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.
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.
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.
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.