Embouchure Dysfunction: An examination of brass embouchure troubleshooting

In the above 2 part video I discuss five unique case studies.  Each of these five brass players has some issues in their embouchure which correlate with some noticeable embouchure features.  I try to show how making corrections in their embouchure form, using basic embouchure types as a guide, may lead to improvements in their abilities to play.

There are a few points I wanted to address with this video. The first was to show that the embouchure is an important part of any brass player’s technique, and is not something to be ignored.  Even very successful performers at the peak of their career can suddenly develop embouchure dysfunction.  Traditionally, brass pedagogy takes the approach that it’s best to disregard the embouchure and focus instead on breathing and musical communication.  Since all of the subjects in my video, and most likely in all the other research I’ve read about the topic, were ignorant of their basic embouchure characteristics they were unprepared to accurately determine what precisely was causing their troubles.

My second point is that I suspect that many people who have developed a reputation for helping players with serious and unexplained embouchure dysfunction are also ignorant of those same basic embouchure characteristics.  This has led to a variety of explanations that while having a touch of truth to them, really seem to be incomplete and in some cases pretty unlikely.  The two most popular of these, at least around the internet these days, is “embouchure dystonia” and “embouchure overuse syndrome.”

Embouchure dystonia refers to a neurological condition called focal task specific dystonia.  The symptoms of dystonia include muscles that contract uncontrollably, sometimes causing twitching or tremors.  A focal dystonia means that the disorder appears in a particular part of the body and task specific means that this disorder only manifests when doing a particular activity, like playing a brass instrument.  I asked a general medical practitioner who also plays trombone about embouchure dystonia.  He told me that dystonia is a very rare and not well understood condition that requires a specialist to diagnose and treat.  It’s also diagnosed clinically, that is by examining the symptoms, so there’s not really a definitive test to prove that an individual has dystonia or whether it may be something else.

Embouchure overuse syndrome is not a real medical condition, but rather a term coined to describe embouchure troubles that last for more than two weeks and may include any of the following symptoms:  lip pain, lip swelling, lip bruising, numb feeling lips, cuts or abrasions on the lips, endurance problems, lack of focus in the sound, difficulties controlling pitches, and high range difficulties.  Based on this definition alone, that might mean that every beginning brass player, and many experienced players as well, all have embouchure overuse syndrome.  Aside from the overly broad list of symptoms, the other problem I have with this term is that it implies that those symptoms are caused simply by demanding playing, and by extension a particular sort of rehabilitation program for treatment.  The symptoms simply have too many other plausible causes for me to accept that the most likely source of serious embouchure dysfunction is overplaying.

As I bring up in my video, I’m not a medical doctor, so you should really take all that with a grain of salt.  I don’t have the proper training to diagnose or treat any medical disorders.  If you suspect that your embouchure difficulties are related to a medical condition then I recommend you consult with your doctor, not a musician.  If you get a medical diagnosis from another musician, you should probably get a second, more qualified, opinion before you follow through on any treatment program.

Which brings me to my next point.  Just as music teachers are unqualified to deal with medical issues, doctors are unqualified to judge embouchure form and function.  This may lead to a misdiagnosis, particularly when the medical condition is not well understood even by specialists.  Combine that with well intentioned, but sometimes equally uninformed, musicians who are devoted to helping people with embouchure dysfunction and it’s not hard to see how this can lead people to believe their problems are caused by a medical issue, not a technique one.  That’s not to say that these musicians and doctors aren’t helping, just that they may be basing their advise on inaccurate information.  We all tend to view embouchure dysfunction through the lens of our own education, experiences, and bias.  I think it would be valuable for the field as a whole to take a more collective approach to how to diagnose the cause of embouchure dysfunction, considering options that aren’t being widely dealt with today.

