Arnold Jacobs on Embouchure: A Criticism

Today I’m going to go after one of brass pedagogy’s sacred cows, Arnold Jacobs.  Since so many teachers and players have been strongly influenced by Jacobs’ teaching (myself included), I should give a little background first.

Jacobs sometimes summarized his teaching philosophy as “Song & Wind.”  This influential concept is sometimes described as the musician’s focus should first and foremost should be on being a musical communicator, the “song.”  After that, a brass musician’s attention should be placed on good breathing, the “wind.”  One of the reasons that this is such a popular pedagogical method is because it’s very effective.  Putting attention on the musical expression does have a tendency to work out the kinks in a player’s technique.  Efficient breathing is also an extremely important part of good brass technique.

Just so I’m clear here, I’m not advocating that we throw the baby out with the bathwater.  However, just because Jacobs had an expert understanding of the physiology of breathing and application of that knowledge to playing brasswind instruments doesn’t mean that his statements on other areas should be taken for gospel truth, as many seem to think.  Case in point, his statements on the embouchure.

That video has a number of clips pulled together from different master classes by Jacobs where he mentions the embouchure.  While virtually everything I’ve ever come across by Jacobs discussing breathing and brass playing was golden, in that video (and in the writing about him) Jacobs never demonstrates that he clearly understood how brass embouchures function differently for different players.  He admits, “I hardly ever consider the embouchure.”  If you don’t honestly look for embouchure issues with your students, you’re not going to find them and you’ll never broaden your understanding of a topic by ignoring it.

In my humble opinion, Jacobs made too much out of the idea that the embouchure simply responds to mental stimulus from the brain, as if singing.  While I agree that this is a valuable goal, I don’t think that we can conclude that we should train our embouchure the same way we develop our voice.  Millions of years of evolution have “hard wired” our brains to use our voices to communicate.  Pressing metal against our buzzing our lips is simply not as natural an act as using our voice.  It requires a little more conscious manipulation than Jacobs gives it credit.

Beginning around 3:12 into the video is an example of Jacobs’ “famous embouchure trick.”  He performs this gimmick in order to demonstrate his philosophy that attention shouldn’t be on the embouchure, but rather on that the “lips must vibrate.”  Since any functioning embouchure is also a vibrating embouchure I don’t see the distinction.  This circular reasoning is then used to bring us back to a discussion of breathing.  The discussion about the cranial nerves seems superfluous, but does make it sound more scientific.

At about 5:35 an audience member asked Jacobs a question about how to change a student’s mouthpiece placement.  Jacobs’ responded, “I always do that through assignments of music.”  He elaborates that by stabilizing the music that the embouchure will stabilize because the student will figure out through trial and error what works.  I liken this to throwing a plate of spaghetti up against a wall.  Sure, some things will stick, but you’re still going to have a mess to clean up afterward.

There are two problems I have with this approach.  First, why use unconscious trial and error when a little conscious manipulation of embouchure form is faster?  Secondly, assignment of music or particular exercises will not fix certain embouchure problems.  Many issues players have with their embouchures are not caused by lack of proper muscular development but rather are because of inconsistencies in their embouchure form and function.  Sometimes simply moving a student’s mouthpiece placement or horn angle can make for very dramatic improvements without resorting to unconscious trial and error.  If you know what to look for, sometimes these inconsistencies can be obvious, but again, if you don’t ever look for them you won’t even notice.

Ultimately, my criticisms about Jacobs’ approach to embouchure pedagogy have less to do with what he says, but instead with what he leaves out.  It’s possible that he had a more complete understanding of brass embouchure types than he demonstrated, but I believe that his interest in breathing biased him to emphasize embouchure issues as breathing problems too much.  While Jacobs’ pedagogy is effective, it is not as complete as it could be.

Ultimately, we all stand on the shoulders of giants.  As the field of brass pedagogy develops we will find ways to improve our teaching above and beyond our heros’ approaches.  Just as the sum of our musical influences should be more than their parts, we will want to expand on what great pedagogues like Arnold Jacobs had to offer.  There are approaches by others that contradict Jacobs, and many of those have something to offer that Jacobs wasn’t aware of.  Let’s use Song & Wind as a starting point, not the end goal.

Kaj Fagerberg

“He performs this gimmick in order to demonstrate his philosophy that attention shouldn’t be on the embouchure, but rather on that the “lips must vibrate.”  Since any functioning embouchure is also a vibrating embouchure I don’t see the distinction.”

I think what Jacobs is saying is that the embouchure must vibrate, that’s all it does. There is not a magic setting that one must find, it just produces vibration to produce sound. Our teachers spend so much time trying to get us produce a perfect textbook example of the embouchure, that they forget it’s goal is to vibrate. Yes, a functioning embouchure vibrates, just as a distorted one can. There is no difference. That is the point he is making.

