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.
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.
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?