If you ask pretty much any experienced brass player or teacher they will tell you that mouthpiece pressure on the lips is a bad thing. Brass teachers almost universally teach beginning players to avoid excessive mouthpiece pressure. Some performers even insist that they play with no pressure at all. Then there are the ubiquitous stories about some player who hung his instrument on a string and played an incredibly high and powerful note (always a second hand account and I’ve not come across any videos of this parlor trick, so probably urban legend).
While most of us realize that no pressure isn’t really practical (there should be enough pressure to form a hermetic seal between the lips and mouthpiece rim), we still tend to insist that mouthpiece pressure should be as minimal as possible. But how much pressure is too much? How much pressure do the professionals use compared to beginners?
There have been a number of studies that have looked at how much mouthpiece pressure brass players use, but I recently came across one I hadn’t seen before, published in New Scientist way back in 1986. It’s interesting not so much because what it says about mouthpiece pressure, but what it says about brass teachers and commonly established pedagogy.
Does the fact that someone is good at something necessarily make them a good teacher? We often assume that because “experts” can perform the task in question, they are the best people to pass on their skills to others. When someone is an expert, we tend to infer first that he or she has a clear and accurate insight into how to acquire the skill and so perform the task, and secondly, given that the person has such an insight, that he or she has skills necessary to transfer this information to others.
Because the authors, Joe Barbenel, John Booth Davies and Patrick Kenny, were amateur trumpet players they were familiar with what brass players and teachers say about mouthpiece pressure, but to these researchers in the fields of psychology and bioengineering the amount of mouthpiece pressure was only one question they were curious about. They not only wanted to compare the amount of pressure used by professional and beginner trumpet players, but also see if the professional trumpet players would be able to accurately guess how much pressure they themselves used and if they could accurately predict how much pressure other players used.
What they report on mouthpiece pressured didn’t surprise me at all. It was consistent with some of the other papers and articles I’ve come across. All players, both professionals and amateurs, use a lot more mouthpiece force against their lips than they think and neither group really used more or less pressure than the other.
We first looked for statistically reliable differences in the force used by individuals in each group. Despite our strong expectations that the less-experienced players would use more force, we found no differences between the groups in terms of the amount of force used for the same musical passage.
In fact, they authors comments that for very high and loud pitches the professional players often used a very high amount of mouthpiece pressure, so much that they thought their equipment was malfunctioning at first.
But after these interesting findings the researchers went a couple more steps. They had taken detailed photographs of each trumpet player playing particular pitches and measured the amount of force the players were using for each pitch. They asked the professional trumpet players to look at the photographs and order them according to the amount of mouthpiece pressure used by each player for a particular pitch.
As it turns out, the experts were able to order the amount of mouthpiece force for a single player fairly accurately. They could take photographs of a single player and order them fairly accurately in terms of how much force was used for each pitch. Where they went wrong, however, is in making accurate guesses for whether one player used more mouthpiece pressure than another. They compared the results of the professional trumpet players guesses with a control group that knew nothing about trumpet playing and the experts did no better than the non-experts here. Furthermore, both the professional trumpet players and the amateur players greatly underestimated the amount of mouthpiece pressure they used.
From these experiments, we can make several guarded statements. First, it is simply not true that professional players of the highest calibre use low levels of force on the mouthpiece. We could not differentiate amateur players from professionals in terms of the amount of force they used to perform a given task. Secondly, skilled players were no better than other groups at ranking photographs of players for the amount of force the subjects were using on the mouthpiece. The experts appeared to base their judgments of force on the general appearance of effort rather than on any specific cues. When asked to judge between different players, experts could not reliably tell who used the most force and who used the least.
This is yet another reminder that I need to be careful about proclaiming judgements that I “know” to be true. Even experts in their fields are guilty of accepting certain false statements as true simply because they are commonly believed.
This understanding raises some interesting questions about brass pedagogy. If teaching students to use “less mouthpiece pressure” works, why worry whether or not it’s true? Is it best for teachers to instruct their students based on accurate depictions of the way we actually play the instrument or is it better to teach playing sensations and analogies? Is there a perfect combination of both?