Embouchure Differences Between Instruments

While I have no illusions about my expertise as a brass doubler, I have spent some amount of time learning to play all of them passingly.  This experience has given me a peek into some of the similarities and differences in technique between different brass instruments.

Having looked closely at a lot of embouchures of all brass instruments, I would have to say that, in general, the only difference is the size of the mouthpiece.  Examples of the three basic embouchure types can be found on all the brass instruments.  In my late 20s I made an embouchure change and noticed that adopting the same embouchure type improved my ability to play the other brass instruments too.  The really successful brass doublers I’ve been able to look closely at all seem to use the same basic embouchure type for their different instruments.

Very High Placement Embouchure Type

That said, the difference in the size of the mouthpiece can change things about a player’s embouchure.  The most obvious consideration would be how much room a player has on the lips to place the mouthpiece without the nose or chin getting in the way.  This is really only an issue with low brass players.  For example, this trombonist has a (correct for him) mouthpiece placement that is just under his nose.  If he wanted to play tuba, he might have difficulty getting the ratio of upper to lower lip that he’s comfortable with because he doesn’t have enough room to place the larger mouthpiece.

Low Placement Embouchure Type

I have the exact opposite problem when I play tuba.  My mouthpiece placement with trombone is almost right on my chin.  When I play tuba I it’s hard for me to keep the placement low enough because my chin gets in the way (you can see a video of me playing all the brass instruments here).

High brass players, in contrast, probably need to be more concerned about placing their mouthpiece consistently in the same place on their lips compared with low brass players.  Because the mouthpiece is smaller, a smaller change in how they happen to place the mouthpiece can end up in the player type switching (although I’ve seen examples of tuba players type switching too).  One thing that I wouldn’t be concerned with is placing the mouthpiece on the red of the lips.  In spite of what many brass players believe, there’s nothing inherently wrong with placing the mouthpiece on the red of the lips.  My placement is (shown above), and there are lots of other examples on all the brass instruments.  As long as this placement works best for the individual, you don’t have to worry about damaging tissue or “cutting off the blood supply.”

A less obvious difference between the embouchure of different brass instruments has to do with how the instrument is held and how the player manages their embouchure motion.  If you aren’t already familiar with how I use that term, you might find it helpful to watch the video posted there.  Briefly, the “embouchure motion” is the term one of my teachers, Doug Elliott, uses to refer to the way that brass players will push and pull their lips along the teeth with their mouthpiece as they change registers.  There is usually some accompanying change of horn angle, as the support structure of the teeth, gums, and jaw changes underneath.

Even instruments with essentially the same mouthpiece size will notice differences in making the embouchure motion.  A brass musician playing trombone will make the embouchure motion primarily by adjusting the position of the left hand up and down with the left arm, but also with some wrist movement to keep the rim contact on the teeth and gums even.  The same musician playing euphonium is going to have to make the same embouchure motion by raising and lower the instrument with both arms. Tubists and euphonium players who must rest the instrument in the lap will often lean forwards and backwards a bit also to make their embouchure motion.  Some players will also slouch and straighten slightly, but I think players should rely more on leaning slightly forward or backwards as much as possible to allow for the easiest breathing.

Trumpet players have their left hand holding the instrument further away from their lips than trombone players.  Tilting the instrument with the fulcrum further away like this will make for a larger change at the mouthpiece side.  If the a brass doubler makes the same amount of angle change with the left hand on trumpet and trombone there will be a noticeable difference to the embouchure motion.

Many horn players rest the bell on their right leg.  I try to discourage this because it more or less locks the player’s horn angle in one place that may not be ideal for the particular player.  Players who do rest the bell on the leg tend to make their embouchure motion more like tubists or euphonium players by leaning slightly forward or backward.  Similarly, I try to discourage horn players from slouching and straightening to make their embouchure motion.  Ideally, I think horn players should try to hold their instrument with both hands (the left hand on the valve grip and the right hand in the bell), keeping the instrument off the lap if possible.  The embouchure motion can then be made by raising and lower the hands, rather than changing the position of their body (and potentially interfering with good breathing).

There are probably some other differences I’m not thinking of, but I want to reiterate that as a whole I find brass embouchures between different instruments to be more similar than different.  I don’t see one embouchure type being a better “trumpet embouchure” and one being more of a “horn embouchure.”  Based on my experience and the handful of brass doublers I’ve gotten a close look at, a player’s embouchure will essentially function the same on any brass instrument, other than the subtle differences I’ve mentioned.

If you’re a brass doubler, I’d like to hear about your experiences.  Please leave your comments here and let us know what, if any, embouchure differences do you notice?

Lyle Sanford

Just a quick note of agreement on playing horn “off the leg”. Five years after starting to play the horn switched from on the leg to off about a year ago and it made a huge difference for the better in exactly the way you’re saying. Being able to make subtle adjustments in horn position on the fly allows the embouchure to not have to work extra. Also helps a lot with breathing and with having just the right amount of lip pressure needed. After a week or two getting used to it, the back and shoulder discomfort went away. Can’t imagine going back to on the leg as in retrospect it seems so confining.

Paul T.

Dave,

Have you seen anyone who switches types from one instrument to another?

That would an interesting thing to investigate.

Ned Wilkinson

Dave:

Long time listener, first time caller. I’m a brass doubler of three and a half decades, with a low placement embouchure and a history of moments of clear success mixed with moments of utter frustration. If there were any scientifically minded teachers in the early ’80s when I was doing my formative study, I was unaware; those years were spent in “paralysis through analysis”, for which I was shamed.

After many years primarily in the rhythm section, I’m currently getting my chops back up for brass performance opportunities in the spring. I upblow with a moderate upward angle on every instrument from trumpet to tuba. If I’m struggling to produce a good tone on any given day, this is the second thing I check (after breathing, which is a whole ‘nother issue). Nearly every time, taking a few seconds to calmly find that angle and upblow fixes the problem instantly. Looks like the analysis isn’t paralyzing me anymore!

Someday, when I’m in fully restored chops, I’d love to be in front of your camera.

Dave

Hi, Ned.

Glad to hear you’re finding my posts here helpful.

Someday, when I’m in fully restored chops, I’d love to be in front of your camera.

I used to feel similarly. I would really try to build up my chops for a lesson with Doug Elliott, for example. The thing is, it’s frequently better to get help with your embouchure while you’re still trying to work things out. It can really help save some time in the long term.

Dave

Cesar

I have been learning Tuba for about a year, but I no longer have a tuba available, but I do have a Valve Trombone, is it an option to practice on trombone, and then tray to transition to tuba, and how hard would this be. I play other instruments as well, (Guitar, Bass, keyboard.)

Dave

Cesar, it’s better to practice regularly on any instrument, regardless of whether it’s your preferred instrument or not. Work you put into valve trombone will help you on tuba later, although some transition time is typical.

Tom Saxton

I was a brass doubler decades ago, then quit playing. I bought a trumpet about a year ago, and have been pleased with my progress. I am held back by a severe case of Bells Palsy years ago. I am wondering if a wedge mouthpiece would help my weak embouchure to be able to play longer and higher? Would I be better off going back to a valve trombone or a euphonium?

Dave

Tom, sorry to hear about your Bells palsy. There might be some tweaks you can do to your embouchure to help. I would have to see you play to offer any specific advice.

Tom Saxton

Thanks for the reply Dave. I wish there was a music store near me that carried wedge mouthpieces so that I could try some of them. I have looked online at the wedge mouthpiece site, but there are so many to choose from I wouldn’t know where to start. I might purchase an inexpensive valve trombone to see if I can get more range and endurance. Again, thanks for the reply.

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