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.