Embouchure Question: Upstream While Playing, Downstream While Blowing

I’ve got a whole bunch of questions from a while ago piling up and I wanted to try to get some of them answered as best as I can. Part of the reason it takes me so long to respond to these is that often times there’s no way I can offer any advice without being able to watch the player in person. That said, I can sometimes make some general suggestions that might be helpful, or at least clear up some confusion. Here is one I got last month.

Hello, I have watch almost every single one of your videos posted on youtube about upstream embouchure as I have one. I have even commented to ask you once but there wasn’t a reply from you so I gave up on asking you but I somehow came to this site still wondering if my embouchure is right and am somehow writing an email to you haha. Anyways, my embouchure is an upstream embouchure as I said before but when I blow the air without a mouthpiece, the air goes downward. I have tried playing with a downstream embouchure but it pretty much doesn’t work for me. So I kept playing with a upstream embouchure but now that I am trying to play high notes on a trumpet like G, A, B, and high C, the sound barely comes out. People say it has to do with practices but I practice A LOT.

First of all, I can’t assume that you’ve got an upstream embouchure without being able to watch you play, so yes, if you can send a video for me to watch that might be helpful. Sometimes folks misunderstand what it means to have an upstream embouchure (“low placement” embouchure type), because there is a very common misconception that playing with an upstream embouchure means playing with a high horn angle. An upstream embouchure is dependent on a mouthpiece placement that has more lower lip inside the mouthpiece, not a high horn angle. Perhaps you do grasp this important point and are playing with an upstream embouchure, but this doesn’t necessarily mean you should be playing this way, or perhaps you are doing something incorrect in your playing that is causing your problems. Without watching you play, it’s hard to say.

Secondly, because an upstream embouchure depends on the mouthpiece placement, there’s really no correlation between how you play (or should be playing) and how you blow or buzz without a mouthpiece. In fact, I recommend that all players, regardless of embouchure type, free buzz with their lips set in a downstream position. This is helpful for strengthening the embouchure muscles in a safe and correct way, while contorting your lips into an upstream free buzz will probably work your embouchure in the wrong way.

Air to Nose ExerciseThere is an exercise that Roy Stevens came up with that you might find helpful, the “air to nose exercise.” This was one of three away-from-the-horn exercises that Stevens covered in his book. In this exercise you roll your lips in to “hug the teeth edges,” then by bringing your jaw forward you blow air so that it strikes the tip of your nose. This approximates what happens inside the mouthpiece for an upstream player, particular those more common “low placement” embouchure type players who play with a protruded jaw position.

As far as your difficulties playing above G go, I would really need to watch you play, preferably in person. There are many things that players can do that hinder their development in the upper register. For example, it’s very common for “low placement” type players to bring their mouth corners back into a smile while ascending, which limits their high range. Or it may be related to how your embouchure motion is working (or not working). It might also be related to something that you’re doing in a completely different register which might not be apparent at first.

Do you have a question that you’d like to see me address here? Please feel free to contact me and ask away. I can’t promise that my response won’t be, “I’d have to see it,” but if I can answer generally I’ll try to give it a try.

The Music Ed Podcast

I discovered (or rather was pointed to) another great music education podcast I want to plug. The Music Ed Podcast is about “quick and easy tips on how to be a better band teacher.” He’s got 14 episodes up so far, with topics ranging from teaching national music standards to things to avoid.

The Music Ed Podcast is by saxophonist James Divine. As an aside, when I taught at Adams State College (now Adams State University) James brought his Colorado Springs Middle School Big Band out to our annual Jazz Festival, so I know he’s the real deal.

Aural Illusions

Grey_square_optical_illusionMany of us are familiar with visual illusions that trick your eyes (or rather, your brain) into thinking it’s seeing something different than what’s really there (for example, square A and square B are exactly the same color in the image to the right). But are you familiar with some of the aural illusions that have been discovered? Meara O’Reilly has a bunch up on her web site.

Meara O’Reilly is a sound artist and educator, in residence at the Exploratorium. Current ongoing projects include a curated collection of auditory illusions as found in indigenous folk music traditions, as well as adapting more scientifically established auditory illusions to be presented on homemade acoustic instruments.

