The Current State of Brass Embouchure Pedagogy

A topic on Trombone Chat got me thinking about the current state of brass embouchure pedagogy.

As Doug notes in the forum thread, traditional brass pedagogy has been dominated by Arnold Jacobs’s approach. In this approach you actively avoid working on the embouchure. In essence most brass students are taught to breathe well and focus on the end product. You should ignore the embouchure.

And that’s why brass embouchure research is so rare and generally unknown outside of a few. Fortunately I was encouraged to explore this topic for my graduate research. I know graduate students who were actively discouraged from doing any sort of pedagogy research on brass embouchures because it wasn’t appropriate or worth doing.

What does the latest research say about teaching brass embouchures? I just scanned through an academic library searching for “(embouchure) AND (pedagogy)” for publications that have come out in the past 5 years. I found just 6 relevant hits.

The Effect of a Researcher Composed Mouthpiece Buzzing Routine on the Intonation and Tone Quality of Beginning Band Brass Students
Beghtol, Jason. The University of Mississippi, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2017. 10746240.

No mention of embouchure types that I noticed. (The abstract notes, “Results suggest the inclusion of a daily mouthpiece buzzing routine does not have a significant effect on beginning band brass students’ intonation or tone quality.”)

Bardins, Sandis; Marnauza, Mara. Problems in Music Pedagogy; Daugavpils Vol. 13, Iss. 1/2, (2014): 97-110.

This one mentioned embouchure twice. The author’s point in both of those sentences is that breathing is important to a well functioning embouchure.

This leads to creating an unnecessary tension and stress in the body, because the natural inspiratory reflex (so-called Herring-Breuer reflex) is not implemented (White, 2005), and also contributes to the expiratory muscle fatigue and rapid decrease of the physical endurance – general for the body, because the body is not supplied with oxygen, as well as embouchure, which receives a reduced amount of air for creation of a sound and has to compensate it by pressing the mouthpiece against the lips.

This approach to mastering breathing patterns in wind instrument playing has several advantages:

3. a more stable air flow which relieves work of the embouchure, thus increasing its endurance and working limits in ultimate registers.

This article pretty much represents mainstream brass pedagogy. Fix the breathing and embouchure will do fine, no need to learn about how embouchure works.

Approaches to the Horn Embouchure: Historical and Modern
Author: Schons, Anthony
Journal: The Horn call
ISSN: 0046-7928
Date: 02/01/2015 Volume: 45 Issue: 2 Page: 58

I actually can’t find this full text online, so I don’t know what it says about embouchure. It could be relevant and I’m curious because I’d like to see how horn pedagogy has evolved (or not). Horn pedagogy seems to have its own quirks that you don’t see in other brass teaching.

Insights on Dealing with Braces
Whitis, James. School Band & Orchestra; Las Vegas Vol. 17, Iss. 9, (Sep 2014): 36-38,40,42,44,46

This article is not scientific at all and is based on the author’s personal experience both having braces and teaching students with braces. I don’t think the advice in there isn’t bad, per se, but it is very incomplete. I’ve seen a lot in the literature that’s like this, one teacher or player’s anecdotes are described, but rarely subjected to any testing.

Song and Wind 2.0: goal-oriented teaching in the applied studio
Karen Marston
International Trombone Association Journal. 42.1 (Jan. 2014): p32+.

The only reason this came up in my search was because the term “embouchure” was in one of the citations (Fletcher, S. (2008). The effect of focal task-specific embouchure dystonia upon brass musicians: A literature review and case study. Doctoral Dissertation. The University of North Carolina at Greensboro.). Here’s the specific citation.

From this perspective, it has been easier to discuss, disseminate, and perhaps even implement the comparatively clearer assertions of more behaviorist-leaning teachers; therefore, despite enthusiastic support for Jacob’s ideas, the dialogue on teaching within our field often continues to target task-oriented concepts. (Fletcher, 2008; Marston, 2011)

I’ve read both Fletcher’s and Marston’s dissertations (she cites her own dissertation a lot in this article). I think her criticism of “task-oriented concepts” are off base. The criticism that so much of this type of teaching is contradictory is, to me, evidence that a model, such as Donald Reinhardt’s and Doug Elliott’s embouchure type approaches need to be better understood in order to evaluate and compare different pedagogical practices. If you aren’t analyzing things correctly, you’re not going to teach the right task oriented concepts in the first place. Sure, it’s a lot easier to focus on product over process and get an immediate benefit. But if you’re going to truly compare task-oriented versus product oriented pedagogy you should at least learn how to do both right.

And again, I have to make the point that it’s valuable for teachers to understand the process too, even if they minimize their discussion of the mechanics of brass playing with their students. The whole point of Marston’s article is to teach brass technique by emphasizing the end goal, and while acknowledging that there are smaller steps to reach that goal, at no point does she make any mention to what good brass technique is other than to mention breathing.

And Marston’s impressions that task-oriented teaching is dominant today seems off to me. If the 6 papers and articles I found today are representative, Song & Wind is getting more attention.

A pedagogical approach for developing the endurance, technical facility and flexibility necessary to perform Anthony Plog’s Concerto for Solo Trumpet, 14 Brass, and Percussion
Sullivan, Michael. California State University, Long Beach, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2014. 1528052.

