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.

Lip Rip Blues – Blog About Brass Playing Lip Injuries

I was cleaning out some broken bookmarks on my browser and found a (now dark) blog called Lip Rip Blues by trumpet player Jonathan Vieker. In 2011 he severely injured his lip, had surgery, and blogged about his rehabilitation process. Vieker wrote posts covering how he injured himself in the first place, dealing with the psychological repercussions, his setbacks and success, and more.

The morning after I got hurt, as I made a cup of coffee and sat down at the computer to figure out what was wrong with the muscle in my lip, I discovered quickly that there just wasn’t enough information available about embouchure injuries.

This site is my attempt to do something about that.

My interest in lip injuries is peripheral to the research I’ve done on brass embouchure technique. While some brass musicians ask me for help when they have a lip injury, I haven’t personally injured my lip beyond the point where more than a couple of days off would be enough. Players like Vieker help me better understand both the physical and mental issues that brass musicians go through after a severe lip injury.

Two particularly interesting posts in there are Chops and Data: Can Tracking Our Habits Lead to More Consistent Playing? and Chops and Data, Part II: The Results. Vieker describes his approach to logging different variables and how they correlated to how his chops felt. This approach is something that I advocate more of in brass pedagogy in general. It can lead to interesting insights that you haven’t considered before or make you realize that your not actually doing what you think you are.

Tartellog – Thoughts on Trumpet Pedagogy

I recently came across Tartellog, the trumpet blog of Joey Tartell. I forget how I happened across this post by him, but I really enjoyed reading his discussion of brass pedagogy that emphasizes critical thinking about how we teach.

With so many resources available today, it can be difficult to separate what may help you from what is just garbage from what could actually harm you.  To aid you in your search for good pedagogy, I’ve put together a list of five warning signs.  If you encounter any of these, think hard before proceeding.

His list of five warning signs are:

  • Shortcuts
  • Guarantees
  • Secrets
  • Gadgets and Equipment
  • “Schools”

His last warning sign, teachers who identify as belonging to a particular “school” of trumpet playing is one of the few I’ve come across that mirrors my own concerns about this trend. Like Tartell clarifies in his post, many teachers and students get wrapped up in self-identifying with a particularly influential pedagogue to the exclusion of any other approach or method. This stifles improving our teaching and doesn’t often serve the student well either.

What I mean by “schools” is the rigidity of basing all pedagogy from the mouth of one person. 

. . .

My problem comes from thinking that any one of them was the only person who could teach.  This leads to thinking that your “school” holds the secret, and no one else really understands.

And like Tartell, I’ve also found that when I’ve pointed this out as a problem, it often gets interpreted as me attacking a famous teacher.

If you studied with one of these teachers and are thinking:
“Hey, wait a minute, my teacher was great.  Why is Joey attacking my teacher?”‘
I’m not.  It is likely that I really like your teacher.  The point I’m trying to make is that just because your teacher was great doesn’t mean others weren’t.
If you think that only one person could teach, and that person is now dead, that means that your pedagogy is now dead too.  This is unacceptable.
Pedagogy should be an ever-evolving process, growing as needed with each generation.  We take what our teachers gave to us and, combined with our experiences, pass on what we know to our students.

I’m going to have to look through more of Joey Tartell’s Tartellog. Scanning through his other posts it looks like he has a lot of interesting things to say about brass playing and teaching there. Go check it out!

“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 – Nat Adderley

It’s been a while since I’ve done a “Guess the Embouchure Type,” so I’m way overdue. Here is a video of the Cannonball Adderley Quintet playing Work Song. Nat Adderley’s solo starts at 2:39 if you want to skip straight to that. Although the video resolution is pretty low, I think you can a close enough look at Nat’s chops that you can make a fairly accurate guess as to his basic embouchure type. My guess after the break.

Continue reading Guess the Embouchure Type – Nat Adderley

Trumpet on a String Legend Part 2 – Rafael Méndez

There is a brass musician urban legend where a famous musician, usually a trumpet player, is said to have the instrument hanging from the ceiling on wires of some sort and then proceeds to demonstrate playing loud and high notes with “no pressure.” A while back I tried to duplicate this for fun.

 

Recently I got an email from Jackson, who was doing some research on the great Mexican trumpet player Rafael Méndez. Jackson came across the following, which may be a letter written as part of Méndez’s 1981 obituary. It was written by Ronald E. Dishon and he reminisces on when he met Méndez in 1953.

As I sat there in awe, watching and listening , he suddenly stopped and asked me to approach where he was standing. In the middle of this room, suspended from the ceiling, was a trumpet on wires. He detached it and asked me to hold it and play a single note–any note–for him. I was so taken by his presence that I was reluctant to play and sheepishly declined his offer. However, he immediately assured me that it’s okay and he just wanted to see how I held and played the horn. Little did I know, he was about to teach me some things I have never forgotten and lacked the ability to perform well then and now.

What he was about to demonstrate was non-pressure blowing. Most student trumpet players press the mouth piece somewhat hard against the lips to make the sound come out of the horn. What he demonstrated to me was that this method was not necessary to make a solid tone emanate from the trumpet. So he asked me to now try his method. Of course, I had lots of difficulty making a strong sound, but got the idea that he was trying to show me. He then placed the trumpet once again in the wire hooks suspended from the ceiling and asked me to try to play a note not touching the horn with my hands, but only with my lips.The trumpet went swing back and forth, every which way, for I lacked the ability to smoothly control my embouchure. After my attempt, he then told me to go practice all that he had taught me. Before leaving, I thanked him many times during that short stay for his kind and gentle instructions. After we were through, he went back to blowing low notes, some loudly, some quietly, from this trumpet suspended in air, never touching it with his hands

For the record, I doubt that “no pressure” is a desirable thing for brass players. Research has been done on the amount of mouthpiece pressure brass players use and even seasoned professional players use quite a lot. We also know that experienced brass teachers can’t accurately judge the amount of mouthpiece pressure a player may be using.  “No pressure” approaches are based more on a philosophy or playing ideology, rather than any sort of objective description of how functioning brass embouchures actually work.

That’s not to say that excessive mouthpiece pressure is OK to ignore, or that reducing the mouthpiece pressure might be good for some folks, but it’s entirely depends on what the individual student is doing. Before I try to reduce a student’s mouthpiece pressure I want to make sure that his or her embouchure formation is held firmly enough to accept a typical amount of playing pressure. In my opinion, avoiding technique issues or damage to the lips by mouthpiece pressure is best approached by developing the muscular strength and control in the embouchure to hold the lips firm at all times.

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.

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.