Trombone Playing In fMRI Scanner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Donald Reinhardt on the Nerve Racking Ab Rattle

I was going through some materials I have accumulated put together by Donald Reinhardt for different students and came across his text on the trombone Ab rattle. Difficulty on the Ab above the treble clef for trombonists is very common. It’s a conundrum because in the classic cases the A and G just around it are usually easier, so there’s something about that particular pitch. Here’s what Donald Reinhardt had to say about it.

Muscular strain of any kind “chop-wise” can cause unwanted “rattles and overtones” – this occurs, generally speaking on the high “Ab”…When Frank Holton marketed the Holton Revelation Trombone, the ad stated: “POSITIVELY NO WOLF TONES ON “Ab”… So you see that this is not new by any means.

I recall hearing Christian Lindberg discuss it at a master class in the context of pointing out an particular instrument design that moves a brace somewhere different to counter the Ab rattle. It does seem possible that the high numbers of complaints about the high Ab could be due in part to traditional instrument construction.

Most rattles can be corrected by first making certain that all inner embouchure legs are offering complete support – . . .

For those of you who haven’t studied from Reinhardt, the “inner embouchure legs” is referring to the foundation of the mouthpiece rim and lips together against the teeth and gums. Reinhardt often used the analogy of the four legs of a table (or three legs of a stool, for certain upstream embouchure students). You want a solid support with all the legs, so nothing wobbles while you’re playing.

. . . second, that more pressure is used on the lower lip (rather than the upper that you are now using, unfortunately) – . . .

This particular handout I’m quoting was labeled for a particular student, but this is another common issue. The lower lip is thicker than the upper lip (I’m talking about bulk of the entire lip, not just how much vermillion can be seen) and is better able to take mouthpiece pressure. Unfortunately, when we get tired or play in the upper register it helps, to a degree, to increase pressure on the upper lip. This ultimately makes you tired quicker and if you really dig into the upper lip, you can cause damage. Most muscle injuries (at least, anecdotally from what I’ve seen) seem to happen to the upper lip. Keep maybe 60% on the lower lip as much as possible.

. . . that the playing angle of your instrument is too high, making essential jaw support impossible – . . .

This one goes along with keeping more mouthpiece pressure on the lower lip. If you are one of the players with a horn angle that is close to straight out or even higher, you’ll need to make sure that your jaw is positioned far enough forward to provide the support of the “embouchure legs” on the lower teeth and gums. If that doesn’t work, maybe your overall horn angle should be lowered to work better for you. Keep in mind that this is a feature that is different for different players.

. . . that the position of your head is too far forward – and lastly, that the throat on your particular mouthpiece is too large.

Trying a smaller mouthpiece throat may be helpful for trombonists to check if they’re getting a lot of high Ab rattles or even rattles in other ranges.

Press too much for pianissimo!

This sentence I think belongs with the previous one. My guess is that Reinhardt was pointing out to his student that he was pressing too much for pianissimo.

You must understand that lip strain (or, worse, ruptured chops) must heal slowly; therefore, it is obvious that you must kill the feel that goes along with the rattle. . . Mental damage is far worse than muscular damage. THINK THIS OVER.

The “mental damage” he refers to can happen to players in other contexts of embouchure dysfunction too. It’s very easy for the brass player to start “flinching” every time they get to that high Ab (or whatever issue they’re having). Perhaps a more accurate analogy are the golfer “yips.”

From the first note of the practice-day exaggerate the diaphragmatic lift and make certain that you are not over breathing. This though alone will heal up the ruptured rattle chops. AVOID PLAYING TOO LOUD IN THE MIDDLE AND LOWER REGISTERS…

There’s a lot to unpack in that paragraph. If you alter some of the language slightly and didn’t know it was a quote from Reinhardt, you might mistake it for advice by someone from the “song & wind” approach. Reinhardt gets remembered today for his discovery and classification of brass embouchure types, but he did work with students’ breathing as well.

That said, I’m not a fan of the way he instructs a “diaphragmatic lift.” It’s been pointed out that students can imitate this lift to match what they think they should be doing with their breathing, but without actually supporting the air correctly. I also note that the diaphragm is used during inhalation only, so while blowing you shouldn’t really have it engaged. Lastly, this lift of the abdominal regions while blowing is a result of correct breath support, not the process itself.

