Stabilizing the Embouchure

Daniel shared a video of his embouchure with me and asked me about helping his range. After watching it, I wrote the following in response. Since the advice I gave Daniel is something that I continue to work on myself, I thought I’d share it here.

By the way, I still have a backlog of emails from players who are waiting for some embouchure help from me. I’m sorry about the delay, and please feel free to drop me a reminder email about it.

Hi, Daniel.

Your situation is one that is kind of tough for me to be specific based on what I can see on a video. In person there are some things we could try and they might provide better clues, but for now I think you should think about having a good overall embouchure formation. Once that’s working a little better it becomes easier to get more personalized.

Watch the video and see how your lips open for the breath and then have to come together quickly as you attack the pitch. This way of breathing is great for taking in large breaths very quickly, but it’s rough on the chops. First, every time you take a breath the mouthpiece has to lighten up on pressure when you open your lips, but then has to “crash” back against your lips for the attack. It’s not as stable and it’s rough on endurance. Secondly, when you go to attack the note it’s very tough to have both the lips firmed correctly for the note and the mouthpiece to be on the right place on the lips.

Just for practice, I’d suggest you take any warmup/routine exercises you do and as you go through a practice session, do a little bit of the following:

  1. Firm your lips as if you were going to buzz.
  2. Place the mouthpiece on the firmed lips and don’t allow yourself to change the position of the lips at all (you might want to wet your lips to set the mouthpiece so it can more easily slide to where it wants to go without twisting up your lips in any way).
  3. Breath in and play the exercise.

When it comes to inhaling for the first note of the exercise you should start out by leaving your chops set, ready to play. You can learn to do this in stages:

  1. Breathe through the nose (your lips firmed and the mouthpiece pressure as if you were already playing).
  2. Breathe through the mouth corners while keeping the lips inside the mouthpiece together. A little more mouthpiece pressure than you might use while playing can help you keep the lips center together while breathing through the mouth corners.

Eventually it can really help to go to breathing through the mouth corners like #2 just above all the time, not just for the first note after putting the instrument on your lips, and not just for exercises. But for now just spend 5-10 minutes a day at the beginning of your practice trying this out for the first notes you play when you put the horn to your lips.

If you find that as your practicing this that your mouthpiece placement wants to drift in any direction (up, down, left, right), allow that to happen. Your placement looks very close to half and half, which actually is not that common. If you find getting the high notes out is easier with a placement higher or lower on the lips, spend some practice time playing with that mouthpiece placement and see what happens.

After a couple of weeks of trying this out let me know how it feels to play now and even take another short video. Please take a look at the link I sent earlier. It will tell you the things to video record that help me figure out what’s going on.

Good luck!


The Pencil Trick Exercise Revisited

If you’re not familiar with the “Pencil Trick” exercise for brass players, it’s a type of embouchure exercise where the player holds a pencil between the lips and holds it straight out for as long as he or she can, just through pinching the lips together. There are a some different variations of it described in books and online, and lots of ways to interpret the basic instructions.

My first exposure to this exercise was second hand, a description of it from a trombonist who watched some trumpet players on a tour bus doing it. The first publication I’ve come across that discusses it is Donald Reinhardt’s Encyclopedia of the Pivot System. Here’s what Reinhardt recommended:

A standard, unsharpened wooden pencil is generally used for this routine. Form your saturated embouchure as if to buzz and place the tip of either end of the pencil between your compressed lips – NOT BETWEEN YOUR TEETH. While pointing the pencil in a forward, horizontal manner, strive to support it with only the “pinching power” of your lips. Do not become discouraged if the pencil falls to the floor. In practically all cases a great deal of perseverance is required. As soon as sufficient pinching power of the embouchure formation has been achieved, the prescribed drill will no longer present a problem. Initially, do not attempt the embouchure pencil support for more than a few seconds at a time – it is extremely strenuous. After each attempt has been completed, remove the pencil from between your lips, drop your jaw, open your mouth, exhale and relax. You will feel the results of your workout throughout the lower part of your facial area; this is correct. The amount of time consumed for each workout may be extended; however, it is vital that you accomplish this by degrees.

