Arnold Jacobs On Embouchure: A Criticism, Part 2

A few months ago I posted a criticism of Arnold Jacobs pedagogy, specifically related to his dismissal of embouchure as an important factor of brass playing.  I recently got a comment on that article that has some very common misconceptions to my brass embouchure research.  I wanted to take a moment and address some of those now, using this comment as a launching point for further discussion.  I hope that my commenter, Kaj Fagerberg, doesn’t feel singled out here, as his points echo many made by Jacobs himself.  Due in part to Jacobs’ pervasive influence, these misconceptions are widespread among brass players.

Kaj writes:

I think what Jacobs is saying is that the embouchure must vibrate, that’s all it does. There is not a magic setting that one must find, it just produces vibration to produce sound. Our teachers spend so much time trying to get us produce a perfect textbook example of the embouchure, that they forget it’s goal is to vibrate. Yes, a functioning embouchure vibrates, just as a distorted one can. There is no difference. That is the point he is making.

I think it’s a pretty simplistic view that all the embouchure does is merely vibrate.  The lip vibrations must be controlled perfectly in order to play the correct pitch and with a focused and resonant tone.  It’s true that a distorted embouchure vibrates too, as demonstrated by Jacobs’ infamous embouchure trick, but a distorted embouchure formation is inefficient and causes problems we want to avoid.  Jacobs probably never actually performed with his lips twisted up like this because it would not be an optimal way to play and I think he’d probably help students avoid winding up the lips with the mouthpiece rim.

Here is one example where merely focusing on breathing alone and simply allowing the lips to vibrate caused more problems than it solved.

Kaj continued:

You also describe how Jacobs’s leaves out the mention of different embouchure types, such as high, medium or low settings. That was the point of the “gimmick” you mentioned above. Do you really think that a brass playing in one of the best orchestras around didn’t know about the different settings that people have?

First, as I’ve written about here, it would be a logical fallacy to assume that because someone plays with an orchestra that he or she must somehow be aware of how different players’ embouchures function in different ways.  Furthermore, I’m not simply concerned with where the mouthpiece is placed, but how that placement effects a player’s overall embouchure form and function.  Jacobs never demonstrated that he understood this.  In fact, many of his statements about brass embouchures are demonstrably wrong.

Because I personally am interested in how brass embouchures function I have to be careful in my teaching that I don’t find embouchure problems where there are really issues in something different.  It is a personal bias that I’m aware of and strive to avoid.  Similarly, I feel Jacobs’ interest in breathing caused him to find breathing problems where embouchure issues were really the issue.  His thoughts on the double buzz are just one area where he states that the cause was breathing, when it can be clearly shown to be an issue with the player’s embouchure, at least in the cases I’ve seen.

The embouchure’s job is to vibrate, therefore there aren’t too many kinds of inconsistencies if Jacobs can play with a mashed up embouchure.

Just to be clear, Jacobs doesn’t demonstrate he plays with a “mashed up embouchure,” he’s just buzzing with a rim visualizer.  If a successful player can be found to actually perform with this twisted up embouchure formation I will revise my opinion, but until then I call shenanigans.

Lastly:

Do violinists worry about how their strings vibrate? No, they worry about their bow moving across the string. We shouldn’t be worried about how our embouchure vibrates but about the air that we are fueling it with.

I sometimes use the string analogy when teaching, but we have to remember that this resemblance breaks down pretty quickly when you look closer at the acoustical principles of the two instruments.  Not to mention that this argument somewhat misrepresents and distorts my original point.  I don’t feel that we should be unconcerned with breathing (or any other mechanical factor of playing a brass instrument), but that we should pay attention to all the technical elements, including the embouchure.

Charismatic and insightful teachers such as Jacobs are inspiring and have much to offer, yet we take their statements as the final word at our own peril.  It’s a healthy attitude to be skeptical of what we’re taught and to look closely at it.  Don’t take my word on any of this either, take some time to look closely yourself.  If you can show that there are no embouchure problems, only breathing problems, then I need to revise my own views and will gladly look at the evidence.  Until then, I think my criticisms about Jacobs’ “Song & Wind” approach remain valid.

Paul T.

Quite true. Successful brass playing is founded on quite a few different principles that must all work together, and each player’s goals can only be achieved by mastering whichever technical aspects are weakest, and whichever aspects come least naturally to that student.

I’ve had teachers warn me that learning about the embouchure would turn me into a mechanical, unmusical player with a bad sound. I never understood this point of view: although I have certainly heard people who sound that way, for me beautiful, exciting music is the very reason I came to this profession in the first place. I have always been someone who would sacrifice technique for a musical result, not the other way around. I cannot imagine that perfecting the technical aspects of playing music could somehow reduce my interest for musical expression and lessen my focus on artistry. Struggling with incorrect or flawed technique, on the other hand, does forcibly distract from musical concerns and causes me to focus on other things.

Everyone’s battle is different.

On a slightly different topic, I too find Jacobs’s “demonstration” to be little more than a sort of distraction, a crowd pleaser. Brass players don’t make a living by buzzing a few notes in the lower middle register through a rim visualiser. Now if someone could perform the same trick while demonstrating power, range, great sound, intonation, while playing a variety of dynamic levels, tessituras, and musical styles, that would be really interesting, and a true demonstration. Of course, the next step would then be to see if it is possible to teach that same trick reliably to other brass players. Then we would be talking about something really interesting.

(Let me note here also that, while I disagree with certain things Jacobs said – and even more so to the ways those statements are sometimes distorted or exaggerated by his students – I have a truly profound respect for this man and his teaching. The things I’ve learned from the legacy of Mr. Jacobs are with me every day and a large part of how I teach. It’s just that, like Dave, I believe there is little gained and much to lose by willfully ignoring every aspect of brass playing. This is something I’ve unfortunately had to discover for myself, and I learned it the hard way. Breathing is important. Music is important. Embouchure technique is also important – there is no need to overlook this fact merely because some players find their way to correct embouchure technique “naturally”.)

John

Dave- quick comment as a fan of your writing, and someone who hadn’t been exposed to the Arnold Jacobs method of teaching brass/embouchure development.

I’ll trust you that in some cases the Arnold Jacobs method can come off as a bit ‘shortsighted’ in the case of embouchure problems, but you yourself say that in most cases if the student is left to his or her own devices to find an embouchure, rather than having one chosen for him by a teacher/Arban’s book/whatever, s/he will naturally fall into a working embouchure set.

Now… Jacobs likely dealt with many students experiencing the very same problems you bring up- teachers told them to use the Arban mouthpiece placement, they did, and hit a brick wall in terms of embouchure development/range/flexibility/efficiency at a certain level, and your writings with regard to “Use it if it works, other people have” have been invaluable to my own development as a musician.

But… in the absence of a teacher saying “No, move the mouthpiece further up. No, down. OK, now you look like Mantia, let’s move on to the exercises”, wouldn’t ‘Song and Wind’ be optimal? Breath and air support can be taught, musicality and pitch can be learned or felt… but since you and Doug Elliott say that there’s as many different embouchures as there are brass musicians, is it something that can, or more properly, should be taught in the absence of a pressing problem?

Dave

Hey, John. Thanks for stopping by. You questions deserve a longer response than I can get to now. Briefly, there are some basic things anyone can learn that can be useful for teaching brass embouchures. Irrespective of that, where I disagree with Song & Wind is that it breaks things down only into musical communication and breathing. That’s a hammer and screwdriver, but sometimes you also need a drill in your toolbox. Learning how to diagnose embouchure types and spot basic embouchure difficulties takes time to learn, but no more so than learning your scales or slide positions.

More to follow later.

Dave

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