Weight Training Principles Applied to Brass Embouchure

Dr. John Pursell stopped by to contribute to one of our conversations here and he mentioned an article he wrote in the March 2000 International Trumpet Guild journal. In his article, entitled Pumping Brass, Pursell summarizes what we have learned about weight training principles regarding athletic training and offers some thoughts about how those principles can be applied to building embouchure strength.

Brass players may be interested in Pursell’s discussion of the difference between building strength and building endurance, both of which are important to good brass playing. Athletes use different training principles to build one or the other, depending on their particular goals. If the weight training is being used to build strength, heavier weights are used with fewer repetitions. For building endurance the athlete will train with lighter weights, but use more repetitions.

A lot of Pursell’s practical advice isn’t really new or unique, but it’s nice to see supporting evidence. For example, many teachers recommend carefully controlled rest periods throughout a practice session.

Rest is essential to the proper function of the muscles. It is during the rest period that the muscles “recharge” themselves with ATP. Without enough rest, the body cannot keep up with the aerobic production of ATP, which is necessary for long-term activities. Instead, anaerobic production of ATP will continue, lactic acid will build up, and fatigue will quickly set in.

Pursell’s discussion of different brass pedagogues’ recommendations on when to rest while practicing is interesting in part for the way that brass practice has changed over the centuries, or at least how it was written about. He makes an excellent point at the end of this portion of his article.

The musician can easily integrate the principle of proper rest into daily practice and adapt existing methods for use. The key point is to rest before one tires. Rest enables the body to keep up with the production of ATP and the removal of lactic acid.

Of particular interest to brass players is Pursell’s discussion of the differences between a priority system of weight training and a circuit system. Most brass players will practice similar to the priority system – a certain period of time is spent on a particular exercise (lip slurs, tonguing, high range, etc.) after which the musician rests and move on. Pursell, however, notes that this type of practice has its drawbacks.

If one tends to practice materials in roughly the same order every day, then exercises done at the end of the session will always be done with tired embouchure muscles and therefore will never be practiced at peak ability levels. Secondly, music is not written that way. One is frequently required to play loud and sustained one moment and softly and delicately within seconds. . . It would appear that a circuit-type practice system would be more beneficial for training the facial muscles to do the work required of them in practical performance situations.

This is one of the reasons why I like using many of Donald Reinhardt’s routines. His “Warmup 57” (I’m not certain why he called it that) consists of three basic exercises – lip slurs starting in the middle register and expanding in both directions by half steps, variations on overtone lip flexibility exercises, and an ascending chromatic exercise that moves up by half steps. What is interesting about Warmup 57 is that it is arranged so that you touch on a bit of each of the three exercises before a short rest period. After the break you touch on a bit more of each, rest, and repeat until the routine is complete or the player starts straining to continue.

Reinhardt had other routines that would change every day which also resemble the circuit training approach. Pursell mentions Trumpet Method, by Harold Mitchell, as another example.

While I find Pumping Brass to be very interesting and worth reading, I would caution everyone that we need to be careful making too many assumptions equating brass playing with weight training. Purssell deals with some of the differences in his article, but there are other criticisms that have been raised. For example, certain sports sports, such as rowing and water polo, have not shown much benefit from weight training. It’s possible that brass playing would equally find little to no beneficial effects to weight training principles, although I feel the anecdotal evidence would suggest otherwise.

Lastly, a stronger embouchure is not a cure-all for embouchure issues. For example, embouchure type switching or playing on the wrong embouchure type for your anatomy would need to be addressed for any long term progress. Still, when making an embouchure correction the player will need to recondition embouchure muscles to function in a slightly different way, and many times that will require building embouchure strength. In cases like those, teachers and players may find Pursell’s suggestions helpful in conjunction with embouchure type corrections.

Paul T.

One area of strength training that is not often covered is the strength required to maintain the jaw in a certain position. Reinhardt dealt with this issue with his “jaw retention drill”; other pedagogues I’m aware of never even mention the issue.

However, it is a significant issue for a good number of players (maybe all or most, even) and it would interesting to find some more information about it.

During my embouchure last year, my endurance dropped radically due to a different jaw position, and I was very close to injuring myself: luckily, I had the patience and foresight to back off the practicing for a month or so, and now it’s no longer a problem.