This last one is a case study of one student’s preparation for a demanding performance. The embouchure references in here seem to be mainly related to specific exercises the author found particularly helpful in preparing to perform, but an awful lot of those embouchure exercises reference air flow as the key. While I don’t want to minimize the role that good breathing plays for successful brass playing, it does represent mainstream brass pedagogy’s approach that the only thing that is important for embouchure is to have good breathing.

So there you have it, for what it’s worth. Bear in mind that this was a cursory search and there are probably some hidden gems that I didn’t come across. I also intentionally kept the search terms narrow and eliminated hits that weren’t relevant (anything related to woodwind for example and historical papers). Of the 6, three emphasized breathing as the key for embouchure technique. One article was based purely on anecdotes, so the information should be taken with a grain of salt. Only one made any attempt at scientific inquiry and subjecting pedagogical ideas to a test.

Point of clarification update – there are definitely more than these out there, probably a lot more, it was just what happened to be accessible through one college library web site. My interest in using these six was to use it as a snapshot for what current  research happens to be out there on brass embouchure pedagogy. 

Making 21st Century Connections to Brass Music

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about a video demonstration by physicist Richard Smith where he shows how air doesn’t need to travel through a brass instrument in order for the normal acoustics of the instrument to work. While I find the science behind it and the creative thinking he used to create the demonstration interesting, what I’m most curious about is the discussion is sparked on the pedagogy forum where I first came across this video. If you didn’t see this video, here it is again.

I mentioned in my previous post that I found some of the comments disappointing and surprising. I made a couple of responses in the pedagogy forum that I wanted to share here for other folks who are concerned about “practical applications” of taking the time to learn this information.

The only legitimate criticism I’ve seen in this thread is that the title of the video is somewhat misleading, although I think it’s still technically true. All we really need to get a brass instrument to resonate is an oscillator, it doesn’t need to be lips excited by air being blown past them.

But for those of you who are being snarky, dismissive, or downright degrading Dr. Smith’s video demonstration because you don’t see an immediate application to trombone pedagogy, here are a few things I’d like to offer as food for thought.

In North Carolina, where I live, the public school’s guidelines for music standards are broken into three parts: Musical Literacy, Musical Response, and Contextual Relevancy. These are then further broken down into more detailed standards, one of which states, “Understand global, interdisciplinary, and 21st century connections with music.” Other states likely have similar education standards. In my opinion, this is a good goal to have. Music is not created and learned in a vacuum. It’s important to learn how music relates to history, sociology, and yes, science.

I think we all agree that modeling to our students is an important and effective way to communicate musical instructions. Most of us probably play for our students and recommend listening to quality performances. You might also consider that you’re not just modeling music, but also attitude. Even if you only teach private lessons, when you openly dismiss a science demonstration that describes the way a brass instrument actually works you’re effectively undermining that student’s band director’s attempts to make an interdisciplinary connection with music. You’re modeling that science isn’t relevant to music and discouraging science literacy. And you might consider that many of the members of this Facebook group are students and future music educators. What attitude should the experienced teachers here be modeling to them?

Unless you’re teaching at a conservatory, and even if you do, your students are likely going to have to make a connection with science and music at some point in their life. The video demonstration (and the technical paper) may not seem directly relevant to the lessons you’re teaching now, but when that student asks for your advice about, for example, a presentation she has to give for another class and how she might incorporate her love for trombone into that discipline, you now have a resource you can recommend.

It’s impossible to predict what’s going to get all your students excited about trombone. Many students might really connect with this video and that could potentially help you in your lessons. And if you’re thinking that this is only good for students with an analytical learning style you need to consider that “learning styles” are mostly just “learning preferences” and teaching to a student’s preferences don’t usually lead to better outcomes. If a student is resistant to analytical thinking, it’s probable that it’s exposing a weakness that should be improved, not avoided.

While I’m not a scientist, I am a science fan. Learning more about the way the world actually works is cool. Like music, I find science intrinsically rewarding on its own without requiring any direct relevance to something else. But when the science happens to relate to music, even superficially, that makes it even more interesting to me. I’m sure I’m not alone with this, and you might have some students who feel similarly.

f you’re concerned about the content of this video not being “practical,” it’s arguably more practical in the 21st century to teach scientific literacy than to teach how to make fart sounds through a metal tube. Hyperbole aside, one immediate practical benefit can be found right here. It’s prompted an interesting discussion about why we tend to teach through analogy and visualization. This has spun off somewhat to a discussion of how such instructions can be taken to the extreme and how and why to pull things back. This is a good conversation for teachers to have.

Do you need to stop everything in your weekly lessons to show your students this video? Of course not, but the information contained are worth filing away for the future. Here’s another practical application. Your hypothetical student arrives to his or her lesson with a large pimple on the lip right where the mouthpiece rim is placed. You have 30-60 minutes to fill. I’m sure you could think about lots of ways to fill this time with “practical” information, but some students will get really jazzed about stuff like this. Even students who might not be immediately receptive to science might take this idea and run with it later. It’s hard to predict the downstream effects of improving our understanding of the way the world works. Maybe that student takes the membrane mouthpiece device shown in this video, combines it with a piece of technology yet to be developed, and then writes a graduate thesis that has a direct effect on brass pedagogy.

Furthermore, I think brass pedagogy could stand a little more of the scientific method and critical thinking. One thing we learn from this video is that our intuitions about the way our instruments really work aren’t always accurate. That’s definitely practical knowledge to have.