You also describe how Jacobs’s leaves out the mention of different embouchure types, such as high, medium or low settings. That was the point of the “gimmick” you mentioned above. Do you really think that a brass playing in one of the best orchestras around didn’t know about the different settings that people have? You write “Many issues players have with their embouchures are not caused by lack of proper muscular development but rather are because of inconsistencies in their embouchure form and function.”. The embouchure’s job is to vibrate, therefore there aren’t too many kinds of inconsistencies if Jacobs can play with a mashed up embouchure. Do violinists worry about how their strings vibrate? No, they worry about their bow moving across the string. We shouldn’t be worried about how our embouchure vibrates but about the air that we are fueling it with.

Dave

Thanks for your comments, Kaj. I would like to invite you to browse through some of the embouchure resources I’ve made available here. I think you have some similar misconceptions about the embouchure that Jacobs had.

Tom

There is a very good reason why Mr. Jacobs was not focused on the embouchure…

Conscious control of the embouchure initially appears to be the correct choice because it yields relatively fast results compared with the trial and error process, which for some reason runs against your grain. But in reality, the player is actually getting in their own way if they directly control muscle tissue. Granted, there are many professional players out there who use such an approach and sound good. But why settle for average results when it is possible to become phenomenal player?

Here is the difference: I feel that Mr. Jacobs wanted to create the most efficient direct link between the sound in the brain and the goal—the sound on the horn (yes…through trial and error) without anything “getting in the way” (i.e. unnecessary conscious muscle control). In the case of the embouchure, it is coincidental that humans are capable of consciously manipulating some of the muscles of the lower face. However, can you justify interfering in an automatic process simply because conscious control is available?

I recall many of the best players in the world having said, “[As far as embouchure technique is concerned] I don’t know what I’m doing…I just do it.” I think that tells us all we really need to know.

Dave

Hi, Tom. Thanks for stopping by and leaving your thoughts.

But why settle for average results when it is possible to become phenomenal player?

Is it true that only average results happen with some conscious embouchure analysis? Is it true that focusing on “song and wind” always results in a phenomenal player? I don’t think this is necessarily so.

However, can you justify interfering in an automatic process simply because conscious control is available?

Again, this presumes that an automatic trial and error process is better or worse than conscious analysis. I’m not recommended we choose one or the other, I’m simply suggesting that both are useful tools and should be utilized when appropriate. Jacobs would have us throw out the screwdriver from our toolbox because you can also use a hammer to bang the screws in place.

To turn your question around, can you justify unconscious trial and error when the information to make intelligent choices about embouchure is available?

I recall many of the best players in the world having said, “[As far as embouchure technique is concerned] I don’t know what I’m doing…I just do it.” I think that tells us all we really need to know.

This is a fallacious argument. Thinking carefully about this, many of the best players around were fortunate enough (talented enough?) to naturally find their embouchures functioning well and never considered that others may find this different. Secondly, when you’ve spent decades practicing, all the conscious analysis that you went through gets forgotten over time. Third, if you’re going to teach I think it’s a good idea to learn about the embouchure and be accurate with your instructions. Jacobs (and those natural players) tend to either offer incomplete embouchure advice, or even outright wrong suggestions. Lastly, it’s been noted by several people (Jacobs included) that “natural” players are much more likely to develop playing issues in their 30s and 40s, probably because they were doing something unconsciously that didn’t start to cause problems until they got a little older and their reflexes slowed down. It’s sort of like lifting with your back instead of your legs. You can get away with it for a while, but if you lift a lot of heavy objects as your profession, you’re going to risk injury.

I know it’s not popular to criticize Arnold Jacobs, as he was an incredible influence on brass pedagogy. However, his understanding of brass embouchures was limited and definitely influenced the way he taught embouchure. This is not to say that his approach can’t be helpful, but with all the information available to us today it strikes me as a mistake to not make use of it.

Dr. John Pursell

I think it comes down to this: which is more important–embouchure, wind or are they equal? I tend towards wind being a little more important; after all, if you own a Ferrari and there’s no gas in the tank, it won’t go very far. But an old clunker with gas will usually go. You can have a textbook embouchure, but if there’s no air support, it won’t do you much good. Conversely, a below average embouchure can still function if the air support is good. In my teaching at Gettysburg College, I pay attention to both embouchure and air, but if a student is reasonably close in embouchure, I don’t fool around with it. Of course, if the embouchure is malformed to the point that little additional progress can be made, then a change is in order.
I think you need to weigh the situation: a student aspiring to a high level career may need the embouchure changed if it impeeds progress. But a student who simply wants to play in the high school band, and maybe as a hobby after school probably would not benefit from a change. Why spend the time and effort to change an embouchure, and maybe relagate the student down to last chair when it won’t really do them much good? They want to play bascially for fun, so don’t take the fun away.
By the way, for those interested, I wrote an article about embouchure development that was published in the ITG Journal back in March 2000. It’s entitled “Pumping Brass;” some may find it interesting if you can locate a copy.

Dave

Hi, Dr. John. Thanks for stopping by. In your case, I’m probably preaching to the choir already, but I’d like to play devil’s advocate with your comments for a bit.

I think it comes down to this: which is more important–embouchure, wind or are they equal?