It has been argued that when embouchure dysfunction happens to successful brass musicians, then the problems must be related to something other than technique.  The subjects in my video would seem to falsify this hypothesis.  In fact, it’s fairly common to find good brass players who have flaws in their embouchure mechanics (I’ve certainly got a couple).  I suspect that the majority of embouchure dysfunction happens because these musicians play for too long a time with incorrect mechanics and eventually things just break down.  My favorite analogy here is it’s like lifting heavy objects with your back.  You can get away with this, as long as you’re not doing too much of it, but if you’re a professional mover and you lift with your back you’re going to hurt yourself.  Similarly, if you play with incorrect embouchure technique and you have a lot of demanding practicing or performing, eventually your embouchure will fall apart.

While I’m not an expert on embouchure dysfunction, I’ve looked closely at enough embouchures to note that there are some observable features that correlate with players who have embouchure problems.

Loose embouchure formation
Lots of brass players like a very dark tone quality.  Opening the mouth and loosening the embouchure formation makes it easier to get this quality.  Likewise, all brass players want their playing to feel relaxed and effortless and this leads some players to relax their lips a little too much.

Comparing fine brass players with struggling ones and you might notice that the better the player the more likely his or her mouth corners stay more or less firm and locked in place for their entire range.  They tend to not pull them back in a smile or push them inward to ascend or allow them to collapse to descend.  All five of my subjects in the video above have mouth corners that move around to a certain degree.

I’ve heard that some players who suffer from “lip lock” (a stuttering attack) often describe their embouchure as feeling “too tight.”  I wonder if this sensation is the result of a conflict between trying to hold the embouchure firm enough to function properly while still trying to maintain the relaxed feeling they get from holding the embouchure too loose.

Embouchure type switching
Most brass players aren’t aware that there are different embouchure types that depend on the player’s anatomical features.  While many players are able to unconsciously find their own embouchure type and play correctly, often players end up with inconsistencies in how their embouchure functions.  Sometimes students are advised to play in a way that works for one embouchure type, but not their own.  This can result in players switching between embouchure types.

The two basic forms of type switching that you can see in the video are downstream embouchure players changing the direction of the embouchure motion, effectively switching between a Very High Placement and Medium High Placement embouchure types, and flipping the direction of the air stream.  The tubist in the video does this unconsciously by changing his lip position, but I’ve also seen some players do this by taking the mouthpiece off the lips and resetting it to a higher or lower placement.  It’s not uncommon for players to do this in their extreme high or low register.

Playing on the wrong embouchure type
The second case study in my video was probably playing with a Low Placement embouchure type while in high school.  When he got to college his trumpet teacher advised him to move his mouthpiece placement off the red of his upper lip, changing him to a downstream embouchure type.  He later began to have serious embouchure troubles.

I can personally attest that it is possible to play with the wrong embouchure type for your face and do so fairly successfully.  I played on a downstream embouchure until I was 27.  At that time I was working on a doctorate in trombone at Ball State University.  I was good enough to have earned my other music degrees and be accepted into the program, but I had technique limitations that I had been working on for ten years and been unable to correct.  My high range at this point was no better than it was when I was in high school, being just able to squeeze out a D flat above high B flat on trombone, not good enough to play a lot of the trombone literature appropriate for a doctoral level student.  A lesson with Doug Elliott changed my embouchure to an upstream one and exposed me to the different embouchure types.

Playing with a downstream embouchure type when the player should be playing upstream is one of the most common problem I’ve come across.  Whatever combination of anatomical features makes this embouchure type less common than the downstream ones means that most brass teachers see the downstream embouchure as being the correct one (after all, it obviously works for them) and upstream ones as being wrong (after all, if they try to play that way it works terribly).  I’ve also found that while upstream players can make a downstream embouchure work to a certain degree (if not as well as an upstream embouchure works for them), downstream players can rarely make an upstream embouchure work at all.  Music teachers need to understand that for a sizable minority of brass players the Low Placement embouchure type is correct.  When confronted with this embouchure type teachers should carefully consider whether to change their embouchure type by moving their placement.

I feel that looking for the above technique issues should be one of the first things to check and eliminate before making any medical diagnosis as the source of embouchure dysfunction.  It’s certainly possible that some players who have severe embouchure dysfunction have focal task specific dystonia or have damaged their lips through overplaying, but I think it’s more likely that most players troubles are related to the above factors.

