Another Upstream Brass Embouchure Rant

The following rant was inspired by a Trombone Pedagogy Facebook group thread started by a teacher who was wondering how to help a young student who was playing with his lower lip predominant. The teacher was asking for advice on how to correct this embouchure. My rant below is in response to many of the ensuing comments. I will be paraphrasing instead of directly quoting, in part because these responses are so common and don’t really need an attribution for context.

First, a little background on what an upstream embouchure is. All brass musicians, regardless of what they might think they are doing or should be doing, play in such a way that one lip or another predominates inside the mouthpiece. When the upper lip is predominant, most common, the air stream passes the lips in a downward direction.

Most brass players have an embouchure that is similar, although the amount of upper to lower lip may be different. A minority of brass musicians, however, do the opposite. These players place the mouthpiece closer to the chin and because of the predominance of lower lip the air stream gets directed upwards.

With that basic understanding out of the way, I will get into addressing some of these typical comments.

Change the mouthpiece placement. That student will thank you for it later.

While it does happen that students will adopt an upstream embouchure when they should be playing downstream, it’s much more common for these “low placement embouchure type” players to be playing that way because it is the most efficient embouchure type for their anatomical features. Before you change the mouthpiece placement you need to address issues with embouchure form, breathing, tonguing, posture, etc. Usually if you correct those other playing characteristics the embouchure will function better.

Sometimes you can disguise those other issues by changing the mouthpiece placement, but that’s only covering up the real problems the student is having. Before the embouchure form is developed properly, for example, you just can’t tell where the best mouthpiece placement is for a particular student.

That student should try another instrument instead. Has he/she considered a woodwind instrument or vocals?

I tend to avoid encouraging a student to change to a different instrument if they’ve expressed an interest in their brass instrument. Sure, maybe some folks will take to another instrument and never look back, but that’s a solution in search of a problem. If you need more bass clarinetists in your band be honest about why you are encouraging the change. If you’re suggesting the change because you don’t know how to help that student, then do some homework and learn. This is your responsibility as a teacher (or even as someone giving advice on the internet). Ask questions. That’s what the Facebook Trombone Pedagogy group is for!

Upstream players are players who have a protruded lower jaw or an underbite. That’s what makes them upstream.

Players with an underbite almost always play better with an upstream embouchure, but that alone isn’t going to make their embouchure upstream. There must be more lower lip inside the mouthpiece in order for their embouchure to function upstream (Caveat – Sometimes lip texture comes into play. It’s rare, but you might look at an embouchure from the outside and think it’s one direction but when you look on a transparent mouthpiece the lip position seem flipped. My feeling is that moving the mouthpiece placement to a more appropriate placement can often help).

I don’t have a way to post the video clip (nor have I obtained permission), but my teacher, Doug Elliott, made a film in the 1980s called The Brass Player’s Embouchure. In this film he shows a trombonist with an underbite, but with a mouthpiece placement that was close to the nose and it function downstream. Moving this player’s mouthpiece placement so that it had more lower lip inside worked better.

And not all upstream players will have a protruded jaw position anyway.

Look again at the downstream embouchure example I posted above and note his jaw position. Jaw position while playing will be an influence, but doesn’t actually make a player upstream or downstream.

Also worth considering are Donald Reinhardt’s embouchure types. While I prefer to teach and communicate using different terminology, he did make note of players with particular jaw positions while at rest compared to playing. For example, he classified players with a natural, even bite.

Such brass musicians will almost always need to place the mouthpiece either very high (close to the nose, downstream) or very low (close to the chin, upstream). It might go either way, and for players like this it is sometimes quite difficult to tell which way it might go. Even if that is a very accomplished brass musician (read through what Brad Goode has written about figuring out his embouchure type).

That’s an [insert one brass instrument type here] thing. Those of us who play [insert other brass instrument type here] can’t/shouldn’t play upstream.

After 20 years of studying brass embouchures on all instruments intensively, I’ve come to the conclusion that while there are some differences that the size of the mouthpiece causes, it’s only a matter of scale and that the same embouchure characteristics are found on all the brass instruments.

Now it’s easier to find examples with trumpet players for a couple of reasons. Consider that the larger the mouthpiece, the more likely that the chin or nose will get in the way of placing very high or very low. A trumpet mouthpiece, on the other hand, allows much more leeway for getting the most efficient ratio of upper to lower lip for the particular player. That said, horn players are much less varied, which I believe is due to the adherence of a particular pedagogue’s advice as well as a comparative lack of players who are self taught and simply do what works instead of what is commonly taught.

That’s an [insert musical style] thing. It won’t work for [insert another musical style].

It’s only good for [high or low register playing]. It won’t work for [low or high register playing].

Like the brass instrument argument, I hear this all the time and from opposite sides of the spectrum. There are upstream brass musicians known for their upper register. There are also upstream brass players known for the lower register. They can be found playing in all styles of music successfully.

Embouchure type is influenced by the musician’s anatomical features, not playing style, instrument choice, or musical genre.

When you place the mouthpiece with so much rim contact on the upper lip, it isn’t free to vibrate and causes problems.

Both lips do vibrate in conjunction, but they do not vibrate with equal intensity. The predominant lip inside the mouthpiece vibrates with greater intensity. Brass embouchures appear to be sort of between a double reed phenomenon, where both reeds vibrate with equal intensity, and a clarinet reed, where the reed vibrates against the surface of the mouthpiece. For a brass embouchure to function efficiently the lip that has more rim contact (the upper lip in the case of the upstream brass musician) will function somewhat like the clarinet mouthpiece while the other lip (lower lip for upstream embouchures) is more like the reed.