Is it really necessary to rank importance here? Doesn’t it depend on the situation?

I tend towards wind being a little more important; after all, if you own a Ferrari and there’s no gas in the tank, it won’t go very far. But an old clunker with gas will usually go.

This is a false dichotomy and a false analogy. You can have a full tank of gas, but if the engine isn’t working the car won’t be reliable, to reverse your analogy a bit.

Conversely, a below average embouchure can still function if the air support is good.

And someone with a well-functioning embouchure can play pretty good slumped over in his chair without breathing as efficiently as possible.

In my teaching at Gettysburg College, I pay attention to both embouchure and air, but if a student is reasonably close in embouchure, I don’t fool around with it. Of course, if the embouchure is malformed to the point that little additional progress can be made, then a change is in order.

Depending on what you do with embouchure, there may be much more you can address that would provide another useful tool for you. I’d like to encourage you to look a little further in the embouchure resources I’ve made available here on my site before you dismiss embouchure as being something only to address if it’s malformed.

I think you need to weigh the situation: a student aspiring to a high level career may need the embouchure changed if it impeeds progress. But a student who simply wants to play in the high school band, and maybe as a hobby after school probably would not benefit from a change. Why spend the time and effort to change an embouchure, and maybe relagate the student down to last chair when it won’t really do them much good? They want to play bascially for fun, so don’t take the fun away.

Do you eliminate scales and long tone from high school student’s assignments because they’re boring and “take the fun away?” What about technical studies? Fingering exercises? Why should we limit what we’re teaching? If an embouchure change automatically puts a student on last chair, then perhaps the change isn’t for the better.

I’ll check out your ITG article later. I’ll have to hie myself to the library and hope that we have that back issue, or get it through interlibrary loan. I would agree that strength training for the embouchure is an important part of brass technique development, but there’s a lot more to a good functioning embouchure than simply having the strength to hold the lips firm. Again, I’d like to invite you to look through some of my embouchure resources to see what I’m talking about. You might be surprised at how ignorant the field of brass teachers and players are of embouchure form and function.

Dave

Dr. John Pursell

Just to address your last criticism about “taking the fun away,” no, we don’t eliminate scales, etc, because they keep a student moving forward. An embouchure change by its very nature means taking steps backward–not a bad thing, because it may be necessary. My point was this: if a student is not going to pursue music as a profession, and high school may in fact be the high point of their musical career, why relagate them to an embouchure change that may take months to accomplish and even then may or may not be successfull?
I assure you, having studied with Broiles, Rosenfeld and Head, I’m not ignorant of embouchure function. I just think we spend way too much time worrying about it.

Dave

An embouchure change by its very nature means taking steps backward–not a bad thing, because it may be necessary.

Ah, I didn’t understand you were talking about an embouchure “change,” as my point is more than just learning about embouchure to make changes. Embouchure “corrections” are another matter entirely, and shouldn’t take months to accomplish in most cases.

My point was this: if a student is not going to pursue music as a profession, and high school may in fact be the high point of their musical career, why relagate them to an embouchure change that may take months to accomplish and even then may or may not be successfull?

I didn’t mean to give you the impression that one shouldn’t prioritize things that need work, just that it’s important for teachers (and serious players) to move beyond “it’s all in the air” and utilize every available tool. My audience for this post are teachers and serious players. “Serious players” can include high school and college students who don’t plan to make music a career, but want to continue to play. Many of my students fit this category.

Still, confronted with a high school student who needs an embouchure change, but who doesn’t plan on going into music for a profession, I think I would explain to the student what can be expected by changing or not and let the student make his or her own decision. Some embouchure changes, when they are done correctly, can be accomplished in a matter of weeks. Correct embouchure changes should always show at least some immediate benefit.

I assure you, having studied with Broiles, Rosenfeld and Head, I’m not ignorant of embouchure function.

I’m afraid you’ve caught me ignorant of the names you’ve dropped. I’ll read up on them, if I can find stuff with only the last names. Thanks for the info.

Dave

Dave

I assure you, having studied with Broiles, Rosenfeld and Head, I’m not ignorant of embouchure function.

I’ve been doing some research, mostly on the internet. From what I can tell from the teachers you’ve listed, I’m not certain we’ve got enough common ground to discuss embouchures. I wouldn’t say that Mel Broiles is wrong, for example, to recommend a high mouthpiece placement, but that’s not correct for many players (due to their anatomy, not by choice). Emerson Head had a reputation as a “natural” player who never considered embouchure, at least from what one trumpet player wrote of his lessons with Dr. Head at U of MD. I know Seymour Rosenfeld wrote a book of exercises designed to build the embouchure, but I haven’t found a copy in my university library system (there are some recordings by Dr. Head, though).

Again, I’d like to invite you to browse through some of the embouchure resources I’ve made available here. I think you might be surprised at how much we miss by dismissing or downplaying the embouchure in our teaching and practicing.

And again, thanks for visiting and sharing your ideas. I look forward to learning more when I get the ITG article you mentioned.

Dave