Last month I wrote a post concerning correlations between the different embouchure types and mouthpiece selection. Since then I’ve come across an article on Stork Mouthpieces with some information posted about the author’s hypothesis how lip size and shape can be used to guide good mouthpiece choices. The author, who I think is most likely John Stork, writes:
I consider basic lip structure to be the most critical element in properly fitting a player. The size and type of lip a player has absolutely decides which inner diameter they should be using. Choosing the correct inner diameter is where proper mouthpiece selection starts. Nevertheless, not a week goes by where someone, somewhere will make a desperate inquiry concerning which lip type they possess. I also receive pictures, plotted graphs and detailed mechanical drawings of lips in the pursuit of a resolution to this great issue. The problem with this approach is that it’s not really just one particular criteria that can be counted on to reveal all. If it were as simple as just measuring some physical parameter, the myths and mysteries that surround the whole issue could have been put to rest a long time ago. Rather, it is more of an amalgam of criteria that must decide.
I wrote my dissertation on a similar topic, although I looked at more broad physical characteristics and their correlation to the basic embouchure types. There is more than a little plausibility, although the results of my study ended up being similar to Stork’s last sentence above. There are an awful lot of variables to consider and there aren’t very easy ways to predict which embouchure type will be most correct for a particular player. Stork may be on to something, but I do have some questions and concerns about his ideas.
As far as selection of the inner diameter, Stork seems to rely on three basic characteristics of the red of the lip: the width of the lip (how much red), degree of fleshiness (how thick the muscle of the lips are from teeth side to front), and lip structure (certain patterns of how the red of the lip show on certain players). Stork doesn’t go into any details on why the vermillion of the lips should be a factor here, but assuming this interview is accurate and relevant, here is the reason Stork states why the red of the lips matter with regards to mouthpiece placement (and presumably mouthpiece selection).
The problem with this set-up is that this player is now playing in the inner membrane of the lip where there is no musculature to protect the tissue from bruising or from cutting off the blood. To make matters even worse, by playing so far down on the lip, this person has greatly decreased the amount of exposed vibrating surface. This defect will have a drastic impact on his ability to play in the upper range.
I’ve mentioned this common misconception here before. In short, the reason why your lips are red is because the epidermal layer (your skin) is thinner there and somewhat transparent. What we’re actually seeing is the red blood in your capillaries. There aren’t arteries or veins that you’re in danger of squeezing off, so the risk of cutting of your blood supply is probably not something you should worry about. Not to mention that there certainly is muscle support there, the orbicular oris muscle group includes the entire lip, vermillion included. Regardless of where you place the mouthpiece, there is always going to be some rim contact somewhere on the vermillion of the lips. If this area was so sensitive to pressure and prone to damage, wouldn’t brass players already notice it?
As far as the decrease in vibrating surface in the upper lip goes, this is definitely true if the mouthpiece placement is low enough on the upper lip. However, Stork assumes that this is a bad thing without bothering to check and see how the lips vibrate inside the mouthpiece. Lloyd Leno’s film, Lip Vibration of Trombone Embouchures, is perfect for demonstrating my point. Both lips do not vibrate with equal intensity and the lip that is predominate is will vibrate with more surface area than the other. Players who are downstream definitely want enough top lip inside the mouthpiece because their top lip is mostly responsible for the vibrations. Upstream players, on the other hand, are the reverse and their embouchure actually functions better when there is less vibrating surface in the top lip. Stork’s advice is incomplete. While it may be appropriate for the majority of players (downstream embouchure players represent probably around 85% of all brass players, maybe more), it’s going to wreck a significant number of players. Not to mention that it’s based on a false premise.
So why is there so much attention placed on getting just the right amount of red inside the mouthpiece by so many brass players? I think the main reason is because when looking for patterns it’s the “low hanging fruit” of data to collect. All you need to do is look at the lips and you’re done, you don’t even need to watch someone play. Even though it is probably a superficial feature, it’s an easy way to at least get started with analysis. I think it’s fair to take Stork’s comments here with a grain of salt. It’s still plausible to consider the lips as a variable, but factors like jaw position, horn angle, mouthpiece placement, etc. definitely also need to be considered as well for your analysis to have merit.
On page 4 of his article Stork makes a category error.
The first 3 pictures in the picture gallery below show examples of people with short top lips. This type of lip structure can be a problem because it can seriously impede a player’s ability to compress down the aperture.
A short top lip can make it very difficult to bring the lips together enough to create a seal below the top teeth so that the air has a clear path to the lips without having to first hit the teeth.
This is one area I looked closely at in my dissertation, but I looked at (more correctly, I believe) the length of the whole top lip in relation to the upper teeth and gums. Stork instead comments that because the red of the lip is short that they have to stretch their upper lip down towards the aperture. It’s not how much red is there, it’s the how long the entire lip is that’s a factor here.
My own lips are a good example of the difference I’m talking about. I have a somewhat thick upper lip, and to use Stork’s terms, they’re fairly fleshy as well. Looking at this particular photo to the left it would seem I wouldn’t need to worry about the length of my upper lip impeding my ability to compress down on the aperture.
However, if we consider the entire length of my upper lip and compare this with the length of my upper teeth and gums, you can notice how short it actually is. Notice that when I grin you can see a lot of upper teeth and upper gums. This is the anatomical characteristic that needs to be considered when looking at whether the player needs to bring his top lip down in a certain way to get the proper lip compression. And as it turns out, there does appear to be a correlation of embouchure type for these types of players. A lot of players who belong to the “low placement” embouchure type have the same short upper lip in relation to their teeth and gums.
As long as I’m picking nits, I also want to comment that from a pedagogical standpoint, I have problems with discussing a student’s anatomical features as belonging to a “problematic lip type.” Rather than dwell on what a student can’t change (their lips), I want to focus on what they do have control over (their embouchure and mouthpiece selection). There are way too many examples of brass musicians with very strange looking faces playing great to call a specific physical feature “problematic.” The issue isn’t the player’s anatomy, it’s working with their physical features instead of against them (e.g., adopting the correct embouchure type or choosing an appropriate mouthpiece).
I think it’s probably fair to recommend you take Stork’s recommendations with some skepticism, but that’s probably good advice for any you get (including mine). Most musicians don’t have the training or wherewithal to conduct their research properly (using controls to avoid bias, correct statistical analysis, and publishing their methodology through a process designed to weed out the bad studies and make improvements in the ones that show promise). Take some time to consider the whole picture before taking anyone’s word on faith alone. Even the acknowledged experts in our field have commonly accepted ideas that turn out to by myths.