– Donald S. Reinhardt, Encyclopedia of the Pivot System, Appendix 4-5.

When I do practice this myself, or teach it to a student, this is my preferred method of practicing the pencil trick exercise. But it’s not the only way. Here’s a 10 minute video discussion by George Rawlin, who also came up with the “Bull Dog” exercise that I’ve discussed here. In Rawlin’s version, the pencil is held in contact with the teeth and it’s purpose is to get the teeth aligned.

As with his “Bull Dog” exercise, I feel compelled to mention that the aligned jaw that Rawlin recommends is not necessarily best for all players. I don’t have any formal stats to site, but I feel pretty confident that a majority of brass players do play with their jaw set so that the teeth are aligned. That said, not all should, and it’s a pretty sizable minority.

Unfortunately, I don’t think Rawlin’s system for getting the teeth aligned using the pencil as a guide is going to be accurate. One way to get the pencil to point straight is to close the teeth, for example. I just don’t see it as useful as simply aligning your teeth and using mirror feedback, if you need some.

While many players don’t want to play while aligning their teeth, Rawlin covers a situation that isn’t uncommon, players who should be aligning their teeth, but have trouble thrusting their jaw forward for long periods of time. I prefer a different exercise for this situation.

About 3:00 into the video Rawlin describes exactly one of the reasons why I’m careful about recommending this exercise if I can’t watch the student do it a bit to make sure he or she is doing it correctly. In Reinhardt’s version, the lip compression used to hold the pencil out comes from the mouth corners and shouldn’t be top/bottom squeeze.

And at about 4:50 into his video Rawlin describes one of my personal pet peeves. If you’re tempted to do this pencil exercise (or mouthpiece buzz) in the car, please reconsider. Not only is a distraction from driving, but if the air bag goes off because you get rear ended you’re going to end up sorry you had a stick in your mouth. If you must do something musical in the car, sing to yourself or listen to good music.

At any rate, there is an awful lot of disagreements about his exercise. Many players (some very fine ones) think that it’s a silly waste of time at best and at worse you’re messing up your chops. This certainly can be true, depending on the circumstance. There’s some value that players can get from doing it, but I’m not entirely convinced these days that the cost/benefit ratio from doing it is worth the effort. In my own playing, I find that free buzzing is a better use of my time than the pencil trick.  I also find that considering how easy it is do do the pencil trick exercise in an unproductive way, it’s better to focus my students toward free buzzing as well.

Main FM Radio Broadcast Tonight

Update – Because of the expected wintery weather tonight we’re postponing this show until another time. I’ll post an update when it’s rescheduled.


Tonight, Monday February 16, 2015, I’m planning on stopping by the Main FM radio station headquarters here in Asheville, NC to sit in on Russ Wilson’s jazz program, In the Groove. Depending on the weather (we’re supposed to get some wintery weather tonight) and how long a board meeting I am attending just before, I expect to be on Russ’s show sometime between 7:30 and 8 PM eastern time tonight. You can listen in on the internet by going to the Main FM web site.

Victrola 2Russ asked me to bring some recordings of the Asheville Jazz Orchestra to play and I’m going to bring a bunch of my favorite big band records. Yes, records, not CDs. Russ is quite a collector of old records. Russ brought this portable Victrola player pictured here along on a short tour we played together a while back.

Upcoming Gigs

I’ve got some public gigs coming up. If you’re in western North Carolina, please consider coming out to support live music (and theater) here in Asheville, NC.

