I’ve gotten several questions about the asymmetrical mouthpieces that John H. Lynch has developed. It’s an interesting design. Essentially the rim is much larger on one side. As I haven’t tried these mouthpieces out, I don’t have any personal experience that I can bring to review the asymmetrical mouthpiece design. But Lynch has written a fair amount about embouchures, which may offer insights into how his mouthpiece design can work for a particular player.
One article I came across is a reprint from Clint McLaughlin’s book, The Pros Talk Embouchure (which I haven’t read yet). Lynch’s article is called The Ideal Trumpet Embouchure. It’s an interesting read, although I noted several assumptions about embouchure’s that would only apply to certain embouchure types and a handful of things that are the brass player’s equivalent of urban legends. Going through some of Lynch’s statements and offering my thoughts may help some players considering his mouthpieces put it into a more complete context.
Lynch divides his discussion into two parts, one he calls the “static” part, including things like the mouthpiece placement on the lips, left hand grip, tongue position, lip pucker, etc. The other he calls the “dynamic” part of the embouchure and covers such things as air, pitch, and practice. I’m not certain that I would discuss elements of the embouchure quite in the same way, but it’s one way to at least organize an essay and makes it easy to follow.
The first point I took issue with is in his discussion of the mouthpiece set. In it, he discusses mouthpiece placement fairly rigidly, without much room for individual variations.
The horizontal placement of the mouthpiece relates primarily to dental configuration and “in the center of the lips” is to be preferred if possible with the upper and lower teeth “evened up” as much as possible.
There are many players who place their mouthpiece to one side or another. In fact, I think most players have at least some slightly off-center placement. Some players, for whatever anatomical reason, play best far off center. Rather than recommend centered is “to be preferred if possible,” I would simply recommend players to place the mouthpiece wherever it works best, no matter how centered or not. Sometimes a better placement to one side (or even up or down) is not apparent unless the player tries it out.
Vertical mouthpiece position is another story, however, and is fundamental to a successful embouchure. I have outlined in a short article (1.) that is available on the website, www.asymmetric-mouthpiece.com the reasons to position the mouthpiece vertically with about two thirds of it on the bottom lip.
It’s a little unusual for someone to universally recommend a mouthpiece placement with more lower lip inside. The mouthpiece placement is what determines the player’s air stream direction (and partially the player’s embouchure type in the downstream cases). For a variety of reasons, it’s more common for teachers to recommend a mouthpiece placement with more upper lip inside. Either type of instruction is incomplete. Similar to horizontal placement, the vertical placement on the lips that works best will be determined by the player’s unique anatomy and I think it’s a mistake to universally recommend one over the other.
Lynch does have his reasons for suggesting this, which he writes about on his web site in an article he calls Vertical Mouthpiece Position and Range.
We note that throughout most of the trumpet range (say middle C and above for example), essentially only the top lip is “vibrating” (ref. 2). For the lower notes, the bottom lip may or may not possibly also enter into the process.
The study Lynch is citing in this quote is An Experimental Study of Trumpet Embouchure, written by H.W. Henderson and published in the 1942 issue of the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America. I read this paper years ago and don’t recall everything from it, but I will note that embouchure air stream direction is still something not widely acknowledged or understood by most brass players and in 1942 there was even less quality information out there. Lynch’s statement may be supported by Henderson’s paper (I don’t recall, to be honest), but it’s incomplete when compared to more current research. Specifically, Lloyd Leno (and others) have demonstrated that downstream players have a more active upper lip (like a clarinet reed), while the lower lip moves less (more like the clarinet mouthpiece, although it does vibrate, just with less intensity). Upstream players have the reverse situation, a more active lower lip and more static upper lip.
I find it curious that although Lynch is advising an upstream mouthpiece placement (more lower lip inside the mouthpiece), his reasoning stems in part from a paper that must have looked at mostly or only downstream players (downstream players are more common, remember).
Contrary to what is commonly thought, lip tissue tension is a much less important factor than upper lip mass, when raising pitch (ref. 3). Henderson found that the principal method for raising pitch is to reduce the effective vibrating mass of the upper lip.