The Shepard tone is one of the best known aural illusions. Because each pitch consists of multiple octaves when a continuous scale is played it creates the illusion that the scale isn’t going higher or lower.

The Wessel Illusion was a new one to me.

The Wessel Illusion demonstrates how timbre can determine the way in which we perceptually group notes in a melody.

Three notes, rising in pitch but alternating in timbre, are played slowly. When this sequence is played faster, it’s possible to hear the trajectory of the melody change.

There are a whole bunch of other aural illusions and other neat things to explore over at O’Reilly’s web site. Some neat musical examples as well as the basic illusions. Check them out further here.

International Music Score Library Project

If you’re a classical musician, music student, or music teacher, you will want to be aware of the International Music Score Library Project. With hundreds of thousands of public domain music scores available, the IMSLP is one of the best resources for free music scores available on the web. Here’s some resent news about this site:

28 December 2013 – 261,000 scores.
28 December 2013 – 74,000 works have scores or parts on Petrucci Music Library.
1 July 2013 – We are happy to receive news of the successful incorporation and launch of Petrucci Music Library – Canada! More information can be found in this forum post.
30 May 2013 – IMSLP is happy to announce the availability of a “score similarity” feature, created by Vladimir Viro, which will show other pieces similar to a particular IMSLP file.

Since all the works published on this site are public domain there isn’t much music available after the 20th century, but if you’re looking for music to study prior to 1900 you can try searching at the IMSLP first and you may be able to a PDF score of what you’re looking for, sometimes even more than one edition.

Low-Down Sires at the White Horse Black Mountain

Low-Down Sires LogoIf you’re in western North Carolina this Friday (January 24, 2014) and are looking for some live music, come on out to the White Horse Black Mountain. I’ll be performing two sets of traditional jazz with the Low-Down Sires for your listening and dancing pleasure, including music by King Oliver, Kid Ory, Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbeck, W.C. Handy, and more.

If you make it out this weekend, please make sure to say hello to me on our set break or after the show.

The Breathing Gym

Tubists Sam Pilafian and Patrick Sheridan have created a number of resources for wind and brass musicians called “The Breathing Gym.” There is a book and DVD that go together, but this particular 10 minute video I came across on YouTube is a different video than the DVD, but contains many of the same breathing exercises.

One of the great things about these exercises is that they are away from your instrument. Sometimes players will develop a conditioned response to playing their instrument in a way that they automatically breath inefficiently for performing as soon as they put their instrument up to their lips. Practicing breathing exercises away from the instrument can help develop a new breathing habit that is then more easily transferred to performing on the instrument than trying to fight a habit straight out.

Try going through this 10 minute video first thing in the morning just before you practice and see if you notice any difference in your first notes of the day. I’ve found that especially as I get older that in the morning my breathing muscles are a little stiffer and less responsive in general and sometimes will stretch out a bit before I play my first notes of the day. These breathing exercises take this to another level for me and really help me get the air moving.

Weekend Gigs in Huntsville, AL

Low-Down Sires DrawingIf you’re around Huntsville, AL this weekend (January 17-18, 2014) and are looking for some swing dancing, come on out to My Lindy Kraze. I’ll be performing both Friday and Saturday night dances with the Low-Down Sires. Both dances are 8 PM to 1 AM at Flying Monkey Arts.

Since we’ll be there the whole weekend I’ll have some down time on Saturday. If anyone in the Huntsville area has been wanting to catch an embouchure consultation or lesson from me, or even just wants to grab some coffee, drop me a line and let’s see if we can meet up.

“Associated Risks” of Trumpet Pedal Tones

Quite a bit ago now in the comments section of another post, Lyle (check out his Music Therapy blog) asked me about what I had referred to as the “associated risks” of practicing pedal tones. I have a number of times recommended here that trumpet players avoid practicing many pedal tones or even avoid them altogether. In my opinion, the benefits trumpet players get from pedal tones can be achieved by practicing other things. Furthermore, sometimes players on all brass play their extreme low range in a way that is fundamentally different from how they play the rest of the range. This encourages bad habits in the rest of the range, hence my comment about “associated risks.”