I have three target audiences here.  First, I’d like to help music teachers better understand brass embouchure characteristics so that they can better help their students improve and maybe even avoid real problems down the road.  Secondly, I hope that players who are experiencing severe troubles and who are struggling with returning to playing are able to learn something from those five case studies that may help them correct their problems.

Finally, I want to provide some helpful information for specialists in treating embouchure dysfunction, both medical and musical.  Even if a particular individual’s embouchure dysfunction isn’t directly related to the factors I’ve covered, the embouchure patterns that I describe certainly provide an important avenue to explore regarding the efficacy of any treatment program.  Certain embouchure types may respond differently to different procedures, for example.  At the very least, I think that understanding what constitutes good embouchure mechanics more completely would be useful knowledge to have if you’re helping someone achieve that goal.

If you have a different idea, and I know many who do, I’d like to hear more about them.  I certainly don’t have all the answers, mainly just questions.  Do you suffer from embouchure dysfunction?  Have you successfully recovered or helped others recover from serious playing difficulties?  What can you offer from your experiences?  Have you noticed something similar to what I’ve stated here or do your experiences suggest I’m barking up the wrong tree?  Leave your comments here or contact me via email.

eugenio barone

Salve mi chiamo Eugenio Barone di Palermo sono un ex trombettista autodidatta colpito forse da dystonia dell’embouchures o forse da retrazione fibrosa della fascia buccofaringea.Infatti nel 1999 alla tenera età di 31 anni dopo alcuni anni di studio classico senza grossi risultati un maestro di jazz mi regalò un libbro sulla impostazione americana per tromba. D’istinto incominciai ad applicare la compensazione muscolare(il m.orbicolaris tende verso il centro e contemporaneamente i muscoli della guancia vanno nella direzione opposta) suonando per 7 ore al giorno note tenute senza pause di riguardo. Al decimo giorno il crollo , non riuscivo più a formare l’imboccatura come prima. Penso che la distonia sia quello che ho avuto anche perchè in quei bellissimi giorni quando non suonavo per compulsione simulavo allo specchio la posizione dei muscoli del viso pronti per far vibrare le labbra. Spero che un giorno si trovi una cura per questa malattia grave che colpisce il trombettista. GRAZIE ARIVEDERCI.

Dave

Ciao, Eugenio.

I’m afraid I don’t speak Italian and Google Translate came up with something a little hard to follow. At any rate, I hope that your symptoms go away and don’t end up being a neurological disorder.

Colleen Blake

I am a horn player suffering from embouchure dysfunction, but one thing I can do is help you with this translation. Would you like that?

p.s. I am interested in work you have done with embouchure tremors as this is part of my problem.

Dave

Hi, Colleen.

I’ve been getting requests for many non-English speaking brass players to do translations. I don’t know how good a job Google Translate does on my posts, it’s hard enough for me to be clear in English!

As far as your own issues, I would need to watch you play in order to make any recommendations. As you can tell from my post and video, all sorts of mechanical issues can cause tremors. Do you have any way to take video footage of your embouchure?

Dave

Colleen Blake

Yes I have a colleague who is willing to help me make a video. What would you want to hear/see to help shed light on the embouchure issues (i.e. what should I play on the video)?

Dave

It’s hard to troubleshoot embouchure issues without being in the same place, but I’m always curious to see different embouchures and sometimes I’m able to help people remotely. If you’re able to post video footage of your chops, I’d want to see something that encompasses most of your range. Octave slurs (encompassing two or more octaves starting in low, middle and high range) are usually helpful. Also, be sure to document what your troubles are, don’t worry about trying to sound too good if you want help fixing a problem (seems obvious, but you have no idea how often I get someone asking for help with some particular issue and they never show me what that issue looks like). A little bit of something musical (an etude, solo piece, excerpt, etc.) can also be helpful, particularly if it encompasses a good range.