If you change “upper” for “lip that predominates inside the mouthpiece” then I think this is true (go to the Leno link above to see this with high speed film). However, because Lynch is assuming that Henderson’s research is accurate for all players, he makes an assumption that moving the mouthpiece placement so the lower lip predominates (upstream) won’t reverse this situation.
If we reasonably assume that, due to musculature limitations, a player is capable of only so much (and no more) upward push with his lower lip in either case (A or B), it is apparent that choosing the mouthpiece position depicted in diagram B gives him a “head start” when he attempts to elevate pitch, i.e. because there is less upper lip mass (to immobilize) to start with (when using the “1/3, 2/3” position), his bottom lip “upward push” capability will be acting on a smaller initial vibrating mass and will not be partially dissipated (used up) by top lip tissue that has been removed from the system by virtue of this selection (he would have to immobilize this extra tissue first, to get to the same point if he had selected the “half and half” position).
Lynch’s diagram A shows a placement with more upper lip inside while diagram B has more lower lip inside (A would be downstream, B upstream, although he doesn’t discuss them as such here). Since the upstream position has a much more active lower lip, it’s not reducing the upper lip mass that becomes important for the higher register, it’s immobilizing the lower lip instead.
I don’t know the date Lynch posted his essay on Vertical Mouthpiece Position and Range, but I noticed that recently (February, 2011) he did post some information on air stream direction. In his article, Upstream/Downstream Considerations, makes some corrections and clarifications (including noting air stream direction is related to mouthpiece placement), although I think he’s still missing part of the bigger picture.
I have heard unconfirmed estimates that 80% of all trumpeters are upstream players, and the remaining 20% or so are, to some degree, downstream players.
Lynch doesn’t cite a source here, but my best guess would be almost the reverse of this. Lately, I estimate that the upstream players actually account for only about 15% of brass embouchures. Some people who I trust to know what they are talking about estimate it at even lower than that. To my knowledge, no one has done a large enough experimental study with good controls to make accurate statistics on this. Still, I think it’s fair to say that upstream players are in actuality a minority and definitely don’t make up 80% of trumpet players.
Even citing my article on Donald Reinhardt’s pedagogy, he misunderstands what Reinhardt meant by his term “pivot” and makes a common error in thinking that all downstream players make the same motion. What I find very interesting is something I suspected the first time I heard about asymmetrical mouthpieces, that the positioning of the wider rim area on the top or the bottom would depend on the player’s embouchure type.
But, over the past several years, more and more downstream players have written to Asymmetric to say that they are having great results with the Asymmetric mouthpiece by playing it UPSIDE DOWN (wider rim segment up).
I would actually have guessed that it would be the reverse, that downstream players would do better with the wider segment on the lower lip. It’s a curious problem to visualize. I would expect that the wider rim portion on the lower lip would effectively force players into a downstream embouchure type, since there would be more upper lip inside the mouthpiece this way. Placing the wider segment of the rim on top would reduce the vibrating surface of the upper lip and create an upstream embouchure. There’s probably some wiggle room in there, but I’d have to watch different players play in an asymmetrical transparent mouthpiece to see what’s going on.
Returning to Lynch’s discussion of the ideal trumpet embouchure:
An active way to effect this is to try to “keep a thick lip”, or to try to maintain “shock absorber lips”, i.e. try to achieve a more “rubbery” or “looser” connection to the horn. This is what we are striving for by puckering. If we manage to keep a little more lip tissue between the teeth and the mouthpiece, we will greatly improve our flexibility, our range and endurance.
When using terms like “pucker” I find it’s helpful to qualify that puckering your lips can mean slightly different things to different players. Some players stretch their lips into a smile embouchure when ascending, so it can be valuable for them to instead think of puckering their lips to ascend. Other players (myself included) have a tendency to actually pucker to ascend, which can thin out the sound and make it hard to slur back down without resetting the mouthpiece. I personally would avoid advising a student to strive towards a “rubbery” or “looser” feeling. It’s quite common for less experienced players to actually play with too loose or flabby an embouchure formation, which can feel easy to play and have a nice fat sound in the lower register. It just inhibits the upper register and can cause some longer term problems that eventually need correction.
