X-Ray Videos of Brass Players

The above embedded video from YouTube is an fascinating look at a horn player and a trumpet player performing various types of tonguing in different registers.  There are some interesting things that I noticed watching it.

I’m not sure when this video footage was filmed, but it had to be a while ago (update: John Ericson, from the Horn Matters blog, noted that the footage was taken for Joseph A. Meidt’s 1967 dissertationA Cinefluorographic Investigation of Oral Adjustments for Various Aspects of Brass Instrument Performance).  These days we have a better understanding of the risks involved in a casual dose of X-ray radiation, so I doubt that a legitimate researcher would be able to go through an Institutional Research Board and get approval for this sort of study.  

The horn player is up first.  Today it’s generally acknowledged that the level of the tongue arch should change according to the register being played so that the higher the pitch the closer the tongue position will be as if saying “ee” and the lower the closer to “oh.” Curiously, this isn’t so apparent watching the horn player.  Instead, he seems to be achieving a similar shaping of the air stream inside the oral cavity by changing the position of the jaw.  While this is encouraged by some brass players (drop the jaw to descend), I don’t think this is as efficient as keeping the jaw more or less the same distance (it shouldn’t be static, but the up/down motion should probably be minimized).  Notice how the horn player’s lower teeth will move below the lower edge of the mouthpiece rim for the very low notes.  I feel that this results in an unstable embouchure formation and makes for an inconsistent embouchure feel overall as the support structure behind the mouthpiece and lips is constantly changing.  Listening closely to the quality of sound in the low register, the tone is different in the low register.  I prefer the more focused quality the horn player gets when he has his jaw positioned so that the lower teeth support the lower end of the mouthpiece rim.

This particular horn player seems to be articulating with one of the most common tongue types.  He attacks the pitch with the tongue tip just above and behind the upper teeth and while slurring and sustaining pitches the tongue tip hovers in the mouth.  This is probably the most common way for brass players to tongue.

Without getting a look at the lips, it’s hard to guess this horn player’s embouchure type, but I do see what looks like an embouchure motion of pulling the mouthpiece and lips together down to ascend and up to descend.  There are two basic embouchure types that do this, the Medium High Placement and the Low Placement embouchure types.  Since of the two the Medium High Placement type is much more common, I would guess that he belongs to that type.  In the lowest pitches he plays it looks as if there’s more lower lip inside the mouthpiece, which also suggests a downstream embouchure type (which the Medium High Placement type is).

The trumpet player has a more consistent jaw position and the change in the level of tongue arch is more apparent.  I noticed beginning around 1:38 into the video that his tongue works differently for the ascending slurs than for the descending slurs.  It looks as if he may be lightly articulating the attacks to ascend but then doing a natural slur down.  Most players find it more difficult to slur up without articulating each pitch and sometimes “cheat” by doing a light legato tongue.  As long as this can be controlled to sound appropriate for the musical situation there’s nothing wrong with playing this way, but there are specific flexibility studies that brass players often practice that shouldn’t be tongued this way.  You want to be able to adjust your technique to fit the musical situation, not because you’re incapable of performing it any other way.  Be sure to practice your ascending lip slurs without using the tongue to attack the pitches.

I also noticed that the trumpet player ducks his head slightly in the low register.  The angle the horn needs to be held against the lips can change according to the register (and this is personal to each individual player), but it’s best to do this with the hands, rather than changing the position of the head, if it’s necessary for the particular player.

As best as I can tell, the trumpet player also belongs to the Medium High Placement embouchure type.  It looks as if his mouthpiece placement has a bit more upper lip than lower lip inside and as if he’s pulling down to ascend and pushing up to descend.  In order to be certain about both players I would ask them to try out the opposite embouchure motion (pushing up to ascend and pulling down to descend) to hear if there was any improvement.  Most players are completely unaware of their embouchure motion and how it affects their embouchure form, so inconsistencies can develop that make the player work harder than necessary.

As I mentioned above, doing such studies today would probably not be possible, or at least advisable for the test subjects.  I understand that Donald Reinhardt had a fluoroscope in his teaching studio to look at what his students’ tongues were doing, but after he learned that he was increasing both his and his student’s risk for developing cancer he stopped using it.  Certain medical tests, such as swallowing studies, are still commonly done when the benefit from learning what’s going on with the patient outweighs the known risks.  I don’t think that simple curiosity about the brass player’s tonguing technique qualifies.  I wonder if a new method of looking at this could be developed that is safer than zapping your subject with radiation.