First, a definition of terms to help avoid confusion. Pedal tones on most brass instruments are usually defined as the fundamental pitch (“pedal” Bb on trombone, for example). The next partial up in the overtone series is an octave up, then the perfect 5th, etc. You will see in standard literature the occasional pedal tone called for tuba, and the rest of the low brass and horns see them fairly frequently in standard solo and orchestral repertoire.

Trumpets are a slightly different animal, though. First, the design of the trumpet has an acoustical impedance that makes their “pedal C” below the treble clef staff not quite function acoustically quite the same way it does on the other brass. Furthermore, trumpet players usually talk about the pitches between low F# and pedal C also as “pedal tones.” In contrast,  other brass players tend to call those “fake tones.” You essentially are bending the pitch lower than it wants to slot, there’s no partial there to actually play. All these “pedal tones” rarely show up in the standard trumpet literature and when they do, they usually used as a special effect.

So for the purpose of my discussion here, I’m mainly writing for trumpet players, not the other brass instrumentalists. The other brass instruments not only have to play pedal tones in musical situations much more, but also the construction of the instruments tend to make playing pedal tones properly much easier. That said, there are situations where I would instruct a student on any other brass to temporarily stop playing pedals (or even just below a certain low pitch) because the way he or she is playing them is similar to what’s happening with the trumpet pedal tones as I’ll be describing them.

The gist of my argument here, if you don’t care to read past for the details, is that many brass players will excessively practice playing their extreme low register in a way that works horribly for the rest of the range. Trumpet players in particular, due I believe in part to the construction of the instrument, are prone to developing playing issues from excessive pedal tone practice.

Donald Reinhardt, who was one of the primary sources for my dissertation, was quite adamant that he didn’t want his trumpet students practicing pedal tones.

Many years ago, back in Sousa’s time, a well-known cornet virtuoso accidentally discovered that by the daly practice of sustained, fortissimo, chromatically descending pedal tones (from the pedal “C” on down) with various modes of articulation, the extreme upper tones became playable, at least momentarily. After exhaustive experimentation, however, he found that his “falsetto-type high register” was extremely short-lived. After this time the register would return to less than normal.

One of my eighteen instructors related such a pedal tone case. This performer, however, had lasted for a year and a half before the register reduction became apparent. The pedal theory calls upon enormous amounts of embouchure vibrating area to respond in a very slow, relaxed fashion for the various pedal tones being played. The embouchure formation is then supposed to be capable of tremendous pinching or pucker power for the much tenser, more rapid vibrations of the extreme upper register of the cornet or trumpet. In some cases this immediate upper register response (directly following the pedal tone practice) did result in the playing of a few “falsetto” high tones; however, the results were nil after a few attempts.

Even now we have some of the pedal tone instructors, and each one claims to be the first. I might say this so-called method was in the books long before any of these gentlemen were born. It is true that they have added to the exercises in the pedal register and have systematized the procedure; however, I can assure that eventually the net result will be the same as when it was introduced over sixty years ago.

Donald Reinhardt, Encyclopedia of the Pivot System

According to a tape I have of Reinhardt giving a trumpet lesson in 1980 he stated that the cornet virtuoso from the quote above was Harold Stambaugh, who played with Sousa from 1920-1929. Reinhardt also elaborated in this lesson that while many pedal tone advocates have great range and sound, he found their staccato articulations weak. He found that trumpet players who practiced a great deal of pedal tones had a tendency to bring the embouchure characteristics that work fine for pedal tones into their normal playing range, limiting their abilities to articulate staccato passages cleanly.

The way that pedal tones can potentially mess with a brass musicians depends in part on the player’s embouchure type. Playing a lot of pedal tones on the trumpet tend to encourage the trumpet player to put a lot of upper lip inside the mouthpiece. Some method books even specifically instruct you to you place the mouthpiece like this to practice pedal tones. This is fine if you’re a “very high placement” embouchure type. If you’re a low placement type, however, you end up with a pedal tone embouchure (downstream, probably) and an embouchure for the rest of your range (upstream). There is a noticeable shift where this happens that you can usually both see and hear, if you’re paying attention for it. Here is an example I noticed on YouTube.