Samuel Burkeen

I am 63 years old, and have been playing tenor trombone as an amateur all of my life. About five years ago I developed a tremor. This may have been due to the aging process, but I think it was more probably due to forcing myself into a more unnatural embouchure placement. I am a downstream type with a recessed jaw. My relaxed jaw position puts my lower front teeth well back from my upper front teeth. They do not naturally align vertically. For most of my life I have resisted letting my lower jaw assume its natural position and worked to keep it forward. This lead to a great deal of strain and unnecessary movement in the embouchure ascending and descending. When ascending I have the sensation of pivoting the horn down ( or pulling down) and doing the opposite when ascending. My theory is that resisting the natural position of my lower jaw for many years, thinking that it somehow facilitated the upper register was a mistake and lead to the muscle strain that you describe in your videos. Retaining the most natural position of the jaw and horn angle with your facial anatomy actually facilitates the pivot sensation I describe and makes it easier to play in all registers. My tremor may be neurological in nature at this point, but I am convinced it was aggravated by the unnatural placement I describe and the resulting muscle strain experienced for many years.

Everyone has a unique anatomy, and if your mouthpiece placement leads to poor tone, limited range, and especially strain it is probably wrong and it will end your playing career. It is too bad I did not see your type of analysis fifty years ago. It would have been a help.

Mark

Hello, Mr. Wilken. I am a horn player that has recently found the root cause of why my playing has not improved as much as it should be. I usually average about 3 hours of practice a day, but still have a lot of trouble with endurance, soft playing, and upper register playing. I noticed that I begin to smile while ascending through the registers of the horn, which has lead to having trouble playing softly in the middle to upper register stinging pains in my upper lip. I thing this smiling to ascend habit is the cause of it all, which I think I have done during the eight years I have spent playing. I don’t have the thickest upper lip in the world, so I know that even medium-light mouthpiece pressure will do enough damage to be noticeable. When I do ascend without performing that smiling motion, the upper register is much easier and more secure, doesn’t take anywhere near as much effort, and doesn’t cause any pains in my upper lip whatsoever. I understand that some players play well with this smiling motion (ala Clifford Brown and Adam Rapa), but it doesn’t work for me, and is thouroughly ingrained in my toolbox of habits after doing that for eight years, so it will take some extreme effort and patience (oxy moron, eh? :D) to replace this habit. My question is: what would you recommend to help speed the process of replacing this bad smiling habit with the better habit of bringing the tension from the sides of the lips inward? I find I can do that on the lips alone and the mouthpiece, but still resort to the smiling motion on the horn itself. I am looking forward to any advice you have to help speed this along. Thank you for your time.

Dave

Hi, Mark. I’m not certain I would try to replace the smiling habit with the reverse (bringing the corners in), although that might be a sensation that you will find helpful to keep the corners from pulling back. In general, I recommend you try to get the mouth corners to lock in place, more or less where they are while at rest. Free buzzing exercises done correctly are great for strengthening the muscles that hold the corners in place (and will help with endurance too). It’s hard to give you more specific advice without watching you play. Any chance you can take some video footage of your chops?

john

Hi,I`m horn player suffering from embouchure dystonia.
The slump lasted two months and noticed my lips went wrong.
I was prescribed by neurologists for dystonia. While there was no effect of medication, but then were injected with Botox.However, doctors do not know more about the disease is difficult to expect anymore.
I’d like to solve this problem, I do not know how.If you are able to help me to ask you to answer.

ps: I do not speak English with the help of Google was received. TT

Dave

Hi, John.

I would need to watch you play to help you out. Many players and teachers are unaware of different embouchure types and the playing characteristics that can cause problems. If you can take video of your embouchure I might be able to spot something. It’s very hard to do this without being there in person, though.