All that criticism aside, playing loudly in the middle and low registers does seem to hurt your upper register security. I notice this first hand a lot lately, since a fair amount of my gigging these days is playing early jazz styles where I play loudly in the middle and low register all night.


  1. From the moment of placement do I find and retain my “legs” throughout the inhalation and the playing…
  2. Do I retain more pressure on my lower lip and lower jaw. . . even when fatigued!
  3. To keep my playing angle from getting up too high too soon in the range!
  4. That my head position does not get too far forward – ears line up with the shoulders!
  5. Kill the feel of the rattle – this is vital, do not take it lightly!
  6. From the first note of the day exaggerate the diaphragmatic lift – and make certain that you do exaggerate it for the first few notes of the day…

Again, keep in mind that Reinhardt’s instructions above are for a particular student. While your milage may vary from the above suggestions, if you’re a trombonist with difficulties on the high Ab Reinhardt’s advice is worth looking over.

Standard Jazz Notation

Just a quick post today because I’m in the midst of a composition that needs to be completed.

I came across Tim Davies’s orchestration blog while looking for something that I could send to some friends about how jazz horn players will interpret articulations. One of the search engine hits was this post by Davies that not only covers how to mark articulations, but also what the default jazz notation practice is and how to make your score and parts look nice. He offers advice that is specific to computer notation.

There’s a lot of other nice stuff in Davies’s blog. If you’re a composer, arranger, or do copy work, you will find a lot of his writings helpful.

Donald Reinhardt’s Pivot System Orientation and Analysis Audio

A number of years ago I was given a cassette tape of Donald Reinhardt talking about his “orientation and analysis” to his pedagogical approach to teaching. Apparently he was giving very similar talks to all of his students during their first lesson and he figured that if he recorded it that a new student could listen to this while waiting for their lesson time. This made it quicker for Reinhardt to jump right in and begin personalizing the student’s instructions and also allowed him to be teaching one student while the new student was listening to the tape.

The first portion of the tape was to introduce his students to the basics of his approach. Many of the things he discussed were already written out on sheets of paper that may have been handed out and followed along while listening to the tape, but not having studied directly with Reinhardt I’m not certain. The second part of the tape is Reinhardt discussing his Pivot System Manuals for trumpet and trombone and some of the specific instructions, many of which were not written in the book itself.

Keep in mind that these recordings are in many ways a snapshot of how Reinhardt happened to be teaching at that time. If you read through many of the descriptions and instructions from the Pivot System Manuals, originally published in the 1940s, and compare them to his Encyclopedia of the Pivot System, first published in the 1970s I believe, you’ll not that he changed quite a bit. Towards the end of his life I understand that he had changed much of his approach quite a bit from what you can hear in these tapes. For example, he changed the definition of the term “pivot” and had apparently regretted even using the term “pivot system” because it led to a lot of misunderstanding of what he was trying to do with his pedagogy. I also understand that he also expressed less concern for exactly what a student played when practicing mechanics, but was more specific about exactly how the student was supposed to play it. He didn’t specifically ask students to follow each group of exercises, practicing one group each day, but rather assigned exercises based on what the student needed at that particular time.

At any rate, here are the links to the tracks. If you’re interested in the Pivot System Manuals they are out of print in their original form now, an edited version of them for trumpet and trombone are currently available.

What is the proper attitude?
What is the improper attitude?
Phases of the Pivot System
Pivot System for Mechanics
The Encyclopedia of the Pivot System
Introduction to the Sensation Theory
The Sensation Theory
The left hand grip
What is the Pivot System
The thirty-five points of the Pivot System
The Pivot Stabilizer
An open mind
Building reserve

Basic Pivot Manual instructions
Form Studies
Pivot Manual order
Get a pencil
Instruction for trombonists
Group 1
Group 2
Group 3
Group 4
Group 5
Group 6 for trumpet
Group 6 for trombone
Group 7 for trumpet
Group 7 for trombone
Group 8 for trumpet
Group 8 for trombone
Group 9 for trumpet
Group 9 for trombone
Group 10 for trombone
Group 11 for trombone
Pivot System Warm-Up 57

You might notice that there are only nine groups of exercises for trumpet and eleven for trombone. The additional two groups for trombone are exercises designed to increase slide facility.