Notice how he has to set his mouthpiece placement very high on the lips to play the pedal, essentially playing with a “very high placement” embouchure type. In order to get up into his normal playing range, however, he is forced to physically pull the mouthpiece off his lips and slide it down to a “low placement” embouchure type, a shift you can both see and hear quite clearly in that example. This is one way practicing pedals for upstream trumpet players can be so destructive. You essentially encourage a mouthpiece placement that works exactly opposite of how you should be playing. Here’s an example I happened video myself.

This particular musician is an excellent “low placement” embouchure type trumpet player demonstrating some Claude Gordon exercises for me. As he plays through them, notice how he resorts to puckering his lips forward and loosing the “legs” (the feeling of of the mouthpiece and lips together against his teeth and gums). Also consider how he has to slide his mouthpiece to a higher position on his lips when he goes into the pedal register, switching to a downstream embouchure. On those exercises where he starts in the pedal register you can see him suddenly slide his mouthpiece placement lower and switch back to his normal upstream embouchure as he gets into the normal range.

As an aside, this particular player told me he eventually abandoned the Gordon routines because he personally didn’t find them beneficial over the long term.

BE Roll OutThese embouchure characteristics, both changing to a different mouthpiece placement and loosing the embouchure “legs,” are two very common ways in which trumpet players (and sometimes other brass) disconnect the way they play extreme low range with the rest of their range. Another way some methods instruct trumpet players to play pedals is to intentionally roll the lips out and place the mouthpiece on the inner membrane of the lips, as in this photo here. This necessarily requires another embouchure shift to roll the lips back into their proper position to play out of this register, not to mention potential damage to the membrane of the inner lip. The end result isn’t too dissimilar from the two video examples above, where the players needed to slide the lips and mouthpiece to new positions in order to get out of that range.

At other times some players will incorporate an excessive jaw drop to descend. While this works to a degree and helps players get a bigger sound in the low register, there is a tendency for the jaw drop to pull the mouthpiece off its correct placement on the top lip. This doesn’t always happen, but it’s just another way in which many trumpet (and other brass) players approach pedal tones that contrast with the way they play (or want to be playing) the rest of their range.

You can argue that as long as a player doesn’t actually use the pedal tone embouchure in their normal playing range, what’s the harm? As long as you really don’t obsessively practice pedal tones you’re probably not going to really hurt your playing, but the difficulties trumpet players usually have playing pedals in a way that is consistent with their normal range, coupled with the risks of bringing that pedal tone embouchure up, are enough for me to suggest that trumpet players simply avoid practice them and find other exercises to relax the lips, open the sound, and build range.

Collapseing,pedalBb,frontPlayers on other brass instruments may also want to avoid practicing extreme low registers in a manner that doesn’t match their normal playing embouchure as well, as in the photo to the left. However, since the rest of the brass instruments use pedal tones in standard literature and they are acoustically more resonant notes than on trumpet, eventually these players will want to learn how to descend to pedals without resorting to collapsing the embouchure formation or an embouchure shift.

Can trumpet players play pedal tones in a way that connects seamlessly with the rest of their range? Sure, but it takes a lot of practice and is easier for players of certain embouchure types than others. Are the benefits of practicing pedal tones worth spending that time? Considering that there are other things that I think do just as well for the player (although this is personal to the individual player and his or her embouchure type) that don’t have the associated risks, I personally prefer to recommend trumpet players avoid pedal tone practice. Will the occasional pedal tones really mess up a player? Probably not, but excessive daily pedal tone practice can.

There are, of course, many very fine trumpet players who swear by pedal tone practice. There are also many who never do it. While a great deal of this is personal and unique to the individual player’s anatomy, I would challenge trumpet players to try avoiding pedal tones for a month or three and spend your time practicing other things. Come on back afterwards and let us know how things go in the comments here.