Another component of the ideal embouchure can be found in the elasticity of the tissue that is “vibrating”. For higher register playing it behooves us to use “whiter”, “springier”, more elastic tissue. Red lip tissue tends more toward flaccidity while white tissue tends more toward elasticity in trumpet embouchures. A player will use neither exclusively, but will tend to play on some intermediate tissue that is neither red nor white, but somewhere in the transition area between. The bias here, however, should be more toward the whiter tissue i.e. more toward the outside fringes of the color transition area of the lips.
I’ve ranted about these recommendations several times before (here is just one of the more recent ones). Lynch doesn’t cite a source for how or why the lips would vibrate as he describes, but there really doesn’t appear to be any reason to assume this would be true. Anatomically speaking, the only difference between the red of your lips and the normal epidermal layer is the skin on the vermillion is thinner, allowing you to see the red blood of your capillaries there. The same muscle tissue that is under the red also surrounds the red underneath the normal skin tissue. The red of the lips doesn’t seem to affect mouthpiece placement in the slightest (at least I couldn’t find any relationship) . There are better reasons to recommend a placement than the superficial (and infinitely variable) amount of vermillion a player places the mouthpiece on.
When we want the pitch to go up, we must concentrate on increasing the “between-lip” pressure. Between-lip pressure here can be thought of as, “vertical pressure”, as distinguished from, “horizontal (left hand) pressure”. Slightly increased horizontal pressure will be required for higher pitches in order to ensure the air seal which tends to become compromised when higher air speed and volume associated with high playing are used. But this, and any other horizontal pressure that may be present, can be partially relieved by rotating the horn bell downward very slightly (10 degrees or so) when playing above high C. This action, combined with the suggested left hand grip, tends to divert left hand “horizontal” pressure to the fulcrum located on the bottom lip, tends to “free up” the top lip and tends to push the bottom lip up.
Again, Lynch makes some assumptions here that work well for some players, but isn’t always the best advice for others. Before I criticize his ideas in the above paragraph, I want to qualify the following by stating first that the upper lip tends to be more sensitive to mouthpiece pressure and increasing top lip pressure is one way that many players get a little extra compression for the high register (for players of all embouchure types). Because of this tendency, it’s often a good idea to think about putting more mouthpiece weight on the lower lip at all times and even to think about tilting the bell down to ascend to counteract a tendency to dig into the upper lip too much.
But depending on the player, tilting the bell down as Lynch recommends can have the tendency to bring the mouthpiece and lips together up towards the nose. This is the embouchure motion of the “very high placement” embouchure type, one of the two downstream types. The other other basic embouchure types, “medium high placement” (the other downstream type) and the “low placement” (upstream type) both do the reverse. They pull their lips and mouthpiece together down to ascend, which can also be done by tilting the bell up.
I feel the horn angle is a lot more complicated and personal than tilting the horn up or down. You can tilt the bell up and still use and upward embouchure motion, if that’s what works for the particular player and the particular range. There are often side to side angular changes as well. All these things seem to depend on the shape of the player’s general teeth and gums (not completely flat) and also the degree of the player’s jaw malocclusion (often an off-center jaw position) and how the player changes the position of the jaw while playing (protruded, receded, side to side). You might be able to make generalities for embouchure types, but it’s really something that is personal and best determined according to the unique individual.
After putting Lynch’s comments and recommendations into a broader context of all embouchure types I’m not certain his logic about why his asymmetrical mouthpiece design works is accurate, but it surely doesn’t mean that he’s not on to something. My thoughts are that Lynch’s recommendation to use the larger rim area on the bottom lip would generally work better for downstream players, as it would help inhibit the vibration of the lower lip and force the upper lip to vibrate with more intensity, but this is the reverse of what Lynch feels. Perhaps using the wider rim on the lower lip actually makes a downstream embouchure feasible for players who have the physical characteristics for an upstream embouchure, although I don’t know if this would be advisable or not. While Lynch makes only trumpet mouthpieces (I’ve seen some for low brass around), I think that an asymmetrical mouthpiece might be very useful for low brass players who need to place extremely high or low and find their nose or chin gets in the way of placing the mouthpiece with the ratio of upper to lower lip they want.
One thing that I can say with certainty though is that brass embouchures are not symmetrical, so there is probably no reason that our mouthpieces must be so either.
Anyone have any experience playing on an asymmetrical mouthpiece? Spot a flaw in my logic or know of another resource that would shed light on this topic? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section.