Dave

E. Díaz

I totally agree with teachers being unaware of embouchure types and air flow; in my case i developed tremors and difficulty when attacking (i don’t know if there is a difference between plain dysfunction and dystonia, but i was calling my ailment the second); i’m just overcoming that, through free-buzzing and breathing drills, but now i’ve unconsciously moved to a downward embouchure type, i discovered this while looking some old videos of me playing, where i was placing the mouthpiece very low, close to my chin. Now i don’t know whether to carry on with downstream or to try to switch back, is there any way of determining the natural embouchure, or you just push up as far as you can and if you find a limit then you decide to change? (I see that’s why you changed when you were 27)

thanks a lot

E. Díaz

Dave

Thanks for your message, E. Díaz. There’s a lot that could be happening, including an actual neurological disorder. I can’t speak towards a medical issue, so consult with a doctor for that. For your embouchure, I’d need to watch you play and see what’s going on.

E. Díaz

Thanks a lot for replying, Dave. (I apologize for my late answer, this has been a very busy week and I’ve barely grabbed the trombone). Regarding the tremor, it’s almost gone and the attack is doing way better. I’ve been trying switching back to upstream, but maybe since I’ve been working with the downstream I find it better.

These are some videos of performances, although they’re not closeups, the upstream features are noticeable.

this is a little bit old, I was facing no trouble by then
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WdOr62CxLxo

these are from the time of the onset of my problems (it was with the low register that it started) an exaggerated movement of the jaw is detectable in the staccato
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GF1Iqf1Hehc
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S7225DKwsf0

now, after the (not full yet) recovery, I’m really like starting back again, so I think I should decide whether to make the embouchure change at some point within some weeks, right now the downstream is working better.

I’m curious, what happened with the trombone player from the second video, is he recovered?
kind regards,
E. Díaz

Dave

E. Díaz, it’s hard to say based on the view that we get in those videos. It does appear that your embouchure at that time was upstream. In my experience, most players (particularly low brass) who play upstream probably need to play that way and tweak other elements of their embouchure, not switch to downstream. However, that can happen too, so maybe that change is correct for you. Again, I’d have to see how you’re playing now and also watch you closer with the upstream embouchure.

Denis Haskew

Hi Dave. I’m hoping you might be able to give me some embouchure advice. I am a brass teacher from England. I have been teaching a pupil trumpet from scratch since he was 8 years old, he is now 13 years old. He has progressed well over the years taking a few music exams. However just in the last six months or so I have been noticing something strange going on with his embouchure. As he goes for the higher notes like E F or G at the top of the stave he seems to be moving over to one side of his mouth. I’ve been trying to get him to keep it central, even putting a mirror up on the stand. When he really concentrates he can just about do this but all too easily he reverts back to this strange and bad habit, to the point that he just cannot get these higher notes now without the movement across. I teach him at his house and his mother, who is a musician, is on his case about it. I think he is now getting rather depressed about it all and it is really taking up much of the lesson to try to correct it but without success. Have you ever come across this before and can it be repaired? I really hope you can help.

Regards,
Denis

Ted Samodel

Hello from the US,
I am a veteran trumpet player/school teacher. I am 53 and play regularly in practice, studio, band/show settings, including lead trumpet settings. For a couple years I’ve been struggling with an unpredictable (and increasing) jaw movement (wiggle) that appears only during the early stages of my warm up routine, and yet not every time. Another issue, related or not, is a loss of reliable tonguing speed and control. My plan is to see my Physician first for a recommendation of a neurologist or some other type of caregiver. Any advice as I enter this process? Thanks for your time.
-Ted

Dave

Sorry to hear about your problems, Ted. I can only guess based on your written description. The best thing is to meet up with someone knowledgable about embouchure type switching and see if that’s a factor in your jaw movement. As I always say, I’m not a medical professional and can’t comment or offer any advice to that end, so check with your doctor there. If you can take video, I can sometimes spot type switching going on and offer advice that way, but it’s hard. It’s best to see someone in person. Depending on where you live, I might be able to recommend someone near you.

Good luck!

Dave

Dave

Mike, that’s something that’s best addressed by someone in person. Depending on what’s going on, it might be an easy fix. If you don’t have a teacher, consider taking a lesson and see what that person suggests.