A Tubist’s Embouchure: A Case Study

I put together the above video to show an unusual embouchure I happened to document for my embouchure research.  This case is particularly interesting for a couple of features.  First, since it’s more challenging to get clear video footage of embouchure characteristics on a smaller mouthpiece, the tuba embouchure makes i very easy to see examples of certain embouchure characteristics.  Secondly, this tubist plays very well, in spite of some embouchure idiosyncrasies that make for noticeable flaws in his technique.

First, a little background about the subject.  At the time I recorded this video he was a college music student, actually majoring in piano.  He had played tuba for quite a while, though, and was continuing to perform and study tuba as a secondary instrument.  While a fine player, this subject complained of some difficulties playing in tune at a couple of points while taking this video footage.  He had some difficulties with his high range and at a particular point in his range chipped a lot of notes.

This student had been studying with a notable tubist who focused on these problems mainly by approaching it from the breathing.  This attitude of treating brass embouchure problems as breathing problems is quite prevalent, so this is not unusual.  With regards to his high register difficulties this subject told me that his teacher felt if he kept practicing that his muscles would develop and his upper register would improve, although his particular high range cap had not improved for quite some time.  He also told me he got the suggestion that he could always play on an E flat tuba if he needed more upper range for particular music.  He was already playing on a C tuba.

In the above video I show how all three of his technique issues, the intonation difficulties, split attacks, and high register cap, are related to him using two different embouchure types.  In his low register he plays as a Low Placement/upstream embouchure type, but at a particular point in his middle register his lips flip position and he switches to a Medium High Placement/downstream embouchure type.  It is at this break point where his intonation and attacks were inconsistent.  Moving the placement lower on his lips, so that his upper register would remain upstream, also allowed him to play higher and with much less effort than on his downstream embouchure.

It seems highly likely to me that this subject would do better as a Low Placement embouchure type and should adopt that embouchure for his entire range.  At the time, however, he was reluctant to do so.  The little bit of experimenting with an upstream embouchure was enough to convince me, but not enough for him.  A couple of months later he had changed his mind and decided to give this embouchure type correction a serious go.  I got the chance to take some more video footage at that time, and some of that footage has ended up in other videos I’ve put together.

Unfortunately, I’ve since lost touch with this subject and have not been able to follow up with him to see what ultimately resulted.  As I mentioned above, his major instrument was piano, so he may not even be playing tuba any longer.  Not only am I curious as to how things ended up for him, I also want to thank him for his willingness to participate in my research.  He has provided an excellent example to show some different embouchure characteristics and deserves a lot of credit to allow me to share his example.

Thanks, anonymous!

Emily

This video has been very helpful. I’ve been playing the tuba for seven years and have had this problem for quite some time, yet my teacher never corrected me or told me how I could improve it. I start to switch to upper lip/downstream at about C as well, though if the music is generally lower than that, I can stay lower lip/upstream until about D or Eb. The highest i’ve gotten with my range was a G once with upper lip but since I haven’t been practicing as much i’m capping off at about an Eb/F. I’m definitely going to try your suggestions. Thanks!

Chuck

Hi Dave,

I’ve been following your site for a while and, now that my DMA is almost finished and the recitals are over, it’s time to start exploring my embouchure a little closer!

I am a bass trombonist who switched from tenor just two years ago, been playing trombone about 20 years. I’ve always had a pretty high downstream placement on tenor, with a very solid high range. Since switching to bass trombone, I use a medium to low downstream setting for the lower register. Using a gradual shift it’s pretty well connected to the high playing, and my tone is solid until around F1 below the staff.

The issue for me arises when I try to play below that. No amount of cajoling will get anything lower than a low E1 to come out with my “normal” setting. However, when I change to a high placement upstream embouchure, that range is no problem and I can’t play above that same low F! This issue sounds similar to your tuba student, aside from the fact that my low notes are used very infrequently.

This reminds me of many young tenor trombone students I’ve had who feel the need to change embouchure settings around G4. I’ve always recommended for them to play in the higher setting down as low as they can, and in the lower setting as high as they can, to see if they can find some middle ground and make a more gradual shift out of it. This strategy seemed to work for the majority of my students with this issue. But now it’s happening to me! The shift is so great at the F1 point for me that I haven’t been able to figure out how to tackle it yet. Any thoughts/advice?

Chuck

Dave

Hi, Chuck. Thanks for stopping by.

It’s really hard to offer any particular advice without being able to watch you (or your students) play. In general, I discourage shifting around the mouthpiece placement at all for different ranges. Instead, I feel it’s better to have a single mouthpiece placement for your entire range.

It’s possible you may be confused by some of my terminology here. You mention you can play with a “high placement upstream embouchure,” however any placement high on the lips (closer to the nose) would indicate a downstream embouchure (there are exceptions, but this would take too long to get into and isn’t an ideal way to play, I feel).

Any chance you can send along some video footage of you or one of your students with questions? It’s often hard to help this way, but sometimes I can spot some things that can make a difference.

Dave

Chuck

Thanks for getting back to me Dave. I’ll work on the videos–I happen to have a clear Kelly mouthpiece laying around.

On closer inspection, you were right about my high placement indicating a downstream embouchure in the low register. Also, what I talked about as a gradual shift across the different ranges is more of what Reinhardt.would call a pivot. The terminology can be confusing! The pivot changes the airstream as I go higher or lower, then at the low F, the shift kicks in to mess everything up. I’ll send a video to your email soon.

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