Tomorrow night (Thursday, February 12, 2015) I’ll be performing traditional jazz with the Low-Down Sires at the Isis Restaurant and Music Hall in west Asheville. We are splitting the show with Dynamo, from Nashville, TN. The Sires start at 9 PM and Dynamo takes the stage at 10.

chorus-line-webtileAll this month I’m performing in the pit for the Asheville Community Theater’s production of A Chorus Line. Last week was tech week and the opening weekend, which went well. Since I can’t see what’s happening on stage from the “pit” (we’re actually behind the set, not in the pit) I can’t say how good it looks, but the reviews from friends that saw the dress rehearsal were very positive about the dancing. Gary Mitchell, the music director, is fantastic to work for. He knows the score inside out and the whole orchestra plays great. The show is every Friday and Saturday night at 7:30 and Sunday matinee at 2:30 through March 1, 2015.

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.

Teaching Behaviors – Instruction, Praise, Criticism

In many ways I’ve found the coaching and training used in athletics to be an interesting model for music teachers interested in improving their pedagogy. Too often we teach through analogy or even just trial and error, rather than investigating what instruction methods are found to be effective in the long term and what approaches simply don’t work. This subjective approach has been responsible for a lot of the culture of ignorance that I see in traditional brass pedagogy, for example. Too much of the advice you get, even from master musicians, is to focus only on the music and let the body figure itself out.

Athletics, on the other hand, is in the business of competition and can’t rely so much on subjective measurements of success. Player and team statistics will show what coach’s methods are more effective. It’s worth taking a close look at what highly successful coaches say and do and try to relate it to how we teach our private students and direct our ensembles. Looking at John Wooden, the legendary basketball coach for UCLA from 1948-1975, Bulletproof Musician asks, What Is More Effective- Praise or Criticism? The answer, as it turns out, is not quite what you’d expect.

So, over the course of 15 practices during the 1974-1975 season (Wooden’s last at UCLA), they sat, observed, and systematically tracked Wooden’s specific coaching behaviors – which added up to 2326 “acts of teaching” in total.

So how much of this was praise? And how much was criticism?

Very little, actually.

Just over half of Wooden’s coaching was pure instruction, telling his athletes both how and what to do. Compare this to traditional brass pedagogy, which emphasizes almost only the goal of musical expression. Arnold Jacobs, one of the most influential brass teachers of the 20th century, instructs us to, “Think, product, not methodology” (Also Sprach Arnold Jacobs: A Developmental Guide for Brass Wind Musicians). He felt that 85% of the music student’s attention should be on musical expression, with the remaining 15% on the breathing.

Going into more detail about Wooden’s coaching, researching psychologists broke down the percentage of Wooden’s instruction into the following:

  • 50.3% specific statements on how or what to do.
  • 12.7% reminders on how to act on previous instruction
  • 8% feedback (specifically a combination of scolding or instruction, informing the athlete what he was doing wrong followed by a reminder on what to do)
  • 6.9% praise
  • 6.6% scolding
  • 6.6 uncodable (specific coaching method not clearly heard or seen)
  • 2.8% positive modeling (how to do something)
  • 2.4% other (not fitting any other categories)
  • 1.6% negative modeling (how not to do something)
  • 1.2 nonverbal reward

Compare Jacobs’ figure of 85% of the attention on not being on how to play your instrument with the roughly 75% of Wooden’s instruction on what to do and how to do it. This is a pretty large difference. Something I find interesting in the writing and recordings that Jacobs left before his death is how often he actually seems to be instructing students on how to play while convincing us that we shouldn’t be concerned with how to play. Perhaps we need to pay closer attention to what Jacobs did while teaching and put what he said into a better context.

The last bit of Wooden’s coaching that I find particularly interesting is his modeling method. When he say his athletes doing something he wanted to correct he used a three-part approach: correct-incorrect-correct.

When Wooden saw something he didn’t like, and stopped practice to correct the incorrectly executed technique, he would immediately demonstrate the correct way to do the technique, then show everyone the incorrect way the athlete just did it, then model the correct way again.

If you want to read a more detailed account of Wooden’s coaching methods and learn how to best apply his model into your own music teaching you can read Tharp’s and Gallimore’s 1976 article in Psychology Today here.