This isn’t arm chair speculation. You can see it in Lloyd Leno’s film quite easily. Here’s part 1 of 3, but the link is to the entire playlist.

If you watch the entire film you’ll also be able to note some downstream trombonists in the film who place the mouthpiece with a great deal of rim contact on the lower lip. For some reason this isn’t as widely discouraged, even by the same players who make this argument when it concerns an upstream embouchure.

I am an experienced teacher and performer and I have never come across a successful upstream player.

My first response to this is that you’re probably not qualified (yet!) to identify one when you see it. Furthermore, if you don’t consider embouchure types to be a useful pedagogical tool, then you’re simply not going to look for them – even if you know what to look for. So many teachers seem to think that by watching a player blow air, free buzz, mouthpiece buzz, talk, whatever, that you’re going to be able to determine a player’s embouchure type. You can’t. Or at least I can’t and I doubt you can.

I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t need a transparent mouthpiece to type most players’ embouchures, but I know the limitations of this and will grab a transparent mouthpiece when needed. Simply put, the most accurate method of typing a brass musician’s embouchure is to look at how they play while playing the instrument into a transparent mouthpiece. Rim visualizers can give you important clues, but the lack of resistance and the reflection of the standing wave back to the lips (as well as other factors) come into play and make a rim visualizer less accurate.

To my knowledge, no one has yet conducted a robust enough study to determine the percentage of upstream players, but by my best guess I would say around 10%-15%. That’s a sizable enough minority that anyone who takes the time to actually look for upstream players among your students and performing colleagues will find them. If you’re not seeing them, you’re probably not looking.

That said, an awful lot of teachers who should know better make a big deal about “correcting” an upstream embouchure when they see one. I get emails and private messages all the time from folks describing this situation. Particularly for teachers who work with older students you’re going to find fewer upstream students because they get “weeded out” by well-intentioned, but ignorant teachers. Either those students quit brass out of frustration or they play with less success than they could because they had their embouchure changed to a less efficient one. I’m a good example of the later, although I was never changed to downstream. I was instructed from the get go to play downstream. Which leads to:

We should teach what’s most common because that will have the best chance of success.

There is some logic to this, but in the case of mouthpiece placement I don’t even think we should talk about it with beginners. Teach embouchure form, not mouthpiece placement, and most of the time I’ve found the student will naturally gravitate to the best embouchure type for his or her anatomy. When it doesn’t, then it’s time to intervene, but this correction needs to be an educated choice that eliminates difficulties in embouchure form (or breathing, tonguing, whatever is influencing the student’s embouchure in a negative way) first.

I am an experienced teacher and never have to consider a brass embouchure type. It’s unnecessary and even makes things worse!

It does take some effort to learn how to type a brass student’s embouchure and use it to make embouchure corrections and design a course of study and practice that will work best for the individual student, but it’s not rocket science. If you found studying music history and music theory to inform your brass playing in a positive way then you already understand how taking the time to learn about different related topics is useful. If embouchure analysis is making things worse it’s because the analysis is faulty in the first place. Learn how brass embouchures actually function and apply what you learn, adjusting as you need to. And if the student is analyzing their embouchure technique at the wrong time, help your student learn to focus on one thing at a time while practicing for a bit each day and focus on the musical expression the rest of the time.

And if you throw out that tired phrase, “paralysis by analysis” I say you’ve lost credibility and the argument.

/rant

9 Things Professionals Avoid

Or rather, 9 Warning Signs of an Artist. While it’s generally better (pedagogically) to talk about what to do, rather than what not to do, this page has nine things that are signs of an amateur. Here are three of the warning signs, with a couple thoughts of my own.

1) Amateur Artists wait for Inspiration

You’ve got to set a work schedule and stick to it, regardless of whether or not you feel like doing it.

2.) Amateur Artists work until something else comes up

While the author is mostly referring to your time spent practicing/composing/painting/etc., I would also add that “amateur” artists also seem to feel that you can drop a gig commitment if a better one comes up. That’s not a sign of a profession, in spite of the fact that sometimes professionals seem to think this is cool.

3.) Amateur Artists are constantly changing their focus

While an amateur tends to change their style or medium as the mood strikes them, a professional artist knows that a “jack-of-all-trades is a master of none”.

I would add that as a musician, being a “jack of all trades” has allowed me to be successful precisely because I’m able to do so many different things, albeit in the field of music. I’ve been able to do this, however, because I’ve spent time working on mastering my skills in a couple of areas (trombone playing and composing) and then building off of those abilities to branch off into related things (conducting, music administration, etc.).

9.) Amateur Artists isolate themselves from the artist community

This brings up a couple of thoughts. First, professional musicians usually quickly learn how small their community actually is. It’s not hard for a musician to get blackballed from gigs because word can get spread around that such and such a player is difficult to work with or doesn’t follow through on commitments. When you isolate yourself from the rest of your peers, you can miss out on not only the word that’s going around about players you may want to work with (or not), but you also miss out on having your peers help you fix a broken reputation.

The other thought that comes to my mind is they myth of the “loan wolf” teacher who has a pedagogical method they push and build their reputation around. Students become an echo chamber of sorts when they go on and teach similarly, without regard to checking out what other folks are doing and what other fields of pedagogy outside of music are doing. If pedagogy is the science of teaching, then we need to treat our teaching more like a collaboration among other teachers. No one pedagogue has all the correct answers, no matter how distinguished or charismatic.