brass embouchures function correctly (and how this can be different from player to player), they aren’t informed enough to find the root cause of their problems. I think Doug was the first person I heard use the analogy that this is like lifting with your back. You can get away with it for a while, and even lift very heavy objects like this when you’re in shape. Over time, however, this can lead to troubles and even injuries.

I wonder if this confusion between playing as a “very high placement” embouchure type and “medium high placement” type usually ends up with the player correctly playing as a “very high placement’ embouchure type. If I understand Doug’s point of view correctly here, this is more often the case, rather than players ending up best as a “medium high placement.” embouchure type. This might be because that players who have the anatomy that makes a “very high placement” embouchure type are more common than the other embouchure types. On the other hand, it appears that there’s something about many “very high placement” type players that allows them to play to a high degree with characteristics of the “medium high placement” type, albeit inefficiently compared to how their chops can be working.

I know there are some regular commentators here who belong to the “very high placement” embouchure type. If you are (or think you are), have you ever had a period where you struggled due to playing with characteristics that are associated with the “medium high placement” embouchure type? If you know that you’re really a “medium high placement” have you ever been mistyped (by yourself or others) as a “very high placement?” Please leave your comments and thoughts about anything related to this topic below.

If you’re looking for help with your embouchure I can’t recommend highly enough Doug’s expertise. You can contact Doug for lesson inquiries through his web site. He also makes great customizable low brass mouthpieces, which can learn more about there too.